“They say necessity is the mother of invention, but what about television? For this was the unlikely genesis for Gorillaz, the World’s Most Succesful Virtual Band.
Hewlett explains: ‘Damon and I were living together in a flat on Westbourne Grove (in London), and he bought one of the first plasma screens. It was one of those massive ones where we could watch ten channels at the same time, which we did on a big leather couch.’ The pair lost hours watching MTV in particular, which induced in them a growing frustration at what they saw as vertiginous decline in pop culture at the time. ‘It wasn’t the videos as such, it was the bands. They were so phony and manufactured and they were so clearly playing up to it. It was almost as if in order to be a sellable commodity you had to adapt a character also. Which is fine, but why can’t they do it well? The Monkees were a manufactured band, but they were brilliant. So my question to Damon was, If it’s manufactured, why can’t people do it properly?’
And with that question hanging in the air, the duo set to work. Albarn created the music- a superb collision of musical styles which ram raided the very best chapters of the Pop Encyclopaedia, from reggae to country to psychedelia and dub. And Hewlett designed the band, a quartet of characters with outrageous back stories and outsized personalities to boot.
2D was the charismatic but vacuous frontman and keyboardist, constantly locking horns with the contemptuous bassist Murdoc Niccals. Ten year old Noodle was on guitars, and Russel Hobbs was on drums and percussion, while also possessed of the ability to channel the souls of dead rappers from a fictional hip-hop canon. Together they looked like the coolest group that (n)ever lived, making music and hanging out at the legendary HQ Kong Towers.
The characters were impeccable and the concept immaculate but, crucially, unlike other virtual pop bands such as The Archies, Gorillaz had the killer tunes to match, and soon enough this theoretical band became a very real worldwide success. Heralded by the hits ‘Clint Eastwood’ and ‘19-2000′, the eponymous debut album shot to number 3 in the UK charts, selling over five million copies worldwide. It was outdone, however, by it’s successor Demon Days, which topped the UK charts on release and ended up going platinum five times over; the third album, Plastic Beach, entered the charts at number 2. And then there was also a fourth album, The Fall, released as a free download on the Gorillaz website to fans in the Sub Division fan club. The band broke records in the US, Europe, Australia and beyond, spawned toys and clothing lines, netted Brit and MTV Awards and even, for Hewlett, a Designer of the Year Award from London’s Design Museum in 2006.
With Gorillaz, Albarn and Hewlett didn’t so much push the boundaries of what a band could be as redefine the musical landscape entirely. There is no doubt that the pair more than accomplished what they set out to do- which was to bring about a massive paradigm shift in pop music, and make it cool, credible and relevant for a new generation of impressionable young music fans.
‘That’s why we brought people like Del the Funky Homosapien, Lou Reed, Mos Def and Shaun Ryder on board… When kids like something they tend to immerse themselves in that whole world, so why not make it really cool? I like the thought of a teenager listening to Demon Days and maybe discovering Dennis Hopper and then years later, going on to track down his films. Because that’s what kids do, isn’t it?’”
- Jamie Hewlett Artbook.