From the Banana Splits to Josie and the Pusssycats, cartoon rock groups seldom come off as cool. But Gorillaz — the brainchild of Damon Albarn, the former Blur front man and seminal Britpop architect — has managed to make tunes by toons appealing to the “Grand Theft Auto” generation.
Anyone unfamiliar with the group here in the U.S. was treated to an eye-popping, primetime TV introduction in February when the virtual band kicked off the Grammys, eventually joined onstage by Madonna (it copped the best pop collaboration with vocals award, which it shared with De La Soul).
What simply seemed like a wacky one-off side project when Albarn launched Gorillaz in 2001 — in collaboration with “Tank Girl” cartoonist Jamie Hewlett and producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura — has easily surpassed the popularity, if not the musical significance, of Blur in America. (The band’s self-titled debut went triple platinum in the U.S., and its recent follow-up has so far sold 2 million copies in the States, and 3 million in the U.K.)
Calling Gorillaz a “virtual hip-hop group,” Albarn and his conspirators — who also initially included former Talking Heads Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth, rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien, turntablist Kid Koala and Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori — were hidden behind a quartet of Hewlett’s edgily cute creations. The “virtual” lineup includes singer and keyboardist 2-D, sinister bassist Murdoc, behemoth B-boy drummer Russel and the Japanese guitar master and martial arts pro Noodle.
Appropriately for the digital age, the band’s visuals are as much a part of its success as any music, as seen in the video for debut track “Clint Eastwood,” which launched Gorillaz.
Four years on, after crafting Blur’s final release, “Think Tank,” basically as a solo project, Albarn took the reins as the sole leader of Gorillaz. Dropping Nakamura, Albarn reshuffled the crew and brought in DJ Danger Mouse for the 2005 follow-up “Demon Days.” The move was particularly shrewd: Danger Mouse, who appeals to hip-hop heads and hipsters alike after crafting the Beatles meets Jay-Z mash-up CD “The Grey Album,” is also one-half of current sensation Gnarls Barkley.
And at a time when CD sales are plunging, Gorillaz, along with Coldplay, kept EMI’s 2005 market share from sinking more than a scant 0.4 %.
In his days as Blur’s lead vocalist, Albarn’s head-butting with bandmates was legendary. Perhaps he’s wisely finally figured out how to front a troupe that can’t talk back.