For a whole month during the summer of 1969, the hottest song in the United States belonged to a comic book character. The chart-topper “Sugar Sugar” was recorded by none other than the Archies; that’s right, the cartoon band made up of “Archie Comics” characters like Veronica Lodge, Betty Cooper and the eponymous Archie Andrews himself. “Sugar Sugar” ruled the airwaves, spending 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and selling over a million copies. While not the most groundbreaking group at the time, both conceptually and sonically, the Archies’ animated bubblegum fare indirectly paved the way for one of the most imaginative and experimental musical acts of the 21st century: Gorillaz.
To the unfortunately uninformed, Gorillaz is a virtual band — meaning their lineup consists of animated characters rather than human musicians. 2-D provides the lead vocals, Noodle and Murdoc play the guitar and bass guitar (respectively) and Russell anchors the band on drums. However, hidden behind these four memorable personalities lies the twofold heart of the operation: former Blur frontman Damon Albarn, who spearheads the musical side of things, and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, the man behind the now-iconic artwork and design of the band. The question is, how did Gorillaz cement itself as a legitimate and legendary band and avoid being reduced to nothing more than a fad like their animated ancestors Alvin and the Chipmunks and the California Raisins? The answer lies in Gorillaz’s understanding of the creative potential found in the fusion of comics and popular music and their unwavering dedication to create visuals as lasting as the sounds they accompany.
The fact that Gorillaz even evolved beyond a mere idea was as unlikely as an animated band earning nine Grammy nominations and achieving double-platinum status. In 1990, Hewlett was tasked by Deadline Magazine, home of his comic strip “Tank Girl”, to interview Albarn. By all accounts, their first meeting did not go well. Hewlett initially thought of Albarn as “arsey, a wanker.” Despite becoming mild acquaintances with Albarn and the other members of Blur, including guitarist Graham Coxon, their friendship stagnated (especially after Hewlett began seeing Coxon’s ex-girlfriend). Despite all of this, however, Hewlett and Albarn ended up sharing a flat in 1997. And on one fateful day, the pair happened to mindlessly watch MTV long enough for them to realize something. Frustrated by the oversaturation of nothing of substance in popular music at the time, they decided to take action. If what people were hearing was manufactured, then they might as well do it properly. Their band was going to be fake, but the music sure as hell would be real.
Gorillaz deserve all the praise they get musically for their attempts to deconstruct and synthesize different genres into a wholly unique and unheard blend of sound, but the true star of the show is the captivating visual universe Hewlett has designed. Behind their five studio albums lies a trove of music videos, documentaries, radio interviews, social media posts, magazines, animated shorts and one illustrated autobiography that all constitute a storyline more expansive and detailed than those of many comic book heroes. The skeleton of the Gorillaz-verse comes in the form of four distinct “phases,” each correlating with the rollout and promotion of their mainline albums (excluding 2010’s The Fall, which was recorded by Albarn on tour on an iPad and released as a free download). The four phases function as separate lenses, showing new angles to the same story and charting the band’s evolution over its near two decades of existence.
Phase One, aptly titled Celebrity Take Down, was a direct response to the mind-numbing dominance of MTV Albarn and Hewlett originally felt compelled to rebel against. The videos for singles like “19-2000” and “Rock the House” seem tailor-made to be broadcasted on the channel. Watching them now, they both capture perfectly the nostalgia for that hazy 2000s aesthetic. The videos for their self-titled debut were visually engaging enough to subtly slide lyrics parodying the shallowness of the music industry into the mind of viewer without them realizing. Ironically, these music videos were lapped up by MTV, tricking it into following exactly what 2-D croons on “19-2000”: “Please repeat the message / It’s the music that we choose.”
Phase Two and beyond were able to reap the benefits of Gorillaz receiving international attention both for their music and novelty of concept. The music videos became more involved, cinematic productions: “Feel Good Inc” and “El Mañana” both seem like Hewlett’s take on a Studio Ghibli film (with some scenes being directly inspired by “Castle in the Sky”) and “Stylo” is a foray into 3D CGI animation featuring the band members caught up in a Mad Max-esque car chase with Bruce Willis in an El Camino. The more attention Gorillaz got, the more effort was expended towards refining their art style and cultivating their expansive backstory. With the release of 2017’s Humanz, however, it seemed like the band became less concerned with telling a story through music videos like they did with Demon Days and Plastic Beach, and instead focused on showing vignettes of the four characters’ current lives using a new multimedia approach (the first official glimpse of Phase Four came from Hewlett’s instagram). Although Gorillaz has changed much throughout the years, their commitment to creating compelling art has not ceased.
While the story of Gorillaz could be easily told as a graphic novel or a comic book, the fact that it is a band and has that extra layer of musical storytelling makes it all the more noteworthy. Albarn and Hewlett are able to disappear completely behind the animated facade they have constructed, leaving fans fascinated by the mystery behind Gorillaz and its lore rather than fawning over the fake, produced image which shroud most pop acts. When Liam Gallagher (the lead singer of Oasis and rival to Albarn during the height of Britpop) once derided Gorillaz as a “fucking kids band,” Hewlett thought it was the coolest thing ever said about them: “I want it to be for kids. They’re the ones who don’t care who’s behind it. They think it’s Gorillaz, they buy into it the way they should.” The fact that when you hear Albarn’s vocals you immediately picture 2-D singing speaks volumes to everything Gorillaz is about. They’re a larger-than-life band that wasn’t even alive to begin with.