Parlophone Records, 2005A gimmick. That’s what they put Gorillaz’ success down to. Despite everything that had been achieved by this unusual musical concoction in the 18 months since the launch of their 2001 debut album, detractors still labelled them a here today, gone tomorrow band. But little did they know that the virtual band, created by musician, Damon Albarn, and cartoonist, Jamie Hewlett, would front what would later be acknowledged as one of the most influential and progressive records of the noughties: Demon Days.
May 23, 2015, marks 10 years exactly since the UK release of Gorillaz’ second album. An album that saw Albarn enlist a musical cast of collaborators more extensive than anything he had attempted to that point. An album that dealt with conflict, the natural world and the state of modern society, wrapped as it was in layers of left-field pop. And one that saw the cartoon band reach stratospheric heights with their music – even if not every listener was aware of the genius at play.
Music isn’t just about entertainment. That’s why I consider this post, about the album that changed my life, to be the most important retrospective I’ll publish this year. Because Demon Days, and its two-year campaign, was a terrific slice of entertainment. But it was so much more, and, to this day, I don’t believe enough people appreciate that. Sure, they see Jamie Hewlett’s stylised portraits of Murdoc, 2D, Noodle and Russel adoring the cover art, but do they see the homage to the Beatles’s Let It Be? They hear catchy rap lyrics from De La Soul and Bootie Brown, but do they hear the words about how ruinous the cult of celebrity has become and, even more potently, about the Iraq war? They might feel the singles, but do they feel the whole story of the album, and the dichotomy between light and dark that it presents?
If you haven’t yet, read on. Because if I’ve done my job correctly, then the next time you give Demon Days a spin you should sense a little more of its majesty.
Are we the last living souls?
Firstly, as obvious as it may be to some, Demon Days is not your typical pop or hip hop record. It’s a balancing act consisting of over two dozen core and guest performers, bringing with them a multitude of cultures and music styles not often seen together in the same place.
With its hit squad of guest artists, Demon Days acts like a roadmap to further your music education. Back in 2005, in order to find out who else had collaborated with Gorillaz, and thus whose records you might like to check out yourself, you had to scan the album’s liner notes, visit a fan site or maybe pick through the band’s promotional CDs if you were really dedicated. These days it’s all on Wikipedia and music streaming sites. So if you enjoy Maseo and the De La boys’ helium-fuelled rap on ‘Feel Good Inc’, you might consider checking out 3 Feet High and Rising or De La Soul is Dead. If you dig Bootie Brown’s rallying call on ‘Dirty Harry’, you might check out the Pharcyde’s debut album. If the brief, but heavenly, appearance of Martina Topley Bird on ‘All Alone’ isn’t enough for you, you might check out Quixotic. You might hear the idiosyncratic spiel of walking rhyme machine, MF Doom, for the first time and think: who on earth is this, and where can I hear more?
You get the idea. Each of these guest artists bring something unique to the listening experience. It’s fair to say that the album wouldn’t be what it is without its guest collaborators. Appearing not to grandstand or name-drop, but melody make and accentuate: every guest feature brings a surprise, a different mood on the album’s spectrum. Ike Turner and his music-hall piano solo; Neneh Cherry and her steadfast attitude; Danger Mouse’s ear for combining sounds; Roses Gabor (fka Rosie Wilson) and her sherbet R&B; Shaun Ryder’s unmistakable Mancunian vernacular; Izzi Dunn and her cello… 10 years on and I’ve still not heard all there’s from the Demon Days collaborators. Through the Gorillaz catalyst, you may realise the worth in genres that were previously alien to you, or you may find yourself falling in love with the catalogue a guest artist even more than Gorillaz themselves. The musical journey you take after this album ends is a beginning unto itself.
A perfect arc
A line-up this diverse is good, but that doesn’t make it a masterpiece yet. What you need is a strong concept and equally strong production. Demon Days has both.
Change and transition can be felt all over this record. It deals with the political state of the world (war in the Middle East), nature’s upheaval by corporations and governments and, among all of this, what it means for a hedonistic (cartoon) band to return to the pop scene to find it a very different place to when they first emerged.
Fresh from his sensational underground mash-up, The Grey Album, Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, was recruited by Albarn to co-produce Demon Days, which is a tightly woven semicircle of perfection. At specific points, a song bleeds into the next or is juxtaposed, giving the listening experience the rhythm of a chaptered book. Then there’s the arc of album itself: the foreboding intro stranding you, desolate and alone, among the darkness and the demons; the songs themselves, which we’ll get to; until eventually you emerge in view of sunlight on the horizon, the unifying chants of gospel ushering in a sense of togetherness and hope.
Of course, Demon Days isn’t the only album with a strong arc. But it was the very first to speak to me more clearly than anything I’d heard before it. The rest of the songs are given just as close attention by Danger Mouse. The infectious ‘Dirty Harry’ began as a demo Albarn had recorded during his US tour for Blur’s Think Tank in 2003. Danger Mouse fleshed this out, adding the children’s choir to the choruses, giving the song a new dimension that presents what’s at stake even before Bootie Brown hits the mic with his politically-charged verses. ‘Dare’ (‘People’ in its demo form) was given a video game-esque power surge sound effect (as if a DJ has turned the fader up, up, up), energising this pop-belter from the outset. ‘Every Planet We Reach is Dead’, a skilful merging of classical, choral and rock elements, picks itself up from melodic hollow of self-pity (“I lost my leg like I lost my way / So no loose ends / Nothing to see me down / How are we going to work this out?”) to a grandiose orchestral cacophony. And ‘El Mañana’ is a tearful ballad of electronic rotations and crying strings. So many styles, so many opportunities to lose the album’s flow, but Danger Mouse holds it steady throughout.
Songs to lift you skyward
With guests from a plethora of musical backgrounds and solid production, there’s just one thing left: the songwriting. The true test of a musical masterpiece is whether the songs stand up in the hands of their creator(s), or fellow musicians, with only the barest of musical equipment. If you were to strip Demon Days back to piano, guitar, bass guitar and vocals, it would still emit the raw melodies and stirring messages at its heart.
That’s a testament to Damon Albarn’s songwriting prowess. The guests bring their own favour, and often their own lyrics, but it’s Albarn’s words, and the notes that accompany them, that thread this album together so completely. There are songs that solidify the album’s mood and direction (‘Last Living Souls’), ruminate on what our excesses are doing to the planet (‘O Green World’), and and ponder the violence that has engulfed urban society (‘Kids with Guns’). Meanwhile, ‘White Light’ briefly pushes the ideologies aside and crashes you back to Earth for a good Friday night lash. The singles, ‘Feel Good Inc’, ‘Dare’ and ‘Dirty Harry’, are all loaded with chords and choruses that hook you. And the unconventional ‘El Mañana’ is a song of unrequited love that’s as beautiful as it is painful (“Maybe in time / You’ll want to be mine”).
The final three tracks on the album continue to defy your expectations for what a ‘pop album’ could be, as well as how its arc closes. ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’, an ominous folktale, read by the late Dennis Hopper, that is in fact an allegory for the modern world’s obsession with resource mining, progresses through three melodic changes, drawing you into a “castrophany”, before a chilling silence. This song is more sophisticated than many give it credit for. But, of course, the album’s most sinister track is quickly pushed to the back of your mind as you sweep up by the shrill guitar riffs and angelic string chords of ‘Don’t Get Lost in Heaven’ and the title track. The finally six-and-a-half minutes are sheer perfection, as you’re treated to a rousing classical movement that folds gracefully into swaying dub music and the title track’s chorus, sung by the London Community Gospel Choir.
From album to artwork to inspiring new authors
This colourful aural journey could have been translated visually in many ways, but it works terrifically through the medium of Gorillaz’s virtual world. Jamie Hewlett and his art and design team, Zombie Fresh Eaters, hit the mark throughout with the tone of their artwork for the album and its campaign. I could spend whole another post just discussing the artistry behind the second wave of pioneering music videos. The ‘Feel Good Inc’ video, with the band trapped in a morbid nightclub, high in the sky, overlooking a grimy, unnamed megacity, is still one of the finest campaign restarts you’ll find. On the cusp of the second chorus, when the floating island (partly inspired by Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky) emerges from the clouds, I felt a sense of indescribable euphoria back in my teenage years. And the video still holds up today.
Demon Days is a once-in-a-lifetime instance of a whole range of styles and crafts coming together to form a perfect whole. There’s the guests, from the US, Britain and beyond, who all push the music in unanticipated directions. There’s the production from Danger Mouse, who ensures its refined shape and immaculate flow. There’s the songwriting, which demonstrates that musicians can, and should, make statements about society and our world in popular music. And there’s Hewlett’s art, which expresses fragments of the music in his unique way, and has generated an entire mythology around the four fictional band members. An animated band they maybe, but there is nothing “gimmicky” about Gorillaz. The very fact that the music was fronted by the animated characters allowed the diverse mix of musicians and artists behind the record to share the transcendent Demon Days with the world. Truly, no other band could have produced this timeless classic.
Bananaz extract with the making of Demon Days
Rise of the Ogre, the official autography of Gorillaz (not available in ebook form at the time of writing (paperback copies are much sought after); a great source of info – and laughs – for dedicated Gorillaz fans.)
For classic albums, rarities and more, see my Choice Cuts archive.
Image: All artwork Jamie Hewlett/Gorillaz/Parlophone Records; Flickr/Jesse Kanner (body); Parlophone Records (video stills)