Gorillaz ‘The Singles’ Track By Track With Damon Albarn

Gorillaz are one of the most enduring fake-real bands of our generation, possibly because they’re the only one. Seriously, find us a band with as many great tracks in a decade as these animated dudes and we’ll give you a fistful of bananas (they’re still expensive, right?). To celebrate the release of their Singles collection, we got Murdoc Niccals (one of Damon Albarn‘s many alter-egos) on the line to give us his rundown on ten years of monkey business. You can stream the collection below in video form, too, and it’s well worth the time. Remember the clip for ‘Stylo’? And ‘DARE’? They didn’t even have it this good on Planet Of The Apes, people.

Tomorrow Comes Today
Murdoc Niccals: This is was where it all began; our opening intro and Gorillaz calling card. Year zero for Gorillaz , but it’s already all in there. You can hear it. The ‘Augustus Pablo’-esqe melodicas, subsonic dubby basslines, a beat-broken drum line, and some knackered monks chanting ominously in the background…..over this 2D intones his sweet, sonorous vocal. It’s a ray of dark sunshine this one, West London in a jar.

It’s funny…if you look at the video for this – us racing through the nocturnal imagery of London – we focused in on a little piece of graffiti by a then unknown artist called Banksy. It was a spray painted image we found daubed on a wall, a bit of graffiti of a monkey wearing the statement “Laugh Now But One Day We’ll Be In Charge”, as a kind of placard-cum-apron. I thought it was a good piece of imagery to stick in. Kind of summed up how I felt about our band. I think we almost got sued for using it though. Which I thought was a bit rich…, y’know…you will go and leave your, er…’art’ lying round in public. Anyway, it rung true didn’t it. Well. For us it did. Don’t know what happened to him after that….he kind of disappeared off the map.

Sorry, where was I? Right, this song is sort of about the idea that…. you think you’ll ignore tomorrow and have your fun today. Take it all up front, y’know? Which sounds like a great idea until you realize that you’re writing off today by taking tomorrow now. “I’ll pay with tomorrow….”? Yeah? It’s kinda deep….Anyway. That was our first single and a fantastic introduction, if I do say so myself.

Right, NEXT!

Clint Eastwood
M: Four cymbal smashes that changed the world! Wow! This was the big one really. The song that changed the WHOLE game for us. It’s like Godzilla this one. Just kind of stomped its way out the speakers and smashed its way right across the world, ripping up cities and eating them whole.
This was the first track we released that featured Del, the Ghost Rapper, a part of our original crew. He was the spirit of our drummer Russel’s dead friend, who ended up kind of possessing Russel…um…don’t ask.
You see him in the video, (again one of the best 4 minutes of celluloid you’re ever likely to see, by the way). Del just busts out of Russel and lays down this whole rubbery rap over the dub. Incredible piece of footage, that. Zombie apes, undead rappers, Noodle’s fung-ku kick,…some horrific hand shoots out of the ground at one point and grabs me right by my plums. Great video! And I think the scratching’s done by Kid Koala. My be wrong because I was quite monged when we laid this down, just to get into the vibe…

But yeah, Clint Eastwood, this is where things really kicked off for Gorillaz. We sold nearly 12 million Clint Eastwood singles JUST IN THE UK! Imagine that. Oh no, you can’t: it’s 2011 and the music industry’s on the skids. I’m getting out of show business now, as you may have heard. I’ve put my money into arms: you know where you are with a bazooka and people will always need death, right? The gift that keeps on giving.

Back to the tunes, though – that track’s still a monster. I’ve said it before but, Clint Eastwood is now like a big canvas, almost like a standard for rappers to make their own. Who’s done it?

Del the Ghost Rapper for starters, then Si and Life from Phi Life Cipher, they toured it with us. Jamal Gray, on the US tour back in 2002. Tinier Tempah’s bounced all over it on the Jonathan Ross TV show. Mr. Snoop Dogg swaggered his shizzle at Glastonbury, which just lit up that field, y’know? Then Bashy and Kano offered up their takes on the Plastic Beach World Tour. Eslaam Jawaard through his set into the mix most recently in Syria, in Damascus at the show we did at The Citadel. It’s a truly continental cut is that Clint Eastwood song, it can travel anywhere….You stick it on anywhere… “Instant Party”.

There’s only three songs in the history of music that universally, wherever you go, people know how to play. “Louie Louie”, “White Christmas” and “Clint Eastwood”. Just those three…

It’s funny to think, how tiny its origins were. I’d been out in Denmark Street, in London’s West End, picking up some gear, and I bought myself a little Honda Z -chord autoharp. Great things. I unwrapped it, popped in the batteries and was fiddling with the presets. I just pushed the button marked ‘Reggae setting’ on it, turned the knob from ‘flop’ to ‘hit’, on the dial, and out popped this little classic. Obviously the vocals helped a bit, but really this came out fully formed. So there you go. 10 years, 40 million record sales and a whole career later…

And no, we never did hear from Clint about whether he liked the song or not. Not even a postcard….what’s next?

M: This is the sound of Gorillaz having a laugh. A throwaway pop song. ‘Get the cool shoeshine’ doesn’t mean anything, does it? We worked with Talking Head’s Tina Weymouth on this one – I’ve always been a massive fan of their cerebral pop. That’s what Gorillaz always wanted to be: smart, yet dumb enough to be massively popular. There’s a fine line between ‘clever’ and ‘stupid’, right kids?? It’s a thin line to tread but I’m not scared.
As ever, we made an eyeball-meltingly good video to go with this one: it was a roadtrip to end them all, except I was so off my face on black bombers that I nearly drove into an elk. Luckily, it was only a metaphor and we were never in any real danger – it was the elk that stands between a creative traveler and Valhalla of artistic potential. So that was OK.

I wrote this around the end of the last millennium, as the clocks were changing and the 21st century was dawning. A new age was upon us. It would be ridiculous for the occasion to go unmarked by a band as forward thinking and iconic as Gorillaz. I just needed a title that reflected that change. 19/2000 fitted the bill. It was that or “Millennium” and that’s a shit name for a song.

Rock the House
M: I won this song in a raffle. For trivial pursuit fans I can tell you that the main break is lifted from jazz legend John Dankworth’s “Modesty Blaise” tune. Russel sampled it and then chopped it up a bit, and then kinda laid some other bits over the top and then we just let Del The Ghost Rapper roll out his spooky elasticated raps over the top of it. Still sounds great today, doesn’t it? Like it was made this morning…

I’ve got one regret though. I remember recording this. It was all sounding really good actually, until I left the studio. At that point 2D stuck these panpipes over the top, on the chorus. “Panpipes?” I mean…really? I must say, truthfully, there’s not really a great deal I regret about the Gorillaz career to date. Other than that. I should’ve blocked the release of that one or had those taken off the tracks. There’s no reason for panpipes to be in the charts, is there?
The video is one of our more outré efforts: it’s an homage to the films Rollerball and Mister Freedom. At the time we were being sued by someone who claimed he’d ‘invented’ Gorillaz and was demanding rights over my music, brain, image and face, which obviously made my blood boil. It felt like we were under attack from a hail of bullets. So we took that feeling and made it visual, into a video! Some of Gorillaz chose to avoid the bullets, while some of them i.e., myself, chose to face them head on and physically deflect the incoming missiles. With my nob! You may think that’s infantile, but y’know…whatever, that’s how I felt. I just wished all this lot would just cock off.

And, right, I think we can all agree that I look pretty, pretty good in this video. Think the song would’ve done better without the panpipes.

Feel Good Inc
M: Ah, Feel Good! The song that launched a million iPods! This really kicked things up another gear for Gorillaz. First single from our phantasmagoric second album Demon Days, which just put a rocket right under its arse. It’s had a long and varied life – first song ever to chart on downloads alone, infamous soundtrack to the iPod advert, Grammy award winner, backing track for Madonna’s first holographic poledance… Why’s it so successful? It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it! Plus De La Soul always get the party started: their rap sounds just like a bunch of kids trapped in a phone booth, mucking about on nitrous oxide. Stayed in the charts for five months, this one. That’s when 5 months was a long time.

Lyric-wise, 2D says the first part of this came from when he was passing the wind turbines out near Palm Springs. I think he was going to the Coachella festival or something, and he passed a huge field full of those wind turbines farming the land…so he started really with the chorus section and then built it up from there…

“Windmill, Windmill farm the land. Turn forever hand in hand…” That what he says anyway, but I’m pretty sure Noodle wrote this one. Whatever. Great song, helped sell Demon Days really big Stateside, and I got a free iPod out of it.

Murdoc: Right, for this one we were going for the early 80’s electro vibe. Weren’t we? I can’t remember, I was off my trolley. I just wanted big old dance track on the record. A ‘Banger’ I think they call ’em. Big simple beats. And then we got Shaun Ryder sneering his stuff all over it…Like he’d just lurched out of the Hacienda. Kebab in hand, bag of chips, new trainers, head full of cake-mix…… you know what I’m saying! I was right about all of that ‘cos this one went straight to number ONE. Have you ever seen the video? We actually removed Shaun’s head off his body and managed to keep it alive long enough to film his contribution. Then we sewed it back on his body – no harm done! We put some new teeth in while we were at it – he was pretty appreciative, I think.

This started off as a track called “People”, a really poppy upbeat track. And you can still find that one in its original form on the Gorillaz D-Sides album, pop-pickers. But y’know, the one with Shaun, we kept a bit of the pop feel, and then put a kind of metallic Morricone wind flying through the track, and then let Shaun snarl his trade over the top. Great ingredients. We stuffed it in the oven. Pulled it out. Number One with a bullet. Good ringtone too….

Dirty Harry
Murdoc: This was one of the first tracks we made with Danger Mouse, who took the production wheel for Demon Days. It was built up around an old Gorillaz / Damon Albarn jam. It was Danger Mouse him that added the San Fernandez Youth Chorus – it’s always quite powerful when you get kiddiewinks singing along to serious themes. And it’s right though isn’t it. “Children are our future”, eh? If you infect them when they’re young you can you usually keep them for life…. Bootie Brown from the Pharcyde really made this track with his conscious/stream of consciousness lyrics – he skids in the middle of everything and just unleashes his machine-gunning ‘peace-rap’. We filmed the video for this one in the desert in Namibia and Bootie really was a soldier – we buried him in hot sand over and over again and he never complained once. A total sweetie, y’know.

A lot of people have picked up on the connection with Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry. The truth is, we needed another hit like Clint Eastwood. So we named the track Dirty Harry. Which is a bit like Clint Eastwood. Easy when you know how.

But really this started out as late night demo that 2D and that Damon Albarn did together after one of The U.S. gigs that Blur did in 2003, and ended up morphing into a Gorillaz song for Demon Days. Damon released it first on the album DemoCrazy, under the name “I Need A Gun” but it ended up eventually up in my band Gorillaz…sounding a lot better, I might add. Check it out, if you get the chance, because your can kind of hear them kind of trading both the lead and the backing vocals….They sound very similar in places. Very odd.

Kids With Guns
Murdoc: There are different ways of writing our Gorillaz tunes: for this one I went a bit er…”method”. I got all cold and metallic- like I was having a big meth comedown. Gnnnnnnngggghhh….It seemed to do the job, though. The point I was trying to put across… is that in order to fight monsters you have to become a monster of some sort yourself. Take out all the soft fluffy bits. And become a bit empty. “Turning us into monsters”. Just dead lifeless eyes staring down the barrel of a gun… It’s a strong image, isn’t? Kids with guns. The innocent… and the DAMNED!

We we’re joined by the gorgeous Ms. Neneh Cherry on this track. ‘Raw Like Sushi’ was another album that both me and 2D loved when growing up, which is why we got her in on this. Kidnapped and flown in Kong Studios. Well, y’know, sometimes you’ve got to make the extra effort to get the textures you want on a record. But I think she liked the end result as she joined us for the run of concerts over at Manchester Opera House in 2005.

El Manana
M: Always brings a tear to my eye, this one…(sniff sniff)…This was the last single taken off the Demon Days album, and my favourite track on the album. People say that your songs are like your children and you shouldn’t really have a favourite kid. You should love them all equally. But it’s not true. I love this track a little bit more than the others…

A staccato ballad, over digital scattergun beats, 2D crooning about loss and love and all the usual heartbreak and guff. This was one of the last submissions to Demon Days, and just kind of rounded the whole thing off for me….the introspection gave it the balance, y’know? Mmmm.

Once again, the video to this was a standout piece of wonder. I think our finest really. It’s the mirror of the Feelgood Inc video, and the return of the floating island. Only this time the thing gets shot out of the sky, with Noodle on it. The whole thing goes down in flames, it’s beautiful and sad and it looks likes she dies.
She didn’t but, we made it look that way for the impact of the video. The themes of the brutality of war, the loss of innocence in the world, the collapse of hope, ecological destruction, the relentless assassinations on the soul…all good stuff, y’know? Made for a fantastic collage. And the video captured all of that, and made it look like 90ft oil on canvases come to life….Right. Next.

‘Stylo’ (featuring Bobby Womack and Mos Def)
M: Wow! This was the first cut off the Plastic Beach album, the track that signaled our return after about 4 years away, so it had to be good. But you could instantly see what kind of muscles were flexing here, what kind of guns were in our new ‘Rillaz artillery. Mos Def, Booby Womack and Gorillaz. That’s heavy. We almost had Barry Gibb on this one to, but he got Maclaine’s Earache on the way in and shied out.

This was a new sound for Gorillaz. Less breakbeat and more of a kind of electro-ish ‘crack funk’ sound, with a little bit of politics and a whole lot of soul going down. With ‘Stylo’, I wanted the music to feel euphoric, whilst still putting across how precarious our tightly packed situation is now, worldwide. Where we’re at as a species on this overpopulated planet (“Coming on to the Overload. Overload. Overload”).

Bobby Womack’s chorus, he just explodes into the track. Pow!!! How good is it to get Bobby Womack on the record? This was the first recording he’d made in 15, 20 years, so what an honour. Bobby said he only returned to do this Gorillaz track because his granddaughter said Gorillaz were cool. Which is true. We are.

I was holding this back as a big opening card for Plastic Beach but then it got…it got stolen just weeks before the release. Some pirates shot up my island and nicked it, then leaked it online… You can’t plug holes like that anymore in the brave new digital world. Thanks, swine!

Bobby joined us on the Plastic Beach World Tour last year, and just knocked this song right out the park, every arena, every night. Incredible voice. Live this track took on a whole new life too…

‘Superfast Jellyfish’ (feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul)

M: When you think about Gorillaz, it makes sense to have a Super Furry Animal on there, doesn’t it? I’ve always loved them, so I sent a jet over to pick Gruff up and take him over here.
A lot of fun, this track. If you turn it up loud enough all the colours start spilling and washing out of the speakers. You could flood your room with a track like this.

How did this song come about? Well, when I was first out at Plastic Beach, when I first arrived, I was all alone. I used to just wander up and down kicking the landscape, looking out in the night sky, playing with the echoes and marveling at the enormity of the universe. You wouldn’t believe the view of the stars from out there…just amazing.

So, one time I noticed all these leaflets, about maybe… 20,000 of these leaflets washed up on the shore to the beach. All adverts for this ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ fast-food chain. Obviously some failed franchise….maybe it didn’t catch on….It’s funny what washes up on the beach there. Anyway I just wrote the lyrics down based on the information on the back of these leaflets “It’s a proven fact that SuperFast Jellyfish’ is the fastest food known to man.” “Superfast Jellyfish” – it’s nice and shiny, it’s crunchy and it tastes just like chicken…and it comes with a toy….essential for any fast food.” Why would you eat fast food unless you got a toy out of it…? I ask myself.

Anyway, this was just a sonic advert for some cheap out-of-date plastic fast-food. There’s not much more to it than that. Still that’s why I like this track so much. It’s made out of primary colours, and it’s full of E-numbers and when I hear it, it makes my brain go fizzy….

And then on top of that we’ve got De La Soul on it, heralding a return for them and the Gorillaz collaborations. So, live right, I’m looking out of a stage with De La Soul, Gorillaz, Gruff from the Furry’s, half The Clash and a string section all bopping away to a track I wrote about a fast food chain. These are the moments…

On Melancholy Hill
M: Ah….The Melancholy Hill – it’s that feeling, that place that you get in your soul sometimes, like someone’s let your tyres down. Y’know? I’m usually right as rain again by Thursday though. Anyway, it’s nice to break up the album with something a little lighter. It’s good to have something that’s a genuine pop moment on every album. And this is one of those. It surfs on the twin tides that flow between Hope and Melancholia, doesn’t it?
I’m going to let you in to a secret: I actually found this song on the back seat of a bus – the 23 – somewhere near Ladbroke Grove. It was an unloved orphan tune so I took it back to Plastic Beach and transformed it into this gorgeous glitterball of a track. I think it was on its way to a Good, The Bad and The Queen rehearsal, but me – being the Child Catcher – I took it with me inside.

But this soon become part of the landscape on Plastic Beach, like The Cloud of Unknowing…and er…the other place.

I think the video for this, y’know?….this one might be my favourite ever Gorillaz promo – it was great to get all our Plastic Beach collaborators together to join us on our little manatee hunt. I had a hard time persuading some of them in squeeze to those little submarines, though. De La Soul were happy, Mick n Paul are well seasoned salty seadogs, Snoop was pretty ‘laidback’ about the whole thing, Gruff was well up for it – but Lou Reed didn’t want to get in that water. I had to slip him a roofie and hurl him in the cockpit myself. He was fine once he started though, he always is.

M: Oh Doncamatic! This was a delightful coda to our Plastic Beach album- I was looking for something to finish it off with a flourish after the thing had been released. I just missed squeezing this on to the original release! The singer you hear is a nice chap from Manchester called Daley. I actually found him washed up on Plastic Beach – covered in oil and singing to a seagull… or was it an albatross? Anyway, I recognise golden pipes when I hear ’em so I popped a bag over his head, hosed the boy down and chucked him in the studio with Noodle and her eight-track. I left them to it while I stepped outside for a Lucky Lung or three, and when I popped back in this is what they’d come up with. Am I a genius or what? Right, I’m off to go ‘re-invent’ the future down the pub or something…Au revoir, darlings! x