Being a virtual band might have its pitfalls, but Gorillaz have continued to change the game.
Gorillaz formed at the tail-end of the ’90s, with the intention of turning the idea of a band on its head. Blur frontman Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett watched MTV on repeat in their shared London flat, and bit-by-bit became convinced they needed to create some kind of alternative to the manufactured pop they saw. Instead of getting on a ‘real music’ high horse, they designed a band that would exist totally outside the confines of reality.
Technically, Gorillaz’s virtual band crusade has been more manufactured that anything Albarn and Hewlett were initially working against. But their slant on fiction has been executed with a constant, tongue-in-cheek sense of adventure. 2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle have become fantastical stars in their own right, strands of its makers’ weird imaginations with backstories as complex as a Christopher Nolan sub-plot.
But with the freedom that creating a fictional, cartoon band can offer – not having to be sincere in interviews, creating music without fear of personal scrutiny – there was always one big challenge: translating Gorillaz to the stage. How do you make the manufactured feel real in the flesh? Virtual pop stars like Hatsune Miku skip this potential problem by being so hyper-digitised, you don’t even consider its tangibility. But Gorillaz, for all their playful edge, were designed to be a band.
Over the years, Gorillaz’s live shows have evolved from make-do blueprints to wild, interactive frenzies. With the news that they’re putting on their very own festival in Margate, Dreamland (June 10), here’s a look at how they’ve progressed on stage.
2000-2002 – The ‘Gorillaz’ era
Gorillaz’s scrappy early shows never gave the hint of a band who’d go on to headline Glastonbury. Footage of their debut show at London Scala shows a mixture of intrigued and perplexed reactions from onlookers. Fittingly, it was aired in full on MTV, and it showed the faint image of Albarn performing beyond a giant Technicolor screen. Most of the visuals consisted of hazy, pixelated patterns, instead of interactive 3D images of the band’s four members. Put that down to technical limitations, or the fact Gorillaz were just starting out. But at the time, it was different. Similar visuals might have been placed behind big-name DJs, instead of being centre stage. And the Scala, a former cinema, was the perfect place to debut this image-first approach.
2005-2006 – The ‘Demon Days’ era
By the time second album ‘Demon Days’ rolled round, Gorillaz’s live shows had taken on a far more polished state. The 2002 Brit Awards was a turning point, where a pogo-ing Noodle and a low-slung Murdoc could be seen in 3D form. The trick was repeated at the Grammys in 2005, where they performed ‘Feel Good Inc.’ alongside a perfectly sync, IRL De La Soul. Then came the star turn of Madonna – well, a virtual Madonna – who joined for a surreal twist on her ‘Hung Up’ single.
2005’s five-day residency at the Manchester Opera House was a turning point. For the first time, the majority of what was being created live was on public display. Albarn remained veiled by a screen, his silhouette huddled over a piano. But everyone else was in view, including a brilliantly staggering Shaun Ryder for his rendition of ‘Dare’. Flanked by strings and a full band, this was the sight of Gorillaz adapting to bigger stages by ditching the cartoon exterior and creating something more all-encompassing.
2007-2010 – The ‘Plastic Beach’ era
With third album ‘Plastic Beach’, collaboration was just as much of a core to Gorillaz as playful illusions. Snoop Dogg, Little Dragon, Lou Reed and Bobby Womack all appeared on the 2010 LP, and their shows – guest-filled, grand-scope feasts of fun – reflected that.
Standing in for U2 as Glastonbury headliners in 2010, they had to live up to Bono and his stadium-conquering cronies. This time, Albarn ditched the comfort of playing behind a screen, hogging the spotlight for the group’s biggest ever performance. Over ten years since forming, the subversive ideals of Gorillaz’s first steps had given way to other priorities – collaboration, inclusion and all-out entertainment.
Whether they switch gears for an upcoming fourth album is anyone’s guess. ‘Demon Dayz Festival’ suggests they’re hoping to keep things on their terms, like with early shows and their Opera House residency. In this case, they’ll be surrounded by rickety fairground rides and the English coast – the perfect setting for their next step.