Damon Albarn may have become a household name during the great Britpop wars of 1995, he has become something of an experimental musical journeyman subsequently (unlike some who shall remain nameless) never resting on his laurels and always seeking out new avenues to explore. Damon you intrepid bugger, we salute you! Here are 10 of his finest moments…
Playing keyboard for Elastica
Many years before Elastica hired Mew as their keyboardist (and also Antony Genn – despite the fact he famously streaked across their stage at Glastonbury in 1995), there was a chap called Damon Albarn who tinkled on three of their songs – ‘Car Song’, ‘Indian Song’ and ‘Waking Up’ – on their eponymously-titled debut. Damon happened to be stepping out with Justine Frischmann at the time, and some suggest his influence on the band might have been greater still given how long it took them to write a follow up. That probably had more to do with the drugs, and suggesting Damon was somehow architect has a faint whiff of sexism about it – so think on!
Becoming a vocal anti war campaigner
Damon’s grandfather – whom he’s said to have shared a great relationship with – was jailed as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and that may have had an influence on young Damon’s strong anti-war views. Albarn’s been a vocal advocate of CND and Stop the War alongside Massive Attack’s 3D. He’s also worked with 3D – real name Robert Del Naja – on a number of tracks (sometimes as Gorillaz’ 2D). ‘Saturday Come Slow’ from Massive Attack’s’ 2010 album Heligoland features a great vocal performance from Damon, his voice sounding croakier and more vulnerable than anything since Blur’s mildly underrated Cox(on)less ‘Out of Time’.
Despite massive success in Europe, Blur never quite cracked the US, aside from leasing ‘Song 2’ to sport networks and video games (which they made a packet off the back of). It was the conceptual “virtual band” Gorillaz with artist and flatmate Jamie Hewlitt that helped Damon shift seven million records across the Atlantic with their first outing alone. Having a song called ‘Clint Eastwood’ probably helped.
Being a star draw for collaborative purposes
A combination of Albarn’s success and talent gave him carte blanche where artists were concerned, and like some musical version of Ricky Gervais with a less annoying laugh, Albarn handpicked a plethora of global stars and legends to record or play live with: Bobby Womack, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Mark E Smith, Shaun Ryder, De La Soul, MF Doom, the list is endless.
Calling up Paul Simonon out of the blue
The Clash’s Paul Simonon has always been the epitome of cool, whether smashing a bass up on the iconic cover of ‘London’s Calling’ or getting himself arrested while working incognito as a chef for a dangerous Greenpeace mission, like music’s own Steven Seagal (in Under Siege II, sad movie fact fans). Oh yeah, and he’s a brilliant bass player as well, as demonstrated on the self-titled The Good The Bad And The Queen album, Damon’s forlorn love letter to London. He just called him up, just like that!
Getting Tony Allen in the band
Albarn also enlisted the services of Tony Allen for The Good The Bad And The Queen and then criminally underused him. The former Fela Kuti sticksman who Brian Eno said was “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived” wasn’t getting away that easily, and Albarn has worked with him on and off ever since, including Rocket Juice & The Moon, a supergroup with Flea (what is it with Flea and supergroups?) , and elsewhere, including this funky slice of Allen’s own work called ‘Every Season’.
Coming across like a nice bloke in No Distance Left To Run
Damon certainly had his bad-tempered entanglements, warring with Oasis, and before that Suede’s Brett Anderson who had been Justine Frischmann’s previous boyfriend, and in previous documentary movies such as the Live Forever he came across a little bitter and serious about past events. But Blur’s live reformation was clearly a personal path to redemption for the band, and the tour movie made at the time – 2010’s No Distance Left To Run – proved to be a cathartic and redemptive affair with nobody coming out of it better than the singer. He looks relaxed, happy and at peace with himself, and able to reflect on the old days with a certain amount of wisdom.
Encouraging the yoot
When Damon made ‘Mali Music’ some mockingly rubbed their hands with glee and called him the new Sting, but in truth an artist who transmogrifies and experiments so often is perhaps more akin to a Bowie-like character. Not only does Albarn work with superstars, he’s also inclusive where young musicians are concerned. The Bots were effusive with praise about the musician when I interviewed them in late 2012 after he’d invited them on the Africa Express train tour, a moment in their young lives that they said helped them grow as people and musicians such was the richness of the experience and the array of talent they were exposed to.
Writing an opera
Albarn records all his material in demo on a portable 4-track, and he’s stated that if it doesn’t sound good in perfunctory form then the song is probably not a keeper, which is why he’s not been afraid to bring out demos or put out a complete Gorillaz album recorded on an iPad in the past. He might well have had to change his approach when taking on the huge task of writing the opera Dr Dee (under the pseudonym Monkey). If when you imagine opera you think a Rubenesque lady in a viking helmet giving it some then you might be a little disappointed, but you cannot fault the guy’s ambition.
Holding out the olive branch
Who approached who I’m not sure, but any Britpop bad feeling was laid to rest last year when Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher played publicly at the Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust. If their new found bromance wasn’t enough, they got Weller and Coxon in to add to the celebrations, no doubt much to the delight of those in attendance. “All’s well that ends well”, once said Shakespeare, and who am I to argue with the Bard?