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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Who the fuck is Damon Albarn?

If you could invite any five people from history to join you at dinner tonight, who would you pick? Alongside Lyndon B. Johnson, Jon Stewart, John Lennon and Deng Xiaoping, I would pick Damon Albarn.

At this point, you either have no idea who Damon Albarn is and are rushing to your smartphone to figure it out (or you don’t care at all and I just have an inflated sense of self-importance), or you are smugly congratulating yourself for knowing enough about music to correctly identify the frontman, lead singer, and creative genius behind Blur and Gorillaz, who finally released his solo debut, Everyday Robots, this Monday.

Albarn’s evolution came from modest beginnings. Albarn formed Blur in 1988 with two classmates from London’s prestigious Goldsmith College. Another manifestation of youth angst and aggression, Blur’s 1991 debut album Leisure peaked at number seven on the UK Albums Chart despite receiving mixed reviews. Journalist John Harris said he “could not shake off the odour of anti-climax”. Even Albarn himself has since referred to Leisure as “awful.”

Albarn realised that the band’s image matched too closely with Nirvana, and Blur underwent an ideological and image shift celebrating their British heritage. Unfortunately, this move put the band right in the middle of the British pop-punk rebellion, nicknamed ‘Britpop’. In 1991, NME magazine wrote that: “Blur are the acceptable pretty face of a whole clump of bands that have emerged since the whole Manchester thing started to run out of steam.”

With two more successful albums – 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish and 1995’s The Great Escape – Blur was on top of the Britpop era. That is until October 1995, when Oasis released its second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory.

Following Oasis’s worldwide success, the media quipped that: “[Blur] wound up winning the battle but losing the war.” Blur became perceived by many as an “inauthentic middle-class pop band” in comparison to the “working-class heroes” of Oasis. Bassist Alex James later summarised: “After being the People’s Hero, Damon was the People’s Prick for a short period … basically, he was a loser – very publicly.”

But, like Tesla and Edison or Magic and Bird, Blur’s competition with Oasis elevated both bands to a higher level. For the rest of the decade their battle played out across the tabloids and the charts.

The rivalry even seemed to be reignited at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, when both bands released anthology box sets in preparation for performances at the opening ceremony. Upon hearing Blur’s compilation album alongside Oasis’s, Rolling Stone revised history, writing: “Was there ever a debate who was better?” After witnessing Albarn’s second act, few would disagree.

Albarn and collaborator Jamie Hewlett first came up with the idea to create Gorillaz when the two were watching MTV. “If you watch MTV for too long, it’s a bit like hell – there’s nothing of substance there. So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that,” Hewlett said.

Gorillaz were a sensation, the most unique experiment in musical history. Albarn was the musical mastermind alongside a rotating cast of musicians, with every collaborator assuming the role of a new character, each with their own backstory and image. In 2001, the band’s eponymous debut album sold over seven million copies. The lifeless, listless animated characters that populated music videos for songs like ‘Clint Eastwood’ and ‘Feel Good Inc.’ were as close to ‘Thriller’ as the early ‘00s ever got.

But Albarn wasn’t content with simply creating Guinness World Records’ Most Successful Virtual Band. He wanted to create musical revolution.

Over the course of three studio albums – 2001’s Gorillaz, 2005’s Demon Days and 2010’s Plastic Beach – Albarn took Gorillaz across every musical spectrum, from the rap paranoia of ‘Clint Eastwood’ to the subtle mania of ‘Kids With Guns’. While the band’s debut drew influence from electronica and hip-hop, Plastic Beach’s jazz-infused indie fare featured the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music as well as Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (alongside Snoop Dogg).

No other band (including The Beatles) has achieved such chameleonic diversity and range.

After working with African musicians in aid of Oxfam, writing and performing lead vocals in pet-project The Good, the Bad & the Queen, making up one-fourth of a supergroup, composing film soundtracks, and venturing into the world of opera with Dr Dee and Monkey: Journey to the West, Albarn finally released his solo debut on Monday.

Having just listened to Everyday Robots, I could try to describe it as a subtle, textured patchwork covering Damon Albarn’s 45 years to date, a musical reflection, a window into the mind of an endlessly fascinating and introverted man, and an excellent album.

But trying to label Albarn or his music is like trying to catch a rare fish with your bare hands; you need to just let go and appreciate its brilliance. And maybe invite him to dinner.

 

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  1. dante greene says:

    Damon Albarn is nearly as well known as Thom Yorke mate. Now if you had said Marion Black or George Clinton you may have had something.

  2. skinny says:

    To dante green: you would be surprised, in America barely anybody knows him by name. People don’t generally listen to Blur here, and even the Gorillaz fans are quite relaxed in their knowledge of the people behind the project. So this article is definitely valid.

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