The other day, I tweeted something to the effect of “Gorillaz started with Blur’s ‘Cowboy Song’ in 1998,” in response to the marvelous Jeff Parker suggesting that the roots of Damon Albarn’s magical merry-go-round of a supergroup could be found in “Music Is My Radar,” the Blur single from 2000. Annoyingly, it’s something that’s stuck in my head ever since, because it’s not exactly right, but it bears thinking about for a second or two.
For those who haven’t heard “Cowboy Song,” you shouldn’t feel too bad; it was essentially hidden away on a movie soundtrack (for a film called Dead Man on Campus which I’ve otherwise never heard of), and stayed in the vaults otherwise until last year’s massive Blur box set reissue that had everything that band had ever released included. It’s a fairly minor song, for the most part, as you can hear for yourself:
Because I know that you’re breathless with anticipation to know, there’re three reasons why this track always makes me think of it as an origin of Gorillaz. First off, the vocals, which showcase Albarn’s two Gorillaz styles for, maybe, the first time in a Blur track (and, therefore, anything that was released): Mumbling-sing-song and Falsetto-whining. I say that as a fan, for what it’s worth, but you know what I mean; Albarn’s Gorillaz vocals tend to be messier, lazier and sloppier than his Blur vocals for the most part – perhaps the Think Tank vocals aside – and this feels like the earliest example of what would later be described as his “2D” vocal persona making a public appearance.
Secondly, there’s the fact that “Cowboy Song” appears to have been constructed after-the-fact in the studio from bits and pieces of other songs, most obviously “All We Want,” a song recorded during the time of the 1997 self-titled Blur album that would eventually show up in 1999 as a b-side for “Tender” (The bass and drums for “Cowboy Song” are, as best I can tell, from “All We Want,” but it’s most obvious at 2:13 of “Cowboy Song,” which starts a section that’s pretty much exactly the same as the portion beginning 0:13 of “All We Want”).
The move from… “traditionally-performed/recorded” songs to something constructed after the fact, for want of a better way of putting it, struck me as the beginnings of the flexibility in Albarn’s mind as a songwriter that felt important to the development of Gorillaz, if that makes sense.
And then, finally, there’s the extended outro of “Cowboy Song,” which in both “outstaying its welcome” value and the appearance of what sounds like a melodica down in the mix, feels particularly reminiscent of the outro to “Clint Eastwood”:
(Seriously, I love “Clint Eastwood,” but that outro is far, far too long.)
Parker wasn’t wrong, though: “Music Is My Radar” does have a lot of proto-Gorillaz in there, in terms of melodica and nonsense lyrics (“Tony Allen got me dancing” also offering foreshadowing to the Albarn/Allen collaborations on The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Rocket Juice and The Moon and Dr. Dee), and the same year’s “Time Keeps on Slipping,” Albarn’s guestshot on Deltron 3030 is even further along the road to the band’s existence, a Gorillaz track in all but name thanks to the Albarn/Del tha Funkee Homosapien/Dan the Automator combination:
The missing link between “Cowboy Song” and these later songs is likely 1999’s “X-Offender,” a remix of the 13 track “Bugman” credited to “Control Freak” – who was, of course, Albarn himself. There’s a mass of future Gorillaz DNA in this one, whether in the faux samba rhythm (and reggae drums in the background), synth bass lines, jazzy piano break (Shades of Gorillaz‘ “Latin Simone”) or the laid back, increasingly meandering lead vocal or harmonized backing vocals.
Think about all of this now, it’s no wonder that I was kind of disappointed with that first Gorillaz album when it came out; it really wasn’t a radical departure from what had come before after all, just more of a sidestep in a direction Albarn had been quietly thinking about for some time…