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…
A particularly melancholic song from a somewhat melancholy album – Unlike Parklife, The Great Escape is never actually fun, as such; it’s sad or its angry, and sometimes it’s both, but “fun”…? Not so much – “He Thought of Cars” is a song that continually falls out of control, the oppressive guitar riff beaten back by the choruses, but always returning, a musical migraine that threatens to overwhelm and suffocate the sadness and surrender of the lyrics (“Everybody wants to go/Up into the blue/But there’s a ten year queue”). Without the benefit of the fade in/fade out, the live versions of the song have an entirely different feel to them that, I suspect, is far closer to what was originally intended:
…It’s just more… I don’t know. More violent in the opening, more abrasive and really underscores the fragility of the verses, and the way the song concludes feels more… final, for want of a better way to put it. I wish this had been the structure (and intensity) of the recorded version. It makes for a clarity of purpose that the album version lacks. This was always a song about being trapped, in so many ways.
Despite officially being a Marianne Faithfull song – appearing on her album of the same name – this is, to all intents and purposes a late-period Blur song, falling between 13 and Think Tank and bearing all manner of similarities not only to some Damon Albarn material from Gorillaz, but also – and particularly – “Black Book,” the b-side of 2000’s “Music is My Radar” single.
Both songs have a swampy quality, and a feeling that the lyrics (as revelatory as they may be, and I think in both cases, they are – Moreso than Albarn intended, perhaps) are somehow less important to the overall sound of the whole thing, leading to a lot of repetition and the voice as instrument rather than focal point. Repetition is big in both songs, but perhaps especially “Kissin’ Time”; the song becomes little more than a loop of itself by halfway through, with the song falling to and fading into one more chorus and then a slow, hypnotic, somewhat beautiful degradation. It’s a song that only makes sense with a fade out; it’s a narcotic, an inescapable thing that would make an end feel insincere and unreal. Your time will come, the song goes, but that almost seems like a… a threat, maybe? A promise? Something to taunt, either way, something to make that time seem unattainable because you’ll always be within this particular moment.
Coming late into the Blur album that saw Damon Albarn et al abandon the Britpop sound for something more influenced by British music of the 1970s than that of the ’60s (People at the time pointed to an American Alternative Rock influence, but this is David Bowie through and through), “Strange News From Another Star” is a song that sounds as delicate as the lyrics suggest (“I don’t believe in me/I don’t believe in me/All I’ve ever done is tame/Will you love me all the same?/Will you love me though it’s always the same?”). The album version of the song is almost determinately oppressive and dehumanizing, with the synthetic noises broken with the acoustic guitar only occasionally, sounding like a retro-future where the good guys lost, but I have long preferred this live version, performed solo by Albarn:
It’s far, far more melancholy than the original, but also prettier; it feels more hopeful than defeated, as if the news is strange now, but not necessarily permanently, and not necessarily the end of everything. “I’m lost, I’m lost” Albarn sings, but there’s a feeling in this performance that he could be found before too long.
Easily the best track off the new Blur 21 boxset, “1” sounds like the bridge between Blur and Gorillaz, with the band doing something more free and more groove-based than what they’d been up to previously, with the lyrics and vocals just one more (mumbled) ingredient into the mix. The use of the vibes really helps the construction, too, giving the song its own feel unlike anything else the band ever did. I love this song; I find myself wishing that whatever songs had come out of this previously-unknown session with jazz producer Bill Laswell had found themselves released properly, and Blur was given an entirely new direction, post-13.
Before they were POPSTARS, Blur did this. And, if you can ignore the cheesiness of the video – I know, it’s hard – then there’s a lot to be enjoyed about “Sunday Sunday,” especially if you wish there were more brass bands in pop songs like I do. But what caught my ear when listening to this recently – or, rather, “Sunday Sleep,” the earlier version that’s on the new Blur box set – was the melancholy in the second verse that’s not that easy to pick out from the performance: “You meet an old soldier and talk of the past/He fought for us in two world wars/And says the England he knew is no more.”
Maybe it’s because I’m older now, but hearing that now makes me feel sad, rather than “Yeah, up yours, Grandad!” I’m not sure which of the two the line is supposed to evoke (If either?), but I feel like it adds some… I don’t know, wistfulness to what is otherwise an intentionally throwaway, somewhat snide slice of nostalgia and the sneering at thereof. Maybe I just need some protein on a plate.
Huh, interesting. William Orbit – fast becoming a Blur spoiler fan-favorite after working with the band on new material and then being dumped when they didn’t like the results – has released an earlier version of “Under The Westway” on YouTube:
It sounds unfinished and far less interesting/epic than the finished version, and I find myself amazingly grateful they didn’t go with this direction, but what’s really fascinating is an entire middle section that was dropped from the song as officially released (1:52-3:30) that’s… actually the best part of this version, and something that I almost wish had made it into the finished take. If nothing else, the bit about “On Friday night/In public houses/We are wonderful/Pathetic or just/Plain gone” is a lovely intro into the “It’s magic arrows hitting the bull!” part at the end…
(Now I’m very curious about what other bits have disappeared from familiar songs that I’d love. That box set filled with demos and unreleased material keeps tempting, dammit…)
No time to write today, because I’ve made the (selfish?) promise to myself that I’d rather wrap up work in as timely a manner as possible and there’s still a bunch of work left to do. But this song has been going around in my head with increasing regularity over the week, like a slow burn earworm, and so I thought I’d share it with you so it can burrow inside your brains, as well:
“Are we institutionalized by the demands of today?/In our regalia, are we okay?” feels curiously like something John Lydon would have written, decades ago, if he were more humanistic and less angry, don’t you think?
Apparently, some kind of teaser for the new song Damon Albarn unveiled this past weekend (Skip to 2:38):
Considering everyone was convinced that the previously-teased “Under The Westway” was going to be the final Blur release, this is a surprise… and perhaps suggests that rumors of a new Blur album may not have been entirely out there after all.