I’ve Got A Healthy Feeling, A Sleepy Feeling

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…

366 Songs 277: Clint Eastwood

It’s funny to look back at this, Gorillaz’ second/first single (It was the first official single, but they’d snuck out a “Tomorrow Never Comes” ep before that), now; the animation seems hilariously basic compared with what followed, and the song seems very… clean, I guess, and repetitive in a way that later Gorillaz tracks aren’t (It took Demon Days for Albarn to realize what he could do with the Gorillaz concept musically, I think; the first album is much more of a tentative thing, with Dan the Automator more present than Albarn at times). And yet, the singalong quality of Albarn’s part is irresistible, and Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s contribution remains a high point for all of the Gorillaz’ material to date, matched perhaps only by Andre 3000 in “Do Ya Thing.” There’s no way to hear “Finally, someone let me out of my cage” without a smile breaking out on your face and a realization that someone has appeared without the tentativeness that’s been holding the song back until that point. What makes “Clint Eastwood” a classic is the confidence that Del brings that takes it beyond the showgazing and humility of what has come before.

366 Songs 207: Dirty Harry

There are so many reasons why “Dirty Harry” shouldn’t work: It has a child’s choir, it’s lyrically very simplistic outside of the Bootie Brown rap, which itself has a political reference that was already dated by the time the song appeared (“So said the speaker/With the flight suit on/Maybe to him I’m just a pawn,” referencing George Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech from 2003). And yet… It’s kind of a great song. What happened?

It’s tempting to put it down the the production; Danger Mouse and Damon Albarn have definitely created a great backing for the vocals here, with the phased organ, funk guitars, horror movie strings and the wonderfully vacuum-ish swoop and dive as Bootie does his stuff (Listen to this version of the song without the rap to see what I mean; skip to the 2:10 mark:

It’s great, isn’t it?)

What’s fascinating to me is to hear the original demo for this song, which was released under an entirely different name (“I Need A Gun”) on Damon Albarn’s Democrazy album. It’s recognizable for the vocal hook, but nothing else:

Somewhere in the Gorillaz vaults, there are works-in-progress that show how this song went from that barebones demo to the final version; I’d love to hear them, and find out how the whole thing was built, piece by piece, with every new ingredient just seeming like a bad idea that somehow comes together.

366 Songs 163: Do Ya Thing

As part of my dream last night, I dreamt that there was another new Gorillaz song to accompany this one – a truly wonderful, can’t-keep-yourself-still-when-you-listen, collaboration between Damon Albarn, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Andre 3000, whose contribution is just blindingly awesome (“New word: onomatopoeia” indeed, before he goes on to rap using onomatopeic verses. Seriously, holy crap), and something that might be the final Gorillaz release ever, given the apparent falling out between Albarn and partner Jamie Hewlett. If it is, it’s a great way to go out, all blips and blops and something that shouldn’t work at all, but does, gloriously… Kind of like the project in general, really.

(The new song in my dream sounded great, although I can’t remember what it sounded like now, of course.)

Bonus: The full 13 minute version of “Do Ya Thing,” which has never been officially released but is worth it just for Andre’s freeform craziness.

366 Songs 116: Dare

The best song hastily rewritten around a misheard/misspoken lyric ever (“Dare” coming from Shaun Ryder’s pronounciation of “It’s there,” said while setting recording levels in the studio). There’s something so joyful and effortless in the finished song that it shows how necessary accident is, sometimes.

366 Songs 040: To Binge

It’s possible that there’s a song somewhere in the world of music that more easily and quickly evokes the idea of a damaged relationship trying to be repaired than Gorillaz’ “To Binge” (from Plastic Beach, which may or may not be the final “proper” Gorillaz album depending on what rumors you care to believe), but if there is, I doubt it has a moment that tugs the heartstrings as much as when Damon Albarn sings “But I just have to tell you that I/Love you so much these days/I just have to tell you that I/Love you so much these days/It’s true.”

Plastic Beach is a weird album, and “To Binge” a standout song from it because it is so much more fragile than everything that surrounds it, and so much more… traditional, I guess; the song structure is pretty much a basic duet, with very basic accompaniment, which helps make its case as something more honest than the songs it hides between, more heartfelt. Who can listen to this and not want for everything to end up okay for Albarn and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano and their mini drama implied in this four minute song?