Hard to know exactly what to make of Gorillaz.
What ARE they?
Reading Wikipedia and it says that The Guinness Book of World Records has actually given Gorillaz an entry as "World's Most Successful Virtual Band."
Not to gainsay Wikipedia or the Guinness people, but is that right? Could that possibly be right? It's certainly a claim that's been repeated all over the web, but since the Guinness site is next to useless, and in the absence of any other primary source, it becomes something I'd like to consider.
Since the term "virtual band" is just *a tad* obfuscatory, let's go ahead and lower the bullshit factor by defining "virtual band" simply as "a band made up of cartoon characters." And then I guess to eliminate parodies like that totally excellent Black Sabbath cartoon on You Tube or even the original animated Beatles, let's go ahead and add the qualifier, "made up of cartoon characters with no flesh and blood analog."
OK. Now, then, are Gorillaz the world's most successful cartoon band? Without, you know, flesh and blood analogs? Gorillaz' first album, sparked by the single we're featuring today, sold 7 million copies worldwide. This is indeed righteous success.
However, Gorillaz have never had a US number one album or a US number one single. And while their newest, Plastic Beach, remains on Billboard's charts, it is at 16 this week after having peaked at number 2 and therefore appears to be on its way down.
Bear with me a little bit and contrast this with a band they would have been calling "virtual" (had they known the term) just over 40 years ago, The Archies.
"Sugar Sugar" spent four weeks as a US number one in September and October of 1969 and sold something like six million copies as a single, separate and apart from album sales and from the untold millions of copies distributed on the back of cereal boxes. "Sugar Sugar" knocked "Honky Tonk Women" from the US top slot, and ended up being Billboard's Record of the Year. It spent eight weeks as a number one in England. It's either "Clint Eastwood" or "Feel Good Inc." that has been Gorillaz' most successful single, but neither has had anywhere near the popularity that "Sugar Sugar" had. And understand that "Sugar Sugar" had a follow-up in "Jingle Jangle" which also sold a million copies. Don't believe Gorillaz ever had back-to-back million sellers.
Now, you may object that The Archies were a manufactured pop group, but to that, I would ask how that makes them any different from Gorillaz?
You might also suggest that The Archies did not sustain their success in the same way that Gorillaz have. Gorillaz have sold their millions of records over a ten-year period, where, even being generous, it's hard to make a case that the Archies sold any records outside the three-year window between 1968 and 1971.
That's a fair point. But I would then bring up The Chipmunks, who are almost certainly the original "virtual" band, as their cartoon debuted way back in 1961. Over the winter of 1958 and 1959, in something like seven weeks, "The Chipmunk Song" sold 4-1/2 million copies. 49 years later, in 2007, The Chipmunks went platinum with Alvin and the Chipmunks: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. The soundtrack to the, umm, squeakquel, went Gold last year. If your objection to The Archies was that they had no staying power, certainly the same cannot be said about The Chipmunks. Shit, not many excepting Elvis Presley have had staying power like the fucking Chipmunks. And I'm pretty sure that The Chipmunks have sold more records than Gorillaz, no matter how you slice it.
Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. claims on The Chipmunk website that The Chipmunks had sold 16 million records by 1961: this would be before any of their three platinum records hit, and before any of their four Gold records. I read somewhere that Gorillaz and Demon Days had combined to sell 15 million copies by 2007. When you add in singles like "Clint Eastwood" (which itself went Gold in Britain) and the current Plastic Beach it's not unreasonable to expect that Gorillaz have sold in excess of 20 million units. But I seriously don't think that's more than The Chipmunks, not if Bagdasarian's estimate is correct, and not if you consider that The Chipmunks have had 11 charting albums since that benchmark year of 1961.
So what am I saying here? Not all that much, really. I don't spend a whole bunch of time worrying about how many units a particular band has shifted. Popularity to me is basically irrelevant. There are great multiplatinum bands, and crappy obscure ones. And certainly vice versa.
I guess--until I'm presented with better facts--I'm just calling "bullshit." No news here, but the internet is full of factoids that aren't, on close inspection, true at all, and I think that this "most successful virtual band" thing might be just one of those factoids.
I'm not saying that I'd listen to "Sugar Sugar" or "The Witch Doctor" rather than "Clint Eastwood" or "Feel Good Inc."-- I'm sure I wouldn't. And if I called Gorillaz "manufactured pop" earlier, I meant nothing by it. No reason why manufactured pop can't be great, and in Gorillaz' case, I think that Damon Albarn is not just reformatting and rebranding pop, I think he's expanding it.
Somehow Mr. Albarn got me to listen to a rapper who calls himself "Del the Funkee Homosapien." Trust me, this was NOT likely. Rap and I kind of had an unamicable breakup sometime in the late '80's. But here I am, digging the fuck out of this alternative rapper busting out with this rhyme, the blue phantom out from under the hat, somebody finally let me outta my cage, destruction and demise corruption in disguise from this fuckin' enterprise, works like a guitar solo for me, the way the organ gets turned down and the raps get cranked up REALLY FUCKING LOUD in the mix.
And somehow, with Plastic Beach, Albarn has gotten some kids born sometime in the '90's to listen to someone I'm sure is just as alien to them: Mark E Smith. Albarn is subverting the old farts, and subverting the kids; I see the master plan, alright.
I don't think it's any coincidence that Gorillaz as constituted are multi gender and multi cultural. 2D and Murdoc are Englishmen, but Russel is a black dude from New York, and Noodle is a chick from Japan. The music is similarly inclusive. "Punk" (from the debut) reminds me of Sonic Youth's "Nic Fit," gloriously annoying postpunk. "El Mañana" is more or less chillout with vocals. "Latin Simone" is a spacy rhumba, "White Light" reminds me of The Fall.
Collaborators behind the cartoon screen are if anything only more polyglot. This funky homosapien guy yes, and the misanthrope Smith, but also Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads, and Lou Reed from the Velvet Underground and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash and Mos Def who even I've heard of and Miho Hatori from Cibo Matto and Bobby Womack and I'm sure many, many others.
Gorillaz are officially all over the fucking place stylistically. Make no mistake: I see the plan that Albarn has with Gorillaz, and it's an audacious one as could only be devised by someone with a deep understanding of pop music, and with a significant influence over it as well. He's a clever cat, voracious, too, the entirety of this world's music Gorillaz food for him, and if Gorillaz are not the most successful virtual band ever, they are certainly the most all-encompassing, the most genre-bending, and absolutely the most ambitious.
But best first give Alvin his props.
Gorillaz - Gorillaz - 05 Clint Eastwood.mp3
This file was removed May 16, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.
File under: Every dead body that is not exterminated, gets up and kills.
The people it kills, get up and kill.