sorry, I mean "feature"
What is the best shorthand to introduce Damon Albarn now? Is it: "former Blur frontman..."? Too retro. Perhaps it's "Gorillaz mastermind..."? But that forgets his first decade of fame. Is it "Chinese musical composer..."? Well, he's from Essex, but he has composed a Chinese musical, Monkey Journey to the West. But that description leaves out Blur and Gorillaz completely, as would any focusing on his The Good, The Bad and The Queen supergroup, or his recording ventures in Western Africa. There is no shorthand for Damon Albarn. He's done a lot.
My first memory of Albarn is as a lairy looking lad singing Girls & Boys on some Saturday morning show, early 1994, I was ten. Country House was the first CD I ever bought, having been persuaded by hype to pick a side and fight for it in the great Britpop battle of 1995. Only £3.99 from Woolworths; fill in your own old man joke here. How the guy who wrote Country House, and the system that sold it, has changed since then.
That's quite a pish song, actually, but I chose the right side in that battle. Do you ever meet people who seem to have listened to the same three bands for the last ten years? Those bands used to be the Stone Roses, Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene. Now, they're Oasis, Kasabian and Kings of Leon. That's Noel Gallagher. Blur's final album, and possibly its best, Think Tank, was recorded in Morocco. Liam Gallagher can't spell Morocco. Though we didn't know it in 1995, Damon Albarn is a proper music geek. He's obsessed by it enough to be curious about its every form. That could make him a dilettante, but, incredibly, he's morphed his endless curiosity into creativity everywhere he's turned, and successfully too.
Following six Blur albums, four of which had topped the UK album charts, Albarn and his pal Jamie Hewlett thought it'd be fun to invent a virtual group, Gorillaz, 50% hip-hop, 50% everything else. Gorillaz' self-titled debut was Albarn's biggest selling record yet. Let's stop and think about this for a second. Was Blur not big enough for him? Gorillaz gets even bigger. Someone ask Chris Cornell how easy it is for a rock singer to make a good rap record (or, let's ask Lil Wayne the reverse). Few even attempt it. Then there was Mali Music, Think Tank, which also went to No.1, and the second Gorillaz album Demon Days, which was even better and sold twice as much as the first.
Before meeting his Blur bandmates in Morocco for Think Tank, Albarn spent months in Mali recording with local musicians including Toumani Diabaté. Mali Music (2002) gathered little attention in the British press, but it was praised by those already familiar with Malian sounds. Since then, Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré and Amadou & Mariam have taken Malian music worldwide. It might be a coincidence, or there might've been a push. Anyway, critics don't always take kindly to African sounds: Vampire Weekend get a lot of shit thrown at them for supposedly being "cultural tourists". How dare middle class Westerners be inspired by African music! That's all bullshit; but it's a persistent criticism, easy to cop, avoided by Albarn.
The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Mojo's Album of the Year in 2007, was Albarn with The Verve's Simon Tong, The Clash's Paul Simonon, and Fela Kuti's extraordinary drummer Tony Allen, himself one of the central figures of Nigerian music history. Shall I keep going? In 2008 Albarn and Hewlett created a musical stage show based on an ancient Chinese folk tale; Albarn composed the frequently beautiful score for Monkey Journey to the West.
Isn't this range remarkable? David Bowie is widely praised for his chameolonic tendencies: boho folk, to glam, to soul, to krautrock, to disco, to industrial. That is an impressive range, but those genres are all related, or at least neighbours in the same borough. Madonna gets similar praise for latching onto new fashions early and helping to boost them, in a self-propelling pop-culture-fashion-pop cycle. By 2005 Albarn had taken Blur from She's So High to Moroccan People's Revolutionary Bowls Club, and made an album of Malian music, and recorded two multi-platinum hip-hop(ish) records with guests like De La Soul, MF Doom, Roots Manuva, and Dennis bloomin' Hopper.
Now, Gorillaz are getting ready to release their third album, Plastic Beach, which includes guest spots from Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, and – if you've been following up til now you'll almost be expecting this – the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. No joke.
Is this really the same gurning lad who was leaping around miming "following the herd down to Greece" at the height of Britpop's pomp? It's hard to believe. Going to Greece is something he might do, but he certainly wouldn't be following anyone.