Reflections on 'Demon Days': How Gorillaz Turned Global Turmoil into a British Pop Masterpiece

Eleven years since its release, we can recognize it for what it was: a thrilling allegory set on the precipice of an increasingly dark stretch of modern history.

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Aug 26 2016, 11:37am

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

In an interview with the New York Times, ahead of the release of Demon Days, music critic Jon Pareles noted two phrases scrawled on the walls of Damon Albarn’s London studio in large, black letters. First, “Uncertainty Leaves Room For Hope” and second, “Dark Is Good”—with one “o” crossed out.

“Dark Is God”.

It’s this statement that sticks when listening to the album again eleven years after its first release, with a brand new Gorillaz record recently announced as coming "very soon". Demon Days, a record of violence, war, worship, brutality and fire. A record with mammoth pop songs – ”Feel Good Inc”, “DARE”, “Kids With Guns” – pressed seamlessly between bold, supporting material like the tranquil “El Manana” or the claustrophobic “Last Living Souls”. A record with a complex core narrative, weaving together false gods, dystopia, and apocalypse.

However, Demon Days was also a pop album released by a fictional gimmick band of four childish cartoon characters – 2D, Russel, Murdoc and Noodle – headed up by a lead singer who most people assumed had seen his best days the wrong side of 1994. At the time, positive reviews called it “a stash of songs that are more fun than a Hong Kong Phooey marathon”, whilst negative ones resolved it as “about as disappointing a follow up as you can imagine”. Of course, many recognised it as a great album, but typically described its merits in terms of “experimentation” – or as Pitchfork put it, “sci-fi kitsch”. In fact, Demon Days tried to tackle major issues so directly, it seemed quite corny, ranty and hysterical at the time – eleven years on, it looks scarily prescient.

The Gorillaz gimmick, only two albums old at this point, may have been too much of a distraction for the record to be fully canonised at the time, but it didn’t stop it from finding an audience. A top ten album all over the world, entering the UK at number 1, Demon Days vastly outsold the band’s debut record and has since gone on to sell 8 million copies worldwide. It was an unprecedented success, but one that has never truly been celebrated as much as it should have been: not just as a pop record, but as possibly the clearest articulation of Damon Albarn’s musical intellect, and a dark, thrilling testament to recent British history both culturally and politically.

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Gorillaz self-titled debut album was the first record I ever owned. As a kid, I was equal parts amused and terrified by the project. These skeletal, vacant characters singing listless laments about “sunshine in a bag” – they always had a touch of ‘the end of the world’ about them. But, like many people, I found the first record a little lacking in something. Even at that age I remember skipping backwards and forwards between tracks, never quite falling for the album as a whole. Gorillaz seemed like a great idea – or rather, a lot of great ideas – that weren’t quite able to close in on why they existed, or who they existed for.

What changed between their debut and the release of Demon Days in 2005, was that Albarn started to focus less on creating for Gorillaz a world of their own, and more on using the project as a means to reflect all the shit that was going down in the world around them. “It's what we're living in basically,” Albarn told MTV News at the time of the album, “the world in a state of night." The project became a fucked up mirror, instead of a fantastical window.

It’s recent enough history that it hardly bears repeating, but the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in particular Tony Blair’s decision to commit British troops to the US-led campaign, was and still is an open wound – a brutal, drawn out exercise that has never really ended. Not only that, but it was a very 21st century war. Gone were the good versus evil components of the early-20th century, and even the stalemate espionage of the Cold War. The millennial conflict saw government deception go against the will of the people – across the globe up to 30 million took part in an anti-Iraq War march, the "the largest protest event in human history" – in pursuit of fabled weapons of mass destruction. Of course, the real prize, the real purpose, as many saw it, was oil.

The birth of terrorism on never-before-seen scales, of a post-9/11 atmosphere, of Abu Ghraib and images of torture and execution filling newspapers (real or otherwise), not to mention the dissemination of information via a rapidly growing Internet and the advent of Facebook in 2004. The world, in the early 00s, was gripped by fear, coverage, and violence, yet seemingly due to battles it never asked to fight. Conflict became a staple part of the air we breathed and the pictures we consumed. These were the Demon Days.

The album’s conscience is evident in varying shades of subtlety. Early indications that the LP was shooting for a more focused form of subversion came in the form of early marketing campaigns, led with the phrase “REJECT FALSE ICONS”. The build-up to the album came with a website (rejectfalseicons.com) which allowed fans to replay the message using stickers or graffiti. The false icons, not unlike his “Dark Is God” statement, pointed to Albarn’s disillusionment with authority and leadership. It’s a disillusionment that would plague the album.

If there were false icons to be taken down, it’s likely Demon Days was most sternly aimed at George Bush. Take “Dirty Harry” in which Bootie Brown raps from the perspective of an American soldier (“I’m a peace loving decoy ready for retaliation”). Towards the end of his eviscerating, rapid-fire bars he proposes, “The war is over, so said the speaker, with the flight suit on”. Two years to the month, prior to the album’s release, Bush had stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, in a flight suit, proclaiming that while there was still work to do, “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Behind him a banner read “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”. The war, of course, was not over. The vast majority of military and civilian casualties would occur following that statement.

Violence was smattered across the record – the video for “El Manana” even went as far as killing Noodle off altogether in a blaze of helicopter gunfire, even if it was a false alarm. Yet, the more pressing facet of the Iraq War that was vividly evoked on Demon Days is the aforementioned pursuit of oil. For Gorillaz this manifested as a very literal draining, hollowing out, of the planet. Ridding the earth of its soul both by relinquishing morality and by savaging the land. In an interview with Notion magazine ahead of the release, Albarn said the following of the album’s preoccupation with environmental decay: "That came from a very naive idea, which is: what is going to happen when they've taken all of the oil out of the earth? Aren't there going to be these vast holes? Surely those holes shouldn't be empty. Surely there is a reason why they had all of this in. It's like bad plastic surgery, eventually it collapses."

Naive or not, as an image it works perfectly with the sort of political statement Gorillaz were able to achieve on Demon Days. It is, after all, cartoonish. This vision of a hollow earth, of mysterious travellers excavating the land is of course best articulated on “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head”. The track is a Dennis Hopper monologue read over a simmering, hummed instrumental, telling the fable of a small mountain community who are besieged upon by strange folk who tellingly, “came in camouflage”. The travellers mine the mountain for the riches in its caves, and in doing so disrupt the omnipotent spirit at its core, a godlike beast which had previously remained at peace with the local community. The end result? Holes began to appear, the monkey stirs, then a ‘castrophony’ so immense it could be heard in space. “Only fire, and then nothing.” Gorillaz would deal with ‘the environment’ in much clearer terms on Plastic Beach, but on Demon Days, the earth was another casualty of the violence. A once all-powerful rock being reduced to rubble; a skull having its brains scooped out.

Elsewhere the record seems preoccupied with the place of children within this world. Of course, “Kids With Guns” is the most obvious example – the song was supposedly inspired by Albarn hearing a boy in his daughter’s class had innocently brought a knife into school – yet the infantilisation of violence is littered throughout. Again, to return to “Dirty Harry”, a song that ends with a children’s choir singing the words “I need a gun, to keep myself from harm”. Then there’s the concept itself: a cartoon, communicating the relentlessness of terror and military action.

“Last of the Living Souls” questions where all the good people have gone, “Feel Good Inc” evokes the personal cost in terms of depression, and titles like “Every Planet We Reach is Dead” speak for themselves. The end of the world as told on Demon Days is one at the hands of false gods and infants, bearers of corruption and greed.

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Of course, none of this would matter if it sounded shit. If the music wasn’t there. But it was. The album spawned 3 top ten singles in the UK: “Feel Good Inc”, “DARE” and “Dirty Harry” – something of a surprise for a record of songs about political turmoil and ecological warfare. More than that though, it’s surprising for an album that flits between UK rap, alternative rock, piano-pop, trip-hop, reggae and Beach Boys psychedelia.

One of the most remarkable things Gorillaz achieved was providing a vehicle to mainstream chart success for a number of hugely important artists. Roots Manuva, one of the most influential artists in British musical history logged his highest ever album-chart success thanks to his feature on “All Alone”. Shaun Ryder enjoyed his only ever number one single in the UK with “DARE”. The same can be said for artists outside of the UK as well, as De La Soul, Bootie Brown of Pharcyde and Del Tha Funky Homosapien all enjoyed mainstream recognition in a British chart that rarely celebrated anything resembling hip-hop. It’s possible, if not totally reasonable, to say that under the anonymity of the Gorillaz project, artists otherwise deemed unsuitable for the mainstream British public were able to reach otherwise untouched audiences. Success is of course not measured in sales, but there is a monumental achievement that should be acknowledged here. Demon Days was prepared to bypass major label features in favour of bringing to the foreground artists whose distinct identities actually illustrated the album's core concept.

"For Demon Days, each and every person was chosen to appear for the particular attribute or texture, or aspect of culture they represent," Explains Gorillaz’ drummer Russel in a comic that accompanied the album. "Dennis Hopper, the anti-establishment legend; De la Soul, the positive force of hip-hop; Roots Manuva and Martina Topley-Bird, ethereal siblings… Ike Turner, the dark force of soul; Shaun Ryder, the most prodigal son, the voice of hedonistic funk and the pantomime villain; Bootie Brown, the conscious objector; Neneh Cherry, as the streetwise B-girl. These agents would all play parts against each other in the acts of Demon Days.”

Albarn also dropped Dan the Automator and enlisted a then relatively unknown Danger Mouse, who had just risen to notoriety thanks to his Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album. The decision reflected Albarn’s desire to subvert popular culture, and the producer treated each organic element of Demon Days like a sample to be jacked with as he wished. To play Dennis Hopper off against a reggae bounce, or Shaun Ryder’s growl against silken synth stabs... Demon Days, thematically, was about a world falling apart, made sonic by the sound of Danger Mouse pulling different worlds together.

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It’s not surprising that the album's legacy is a bit confused. Gorillaz were never supposed to be more than Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett’s weird, self-indulgent, heroin fuelled side project. The resulting success – a UK number one album written by a fictional Japanese schoolgirl that deals with moral corruption and modern warfare – is confounding to say the least. No surprise then that it was most easily understood as “more fun than a Hong Kong Phooey marathon”. In fact, the very Gorillaz concept that allowed them to bypass preconceptions and put such eclectic sounds at the top of the charts seemed to be what prevented them from ever having an album heralded as a classic – it's hard to grant cartoon characters the same credibility and esteem as a bunch of humans. It's hard to put Gorillaz alongside, say, Pulp, Radiohead, or even Blur. And it’s hard to be a hardcore follower of a fictional entity, which was exemplified by the mixed reception when they later became replacement Glastonbury headliners in 2010.

In hindsight, it's conceivable that people weren’t fully prepared to accept the world that Demon Days described was a fair representation of the state of affairs. The Iraq war was only two-years-old and supposedly ‘ending’, the financial crash hadn’t happened yet and we were still five years away from an austerity wielding Conservative government. Perhaps, at the time, the doomsday on display seemed little more than “pretentious twaddle”.

Now, we can recognise it a little more clearly for what it was. A thrilling allegory set on the precipice of an increasingly dark stretch of modern history. Listening to the record now it feels more pertinent than ever. “Kids With Guns”, “O Green World”, ring with almost smug levels of prophecy. It makes sense in many respects for a world as ugly as ours can be, it would take cartoon characters to draw the real picture.

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