From Parklife To Everyday Robots: Why Damon Albarn Is A Stone Cold Legend

With his new solo project announced and festival headline sets coming up, the time has never been better to consider just how relevant the former Blur frontman still is...
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With his new solo project announced and festival headline sets coming up, the time has never been better to consider just how relevant the former Blur frontman still is...
damon.jpg

The year is 2014, and the world’s biggest pop star is an ex Disney channel sensation who wears the smallest possible outfits whilst rolling around everyone from Robin Thicke to Snoop Dogg (Lion), to Santa.

Now, flash back twenty years and we are bang in the middle of Britpop. Blur are gearing up to release Parklife and become one of the biggest bands in the world. There was no way that the then 25 year old Damon Albarn could have known what lay ahead...

Parklife was released to both commercial and critical acclaim and won the band numerous awards. Damon was personally praised for his quintessential view of England and the way he translated it into catchy, pop music.

The following year would be one of the biggest for Blur and for Damon Albarn in particular. It was the year of the Battle of Britpop, Oasis Vs Blur, and Roll with It Vs Country House. Blur won out, but the effect that it had on the band was never truly worth the success. Damon was described by Alex James as going from ‘the people's hero to the people's prick’ and despite all the success which would follow he never truly shook that perception of a fame and money hungry, egotistical arsehole.

Perhaps this inner turmoil was partly behind what happened next, 1997 album Blur saw a musical shift from the band, and Damon in particular. He embraced American culture where he had previously denounced its effect on music worldwide. It was a hugely brave move at the time as it stood to alienate a large section of their fan base, but this creative bravery is something that has since become synonymous with the man. He could have stuck with the tried and tested formula and milked Britpop for all its worth (naming no names here…) but instead he stuck to his creative virtues and strived to push new boundaries with each release.

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Blur's Under The Westway Is The New Tender
Blur Live At Hyde Park

In 2001, Damon and Jamie Hewlett created one of the biggest cultural phenomenon’s of our generation, a band made up solely of cartoon monkeys. Gorillaz was originally started as a pastiche of everything that Damon and Jamie saw and despised on MTV, but the band saw Damon’s first recorded forays into a more diverse hip hop based album, another platform which allowed him even more creative license.

How do you follow up creating such a cultural juggernaut? If you’re Damon you release Mali Music, an album recorded with a band made up of musicians of African origin met on a previous trip to Africa with Oxfam. The sound was something completely new for Albarn, but obviously became a huge influence on him and all of his work thereafter, most notably the following years Think Tank, the final and most experimental Blur album. Guitars were pushed into the background in favour of the African and Middle Eastern sounds along with a much more computerised production.

Following Think Tank Blur split, leaving Damon at a crossroads;  he already had Gorillaz to work on but for the first time that was his only recognised creative outlet. Naturally this wasn’t enough and the following years would lead Damon in a host of creative directions. There would be a new band, formed along with Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong to release The Good, the Bad and the Queen, an album which was critically well received, but commercially nowhere near as successful as his previous works.

Gorillaz wasn’t to be the only primate based collaboration between Damon and Jamie Hewlett, as together they co-created an opera, Monkey: Journey to the West. Based on the novel by Wu Cheng’en, Damon created the score for the opera, his first but not final venture into theatre. He followed this with Dr Dee; here Damon was actually an active member of the cast, narrating the story of Dr John Dee, medical and scientific advisor to Queen Elizabeth with a series of original songs.

Five years after disbanding, Blur finally reunited in 2009 with a run of gigs across the country, culminating at Glastonbury with a headline set described as the greatest in an age. But the main attraction was two sold out shows in London’s Hyde Park. Truly a celebration of one of the best British bands ever, back home and back together.

This though wouldn’t be Blur's final act; they went on to release Under the Westway and The Puritan, two special singles for a very special occasion as the band returned to Hyde Park in 2012 to headline the London Olympics closing ceremony@ even more proof that they had truly become a Great British institution.

This brings us to 2014, Miley Cyrus is twerking her way through MTV Awards, Lady Gaga has fried her own brains, Arctic Monkeys are Britain’s biggest band and there are strong whispers that the long awaited Damon Albarn solo album is on the way.

Monday 20th January, ‘Blue Monday’ and suddenly the video for Everyday Robots drops online. The first single and video from the upcoming album of the same name (Slated for an April 29th release) and it is fantastic; a real mix of Damon’s latest creative offerings. Its Gorillaz meets Soul Funk, mixed with some melancholic Blur, all pulled together by one of the best lyrics Albarn has ever written.

So, how does Damon Albarn fit into today’s musical landscape? Well he already has 2 major festival headline shows lined up at Latitude and the new BBC6 Music Festival. Headlining is in itself not a new experience, but this time he will be out on his own, although there a host of special guests that he could call upon: could we see another Blur reunion? Damon produced the latest Bobby Womack record so could Bobby show up?  Gorillaz have always had a host of collaborators or could we see Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher recreate the moment they performed together last year for the Teenage Cancer Trust? 20 years of Britpop bad feeling washed away in an instant as Damon, Noel and Graham performed Tender together. Noels idea, apparently, as it was the ‘easiest song to remember and play’

Damon truly is the Mr. Ben of the music world, we can imagine him stepping into his studio, picking up a different instrument or sound loop and following where his imagination takes him.

Once again the King of reinvention has gone away and returned with something that sounds at the same time both completely relevant and totally revolutionary. The honest truth is that music needs characters like Damon Albarn to inspire us all and to pull his peers out of the creative doldrums it's easy to fall into.

Long Live the King.