April 2, 2006
Simon Reynolds‘ Rip It Up and Start Again is based on the idea that the late 70s and early 80s were this ridiculous technicolor pop playground, that punk opened up all this space for people with big label contracts to fuck around with pop conventions and actually become popular in the process. I wouldn’t know, really; I was too busy being born at the time. But I’m not sure about Reynolds’ idea that this golden age came to a crashing halt in 1984; seems to me that just about any era has its share of unforeseeable radar blips, proud weirdos who manage to worm their way onto daytime pop-radio playlists through some combination of savvy image-positioning, ADD genre-blurring, and, um, like, songwriting. Case in point: the Gorillaz, who, it turns out, are really, really popular. Like, did you know their second album, Demon Days, is double-platinum in the US? Or that their current five-night run at the Apollo Theatre sold out in something like an hour, even though tickets are $72? How the fuck did that happen? In the UK, Damon Albarn has a history as something resembling a rock star, so his goofy all-cartoon working-with-DJs side project was always going to at least do OK sales-wise. But over here, where he’s basically a one-hit wonder who gets a lot of play at Britpop club nights, he’s never exactly been a sure bet. But then he goes and makes up some ridiculously goofy all-cartoon-monkey concept-band, comes through with a couple of hooky singles, and opts not to physically appear in some truly ugly animed-up videos, which end up getting play (I guess) just because they don’t look like videos, and all of a sudden he’s bigtime? Either by dumb luck or smart luck, he’s managed to turn a decent-enough record of half-drawn lazy-stoned song-sketches with a bunch of wacky minor celebrity cameos into a seven-figure monster, so he’s clearly some kind of genius.
With all that in mind, the Apollo stand is as much a victory-lap as a publicity stunt; he pulled the same trick last year at England’s Manchester Opera House last year, and the DVD is in stores tomorrow. With a line around the block and Gorillaz videos being projected onto the wall of a store across the street, it felt like a big event, which is what it was, since almost all of the guests from Demon Days came out to perform; the only holdouts were Dennis Hopper and, bizarrely, MF Doom (how busy could he have been?). But after the overture-music stopped, after the beyond-the-grave recorded voice of Ossie Davis welcomed us all to the Apollo (“where stars are born and legends are made”) and asked us to turn off our cell phones, something unexpected happened. Damon Albarn walked out to the middle of the stage and said that one of their big screens wasn’t working at that we wouldn’t be getting the whole visual show they’d planned out. The curtains parted to reveal a stage crowded with musicians (I counted 23, and I probably missed some) bathed in blue light and sitting under a blank movie screen, which remained blank all through the show; the only involvement of the actual cartoon Gorillaz came just before the show, when two Gorilla puppets up in an opera box did a kinda meh take on those two old muppets who always made fun of the show. The moment seemed full of possibility; without being able to hide behind his ridiculous cartoon alter-egos, would Albarn be forced to actually perform, to let his own charisma carry the show?
Well, no. Albarn emerged on the final song to stand center-stage and sing a quiet-tender-boring duet with a zither player, but throughout the rest of the show, he sang his parts from just offstage, barely visible from where I was sitting. This led to a lot of weird visually static moments, long instrumental or Albarn-only stretches when the cartoon images were clearly supposed to be doing all the work. During their “Feel Good Inc.” cameo, De La Soul just sort of stood around between their verses, Posdnous awkwardly mouthing along with Albarn’s hook and Mase stretching out his maniacal-laughter bit like crazy. The collected orchestra onstage played Demon Days straight-through, and the music did gain a certain heft live, as Albarn’s Talking Headsian fascination with atonal blurts and floridly chunky African rhythms and stilted funk came through more clearly than it does on record. But there was also something of a showmanship vacuum going on, and it was up to the show’s many guests to fill it, which most of them did beautifully. There was something of a weird racial thing going on; almost all of the show’s featured guests were black, with the exceptions of zither player Zeng Zhen and Shaun Ryder, who looked like a stroke victim when he ambled onstage with his fly open, sucking on a lollypop and breaking into an adorable drunken jig. If a white pop star is going to go experimenting with black musical forms, it’s probably best that he enlists actual black people, but there’s still something unsettling about sitting in the seats at the Apollo Theatre with an enormously white crowd and applauding Ike Turner while a white lead singer hides in the wings, not least because applauding Turner feels something like applauding Skeletor.
But then, Turner can still play piano, and his keyboard butt-smashes made for one of the night’s great performance moments, the things that were missing when no guests were onstage. And there were others. Neneh Cherry, rocking a demure black pantsuit, was utterly amped to be there, rocking out with effortless cool confidence on “Kids With Guns” even though she’s barely on the song. Martina Topley Bird utterly upstaged fellow guest Roots Manuva, totally incandescent in a ridiculously awesome kimono. The gospel choir that came out for a couple of songs gave their parts a gorgeous, woozy lift and nearly stole the entire night. But the real star of the show was the little kid in a white jersey, part of the kids’ choir that whooped through “Dirty Harry.” When the Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown emerged for his verse, the kid jumped up next to him and busted out a spastic take on the Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It dance, a born performer. If Albarn is the genius he appears to be, he’ll base his next concept-band around this kid.