In 2017 Gorillaz, an animated band drawn by cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, overtook The Chipmunks to become the most successful non-human group ever. In the future, where computers will produce music or at least help human songwriters craft hit songs in the digital era, perhaps the charts will be full of bands like Gorillaz, who emerged as a vehicle for Renaissance Man Damon Albarn in 2000 between Blur releases.
In 2005 Gorillaz became enormous in America with their album Demon Days, on which guest vocalists included Lou Reed, actor Dennis Hopper, Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays and De La Soul, who provide an ear-ripping rap on Feel Good Inc, which is about the third best thing about the song. The cackling laugh in the opening seconds is followed by the vocal riff – ‘FEEL GOOD!’ – and the bass hook, possibly the hook of the year. Summer 2005, on both sides of the Atlantic, was dominated by Damon Albarn, whose band Blur were on hiatus while Alex James fathered some of his five kids and made cheese, drummer Dave Rowntree finished a law degree and Graham Coxon went off to follow his muse as a performer of bouncy guitar rock.
Damon, meanwhile, would write two operas (one about China and one about Elizabethan England) and record with the likes of UK urban act Kano, work on his side project The Good The Bad and The Queen with drummer Tony Allen and Clash bassist Paul Simonon, work on his other side project Rocket Juice and Moon which featured Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, produce an album of music made by musicians from Mali and, in 2012, reunite Blur for some gigs in Hyde Park. An original album followed in 2015, and the band are on hiatus again. Damon resumed his Gorillaz project in 2017 with the album Humanz; new LP The Now Now emerged in June 2018, with spots from Snoop Dogg and George Benson.
It’s exhausting to look over Damon’s career achievements but they prove that he is an artist working in sound, no genre too obscure. Feel Good Inc sounds like its own genre: indie hiphop, perhaps, produced to perfection by a man called Brian Burton, whom we will meet in a few essays’ time with his friend Cee-Lo Green, that secured it a nomination for the Record of the Year at the GRAMMYs. That must have been fun for Damon, whose band almost dissolved when nobody ‘got’ Blur back in the grunge-y early 1990s, an experience which led to the song For Tomorrow, one of Damon’s best tracks that sounds as English as a royal wedding. Will Sir Damon arise for services to British music?
Summer 2005 saw me sitting AS-Levels and getting used to having two parents in two different places. I had also picked up my brother’s guitar, a present from his godfather Peter Dazeley (another important person in my life) and would master the chords needed to play Oasis and Blur songs. I would soon write my own rubbish, including a song called Stranded In the Middle of the Road, about writing songs (my favourite topic). On Radio 2, the middle of the road ruled: not too offensive, very melodic and breezy, something to make the office workday more tolerable.
The former British Army soldier who went to Harrow School wrote You’re Beautiful and other songs on Carrie Fisher’s piano. How incredible that Princess Leia is partly responsible for a song in which comedian Ed Byrne correctly notices that the protagonist abandons his ‘plan’. It’s not a wonderful song, and the album version includes an unnecessary F-word, but somehow it landed and James Blunt became, briefly, the biggest popstar in Britain. He has since become the patron saint of Twitter and will one day be knighted for services to fighting trolls. Like Ed Sheeran, whom he supported in 2017, he need never work again thanks to his massive hit. Take a look at his Twitter feed @JamesBlunt for some great (not safe for the office) laughs; my favourite was ‘If you thought 2016 was bad – I’m releasing an album in 2017.’ A national treasure in the way Damon Albarn never quite has been.
You’re Beautiful is track 1 on Disc 1, and is followed by James’ mate Elton John, who allowed his song Indian Sunset to be sampled by 2Pac’s estate on the song Ghetto Gospel. I wonder what Elton would have been like if he had access to social media in the 1970s, or indeed 2Pac in the 1990s. Chris Martin has said one controversial thing in his life, which was part of his announcement of divorcing – no, ‘consciously uncoupling’ from – kooky actress and mother of his kids Apple and Moses, Gwyneth Paltrow. Otherwise, he is a campaigner for Greenpeace and UNICEF and, in 2005, sang about planets ‘moving at the speed of light’ on the song Speed Of Sound, where the band went ‘the full Bono’. I remember John Harris in the Guardian writing about Coldplay’s nonsensical lyrics; by 2005, Coldplay were too popular and successful but I loved that third album and had it on rotation throughout my A-Level years.
Oasis were literally plodding on, though I liked Lyla, the first single from album six, Don’t Believe The Truth. They really ought to have stopped after four, and their career petered out with the Gallaghers as the only original members. Hard-Fi, from Staines in West London, popped up with Hard To Beat, a laddish track, while Kaiser Chiefs put out another single from Employment, an album I enjoyed. Everyday I Love You Less and Less included woahs, la-las and the famous ‘Kaiser Scream’: ‘Ooooooooooh, WOAAAAAAH!’ Hit singles abounded, as they did for Razorlight whose non-album single Somewhere Else was lyrically poor; ‘I met a girl, she asked me my name and I told her what it was’ is not Paul Simon or Randy Newman.
I don’t know if it matters but the only three black acts on Disc 1 are dead (2Pac), guest rappers (De La Soul) or The Black Eyed Peas (hooray), whose song Don’t Phunk with my Heart was yet another hit for them. The white acts include Natalie Imbruglia (Shiver, co-written with Eg White and very Radio 2-friendly), Jem (They, spooky and fun) and Hawaiian surfer dude Jack Johnson with Good People, from his third and breakout album In Between Dreams. Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas didn’t want to be Lonely No More, U2 had another number one with Sometimes You Can’t Make It on your Own, and The Killers continued their run of hits and NOW appearances (Mr Brightside was never on a NOW, though) with Smile Like You Mean It.
Fife-born singer KT Tunstall got her break when rapper Nas was ill and she was booked onto Later… With Jools Holland and, with her loop pedal and melodic heft, became one of my favourite acts. I think I walked past her once outside a venue in London but was not 100% sure it was her and didn’t want to embarrass myself, so let me place on record how much I love her music and debut album Eye to the Telescope in particular, which features Other Side of the World, one of many strummable songs.
My favourite pop song on NOW 61 comes from Sweden – where has Max Martin gone, and what did he do with his money? – as Caesars appear with the magnificent Jerk It Out, which was on an advert. What a delight too to see Weezer back on a NOW with the average Beverly Hills. I much preferred The Magic Numbers whose song Forever Lost was a summer delight; the band are still going today and have a monthly residency in the Green Note café in Camden Town.
The three big dance tracks of the summer are also on the compilation, one of which is catalogue. I Like The Way by Bodyrockers is a horrific song where a man comments on how amazing a woman is while a stupid dance beat pops up when he yells: ‘I LIKE THE WAY YOU MOOOVE!’ Music at its most banal. More interesting is Shot You Down, a favourite of Zane Lowe who seemed to play this for about six months, by Audio Bullys, an act who had hit big around 2000 with We Don’t Care, a shoutier version of The Streets. They took the Nancy Sinatra song Bang Bang and stuck a squelchy beat behind it. Inaya Day’s funky Nasty Girl employs Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough to get booties shaking around clubs in Britain over summer 2005. I also like the gently euphoric dance sound of So Much Love to Give by Freeloaders, and the Xenomania-produced twosome of Wake Me Up by Girls Aloud and Giving You Up by Kylie Minogue.
Disc 2 is full of black music, which is probably indicative of how rock and pop became more white and r’n’b became more black, though I have no real argument. Akon returns with Lonely, Mario did well with Let Me Love You – a slow jam written by Shaffer Smith, soon to be known around the world as Ne-Yo – and even Will Smith returned with a song called Switch, to tie in with his movie Hitch. Nelly is an old friend of NOW compilations and is present with N Dey Say which, since he can get away with anything at this point, samples True by Spandau Ballet. I do not remember this song at all. Bobby Valentino’s song Slow Down sampled a piece of music by Hans Zimmer used in the movie The Last Samurai.
Mariah Carey appears on the song It’s Like That, which was co-written with Jermaine Dupri and featuring an interpolation of the old Run-DMC song It’s Like That Y’All as well as some vintage drum sounds and, for some reason, Fatman Scoop yelling ‘LET’S GO NOW!’ Her second great era would follow thanks to The Emancipation of Mimi.
Faith Evans, her fellow r’n’b diva who came along in Mariah’s wake, put out the biting song Again (listen to the lyrics), which sounds a lot like a song by Alicia Keys, who was missing from NOW compilations despite being the phenomenal musician who composed Falling and If I Ain’t Got You. In a nice favour being returned, Gwen Stefani enlisted Eve to bellow about ‘harajuku girls’ on her song Rich Girl, which interpolated If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof.
Over in the UK, rap crew Roll Deep took the song Heartache Avenue and turned it into the brilliant The Avenue; crew member DJ Target has just published a book all about his experiences in British music. The latest project from Robert Clivilles of C&C Music Factory was MVP, whose Latin-influenced Roc Ya Body ‘Mic Check 1,2’ was a top five hit that completely passed me by.
Joss Stone kept the soul with Don’t Cha Wanna Ride, co-written with soul diva Betty Wright and the Zelig-like Desmond Child, and Rachel Stevens returned with So Good, a top ten single. The presence of Charlotte Church must have been strange for anyone waking up from a coma in summer 2005 to see. Crazy Chick, a song Charlotte has since said she hated, became her first pop single after a career as a teenage opera star. Now a mum, her critically acclaimed live show Pop Dungeon visited the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 and covers all genres of music; Charlotte is also unafraid to talk politics.
Aside from Rich Girl nicking from Fiddler, catalogue comes from a reissue of Avenues and Alleyways as Britain fell back in love with Tony Christie, while McFly cover Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. Five years after it was released (and was missing from the likes of NOW 47) Proud by Heather Small was used in the video that persuaded the International Olympic Committee to award the 2012 Olympic Games to London. The next day, bombs went off around the city and 52 people were killed.
And I almost got through this essay without mentioning the bloody Crazy Frog and ‘its’ version of Axel F which was more irritating even than mum and dad separating.