December 8, 2005, was a watershed day for animated musicians everywhere. For years, the Jems and Josies of the world (along with their associated Holograms and Pussycats) had toiled in relative obscurity, singing songs and solving mysteries to the delight of preteens while the music industry cruelly gave them the cold shoulder.
But on that fateful December day, in a gilded ballroom in New York's Gotham Hall, all that changed: The Gorillaz — four cartoon characters from the U.K. — scored an astonishing five Grammy nominations, including a Record of the Year nod for their track "Feel Good Inc." (see "Mariah Carey, Kanye West, John Legend Lead Grammy Nominees").
While the Grammy love wasn't unprecedented for a cartoon band (Alvin & the Chipmunks — or more specifically, their creator, Ross Bagdasarian, a.k.a. David Seville — actually won three golden gramophones between 1958 and 1960), it was rather unexpected. After all, "Feel Good Inc." — with its bounding bassline, megaphoned-in vocals, strummed acoustic guitars and raucous rap breakdowns — is definitely the most unconventional nominee in the Record of the Year category, improbably matched up against more traditional fare like Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together," Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" and Kanye West's "Gold Digger."
But perhaps the song's oddball status is well deserved. After all, how many other songs out there can claim to be the result of a collaboration between a Brit-pop legend (Blur's Damon Albarn), a sample-happy California producer (Danger Mouse, best known for The Grey Album, his Beatles/ Jay-Z mashup; see "Grey Album Producer Danger Mouse Explains How He Did It"), a Long Island rap trio (De La Soul) and a bunch of cartoons? (The entire Gorillaz concept was cooked up by Albarn and his then-roommate, Jamie Hewlett, creator of "Tank Girl" as well as the Gorillaz characters; see "Gorillaz: In The Cage.")
And the fact that the song became a hit is perhaps the oddest thing of all, especially when you consider its rather humble beginnings.
"I'd heard The Grey Album, and I needed a producer, so I just rang him up." recalled Albarn, whose musical right-hand man for the group's 2001 debut was Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. " 'Feel Good Inc.' was one of the first things we did. It was very instinctive: When you don't really know someone and you say, 'Do you want to come over and try a few tracks?' it doesn't usually work out this well."
Danger Mouse agreed. "It was sort of a no-brainer: We were just trying things out, and the whole project kind of handled itself. We were just kind of making sure it was going to be the right fit, because I had just done The Grey Album and that wasn't anything like making the Gorillaz album. Nothing I had done really prepared me for doing this."
As is the case with everything involving the Gorillaz, Albarn and the Mouse are aloof when it comes to discussing actual songwriting, preferring to defer to their animated counterparts. So MTV News reached out to half of the band (guitarist Noodle and bassist/misanthrope Murdoc) to understand just what "Feel Good" — and its copious mentions of windmills — was all about. And it turns out to be waaaaay deeper than anything you might imagine.
|Record of the Year|
|Green Day - "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams"|
|Kanye West - "Gold Digger" |
|Gwen Stefani - "Hollaback Girl"|
|Mariah Carey - "We Belong Together"|
"I remember the beginning of the formation of 'Feel Good. Inc.' quite clearly," Noodle said. "I had a beat that was a little bit '80s, very upbeat. But maybe halfway through, my attention wandered. I played something more acoustic ... just something that reminded me of the countryside. So I wrote down some key words to help with the lyrical imagery. 'Windmill' was one of them. It was a trigger to symbolize a different time and also a reference to the 'dark, satanic mills' that William Blake wrote about in his verse of 'Jerusalem.' I remember that it all started when I was reading the ingredients of the back of a [potato chip] packet."
Dark, satanic mills and potato-chip-inspired daydreams don't often make for a hit single, a fact that the Gorillaz were quite aware of. They knew they needed a killer hook, and so they turned to some good friends of Danger Mouse to fill the void and give the tune the swagger it needed.
"I had the main tune, the bit that [Gorillaz, er, lead singer] 2-D sings. But I'd left a big space for where a rapper would do their part. It was Danger Mouse that originally suggested De La Soul," Noodle explained. "He was good friends with them, and sent them the track and they agreed to fly over. Although at first when they arrived they were just messing around, trying to make each other laugh. Fortunately we recorded most of that, and that's how we got the crazy-sounding laugh that you hear on the track. The whole thing worked amazingly, but most of it was an accident."
Regardless of how it came to be, "Feel Good" clicked. The first single from Demon Days (which has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. alone), it became a rock-radio staple in the States and an unmitigated smash in the U.K., solidifying the mainstream success these decidedly oddball "recording artists" began with 2001's "Clint Eastwood." And depending on whom you ask, that success was either completely planned, or perhaps the oddest thing of all.
"We'd been away for a while and we needed to come back with a tune so big it'd just smash the opposition out the water. And guess what? We did," Murdoc said. " 'Feel Good Inc' was just a monster-sized record. Apparently that hit is so big, it's the only tune on this planet that can be seen from space."
Life after "Feel Good" has been grand for the Gorillaz. They've released two more singles ("Dare" and "Dirty Harry"), become standard-bearers for animated groups everywhere, and are reportedly planning a worldwide tour in 2007 or 2008, a feat that could prove challenging (although the "group" has toured in the past, as a live band with cartoon characters on a video screen; see "Gorillaz Target 'Dirty Harry' As Third Single; World Tour Begins To Jell "). For the time being, though, the band is content to focus on more immediate goals, like actually appearing at the Grammy Awards.
"I most certainly will be at the Grammys," Murdoc said. "I'll be blowing my own gold trumpet as loudly as possible, in the faces of as many people as I can. I'm gonna roll up in an 80-foot, blacked-out, bulletproof limo, open up the roof, and fly out using the specially designed black-metal cape I'm having made — spitting blood and fire, naturally."
The show's over, but there's still plenty of Grammy goodness right here on MTVNews.com. Check out photos of the hottest green-carpet and onstage moments, find out what went down at the celeb-packed parties, and share your thoughts on the performers, winners and losers.