For a band that’s not “real,” Gorillaz has made the world go bananas for it. A cartoon quartet that was the brainchild of Blur’s Damon Albarn and British comic artists Jamie Hewlett, co-creator of “Tank Girl,” in 1998, the group has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. Its 2001 debut made Gorillaz the Most Successful Virtual Band ever according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and it won a Grammy Award for its 2005 sophomore album “Demon Days.”
It’s had hits with “Clint Eastwood,” “Feel Good Inc.” and “DARE,” and Gorillaz has collaborated with the likes of De La Soul, Neneh Cherry, Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, the late actor Dennis Hopper and, on this year’s “Plastic Beach,” with Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mos Def, soul legend Bobby Womack and Clash members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. The latter three have also joined Gorillaz for live performances, including the group’s current North American tour — which stops in Detroit this week at the Fox Theatre.
Among those who admire Albarn and Hewlett’s accomplishments are Pharrell Williams, half the hit-making production team the Neptunes whose own band, N*E*R*D, is opening for Gorillaz this month. “I love it,” he says. “I think it’s different — next level, and the aesthetics match the music. It’s great.”
But while Gorillaz are the biggest of pop’s virtual or faux bands, it’s hardly the only one to mix fake personalities with real music. Here’s a trip through a dozen of the most notable — and, in many cases, clever — of the bunch...
• The Monkees: The kings of the faux band jungle, a quartet — two actors, two musicians — put together by TV producers for an NBC TV series that ran for three seasons between 1966-68 to cash in on the Beatles’ popularity and became a syndication monster. It led to 11 albums, a feature film (“Head”) and chart-topping hits such as “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” and “Daydream Believer.” The troupe is dormant at the moment, but clearly they weren’t monkeying around.
• The Archies: Session musician Ron Dante led the teen group created for “The Archie Show,” the cartoon program inspired by the main characters from Archie Comics. “Sugar, Sugar” spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and was top single of 1969, giving the make-believe band a very real cache — even if Archie, Reggie, Betty Veronica and Jughead always looked like they were playing the same song.
• Josie & the Pussycats: Another Archie Comics entry that had its own cartoon show from 1970-74 and had a minor hits in “Every Beat of My Heart” and “Stop, Look and Listen.” The group was resurrected for a live-action film in 2001, with songs written by Babyface, Matthew Sweet, the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin, Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger and other credible artists.
• Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: No episode of the Bill Cosby-created cartoon series was complete until the fat man — and his Junkyard Gang — sang and played a little back-alley rock ‘n’ funk on makeshift instruments. There was always a lesson in the lyrics, too, which help Detroit Public Schools booster Cosby earn a doctorate in education.
• Banana Splits: The live puppet band designed by Sid and Marty Kroft was a musical dynamo, with Fleegle, Bingo, Droopy and Snorkle (names that rock!) rocking their way through bubblegum tunes crafted by pros such as Barry White, Al Kooper and Gene Pitney. “The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)” hit the Billboard Top 100 in 1969 and was later covered by Liz Phair with Material Issue and the Dickies.
• Otis Day & the Knights: When DeWayne Jessie signed on to play the singer of the band that played the Delta gang’s toga party in “Animal House,” he probably had no idea he’d be launching a career that would find him playing the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and the original “Shama Lama Ding Dong” for the next 32 years — and probably beyond. Robert Cray who went on to his own notable music career, played one of the Knights.
• Blues Brothers: John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd launched the R&B band as a “Saturday Night Live” sketch in 1978, which proved so popular they stared touring and recording as Jake and Elwood Blues, respectively, with a detailed fictional backstory. Their first album, “Briefcase Full of Blues,” went double-platinum, and “The Blues Brothers” film in 1980 grossed more than $115 million in theaters. Aykroyd has continued the band intermittently since Belushi’s death in 1982.
• Spinal Tap: Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and director Rob Reiner cut so close to the bone with the 1984 mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” that it couldn’t help but turn the fictional heavy metal band into a going concern. Still hysterical after all these years, the Tap released its third album, “Back From the Dead,” last year, though future activity remains, as always, uncertain.
• MC Skat Kat: The feline rapper was created by Michael Patterson to paw Paula Abdul in the music video for her 1989 hit “Opposites Attract.” But a subsequent attempt to launch a “solo” career with “The Adventures of MC Skat Kat and the Stray Mob proved to be clawless.
• Ming Tea: The 1997 film “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” gave birth to this “supergroup” that included actor Mike Myers, the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs (who’s married to director Jay Roach) and singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet. The group’s “BBC” ran over the film’s title track, while “Daddy Wasn’t There” was featured in “Austin Powers in Goldmember.” Hoffs and Sweet went on to work together as Sid & Suzie, recording two albums of cover songs.
• Chris Gaines: Country superstar Garth Brooks channeled his inner-rocker into this 1999, Australian-born alter ego, creating a backstory that was turned into a mock VH1 “Behind the Music” episode, releasing an album and performing as Gaines on a “Saturday Night Live” episode Brooks hosted. After a tepid response, however, Gaines has been quietly ropin’ the wind far away from public view.
• Dethklok: Closest to Gorillaz in terms of conception and going concern, this hapless, animated Scandinavian death metal band was created for Adult Swim’s “Metalocalypse,” with leader Brendon Small penning songs as well as scripts. Dethklok has released two albums and toured on its own as well as with Mastodon, Converge and others.
Gorillaz and N*E*R*D perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $99, $65 and $49.50. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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