In 1994, Portishead went from being cutting edge to something dangerously close to a punchline within six months.
The band had formed in Bristol, a collaboration between Geoff Barrow, a DJ and producer who had worked as an assistant engineer on (fellow Bristolians) Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines, and Beth Gibbons, who sang jazz and R&B in a local gigging band. They were augmented by a sympathetic jazz guitarist of Barrow’s acquaintance – a player named Adrian Utley, who was tired of playing Radio Two sessions and cruise ships, and was looking for some music that would stretch him stylistically and emotionally.
The three of them crafted an atmospheric sound, influenced as much by film noir as hip-hop, although it was very clearly a post-hip-hop construction. They hunted for scratchy and distorted samples from film soundtracks and old jazz records, pairing them with low-bpm beats and Gibbons’ jazz-influenced vocals. The press soon coined a name for this new type of music: trip-hop.
While their music was undeniable very chic and stylish and current, Portishead deeply resented having their emotional and heartfelt work reduced to a buzzword. They had to endure hearing their songs get co-opted and overused by TV music supervisors everywhere. You couldn’t switch on the TV without hearing snatches of Sour Times, Glory Box or Numb used under trailers and station bumpers. Dummy soundtracked North London dinner parties every night of week. Outright imitations (Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps) started to garner hit singles. Programmed or sampled drum tracks influenced by their style started to turn up on mainstream singer-songwriter records. Their music – and moreover their style of music – was dangerously over-exposed. The whole thing made the band, and particularly the group’s mastermind Geoff Barrow, ill. They lay low for a while, then purposely made a second record too dark and unfriendly to be embraced by the mainstream.
Yet for all their good intentions, that eponymously titled album was a disappointment. It replaced the black-and-white high contrast of Dummy with an unyielding mid-grey. Gibbons’ vocals and lyrics were now unvaryingly woebegone, and so sounded just a littl forced. It leaned on the atmospheric and melancholy elements of their sound, but dispensed with the seductive melodies, the empathy and warmth, and flashes of black humour (the slowed-down Johnnie Ray sample from Biscuit, for example) that, laid over heavily compressed beats and scratchy basslines, had been so compelling three years before on Dummy. Some of it still worked gloriously – All Mine was a so obviously a Bond theme in waiting that the singer of one from the films’ classic era, Tom Jones, immediately grabbed it and covered it. But it wasn’t hard to pick weaker moments, and tracks that seemed to go over old ground.
At a show at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, though, something alchemical happened. Joined by an orchestra of some 40 players, a keyboardist (John Baggot) and a live rhythm section to give the songs a kick up the backside, tracks that had sounded rather flat on the album came alive on stage. Nowhere was this more true than on Cowboys. Utley’s grindy guitar, played down on the album version, was now way up front and in the listener’s face. Gibbons’ distorted vocal sounded more eerily Cruella de Vil-like than ever before, and hardly-there drones from the orchestra hovered over the whole thing like gathering stormclouds.
It’s hard to listen to this and not wonder why it works so much better than the studio-recorded version. Perhaps Barrow worked on the songs for the second album too long and the spontaneity was lost. Maybe the band sought perfection in stylistic and emotional uniformity rather than in feel. Possibly they went past the mix on some of the album’s tracks, working too long and losing perspective. But almost every song from the second album they played at the New York show was improved in live performance (conversely, almost every song from Dummy was diminished – the slowed-down reading of Sour Times, lacking its Lalo Schifrin sample, was a misjudged disaster).
Taken together Portishead and the Roseland NYC live record remain a fascinating pair – neither wholly satisfying, but each enriching the other. There’s much good music on Third but the band’s masterpiece remains Dummy, a record that seems to me to be rather undervalued today, dismissed as a bit fluffy, even. Nonsense. It’s still magnificent, twenty years on.
Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons