The first thing I heard was horror-movie Hammond organ, with an extremely present snare drum cross-stick and jazzy double bass underpinning it. Then the song seemed to turn itself inside out. There was a sampled bleating kind of noise, and a drum track so mercilessly compressed that the ride cymbal made a sucking noise, as if being played backwards, with a backeat that sounded more like a bell than anything resembling a snare drum. Then a vocal: intimate-sounding, close. “I’m ever so lost,” the singer declared. “I can’t find my way.”
The song was of course Numb, from Portishead’s Dummy. The album’s lead single, Numb made my head spin round. This sound – I had no name for it, and I still don’t think there’s a satsifactory one. Certainly not “trip-hop” – was composed of some elements I recognised (bass, scratching, vocals), others that sounded bizarre and novel to me (that tolling, sucking drum track) and an old black-and-white-movie vibe, and in total was something genuinely new. For all that Portishead were making use of analogue sounds and occasionally sampling old records, there was nothing retro or kitschy about what they did. The band was in earnest. DJ/creative mastermind Geoff Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons felt the way their songs sounded.
Portishead seemed to specialise in picking up and reusing neglected or forgotten sounds. Mysterons features a Theremin. Sour Times samples Lalo Schifrin’s The Danube Incident (a 2-minute instrumental from Mission: Impossible), which makes use of a prominent bell-like stringed instrument: there’s still debate online about whether its a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) or a Marxophone. Numb had the aforementioned Hammond organ, played on its most Gothic-sounding voicing. Roads is built around a simple, spine-tingling progression played on the Fender Rhodes, a staple of jazz-inflected balladry in the 1970s but hopelessly old-fashioned in 1994. Adrian Utley played guitar, but he was schooled in jazz, and he played cool, tremolo-soaked spy movie riffs.
A budding guitarist in thrall to distortion-saturated American rock music, I nonetheless loved Dummy and all these strange new sounds. The album was like nothing else I’d heard; even when I learned that the band came from the same town as Massive Attack and Tricky (Bristol), and that Barrow had worked as a junior engineer on Blue Lines, it still sounded entirely new and without precedent.
Those who remember Dummy coming out will know what happened next. Bottomlessly sad but undeniably chic and current sonically, Dummy was an immediate hit. It became too big for its creators to handle. Not in the sense that it was number one for weeks on end, but in its cultural omnipresence. Its songs appeared in too many TV shows, its sonics, vibe and atmosphere were copied by other, inferior bands. Some tastemakers turned on Portishead themselves, wrote them off as middlebrow, coffee-table moaners. The criticism stung, and their next record was harsher, angrier – without the warmth of songs like It Could be Sweet and Strangers that provided such effective contrast to the darker songs on Dummy.
Portishead’s debut became, then, a glorious one-off, one that no one else ever equalled and that the band themselves had no interest in recreating. Give it a spin, and you’ll find it’s more than you remember: more sad, more sweet, more lonely, more singular, more inventive, more itself. Happy birthday to a classic.