The Bristol band Portishead has been credited with launching an entirely new genre in alternative music—“trip-hop,” a dense, narcotic sound that combines hip-hop, reggae-esque dub, and acid jazz with, in Portishead’s case, a swank, James Bond-style cinematic mood. With their stellar 1994 debut, Dummy, the reclusive sound engineer and depths-of-gloom-sum-moning vocalist that make up the nucleus of Portishead, Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons, produced “an atmosphere of voodoo noir,” wrote the Village Voice’s Erik Davis. A British disc jockey told Billboard ‘that Portishead is best categorized as “present-day urban blues.” The band has usually inspired laudatory press of the superlative nature. Jason Fine, summing up the Portishead vibe for Guitar Player, declared that the duo, with the help of some outstanding additional studio talent, “combines densely layered acoustic and electric instrumentation, soulful crooning, and the studio techniques of hip hop into one of the most richly inventive sounds in modern pop.”
Portishead was a band that came together under rather unusual circumstances. Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow met in a program sponsored by the local unemployment office in Bristol. The program offered re-training for those between jobs or careers, and Gibbons and Barrow wound up in the “musician” classes. Gibbons was from the English town of Devon, where she had once worked at a clock-making company before moving to London.
There she sang in a number of bands over the years, including one in which she performed Janis Joplin songs, and wound up in Bristol in the early 1990s. Despite the uprootings, Gibbons’s life still was a relatively uneventful one, but one from which some rather bleak and stirring lyrics would later arise. She admits to being baffled about the source of such misery, but did concede that there was a bit of family dissonance in her youth—“I have divorced parents, which didn’t help, but I don’t like it when I blame things on my parents,” Gibbons told Rolling Stone’s Al Weisel.
Barrow was a native of a town not far from Bristol called Portishead. “It looks really pretty and twee, but it’s actually quite horrible,” Barrow told Weisel. He was a studio whiz at an early age, and worked on Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew LP while still a teenager. Soul music, hip-hop, and James Bond movie soundtracks were his favorites. When he and Gibbons met, they shared little except their enrollment in the training program. They did find, however, that they both had a strange love for disquieting, under-the-skin strains of music. “I like emotionally disturbing songs,” Barrow told Weisel in Rolling Stone, and loved one song Gibbons made him listen to that was “nasty and weird.”
Members include Geoff Barrow (born c. 1972), keyboards; and Beth Gibbons (born c. 1965), vocals; Adrian Utley (born c. 1958), guitar.
Band formed, c. 1991, in Bristol, England; released its first album Dummy, on London Record’s Go! Beat label, 1994; Portishead, 1997.
Awards: Mercury Music Prize, 1995, for Dummy.
Addresses: Record company —London Records, 825 Eighth Ave., 26th Floor, New York, NY 10019.
Barrow, who found work as a tape operator at a Bristol recording studio, eventually came into contact with two others who would become supporting, yet elemental, members of Portishead; sound engineer Dave McDonald, and aguitarist named Adrian Utley. The veteran musician had played in a number of blues bands as well as with famed electronic virtuoso Jeff Beck. When the quartet began working in the Coach House studio where Barrow was employed, it was a collaborative effort that sometimes utilized odd production techniques. For instance, Barrow would record outtakes from old films and Seventies classics from groups like War and Weather Report, and sample them into a new song. Utley’s Fender Rhodes was sometimes recorded onto vinyl, or recorded into a dictaphone, then also sampled into a final mix. They also made heavy use of the Theremin, the world’s first electronic instrument, which produces a sound best known for its use in the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations”; it was also used in many sci-fi and horror movies of the 1950s and ’60s.
The result of all this electronic experimentation and production-stage tweaking was Dummy, released in England in August of 1994 to critical acclaim. Though its songs were anything but radio-friendly, word-of-mouth about the band and its fresh, unusual sound soon spread to Europe, then North America. Dummydebuted in American record stores two months later in October. Reviews were laudatory, despite the rather depressing vibe of the whole album best exemplified by its American single, “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me),” which charted well and received much alternative radio air play. Rolling Stone described Dummy as “Gothic hip-hop,” a sound that “come across both sad and sexy.” The Village Voice’s Davis likened it to “an invitation to a seance,” and noted that Gibbons and her eerie vocal style—almost always the focal point of any review—“seems to teeter at the edge of some narcoleptic void.” A later Village Voice assessment of Portishead’s sonic allure, written by Sarah Powell, remarked, “there’s … something old and English and fairytale-like about Gibbons’s voice.”
Soon Portishead were being asked to translate their unique sound into the work of other musical acts through studio remixes. During 1995 and 1996 they revamped singles for bands that included Primal Scream and Depeche Mode. They also used the windfall from Dummyto fund the construction of their own studio, and went to work to record a follow-up. The process was more arduous than expected, and the band admitted to being intimidated by their unexpected success from Dummy. “We kind of got lost for about a year,” Utley told Nina Pearlman for Rocket. “A lot of the sounds that we made on Dummy, we [later] heard from other bands and on adverts on television,” Utley said. “It kind of made us unhappy with our own sound for awhile.” Tensions ran so high that at one point they almost broke up after it became impossible to actually finish a track at all, a process of creative chaos that went on for almost a year.
In the end, Portishead’s second effort, Portishead, took two years from start to finish, and was released in late 1997. It offered more desolate songs, and again, Gibbons’s trademark bleak and detached vocals—but once more Barrow, Gibbons, Utley, and theother Portishead collaborators had attempted to force studio technology into bending to their creative will. This time, they discarded the use of bits and pieces from film soundtracks and soul classics, and instead created their own samples by using archaic recording equipment. For Portishead’s long-anticipated debut, the group teamed with a thirty-piece orchestra in New York City for their first live show in over two years.
Reviews this time around were mixed. A Rolling Stone assessment from Elisabeth Vincentelli pointed out that the album lacks a certain diversity of style, noting that after a time, its mood of “morbid fascination turns into ennui.” In the end, Vincentelli called it “an exercise in barren claustrophobia,” but deemed Barrow “an amazing sonic architect.” Powell, writing in the Village Voice, observed a progression in Gibbons’s trademark sound. On this second LP, Powell declared, “…there’s a brattier catch in her singing that wasn’t there before. And sighing less is always a good idea.” Powell also remarked upon the strain of Portishead’s relentlessly bleaksonic architecture spread over an entire album—but conceded that Portishead “do the same song over and over and they do it really, really well.”
Dummy, Go! Beat/London Records, 1994.
Portishead, Go! Beat/London Records, 1997.
Billboard, October 8, 1994, p. 1.
Guitar Player, May 1995, p. 22.
People, October 20, 1997, pp. 29–30.
Rocket, December 3, 1997.
Rolling Stone, February 23, 1995, p. 38; March 9, 1995, p. 66; October 15, 1997.
Time, October 20, 1997, p. 117.
Village Voice, December 6, 1994.
"Portishead." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/portishead
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