British record for years. They were also the first British band in just as long to create a stir in America. Ultimately, Hooper was asked to produce Madonna’s latest LP.
Back in Bristol. the scene begat Massive Attack, Tricky and. in the background. outﬁts like The Federation and (they could have been contenders and still might be) Smith And Mighty. And beavering away in the background. Mark Stewart. formerly of that most inventive and eclectic of new wave bands The Pop Group. still creating his paeans to paranoia with the dubmeistw‘ general Adrian Sherwood.
They all work in different studios. rarely see each other and don’t socialise. They bridle at being lumped together. But the fact is. Portishead included. they all share a common aesthetic characterised by its unhurried. laid- back feel. Long before ‘ambience’ became a trendy word. or Bristol was hailed as the centre of something called ‘trip-hop’. people in this part of the world had a knack for transforming the slices of time marked out in the grooves of black plastic vinyl into great big booming tracts ofspace.
But there‘s more even than that. When Bristolians got hold of samplers. turntables and drum machines. and began to mix and match sounds. the tracks they made were so much more organic. expressive and human. The love of dub has brought with it an appreciation ofjazz. blues and soulfulness in general. Take Shara Nelson. singer on Massive Attack’s epic ‘Unfmished Sympathy‘. now something of a house diva in her own right. and then the band’s use of the silken. entrancing tones of Tracey Thorn on Protection.
And there‘s Beth Gibbons from Portishead too. If there is a ‘scene‘. Portishead are on its farthest-flung orbit. but the ties that bind them to
the others can’t be overestimated. ‘We all like our reggae and blues nights.’ Geoff Barrow conceded recently. admitting that there’s ‘an atmosphere’ around the city. even if they don‘t all hang out together.
When 24-year-old hip hop fiend Barrow got his first break. it was as a tea boy at a Bristol studio where Massive Attack were recording their Blue Lines album. Their manager. Cameron McVey (Neneh Cherry’s husband). was impressed
When Bristolians got hold of samplers, turntables and drum machines, and began to mix and match sounds, the tracks they
made were so much more organic, expressive and human. The love of dub has brought with it an appreciation of jazz, blues and soullulness in general.
enough by the young prodigy. and tapes of his band Portishead. to recommend Barrow to Ferdy Unger-Hamilton of Go! Discs. Unger-Hamilton too was smitten and commissioned him to remix a track by Gabrielle. Since then. he has remixed Primal Scream. Depeche Mode. Ride and
Gravediggaz (among others — including Jeff
Beck). co-written the track ‘Someday' from Neneh Cherry's Homebrwv and got Portishead signed to Go! Discs.
Sparse. jazzy, atmospheric. plundering 6()s spy-movie music. the spooky sci-ft sound of the Theremin and even slowed-down Johnnie Rae records. Portishead make the kind of music that people inevitably dub ‘perfect soundtrack
material’. (Why? Can’t they take the idea of
moody music standing up on its own merits‘.’). They’ve even encouraged it themselves. making their own ten-minute short. To Kill A Dead Man. which allowed them to indulge their love of spy thriller cliches.
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Portishead: Sparse, Jazzy and atmospheric
Depending on who you talk to. Portishead the town is a place ‘where people do things at their own pace’ or ‘where people go to die’. Barrow grew up there. and spent summer holidays in Poole. all of which had a lasting effect on him. That end-of—the-pier-show faded glamour. regarded by Barrow with such obvious affection that it never degenerates into kitsch or tack, lives on in Portishead‘s visuals. in the music’s unhurried pace.
Obviously. that has a resonance that goes far beyond just Geoff Barrow‘s personal memories and chimes with something in millions. An advertising agency could scheme for months and not come up with something so perfect as this blend of torch singing.jazz and hip grooves with the air of half-empty seaside resorts where time stands still. In Britain. with a Top Ten single under their belts. they’ve sold 200,000 copies of Dummy; in America. twice as many. Not bad. considering the band only recently reversed their decision not to play live and have performed only a handful of gigs.
lt’s reminiscent of the last big indie crossover smash. Bjork’s Debut. produced — funnily enough — by Nellee Hooper. And: like Bjork. who elected to rearrange completely the songs of a very studio-based album for live performance. when Portishead take to the road. they‘ll be playing only ‘real’ instruments. For the next album, Barrow says. Portishead will still be using samplers. but they’ll be creating their own sounds. not using any factory pre-sets.
The excitement of Portishead derives from the things they‘re bringing to the charts that are always in short supply: creativity. diversity. the human element. Things they‘ve always taken for granted in Bristol. Ll /’()I'Il.\‘ll(’a(l play the Usher Hull, Edinburgh on 11/0)! 22.
The List 1‘) May-l Jun 199511