Portishead

PortisheadSeminal album Dummy turns 25 today. Our writer Simon Tucker looks back at the Portishead classic. “This was music for grown ups”.

This isn’t a dissection. This isn’t a who did what and where piece. When it comes to Dummy there are enough of them out there already and I am sure more will be published today as the album celebrates its 25th birthday. In fact, if you want to know more about the creation of the album we are discussing then listen again to this interview with two of the bands members Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley which went out today. Instead of that muso microscopic lensing lets move into the realm of emotions and personal recollection for Dummy is a vital document in this writers story. Dummy is where music tastes were shifted and emotions now had a soundtrack. It was the sound of being 15, stoned, outside and horny.

“Inside your pretending”

I had heard “adult” music before. Mainly due to the actual adults in my life but there had been, at this time of my life, only one really “adult” music obsession that I would deem my own and that had been Nirvana. The music of Cobain, Novoselic, Grohl (and Channing) was the voice of our inner souls and spoke to the tangled mess a lot of us were at this point. Struggling with the pressures of school, the onset of job hunting, puberty, peer pressure, Nirvana were our spokespeople and our guide. And then….

Cobain exited the world in such a violent way that a hole was suddenly punched in our lives. Artistically we were scrambling around trying to find a replacement. Many turned to the UK centric sounds of Parklife, Vauxhall and I or Definitely Maybe (which would be released around the same time as Dummy). A shift from introspection to hedonism and celebration occured and whilst there was a lot to love above about the early days of what would become known as Britpop it just didn’t touch the relevant buttons for me and many others my age. This music was ok to go gulley guzzling or for dancing to in shit discos but what happens when you got home, drunk..alone? Where was the soundtrack to that? One escape route was The Prodigy’s classic Music For A Jilted Generation which was raw/brutal/beautiful and whilst it could be (and was) enjoyed at home, it didn’t suit every situation..Voodoo People was not the best soundtrack to teenage fumblings that’s for sure.

“It could be sweet / like a long forgotten dream”

Then in August an album landed that had the answers. Hearing Dummy for the first time was revolutionary and make no mistake about it. Where the hell had it come from? People in the press were telling me it was part of a “Bristol sound” that was termed “trip-hop” and was part of the same family as Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. Really? Aside from sharing a city and an obvious fondness for bass culture I couldn’t see much similarities sonically. Blue Lines was dub and soul infused whereas this was something else entirely. Dummy stood out as it wasn’t so obviously “British” sounding. Never one for enjoying nationalism this was one of the albums appealing features. Dummy didn’t have a postcode. Listening to it again today for the umpteenth time it is still impossible to pin a location on it. It shares this quality with other celebrated UK works such as Closer,  Metal Box, Y. Dummy remains borderless and nomadic. This gives it the ability to fit the emotional state of people all over the world. Dummy doesn’t come draped in a Union flag. It is fluid and malleable. And then there was the emotions and lyrical content. This was music for grown ups and as we started to step into adulthood Dummy would help guide the way.

“I’m lost, exposed”

Why did Dummy connect with those in middle-class suburbs and run down council estates? One reason for is its lack of genre. However hard the music writers of the time tried to place it in a box it admirably stood up against them and remained its own master. I remember listening to it a lot on its initial release and believing I was hearing something truly original for the first time in my teenage life. It had traces of hip-hop, a dash of soul but what it really had was the beauty of film scores. Searching for comparable genres in mainstream music was futile for it was the world of film scores that Dummy truly shared a heritage. For an obsessive cinephile like myself this was manna from heaven. Dummy is Morricone and Herrmann. Spy thriller, film-noir and adult drama. Over its running time it carries a narrative arc full of dark corners and illicit affairs. Romance and heartbreak. Dummy was joining the dots between many of mine and others passions. It also gave us one of the single greatest singers the UK has ever produced.

“But I’m still feeling lonely / feeling so unholy”

“Feeling so unholy”….this wasn’t She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah this was raw emotion and adult conversations. Beth Gibbons is one of the greatest singers..period! Her voice is distinctive and unique and its tone remains incomparable. Gibbons was the epitome of female empowerment and is multi-faceted. Throughout Dummy, Gibbons voice flows through a myriad of emotions. Sometimes brittle and tender. Sometimes soaring and confident. Gibbons slips into many roles switching from broken hearted to heart breaker. The videos that were released around the time only cemented Gibbons position among the greats.  Beth wasn’t interested in playing the usual media circus and she has remained beautifully elusive and private to this day..like an actress from the golden age of studio cinema. You wanted to know more about her yet you were glad you didn’t as to know more would mean she would be trotting through the usual questions in the usual publications and that had been done to death.  Beth Gibbons voice was the link between Nirvana and Portishead. We had just been through a period where one of the leading lights in popular culture was a man whose voice was full of power blended with vulnerability. Whose words you believed whether he himself wanted you to or not and now here was another singer who tapped straight into that same emotional well.

“We’ve got a war to fight”

Dummy was released during a time of Tory rule. Lots of great art is created during periods of oppression and this was no exception. The very sound of Dummy was political as it was completely democratic. Everything about Portishead screamed revolution as there were no standard roles being played. Who did what on the album? We never knew. How many members were there? Four I believe but seeing them live around this time presented you with a bigger membership. Dummy shook me to my core as this wasn’t a lazy regression like a lot of what was going on mainstream wise but instead it was utterly progressive. It wasn’t asking you to forget all your troubles, get high and party..its very sound forced an emotional response. One of deep contemplation or of sadness. The latter was something that was already very apparent in myself and many of my age when it was released so Dummy spoke to us on a deep emotional level. The soundscapes and beats were mirroring the waves of varying emotions that were raging through us. I would read references to the album as “dinner party” or “background” music and this would confuse the hell out of me. For starters I never knew what a dinner party was but the thought of Dummy being the soundtrack to a evening meal baffled me. Dummy was far too dark to be used as a social lubricant for a group of people. It was far too introspective to challenging to be considered “background”. There was only one scenario where Dummy could be used as a background mood setter and that was during sex. People still get prudish when talking about sex (its the British way) but Dummy contains within its sounds and its lyrics a deep eroticism. We return to the term “grown up” here because even though Dummy no doubt soundtracked many a teenage fumbling it is more concerned with the act of desire, passion and adult emotions which you didn’t understand when you are young but you get to understand as you grow older. This is also where you see the connection between Dummy and rave culture….

“And the time that I will suffer less / Is when I never have to wake”

To talk about Dummy you have to talk about the UK rave culture. This is not from the viewpoint of the albums creators. I personally don’t know the band and have no idea on their views concerning dance music but I DO know what the sound of Dummy does to you when you get in from the 12hr sweats and beats fest. When the desire to sleep is there but the chemicals refuse to allow it. When you are with someone on the same buzz as yourself and you lose yourself in each others bodies with the sounds of Wandering Star, Pedestal, Sour Times weaving in and around you both. I know that for good or for bad Dummy has firmly landed in the category of “come down album” and I personally believe that this is not because it has an ambience to it (the album really slams in places..just listen to Strangers) but because of the emotional clout it has. When you get back into your home after the euphoria of a party you can be left in a very vulnerable position. The very chemicals that aided you in bringing out an inner confidence and a sense of euphoria are now making your mind work overtime..rushing and whizzing with the community now spread out and with you alone the drugs can now expose your anxieties and you needed help in riding this out. Dummy helped because the sound balanced between the beats and the strings whilst Beth’s voice allowed you to ride through these emotions and thoughts. It could be a brutal process some nights/mornings but it could also be one of great value to your emotional growth as you learned that it was ok to be feeling like you were as here were people who completely understood you even if you didn’t understand yourself.

The legacy of Dummy is one of art as resistance and of allowing mature themes into mainstream popular culture. The charts are often clogged with what remains a very teen centric ideal. Love and relationships are discussed in broad and often childlike terms but here were a band telling you that life was a lot more complicated. Dummy remains an example of what a group of people can do when music is everything to them. There are no shortcuts taken on Dummy and it shows in the end product. Dummy is dripping in class, emotion and vision. It is an album that taught us how to grow up and what to expect. It pulls no punches and is full of light and shade. It is very dark yet also gives you much hope. Dummy is full of dynamics and contains as much narrative structure as an art-house movie. It belongs in the category labelled “greatest artistic achievements” and the fact that the people behind it would go on to even better it is staggering. In 2019 when it seems like the whole world is suffering from a nervous breakdown Dummy remains vital in its democracy and revolutionary ideals. Its lyrical themes will always be universal as they are so human. There will always be a young person somewhere needing to feel listened to and understood and Dummy will often find them.

So raise your glass and say “happy birthday” to a work of art that all involved should feel extremely proud of.

P.S. ‘Glory Box’ or ‘Sour Times’ get all the love and airplay but it is ‘Roads’ that is this albums MVP. x

All words by Simon Tucker. More writing by Simon on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive. You can also find Simon on twitter as @simontucker1979

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