/ Sour times, Go! Beat, 1994
Most groups are lucky to have two equal talents to egg each other on to greater heights. Lennon and McCartney, Forster and McLennan, Morrissey and Marr – lucky for us too that they met and formed their alliances, all now severed. But with respect to the otherwise gifted drummers, bass players and second guitarists who buttress the creative fancy at the heart of great enterprises, I’m struggling to name groups with a trio of significant talents. There’s one though: Barrow, Gibbons and Utley, the musical fire triangle that is Portishead. Fuel in the form of the beats of Geoff Barrow, who learnt his trade in apprenticeship to Bristol’s Wild Bunch. Heat from the twanging jazz guitar of Adrian Utley, previously the accomplished leader of his own quartet. And oxygen, of course, provided by the cool, precise singing of Beth Gibbons. When the three came together, a chemical reaction took place, flames burst into being.
I remember hearing ‘Numb’ for the first time on Sunday afternoon local radio in Bristol and being struck by just how out on their own they sounded. The hissing sequenced ride cymbal, the buzzing cyclical overloud bass, and a drum sound as unusual as that deployed by Felt on Crumbling the antiseptic beauty and The splendour of fear. Set against the lower end, the voice of Beth Gibbons at its most feline, with an undertow of the drowning, desperate loneliness which became her trademark. She inhabited the songs she sang so completely that you worried for her in the same way you might had you wandered into a Harlem night club in the 1930s and heard the young Billie Holliday for the first time, without knowing a thing about her. But mercifully inhabiting the songs is not necessarily the same thing as playing out the intimated self-destruction for real.
It’s testament to the combination of oddity and immediacy that the Portishead sound became familiar so swiftly, and copied so readily. The music they helped to originate alongside Tricky, DJ Shadow and the rest of the Mo’ Wax roster – tagged as trip hop – certainly came to be devalued by its ubiquity and a notion that puddings at fashionable dinner parties in modish London districts were chilled not so much with dessert wine or jersey cream but Dummy and Maxinquaye. The jaded reception afforded subsequent note-perfect imitators forced the makers of each of those records to enter darker chambers and refuse the pigeon-holing. Despite the serenading strings and big band horns, Portishead mark two was gut-wrenching, and imitators could not follow Beth’s move into the higher registers of an already supremely distinct vocal style.
In advance of Dummy, it was the ‘Sour times’ single which first demonstrated the talented trio’s range. ‘Sour times’ is a great pop song sung by an apparently ready-made diva of the blues, Beth’s choral wail of ‘Nobody loves me…’ being more noticeable than the subsequent whispered aside: ‘… not like you do’. Built around what now sounds a fairly traditional rhythmic heartbeat of a loop, the same bass tones as ‘Numb’ and Hammond organ swirls, ‘It’s a fire’ is reflective and autumnal, like Beth’s later Out of season outing with Rustin Man. On the still iconic ‘Pedestal’ she sings English with the dramatic tint of a European accent, while Geoff lays down a grinding, scratched and sampled loop. The percussion once again hisses, and riffs from double bass and piccolo trumpet percolate the mix, presumably under Adrian’s musical direction.
Finally, there is ‘Theme from “To kill a dead man”’. With its Barry-esque orchestration and twanging guitar, it’s as faultless in its evocation of a noir spy thriller as Barry Adamson had been two years before in reinventing James Bond as black with ‘007, a fantasy Bond theme’. Beth may not appear on this instrumental soundtrack to Portishead’s short film, but she was indeed the picture’s leading lady, albeit a picture which as I recall was not much more than a glorified video or film school short. Yet ‘Theme’ is imbued with her presence, as if this were the smouldering overture before she takes the stage, when she will reduce an expectant audience to tears, or the finale once she has left it, the path of her exit strewn not only with flowers of every variety and colour, but also with ashes.