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It was only a matter of time before a clever publisher realized
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the Rye or Middlemarch The series is freewheeling and
eclectic, ranging from minute rock-geek analysis to idiosyncratic
personal celebration The New York Times Book Review
Ideal for the rock geek who thinks liner notes
just arent enough Rolling Stone
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These are for the insane collectors out there who appreciate
fantastic design, well-executed thinking, and things that make your
house look cool. Each volume in this series takes a seminal album
and breaks it down in startling minutiae. We love these.
We are huge nerds Vice
A brilliant series each one a work of real love NME (UK)
Passionate, obsessive, and smart Nylon
Religious tracts for the rock n roll faithful Boldtype
[A] consistently excellent series Uncut (UK)
We arent naive enough to think that were your only
source for reading about music (but if we had our way
watch out). For those of you who really like to know everything
there is to know about an album, youd do well to check
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R. J. Wheaton
The Continuum International Publishing Group
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A Note on Sources vii
Dramatis Person ix
From the Ether 1
Memory 19
Shock 49
Intimacy 66
Solitude 86
Narcotic 105
Alienation 123
Solace 141
Resonance 161
Loss 180
Siren 202
Works Cited 225
Acknowledgements 233


A Note on Sources
Research for this book involved interviews with a
number of sources, including discussions with Dummy
and Portishead sound engineer Dave McDonald, and
Portishead friend and collaborator Tim Saul. Quotations
from Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons, and Adrian Utley
were gathered from an extensive range of interviews and
articles written throughout the bands history, particu-
larly from the period between the release of Dummy
in 1994 and Portishead in 1997. All of these sources are
annotated throughout and are listed at the end of the


Dramatis Person
Po r t i s he ad
Geoff Barrow producer, turntables, drums
Beth Gibbons vocals, lyrics
Adrian Utley guitar, co-producer
Dave McDonald sound engineer
Co nt r i b ut o rs and c o l l ab o rat o rs
Andy Smith crate-digging
Clive Deamer drums
Gary Baldwin Hammond
Neil Solman Fender Rhodes
Richard Newell drum programming
Andy Hague trumpet
Tim Saul friend and collaborator; involved in
pre-production sessions; part of Earthling
Miles Showell mastering engineer
Alexander Hemming director of short flm To Kill
a Dead Man and the frst Portishead music videos

Marc Bessant friend and collaborator; visual

Ferdy Unger-Hamilton A&R at Go! Beat Records
Tony Crean Marketing at Go! Beat Records
Br i s t o l
The Wild Bunch: Miles Johnson (D.J. Milo), Grant
Marshall (Daddy G), Nellee Hooper; Claude
Williams, Robert Del Naja, Andrew Vowles
Massive Attack: Marshall, Del Naja, Vowles
Rob Smith and Ray Mighty
Neneh Cherry
Cameron McVey Massive Attack producer;
Portisheads frst manager; husband of Neneh Cherry
Jonny Dollar (Jonathan Sharp) Massive Attack

From the Ether

A storm at sea One continent talking to another
Childhood experimentation The voices of the
dead Mysterons Animated dummies A premonition of
misinterpretation Verbal abuse as a characteristically English
means to express admiration A dog barking Midsummer
night Nocturnal projections The paranormal Acclaim!
An anatomy Espionage
On December 21, 1927, the White Star ocean liner
Majestic arrived in New York City. It had been delayed
through buffeting strong westerly gales and high head
seas. It contained 17,661 sacks of mail, the biggest
foreign mail on record. The New York Times reported on
the prominent passengers, among them Polish pianist-
statesman Ignace Jan Paderewski and American fnancier
William Averell Harriman. A cold wave had seized the
city, flling the citys shelters two days before. During
the course of the day a broken air line disrupted at least
20,000 travelers on the citys subway system, forcing
passengers onto the tracks. A fre at 8th Avenue turned

20 families from their homes. The Beethoven Symphony

Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall.
On board the Majestic was Lev Sergeyevich Termen,
aged 31. His name now was Theremin. He had invented
himself from thin air.
He was born in St. Petersburg in 1896. A childhood of
mechanical discovery: pendulums and the dismantling of
watches; astronomy, the discovery of a star. Experiments
with electricity, charged wires suspended above the heads
of his classmates and glass cylinders luminous in their
hands. At war: enlisted to the Reserve Electrotechnical
Battalion, erecting radio towers across the collapsing face
of Tsarist Russia.
The instrument that bears his name came from exper-
iments conducted at the Physico-Technical Institute
on the outskirts of Petrograd. Experiments into the
natural capacitance of the human body: how the relative
proximity of the body to an oscillating circuit can
produce variations in its frequency. A performer stands
in front of the instrument and moves her hands near two
antennae, one of which controls the volume of resulting
sound and the other the pitch.
The sound appeared to emanate from nowhere. It had
a character that was unearthly and unsettling both
electric and, in its lissome variation between tone and
New York Times December 20, 1927a, 20 December, 1927b,
December 22, 1927a, December 22, 1927b, December 22, 1927c,
December 22, 1927d, December 22, 1927e, December 22, 1927f,
December 22, 1927g.
Glinsky 2000, pp. 1112.
R . J . W H E A T O N

volume, somehow possessing the qualities of a human

Newspapers described probably the most amazing
music ever heard; a strange penetrating sound of a
quality human ears never before had heard.
attending a performance in Berlin, called it an experience
as signifcant as that when primitive man for the frst
time produced sound from a bowstring.
* * *
The sound of a Theremin is the ffth sound you hear on
Portisheads 1994 album Dummy. It enters 12 seconds
into Mysterons, and signals the albums wide range,
gliding several octaves above the songs subatomic bass,
leaving Beth Gibbons vocal embayed in the songs
* * *
The instruments sound was said to come from the
ether, a formless medium believed to accommodate the
passage of radio waves, X-rays, and other elements of the
electro-magnetic spectrum. Some believed the ether to
accommodate the souls of the departed and that it would
allow an audience with the marooned voices of the dead.
In Paris, according to the Montreal Gazette, Police
were called to keep order among crowds; that For the
Jones 1927.
New York Times December 22, 1927e.

frst time in the history of the Opera standing room was

sold in boxes.
What Theremin promised, he promised to the crowd.
The ability to create music from thin air; to create music
without classical training; that the power of producing
beautiful harmony, until now denied all but a few,
may soon be within the reach of thousands.
A sound
beaconed by the technology of the future; that freighted
with it the strangeness of existence and the wake of the
* * *
Things you may not notice about Mysterons on frst
At 0:12, 0:17, 0:23, and elsewhere, there is a vocal
sample scratched onto the surface of the song. It
underscores the songs great rhythmic keel, the kick
drum that thumps through the song with a pulse-
like rhythm; the militant snare riff that impresses
everything around it. With the vinyl sounds the
pop and crackle that open the song the scratching
signals the albums hip-hop aesthetic: that this will be
music constructed of other music. A deep, resonant
male voice intones Portishead; yet it is slowed and
weathered and manipulated to the point that it is
almost unintelligible, almost abstract noise: Porters
Montreal Gazette December 9, 1927.
Montreal Gazette December 9, 1927.
R . J . W H E A T O N

The subtlety of Beth Gibbons vocal delivery:

somewhere where they can forget the second
syllable of somewhere cast away, speculative,
unknown. The end of forget delivered as if the
word itself is barely remembered. In the next verse,
holding on is dragged into the lilting swells of
The fretnoise on the opening guitar arpeggios an
artisinal, workmanlike punctuation amid the other-
worldly sustain that sounds the depths of the song.
At 1:28, and at 2:49.
At 0:47: the watery sound that swells into the song,
followed by three descending, drop-like notes,
impossibly delicate against the brittle twang of the
guitar and martial indifference of the drums.
The chorus itself: the point and charge of the drums;
a question narrowed to the force of a statement.
Did you really want. The verb containing derision,
disbelief, accusation.
At 4:07: the rattling echo of the snare sounds; then,
as the music becalms itself into a synthetic, abstract
conclusion, the crystalline sustain of a Roland
SH-101 synthesizer fattens the surface of the song.
It is a song so diverse in its infuences, its range of
sounds, its intensity, the mystery of its meaning. This
ocean will not be grasped.
* * *
The songs title comes from Captain Scarlet and the
Mysterons, a 60s childrens science-fction television

series, featuring animated mannequins dummies in

a technique named Supermarionation by series creator
Gerry Anderson. The villains the Mysterons were
disembodied aliens whose voices, like the vocal sample
scratched into the beginning of the song, boomed at the
lower frequencies as if intoned through a megaphone.
The soundtrack music, by Barry Gray, has the swing
and campness of the English 60s. But it also features
experimentation with electronic sound, including the
use of another early electronic instrument, the ondes
Martenot, which sounds in its eerie oscillation very much
like a theremin.
* * *
In 1994 Miles Showell was working in west London as a
mastering engineer at a facility then called Copymasters.
He had established a solid working relationship with
Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, the A&R director of Go! Beat
Records. Unger-Hamilton and guitarist Adrian Utley
brought him tracks for Sour Times, the second song
on Dummy, on quarter-inch tape, for a promotional 12.
Showell recalls I remember remarking to Adrian how
haunting and otherworldly the track was, especially Beth
[Gibbons]s vocal. A few weeks later Portishead producer
Geoff Barrow and sound engineer Dave McDonald were
also present for sessions to master the entire album.
Showell remembers:
I was looking forward to the session as Sour Times had
made such an impression on me but to be honest I did
R . J . W H E A T O N

not expect the rest of the album to be as good as that. In

reality, of course, it proved to be a fabulous album. I can
distinctly remember thinking to myself, This stuff is
fantastic, but it is such a shame that no one else is going
to get it.
* * *
Dummy was released in the U.K. in August 1994. An
October release followed in the U.S., with the following
Sour Times
It Could be Sweet
Wandering Star
Its a Fire
Glory Box
Its a Fire had not been part of the original U.K.
release. A later Canadian release added Sour Sour
Times, a starker, leaner remix of Sour Times, to the
end of the album.
Dummy spun off three singles: Numb, released
June 6, 1994; Sour Times, released July 25 (and

re-released in April of the following year); and Glory

Box, January2, 1995.
* * *
People remember, clearly, when they frst heard Dummy.
Tim Saul, long-time collaborator of Portishead
producer Geoff Barrow, and contributor to Dummys
pre-production sessions:
I can always remember the frst time that Geoff played
me Sour Times. I was pretty bowled over and I think
I abused him fairly, for about half an hour. I was really
envious. He continues to do this: he has an ability to pull
something out of the bag when you think that you know
what hes going to do, and you kind of think youve got
a good gauge of maybe what hes going to come up with
next. And yet he kind of throws you.
* * *
Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, who signed Portishead to Go!
Beat Records in 1993:
Glory Box was mind-blowing. I played it to the sales
team and they were like, It sounds like a dog barking!
Some people thought it was mad and others just got it. I
dont know if Ive ever felt like that since.
* * *
Quoted in Simpson 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N

Andy Wright, a record producer who had just fnished

working on Massive Attacks Protection:
The frst time I heard it was in a hotel room in Manchester.
Somebody had it on their Walkman, which theyd got
connected to some little speakers. And I thought, wow,
what the hell is that. I thought it sounded amazing.
* * *
Mark Oliver Everett, later to found indie rock band Eels:
Then one day during this bleak period in my life, I was
driving down the road and heard the English group
Portishead on the radio for the frst time and it stopped
me cold. I had to pull the truck over to the side of the
road so I could really listen.
* * *
Jay-Jay Johanson, Sweden, 1994:
I played it on my ghetto blaster to all my friends on
midsummer night around a campfre in the woods.
The effect was enormous. Some felt scared, some cried,
some became totally depressed. And I just adored it one
hundred percent.
* * *
Everett 2009, pp. 105106.


Tony Crean, handling marketing of the album for Go! Beat,

later told writer Phil Johnson that Portishead were a studio
band making esoteric music who initially didnt want to play
live and whose singer didnt want to do interviews.
Blue-painted mannequins were placed at visible
locations around London, marked only with the letter
P, drawing attention from national media and the
anti-terrorist squad who, it was said, suspected the
presence of explosive devices. Mysterious memorabilia
was distributed around Londons club scene.
Under cover of darkness a giant P was projected
onto the massive building belonging to MI6 Britains
equivalent of the CIA that sits in an impenetrable art
deco facade on the bank of the River Thames.
Dave McDonald recalls Creans energy:
He was brilliant he was crazy. We were trying to calm
him down He was doing things that Id never seen
before like going around clubs and pubs and stuff just
leaving a box of matches with P written on them
you keep showing something but not telling people what
it is, they think, what is this about?
* * *
The band made a 10-minute flm, To Kill a Dead Man,
starring core members producer Geoff Barrow,
singer Beth Gibbons, guitarist and co-producer Adrian
Utley, and sound engineer Dave McDonald as well as
Johnson 1996, pp. 164165.
R . J . W H E A T O N


supporting musicians and collaborators including Richard

Newell and Tim Saul. The flm, a short noir-inspired tale
of deception and revenge, was intended to allow the band
a chance to write a soundtrack, and to provide materials
for a music video for Sour Times and stills for
use in promotional art, including the cover of the album.
* * *
Dummy quickly became associated with the unusual. On
December 17, 1994, the B.B.C. aired Weird Night,
more than 3 hours of programming related to the
paranormal. Content included documentaries on urban
myths; a flm called The Last American Freak Show;
testimonials of bizarre and unnerving coincidences; and,
inevitably, an episode of The X-Files. The introductory
preview featured a passage from Mysterons and a
slowed, pitch-shifted excerpt from Biscuit.
* * *
What to make of this music. Critics said it sounded like
nothing else on earth;
it seemed to come from the
past and the future at the same time.
The band created
an invitation to a nightmare;
a world so ghostly you
may think the C.D. player has channeled the musical
Mixmag 1999.
Lucas 1997.
Lien 1997.
People 1995.


Dummy was named album of the year by U.K.

music scene periodicals such as Melody Maker, Mixmag,
The Wire, The Face, ID, and even daily newspapers like
the conservative Daily Telegraph.
The following year
Dummy was awarded the fourth Mercury Music Prize,
the U.K.s most prestigious musical accolade.
By the beginning of summer 1995, after Portishead
had completed a U.S. tour, the album had sold 850,000
copies worldwide.
By the release of their second album,
Portishead, in September 1997, it had sold almost 2
million, and was double-platinum by January of the
following year.
The bands Third album was released in
April 2008; by then Dummy had sold 3.6 million copies.
* * *
Somehow it became ubiquitous in public venues. Vancouver
writer Sean Cranbury, at the time bartending in the Ontario
rustbelt town of Hamilton The Hammer recalls:
it seemed to have its own kind of swagger, and its own
sensibility, and it was dark dark and jagged and weird.
And Beth Gibbons voice was ghostly and incredible. And
yet it somehow, against all possible odds, it was capable
of getting some sort of mainstream airplay. Sour Times
it still amazes me when I hear that song, to think that
people played that in cafs or played that in nightclubs or
B.B.C. 2010.
Miller 1995.
Marcus 1997.
McLean 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N


in bars on a Friday or Saturday night. That was fucking

* * *
Consider the qualities abundant in popular music that
are disconcertingly absent from Dummy:
uncomplicated tenderness
unconditional love
actually, even the words I love you
assertions of knowledge about infdelity, often by
means of hearsay
statements of political philosophy often out of
focus mostly concerning working-class Americans
sexual desire uncomplicated by things that include
moments that lend themselves to dancing
moments that lend themselves to candlelight. Upon
a signifcant increase in volume, the quantities of
air mobilized by Strangers will actually extinguish
your candlelight
reassurance that things will, actually, be okay.
* * *
And yet Dummy entered into popular consciousness
with astonishing speed. In October 1996, British music
magazine Mojo challenged readers to select their best
songs of the 90s. From over a thousand reader entries,
four songs from Dummy made the fnal hundred an


achievement matched only by R.E.M.s Automatic for the

People and Oasis Defnitely Maybe.
In February 1998, Q magazine published its readers
poll of 100 greatest albums ever, in which Dummy
was placed at number 16. Reader C. M. Dodd asked a
question that seemed to exemplify the albums mystique
and its appeal:
Where did this come from? It tears out your heartstrings.
* * *
An anatomy of Dummy.
Beth Gibbons vocals, closely recorded, intimate;
always distinct; never crowded. Breathy, intense, coy,
ironic, caressing, commanding, challenging. Her lyrics
are shards of imagery; non-narrative; fragments of self-
refection. Closely observed emotional pain, isolation,
loneliness, exile, alienation. Desire, seduction; distance,
loss. Her voice is taut across the musics surface; sometime
scarred, calloused, supple, fresh, weathered, ageless.
Beneath the skin: the albums instrumentation,
archaic and retro-modern. The rich, resonant sounds of
vintage synthesizers, keyboards, organs; the theremin,
a cimbalom. Guitars and Rhodes keyboards used as
much for texture and presence as they are for harmonic
direction. Some of this driven by the soundtracks of
obscure or forgotten flms. The arrangement of songs is
Mojo 1997.
Q 1998.
R . J . W H E A T O N


muscular, experimental, sinuous in its minimalism. All of

it throbbing with a warmth, a sympathetic bloodstream.
The albums nervous system: the sound of recording
technology itself. A layer of vinyl artifacts crackle,
pops; the properties of audio tape, murky and rich.
Hiss, decay; static, warp. The sounds of manipulation;
of elements narrowed, stretched, compressed, distended.
Pitch-shifted and time corrected. A concern with sonic
texture, the product not only of veteran musician Adrian
Utleys love of vintage gear but of experimentation with
studio techniques by Geoff Barrow and sound engineer
Dave McDonald. The loops wound ventricular from
shards and echoes of other musics. A hip-hop aesthetic at
the bone: fearsome breakbeats that swing and snap and
crunch with the legacy of funk and rhythm & blues and
jazz; bass sounds thick with history and space.
* * *
The albums popular regard has not abated. In the
January 2003 revision of its 100 Greatest Albums Ever
poll, Q magazine readers collectively placed Dummy
in 95th place. This book will attempt to elucidate the
changing fortunes of the album: by 2006, in the same
poll, it had increased in stature to 55th place.
* * *
Only now, writing almost 16 years after its release, does
Dummy begin to emerge from the channel it coursed
alongside albums like Massive Attacks Protection (and,
earlier, Blue Lines), Trickys Maxinquaye, D.J. Shadows


Endtroducing Dummys immediate reception was one at

odds with the expectations of almost everybody involved;
its sudden absorption into the culture overwhelming the
albums abstract, harsh, imperfect, out-of-balance edges.
Dummy is driven from within by paradoxes: its sounds
are violent, traumatic, but its effect somnolent, soothing.
It displays a commitment to realism, to fdelity Beth
Gibbons voice is meticulously reproduced but it also
makes audible the technology used to capture those
sounds. It is shocking, lulling; austere, rich. It is of its
place and time, yet transcends both. It is deliberately
constructed yet also the product of an if it works
It is the sound of a talented group of people, carefully,
masterfully, fnding their voice. It is stylistically audacious,
but it circles the point, accumulates, adheres, assembles
itself from gravity and inertia. It is a construct of lyrical
shards, images, fragments; of instruments and samples
and loops separated from their original contexts.
Dummy has always been a supremely associative
album, and in the years since its release it has been deep
within the lives of its listeners. Much of what we associate
with it is added by us. The imagistic palette encompasses
the noir veneer of the night: shadows, cigarettes; the
illumination of cities. The conceptual: exile, alienation,
solitude. The emotional: loss, grief, isolation. Solace,
desire, lust. Disconsolate, melancholia. Arousal. Despair.
This book will describe the creation of Dummy, but
it will also outline how this music has been heard, lived,
used. How people have heard it, and when; in whose
company it has surrounded them; how it has connected
them to one another and to the world. How we can
R . J . W H E A T O N


understand Dummy through the art flm, music,

dance it has inspired; through the lives of people it
has accompanied. How we have understood ourselves
through these songs.
* * *
This is a terrible thing to admit, confessed Adrian
Utley to Sound on Sound in 1995, but it wasnt actually a
Theremin. Its a synth sound made on an SH101, because
we couldnt actually get hold of the real thing.
By the time Portishead made use of the sound,
Theremins instrument had become associated, in flms
like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, Spellbound,
The Lost Weekend, with the strange, the hallucinogenic,
the alien, the ethereal. It had appeared occasionally in
popular music: as part of Brian Wilsons textural experi-
mentation on the Beach Boys Good Vibrations; in
Led Zeppelins Whole Lotta Love. A revival, partly
initiated by Dummy, was widespread by 1997, when the
Daily Telegraph reported that no pop group aspiring
to the cutting edge can be without one. Portishead,
Pavement, Eels, Crash Test Dummies, My Life Story:
all have snapped up theremins and used them on recent
We hear in the theremin what we see in Metropolis: a
version of the future that suggests how determined we
are by our experience of the past. Like Metropolis, there
is something almost nineteenth-century in its view of the
Miller 1995.
Richardson 1997.


future; like the steampunk genre it is on the one hand

futuristic, alien, other; on the other historical, vintage,
retro a characterization that touches Dummy too. As
listener Kara Estes asked on Twitter, of Sour Times,
Why do I think of H. G. Wells with this song?
Theremin himself remained in the US throughout
the 30s, marrying African-American dancer Lavinia
Williams. He abruptly disappeared in 1938, having
returned or been returned to the U.S.S.R. There,
imprisoned, his skills were put to use developing
espionage equipment. In 1945 an eavesdropping device
of his design was hidden in a large carved wooden
Great Seal of the United States of America which was
presented to the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, in whose
residential study it sat undiscovered for 7 years. The
ambassador was William Averell Harriman, with whom
Theremin had shared his passage to America aboard the


Bristol Violence and BMX bikes Hip-hop
A Victorian seaside resort Childhood experimentation
Music, paint, and dance The Dug Out Abandoned
warehouses The downland Burt Bacharach and drum
machines overheard from trash cans The Buffalo Posse
Sour Times Instruments ancient and modern Films
shot through lampshades Seven Blood-Stained Orchids The
making of tea Late night crate-digging Meeting over tea
Songs about Gandhi London Bands named after projects,
bands named after retirement homes
Bristol. Historically one of the largest cities in England,
Bristol was in the eighteenth century a hub of the
trans-Atlantic slave trade; a hub of mercantile trade and
commerce. In the post-war period the city like many
other urban centers across the U.K. saw immigration
from territories previously part of the British Empire,
including Afro-Carribean immigration to the St. Pauls
neighborhood. It was the site of one of the U.K.s signif-
icant civil rights struggles after a boycott in 1963 against
the Bristol Omnibus Company led to national anti-
discrimination legislation. A city with visible extremes


of income: the residential grandeur of Clifton to the

relative poverty of St. Pauls.
Britain at the start of the 80s. Facelessly grey,
culturally exhausted. The post-war reconstructed urban
centers, monuments of planning and concrete, decaying
and anonymous in the arms of former cities. Urban
decline; unemployment at its highest since the 30s. A
hated Police stop and search law. Enoch Powell warning
of racial civil war. In 1981 there were urban riots
in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds. The year
before in St. Pauls, Bristol. Police pinned against the
Black and White Caf after a drugs and alcohol raid;
reinforcements met with debris; the evening the neigh-
borhood afame. Skirmishes of sympathy in other, largely
white, neighborhoods: Southmead, Knowle, Hartcliffe.
A city turned in upon itself, a nation irreconciled to
its grey permanence. At fray with an idea of itself and its
memory of the future.
* * *
Times were tight and sour, in the words of 70s 80s,
a 2002 track by electronic downtempo act Nightmares
on Wax, featuring vocalist LSK. The song is a memoir
of what it was to be young 70s baby, early 80s child
amid the political and social and cultural compression
of the time. Riots and violence on the T.V. watchin
coppers get beat down. The National Front; skinheads
and punks. Miners strikes and BMX bikes, raps Roots
Manuva on the Upbringing Mix of the same song.
Cuts in education; rising infation. Police brutality and
mass frustration. And yet among it all is the insouciant,
R . J . W H E A T O N


weightless thrill of being young, young: a multicultural

society on the cusp of becoming; a new generation, all
British, the divisions of their parents weaker amid them.
In popular culture the possibility of celebration that
television and music and fashion could release among
them instead a shared identity. Ska, 2 Tone. The rebel-
lious aesthetic of punk ripping across racial and social
divisions. The sense that identities need not be inherited
but could be compounded from the elements any of
the elements so suddenly among them:
She was into Adam Ant and Wuthering Heights
I was getting into Madness and grifter bikes.
The thrill in the air of creation. Portisheads Dave
McDonald remembers there was a melting pot in the
country, at the stage where you still had disco, funk, and
punk all mixed together.
It was a very interesting period of time in England. I
think who kind of sums it up is when you look at the
Clash, who were like a punk band playing reggae, with
like Don Letts, or you look at The Great Rock n Roll
Swindle and you have the Black Arabs a funk band,
actually, in that flm, doing Sex Pistols covers. For quite a
few years, and rumbling on into the early 80s, there was
a very healthy fusion in this country. Defnitely in this
country. I dont think it was anywhere else.
* * *
And then: hip-hop. Dazzling, electric. American.


Pumas and Nikes and Pro-Keds brilliant and red and

white and blue against the grey light and the grey
cities. Breakdancing, its implausible grace among
beats manufactured in the brittle heat of Roland drum
machines and the dense turbines of funk records. Just
energy, just proper energy, remembered Geoff Barrow.

American. Quit your life and take up the decks. Vinyl,
acetate, microphones; graffti, breaking, beatboxing.
Barrow remembered:
when hip-hop frst hit suburban England, it kind of
took over and was massively exciting. It was a real thing
you could get into. Its diffcult to describe, but to a
younger generation of sixteen-year-old kids it was that
you wouldnt go out and have a fght; youd go out and
dance against each other.
It was not easy to hear there was Mike Allen, and
later Tim Westwood, on Londons Capital Radio. Miles
Johnson D.J. Milo of legendary Bristol sound system
collective the Wild Bunch heard B.B.C. radios John
Peel announcing Afrika Bambaataas Planet Rock:
This is whats happening in New York.
A series of
compilations named Electro; It went from Electro One
to Electro Fifty, joked Barrow. If you couldnt afford to
buy the imports youd go out and buy the compilation.

Breihan 2009.
24 undated.
Johnson 1996, p. 83.
26 undated.
R . J . W H E A T O N


And, overwhelmingly, hand-to-hand tapes and records

lent and given by older siblings, older friends.
* * *
Geoff Barrow was born in 1971 in Walton in Gordano,
a small coastal village on the outskirts of Bristol. His
parents his father a truck driver, his mother worked
as a supermarket cashier separated when he was ten,
and he moved with his mother to nearby Portishead.

Pronounced by area locals with a slight accent on the
last syllable, Portishead was in the nineteenth century an
auxiliary dock for Bristol; it was a Victorian seaside resort.
By the 80s it largely served as a bedroom community for
nearby Bristol, with numerous retirement residences. It
was not a hive of activity. Barrow was later to tell one
interviewer that Its incredibly depressing and small-
minded. Its just a very very boring place. I really wanted
to fght and get away from there,
and another that Its
a place you can go to and die.
He started learning drums at the age of eight, later
playing for a rock cover band called Ralph McTells
Offcial Fan Club
but, as he told Pitchfork in 2009,
I didnt really like it. It was just a way to play the drums,
McLean 2008.
Jenkins 1995.
Bernstein 1995.
Vibe 1995.


It was all about hip-hop. He was breakdancing
at 11; at a certain point he stopped drumming and
started D.J.-ing, mainly in my bedroom.
Second wave
hip-hop acts like Run-D.M.C., M.C. Shan, or Roxanne
It was nothing special, and my equipment was
cheap, he recalled. It wasnt a club thing, just a little
something for me and my friends.
Andy Smith, later Portisheads tour D.J., was one
of the only other people in Portishead with the same
tastes. He ran a hip-hop night in the towns youth
club, and there met Barrow We got talking over
our mutual love of Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy.

Smiths scratching style was self-taught, and when he
met Barrow the two would compare technique and spend
endless nights listening to records.
Speaking to National Public Radio in 2008, Barrow
remembered the frst time he heard Public Enemys
Rebel without a Pause:
I heard this as a young teenager in a nightclub in Bristol.
It was an underage nightclub so you could get there
without drinking and stuff. I kind of knew Bum Rush the
Show before. It was a fairly alright nightclub but it was
just about kind of trying to get girlfriends and do the kind
of thing you do when youre a teenager. The D.J. used to
they didnt have a D.J. booth; it was a time when they
Breihan 2009.
Uhelszki 1995.
Vibe 1995.
Vibe 1995.
Heller 2009.
Jones 2006.
R . J . W H E A T O N


were kind of like Im a bit of a superstar so Im going to

get on stage with my decks on.
It was this amazing thing: this guy ran through the
crowd with this 12 inch vinyl on white label kind of
like the Olympic torch or something Ive got this
gold. And he gave it to the D.J. and he just stopped like
Whitney Houston in her tracks, or whoever it was at that
point, and just stuck it on. And it was a ginormous sound
system in the nightclub, a really really good one, and it
just it was the instant thing that completely blew my
mind forever and ever. It was just kind of, right, thats it
then. I will be into girls at some point, but now Im into
Public Enemy.
* * *
Bristols demographic and social breadth made it the
setting for musical and cultural innovation. Dave
McDonald remembers:
Everyone I knew was creating something or making
something, was either spraying paint, painting on walls,
or designing clothes, or making music. In many ways [it
was] a very creative time You had the hip-hop and the
punk thing. And what was going on in New York the
electronic sort of dance, and hip-hop and punk. It was
all fused, fused in together.
In the early 80s, post-punk bands like Mark Stewarts
The Pop Group; Pigbag; and Rip Rig + Panic, brought
NPR 2008.


together infuences including funk, dub, reggae, and free

jazz. The citys venues particularly the legendary Dug
Out Club, on the edge of the Clifton neighborhood but
within reach of St. Pauls provided a forum for cultural
fusion. McDonald remembers:
Thats a big infuence on me, being half Jamaican and
half English. There was a Jamaican community in Bristol
and [at] the period of time that I grew up in, there was a
nightclub called The Dug Out which everyone would go
to, which was like a real melting pot everyone used to
be in the same room, all involved in these different scenes
and sometimes these scenes would cross quite heavily. So
my interest was reggae and punk. And all my friends were
involved in that.
* * *
Every Wednesday at The Dug Out were the Wild Bunch,
a sound system collective in the Jamaican model
D.J.s, engineers, and M.C.s. Core members were Miles
Johnson (D.J. Milo), Grant Marshall (Daddy G), and
Nellee Hooper; later they were joined by Claude Williams,
Robert Del Naja, and Andrew Vowles. With performances,
as writer Phil Johnson notes, in venues legal and otherwise
(in abandoned warehouses, and on the 400-acre public
park on the edge of Bristol called the Downs), they became
a legendary fxture of the Bristol scene.
A typical Wild
Bunch set list might include jazz-funk, New Wave, punk,
early hip-hop, electro, reggae, club-oriented R&B, disco.
Johnson 1996, p. 80.
R . J . W H E A T O N


The Wild Bunch would face off against rival

soundsystems: 2Bad, City Rockers, UD4, FBI Crew. At
the St. Pauls Carnival they would block off Campbell
Street with speakers, 15 feet high, towering above the
You could hear them like 10 miles away,
recalled D.J. Krust. In the morning after one Carnival
I walked home to my house on the other side of Bristol
and when I got there I could still hear them.
They successfully integrated the core technique of
hip-hop: two turntables and a microphone. Two copies
of the same record so that the instrumental break the
breakbeat could be constantly played while an M.C.
rapped on top.
Matt Black, later part of U.K. production
duo Coldcut, visited Bristol on vacation with friends in
1984. Already inspired by 1981s The Adventures of
Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel and the
1983 flm Wild Style, he was struck by how successfully
hip-hop culture was being expressed in Bristol:
We heard the Wild Bunch playing, we went to The Dug
Out, and there were [graffti] pieces by 3D [Del Naja]
round town. And actually in London, there wasnt that
much going that wed seen, but here in Bristol it was
actually alive in a real convincing form And we got
back to town, and I got my decks, and I decided right,
Im gonna fucking learn how to do this.
Gillespie 2006.
Farsides 2002.
Farsides 2002.
Gilbey undated.


With a repertoire that brought together such broad

infuences, a deep understanding of soul, and an
overwhelming consciousness of dubs sense of space,
the original material produced by the Wild Bunch
presented challenges from a commercial perspective.
4th & Broadways Julian Palmer, who signed the Wild
Bunch in 1986, recalled later that What they were doing
was ahead of its time We could not get arrested with
what they were doing, it just seemed too experimental.
Everyone said it was cut at the wrong speed because it
sounded so slow in comparison.
A limited edition single Tearin Down the
Avenue had been released in the U.S., but by the
time Friends & Countrymen was released in the U.K.
in 1988, the Wild Bunch had effectively splintered after a
tour to Japan with Neneh Cherry. Nellee Hooper joined
producer Jazzie B on sound system Soul II Soul, who
would have worldwide success with 1989s Back to Life.
Miles Johnson moved to Japan before later going to New
York. Marshall, Del Naja, and Vowles formed, in 1988,
Massive Attack.
The B-side to both Wild Bunch singles was The
Look of Love, a tender Burt Bacharach cover voiced
by future Massive Attack singer Shara Nelson, over
a percussive backing track that still sounds radical in
its space and force. The song was a product of D.J.
Milos experiments with mixing smooth R&B vocals and
thundering hip-hop beats:
Pride 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


I used to do a lot of blending. Getting Dennis Edwards

Dont Look Any Further and running it with LL Cool
Js I Need a Beat. Stuff like that. Id call it my rough
with the smooth mix. And thats where the concept came
from, of having a rough hip-hop beat with the singer on
* * *
Another Bristol sound crew were 3 Stripe Posse,
comprised of Rob Smith and Ray Mighty. They heard
the Wild Bunch perform The Look of Love at the
Malcolm X center in St. Pauls. I thought yeah, this is
hip, this is what I want to do, Mighty told Phil Johnson
in 1995. Tough, loud beats, the odd little sample and a
vocal going on, slow, very rare groove with a dubby bass
line in a stripped-back empty mix.
In 1988 they released two singles Walk On and
Anyone that took Burt Bacharach songs and, with
their melodies intoned delicately by R&B singer Jackie
Jackson, stretched them across dense hip-hop drum
machine patterns and asthmatic scratching and synthetic
horn stabs and spare haunting samples and pounding
bass frequencies. There is still something radical in
the contrast between the density of their rhythmic
patchwork and the space and languorous pace that is
somehow accorded to the gorgeous, lilting, melodies.
The same sonic template torch ballads with
hip-hop breaks was also being explored elsewhere:
Farsides 2002.
Johnson 1996, p. 179.


Tim Simenon, as Bomb the Bass, released a gorgeously

stripped-down version of Say a Little Prayer with
Maureen Walsh in 1988. Writer Phil Johnson also
hears an early expression in Mark Stewarts Stranger
Than Love, strapping a West Side Story vocal onto a
Smith & Mighty production of composer Erik Saties
Gymnopedie Number 1.
In 1989 Smith & Mighty produced Wishing on a
Star with rap group Fresh 4: the Rose Royce song set
against a wispy, hazy sample from Faze-Os 1977 Riding
High and the immortal Funky Drummer break. The
song reached #10 in the U.K. singles chart. They also
co-produced Daddy Gs Any Love (the frst single
credited to Massive Attack): tighter, funkier, but still
paced behind a swooningly gorgeous vocal. The vocalist
was Carlton McCarthy whose debut album, The Call
is Strong, is, in the words of Phil Johnson, the great lost
album of the Bristol sound.
Tim Saul remembers the infuence of Smith &
when I moved to Bristol as a 17-year-old, 18-year-old,
I used to go and hang out outside their studio in St.
Pauls in Bristol actually over the road. And sit by the
rubbish bins of some fats and actually in the summer
you could hear what they were doing they would have
the windows open and that was part of my education,
Johnson 1996, p. 69.
Johnson 1996, p. 106.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Dave McDonald was exposed to the material at its

inception, and in a sense felt immunized from its
nonetheless enormous infuence:
Its hard for me because I lived in the same house as Rob
Smith he was a really really good friend. Even before
we lived in the same house I used to go to his house every
night and listen to records. And then I ended up living
in the same house as him and there was all this musical
equipment in there. And I can remember hearing those
tunes very very early in their early early stages. I dont
think so much of an infuence on me as I think they
would have been more of an infuence on Geoff, because
Geoff, living outside of Bristol, was very interested in
what was going on in Bristol. It was like a whole sort of
exotic world I think.
* * *
Neneh Cherry was a former singer in Rip Rig + Panic,
and step-daughter of American free-jazz trumpeter Don
Cherry. She and future husband Cameron McVey were
both, by 1987, closely associated with the Buffalo
fashion movement of stylist Ray Petri and U.K. magazines
including Face and i-D. She and McVey Booga Bear
became central fgures in the Bristol music scene,
and the production credits to her frst album, Raw Like
Sushi, read like a whos who of the formative years of
U.K. downtempo music: McVey himself; Nellee Hooper;
Massive Attacks Mushroom and 3D; Bomb the Basss
Tim Simenon; future Tricky producer Mark Saunders;
future Massive Attack producer Jonny Dollar. The album


was an international success, led by singles including

Manchild, and Buffalo Stance, and Kisses on the
Wind, which showcased the same mix of soul, hip-hop,
and dance as the various Bacharach covers.
There is a uniquely British timbre to these songs: an
optimistic, carefree quality with a particular pop sensi-
bility. The open-minded feel albeit shaded with a
slightly self-conscious hipness animated Soul II Souls
frst album, Club Classics Vol. One. The same sentiment
was to show through, years later, in M.I.A.s debut album,
Arular. It is a weightlessness somehow associated with
the carefree blending of diverse infuences, but also
the feeling of operating within a particular look, a set
of visuals, a fashion. Of working within a complete and
uncontested aesthetic envelope.
* * *
1994. Sour Times is the song that signaled Dummys
commercial potential. To unsuspecting listeners there was
the attention-grabbing opening: a barreling tornado of
descending strings, loping bassline, a jangling instrument
of indistinct origin, and a fstful of jagged guitar; a
combination that seemed to epitomize the Portishead
That jangling sound is a cimbalom, a kind of central
European dulcimer ancient instruments, strings
strapped and bound over a trapezoid board, strings struck
with hammers. The theremin is modern and spectral,
its functioning obscure and mysterious in the inter-
action between atmosphere and operator. The dulcimer
is ancient, material in its operation. Substantial where
R . J . W H E A T O N


the theremin is ethereal. The irrefutable striking of one

thing with another. The sound made by these objects is
So too the sentiment of the song.
The refrain Nobody loves me is so instantly
memorable, so distinctive in its delivery, that it is often
taken for the songs title. Even set within the ironies self-
evident in Gibbons delivery, it overwhelms the next line
Not like you do and indeed overwhelms the same
message, expressed entirely without irony, in a thousand
other pop songs.
The melody peaks on the refrain, descending just a
semitone, arrestingly, on the word me. The closing
line of the chorus not like you do almost thrown
away, dismissive, is an echo of the melody of Lalo
Schifrins Danube Incident, from the Mission: Impossible
television series, from which the songs main sample is
Sour Times is such a well-constructed song that it
effectively calls attention away from the artifce of its
construction. An extraordinarily clever piece of sampling
takes the lilting, swinging guitar-and-cimbalom clip
of Danube Incident winsome, romantic and
engulfs it in descending strings; upends it, establishes
within it a tight eddy of internal tension, sharpens the
rattling dulcimer, dusts it with the drum fgures from
Smokey Brooks Spin-It Jig. It sounds as if the moment
has been inverted, turned inside-out; made of itself a
negative. The cimbalom is changed from an atmospheric
garnish to a dominant part of the design of song, rattling
and shimmering within a channel that barely contains it.
And yet there is so much subtlety too.


The melody of the verse is all taut packets of synco-

pation: agitated; agile, playful. Teasing the edges of
meaning, dancing, contained in just a few notes. Listen
to the jump Gibbons makes, at 3:11, to a higher note in
the fnal chorus. There is something just slightly strained
about it, suggesting a frailty, a desperation, that is then
perfectly balanced by the throaty delivery of true
seconds later.
The word courtesies in the frst verse, breathy and
close, making cover for the smooth delivery of despise
in me just a moment later. It is not a moment of
withering self-judgment although Dummy has
plenty of those but instead a knowing acknowl-
edgment. The I is not lingered over too long a
moment longer and it would tip the song too far into
self-recrimination, absolve surroundings and community
too much of their responsibilities. Its a beautiful moment,
a perfect integration of melody and meaning. The song
is not a featureless bemoaning of the loneliness of the
world, but one that carefully implicates the self in its fate.
And then the challenge Take a ride, take a shot
now the delivery slowing after the slight edge on
shot, gliding magnifcently through now to land,
disconsolate, on the chorus.
* * *
A cimbalom is also used in John Barrys soundtrack for
the 1965 British espionage thriller The Ipcress File, appar-
ently inspired by the prominent use of a zither in Anton
Karas score for 1949s The Third Man.
R . J . W H E A T O N


A critical shared infuence of Portishead uniting

Geoff Barrow and guitarist/co-producer Adrian Utley,
as well as Tim Saul when he was involved was
flm soundtracks. The work of Lalo Schifrin, Bernard
Herrmann, Quincey Jones, John Carpenter, Ennio
Morricone, and Nino Rota. Tim Saul remembers
listening in Dummys pre-production sessions to Italian
soundtracks, Riz Ortolani; Greek soundtracks as well.
While Barrow was not tremendously interested in the
flms themselves I just collect records I like: ones
from the late 60s and 70s, Italian, French and American
spy movies and thrillers
he had been following
the trajectory of hip-hop, moving from sampling soul
and funk records to fnding breaks on soundtracks.

For Utley the appeal was partly instrumental the
tremolo guitar, for example, that was a trademark of
60s espionage movies.
But for the band in general
the interest was in the forced experimentation that was
required to create suspense and other emotions in the
absence of tools like synthesizers. That was what Utley
heard in The Ipcress File an experimentation with
instrumentation and arrangements that was absent from
some of the composers other work.
Or in the electric
guitar on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, which is such
a disgusting noise when it comes in.
As Barrow put it,
they had to do it with guitars, backward tapes and all
Darling 1995.
Uhelszki 1995.
Uhelszki 1995.
Innersound 2008.
Miller 1995.


kinds of madness.
It was an approach, an aesthetic,
rather than simply an instrumental end result. Utley said,
all theyve got is a Fender Rhodes and an echo unit.
They havent got masses of technology, so they record
something really dodgy with that and then fip the tape
over so its backwards. Its really inventive, a little bit crap
and just sounds really vibey.
The Ipcress File aesthetically so similar to Dummy in
its angular, highly stylized approach and in its insouciant,
deadpan tone is quoted in the bands soundtrack
to their short flm, To Kill a Dead Man. Alexander
Hemming, the director, remembers meeting the band
and his reaction to tracks from Dummy:
I said they reminded me a little of soundtracks of movies
from the 70s and then we spent the next few hours
talking about the movies we liked such as Ipcress File
and Get Carter. Not just the soundtracks but also
the visuals too. The way odd camera angles were used
and also shooting through or past something in the
foreground, whether it was a window, windscreen, mirror
or anything else for that matter, the view often obscured
by something else.
To Kill a Dead Man almost serves as a tour of the bands
soundtrack infuences. And the opening chords to Riz
Ortolanis gorgeous theme to the 1971s Confessione di un
Gladstone 1995.
Miller 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


commissario (Confessions of a Police Captain) have a clear

echo, beaten several octaves and registers down, in the
organ bass fgures that give Wandering Star its unfor-
giving inertia.
Ortolanis soundtrack to the 1972 flm Sette orchidee
macchiate di rosso (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids) is jarringly
close to Dummy: the spacious dynamic and tonal range;
the funky drum pattern; the loping bassline and languid
pace. The chiming upper register, archaic instrumentation
shining in reverberation against electric underpinnings.
Not that the band necessarily saw the flm itself, but the
palette of the opening scenes also matches Dummy: a
neon urban nightscape, blues and greens, lights indistinct
upon the darkness like shapes at sea.
* * *
Geoff Barrows severe dyslexia made studying diffcult;
an attempt to be a graphic designer fnally thwarted
by color-blindness after nine months of study. For a
long time I didnt really do an awful lot, he said for a
French documentary later. And I wanted to do music.
Cold-calling Bristol studios for work, he met without
success Oh no, sorry, were completely overmanned
and underpaid
until he reached engineer Andy
Allen, who was then building Coach House Studios in the
Clifton area. In exchange for help with the construction,
he offered to grant Barrow a Youth Training Scheme
Trynka 1997.


* * *
Massive Attack were soon working out of Coach House
to complete their debut album, Blue Lines. Massive
Attack were three former members of the Wild Bunch:
Grant Marshall, Robert Del Naja, and Andrew Vowles
Daddy G, 3D, and Mushroom. By that time Cameron
McVey and Neneh Cherry had established their Cherry
Bear Organization, which had provided funding and
recording time at their London house to the band. Key
tracks from Blue Lines Safe from Harm, One Love,
Unfnished Sympathy, Lately were recorded at
Coach House.
Blue Lines was an incredibly infuential, genre-breaking
record, establishing a template for what would later
controversially and imperfectly become known
as trip-hop. Slow tempos; minor keys; female voices
soaring above funky organ loops and resonant basslines.
Blue Lines retains an edge and a charm entirely its own;
a range of infuences, textures, backgrounds far broader
than almost everything that followed it; a commitment
to minimalism that remains bracing and fresh; a pleasure
in its own texture that is genuine, not characterized by
the exhibitionism of later imitators. There are directions
the genre did not take. Some moments remain aston-
ishing: the opening of Five Man Army, which takes
the drum sample from the start of Al Greens Im Glad
Youre Mine and allies it to a dub bassline, a transform-
ative contrast to the hip-hop context in which the break
is normally used. The impeccably gorgeous Unfnished
Sympathy, which radicalizes the drum machine samples
that, in other records from the time, are now uselessly
R . J . W H E A T O N


dated, but instead makes of them something glittering,

ringing, shining, a permanent crescendo.
* * *
Geoff Barrow found the environment at Coach House
I started getting on with G; they were all really friendly,
and Jonny Dollar was a really nice bloke. But I was a
terrible tape-op I couldnt clean the heads of the tape
machine, I couldnt set anything up or plug anything
in. The only thing I was really good at was constantly
making tea.
Nonetheless he used the time to learn. He remembered
this kind of Casio keyboard which I know it sounds
like really small bait but it actually had a sampler. And
a little Neve desk outside. So I used to just spend all my
time on that with a pair of headphones. Sampling bits and
bobs. And more messing around on my own stuff than
really working, you know.
He remembered spending the 3 years at Coach House
stuck in front of a computer screen day in and day
out, programming stuff.
He told Vibe in 1995 that
Trynka 1997.
B.B.C. 2010.
McLean 2008.


I was interested in learning about the entire sound

spectrum I would analyze what made a popular song
work, trying to dig deeper into the psychology of the
During this time a key infuence was Jonathan
Sharp better known as Jonny Dollar who with
McVey was co-producer of Blue Lines. Dollars work
was characterized by his rigorous perfectionism and
commitment to minimalism. Talking to Sound on Sound
in 2000, he commented that:
Where most people seem to go wrong with loop-based
records is that they start out with the loop and then
they forget that its the main thing on the record they
get more interested in the things theyre adding, and it
doesnt stay in the context of the loop so the loop ends
up getting buried. We always put the loop up front with
everything else inside it. I dont like too many parts
audible on a record, I like things fairly minimal.
* * *
Cameron McVey was impressed with Barrows work and
bought him an Akai sampler and recording time.
was hired to contribute material for Neneh Cherrys
second album, Homebrew. In 2008 Barrow recalled, I can
remember doing three beats for Neneh and getting paid
a grand in cash! I was, like, Ill give you 50 beats!
Vibe 1995.
Senior 2000.
Trynka 1997.
McLean 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N


albums seventh track, Somedays, is credited to Barrow

as co-producer, and in some respects prefgures Dummys
arrangements. The song features a minor-key chord
sequence played out on an electric piano; a drum pattern
with a snare almost lost in its own reverb, a synth fgure
gliding above in a manner that recalls the Mysterons
theremin. In the last 30 seconds of the song the tracks
formative materials are replayed through a haze of
reverberation, foregrounding the constructed-ness of the
track, the contingency of its materials.
Barrow also co-produced Trickys frst recorded solo
single, Nothings Clear, which appeared on a charity
compilation album called The Hard Sell. From the
soundtrack to Jean-Jacques Beineixs 1986 flm 372 le
matin (Betty Blue) the song takes a tentative, uncertain,
delicate piano riff, a featherlight sketch of dissonance. It
then pummels it with horn stabs and a hustling bassline:
the boisterous attitude of the U.K.s late 70s 2 Tone
genre, the echoes of dub and ska and punk.
In these early works it is possible to hear an interest
in the charming effects of dissonance; a pleasure in the
abstract nature of sounds taken to extremes. Above all a
pleasure in melody.
* * *
Tim Saul met Barrow during this period; he recalls that
there was quite a buzz about this young guy who had
been taken under the Massive Attack crew, under their
wing if you like. And Bristol isnt that big a place. I can
remember I was really curious to meet this guy.


Barrow was still spending time with Andy Smith, who

remembered in a French documentary after the release
of Dummy:
basically he had a sampler and a keyboard but he didnt
really have anything to sample. So he was a bit devoid of
stuff. So I used to go round with like crates and crates of
old records, and just used to go round his house all night,
and we fipped through them and just put stuff together
I was saying What do you think of this? What do
you think of that? What do you think of that? I had so
much stuff. And thats what were like the original demos
for the Dummy album was from those all-night sessions.
* * *
Dave McDonald was then an engineer at State of
Art, a very very plush high-end demo studio that
he had helped owner Julian Hill put together. Hill
later known as Gobz from goth rock band Whores of
Babylon introduced him to Geoff Barrow, with whom
McDonalds musical connection was immediate:
He came in and we got on like a house on fre So we
started, me and Geoff started, every bit of spare time I
had, or evenings or whatever, I started to push more and
more for time and we were just getting more and more
involved in this, making this interesting music. Geoff
had an amazing ear for samples. I was very intrigued
with it, because I was more from the old school of
French television documentary.
R . J . W H E A T O N


recording instruments. But I was very interested in

all this new technology. He had acquired some of this
technology from some of the sessions hed been doing
up at the Coach House for Massive Attack Cameron
had obviously seen the thing in Geoff and supplied him
with I think it was an S900 sampler and a little digital
mixer. Real high-end stuff, you know? And a little drum
He remembered that Barrow was then collaborating
with a number of people. From the town of Portishead
were programmer Richard Newell and Rhodes player
Neil Solman. It was very like how Massive Attack
worked, recalled McDonald, in the sense that theres
lots of different artists. But everyone was an unknown
artist. We were all completely unknown and we had no
form whatsoever. There were several singers involved
at that point including Helen White, who went on to
record with Bristol downtempo unit Alpha; and a male
singer named Marc Bessant, a longtime friend of Barrow
who later helped develop the bands visual materials.
And a singer named Beth Gibbons.
* * *
Geoff Barrow had met Beth Gibbons among a number of
participants at a government-run Enterprise Allowance
job creation scheme. Barrow, who had been searching
for a soul singer, remembered being approached by


There was a tea-break and she came over and asked

what kind of stuff do you do? She gave me her number.
I sent her a tape, a backing track and she sang over that.
It was strange because she sang a proper adult vocal, a
cover version of a song one of her friends had written.
It was pretty bizarre because up till then all Id got from
vocalists was stuff like get higher, can you feel the
heat? or move to the beat. And she was singing about
Gandhi and stuff like that. It was pretty bizarre.
He had been impressed by the personal, honest view of
her lyrics and the qualities of her voice.
When I frst heard her voice I didnt know what to make
of it, because I suppose being into hip-hop or being
into soul music styles, she had a strange voice compared
to that. She had come from folk and Janis Ian and Janis
Joplin. I just didnt think it was going to work. But then
there was this realness in what she was singing. She
recorded this track called It Could be Sweet which is
really kind of like an early track. It wasnt soul but
then, it kind of was and it wasnt overtly jazzy. And it
wasnt folk. But she brought this adultness to the track.
All of a sudden it was this is actually real. And shes
singing about things that she obviously cares about.
Her vocal range was also impressive. She visited Barrow
then living with his mother; She was just deafening
Marcus 1997.
Lewis 1994.
B.B.C. 2010.
R . J . W H E A T O N


I thought my mum was going to have a right go! I was

worried about the neighbours.
He sensed that her reaction to his approach was also
uncertain. I think she wanted to be in this real musician
scenario, which was all shed ever known. So meeting me,
this guy with a couple of boxes making funny noises, was
pretty strange for her I think we were both a bit wary
of each other but impressed with each other.
* * *
With work on Homebrew completed, Cherry and McVey
now Barrows manager sought some time out
of the country, and offered Barrow (with his extended
collective) funding of about 40,000 and the use of
their London home with its studio.
I just refused to
produce for Geoff Barrow, McVey told Tribe magazine.
I just kept telling him to fuck off and carry on in the
same direction he was already going by himself I also
told him to stick with the one singer and pointed out
that hed be hard pressed to fnd a better name than his
The group was there for almost a year, over the course
of which, as McDonald recalls, it started to whittle
down into the main core of people. Tim Saul, who had
moved from Bristol back to London, saw in this time
a kind of natural process of distillation that having
McLean 2008.
Marcus 1997.
McLean 2008.
La Polla undated.


tried to work with a few singers Geoff recognized the

very special musical relationship that he and Beth had
got. He also recalls Barrows style maturing during
that period, developing a strong style from minimal
you can hear Geoff developing as a producer with his
own particular way of approaching the production and
programming. The setup of an Atari 1040, Akai sampler,
combined with I think it was a Yamaha drum machine
that he used. And then starting to fnd the best way of
making them work together. Actually a very minimal
* * *
At the end of the year, Dave McDonald recalls we ended
up with a shedload of material, an absolute shedload
of material. With the funding exhausted and McVey
and Cherry returning to London, the group relocated
to Bristol, establishing residence with the beneft of
McDonalds connections at State of Art.
A demo tape was produced with versions of the
earliest songs that became part of Dummy It Could
be Sweet, Its a Fire, Sour Times, and a lot of stuff
thats never been released, according to McDonald. It
attracted attention from Ferdy Unger-Hamilton who
was an A&R representative at Go! Beat, a subsidiary of
prominent label Go! Discs Records.
The band also started doing remixes to raise money
to keep our little project going Depeche Modes In
Your Room, and Walking in My Shoes; Paul Wellers
R . J . W H E A T O N


Wildwood; Primal Screams Give Out But Dont Give

A remix of Gabrielles Going Nowhere took the
originals poppy, brassy optimism, and pounded it with
the breakbeat from Lou Donaldsons Pot Belly, a
hip-hop mainstay comprised of a busy snare and cymbal
ride, a blunted bassline, and fatended organ stabs. The
break is pushed hard; the result is surprisingly unset-
tling, and by the middle of the song many of the bands
signature tricks are on display, including the impeccable,
dramatic timing with which new elements are drawn in
and snapped out. But the vocal remains at the front, the
melody at the centre of a soundscape which accrues the
qualities of a vortex around it.
On the basis of the demo and the Gabrielle remix,
Unger-Hamilton signed Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons
as Portishead. Adrian Utley drove the pair to London to
sign the contract.
For some critics the bands name was in keeping
with the the hometown tradition of hip hop: Watts
Prophets, Sugarhill Gang, Cypress Hill, something in
keeping with Barrows dominant stylistic infuence.

But Barrow recalled the sense of mystery that the name
Portishead somehow evoked for those not familiar with
the geographic locale:
We were called Portishead because we were all working
in London and my ex-manger would call us The lads
from Portishead. And then it just stuck. And then was
McLean 2008.
Harrison undated.


just this really weird ironic kind of I hated Portishead

and we just called ourselves after the town. It was
ridiculous. But we couldnt come up with a better name.
And we used Portishead as a name, and people said I
really like that name; whats that from? Because they
didnt know it was the town. And that has been it, ever
B.B.C. 2010.


A cacophony of metaphors Grunge breakbeats
Strangers The air under assault Public Enemy
Hard-bop jazz More tea A 79 Chevy
Caprice Classic The Roland TR-808
The resonant qualities of the human lung
Student housing Floors and ceilings
Church bells and curfew Highest tide
Numb was released in June 1994, the frst single from
Dummy. It was distributed to D.J.s frst as a white label.
The sleeve featured a still from To Kill a Dead Man, as
would Dummy itself and the singles for Sour Times,
and Glory Box. On the cover of Numb the image is
almost abstract a detail of a forearm, a hand, a piece of
medical tubing. A hand raised, presumably to the head, in
an apparent gesture of despair, helplessness. The image
is grayed-out against a deep and foreboding blue stain;
the singles sleeve a fat unreadable cream. No intimation
as to the songs nature or to its musical workings. An art
object, distanced from its contents.
The title track was accompanied on the A-side by two
remixes, entitled Numbed in Moscow, and Revenge of


the Number. We tended to have fun renaming them in

quite obscure ways, remembers Tim Saul. The remixes
on the B-side, Earth Linger, and A Tribute to
Monk & Canatella, are opaque references to two little-
known Bristol bands, including Sauls own Earthling.
* * *
What to make of this music. The immediate critical
response to Dummy was one of confusion brandished
to a hard point of aesthetic shock. It seemed to cross so
many genres, to suggest so many moods. A cacophony of
the torched soul of prime-era Peggy Lee dressed in
spy movie, spaghetti Western and 90s urban cool.
A chain-smoking Joni Mitchell hanging out with
Cypress Hill.
A near-ambient pastiche of dub, techno, R&B, and
The John Philip Sousa of the Prozac Nation?
Black-hearted soul stirs up a whole new genre:
disque noir.
Early enthusiasts included legendary broadcaster Bob
Harris, who gave Strangers heavy airplay in London.
Darling 1995.
Quoted in Darling 1995.
Entertainment Weekly 1995.
Entertainment Weekly 1995.
Bernstein 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Like others, he struggled to arrive at a description that

was not a hybrid of genre references:
Its such an innovative album. The description present
day urban blues fts it very well. Soul comes in so many
forms you dont have to be Otis Redding to have soul
and the albums part of an amazing surge of really
good music coming out of the U.K. right now, at last.
* * *
In the U.S. Dummys arrival had, perhaps, been to more
fertile ground than is commonly thought. The use of
hip-hop-infuenced breakbeats had been part of the alter-
native American rock scene; Greg Milner has suggested
that an awareness of hip-hop is arguably the single most
recognizable aspect of alt-rock in the nineties. Break
beats were everywhere just listen to Dave Grohls
drumming on the chorus of Teen Spirit.
There was a
kind of cultural caesura at the death of Kurt Cobain
an event mentioned to me by numerous North American
listeners in connection with their experience of Dummy,
a moment that seemed to suggest the exhaustion of alter-
native rock, to allow, as Vancouver writer Sean Cranbury
notes, a move away from that organic guitar-drums-bass
verse-chorus-verse mentality. MTV gave Sour Times
heavy play as part of their Buzz Bin.
By February 1995
the single had reached #55 in Billboards pop chart on the
Sexton 1994.
Milner 2010, p. 179.
Taraska 1997.


back of extensive exposure on alternative radio.

In the
UK Dummy reached #32 in 1994 and peaked at #2 the
following May, with further chart success on the back of
the prestigious Mercury Prize win later that year.
* * *
In April 1995 Portishead recorded a D.J. set for the
B.B.C.s famed Essential Mix series. The set is a showcase
for the bands musical tastes, and the delight they
exhibit in the weathered sonic detritus of their own
production. The opening of Strangers is stretched to
almost 4 minutes, the mechanical roll and thrum of the
songs conclusion distended and grafted back onto the
introduction. The sensation is piston-like, menacing,
hydraulic, entirely unhuman; a momentum irresistible
by the time the opening saxophone sample sucks you
into the songs beginning. At 11 minutes into the mix, the
song is repeatedly stalled upon the turntables chassis, a
moment of pure rhythmic vertigo, an assertion of sounds
pure substance, of its bone-rattling sovereignty among
the world of things.
The sample that opens the song is a saxophone fgure
drawn from Elegant People, a 1976 track by jazz-
fusion act Weather Report. On Strangers the moment
is shifted down in pitch, transformed from an elegant,
dreamy opening to a waxy, spooling threat that cleaves
open the start of the song.
Then: the thundering opening sequence the bass
used as percussion, a klaxon-like sound scored over the
Entertainment Weekly 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


top, a snare daubed with its own reversed decay, a guitar

so distorted that it sounds reedy. Dummy is an album
characterized by dramatic contrasts; Strangers delivers
the most. It skids into a jazzy guitar riff, all lilt and
swing, yet covered with such clatter and reverb that, with
Gibbons distant voice can anybody see the light?
it sounds as if it was recorded in a cave.
* * *
One of Dummys recurrent themes is of isolation, and
while Strangers furthers that Did you realize no
one can see inside your view? it does so less by musing
on loneliness, than by exposing the listener to the raw
disorientation of lived experience. This aint real, sings
Gibbons; and when the song gives way after 2 minutes
to a glistening, graceful bridge, dreamily drawing breath
over shimmering strings and gentle horns, it is only to
trigger another attack of pulmonary violence.
Listened to in a club; listened to at high volume
Dummy is an album that restores itself at high volume as
does a diver in a decompression chamber the atmos-
phere is flled with the sheer noise of the song. While the
albums resonant, physical bass fgures are unremitting in
their pressure on ones chest, in Strangers the experience
is more encompassing, disorienting, confusing, as if the
air itself is under assault. It triggers alarm, but withholds
The songs ending is a gradual shutting down, a denial
of oxygen; the bottom of the song dropping away to leave
Gibbons vocal exposed, breathy, and then caught by the
asphyxiating backwash of its own reverb. Collapsing,


shorn of its klaxon-like alarm, the song continues for 30

seconds before abruptly, suddenly, ceasing.
* * *
For Adrian Utley, the discovery of hip-hop was a
huge life-changing experience like having a baby or
Like Geoff Barrow, he has spoken about
the infuence of Public Enemys It Takes a Nation of
Millions to Hold Us Back:
I bought that album on cassette, which made it sound
even better, and played it in my car at ridiculous volume
And for me it was like it was a whole new exciting world
that I knew nothing about But I didnt understand it
and I think when I frst met Geoff that was probably one
of the frst tracks I talked about, or at least that album,
Takes a Nation of Millions. And like a lot of things in your
life, sometimes you are alone with your contemporaries
and you suddenly fnd that you are stepping out into
another world and your friends are not seeing the same as
you are, and for me that very much was it. A lot of people
of my age group at that time and within the world that I
was in were not into it. And I found it like a brave new,
or a new way of interpreting music. It had the energy of
music Id listened to in the past. So we spoke about that,
and I was going, How the hell how do they do
what how is it made? How can that be made? How
do they play it?
Thompson 2009.
NPR 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N


* * *
Adrian Utleys original inspirations had included Jimi
Hendrix (the sound was just so vicious and brilliant)
and Black Sabbath; he had played and recorded in
genres including disco and reggae.
But by the early
90s he had impeccable credentials on the British jazz
scene, having played with scene mainstays Tommy Chase
and Dick Morrissey, along the way working alongside
organist Gary Baldwin (who plays Hammond on three
of Dummys songs). He founded a band called The Glee
Club with Clive Deamer (whose drums appear on seven
of Dummys tracks). He had relocated to Bristol in 1986,
relishing the vibrancy of its jazz scene.
he had begun to feel the constraints of jazz as a creative
medium, overdetermined in some way by the towering
innovations of the giants of his inspiration. He told a
Dutch magazine in 1997:
Its true that I played jazz for a long time with all sorts
of people. But I stopped because I can never equal my
heroes John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Ill never be as
good or as spiritual as they were thirty years ago. Thats
why I thought it more useful to contribute something to
the present-day music, to start something new.
* * *
NPR 2008.
Johnson 1996, p. 168.
Watt 1997.


At Coach House Studios, Massive Attacks Mushroom

introduced Utley to Tribe Called Quests second L.P.
which I liked because a lot of their sound was Blue
Note, Grant Green samples and stuff
and he met
Geoff Barrow around the time of Massive Attacks Blue
Lines sessions:
hed sampled a break from our drummer, whos actually
Clive [Deamer], who plays on all our stuff. He had like a
[Casio] FZ-1 sampler set up outside, with a lead through
to the live room, where we were playing. And he asked if
he could use one of the breaks.
And I remember saying, No.
Tim Saul remembers Barrow and Utley bonding over
cups of tea and biscuits and listening to The Low End
Theory. Utley absorbed Barrows extensive knowledge of
hip-hop and its production techniques; in return he was
familiar with the materials in hard-bop jazz from which
many hip-hop producers of the time were sampling. He
had been experimenting with hip-hop and jazz:
I was making loads of trippy beats and playing jazz over
them, but I never recorded it, Id just sit there playing it
incredibly loudly. There were no songs and people used
to listen to it and say there was no way it could be done.
* * *
Johnson 1996, p. 170.
B.B.C. 2010.
Johnson 1996, p. 170
R . J . W H E A T O N


In 1983 D.J. Jazzie Jay had been part of Afrika Bambaataas

Soul Sonic Force collective, who had used the Roland
TR-808 drum machine on the 1982s epochal Planet
Rock. Made for just 3 years starting in 1980, the 808
was used in Marvin Gayes Sexual Healing in the same
year, but its inferiority to the Linn LM-1 and the obvious
artifce of its sounds kept it from high-end commercial
adoption. Nonetheless, the distance in price from the
Linn made it more accessible to hip-hop producers and
others lacking deep-pocket commercial backing.
With Rick Rubin, Jay produced T La Rocks Its
Yours. He remembered the last stages of its production:
At that time I had a 79 Chevy Caprice Classic and the
system was unmatched. Its not like today where they
make systems for cars. I had to actually go in with a saw,
cut out half the back deck, put in four 8-inch woofers,
two 5s in the door, midrange tweeters, three amplifers
bolted into the trunk, a three-way crossover in the glove
compartment, a Passaic equalizer, and a tuner in the
front That was the criteria of whether Its Yours had
enough bass because my car system at that time it was
the epitome of bass! Wed go upstairs in the Power Play,
make a rough cassette, Rick would run downstairs and
throw it in the car and it had to have enough bass. Thats
one thing he was meticulous on Yo, it has to have
more bass! Hed go upstairs like, Nope. Not enough
bass, and the guy would be like, Theres too much bass
as it is! Look the meters are peaking!
JayQuan and Aldave undated.


Its Yours was one of the frst songs to take the charac-
teristic kick drum sound of the 808 and sustain it,
exposing the deep booming bass sound of which it was
comprised essentially a sine wave, a deep hum, with
very little pitch content.
Rick Rubin used the sound in productions for the
Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C., and LL Cool J. Miami
producers such as Amos Larkins began using the sustained
808 kick sound on tracks including Double Duces
Commin in Fresh and M.C. A.D.E.s Bass Rock
Express (both 1985), reportedly discovering the sound by
accident and being impressed by the ecstatic reaction of
audiences to test pressings.
Producer Mr. Mixx used the
sound on 2 Live Crews Throw the D in 1986.
These records were the founding statements of the
Miami Bass genre cars, explicit lyrics, explicit imagery,
bass. Bass. Travis Glave recalls:
your car rattling so damn bad that you cant see out your
rear view mirror. You could feel it in your chest and in your
gut. You would tie something on your mirror just to see how
much you could get it to jump when the 808 kick drum hit
Your trunk was useless with all the speaker equipment
in it. A box with Twelves or Fifteens, an amp big enough
that you needed two batteries to run it, if you didnt, your
headlights would be dimming to the sound of the bass.
The sound was on every major hip-hop release by 1987,
1988; heavily in use by producers like Marley Marl and
PapaWheelie 2005.
Glave 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Ced Gee. It was possible to produce it without the 808

itself: a synthesizer could sound a low-frequency sine
wave which was then triggered by a kick drum and only
slowly released. It resounds through the classic Juice
Crew sides, through the Ultramagnetic MCs Critical
Beatdown. So pneumatically present in tracks like The
Symphony and Biz Markies Make the Music With
Your Mouth Biz that it makes the songs pitch and roll at
every hit. Public Enemys Yo! Bum Rush the Snow; Eric B.
& Rakims Paid in Full. N.W.A.s Straight Outta Compton.
Its mutations in Miami 2 Live Crews As Nasty as
They Wanna Be, Afro-Ricans Give it All You Got
were bounced back into the hip-hop mainstream. On
Eric B. & Rakims Mahogany, from 1990s Let the
Rhythm Hit Em, the bass sustain is so long that it has
an almost deafening momentum of its own, driving the
song forward with the force of mortar fre. Only Rakims
sway and pokerfaced swagger holds it to the click and
snap of the So Glad Youre Mine sample, which is left
tap-danced and sprawled across the top of the track.
* * *
Our ability to hear in the sub-bass range is limited; our
ability to reproduce these sounds for mass consumption
was for decades compromised by the tendency of record
needles to jump out of the groove if bass sounds were
mastered at high volume, particularly in stereo.
Our experience of these sounds is as physical as it is
auditory. They pass through us, seem to resound within
our ribcages, to precipitate an unsettling of the spaces


around us cars, bars, clubs as the long waveforms

pass through and around all intervening structures.
Resonant frequencies: the tendency for structures
to vibrate in sympathy with an external waveform that
matches their own natural peak oscillation. Bridges,
towers, vehicles. Absorbing more energy than they can
contain, structures weaken, collapse. This is why soldiers
across a bridge are instructed to march in breakstep.
In 2004 a report in the medical journal Thorax
described the sudden onset of pneumothorax a
condition in which a small rupture in one of the lungs
allows air to leak into the space between the lungs and
the chest wall, causing the lung to collapse. The report
suggested as a possible cause that the subjects lungs were
vibrating at the same frequency as the loud bass sounds
to which they had exposed themselves.
* * *
The 808/sine bass sound is all over those early, seminal
Bristol sides. T La Rocks Its Yours was, according to
the D.J. Milo-curated collection Story of a Sound System,
a part of the Wild Bunchs mid-80s repertoire. The
sound appears on the Wild Bunchs The Look of Love;
Massive Attacks pretty, lilting 1990 single Any Love;
Carltons The Call is Strong. Bomb the Bass producer
Tim Simenon used it on Say a Little Prayer; it forms
part of the thump and stroll of Soul II Souls Club Classics
Vol. One. Somehow the cumulative effect of the sound on
these sides is to buoy as much as propel the vocals. With
Reuters 2004.
R . J . W H E A T O N


the decayed snare gasp it is one of the elements of Neneh

Cherrys Somedays produced by Geoff Barrow
that anticipate Dummy.
* * *
And it is everywhere in Dummy. It lends It Could be
Sweet its pulsing impetus; it impels the heart-stopping
introduction to Pedestal. On Mysterons it arrives
alongside the theremin sound and it resounds upwards
through the song like a series of reverberations cast
through an anchor chain from unseen depths.
Dummy is an exceptionally bass-heavy album. Many
of the songs in another inheritance from hip-hop
do not have a distinct bass part throughout, but
those frequencies are never untroubled. Organ parts,
amplifed to emphasize shattering low-frequency
vibration; kick drums with the space cleared around
them to allow unimpeded detonation. The albums
basslines themselves are designed sculpted, almost
for dramatic effect as much as musical. Listen to the
double bass on Numb slam into the songs frmament;
the dreamy textured harmonics of Pedestal; the
swooning upward motion of the basslines in It Could
be Sweet and Its a Fire.
* * *
The foors and the ceilings through which Dummy
spread. The foors and the ceilings that this album
damaged. The fxtures and the paint that it loosened
from walls.


A poster to the 4AD-L mailing list in January 1995

described momentarily hearing Dummy in a Virgin
record store in Nottingham I swear the foor was
physically shaking before it was abruptly replaced
with Chris Rea or some other commercially acceptable
shopping muzak.
Larisa Alexandrovna has written lyrically on her blog
of her own discovery of Dummy as a student:
I was sitting in my bedroom and I heard Roads by
Portishead emanating from the downstairs apartment.
The two guys below me could not have been more
different from the rest of us. I was madly in love
with one of them (in that whole Petrarchan model of
admiring someone from afar way) and it so happened
that his bedroom was directly below mine, in that poorly
constructed, thin-walled, thin-foored building. Needless
to say I was hyper-aware of every sound, movement,
breath coming out of my bedroom foor.
Ira Tam, living in a turn-of-the-century three-storey
house knob-and-tube wiring and walls of wire
mesh with plaster over it in the Annex, Torontos
student quarter. I would play Portishead a lot. The
people who lived below me could always tell when I
was playing Portishead. They could hear the bass. They
could really hear the bass.
* * *
Norman 1995.
Alexandrovna 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N


In centuries past the ability to manipulate large volumes

of sound sounds that could make buildings vibrate,
sounds that announced themselves was the province
only of military or ecclesiastical authority. Church bells,
cannon fre. Through history, loud reverberant sounds
have been associated with emotion, fear, control, power,
community, celebration, solemnity, the regulation of
work, the threat of invasion and the invasion of epidemic,
with the mercurial pitch and implacable reach of nature.
Those cues could be inclusive, signaling to those
within hearing that they remained within the safety and
province of what R. Murray Schafer called acoustic
communities parishes, the North American long
Rival localities would engage in a kind of aural
arms race to erect the most arresting vertical vista and
bell quality of the parish churchs tower.
But the sounds could also be exclusive, malevolent,
demonstrating a taut and one-sided relationship with
authority. At the end of the 1830s, an English actress
and diarist named Frances Kemble was en route to her
husbands Georgia slave plantation. She heard:
a most ominous tolling of bells and beating of drums,
which, on the frst evening of my arrival in Charleston,
made me almost fancy myself in one of the old fortifed
frontier towns of the Continent, where the tocsin is
sounded, and the evening drum beaten, and the guard set
as regularly every night as if an invasion were expected.
In Charleston, however, it is not the dread of foreign
Schafer 1997, p. 215.
Corbin 1998, p. 43.


invasion, but of domestic insurrection, which occasions

these nightly precautions; and, for the frst time since my
residence in this free country, the curfew (now obsolete
in mine, except in some remote districts, where the
ringing of an old church bell at sunset is all that remains
of the tyrannous custom) recalled the associations of
early feudal times, and the oppressive insecurity of our
Norman conquerors.
* * *
This is in part the radicalism embedded within hip-hop,
block parties; dub, sound systems. The ability to proclaim
impromptu communal gatherings; to do so in the face of
offcial authority, of municipal legislation. In atmos-
pheric space that in centuries past was militarized.
Bass frequencies, having the longest waveform, will
travel further than other frequencies. This is why the
bass sounds are all that is audible from a distant sound
source; why church bells and fog horns, overheard in the
distance of the night and under the cloak of darkness,
heard across the tops of cities and reverberating among
the hills of coastal bays, are stripped of the full and truthful
reproduction of their sound. There is the suggestion of
the familiar, but also a reminder that we exist in the
dominion of the unknown. So Mysterons, Strangers,
Wandering Star. Songs saturated in bass, so redolent
of the night, suggesting in their presence the comfort
of companionship but in their form the distress of exile.
The unknown. The blackness of darkness forever.
Kemble 1961, p. 39.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Personal stereo equipment has given individuals

themselves control of the acoustic space around them
space that now reaches deeply into that of others; of
strangers. The production of noise is now part of the
experience of leisure, the expression of taste, the display
of consumer status. We are far from a world where
sound was the medium of state and gods. This is not just
the assertion of musical taste, but the celebration of the
primacy of taste itself. We have made the atmosphere
itself aesthetic; we have made a medium of desire from
the resonant qualities of architecture.
* * *
Resonance occurs also in the Earths waters. There are
a handful of places on the planet where the distance of
the movement of water from one end of an inlet to the
other happens to match the length of the tide produced
by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun. Such
resonance produces extraordinarily high and low tides.
One of the places where this phenomenon is visible is
at the docks in Portishead.


The beehive The state of the art Magpies
Vienna Just bubbling all day Nina Simone and Ray
Charles Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records
Inc. The right vibe A guy with a cutting press A good
steak The Woolsworth It Could be Sweet The
integumentary system Not a traditional songwriting
situation Vampires in New York
State of Art Studios is located on an industrial trading
estate on the east side of Bristol not in the most
salubrious part of town; its a bit down at heel really, says
Tim Saul. In 1993 it was very new, well equipped, and,
for a demo studio, very large. Dave McDonald, having
helped owner Julian Hill build the studio, was familiar
with the facilities:
I think it was probably at the beginning of, you could say,
the budget recording revolution, where you didnt have
to buy a 24-track 2-inch machine or you didnt have to
go out and remortgage your house to buy a Neve desk
and all that kind of stuff. It suddenly became feasible that
R . J . W H E A T O N


for say 15,000 which was a lot of money then you

could actually kit your whole studio out.
Adrian Utley quickly became a part of the sessions. Sour
Times had been pretty near to its fnal version, Utley
recalled in 1996, when Barrow asked him to contribute
a guitar part. From there he was asked to assume some
production responsibilities, including arranging and
Sour Times was the song that provided a
roadmap between the material accumulated in London
and the material that would eventually form much of
Dummy. [That song] saved it all, really, Barrow said in
Tim Saul was invited by Barrow to join the sessions
to contribute ideas. He arrived from London in October
1993 and remembers the frenetic activity:
I think we had three different setups within there one
for Geoff, if I remember, one for Adrian, and one for
myself. And we were just basically experimenting, sort of
working up ideas, writing tracks, demoing ideas. Like a
small beehive a factory of activity really. We were
experimenting quite a lot with making our own samples.
So we would invite different musicians into the studio,
record, and do live sessions. I mean that was going on
anyway with people like Adrian. Obviously he came
from much more of a live background than the rest of us
at that point. But we also brought in people like Jim Barr,
Johnson 1996, p. 171.
Darling 1995.


and John Baggott, Clive Deamer who all ended up as

being very much part of the Portishead live band.
* * *
By 1988, the dominant strain of hip-hop beat construction
had shifted slightly away from the drum machine and
back towards the progressively more ingenious art of
sampling. Part of the craft was crate-digging the
obsessive search for obscure records which might contain
a few seconds, ideally an instrumental break which
could be repurposed looped again and again as a
compulsive, propulsive beat.
Hip-hops producers found raw materials in their
parents record collections, making it almost uniquely
among popular musical movements something where
the parental infuence was not just something to rebel
against but also something with which to collaborate.
The art was relentlessly inventive, competitive. Mr.
Walt, producer for hip-hop group Black Moon, remem-
bered that Our era, how we came up, was all about using
a beat that no one else had used before. In our crew it
was that, and then always: Whose beat is going to be
fresher? So the competition was ferce.
Among the available techniques: time correction,
slowing or accelerating a sample to make it ft relative
to other parts (often other samples); by so doing, pitch-
shifting: making it higher or lower, for a particular
sonic effect or to tune it to other samples; fltering:
Coleman 1997, pp. 164165, 194, 306, 435.
Coleman 1997, p. 56.
R . J . W H E A T O N


emphasizing some elements of the frequency mix so that

particular timbres and even instrumental parts (frequently
a bassline) could be isolated; stereo separation: sampling
just one side of the mix, usually to isolate or privilege a
particular instrument, but leaving the tell-tale detritus of
other parts.
Sometimes the ideal loop would be nascent in a
record, and a producer would chop and slice samples to
assemble a loop from different parts of the same record,
laboriously reordering minute fragments of sound.
* * *
Producers would manipulate samples in order to demon-
strate their skill relative to their peers, and indeed to
prevent any immediate recognition of the source sample.
To Tim Saul the appeal of hip-hop production was
a magpie instinct the idea of taking a lot of small
fragments from different places, manipulating them,
and then creating something new with that. Learning
their craft as producers in Bristol in the early 90s, he
and Barrow would engage one another in sparring, in
sample challenges:
you give somebody a ridiculously bad-taste piece of music,
and you say right, go on then: make a tune out of that.
And I can remember Geoff making some great tracks
that didnt end up on the Portishead album out of
things like Vienna by Ultravox. I have a horrible feeling
Bonnie Tyler featured somewhere in there as well. He did
See Coleman 1997.


something with Total Eclipse of the Heart. And I think

at those moments thats probably when I realized just
how talented he was, when he made a fairly reasonable-
sounding hip-hop beat out of something so atrocious.
In this context Andy Smiths impeccable crate-digging
credentials were, as Dave McDonald remembers, a
critical creative infuence. He used to come up all the
time, bringing records up and playing records. Huge
infuence on everything that we did [he] was forever
just throwing music our way. Andy Smith remembered
that I used to take records round and say do you know
this, do you know that? I just used to give [Geoff]
ideas of loops that he would make into tracks that went
onto the frst two albums.
* * *
Dave McDonald describes the process used in exploring
samples for Dummy:
We would listen to tons and tons of records. And
Geoff would just start looping them. Id be in the studio
at the desk, hed be looping, and we would just listen
through to things And youd have a loop just almost
bubbling all day, just cooking all day, just on the pot. Just
looping around and different ideas going down onto it.
And it would start to either take form or just get put
aside, just be put onto DAT for a later date or just for a
reference. And then try something else.
Smith undated.
R . J . W H E A T O N


There were moments of fortuitous discovery and

moments of pure alchemy. A technique that Tim Saul says
was used extensively was playing two samples together
and then fltering off completely the top end of one and
the bottom end of another. And then the curious thing
that would happen was that you would create something
entirely new. Dave McDonald recalls the same thing in
manipulating the speed of samples:
The amazing thing is when you start playing around with
records, when you start slowing stuff down, what you
actually hear in there which you would never hear at a
normal speed is quite incredible. Its like when you get
Nina Simone and Ray Charles. You speed Ray Charles
up, and Ray Charles suddenly becomes Nina Simone.
You slow Nina Simone down, she suddenly becomes Ray
Sampling thins the line between listening and creating;
it allows listeners to hear something hidden within
the depths of a song and surface it in ways that the
original artists may never have imagined. It exposes how
listening is itself a creative act. Like Theremin it offered
something democratic; as M.C. Doodlebug, from band
Digable Planets, recalled, We were people that loved
music and wanted to make music, but there werent
music programs in inner-city schools. Kids couldnt learn
guitar or bass. All we had was records and turntables and
we were creating our own sound.
Coleman 1997, pp. 168169.


It was a push towards originality, says Tim Saul.

That was what was really driving it.
* * *
The obscurity of samples was not just a question of
creative oneupmanship but also a way to avoid expensive
legal battles or sample clearance fees. Out-of-court settle-
ments famously including between The Turtles and
De La Soul in 1989 for the sample used on Transmitting
Live From Mars had kept legal precedent from
being established. But in 1992 a ruling by the United
States District Court found that Biz Markies sample of
a Gilbert OSullivan record for Alone Again consti-
tuted copyright violation, entrenching the increasingly
expensive and litigiously dangerous need for sample
By 1993, some artists were turning to musicians
to reproduce samples rather than pay an expensive
fee. Butterfy, from Digable Planets, remembers the
production of Last of the Spiddyocks: I think what
I did was instead of clearing the Art Farmer [sample],
I credited it to someone playing it live, so that I didnt
have to pay for the sample. Back then, sample clearances
was a motherfucker.
Nonetheless on some occasions
it became next to impossible to capture the exact nature
of the loop. Attempting to reproduce a Sly and Family
Stone sample for the song that became Make Munne,
Mr. Walt from Black Moon recalled that [Nervous
Records founder] Michael Weiss didnt want to clear the
Coleman 1997, p. 171.
R . J . W H E A T O N


sample, so we brought a million people into the studio

to replay it, but it was never the right vibe. And after all
that, we ended up going back to the original loop. It was
a bootleg to start with so we wasnt worried, but Michael
was sweating it.
* * *
During the Dummy sessions, Portishead turned towards
producing its own samples, recording Geoff Barrow
and Adrian Utley and performances from a host of
other musicians, many of them from Utleys extensive
network. Many of these musicians Clive Deamer, Jim
Barr, John Baggott, Gary Baldwin, Andy Hague later
became part of Portisheads extended band for touring.
Dave McDonald remembers that:
Once you fnd loops or fnd an idea, theres an idea of
creating this loop yourself. And modifying it. And doing
what you need to do to it. So we would create the loop
Adrian and Geoff would come in and Geoff would play
some drums, Adrian would be doing his guitars and bass
on it and stuff, Id be recording it. Wed get this loop and
wed get loads of them onto DAT. And then we would
get them all pressed up on vinyl. So you would end up
with like a 12-inch with say thirty samples on.
This process not only allowed the band greater creative
control over their samples, but also to move away from
Coleman 1997, p. 67.


the risk of being easily imitated immediately upon a

tracks release. As Barrow explained:
What happened was, within hip-hop, if you sample a
beat, that records out there, so what happens is a week
after, someone else might use it, and that takes away your
fresh sound.
Given the local experience with reggae versions and
dubplates, McDonald recalls it being relatively easy
and inexpensive to fnd these little places where a
guys got a cutting press and get a couple of acetates
But the process of recording original samples was
actually more labor-intensive than simply sampling a
break. It was important to the band that the aural fnger-
print of old vinyl was preserved that the made
samples sounded every bit as aged and authentic as the
found samples.
They were concerned to capture all the extraneous
noise that it might otherwise have been impossible to
remove from an old record. Fragments of a vocal line
that had just fnished. Reverb and decay from instru-
ments on the other side of the stereo mix. You go into
every little, tiny little bit of what makes a good break,
recalled Barrow, and just do it yourself.
Tim Saul recalls making the loop slightly off so it
sounds a bit like a sample, deliberately mis-timing a
break to make it apparent that it was a sample so
Uhelszki 1995.
110 undated.
R . J . W H E A T O N


that the listener hears it and realizes that its a loop, an

obvious loop. McDonald elaborates:
There was a lot of tricks that we used to use with loops
which were slightly out of time, where within the loop
youd have the next, the slight bit of the next bar within
the loop so it gives it a falling feel, but its still a loop
A loop is normally 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. But if you were to
do a loop, if you go 1-2-3-4-51-2-3-4-5 you dont end up
with a circular loop, you end up with a sort of egg-shaped
loop. So it gives the track a roll.
This extended to preserving the sound of vinyl itself. As
Barrow noted in 1997, to incorporate the sound of vinyl
is as important as the instruments playing.
recalled what would happen when a freshly pressed
acetate of the bands samples was received:
you would spend the next day or couple of days with this
vinyl on the record decks and almost like a lathe, you
know, Geoff cutting them backwards and forwards to
wear the record out so then it creates an age to it, so it
sounds very authentic and old. I always remember that
process. The aging process. Like a good steak.
* * *
These vinyl artifacts are all over Dummy. With the
opening guitar arpeggios of Mysterons the pop and
dirt are the frst sounds of the album. On Its a Fire the
Goldberg 1997a.


mechanical movement of the turntable is almost palpable,

particularly during the frst verse, and it suggests a
distance from the material which is jarringly at odds with
the proximity of Gibbons voice. On Biscuit each snare
hit drags behind it a smear of vinyl dirt.
Barrow has described the reaction to these sounds in
numerous interviews:
People were taking it back to Woolworths because it was
crackly. Which is hilarious. Taking back CDs because its
got record crackle. Theres something wrong with my
The sampler itself lent a sonic imprint to Dummy. The
band was using an Akai S-1000 sampler horrible
thing, recalls Dave McDonald, citing the unintuitive
interface that only Barrow could navigate. The samplers
limited memory and bit resolution meant that it could
not reproduce sounds with complete fdelity. A kind of
distortion known as bit-crushing was therefore
contributed. Again, this provided a unique texture one
indelibly associated with golden age hip-hop.
It doesnt give it a true sound, but it gives it a to come
back to the steak analogy again, its like the difference
between the cow and a well-hung steak. Theyre the same
thing but theyre miles apart. It just gives it an age.
* * *
B.B.C. 2010.
R . J . W H E A T O N


It Could be Sweet was the frst track completed on

Dummy, a song Beth Gibbons brought to Geoff Barrow
in the early stages of their professional relationship.

Adrian Utley recalled that it was totally done when
Geoff played it to me I was absolutely blown away.

It is in many ways the most traditional of Dummys
songs the song that most closely recalls the template
popularized by Bomb the Bass, Smith & Mighty, and the
Wild Bunchs The Look of Love. Assembled within
the tight auditory envelope of a drum machine, it is
punctuated by synthetic horn stabs that come from a
specifc period in late-80s popular R&B. They are
perhaps the only part of the album that sounds dated, an
artifcial sound lacking the retro this-was-already-old vibe
of as an example the twangy 60s soundtrack guitar
of Sour Times.
The vocals, too, recall perhaps some of Sades 80s
singles: breathy and full but somehow retaining a kind of
fey, offhand delivery. But the song takes the torchsong-
and-beats formula beyond that of genre borrowing and
mash-up. Compare the use it makes of the 808/sine bass
sound which opens the song with its artifcial punch
and throb. The resonance here feels almost too precise,
as if tuned to a frequency that in an artifcial vibration
too closely aligned to that of your eardrums will enact
damage hydraulic and lasting. At the appropriate volume
which is to say loud it makes of the air something
pneumatic, the benign atmosphere of the song made
somehow malicious, treacherous. It is a fantastic sound.
van den Berg 1995.
Trynka 1997.


On songs such as 2 Live Crews Throw the D a

cornerstone of the Miami Bass sub-genre that bass
sound has all the subtlety and coy intent of a poledance
on cash money day. Listened to on headphones, the effect
is oddly cerebral; heard experienced, rather, since the
sensation is physical more than it is aural through a
loud speaker, the effect is deliberately penetrative. The
sound goes right through you.
But on It Could be Sweet the sound is surrounded
with washy Rhodes keyboard fgures, and the gently,
woozily rising bass notes. It does not puncture the
texture of the song but rather fnishes it to a taut, impen-
etrable surface. It cumulatively pushes on the surface of
your attention rather than boisterously clamors for it.
There is signifcantly less dynamic range on It Could
be Sweet than elsewhere on the album: less contrast
between peaks and valleys of sheer volume. Instead,
its close-up, familiar surface feels intact, devoid of the
piteous scars of other songs. It plays between the aural
violence of Strangers and Wandering Star. To the
degree that Dummy has an integumentary system it is
It Could be Sweet, a song that without the vulner-
abilities of Its a Fire, or Roads serves to provide
integrity, to allow repair, to protect.
The surface of this song feels intimate; it feels young;
it feels new. But there is not a trace of naivety instead
there is the swooping, worn, weariness of the lyric which
is, somehow, insuffcient to extinguish hope.
The songs skin is the Rhodes piano part, indistinct
at its edges, encircling caressing the melody. This
is an extremely tactile song. Everything is close to the
surface. The drum sounds are waxy, lustrous; against the
R . J . W H E A T O N


supple weave of the instruments, the candor of the vocal

gives the song a claustrophobic sound that is almost
febrile in its closeness. It is breathtakingly intimate.
Where other songs array a minefeld in the complexity
of their emotions, It Could be Sweet distills sentimen-
tality into its very specifc, immediate agonies, into its
exquisite doubts. At the end of the song, the vocal fnishes
with a swooningly lengthy rendition of the fnal word
swe-ee-ee-ee-eet. It is deliberately, deliciously intimate;
it traverses several meanings (nostalgia, refection, regret,
memory) that have been gorgeously implicit within the
preceding 3 minutes. The vocal is recorded so close that
you can hear an intake of breath and a plaintive, tactile
sigh. Its a moment so redolent with her presence, with
another persons breath, that many of those meanings are
suddenly rendered overtly, complicatedly sexual. You can
hear her lips, her mouth.
It is, in the original sense, obscene a moment that
would, should, be rendered off stage.
* * *
The initial part of the bands working process was to
assemble a track from a fragment soundtrack-type
sounds weird, vibey little things, as Adrian Utley
told Sound on Sound in 1995 that could be sampled,
looped, augmented, manipulated, treated, weathered,
warped, compressed, until it delivered a particular atmos-
pheric feel.
These initial ideas would be produced on
guitar, bass, organ, drums. Inspiration can come from
Miller 1995.


anywhere, stated Utley. It could be a sound from an

organ with an unusual echo or something on it, or it
could just be a beat that Geoffs put together.
It was a
working method that allowed spontaneity in the service
of atmosphere. Geoff Barrow remembered the genesis
of Numb in a session involving Clive Deamer, organist
Gary Baldwin, and Utley (on double bass):
I had an idea in my head of what I wanted, and Ive
still got this session tape where its Gary going, So
um do you want something a bit more . . and then,
all of a sudden, they kind of drop into the frst four bars
of Numb now, which is the double bass, the organ,
and the side stick. And they literally just pull it out of
nowhere And its like, bang.
Once the initial idea was captured, perhaps 2 minutes,
it would be mixed as if it were a complete track. At that
point manipulation and processing might take place.
There were loads of things that we do with it,
Barrow later described the bands process:
we either bounce it down to a quarter inch machine or
we put it through some other techniques, compressor,
flter or whatever. And then we put it on tape and then
listen back to it like it was an old record, almost. And then
choose the best part of it.
Miller 1995.
B.B.C. 2010.
Young 1998.
Goldberg 1997a.
R . J . W H E A T O N


That part would then be passed to a sampler usually

through a mono headphone output.
With the most
compelling fragment of the track sampled, its dormant
qualities could be exposed. As Utley recalled:
As soon as it goes into the sampler, then it becomes
something else, because you can re-trigger it. You can slow
it down, speed it up, instead of playing. And it suddenly
becomes this other thing thats always been in our head.
At this point the pressing to vinyl might be undertaken
with other fragments an album of ideas, as Barrow
put it allowing further sonic manipulation.
And then thats fucked around with on decks, and
stretched, so you get distortion. And then that goes back
into the sampler.
Further live instrumentation and other materials
might be added we add real guitar again or we add
more instruments to build it up
in the service of
producing a rough arrangement, with a chorus.
At that point the rough outline of the track could be
given to Beth Gibbons, who would write the lyrics and
Young 1998.
Young 1998.
Young 1998.
Young 1998.
Goldberg 1997a.
Miller 1995.


This was a collaborative, communal process with, as

Adrian Utley put it in 1997, vague role boundaries.

We talked so many ideas over and structure, says
McDonald. Discussing samples, how we were going to
edit this, how we were going to do that. Its not like
a traditional songwriting situation, said Utley, sitting
down and strumming a guitar or whatever, although a
couple of the songs could be done that way now, but they
didnt come about that way at all.
* * *
Two songs from Dummy appear in Michael Almereydas
Nadja, a 1994 vampire flm set in contemporary New
York. Shot in black and white, the flm also features
scenes primarily those from the vampires perspective
flmed with a Fisher-Price PXL-2000, a toy camera
which records onto cassette at low resolution.
Strangers was a late addition to the flm. It sounds
over a scene in which Nadja tracks down a victim, while
she herself is chased. Pursuit. She seems to glide in
the foreground; the fgures in the background forever
unable to gain upon her. I didnt want to wallpaper
the soundtrack with Portishead, recalls Almereyda, but
by the time of the flms release, Dummys commercial
appeal was evident:
Id been content with Simon [Fisher Turner]s score
for that scene its still audible as an undercurrent, a
Watt 1997.
Miller 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


gathering drone with a feedback twang accompanying

the moment when Nadja lights a cigarette and sails on.
[Producer] Mary [Sweeney] pushed for more Portishead
when our commercial prospects were looking dim the
album was out by then, an irresistible hit and we threw
it into the re-mix.
Its a stunning moment. Nadjas face, framed hard and
cold; gliding, gliding; untroubled by the fgures of
mundane pursuit behind. The smoke from her cigarette
serenely obliterating the urban background. The disori-
enting buzz and clatter of the songs guitar, the distorted
klaxon noise the perfect rendition of panic. Flight. There
is a menace serene and indifferent in its inevitability. All
the time in the world.
The other scene appears earlier in the flm. Nadja
walks, alone, on a city street; Roads is the soundtrack;
the scene is intercut with images from a frenetic
nightclub. It begins to snow.
Like Dummy, Nadja conducts itself against a tapestry
of human interventions against the night the faces
of cities, the interior glow of apartment buildings and
diners and bars, the company of music. The flms
structure is fragmented; its momentum more associative
and elliptical than driven by narrative. It traverses grief,
wonder; anomie, exile. Paranoia, self-deception. There
is a ramshackle make-do-ness in some of the characters
affectations particularly Peter Fondas Van Helsing
and a camp, self-conscious humor. These seem somehow
in tune with Dummys deliberate pushing of sounds,
instruments, into the terrain of accident, of contingency.
In its approach to genre it is not at all dissimilar; like Jim


Jarmuschs later Ghost Dog, it borrows, weathers, discards

husks. There are moments of brilliant aural and visual
intensity; moments indistinct, dull, numbed, out of focus,
Almereyda agrees that there is a close likeness between
Dummy and Nadja:
Its fair to say that the throb and glide of the music felt
close to the heartbeat of the movie The lo-f element,
the collage of old and new sound, the record-player hiss
riding beside fat electronic beats, corresponds in some
way to blurry Pixelvision paired with black-and-white
35 mm. And yes, theres a shared sense of playfulness, of
quotation, a kind of reverse retroftting familiar arche-
types and atmospheres applied to refect a particularly
intoxicating form of modern loneliness. The ominous
orchestration gives way to the ache in Beths voice, nearly
every song disintegrates into a confession of longing
sure, yes, this all felt, still feels, related to my movie. And
thats how the excerpt of Roads was intended as an
inner voice rising up out of the drone and dance music
supplied by Simon Fisher Turner, a cry in the dark
eclipsing all other sound, enveloping Nadja as she walks,
smiles and cries in the snow.
* * *
The bands focus was always clear. For Dave McDonald,
we wanted an album which was a hip-hop album with
songs. Barrow said the same thing. Were really into
R . J . W H E A T O N


making songs. Songs. Thats the most important thing is

the songs.
The characteristically slow pace and minor key
of the material was not a deliberate artistic statement but
a natural expression of the bands infuences and inclina-
tions. As Adrian Utley described it, Always soundtracks,
always minor-key ones, slightly atonal, shifting, on the
sad side.
Barrow was starker:
I cant stand the light stuff. I cant stand it. Im not into
it. In a sense all the hip hop I liked was very, very dark
hip hop. And when I was sampling I was always looking
for something that had a strange emotional content to it,
something that sparks some kind of emotion or theme
or atmosphere. Thats always my problem when were
working. I always think its not enough. Its not dark
enough. Its not emotionally hooked enough. But if I
can get some emotion musically before Beth begins to
write and sing over the tracks then theres something for
her to hook into. A thread she can follow. Were looking
for something that is quite emotionally powerful. And I
dont want to take anyone down when they listen to our
music but I just dont think theres an awful lot of music
out there that does it to people. And people can handle
Uhelszki 1995.
129 undated.
Marcus 1997.


Of rural origins Talk Talk The listener a composer
A diarist Wandering Star
The planets in their courses A teenage runaway Witch
music The noise from the bar Control and fate A
promise fulflled Melody Photography and mystery
Electronic lullabies The younger generation
Beth Gibbons has conducted so few interviews that it is
diffcult to surface information about her background.
Among the facts available: she was born in 1965 in
Keynsham, a small town halfway between Bristol and
Bath. Her parents divorced when she was young; with
her three sisters she grew up on her mothers farm, about
20 miles from Exeter. Work; solitude.
She told Stuart Clark in 1995 about the expected
trajectory of her life:
Coming, as I did, from a fairly isolated rural community,
the expectation was that Id meet someone locally, get
married and have kids. It was all very rustic and cosy but
there werent that many people at home I got on with
R . J . W H E A T O N


and that caused me to feel rather detached. You know,

whatever destiny had in store for me, it wasnt becoming
a farmers wife!
At 22 she left for Bath. Looking for insights into
her lyrics from the scraps of biographical information
available is largely futile but there is, in her description
of that moment, a very poised understanding of the situa-
tions we fnd ourselves in and of our own complicity in
prolonging them.
I didnt escape from the country until I was 22. Most the
friends I did have locally had gone off to university but,
not being much of an academic, Id remained behind.
It was funny because even though I was frustrated and
wanted to get out, leaving home was quite scary. It wasnt
necessarily the reality I wanted but it was one I felt
reasonably capable of dealing with.
The few interviews that she has given contain as much
speculation about her musical inspirations as they
do confrmation. She has suggested that her family
owned very few records mostly compilations
and that she would sing along to the radio. She has
named Nina Simone and Janis Joplin as singers that
she likes; Otis Redding, Jimmy Cliff.
She has
pointed fans to Grace Slick, to Dead Can Dances
Clark 1995.
Clark 1995.
Gibbons 1995.


Lisa Gerrard;
she told a Dutch interviewer in 1995
that in my early twenties I kind of went into an indie
mode of like Sinead, Sugarcubes, Cocteau Twins, Pixies;
I used to like Janis Ian when I was younger. While
admitting that probably those were my infuences,
she was nonetheless tentative about a direct aesthetic
correlation: I basically came out of the other end of
whatever, of youth maybe, and I dont know what was
an actual major infuence.
It is possible to hear aspects of these artists in Beth
Gibbons voice; it is also possible to hear, as vocalist Helen
White observes, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ella
Fitzgerald; Sarah Vaughan, Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell.
The range of infuences points to a highly personal
approach, rather than one driven by extensive or delib-
erate training; indeed, she suggested to Ben Thompson
that Im not technically a very good singer if anyone
says I am I know they dont know what theyre talking
about. If I wanted to be, Id have to give up smoking and
have lessons.
Her experience prior to meeting Geoff Barrow had
included some live experience with local bands. She had
also connected with Paul Webb, bassist for Talk Talk, who
she met when he was conducting auditions for the band
which was to become .O.Rang. She appears amid the
sprawl of noise that opens that bands 1994 album Herd
of Instinct; she and Webb would collaborate on 2002s Out
van den Berg 1995.
Gibbons 1995.
Thompson 1998, p. 221.
R . J . W H E A T O N


of Season. In an interview in 1995 she described Webb as

probably my biggest infuence.
* * *
Talk Talk were an English band active in the 80s, initially
identifed with the New Romantic and synthpop genres,
although their later albums particularly 1988s Spirit
of Eden rejected those characterizations in favor of
collage-style material accumulated from lengthy studio
experimentation and improvisation.
It is in song-writing structure that the infuence
on Dummy is perhaps most discernible. Songs build;
melodies, lyrics, and vocal infections accumulate; and, by
alluding to impressions, experiences and images, rather
than spelling them out, these songs slowly aggregate to
an emotional state.
Like Beth Gibbons, later, Mark Hollis voice ranges
from the guarded and the non-committal to something
more expansive, forceful. There is something in the
melodic songcraft, too, a modest, careful movement
between intervals; a carefully, evenly distributed
emotional pressure along the length of a line. Theres a
moment in 1982s Today the bands frst successful
single at the end of the second line of each verse, when
in the descending path of the melody and the timbre of
Hollis phrasing Commit me to a life within a fool
you can hear a similarity to the entrance to the chorus
of Its a Fire: So let it be known for what we believe
Gibbons 1995.


From the bands later albums there is the sonic

experimentation the pleasure in texture that serves
as a signal of the post-rock movement but also a clear
analogue to Dummy. In Wealth, the purity of the
songs organ tones, the intimacy and proximity of its
vocal you can hear the intake of Mark Hollis breath
in these there is the suggestion of Its a Fire. You
can hear something of Roads in Inheritance, the
vocal sitting on top of the thick electric piano bedding,
particularly apparent when the song ends and the sustain
is audible for several thick, tremulous moments. Songs
are dominated by a slower pace The Rainbow, when
it eventually begins, drags along over a bass fgure that is
indistinct in its imperious thrum.
* * *
After the band, at State of Art, had produced a rough
cut with the basic arrangement, and a structure allowing
verses and chorus, it would be sent to Beth Gibbons. Her
preferred listening experience was intense. Shes got
a setup at home, Geoff Barrow told an interviewer in
1997, and shes got all the bottom out of her system and
as much treble as possible. She listens to the music with
headphones, blaring away. She loves it that way, with
vocals really tearing your head off.
Gibbons would build lyrics and melody on top of the
tracks making her at the same time both listener and
composer. The process was exceptionally diffcult; she
described it to Dutch Oor magazine in 1995:
Taraska 1997.
R . J . W H E A T O N


I have to add something to his music, not distract from

it. It has to stay equal and sometimes that takes a great
deal of effort. It is almost maths: you feel like the music
needs something, but you dont know what. So you start
searching: ftting, measuring, testing. Over and over
again choosing another angle. And sometimes thats a
frustrating process, especially if after three days nothing
has come up.
Gibbons has emphasized the emotional and personal
associations that she has when writing a song. For her
the songs are like a diary, and she has suggested that
the emotional resonance for her is primary that I
still like something Id have sung ages ago just because I
remember the way I felt at the time.
There were exceptions to the process: Its a Fire
and It Could Be Sweet, among the earliest material to
make it onto Dummy, were songs written by Gibbons
in advance of the tracks upon which they now rest.
Sometimes Gibbons herself would manipulate a track
to make it ft her melody; as Geoff Barrow would tell
shell re-sample it slow it down, or speed it up and
re-loop it, and send it back with a song on it and
youre thinking Wheres one? Where does it drop? And
its because shes got it looped in-between the frst bass
drum and the frst hi-hat.
van den Berg 1995.
Gibbons 1995.
141 undated.


There would be very little interference from the rest

of the band. I dont get involved, Geoff Barrow said
in 1995. Lyrically, I trust her. She is being honest.
Shes not writing a song just to make money or sound
The limit of his involvement would be to
suggest a minor change to the melody:
we have this kind of thing where sonically, if something
doesnt seem like it works, then Ill speak up and say it.
Like if the melody line just doesnt seem like it holds, or
a couple of words, sonically it just sounds weird, then Ill
ask her to go in and change it. But thats about as far as it
goes. And when it comes down to the lyrical content and
everything else, I just dont really get involved.
Their working processes were so separate and, indeed,
so intensely dedicated to the music that it was only
after the release of Dummy that Barrow and Gibbons got
to know one another. During the recording of the album
they spent little time socializing, even when working
side-by-side in the studio to record the vocals. As Barrow
we had nothing particularly in common and we wouldnt
really talk. I had mates and theyre all really young friends
and we all seemed young to her, do you know what I
mean? And to us, she seemed well, hippyish and we
kind of didnt know where she was coming from. We were
Darling 1995.
Darling 1995.
B.B.C. 2010.
R . J . W H E A T O N


friendly but didnt really know anything about each other.

And when we were in the studio it was all purely about the
music. We just worked and got on with it. We didnt bring
anything into the studio, no drugs, no beer, nothing. Do
you know what I mean? It wasnt anything personal. We
just talked about music.
* * *
The fourth song on Dummy, It Could be Sweet, has
its infuences tattooed upon its skin, an intimate and
breathy creation in the warmth of its youth. Wandering
Star, the ffth, is subcutaneous; muscle and pulmonary
inertia. It is a song so visceral in its construction that its
infuences seem forcefully rejected. Origins recessed
creeds and schools in abeyance.
The introduction is a series of four low-register
chords, each one playing for four beats. If you listen
loudly or carefully enough you can hear that the release
of the fourth iteration of each chord is somehow artif-
cially curtailed, lending a subtle impetus to the following
chord, as if the sheer force of it clears an envelope of
space in its approach. It suggests something driving,
industrial, almost abstract. On the second and fourth
beats you can hear a foresign of the songs harsh snare
sounds, a pistonlike echo emitting like an exhaust from
each backbeat.
Imagine what this song would have sounded like
before the addition of vocals: the chords, the whiplike
snare, and thumping kick drum these all continue
Marcus 1997.


essentially uninterrupted for almost 2 minutes. And yet

that tiny irregularity between the duration of each chord
suggests something human an urgency, an exhaustion
behind each blow. The kick drum part, thumping
around the chords at the frst and third beats of each
measure, offers like Massive Attacks later Teardrop
an echo of the human heartbeat.
Listen, at 3:05, to the moment where the elements
of the song drop away, a system in disrepair, decom-
pensation. Gibbons voice disappears. The bass chords
cease. The guitar riffs and record scratches firt, dovetail,
become intwined, fall, decay, fail. Arrest. Then the kick
drum, unpaused, all force timing, kick throws the
song back into its rhythm, restarts the bass in a moment
of sonic defbrillation, and the song resuscitates
drums, guitar, turntables; a shimmering haze which at
3:55 momentarily fragments; the crossfaded scratching
at 3:59 eddied across the songs fraying horizon.
Wandering Star is the hydraulic, forlorn heart of this
album. It is a song about solitude: its lyric is breathy, alone,
isolated above the pounding throb of its arrangement.
And yet the vocal has a delicacy that on close listening is
almost astonishing. Listen to how Gibbons holds the s at
end of stars suggesting a caress, a welcome, comfort.
The chorus is a passage from the King James translation
of the Epistle of Jude, which vengefully declares the fate of
apostate men and angels, comparing their eternal exile to
the errant trajectories of the planets:
clouds they are without water, carried about of winds;
trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead,
plucked up by the roots;
R . J . W H E A T O N


Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame;

wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of
darkness for ever.
The lyrics and Gibbons delivery cleverly recontextualize
the passage. The tone is not the wrathful admonition
of wrongdoers, but instead a mournful evocation of the
condition of exile, of inconsolable loneliness. It becomes
a plea for company and solace. Please could you stay a
while to share my grief?
* * *
Music may reach us collectively but it must frst touch
us individually.
Rock singer and rapper Nikki Lynette grew up in and
around Chicago, alternating between the citys suburbs
and its inner city; between Beverly and Englewood;
between a childhood home and battered womens shelters
throughout Illinois. In high school, suffering depression,
Dummy was the album that she listened to on repeat,
lying for hours in the bathtub, enduring abdominal pain
that doctors could not diagnose. It was the album she
longed for when confned in a juvenile psychiatric ward
for depression. It was the album she listened to endlessly
when, as an outpatient, she was not allowed to socialize
with friends. For her, songs like Nobody loves me, its
true, [not like] you do it really resonated with me
because of the fact that it was how I felt, like, nobody
loves me.
Dummy became her coming-of-age soundtrack:


When I found out my best friend was gay we were

listening to Portishead. When I remembered for the
frst time that I had actually been molested as a child I
was listening to Portishead. When I decided to run away
from home and I left at four in the morning with as
much stuff as I could carry I was listening to Portishead.
Even though I went through some really tough times,
[Dummy] has music that keeps you calm and brave in the
face of whatever your tribulation is.
For many listeners it was the songs on Dummy, the vocal
and lyrical content, that touched them frst, touched
them most deeply. Singer Belinda Kazanci remembers
hearing Dummy at a party. I think it just stopped me
in my tracks. She had been interested in electronic and
dance music but this was different:
I realized there was a lot of song. It wasnt just electronic
music with a couple of quick vocal parts only; this was
actually full songs with these beautiful electronic beats
and arrangements. And I think what threw me more
than anything was Beth Gibbons voice. She has such
a haunting, sad, eerie, dark, yet beautiful voice. I had
never heard a voice like that. And it drew me in. I just
remember sitting there and listening to the entire record
over and over again.
Accessible, inaccessible; Dummy exemplifed everything
necessary to become an underground album, a badge of
identity. Writer Sean Cranbury remembers that they
were just weird enough that you could like them but
they were too weird for some of your friends. For
R . J . W H E A T O N


Sebastian Hanna, then a student in Vancouver, it was an

album you felt you were missing out if you didnt get, lost
if you didnt know the need to connect with that, as a
relief from what was boring, was intense.
For Nikki Lynette, listening to Portishead placed
her in direct confict with many of her peers and friends
whose tastes ft more conventionally into a black urban
Fortunately for me, I didnt really have that hang-up.
My best friend was listening to it, she introduced me
to it. And after I got over the initial shock of listening
to something that wasnt cool among my crew, among
my social scene, I grew to love it. So they would call it
witch music and they wouldnt want to listen to it. And
its almost as if their refusal to listen to it strengthened
my resolve because there was nothing anybody could say
that could explain to me why they were hating on this
dope-ass music. I was pretty pig-headed about it. I still
am. Cant nobody tell me nothing about Portishead.
* * *
The requirement to tour and support Dummy, including
a U.S. tour in April 1995, put pressure on the bands
inclinations. Barrow commented that we never really
wanted this tour. We just wanted to put out lots of
Beth Gibbons told a Dutch interviewer that
I dont like being up on stage that much, I dont think.
Especially when its at night after night. Im just not
Jenkins 1995.


very good at it. I never know what to say.

were initial problems, recalls Dave McDonald, with
adequately representing Gibbons vocals:
Beth was onstage a very quiet singer and she was very
shy onstage, and what our main problem used to be was
getting the vocal across the music. I remember when we
were doing shows in America frst of all, people would
turn up just to say that theyd been to the show, and be
at the bar making loads of noise. And we couldnt get the
vocals loud enough to drown those people out. So we
tried a few things and then we came up with an idea of
having lots of separate speakers on the front truss which
were dedicated to her vocal. So basically we had a whole
separate PA for her vocal. And then the main left and
right stack of the PA taking strain of the music. And once
we hit that point then it was fne, you know? Then as
her confdence arrived more and more then the speaker
started to disappear more and more.
The sudden popularity of the album ensured that they
were quickly playing to audiences of thousands. At
larger shows it was harder to connect with an audience;
Adrian Utley observed that you start to get into a real
showbiz scenario, with a fucking great snake-pit with
all the photographers in it.
He noted years later that
Geoff had never done those entry-level gigs playing
to no people.
Barrow hated traveling, and he found
Gibbons 1995.
Johnson 1996, p. 172.
McLean 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N


his perfectionism challenged, his desire to keep things

within control. And when youre playing live there isnt
that feeling. Its totally uncontrollable. You have about
ffteen per cent of control, and fate is guiding the way.
Nonetheless they brought the same perfectionism
and logical rigor to their live performances as
they did to studio production. I wanted it to be a live
thing rather than a computerized event, said Barrow.

Weve put together a proper band, no samplers or
sequencers I do a bit of scratching on top, but thats as
techno as it gets.
Adrian Utley relished the return to
his background of playing live and quickly engaged with
arranging, rehearsing, and indeed recruiting a group of
musicians (including many who had contributed to the
album) to reproduce the unique feel if not the precise
sound of the songs. And Geoff Barrow made good on
a years-old promise he had made to Andy Smith during
the long nights spent listening to old soul and funk
records together:
He said at the time that if he became big, I could D.J.
for him on tour. It was all pie-in-the-sky in those days,
really. But when Geoff did the frst Portishead album, it
actually started selling well. [Laughs.] So he took me on
two world tours.
* * *
Uhelszki 1995.
Darling 1995.
Newsday 1995.
Heller 2009.


Gibbons quickly established that she would not conduct

interviews, not only to avoid felding endless questions
about her lyrics contents, but also due to uncertainty
about the way that people would perceive the music.
I do get nervous and paranoid and that other stuff but,
really, it was the fact that when the album came out I
wasnt sure if it was any good or not. You could have
said it was crap and Id probably have agreed with you
whereas now I know its not bollocks.
Her reluctance created this nonsense mystery-woman
and when Barrow hated being photographed
Thats not what I am in the industry for; thats not why
I make music
the two positions were written about
as if they were a pose, an attempt to appear enigmatic.
As the two signatories to Go! Beat, Gibbons and Barrow
were the focus of the media attention, and Portishead
were written about in early days as if they were a
duo. Barrow expressed in interviews his anxiety that
Dave McDonald and Adrian Utley were not receiving
adequate recognition and characteristically cited his own
naivete at the industry process.
In truth they were simply uninterested in navigating the
channels of biographical exposure, identity performance,
B.B.C. 2010.
Clark 1995.
Taraska 1997.
Taraska 1997.
Goldberg 1997b.
R . J . W H E A T O N


and publicity stunts that are expected of successful bands.

As Barrow told Julie Taraska in 1997:
There is this huge gap between rock n roll bands and
the general public. Its great for people like Oasis; theyre
brilliant, they know how to play the game, and you need
that in rock n roll. But we, literally, cant deal that way.
Even if it prevents us from selling records and it does
sometimes we get really unhappy doing TV things
and stuff like that. Were not into lip-synching and all
that crap.
* * *
Dummy contains relatively few windows-down belt-out
melodies; very few hooks of such extravagant catchiness
that would they anchor frequent radio play. Those do
exist, of course: Sour Times is a song of brilliant
complexity and density within its frst 36 seconds, but
when the refrain breaks Nobody loves me it pulls
the rest of the song into its tight orbit. Its impossible to
hear other parts of the song without feeling the gravita-
tional pull of that semitone descent.
But elsewhere melodic subtlety dominates. Verses on
songs like Glory Box and Wandering Star have tight,
intricate internal rhythms pockets of local melodic
play. Songs like Its a Fire, and It Could be Sweet
contain gorgeous melodic fragments assembled only by
the extravagantly graceful phrasing that Beth Gibbons
brings to them. Phrases are cast out like celestial bodies
Taraska 1997.


well beyond their apparent limits, words selected almost

arbitrarily for emphasis. Not knowing what will happen
next, you cannot stop listening. You do not have the
reassurance that a predictable melodic resolution is
imminent. At some moments the phrases are loose,
generous, almost speculative; in others strong with
inertia and inevitability. The listener can only regard
with wonder the passage of these melodies through the
fares and silence of the music below.
There is little to distinguish verse from chorus in
Wandering Star. The song barely pauses; Gibbons
vocal changes little in pitch or in tone. The entire song
takes place on the frst fve notes of a B minor scale,
with the exception of the last note before each verse,
which dips a semitone to converge on the major third
of the dominant chord. It seems like a simple melody.
But there is a tightly coiled tension augmented by the
bleakly abstract arrangement of the song. The chorus
offers a little more space, the highly syncopated fgures
of the verse elongated, tension bleakly dispelled. But the
effect is moderated by the lyrical darkness and the almost
immediate return of the unremitting bass fgure.
At times its almost as if the song is too fast, the tempo
too urgent for this melody. Without the guardrails of
the arrangement, what would this melody sound like? In
performances in support of 2008s Third, the band had
refned a version of the song stripped down to the dense
bass comps, the vocal, and a gorgeous, shimmering guitar
part all tremolo, keening and shimmering slide, and
the beck and fade of Utleys volume control. It sounds
a little like some moments from Daniel Lanois 2005
R . J . W H E A T O N


album Belladonna. The tenderness and the vulnerability

that lie nascent in the song are brought to the fore. Its a
gorgeous arrangement.
For all the narcotic qualities of Its a Fire, and
Roads, Wandering Star is the song on Dummy that
most resembles a lullaby. Its minor key somnolence; its
rocking, heartbeat bass. The presentiment of danger that
lies so close to the surface in some lullabies Away,
thou black dog, ferce and wild; When the bough
breaks is near: the masks that the monsters wear.
The lyrics of Wandering Star take a moment of
judgmental exile and transform it into a longing for
solace in a world of loneliness and loss. The melody
makes of it a dark cousin to Twinkle Twinkle Little
Star, and Dummy offers in this song alongside perhaps
Massive Attacks Teardrop, and Trickys Poems
a dystopian electronic lullaby, amid its machine-like
ruinscape Gibbons voice, caressing with cool fngertips
your wounded wounded heart.
* * *
Given the bands working process, it is impressive how
organic, how whole, these songs are. In part this is due
to the extent to which Barrow would further manipulate
the underlying tracks once Gibbons vocals had been
recorded. Describing their working process in 1998, he
said he would move it totally around, and make beat
drops on simple things like words when you want that
word to come out at you, you drop the beat, and put in


an air pocket.
Additional sounds and samples would
be added to the track sometimes entirely transforming
the original materials. Gibbons cited the Ill never fall
in love again sample on Biscuit as something that was
added after the vocal was complete. The sample makes
the song but it was actually an afterthought.
* * *
Dummy is an album of contrasts, and Gibbons lyrical
maturity serves as a foil to the almost reckless ambition
of the albums sonic world formally experimental,
sometimes circushouse and ramshackle in its innovation
which is plainly the product of a young mind.
Musing on her professional relationship with Geoff
Barrow 7 years younger than her in an interview
in May 1995, she spoke about relationships with younger
however unintentional it might be, there are times when
you feed off their youth to curb your own cynicism.
Youve no right to do that, of course, but when I
meet people like Geoff, and other men his age, their
perspective seems nicer. Theyre of a slightly different
generation, so theyve had different infuences and seem
more aware of them. Youve got to watch it because,
remember, they havent lived the extra 10 years that you
have. You cant do their growing up for them.
Young 1998.
Clark 1995.
Clark 1995.


Trip-hop Lessons Thinkin of a master plan
Acid jazz Label creep I cried to dream again Lullabies
and drug songs Its a Fire
Breaths and lipsmacks Railway stations and
Nol Coward Impossible sounds
A vocal performance The big moments
Suspect of certainties Vocal frying Oracles
In the June 1994 issue of British dance magazine Mixmag,
an article by Andy Pemberton described trip-hop:
a deft fusion of head-nodding beats, supa-phat bass and
an obsessive attention to the kind of other-wordly sounds
usually found on acid house records. It comes from the
suburbs, not the streets, and with no vocals you dont
need to be American to make it sound convincing. All you
need are crazy beats and fucked up sounds and youve got
the most exciting thing to happen to hip hop in a long
Pemberton 1994.


Pemberton cited D.J. Shadows 12-minute In/Flux as

the genres founding record. Shadow real name Josh
Davis was then 22; In/Flux was his frst single for
James Lavelles U.K.-based Mo Wax label. Shadows
work did not come from acid house, but instead was in
the tradition of early 80s hip-hop instrumental sample
collages like Double Dee & Steinskis Lessons singles.
The tradition had been sustained by U.K. production
duo Coldcut, who in 1987 subjected Eric B. & Rakims
Paid in Full to a 7-minute remix that augmented
the original with numerous materials including a vocal
sample from Israeli singer Ofra Haza. D.J. Shadow was
among those others included Dan The Automator
Nakamura, and Jurassic 5s Cut Chemist to pick up
the tradition.
At more than 12 minutes, In/Flux is, like the records
that infuenced it, a mlange of samples from funk, soul,
rock, jazz, and spoken-word fragments from flm and
television. What distinguishes it from much of what
came before is a slowdrag tempo, and an aesthetic which
allows space for the texture of its component parts to
be explored and hammered out in front of the listener
rather than bolted to an exercise in rhythmic propulsion
from beginning to end.
The tempo; the absence of rap; the eclectic samples in
the service to mood rather than impetus and rhythm; all
these aspects of In/Flux seemed to mark the beginning
of a something new although perhaps only to those
not familiar with the trajectory of hip-hop over the
preceding few years. These sample and beat-collage
techniques had, of course, animated and sustained
hip-hop from its birth. Indeed, critics like Peter Shapiro
R . J . W H E A T O N


point to the true origins of trip-hop as far back as the

slow, spacious, experimental 1983 single Beat Bop by
Rammellzee and K-Rob.
There was, assuredly, more going on than a restatement
of the founding principles (at a lower tempo) of instru-
mental hip-hop. The U.K.s rather self-contained acid
jazz scene which principally wed 70s jazz-funk to
breakbeat loops, with, occasionally, an electronic veneer
had begun to spill into adjacent genres. The textural
innovations of drum & bass (then known as jungle) were
in the air synthy abstract artifacts that would buoy and
envelop that musics supersonic, quantumsized break-
beats. So too were the psychedelia and boundless energy
of acid house, including the tendency to cheesy, squelchy
electronic sounds and humorous vocal samples.
Those infuences are all apparent on the early Mo
Wax releases, including the labels frst compilation,
Royaltie$ Overdue, which features, alongside In/Flux,
a Portishead remix of a track by Bristol band The
Federation. The connections with acid house and acid
jazz were critical, and the reference to the same hallu-
cinogenic drugs provided the trip in the genre name.
The idea of revitalizing these genres with an infusion
of hip-hop was quite deliberate. Shadow himself under-
stood the leap that Lavelle was making, speculating that
In/Flux was well received in England because acid jazz
was kind of starting to annoy a lot of people, and it was
a fresh sound, I think, for a lot of people out there.

Writing for Wire, Ian Penman described trip-hop as a
Shapiro 1999, p. 333.
Wilder 2005, p. 60.


fusion of Acid Jazzs fxation with retro correctness

beats, grooves, scenes, vibes, collars, etc. enlivened by
the avant garde fsticuffs of hiphop; it offered to bring
hip-hops disruptive sensibilities to a scene texturally
dead, stylistically dated, vocally constipated, carnally
* * *
The Mixmag piece itself made no mention of the artists
from Bristol which was unsurprising since they came
from an adjacent musical trajectory, one that had been
underway since at least the mid-80s.
But the slippage did not take long at all. Trip-hop
was so messily inclusive touching American instru-
mental hip-hop, U.K. acid jazz holdovers, loopy acid
house beats, early big beat experimentation that it
was only a matter of time before it became a catch-all
label. By April 1995, an alternative genealogy of the
term had become established, with Billboard suggesting
that the Wild Bunch was at the forefront of the wave
of lazy, dub-infused British hip-hop that has attracted
the name trip-hop.
B.B.C. Radio Ones Andy Parftt
pointed to Tricky, Portishead, and Massive Attack
blimey, theyre all from Bristol actually, funnily enough
as exemplars of the label.
Perhaps it was the overlapping hip-hop infuence;
more likely it was the perception that Blue Lines, Dummy,
Penman 1994.
Pride 1995.
Quoted in Johnson 1996, p. 162.
R . J . W H E A T O N


and others offered, in their dragging, slowed tempos and

subdued vocal delivery, a musical experience analogous
to recreational drug use. A refraction of the world that
was blurred, numbed, blunted in contrast not only
to the brightness of commercial rock and pop music but
also the snap and blast of hip-hop and the compressed
rhythmic cycles of dance music. A musical experience
that like lullabies offered an aperture into a world
with a softer line between imagination and reality; a
world more comfortable in the partial consciousness of
itself than in the full and harsh refection of its edges.
* * *
Its a Fire opens with a string phrase, two lines counter-
pointed in a minor key, two lines lingering slightly longer
than expected at the end stretched, a tightening of the
skin. A moment of miosis. The organ clean, cleansing,
calm. The astonishing proximity of the vocal. The frst
34 seconds of the song offer soft relief from the awesome
range of the preceding 25 minutes. There is no cavernous,
space-clearing bass; instead the song is close, supple. The
track is empty of the collisions and the incendiary hiss
of the albums drum parts. Gibbons voice sits directly at
the front of the mix, clean, the opening sibilance neatly
extinguished under the warm, lingering fold of fre.
The organ lifts on the word dreams, suggesting a
purity and optimism that disguises the regret of the full
lyric (these dreams have passed me by).
What kind of fre does this song invoke? There is
something almost religious about the opening moment:
the choral-like strings with cathedral-like reverberation.


The frst verse balances on the word salvation, the

organ beneath is clean, round, whole. After the weathered
violence of Wandering Star, there is a purifying quality
to the arrangement of the song, far from connotations of
destructive fre, of lust, of danger.
But it is a moment of misdirection; betrayal follows
at once. The invocation of desire is immediate; the
promise of salvation instead getting me down.
Then: the songs bass plunges into the song, flling it
to the walls of its veins; a narcotic, somnolent warmth; a
smothering, asphyxiant warmth.
Its a Fire is one of the older tracks on Dummy. I
can remember hearing the roughs to that from when
I frst met Geoff, recalls Dave McDonald. It was a
very old track from the Cameron days. The song was
not included on the U.K. release of Dummy, instead
appearing on the single release of Sour Times, where
its clean, warm resonance serves as foil for the title tracks
clamorous harrow.
If Its a Fire is one of Dummys slighter songs, it
nonetheless divides the album in two. It begins after the
relentless march out of Wandering Star, and without
it the passage into Numb, with its similar palette and
similar tempo, means that the middle of the album is
characterized by inertia rather than difference. The
presence of Its a Fire lends Dummy a more measured
pace, putting less pressure on Roads, and in a sense
allowing that song to breathe more on its own rather
than primarily relieve the abstract, radical momentum.
* * *
R . J . W H E A T O N


On the frst line of Its a Fire there is a momentary

lipsmack before the frst word; the collected sibilance
of its is harsh and abrasive before the next two words.
There is an audible intake of breath short, curt
before these dreams. On the p of passed me by, the
expulsion of air on the plosive pushes the microphones
diaphragm against the casing of the mic, registering a
slight, dull thud. There is a slightly longer, although
courser, intake of breath before this salvation, again
with a rough sibilance on salvation which contrasts
with the smooth, languorous delivery of and desire.
Its a beautiful sequence, astonishingly unmediated
and intimate. Yet it showcases a number of elements
which would ordinarily be removed in post-production.
Recordist Jay Hodgson points out that as a sound
engineer when youve got a close-micd vocal track, the
very frst thing you do before you do anything else is you
go in and you cut out the breaths. But those touches
remain on Dummy.
Sometimes the vocals were not re-recorded after
the State of Art sessions but, to preserve the feel of
the original recording, the original demo takes were
instead used for the fnal recording.
Dave McDonald
remembers that the spontaneity, the authenticity, of the
vocal take was critical:
There was a bit of a battle sometimes between me and
Geoff about cleaning things up. Im very in the world of,
that was it: thats the take and thats the take. And all those
little noises and little things are part of it. Right down
Miller 1995.


to sometimes I would lose battles like on Roads,

right at the end on the masters that I have here you have
Beth saying something like Oh, thats it. Its over. And
I just said, we should always keep that. And she agreed
with me but Geoff wanted to get rid of it so we got rid of
it. So theres always been those little natural things and
I think Beth was very much into that sort of being a
country girl the sort of organic way really. So thats
what we liked.
The choice of microphone an AKG 414 contributed
to the vocals particular sound:
That was just our mic of choice. And also of budget,
really, at that early stage. It was all we could really
afford in State of Art The 414 microphone has the
C12 capsule in it which was when you see those old
pictures of someone like Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra,
when theyre using an AKG C12 microphone its exactly
the same capsule so you kind of get the old sound That
was something I was deliberately seeking. Ive always
liked the sound of old vocals. I grew up listening to old
records. I love that intimacy.
The vocals on Dummy are also highly compressed, which
is to say that they are processed in a way that ensures
that the dynamic range is collapsed: the volume of
quieter elements is brought closer to that of the naturally
louder elements. Andy Wright, a producer who worked
on Massive Attacks Protection, describes a record with
a compressed vocal as one with a lot of presence
you can hear all the breaths and all the nuance in the
R . J . W H E A T O N


recording. Dave McDonald rhapsodizes the effect of

the Teletronix LA-2A compressor on the albums vocals
it just instantly changes them and brings them alive.
Gibbons vocals were also subject to equalization, in
particular boosting frequencies in the 1-kiloHertz range
to deliver something like a Tannoy effect. Like you
would hear in [public address systems in] old factories or
in buildings or old train stations Youd hear it on like a
Nol Coward record. Its the sound you can hear promi-
nently on Numb and Pedestal a slightly artifcial,
processed sound, almost nasal. As Jay Hodgson points
out, the frequencies in that range are below audible
sibilance (s, ch, and t sounds) but above the boomy
chest resonance area. The frequency boost in that area is
utterly distinctive. As Dave McDonald describes the old
records characterized by that sound: they almost sound
like theyre in your ear. And it just seemed to suit her
voice, and thats what we always went with.
The vocals were also fed through a Roland Space Echo
delay unit the kind used to produce the vocal echo
that characterizes many dub recordings. Dave McDonald
cites the technique as one of my favorite things with
such a beautiful sound to it, a technique that dated back
to his earliest engineering work and reggae infuences.
The sound of a vocal or anything on tape, it just seems
to give it it puts it in another world. Anyone you
actually play a vocal to [a vocal] which has gone
through a Space Echo just seems to instantly love
it. I still dont understand what it is to this day. I can
understand the scientifc side of it the compression,
the tapes compressing but theres a little magic


in there somewhere and I dont know what it is. So the

vocal had a lot of Space Echo on. Even if its not delay
its still gone through the tape to give it that fow and the
sort of juddering of tape. It just gives it an organicness,
you know?
At all points in the albums production and recording
process recording, processing, mixing, mastering
the focus remained on getting and keeping the vocal to
the front. Songs. Miles Showell, who mastered the album,
recalls that the band were after an early 60s in your
face vocal style:
the vocal was mixed very high in the track on the masters
In the late 60s and into the 70s and 80s vocal levels
in relation to the track generally got lower. This had the
effect of making the singer one of the instruments as
opposed to singing over the band. The whole Portishead
approach was to have Beths voice way out front.
If you cant hear the vocal, says Dave McDonald,
whats the point?
* * *
The conspiracy between technology and voice. The
effect of tape delay; the simulation of public address
systems. Technology, as Steven Connor points out,
allows us to discover sounds previously inaudible to
us, the sounds of the stars, and of the foetal heatbeat.

Connor 1997a.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Without technology it would be impossible to capture

the elements the breaths, the sighs, the exaggerated
plosives and sibilance which make the vocals of
Dummy seem so naturalistic, so intimate. But the
technology itself mediates and transforms these sounds.
Connor suggests that we overhear the microphone
listening, breeding with the noises of the body When
we speak into a microphone, with a telephone or tape-
recorder, some part of us surrenders to, is spoken by the
This implication of technology into the organic is
what allows us to hear sounds that we are otherwise
trained culturally conditioned to ignore. These
sounds all the minute muscular movements of the
larynx and the breath, in the words of psychoanalyst
Guy Rosolato recall infancy, recall the vocal exper-
iments conducted before we discard such marginal
sounds in favor of retaining only those which allow for
optimal communication.
Perhaps this is why Gibbons voice commands such
attention: there is something transgressive about its
proximity, its pure exposure. Something liberating in this
anatomy of the qualities of the human voice: a magnif-
cation of the everyday, an expansion of the real. As Walter
Benjamin suggested of flm: With the close-up, space
expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.
* * *
Connor 1997a.
Rosolato 1974, pp. 7677.
Benjamin 1973.


Its a Fire widens gradually. Only when Gibbons

delivery dips slightly, an edge of anger at the end of
for time and again, a tiny coagulation of force, is
the Hammond organ driven hard, coarse against the
channels of the melody. The moment is seamless, almost
inaudible, but subtly increases the body temperature of
the song. Anticipation.
There are moments of such deception and deceit in
this song. Images of disguise, masks; salvation compro-
mised by desire; life as a farce. The Hammond organ,
sympathetic companion to Gibbons vulnerable voice,
shining and shimmering and humming throughout the
song, is remorselessly punched away by the sub-bass kick
drum at 1:39.
There are moments of such ambient anaesthetic
grace in this song. The pervading warmth. Gibbons
multiple-note articulation of fail, which draws all
the wound from the word. The inclusive lyric what
we believe in offers the reassurance of company, of
communal solace. The chorus breathe on, sister,
breathe on gliding through in a bloodstream of
organ and bass.
The song closes on ambiguity, appending like a fool
to the fnal chorus, and fading away in either a graceful
retreat into sleep or a delusional descent into oblivion
before the drillbit opening of Numb.
* * *
The drama of this albums vocal performance.
There are the fights and dives to the top and the
bottom of her vocal range. Hear, for example, the forlorn
R . J . W H E A T O N


depth of circumstance will decide in Sour Times;

moments later, in the fnal chorus, a leap into loves me.
There are the giddy, schoolgirlish, coquettish peaks in
Numb and this loneliness, somehow adding an
extra couple of syllables to the word that, together
with the artifcial, narrow tone of the voice itself, suggests
a persona painfully ill-at-ease in its self.
And there are the extremes in delivery. The smooth,
caressing tones of Sour Times, not nearly as self-
pitying as many people remember the song. The almost
unreadable, opaque coyness of Numb or Pedestal.
And there are the albums big moments: the stately
defance of Roads, the sultry, commanding irony of
Glory Box. In Numb there is the extraterrestrial
line a lady of one that closes the track, a line
that brings with it a synthetic trail of white noise, a
vapor trail smeared across the surface of the song. In live
performances this is delivered with an almost toxic wash
of reverb.
* * *
You can hear Gibbons delighting in the sounds that she
is able to make. Amidst the reverb, compression, and
frequency manipulation with which her voice is treated
on Pedestal, her voice in the chorus is punctilious in
its pronunciation of pedestal; the invocation of your
destiny has almost a camp villainy to it. On It Could
be Sweet there is the airy, fragile pronunciation of last
time and the French accent on love affair.
Gibbons is not afraid to weather a syllable, to take it
through multiple emotional valences in the same breath.


Listen to Its a Fire, to the vocal parkour that takes place

across the emotional outcroppings of fail, at 2:24, the
deft landings on the following lines on life, farce,
breath, mask. I have heard cover versions where the
treatment of these words is preserved as if the words
were merely inconvenient vessels to the delivery of a
particularly complicated melody. In Gibbons perfor-
mance the integration of melody and sense is complete.
Theres the drunken slur of the frst verse in
Strangers, winsome, forlorn; too jaded to be plaintive
but too weary for defance. And then, just seconds later,
the rich, challenging, soulful bridge Ooooh, to set
aside your fears in life and the knifelike stabs of
the chorus. It is as if there was another singer, voiceless
through the guitar-and-detritus verse, engaged only at
the chorus by the industrial soundscape that collapses
onto the song.
Adrian Utley has said, of Gibbons technique:
Shes got an amazing voice, frst of all. Shes got amazing
voices. She has different elements to her voice that you
can always know its her but she can sound remarkably
different from one track to another.
She told Ben Thompson in 1994 that:
The fun for me is fnding a tone which goes with the
backing track when Im singing Numb, to me thats
me trying to be a black soul singer. At other times I might
be trying to be Neil Young or Tom Waits. That might
NPR 2008.
R . J . W H E A T O N


make me false, but I think its more honest to admit it.

I think if I just found one style and stuck to it, Id get
very bored. People who do that just end up imitating
* * *
There are some great subtleties of meaning. The refrain
of Sour Times would be belted out by a lesser singer,
but Gibbons restraint renders it instead with a breathy,
insouciant delivery, suggesting the possibility of meeting
the coldness of the world with an indifference and
withdrawal on ones own terms. In the same song, after
the ghostly meandering of Who am I? What, and
why? there is the assertion that All I have left is my
memories of yesterday. The knife-edge pronunciation
of left sounds almost calculating, which makes the
peculiar frailty of the closing half of the line seem instead
knowing, toying, coy, suggesting that she controls the
disclosure of those memories. A poker player with the
cards against her chest.
She is suspicious of given certainties. This life aint
fair, she sings in It Could be Sweet, but the line is
almost thrown away, more spoken than intoned; there is
a delicious swoop through You dont get something for
nothin, undercutting the glib certainty of the clich.
Elsewhere she uses tone to puncture aphorism a
hardness, a determination, creeping into for time and
again in Its a Fire. She is always multiplying meaning
in this music. In Pedestal, after the line You abandoned
Thompson 1998, p. 221.


me the last syllable drawn into a deadspin of rever-

beration there is just enough closeness, just enough
softness on the following line how I suffer that for
a second it is possible to hear in it some sarcasm.
The self in these lyrics is constantly under pressure
from the world around it: circumstance will decide,
she sings in Sour Times. Yet even at the moments of
most painful self-abnegation, Gibbons fnds a way of
suggesting some control; of protecting a core of agency,
of action; of withholding the possibility of self-assertion.
That comes across in the most fagrant ironies in these
lyrics, in the extended refrains of Sour Times, and
Glory Box. But it is a level of complexity woven into
the fabric of the album. Dummy offers in its approach
systematic, ironic, complex, and compromised an
examination and rejection of so many versions of the
modern female self, that it makes of this music a
protest album, a plea a cry for freedom from over-
determination by the world outside.
* * *
Listeners have always remarked on the qualities of
Dummys vocals. Bram Schijven says that Beths voice
just goes through my bone and marrow. Lee Thomson
hears Joy, pain, suffering. Her range is fantastic. Its
compelling, absolutely compelling. Its disturbing but
in a most gratifying way.
For Belinda Kazanci one of the standout features of
Dummy is the details especially Beth Gibbons voice:
even just the way she takes breaths in between the notes
and the melodies, its so detailed.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Vocalist Helen White points to Gibbons technical

range, from the wispy kind of voice very delicate
and fragile and clean sounding that was typical of even
the better indie/alternative female singers of the time, to
more unorthodox sounds:
Her use of vocal frying using the lowest vocal
register, through a loose glottal closure, to permit air
to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling
sound a kind of growly, sultry sound, often used to
sound sexy, was very well placed. A singing technique
that has classical types cringing in their boots but one
that pop/folk and jazz singers use as and when they deem
Nikki Lynette heard the contrast between the little
thinner, really effeminate voice that was typical in R&B
at the time, and Gibbons who:
can have a tiny little voice, or she can have this big voice
that roars, or she can cackle almost, or she can basically
whisper There are times when theyre doing these
cute little melodies with this tiny little feminine little
voice and these tiny little accents. And then theres times
when its like As long as I have tried these roaring,
cackling, powerful, I dont give a fuck type voices.
* * *
Gibbons voice is pushed to extremes on Dummy. On
Numb, a lady of one; on Glory Box, this is
the beginning of forever and ever, the line soaked


in reverb and decay. Her voice is taken to its limits

by frequency manipulation and signal processing and
emotion brilliantly volatile like the contact of lithium
and water.
Steven Connor has pointed to the cultural signif-
cance of the female voice:
The mythological voice of the siren is a female voice
Why is the voice of alarm a female or an infantile
voice? Is the fact that high-pitched sounds are so much
more arousing for human beings (and other animals?)
just coincidence? Perhaps it is that the female voice
has been associated in so many cultures and at so many
different times with what is unearthly. The song of the
siren promises a bliss that is not of this world. The
voice of the God that is transmitted through his oracles,
whether the pythian priestess at Delphi, or the Cumaen
sibyl is shattered and estranged by its relay through the
female person and her vocal apparatus The piercing
sweetness of the soprano, or, in previous eras, of the
castrato, embody the experience of voice as pure, quasi-
divine power, transcending the ordinary functions of
speech and communication. The siren belongs to the
world of shrieks, wails, and lamentations, where the body
speaks from a place beyond or before culture, before or
behind the human.
Connor 1997b.


A plenitude of releases The trip-hop moment
A plenitude of labels Making out and drinking tea
Numb Blade Runner The absence of rules
That sounds too normal Trapdoors
Roy Orbison The General Assembly of the International
Music Council of UNESCO Muzak Shopping carts
The avant garde Hearing voices
Massive Attacks second album, Protection, released
in September 1994; Trickys Maxinquaye released in
February 1995. In May, Earthling comprised of
Portishead collaborator Tim Saul with rapper Mau
released Radar.
1994 through 1997 saw, among many others,
releases by other bands from Bristol including The
Federation, Purple Penguin, Statik Sound System, Monk
& Canatella, Invisible Pair of Hands (which included
Portishead associates Jim Barr and John Baggott), Alpha.
Smith & Mighty fnally had a full-length album release
in 1995, Bass is Maternal.


On the Mo Wax label: D.J. Shadows debut album

Endtroducing was released in November 1996. D.J.
Krush, Attica Blues, Dr. Octagon, U.N.K.L.E.
On Coldcuts Ninja Tune label: D.J. Food, 9 Lazy 9,
Funki Porcini, The Herbaliser; Coldcut themselves; D.J.
Vadim, Amon Tobin.
Elsewhere, to name just a few of very, very many:
David Holmes, Fila Brazilia, Nightmares on Wax, Dan
the Automator. Mainstays of the early 90s including
Bomb the Bass, Depth Charge. Neneh Cherrys third
album, Woman. The acid-jazz infuence taken to a harsh,
crisp edge by Red Snapper.
Kruder & Dorfmeister, Tosca. Howie B, engineer on
Soul II Souls Club Classics Vol. One and Blue Lines. Skylab.
Lamb, Death in Vegas, Hooverphonic. Mono, Olive,
Sneaker Pimps, Morcheeba. REQ. Rae & Christian.
From France: D.J. Cam and Kid Loco. Luke Vibert
(under his own name and others).
Label-specifc collections: Grand Centrals Central
Heating; Cup of Teas Coffee Table Music. Numerous Ninja
Tune collections. And wave after wave of compilations:
Give Em Enough Dope, three volumes; Dope on Plastic,
eight. This is Trip-Hop. This Aint Trip-Hop. Trip-Hop
Boutique. The Trip Hop Test.
The dizzying variety of sources, sub-genres, micro-
movements, and nuances. All of the following could be
seen at some point as shelf markers in record stores in
the U.K. during the mid-90s:
R . J . W H E A T O N


beats & breaks
acid jazz
jazzy beats & breaks
blunted beats
abstract hip-hop
Some of these became, later, discrete sub-genre labels in
different contexts. All of them translated poorly overseas,
particularly in the U.S. where the genre complexity that
then and still characterizes British dance music was
impenetrable, and boring, to a mainstream music media
surveying a much larger terrain from a much higher
altitude. Electronica became the catch-all label, with
trip-hop as its moody emo variant.
All of this, to one degree or another, was aimed at
a market broadly understood to want an accessible
electronic music, to some extent derived from beat-based
production, paced somewhat slower than hip-hop, and
without too many distracting aggressive elements.
It was also a market served somewhat concurrently
by the big beat genre faster, louder, foregrounding
the acid house and psychedelia infuences. Even drum
& bass (formerly known as jungle) reached mainstream
commercial success for a brief period, culminating in
Bristol-based Roni Size and Reprazents Mercury Prize-
winning New Forms.


* * *
Among this the ubiquitous presence of Dummy. For
a brief moment it was possible to hear the album in
nightclubs and bars, in peoples homes, to read about it
in newspapers and magazines without the exposure
in one of those arenas alienating another. Perhaps this
was in part to do with the bands reserve, their unwill-
ingness to engage in the more nakedly commercial
pursuit of popularity. They did not seek over-exposure.
Yet the album was everywhere. As Helen White recalls,
Everyone suddenly liked them.
In February 1995, Entertainment Weekly quoted Gen
X expert Michael Krugman on Dummy:
Its music thats as appropriate if youre making out at
home, or home alone pining And isnt that pretty much
why people listen to Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra?
It became impossible to escape the album, particularly
after its initial fourishes of chart success in the U.K.
it reached #3 in January of 1995 and #2 in May it was
awarded the Mercury Music Prize in September 1995.
It was suddenly background music everywhere: peoples
apartments; bars; cafs; clothing boutiques.
It seemed to accommodate so many uses. One post to
the 4AD-L mailing list noted in January 1995 that:
Every song is close, its a very private album. Its the
kind of album you can snuggle up in your sofa and drink
Entertainment Weekly 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


tea to Its a very convenient album for people like me

who has very little other music they can play while having
guests. Its quiet. You can dance to it. You can sing along
with the lyrics. You can do the dishes to it.
* * *
Theres a moment in Richard Donners 1995 movie
Assassins a Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas vehicle
when the Banderas character prepares to attack the
heroine from her neighbors apartment. The neighbors
just having had a ferocious domestic argument are
about to become collateral damage in the service of the
flms meaningless narrative. Sour Times is playing
in the background, its jangling cimbalom effectively
telegraphing the disorientation that is to follow. At the
same time, though, there is the suggestion that this music
is just that background music; disposable.
* * *
Revenge of the Number, one of the remixes on the
original single release of Numb, is in some ways the
most accessible way into Dummy for the general
listener. It takes the vocal of Numb in its austere
isolation (this loneliness it just wont leave me alone)
and sets it astray amid a series of bouncy, pockety loops.
In contrast, the original version of Numb is a
ruthless experience. The opening organ tone, driven
hard through a Leslie speaker, is polished to a hard
Ingelbrigtsen 1995.


edge. It has a percussive quality itself amid the rimshot

snare hits and it collides with a bassline that lurches
woozy and punchdrunk thereafter throughout the length
of the song. Like so many of the albums tracks, the
arrangement is deeply abstract, strange. When it lacks the
vocal to organize the air around it, the songs atmosphere
is thin, reedy; it seems composed of elements moving
in opposite directions the bass swaying forward; the
turntable scratches slicing, scattering shrapnel, evacu-
ating the upper registers of the song.
There are colossal quantities of air moved about
in Numb but there is so little air at its core. As
elsewhere, Beth Gibbons voice is remarkable for its
volume and range even when so little seems to come
from her lungs. Cause Im still feeling lonely Feeling
so unholy has a front-of-the-mouth innocence that
charms all the charge from the otherwise impious impli-
cations of the lyric. But the path to the chorus moves
through a soulful, agonized expression (on reveal what
I) to the distended, almost over-articulated loneliness
of the chorus. Gibbons vocal is scratched onto the
surface of the song, a technique frst used in 1988 by
Run-D.M.C.s song Beats to the Rhyme.
In the
middle of the song there is a moment, at 2:03, where a
slab of the songs bassline lumbers forward and in the air
above it is the shredded detritus from Barrows boards:
fragments of Gibbons voice sheared from their origin;
indecipherable radio noise; a yeah, muddied in reverb,
slowed, and cast in an accent distinct but impossible to
Jenkins 1999, p. 60.
R . J . W H E A T O N


identify in the trauma of its separation from a gospel

churchfront or a streetcorner somewhere.
Gibbons voice sounds both besieged and somehow
comforted by the space that the songs arrangements
allow. Its distance from the abstract, machinelike palette
is the perfect parallel of a self isolated and alienated
from its surroundings. In the fnal moments, a raw cry
of existence a lady of one is almost evaporated
into the hollowing, cyclonic wail of sound that the song
unleashes upon it.
* * *
Geoff Barrow recalled in 2010 of Dummy that:
The strangest thing, and the most annoying thing, is that
chill-out thing, thats come out of it. For me. Dummy
as chill-out, yuppie, shagging music. It wasnt supposed
to be about that. It wasnt like something to kind of like
chill to. It was actually supposed to be quite harsh, and
alternative, and noisy.
That potential for easy listening was something that
the band had worked against from the outset. Barrow
remembered, as the band added the guitar parts to
Glory Box, we were like, What are we doing? It just
seemed so horribly commercial. I hated commercial
B.B.C. 2010.
B.B.C. 2010.


The commercial reception troubled Beth Gibbons

You write songs and you hope youre gonna communicate
with people half the reason you write them in the frst
place is that youre feeling misunderstood and frustrated
with life in general. Then its sort of successful and you
think youve communicated with people, but then you
start to think you havent communicated with them at
all youve turned the whole thing into a product, so
then youre even more lonely than when you started.
But when you think about something like the mannekins
[sic] in Blade Runner, the only reason they think theyre
human is the pictures they hold.
* * *
The band left State of Art at the end of 1993 and moved
to Coach House Studios to complete the album. Adrian
Utley recalled that We did go down to a big London
studio to mix, but we hated the result because we werent
used to it. We know that the studios around us have got
what we need and we know the sound of them.
It was not possible to recreate some of the State of Art
material with the same character, so the original 16-track
demo tracks were laid down to the 24-track at Coach
House. Adrian Utley told Sound on Sound that When
you frst get that vibe of the moment, its a pain in the
arse trying to recreate it. Once its on tape, as far as Im
Thompson 1998, p. 222.
Miller 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


concerned, thats it, even if its got little mistakes in it. To

us, saying, Okay, lets go to a real studio now and do it
for real, is a ridiculous concept.
Tim Saul describes the process as demo-itis:
As a producer youll go through months of working on
a track and in your mind youll think, Im going to tidy
that up later. In the fnal mix. And then actually when
you get to the fnal mix you tidy it up and you realize
that youre taking out something which actually gives it
its character.
We were quite commando at that stage, recalls Dave
McDonald. We knew what we were doing to a degree
but we werent sort of high-end studio bods. Its a policy
that it doesnt matter how you get there, as long as it
sounds okay.
No rules. Theres nothing you cant do, Barrow said
in 1997. To achieve a sound on a beat or on a vocal or
on a guitar or whatever, theres nothing that is wrong to
achieve that sound.
There was an aesthetic of imperfection. Im not
so keen on modern technology, Barrow told Spin in
February 1995, thats why a lot of our stuff sounds
rough. If you polish everything up too much, it sounds
stale. Like plastic music.
Talking to Michael Goldberg
in 1997, Barrow railed against the restrictive production
methodology of the 80s everything had to be
Miller 1995.
Goldberg 1997a.
Bernstein 1995.


cleaner, everything had to be tighter. It kind of squashed

a lot of the emotion and mistakes and all kinds of things
that go to make good music out of the music.
The band was deliberately trying to produce music
that would challenge quick absorption into the culture,
a too-easy integration into the collective aural imagi-
nation. Tim Saul remembers that:
Beth would kind of goad Geoff into not making the
music sound too not that he was [inclined to] too
formulaic. I can remember times where she would just
say, That sounds too normal.
* * *
There are numerous moments on Dummy that confound
your frst reaction, that present discoveries to additional
listening. Moments that defy easy listening. The albums
imperfections. Weve put some trapdoors in our music,
Barrow told Jaan Uhelszki in 1995.
Among them the willful detritus of the recording
process. Dave McDonald remembers:
We sampled one of Adrians guitar loops, and it was
picking up the radio. The amp was picking up the radio
for some reason, just as we were doing the take on it. It
was talking about Roy Orbison that was the only take
which was the perfect take. But it was damaged because
it had this vocal sound in it. But we kept it and thats
Goldberg 1997a.
Uhelszki 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


on the album somewhere I always remember that as

being very very bizarre.
The opening chords of Roads, so smothering, thick,
so absolute, are nonetheless occasionally smudged,
individual notes landing fractionally out of time with
one another. At 1:25 in the same song there is a noise in
the background which sounds very much like someone
dropping something. Its perfect.
There are of course the vocal intrusions Gibbons
voice captured to a closeness beyond intimacy. The
moment, for example, near the end of Roads where you
can clearly hear her swallowing. There is what sounds
like a failed vocal sustain right at the end of the fnal note
of Pedestal: a moment of gorgeous fragility.
As Adrian Utley told Phil Johnson: There was an
awful lot of time spent on it though there are still things
that we didnt get right, like an out-of-time piano on one
track, so theres still a rough edge to it.
* * *
In October 1969 the General Assembly of the
International Music Council of UNESCO proclaimed
We denounce unanimously the intolerable infringement
of individual freedom and of the right of everyone
to silence, because of the abusive use, in private and
public places, of recorded or broadcast music. We ask
Johnson 1996, p. 171.


the Executive Committee of the International Music

Council to initiate a study from all angles medical,
scientifc and juridical without overlooking its artistic
and educational aspects, and with a view to proposing
to UNESCO, and to the proper authorities everywhere,
measures calculated to put an end to this abuse.
* * *
Music has become ubiquitous. Oliver Sachs has pointed
to the contrast with the nineteenth century, when music
had to be sought out at church, parties, concerts. But
with recording technology:
Half of us are plugged into iPods, immersed in daylong
concerts of our own choosing, virtually oblivious to
the environment and for those who are not plugged
in, there is nonstop music, unavoidable and often of
deafening intensity, in restaurants, bars, shops, and
In the modern atmosphere, music now resides alongside
the sound of transportation; alarms; sirens; machinery. R.
Murray Schafer, writing in 1977, pointed to one corrective
strategy: audioanalgesia, that is, the use of sound as a
painkiller, a distraction to dispel distractions.
What he decried as bovine sound slicks: music not
intended to be listened to consciously. Thus, the Moozak
Schafer 1997, 97.
Sacks 2008, p. 53.
Schafer 1997, pp. 9697.
R . J . W H E A T O N


industry deliberately chooses music that is nobodys

favorite and subjects it to unvenomed and innocuous
* * *
Moments in Dummy are punishingly loud; they strike with
such force, such taut violence, that, completed, fnished,
the air itself rings dented in their wake. Elsewhere the
music proceeds with edges tightened, focused, chiseled,
and its qualities thus sharpened are used to breach your
attention. In case you have been sleeping.
The aggressive mid-range on Dummy; the snares that
explode in your face. Something of the aural fstprint of
punk. Dave McDonald agrees: Its there. Ive arrived.
Portishead had produced an album braced and steeled
in its architecture against the desire to listen to it in
the background. And yet it had become background
music easy listening; useful music; music of practical
purpose: an accompaniment to conversation, to dinner
parties; a representation of consumption. Something
middle-class and conventional. It was just badly inter-
preted, our music, recalled Geoff Barrow in 2008, it
was so terribly interpreted.
* * *
And yet we may need a more nuanced understanding
of what background music actually does. Writer Sean
Schafer 1997, p. 96.
Jones 2008.


Cranbury, tending bar in the mid-90s, remembers

playing tracks from the album perpetrating it on
people for something jarring in its qualities:
what Portishead would bring to it was a sense of dislo-
cation. Its very easy for people to come in, start drinking,
kind of get locked into a rhythm of drinking and some
really average music being played, and its a night like
every other night. So as bartender my job as musical
coordinator was to keep things interesting. So it would
be like going from Sour Times to the frst No Doubt
album to Bjorks Debut to Becks Odelay to Maceo Parkers
Life on Planet Groove. And back to Dummy and then
Janes Addiction or whatever [Portishead] were that
kind of thing where you would end up halfway through
a conversation youd look at the person beside you if
you were a customer I saw this happen and theyd be
like What is this?
He recalls one of the bar managers describing Dummy
in language prefguring a future Anti-Pop Consortium
record as like shopping carts being smashed together
in a parking lot. And I thought, thats an awesome obser-
vation. It does actually sound a bit like that. She didnt
mean it as a compliment.
* * *
Is it still possible to produce avant garde music? R.
Murray Schafer has suggested that the concept of music
as a rarifed, separate entity, something to be enjoyed
exclusively in aesthetic terms, is a concept unique to
R . J . W H E A T O N


Western thought and a concept of recent origin. He

suggests that In many cultures the word music does
not exist at all; that in other cultural environments
music is effortlessly associated with dance, with physical
tasks, with social festivities and celebrations of all kinds.
In European culture, by contrast, What makes it special
is its abstraction from daily life, its exclusivity.
Yet our experience with contemporary music is no
longer so. It is certainly ambient and, in its universal
ambience, functional: we do listen to music while working,
laboring, driving. That experience may be communal
music playing in a bar or a store or heard through the
walls of a neighbors apartment. Or it may be personal,
delivered through headphones from a personally curated
media library or a cloud-based streaming service. Music
is everywhere; and, as a consequence of that ubiquity, it is
put to use in contexts unimaginable by its creators.
In 1977s The Tuning of the World, Schafer pointed to
tape and radio as the two technologies to have enabled
this irrationality of electroacoustic juxtapositioning,
and he termed the separation of sounds from their
origins schizophonia. He associated it with a feeling of
aberration and drama, and pointed to the introduction
of many contradictions into modern life and the
breakup of unifed cultural systems and values.
Hip-hop, of course, took this aesthetic sensibility
to extremes, taking sounds that had, demonstrably, an
origin outside of their use in hip-hop, and fundamentally
Schafer 1992, pp. 3435.
Schafer 1997, pp. 9094.


reimagining them in new environments. M.C. Doodlebug,

of Digable Planets, mused:
When we got in the game, James Brown had gotten
looped to the point where it was like: Is James Brown
real, or does he only exist as something to sample and
make a record out of?
Sampling is so radical in its removal of materials from
their original contexts that the vinyl crackles and artifacts
are necessary to remind us that it does come from an
identifable timeline. Particular instruments, timbres,
styles, and genres all provide cultural connotations that
we use to ground ourselves in the music we hear, to
understand what is normal and experimental within
our experience of it.
But what if speed of communications, or the obscurity
of a sounds origins, themselves exceed the strength
of those referents? Music can be communicated faster
now than our own ability to gradually form an appre-
ciation of its genre or origin. It can now be chanced
upon in the immediate environment, through walls
and doors and foors, from cars or from public spaces,
from online recommendations and social media, and
from chance encounters. Our ability to shuffe at random
through enormous music libraries, in our pockets or
in the cloud, removes from us the need to self-identify
according to our taste or mood. Listening becomes a
fragmented experience; an experience always prone to
sometimes governed by chance discovery and chance
Coleman 1997, p.165.
R . J . W H E A T O N


juxtaposition. Aesthetic dislocation is now the norm.

Our entire music environment has become, in effect,
one enormous sampler, introducing music in contexts
completely unimagined by the authors of the sound.
Our exposure to music is no longer limited by genre
or biography, but is something associative, trans-global,
cross-generational, contextless, accidental, situational.
We are confronted with contrasts in style or genre that
are more profoundly disruptive to a particular piece of
musics internal cohesion than any deliberate avant garde
artistic mission, framed only in the narrow context of its
particular origin and conventions, could ever be. It is
harder to be radical and experimental in contemporary
music because our contemporary experience of music is
itself radical and experimental.
* * *
Julian Jaynes has suggested that we are able to resist
being overpowered by the perspectives and instructions
of others because they exist at a spatial distance from
us, and because we are able to develop opinions of them
against which to evaluate their viewpoints. We are more
easily dominated by those that are closest to us, or of
whom we cannot form distant opinions. These are not
tactics available to those who hear auditory hallucina-
tions voices because they arrive unprompted,
unmeasured by distance, unattached to an originating
source that can be judged and rejected.
Jaynes 1976, p. 98.


Music that reaches us unprompted, unsolicited, by

chance, to which we are accidentally exposed; music that
arrives without familiar cultural attachments, without
context. That music seems to overwhelm us in its
immediacy, its seductive force, its inescapable proximity.
This music was written for me, or, this music is attacking me.
Is this experience like that of hallucination?


The sky at war Rehabilitation Consolations
The Fender Rhodes Fusion A dog Vintage
instruments Frankenstein repairs Cassettes Roads
Earth-shattering vibration A working mans club band
and the London Philharmonic Orchestra The right syllables
Communication Mannequins and dummies
Public assembly Post-apocalyptic drought Grief
The sensation of evil Fireworks
The skies over Europe, 1943. The Boeing B-17 Flying
Fortress. The Consolidated Aircraft B-24 Liberator.
Death within reach. The skies afame, blackmorrowed;
in the kindling of cities and shipyards and factories below
history itself infammate. The souls of thousands a-tinder
and, in the skies above, airmen in the thin clasp of an
atmosphere amok with fak and the riot of war.
Rehabilitation. In Greenboro, North Carolina, at
the Army Air Forces Basic Training Center, Harold
Rhodes, former piano instructor, now Private, builds
small 29-note keyboards using aluminum tubing salvaged
from the wings of B-17s. The Army Air Corps lap model


can be played in bed.

It contributes to the relief
and recovery of thousands of veterans, fngers left
with severe adhesions, stiffened tendons or frost-bite
In motion, it was occupational therapy; at heart, in
mind, it was music therapy. Music as solace from the
world was not new: in World War I music had been
performed at veterans hospitals; and the therapeutic
effects of music had been known for centuries.
In his
1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton
described music as a sovereign remedy against despair
and melancholy:
The sound of a trumpet on a sudden, bells ringing, a
carmans whistle, a boy singing some ballad tune early in
the street, alters, revives, recreates a restless patient that
cannot sleep in the night.
* * *
After the war Rhodes developed the Pre-Piano, a
38-note electric piano with built-in amplifer marketed
to the general public; in the 1950s he joined with Leo
Fender, producing the 32-note Piano Bass. In 1965, in a
venture now owned by CBS: the Fender Rhodes electric
piano. It had a thick, resonant sound, smothering and
Pareles 2001.
New York Times July 23, 1927.
Sacks 2008, 273.
Burton 2001, p. 117.
Burton 2001, p. 116.
R . J . W H E A T O N


warm in its reach; its ringing upper register, clear and

open; its bright attack, acerbic bite, full sustain. And, of
course, as an electric instrument, the ability to manipulate
it through effects processors and amplifcation choices.
By the mid-70s the instrument was in wide use in rock,
R&B, and jazz most famously in the epochal fusion
recordings featuring Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe
Zawinul: Miles Davis In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew;
Hancocks Head Hunters; albums by Return to Forever;
Weather Report. Its place in hip-hops sonic fuselage
was guaranteed by heavy use by jazz-funk mainstays
including The Crusaders and Bob James.
* * *
We were really into the sounds of old instruments,
recalls Dave McDonald:
We used to have a ridiculous saying: Low tech, low
spec? Ill buy two of them. If the instrument was
slightly damaged or a lot of these old instruments were
never produced exactly the same, so every instrument had
character. And thats what we were into: the character of
He sees in that preference the infuence of the music the
band were playing to one another, all from that 50s,
60s, early-70s period. Geoff Barrow saw it as a means
to longevity:
We wanted to do something hopefully that was going to
last a long time. Because music today it doesnt seem to


have a long life span. And it has to do with something

sonically with old records, that Im really interested in.
When it sounds old, people always think that its good
if we get something that sounds really old and it gives it
that warmth, it kind of like triggers off sound thoughts
in peoples heads without them even knowing about it.
There was also a sense of versatility that came from
using original instruments instead of the preset sounds
available on modern keyboards:
We just dont believe in that. If its gonna be a
Hammond, its gonna be a Hammond. Or its gonna be
a Vox Continental. Those [modern keyboard] sounds
are restricted by the programmer at Yamaha or Korg
or whatever. Theyre made to sound like a Hammond,
but in reality, a real Hammond organ has got over 1,000
sounds. Which means you can experiment [with] it and
get your own sound or get a similar sound to one of the
great Hammond players.
A Fender Rhodes. Two Vox Continentals. An ancient
L-100 Hammond organ that served as the sleeping place
for the studio dog until it one day caught fre. It was
fnally pressed back into service after serving as a table in
State of Arts lounge. The character of it was the smell
of it, recalls McDonald. The dog was uninjured.
McDonald also credits the involvement of the Bailey
brothers, two local repair merchants who were said
Uhelszki 1995.
Goldberg 1997a.
R . J . W H E A T O N


to live together in a house full of old equipment and

broken stuff.
And because we used so much old equipment, our
equipment was breaking down forever. So these guys
would just turn up, and cart this stuff off. And I dont
know what theyd do. They were like something out of
The Hills Have Eyes, theyd sort of butcher these things
and get them going again. And theyd never be the same.
But they would be brilliant, you know, they would work
and be slightly odd. So I think Id have to give some
respect to them for the sound of some of the things.
Because I know what they were doing wasnt correct.
* * *
The bands obsession with cassette noise also added
depth, warmth, texture. They love analogue tape,
recalls Miles Showell, who mastered both Dummy and
1997s Portishead. Material, once recorded, would be
transferred bounced to cassette, so that some of
the sonic qualities of that medium would be preserved in
the fnal masters. Jay Hodgson points out the qualities
that distinguish cassette from digital media: its soupy,
everythings a bit mushy. Theres a low pass, a low bias to
it; high end stuff tends to get crushed out on tape. You
can hear, on Roads, some tape hiss, slightly panned to
the right side of the mix. (Its easier to hear at the end of
the track, when it cuts out slightly before the end of the
fnal chord.)
Dave McDonald suggests how extensive this technique


There was a lot of bouncing to cassette. A lot of bouncing

to cassette. I remember we used to have a Tascam cassette
player, a professional Tascam cassette player which we
used quite a lot for putting stuff to cassette. And thats
part of the maturing process. And then we did a string
session and instead of putting them to DAT [Digital
Audio Tape] we put them to cassette, which I remember
raised a few odd looks from people
Its the sound of cassette. Its just got a sound to it, you
know? DAT doesnt have a sound to it. DAT is just 1s and
0s. And you cant hear the 1s and 0s. The tape is you
can hear the compression, you hear the tape slowing and
stretching and doing all its organic sort of things. Its a
physical process. Its a tape running across a piece of metal.
* * *
Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936 about the elaborate
staging necessary in flm to make invisible the high
involvement of technology in its production:
The representation of reality by the flm is incomparably
more signifcant than that of the painter, since it offers,
precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of
reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality
which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is
entitled to ask from a work of art.
Dummy, in contrast, challenges represents the decay
of the idea of an unmediated representation of reality.
Benjamin 1973, p. 227.
R . J . W H E A T O N


For Portishead, technology was not a transparent means

to convey sound from source to destination. It was a
stage in the process, a stage that thrillingly intro-
duced complexity, noise, distortion, ambiguity, accident,
contingency. In Dummy the sounds of tape bed, turntable
chassis; of the years worn into a vintage instrument. The
repair choices. Cables, amplifers. Transmission via the
FM airwaves. A delight in decay, atrophy, loss. Nothing
is unmediated in Dummy, no experience indivisible from
the circumstance that produced it. We put stuff on
tape, said Barrow in 1997. We put beats to vinyl, then
we sample them. We stick things through little amps and
re-record them again. Usually, the crappier the machine,
the better it sounds.
* * *
The Fender Rhodes passage that opens Roads swells
in its own tremolo, the chords so deep and resonant that
it commands the songs extensive dynamic range the
moment of actual silence between chords at 0:37; the
descent from its climactic moment, the bass solo drawing
the song as, at its height, the strings froth and spray
about it. The Rhodes remains a depthless bed below,
bearing the song throughout its length.
Dave McDonald recalls:
The Fender Rhodes there was a very specifc sound
on that that we used to get, which was all to do with the
trem and using the very low frequencies on the Fender
Goldberg 1997a.


Twin [amplifer]. A lot of people Ive worked with since,

they still dont get how to do a Fender Twin, how to get
that sort of earth-shattering vibration, the power and the
energy to it.
The effect is deeply rhythmic. The chords are driven
forward under their own current. On live performances
you can see Beth Gibbons move to an underlying tempo
of the song that is unmistakably implied by the astonishing
vibration of the chords. When the drums fnally enter they
are understated: clipped, dry, and muted a contrast to
the percussive poundwork elsewhere on the album.
When the strings enter after the frst chorus, it is
to explore reaches of the song that have already been
charted by implication. But the approach is at frst distant:
as if light across, at night, the surface of the water. The
guitar, iridescent, awash in wah-wah, will slowly saturate
the track; the strings swell with the song, engulf it, rise
with it; bring within it wave upon wave of resonance,
warmth, momentum, inertia. There is an immensity to
the music here, something majestic. When the bass pulls
away from the center of the song after the second chorus
it is to sound something fathomless. There is so little
in Roads that sweeps in different directions; and in
its arrangement so broad, so warm, so limitless in its
depth it grows from something intimate to something
* * *
Tim Saul recalls the band listening extensively to Suite
London, a 1972 album by The Peddlers a very
R . J . W H E A T O N


strange kind of mixture of almost working mans club

crooning over really interesting arrangements with the
London Philharmonic. For some reason we kept going
back to that and we loved that. With songs written by
keyboardist-singer Roy Phillips and arranged by Peter
Robinson, it is possible, as Bas Mllenkramer points out,
to hear dual Rhodes parts on songs like Impressions:
Movement I.
Suite London isnt unknown to electronic downtempo
listeners: I Have Seen was covered in 2001 on Zero 7s
Simple Things. And there is some obvious textural overlap
with Dummy: the thundering moments of bass, strings,
and electric piano on Sequence of Thought; the slow,
bass-driven opening of Raining in London, its drums
practically made for breakbeats.
But it is the albums opening track, This Strange
Affair, with which Dummy most obviously resonates. It
opens with a rich, throbbing low-register chord sequence
played on a Fender Rhodes. Roy Phillips voice sits
tender and full above it, and at the songs conclusion
it will exhaust itself into a cloud of reverberation. The
strings conspire thickly beneath it; there is a dramatic
pause before the drums barricade the song. A ballad
made magnifcent in the enormous space between the
arrangement and the human voice.
* * *
Dummys lyrics are imagistic, impressionistic. Elliptical.
Shards of imagery a faithless path to roam, where
Mllenkrame, undated.


the morn meets the dew and the tide rises. There are
many moments which seem to voice the emotional
everyday, albeit from a sorrowful, lonely, self-regarding
perspective: Its just Im scared; got hurt a long time
ago; I cant understand myself anymore. But they are
almost always followed by something that undercuts the
familiarity, that moves towards imagery that is almost
surreal, that plays with the texture of words (sensation;
sin, slave of sensation), or that uses near-rhyme to
present a coy humor (But Im still feeling lonely
feeling so unholy).
The albums lyrics are so elliptical that it is as if select
words or phrases have been removed; as if they are the
associative output of some emotional state, the narrative
order of which is lost forever except by what it suggests to
the listener. These songs are not clear narratives. Instead
they accumulate; they become the product of fragments
which may mean something different to each listener.
In this patchwork construction the lyrics are not unlike
the production process that went into the underlying
tracks sounds that seem to cohere together through
some alchemy, some internal logic the workings of which
remain obscure. Reading the lyrics without the music
is unsettling; yet restored to the music the strangeness
seems to recede, as if neutralized by an otherworldliness
of another order.
Beth Gibbons has described her song-writing
its almost the atmosphere you create by juggling the
words round rather than what you actually say. Its not so
much a matter of a beginning or an end as a feeling which
R . J . W H E A T O N


you have to express in different ways or a word that has

got the right syllables.
This inscrutability, opacity, is intrinsic to her approach.
I think shes kind of asking more questions than being
fragile, really, Geoff Barrow has said. And showing her
frustration with modern society.
Talking to Stuart Clark in 1995, Gibbons conceded
that she was naturally pessimistic, but denied that the
songs on Dummy were a naked expression of personal
suffering. Im not trying to save on psychiatrists bills.
Its more me asking, does anyone else feel this way?
And if it does reach the point where it gets uncom-
fortably personal, I tend to disguise what Im saying in
the phrasing.
It is, indeed, the impossibility of true
connection communication that is suggested by
the content and the form of these lyrics. Adrian Utley
reported a conversation in which she explained her
reluctance to grant interviews because thats what Im
talking about in my lyrics all the time, the inability to
But there remains a commitment to emotional honesty.
The diffcult part of it, she told Ben Thompson in
1994, is to connect with what you really feel rather
than the way in which its been portrayed that you ought
Thompson 1998, p. 221.
NPR 2008.
Clark 1995.
McLean 2008.
Thompson 1998, p. 221.


* * *
The opaque nature of the albums lyrics is in keeping
with the inscrutability of the title Dummy which
suggests multiple meanings but defes fnal defnition.
Dumb: a mute inability to communicate. Dummy:
a pacifer. Dummy: an artifcial personality, something
adjacent or replacement to a real identity: a mannequin
that can be adorned with changing personalities. As if
ones identity must adjust in different contexts, adapt to
different audiences; as if identity is an experiment, always
contingent, subject to experimentation.
And, against this, dummy, an insult, a self-chastising
stupidity a refusal to feel self-pity but never an unwill-
ingness to engage in self-refection and anger.
Somehow in these meanings there is the feeling of
a lack of agency of being acted upon rather than
acting. And a struggle to become aware that it is delusion
to believe that identity is the dominion of the self,
rather than like the album something collectively
assembled from the materials around and before us.
* * *
Dummys songs explore the self. The accused self of It
Could be Sweet. The isolated, misunderstood self of
Numb. The abandoned, suffering self of Pedestal.
Lost, exposed, world-weary. Trapped, left behind.
Self-distrusting. But those sentiments even when
clearly expressed are never the story of each song;
they never center a narrative, never dominate. Instead
they are surrounded, beset, thicketed, by the confused,
R . J . W H E A T O N


imagistic, fragmented experience of the world, never

fully revealed; never fully understood.
The problem of perspective occurs again and again:
the impossibility of truly seeing things through the eyes
of another, the limiting viewpoint within which we view
the world. In Strangers, she sings, Did you realize,
no one can see inside your view? In Glory Box she
challenges listeners to take a little look from our side,
and invokes the possibilities of this new frame of mind.
Other selves appear, glimpsed in questions and accusa-
tions: Did you really want?; Not like you do; You
abandoned me; Give me a reason to love you. But
these others are always in the second person. Never he;
never she. Even they only appears once, on Roads
regardless of what they say. The effect should be
claustrophobic, giving the impression that the self is
more acted upon than creating itself but Gibbons
vocals always undermine the other, and always speak of
the self-abnegating self with irony, distance.
* * *
The band has made explicit political comments in inter-
views. Geoff Barrow, for example, expressed shock at
1994s Criminal Justice Act, which provided for the
regulation of outdoor gatherings at which the music
played was wholly or predominantly characterised by
the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.
Goldberg 1997. The pertinent text of the Criminal Justice
Act (1994) can be found online at


kind of gatherings that, years before, the Wild Bunch and

the Bristol sound systems had engaged in.
Nonetheless, Dummy is not an overtly political
album. Yet there is something profoundly disruptive
in its focus on the contingent, provisional nature of
individual identity; on the impossibility of establishing
and maintaining a sense of self in isolation from others.
This is not an album about community, or about
society. But it is an album about the complexity of
identity, the permanent engagement upon the terrain
of relationships. Exile, betrayal, distrust; desire all
these emotional states take place at the ever-shifting
boundaries of our relationships to one another. Such
a position is a corrosive response to the dominant
political philosophy of the 80s and early 90s: the idea
of pure agency, that unmediated personal ambition and
meritocracy were the ideal determinants of the structure
of society.
Dummy instead presents a vision of identity that is
fraught, fragmented; of secret identities hidden in the
shadows of the offcial self.
* * *
Roads appears in Rachal Talalays 1995 flm Tank Girl,
an adaptation of the iconic comic book, set in a post-
apocalyptic future in which drought is the condition
of the world. Talalay has suggested that the flms fnal
execution was compromised because of studio inter-
ference, and commercial considerations also shaped the
soundtrack. But she remembers that Portishead was
used from the beginning and no one had any problems.
R . J . W H E A T O N


The song appears after Lori Pettys title character has

witnessed the murder of her friends and been captured
by the corporation that controls distribution of the
Earths remaining water supplies. Roads accompanies
a scene in which she like the other enslaved workers
wash themselves down in an abrasive shower of dust,
powder, ash. Talalay remembers:
Ironically the scene in the dry showers in Tank Girl
was written as horrifying the powder rough and just
another no-water indignity. However, in my (sometimes
failed) attempts to move away from clich, I decided that
Tank Girl was tough enough to enjoy the pain. So I shot
it as something pleasurable a calm interlude from the
misery of the slavery. This doesnt really come out in the
flm but the sequence turned into a little respite from
the violence. We then put Roads against it and it was
perfect tonally, then tweaked the sequence to work rhyth-
mically to the song. Its one of my favorite sequences
and the Portishead song is perfect beautiful but
haunting and works well with the wide slow motion
interlude. There are some moments when music simply
has synchronicity with the time and place.
* * *
Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a
pleasing melancholy that it causeth; and therefore to such
as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a


most present remedy: it expels cares, alters their grieved

minds, and easeth in an instant.
Amy Clarke used Wandering Star as the song against
which to choreograph material about the struggle to
break out of a part of life that restricts you. The song
provided a strong correlation for those themes:
The anger and the pain that you can feel when it feels like
youre trapped and there is no way out. But the support
you can fnd when you discover other people with similar
pain It was a great track to input choreography with
writing and pain because of the distorted noises within
the song.
The women of the dance unite towards the end
and collectively dance out their anguish in unison. And
though it is still there, theres a newfound unity between
them as the song ends.
Struggling with the circumstances surrounding her
fathers death, Lee Thomson who recorded a simple,
affecting YouTube cover of the song recalls how
Roads reached her:
it captured especially more than any other song the
agonizing struggle that I faced with my dads suffering
and then the end of his life. The opposition that I faced in
trying to rectify a situation which was just overwhelming.
For me that song and the amount of convoluted hints
and the angst that it evokes, for me, is the feelings of lost
Burton 2001, p. 118.
R . J . W H E A T O N


hope I had, and how alone I felt. Trying to help my dad.

Against a lot of opposition.
Music may give us comfort because we recognize within
it that others have felt the same as we. That there are
others abroad upon the night. To hear a shared pain; to
hear it explored in terms that may help us better under-
stand it. Of Dummy, Dayna Vogel says: I fnd it a dark
album but that isnt necessarily a bad thing. Theyre not
happy songs. They dont make me feel happy. They make
me feel deeply.
* * *
At the outset of Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote
Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon
we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.
Central to the achievement of Roads is that the vocal
is not lost against the breadth and majesty of the song,
but instead preserves in itself something that is signal,
fxed, human.
There is such doubt in this song; the questions
Gibbons asks cant anybody see? are so immense.
But they are framed with such certainty, with such clarity,
that they feel like an acknowledgment, a statement of
Roads is an astonishing vocal performance. Eight
times the song asks the same question How can it
feel this wrong? and each expression of that universal
question brings within its arc more meanings. There is
a searching clarity in the frst iteration, a clarity that
seems to grow at the beginning of the second statement,


almost with the force of an accusation, but then tails into

a moment of doubt this wrong?
The second verse, as if bestruck by the doubt, is
quieter than the rest of the song; it is also strangely
unbalanced, the frst word (storm) almost unintelli-
gible; the second line I feel is adrift, unattached
to any other sentence. I got nobody on my side /
And surely that aint right, Gibbons sings, faltering
on the last word as if doubting the truth of her claim;
repeating it again, more lyrically, as if drifting further
from certainty. Is there enough doubt in the world?
How can it feel this wrong? Even posing that
question again and again, undrowned by the sweep
of the world becomes a statement of consciousness,
of defance, a plea against the arbitrary and indifferent
work of the world upon us. Compare the same words
at 1:29 and, later, at 3:48, the defance, the doubt;
the perseverance. The refrain is voiced breathy with
feeting determination, sibilant with anxiety; an almost
undetectable protest on can; a wounded evocation on
feel; a fracture of disbelief on wrong. Again; again.
How I am abroad upon the deep.
* * *
How can it feel this wrong? The quintessential
humanist question, asserting the place of the self in the
world; asserting the right of the self to question the
In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tara the
lesbian partner of one of the main characters tells her
terrifying father, hesitantly, It doesnt feel evil. Sir.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Evil, he replies, a heartless and callous restatement

of the worlds wrong, never does.
* * *
After the tempest of the songs crescendo, the bass solo
moving across the song as a rip current, the questions
return, more forlorn, so destitute that the very word
wrong is invisible in uncertainty, almost swallowed
by the song, so wounded and fragile in the uncertainty
of its own statement. But the voice survives, asking with
beautiful vulnerability, with becalmed persistence, as the
song recedes, why the world is as it is. To not be lost in
the unshored and harborless immensities.
Elsewhere in Dummy, Gibbons asserts, defects,
bullies, abnegates, threatens, promises, denies, comforts,
defends, protects, firts. There are a few things she does
not do. She does not genufect, defer, fee, avoid, or
mitigate. It is always an active performance. She is always
there. She seduces, commands, caresses, ignites.
In Roads, she pleads.
* * *
The empowerment that this music represents. As Lee
Thomson suggests:
It sustains for me times where Im either depressed,
feeling rejected or disappointed, feeling maybe a victim
in some way, whether thats my own doing or thoughts
or I actually am feeling a victim of some kind. Its just
empowering. Even from a weak vantage point, if you


listen to that album, youll be empowered, and inspired,

and strengthened.
The band was well aware of the impact of Roads.
Miles Showell mastered the album in early summer
1994, recording track-by-track to a dump tape, a
technique which allowed no ability to make changes. But
he needed to dub the album again to another cassette
when it was realized that the pause after Roads and
before Pedestal was a bit too short and it needed to be
lengthened in order that the listener could take in the
impact of Roads before anything new came crashing
Roads was never a single; it must exist as one of the
most beloved album tracks of all time. Even the concert
clips and covers posted to YouTube receive special
dedications to loved ones. This song is beloved. Listen to
the applause rapture that greets the opening chords
on the bands 1998 Roseland NYC Live release.
It is as though Roads is a celebration. Tim Saul
remembers the evening on which the vocals were
recorded. It was bonfre night. I can remember very
specifcally that it was bonfre night and the freworks
were going off somewhere outside and we were trying to
fnish vocals off.


Beirut An airstrike Well get back to you
Permission Chet Baker Jazz quartets and slowed-down
hip-hop Studio trends Beach guitar
Advertisements and imitators Swinging London Cover
versions Noise Punk Two mics and a drum kit A bush
radio An amazing sucking sound Pedestal
EQ and compression Snares
A refusal to submit to exile
Zeid Hamdan was 15 or 16 when he frst heard Dummy.
He was in Beiruts legendary B-018 club, named for the
apartment from which owner Naji Gebran used to run
a club named Musical Therapy. B-018 is now located on
the site of a former quarantine camp, the location of a
massacre at the outset of Lebanons limitless civil war. In
the middle of the 90s it was on the industrial edge of the
city; unlicensed, remote; known to play the really edgy
music as soon as it was released, recalls Hamdan.
Hearing Glory Box he was stunned by the
arrangement: minimal; the vocals really in front
Compared to the Arabic music, which is really loaded
with arrangements, I felt that Portishead had something


really pure. He was to hear in Massive Attacks Mezzanine

a similar aesthetic direction: just a bass line, a kick and a
rimshot, and beautiful vocals on it.
His reaction was immediate. I really wanted to hear
Arabic music this way.
Playing guitar in a band, he was already working with
Yasmin Hamdan (no relation), a singer who he felt had
the same vibe, and same sensuality in her voice. The
approach of their band, SoapKills, was a marriage of
aesthetics and necessity: when other members of the
band withdrew from musical careers, Hamdan replaced
the bass and drum parts using a Roland Groovebox. I
didnt want to go complicated, so I really programmed
essentials. Linear beat; bassline just to support the
synthetic drum. So thats why I had this very pure sound,
with not so much arrangement on it.
You can hear some these ideas being worked out on
Live at Circus, a partial recording of a June 1999 concert
that was interrupted by an Israeli airstrike. Habibi is
a traditional song; in SoapKills arrangement it has the
synthetic stamp of a drum machine, a puncturing snare
sound and colliding breakbeats underpinning a jazzy
trumpet solo. Bater, in 2001, is leaner, starker; songs like
L Zaalen and Coit Me stretch Yasmin Hamdans
voice intimate and supple across the songs slow builds.
Theres a fantastic rhythmic drop on the latter track, a
bassline throbbing its way into the coalition of breaths
and lips and fngertip guitar riffs and the crisp edges of
drums within which the song has swollen.
SoapKills approach to Arabic popular music isolated
them from their peers we were the only people
who were playing around with Arabic music, trying to
R . J . W H E A T O N


modernize it, recalls Hamdan. All the others were very

respectful to Arabic music; they would never propose
a new way for it. That attitude remains shared by the
generation of media programmers who determine what
receives radio airplay in Lebanon, for whom SoapKills
material was too much underground and unacceptable:
We would go to a radio station and ask them to play;
they would say But what is this kind of music? When
do want us to play it? We cannot play it between this
pop star and this pop star. They would say, leave us the
CD and maybe well play it at midnight. And in fact they
didnt play it.
* * *
As musician and recordist Jay Hodgson suggests, Dummy
basically made electronica safe in a pop context,
3 to 4 years before the crossover success in North
America of Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers.
For him Dummys production methodology prefgures
the project approach that digital audio workstations
ProTools, Cubase, Ableton Live, Reason now
allow, wherein experimentation with unusual sounds
and timbre are made possible by plugins and presets.
[Dummy] is so forward-thinking to a certain extent. It
makes so much more sense to me now, as a listener, than
it did back then.
Mark Oliver Everett, of alternative rock band Eels, has
cited Dummys production aesthetic as a key infuence on
songs like Novocaine for the Soul, and Susans House:


The combination of loops made from drum patterns

mixed with Lalo Schifrin flm-score samples and the
singers voice on top of it all fascinated me, and I was
immediately inspired to get back into my old sound-
collage world but apply it to my new songwriting
Belinda Kazanci, who with Adam Beltran is part of
Echocell, heard in Dummy an approach that brought
together many of the musics that had inspired her. It
was like, here it is: this is what youve been looking for.
Dummy offered many musicians permission to bring
together the sounds that had inspired them; to make
music in ways that would not otherwise have been
acceptable. Jay-Jay Johanson is a Swedish musician
whose frst two albums track fairly closely to a stylistic
roadmap provided by Portishead. Dummy provided a way
to move beyond the constraints of his original musical
Chet Baker came to my small town when I was 14. I
usually never went down to my dads jazz club but this
night I decided to go. Chets performance changed my
life. I realized that even though I was shy, I could also be a
performer. The way Chet was sitting there in the shadow,
whispering in the microphone made me understand that
you dont need to be extrovert to be on stage. I started
writing more jazz-oriented songs after that evening, but
it took many years until I found a way to arrange and
produce my songs. I created a jazz quartet but hated the
Everett 2009, p. 106.
R . J . W H E A T O N


traditional result. I wanted something more modern and

mysterious. It wasnt until Portishead released Dummy
that I got inspired and encouraged. I decided to slow
down my hip-hop singles by playing them on 33 rpm
instead of 45. I sang my own melodies to the instru-
mental b-sides on wrong tempo and I felt that I was on
the right way.
* * *
Andy Wright who had worked on Massive Attacks
Protection produced Leave Me Alone, a track from
Natalie Imbruglias 1997 album Left of the Middle. The
song circulated online (and still does) mis-credited in
such a way as to suggest Portisheads involvement. Many
of the trademarks of the downtempo sound are there: the
vinyl pop and crackle; a drop-out chorus with a fightly
vocal over an indistinct, retro-sounding sample; a loping
bassline; the drum loops; the close and intimate vocal;
the tremolo guitar resembling in its timbre the cimbalom
of Sour Times.
There are always trends in the studio, Wright notes,
particularly around drum sounds:
Those sort of things had a fairly long tail. You have a
year of people going, Can we have a snare a bit like She
Drives Me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals or Word
Up, Cameo, or something like that. There was a real
kind of Bristol wave around that time. Blue Lines was the
frst of those albums, and then Dummy, and Protection.
They were all kind of leading the way at that time
It was all kind of fairly downbeat; in terms of recording


youd never pull a sound off any kind of sample library;

almost every sound on there had to be spun in off vinyl
and recorded and if you just took a snare sound for
example it would come in off a record. Somebody would
go I like that snare sound there and youd spin it in and
edit it. That was just the way it got made at the time. A
combination of samples and loops and ambiences and
strings with a combination of emotive singing and rap.
Producers would acquire drum loops and sounds and
unused ideas from previous projects in Andy Wrights
case, including from Massive Attacks Protection for
use in future projects. Working with optical drives
then expensive with a capacity of perhaps just 600
megabytes, there were necessarily limits on the number
of sounds that a producer could have available at one
The tremolo guitar sound on Leave Me Alone was
not an attempt to echo Portishead but instead a remnant
of the work Wright had been doing a few hours before
meeting Imbruglia to pitch a commercial soundtrack
in style of beach guitar pioneer Dick Dale.
This is how genres retain their shape. Inertia; the
constraints of technology; coincidence. Accident. Taste.
Not or not alone the calculation of commercial
* * *
Portishead refused refused to license music for
advertisements. But Tim Saul remembers having conver-
sations with people adamant that they had heard tracks
R . J . W H E A T O N


from Dummy used in commercials. Soundalike tracks

were being produced to serve as substitutes, the product
of an attitude that Saul describes as oh well if we put a
guitar that sounds a bit Bond-y over a slowed-down beat
then thats gonna work.
Adrian Utley in 1997 was sanguine about imitators,
suggesting that I think its not that bad. They only
sound like us in a very superfcial way. He pointed in
particular to Beth Gibbons voice as something that
distinguished their sound. But he did admit an irritation
with the way our guitar and singing was shamelessly
copied for a Range Rover commercial.
Geoff Barrow was dismissive of bands working in
an immediately proximate style, not because of any
comparisons with us its just that, literally, I dont get
any emotion from it.
Utley told an online chat group
in 1997 that I think people should maybe be infuenced
by us and move it on one Thats part of the reason we
felt we had to reinvent ourselves.
Tim Saul contrasts the exhaustive production and
songwriting stages that went into Dummy with some
of the music that followed. It tended to be a little bit
like looking for that sort of atmosphere a little bit by
numbers. I think you can hear when a musician has gone
through a process. And when theyve jumped on the
fashionable thing.
* * *
Watt 1997.
Goldberg 1997b.
Utle, undated.


Dummy seemed to precipitate license a resur-

gence of interest in a certain period in British culture;
a nostalgia for the 60s, for the cultural posture of the
Bond flms; for John Barry, Shirley Bassey; Cold War
espionage flms; Londons club scene, including the
legendary Eve Club on Regent Street (where Portishead
played one of their frst live media events). It was allied
to the cultural boosterism that saw trip-hop hyped
as an authentic British response to American hip-hop,
or Britpop (a similarly porous label) positioned as
a response to American grunge. Both were associated
in some ways with the Cool Britannia term which
seemed to culminate in the election of Tony Blairs New
Labour government in 1997. At this remove it feels
implausibly dated and somewhat empty of substance.
In an interview with Stuart Clark, Beth Gibbons was
skeptical about the authenticity of the sentiment:
You know, its mainly the people who werent around
during the 60s that hanker after them. I cant say I share
the obsession myself but it was the decade when Britain
got its own pop culture and I imagine there was a feeling
among musicians and flmmakers that they were breaking
new ground because everything before them had been so
staid and establishment. Personally, I think a lot of the
records and TV programmes that are held up now as
high art are complete bollocks, but I wouldnt say that to
Geoff because hed be most offended.
Clark 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Many of Dummys signature sounds became common coin

in the second half of the 90s. The John Barry soundtrack
allusions; the highly processed vocal track; the theremin.
Its easy to see in this a kind of easy imitation. Yet so many
of these moments had independent expressions which
were striking in their own right. Monos Life in Mono,
with its crisp allusions to John Barrys Persuaders! theme
(not to mention its sample from The Ipcress File). The
introduction to Life in Mono sounds like seven tracks
accelerating, backwards, a shuddering retreat into the
arms of a vocal which has the most astonishing and elegant
delicacy. There was Shirley Basseys actual appearance,
arch, campy, on The Propellorheads caustically decon-
structive big beat album Decksanddrumsandrockandroll.
Goldfrapps Lovely Head, and Pilots, with Alison
Goldfrapps voice, liquifed and poured through a Korg
MS-20 synthesizer to collapse the difference between the
human voice and the theremin.
* * *
Dummy itself erects bulwarks against its imitation. The
album is such a complex creation of its constituent parts
confederation might be a better word; alliance that
it resists the simplifcation required for easy absorption.
The inimitable range and emotional accuracy of Gibbons
vocal performance; the bands treatment of the instru-
ments and the sounds within their armory. There is such
a close identifcation between song and arrangement that,
the melodic strength of these songs notwithstanding, the
very defnitiveness of their treatment on Dummy has in
some ways prevented their further distribution.


Many of the treatments that you might expect to be

transformative are in fact retreads. A version of Roads
that appears on doom metal band My Dying Brides
2001 album Meisterwerk 2 is a restatement of the original
arrangement of the song. So too, by and large, is the
cover of Glory Box by singer-songwriter legend John
Martyn, although his alteration of the lyrics, removing
the explicit gender references, unforgivably defangs
the song. Key Beyonds masterful 2006 recreation of
Wandering Star is a virtuoso symphony of beatboxing
but it is not a total re-imaging of the song itself.
Most of the admittedly few tracks that sample from
Dummy do so boringly the opening of Wandering
Star meaninglessly co-opted into Three 6 Mafas 2003
Fuck that Shit; shards of the song confusingly woven
into Canibuss 2003 Psych Evaluation. True, a snatch of
the overdriven organ that opens Numb was used effec-
tively soulful; unsettling in a remix of Aaliyahs If
Your Girl Only Knew. But the brief moment of Numb
that appears in the roll-call of infuences and hat-tips
that comprise the hidden introduction to Unkles 1998
Psyence Fiction, a cornerstone of the downtempo genre, is
in a sense emblematic of Dummys superfcial, unstated,
* * *
And there are the moments on Dummy that challenge
defy imitation. Sounds that are abstract, industrial,
synthetic; grinding dirt and static into the surface of
the sound. Intersecting waves of synthetic sound close
R . J . W H E A T O N


Mysterons, anaesthetizing each other into silence.

Harsh, abstract sounds hover over the last minute of
Numb, all reverberation and repeating delay. In Glory
Box there is the moment, at 4:13, where the snare and
silt of the song lie pulverized beneath the remorseless
bass and kick drum.
* * *
There is an aggression to the albums drum sounds, with
some distortion clearly audible perhaps the product
of the low resolution sampler used. On tracks like
Mysterons, recordist Jay Hodgson hears a frequency
boost in the danger range, an area of the midrange in
which human hearing is so good that it doesnt take a
lot of volume to make something sound too loud. The
effect reminds him of punk:
punk records are often mastered so the midrange is right
out front because that sounds really aggressive and loud.
And you hear the pick attacks and you hear the sneer. Its
a really aggressive range.
* * *
Dave McDonald recalls that on the drum sounds we
were obsessed with old records, old soul tunes. Its
basically what the hip-hop guys were sampling at that
stage. In 1995 Geoff Barrow had pointed to 1976 as a
year after which material was no longer useful for the
purposes of sampling because the production of drums


sort of changed around then.

McDonald enjoyed the
way that lo-f recording choices maintained the feel of
vintage records:
[On] a lot those old records the drums were quite
slapdash, the way they were done Theres the classic
thing that 24 microphones around the drum kit, it just
reeks of indecision, you know? Whereas if youve got two
mics around the drum kit and the drummers playing it
right, there you go. It cuts down your options. You have
to get it right.
The treatment of drums after they were recorded was
representative of the entire recording process:
Sometimes we would pass the drums back through a
little Marshall practice amp. We used all those techniques
of passing drums back through amplifers. I think at
one stage I had an old 1960s bush radio, and we had a
little transmitter. And we put the sound I know we
defnitely did this once or twice with Beths vocals
sent it through the FM airwaves and just re-recorded it
through the old little Bush FM radio. A lot of just manip-
ulating the sound once youve got it. What I was saying
about the slapdash drum thing: if you just record the
drums, and you listen back to it, you think eugh, thats not
that interesting. But then you have to remember when
those old guys did it then those drums were compressed
and bounced and then put onto a record, and then you
hear that record and that records like 20 years old and
Jenkins 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


its just got character to it because its gone through all

these processes. And thats very much what we did with
our drums. We processed. But in a very commando way.
Just as on the vocals, compression was used on the
albums drum parts, fattening the difference between
the naturally louder and softer elements of a sound. But
the band also foregrounded a technique referred to
as pumping that was regarded as unorthodox, even
incorrect, by audio professionals.
Pumping occurs when compression is removed from
a sound in an unconventional manner, and the return
of its component elements to their natural relationships
confounds the aural expectations of the listener. For
example, a drum sound naturally decays after its frst
impact, trailing into softness. But if compression has
been applied and is then released faster than the natural
decay of the sound, aspects of that sound will seem to
increase in volume while the listener expects it to decrease.
Pumping is an entirely artifcial sound: a product of
studio signal processing.
Dave McDonald recalls the bands discovery of the
We kind of discovered by accident there was a
Drawmer compressor unit, the LX20; we found that if
you reversed if you took the attack on a very slow
speed, and the release on a very fast speed, and you put
it onto a drum beat, you would get this amazing sucking
sound and we just became obsessed with that. That
was our little secret tool.


* * *
Pedestal is characteristically sinewy in its arrangement,
not least in the economy of its introduction: the shuttling,
shuffing pulsebeat, a kick drum so thick and dense it
sounds like a mutiny in the republic of silence. Then the
turntablism skids across the surface of the song before
igniting around it the hissy detritus of the ride cymbals.
The bassline swings around the bottom of song as if
tethered to it, an abductor muscle, pulling away at the
beginning of every measure.
The compression-induced pumping that sucking
sound that Dave McDonald describes is plainly
audible on the ride cymbals in this song, rebuking
the natural tendency of those sounds to recede amid
their own glitter and hiss. Its a radical sound. Theres
all these rules for dynamics processing, suggests Jay
Hodgson. Youre not supposed to compress to the point
where the pumpings really obvious. Well they do it
really obviously. Its pumping.
It almost sounds as if the ride cymbals are being
played in reverse. The effect distributes across the
frmament of the song a gorgeous meniscus of sound,
a dome of residual fzz, opening the middle of the song
for the plunging, suspended bass line and the two alter-
nating harmonics that vault, sway across the top of it. Its
dreamily seductive.
The lyrics on Pedestal are among the most opaque
in the album, although as elsewhere they acquire in
the accumulation of images and the emptying-out of
emotional commonplaces (You abandoned me Lost
forever) a kind of cumulative emotional weight, in
R . J . W H E A T O N


this case a sense of dreamy contemplation of the nature

of isolation.
The vocal entrance into the song is so sudden, and
so densely reverberated, that it piles into the rhythmic
impetus that culminates the end of the frst line, the
crowding of syllables onto miracle. From this the next
line is a relief of tension, a descent into aridity Where
the wind blows dry a trick that is repeated in the
second verse.
The instrumental break in the middle of the song
building on the squalls of white noise that appear at 1:04
is one of the most abstract moments in the album,
a collision of sounds being cast beyond each other by
Barrows turntables. But the coy, muted trumpet solo that
follows released, too, from Barrows decks helps
establish a textural imprint of jazz more clearly on this
song than anywhere else on the album. As in bebop the
rhythmic architecture of the song is splayed out across
cymbals as much as driven into the ground on a snare
and kick. On a bootleg version of the track, performed
in Blackpool in May 1995, you can hear the band stretch
into the songs abundant swing, and it is almost as though
Pedestal contains another song entirely, a dreamy,
woozy ballad with a weatherless good nature Hush,
hear him cry to offset its stark unreadability.
There is a tension in Pedestal, a dual quality that
characterizes many of Dummys songs and suggests both
its widespread appeal and why so many attempts to
absorb its infuence are led astray. Pedestal does sound
like a jazzy ballad. Wandering Star contains within it
the suggestion of a lullaby; Roads is an anthem in the
guise of a ballad. Composed in a kind of collaborative


isolation, these songs are actually amalgamations of

multiple songs. Covered by unwary imitators, they break
open and threaten to consume them.
* * *
The sense that Dummy is an overwhelming aesthetic
presence is something that Michael Almereyda has
suggested, recalling its place in his 1994 flm Nadja:
Sixteen years later, reviewing the two patches where we
featured Portishead, Im surprised by how brief they are.
In my memory, the songs threatened to overpower the
scenes or, rather, to vampirically fasten onto them, to take
possession of the images and never let go. Now, trolling
through YouTube, I see that someone has chopped and
spliced the entire movie to accompany the full length
and trajectory of Strangers. Taking a cue from a bit of
Nadjas dialogue, its titled Comfort in Shadows, and it
shows just how companionable these sounds and images
can be. Late in the fading day, I completely approve.
* * *
Dubs infuence on Dummy is much more tonal and
textural than it is rhythmic, something that distinguishes
it slightly from Bristol compatriots like Massive Attack
and Tricky. Pedestal is just one of the songs on which
the bands studio aesthetic is comparable to that of dub
as Jay Hodgson suggests, the heavy-duty reverb
and fast repeating delay applied at around 2:00 are a
convention of that genre. Its techniques are apparent
R . J . W H E A T O N


in the extensive use of Space Echo on Gibbons vocals.

Dubs dragging tempos and awareness of space are
everywhere on the album; above all its studio production
aesthetic is a critical part of Dummys story.
The willingness to foreground studio processing was
also something Geoff Barrow had been exposed to at the
Coach House. Massive Attack producer Jonny Dollar,
who was something of a mentor to him, spoke to Sound
on Sound in 2000 about the unusual timing gap which
appears around the Bob Dylan sample on Gabrielles
We knew that it would cause the FM compressors on the
radio to suck and blow like crazy, and that it would act as a
little bit of a hook. People love the sound of compression
happening, and you miss that a lot on modern records. On
old records, you can really hear the compressors working
and it makes them much more exciting its the reason
the Led Zeppelin drums sound so good, for example.
Tim Saul points to Geoff Barrows command of
amongst Geoffs musical vision he was an absolute
demon with the science of EQing and compressing. And
he developed that working alongside Dave McDonald.
Barrow himself is more modest, seeing the sonic experi-
mentation as in part a by-product:
Senior 2000.


It comes down to naivety on my part. Trying to get like

a retro sound, and just not getting it. It kind of ended up
weird, and its not exciting enough, so you over-compress
it. You just make it all lumpy and everything else.
It was all about making things old, recalls McDonald.
But full of energy.
* * *
You can hear some of the albums frequency manipulation
in play by comparing the variety and texture of Dummys
drum sounds. Listen, for example, to the massive snare
sound on Biscuit metallic, harsh, distorted, leading
a trail of detritus and noise. Now the tidy, compressed
sounds on Roads, where the drums feel uncharac-
teristically discrete, the kick drum abbreviated in its
sustain. Theres a similarly compact snare sound on Its
a Fire, as if the bottom frequencies have been sliced
away. On Wandering Star, in contrast, the fltered and
quieted snare hit that is almost inaudible at the start
of song continues under the main snare hit to add a
prolonged block-like feel. On Strangers there is almost
a sandpaper-like quality to the aggressively pumped
snares, amid that tracks percussive complexity. Gone
back to Portishead for some drum inspiration, posted
Jamie Floodgate, of Londons Tomb Crew, on Twitter.
Damn, nobody does drums like on Strangers.
B.B.C. 2010.
R . J . W H E A T O N


* * *
Musicians as diverse as video game soundtrack composer
Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill) and Kanye West have cited
Portishead as an infuence.
It is next to impossible to
detangle the varied infuences of the stronger formative
downtempo artists Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky,
D.J. Shadow, Dan the Automator, D.J. Krush, and others;
nonetheless the strength of that collective infuence is
clearly exerted upon a generation of producers including
Blockhead, RJD2, Danger Mouse, and Diplo.
* * *
Zeid Hamdan continues to face cultural resistance in
his native Lebanon. The countrys media class persis-
tently resists his electronic arrangements with Arabic
vocals. And with Lebanon lacking effective copyright
enforcement, he collects little from the limited exposure
his music and his remixes do receive. He depends upon
support from abroad: international licensing of his work
for flm; tours to Italy, London. But he lacks domestic
So somehow I consider I havent succeeded musically. I
dont want to go and live abroad. My real challenge is
that my people like it and it becomes here a success. So I
will stay here until it does.
Paiva 2006.
Levinson 2005.


Biscuit A creative transformation Sick of love Song of the
South Genre exhaustion The problem with trip-hop The
Bristol scene The denial of tea Ducking
A martial art Mono The trappings of success The
rules Doubt A way out Portishead Films shot through
cymbals Burnout Another strange record
Biscuit is the slowest song on Dummy at 126 beats
per minute. It is the least popular song from Dummy
receiving the least attention on Twitter; showing the
fewest number of listens on (accepting that Its a
Fire is handicapped by its exclusion from some editions
of the album). Ahead of the slow rise into the magnetic
presence of Glory Box, which follows it, Biscuit
brings the album to its knees.
Biscuit is a diffcult song in spite of its relatively
open lyrics. The albums techniques and methodologies
are stressed and exhausted to the point of decompen-
sation, a system in failure. In its last 70 seconds it drags
behind it a weathered, distressed vocal sample from
Johnnie Rays Ill Never Fall in Love Again. The horn
R . J . W H E A T O N


fgures from the same song have been implicated in the

songs exoskeleton by the dirty snare hits and the impos-
sibly pneumatic and resonant Fender Rhodes bass riff.
Gibbons voice offsets the harshness of the materials with
a chalky innocence, almost lilting, vigilantly pivoting
into the song. Theres an amazing delicacy on the word
ago, at 1:05, an ascent with the properties of helium.
The conventionality of some of the lyrics Im lost,
exposed is undercut by the diffuse, ethereal nature of
their delivery.
Without the counterpoint of Gibbons vocals, the
underlying direction of the track could veer towards
menace something that comes across in the use of the
songs opening moments as a sample for American rapper
Nines Know Introduction. There is huge vinyl dirt on
Biscuit: needle crackle and hiss apparently triggered by
the snare hit, a trail of debris behind the drums searingly
bright entrance.
More so than Sour Times or Glory Box, which
also erect their infrastructure around a sample from
another artist, Biscuit foregrounds the transformative
effects of sampling. Rays 1959 single is a peppy, upbeat
song. There is almost no emphasis on the backbeat; the
snare drum is barely audible in the mix, appearing at
moments with a snappy fll true to its military origins.
Where Ill Never Fall in Love Again is a march,
Biscuit is a dirge. Everything in Rays song pops, snaps,
rings. Everything in Biscuit warps, slights, stretches,
decays. The dominant feeling is one of drag. Please help
me understand the way the angels plan our love affairs,
sings Ray, implying some measure of reason in the
workings of the heart, some reason in the distribution


of fate in the world. Biscuit lurches forward through

a sense of wounded mechanics, an arbitrary display of
happenstance and chance, its subjects cornered in a
universe whose workings are mysterious and obscure,
with Gibbons singing I cant make myself heard no
matter how hard I scream.
Its a breath-taking transformation: Biscuit is
complicit in the ransacking of the bright, peppy, good
nature of Johnnie Rays original. Its hard to imagine
artistic transformation of this type being consensual.
This is not homage, tribute, allusion, pastiche. It is use.
Its over now, sings Ray, the words suggesting an
insouciant nostalgia forever undogged by failure. I
tried to take the chance to feel the thrill of romance
and love.
Its over now, sings Ray on Biscuit, 4 years after
his death, halfway through the song, with a despair
unmarked in its reach.
* * *
How it is that people fall out of love with the music that
once delighted their senses. In Twelfth Night, Orsino,
exhausted by love, sick with love and sick of love, pleas
for music to be silenced:
If music be the food of life, play on,
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall:
O, it came oer my ear like the sweet sound
R . J . W H E A T O N


That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
Tis not so sweet as it was before.
Overfamiliarity; over-exposure. A resonance too close
with memories now too painful to revive.
Gwen Howard, remembering a former relationship
that had been annealed in the heat of Glory Box and
the second half of Dummy:
I dont really remember why we didnt work out in the
end. All I remember is that I wanted to never listen to
that album again. I tried listening to it when we broke up,
but I could only get through the frst half, surprisingly,
even though I would always skip it before. The last half
just brought back too many things I didnt want to be
reminded of at the time. I havent listened to it since then.
Or: an absorption into the culture so extensive or
so narrow that further listening no longer seems
necessary, no longer seems productive. By 1997, even
ardent fans began to weary of Dummys over-use in an
ever-narrowing set of contexts. Mojo reader Ray Pelipetz,
nominating Mysterons in a reader poll of the best
tracks of the 1990s, described it as
Ludicrously infuential slo-mo spookiness: reinvented
hip hop, redeemed the Theremin as a credible musical
instrument, and provided the soundtrack to every bloody
mysteries of the paranormal documentary on telly.
Mojo 1997.


This is why we turn from music that meant a great

deal to us but begins to traffc in popular acclaim. Its
valences are now beyond our control. Associations that
were personal are tarnished by collective commerce. The
music consorts with us no longer as a confdante but as
a courtesan.
* * *
The sudden, almost absolute cultural familiarity with
Dummy had made it vulnerable not just to imitation but
to parody. As late as May 2003 the British comedian
Bill Bailey performed for B.B.C. 6 a version of Disneys
Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, mimicking many of the
production tics that imitation and over-familiarity had
compressed into the popular imagination of the bands
Critical fondness for Dummy weakened; Phil Johnson
suggested in his book Straight Outa Bristol that it has to
bear the stigma brought on by its success, as so familiar
has the record become played to within an inch of
death on radio and as ambient mood music in cafs and
bars that its diffcult to feel sentimental about it any
* * *
How usual is it for such a number of genre-defning
albums to appear within 18 months of one another?
Dummy, Protection, and Maxinquaye, and, on Mo Wax,
Johnson 1996, p. 160.
R . J . W H E A T O N


D.J. Shadows Endtroducing They seemed, between

them, to effectively to outline the limits of the genre.
Widening the same channel, of course, were Dan the
Automator, Howie B, D.J. Krush, D.J. Cam; a host of
artists on Ninja Tune. But very little of it achieved the
commercial success of those albums; very little of it had
a song- rather than a loop-based architecture.
Against this background, Morcheeba, Lamb, Sneaker
Pimps, Hooverphonic, Mono, and others could only look
imitative, even though many of them had tracks that
were striking at the time and remain listenable.
Its important to remember that Massive Attacks Blue
Lines, not Dummy, was the frst album-length popular
synthesis of soul, hip-hop, Lovers Rock, a punk aesthetic,
and the host of other infuences to arrive at the sound
later labeled trip-hop or downtempo. Blue Lines was
released in 1991. How much of the genres innovation
had already taken place by the time of Dummys release?
Its hard to listen to albums such as Wagon Christs
Throbbing Pouch without hearing things the oceanic
bass throbs of Rexcist, or the timbral experimen-
tation of Pull My Strings already being pushed to
extremes. And that was in 1994.
Much of Portisheads experimentation had taken place
behind closed doors. With greater commercial oppor-
tunity, more aggressively involved management, and
a weaker commitment to perfection, its possible that
a sub-standard frst album could have been released,
assembled from material recorded at Cameron McVeys
house, in 1993. There might have been a number of
singers; the critical contribution of Adrian Utley and
associated musicians would not have been present. In


that context, Dummy would now seem like a signifcant

evolution, rather than a statement of intent.
In any event, little seemed to move the genre forward
in the immediate aftermath of 19941995s key releases.
Even as soon as 1996, critics like Wires Simon Reynolds
were complaining:
Ideas that last year seemed explosive with potential, appear
to have already played themselves out. TripHop, for
instance, promised the ultimate in fucked up, anything-
goes, neo-B-boy abstraction, yet too often delivered a
half-assed sequencing of borrowed bits and bobs, and
a mood spectrum ranging from cheesy affability to pale
Even as trip-hop was burning itself out or, rather,
reclining sedately into a chaise longue big beat, the
genres burly cousin, was achieving massive commercial
success. A loud, combustible fusion of hip-hop breakbeats
and acid house, exemplifed by the Chemical Brothers,
Fatboy Slim, and The Prodigy, big beats popularity
including in the U.S. consumed much of the oxygen
that might otherwise have led to a more sustained period
of electronic innovation in mainstream popular music.
Massive Attacks Mezzanine, Portisheads eponymous
follow-up, and Trickys pair of sequels (Pre-Millennium
Tension, and Nearly God) would be released 2 to 3 years
later, but by that time there was simply nowhere to go,
and even if there had been, so many of the core artists
would not have wanted to go there.
Reynolds 1996.
R . J . W H E A T O N


* * *
None of us ever believed in the thing trip-hop, Geoff
Barrow told the B.B.C. in 2010.
The label was deeply
unpopular with many of the musicians to whom it was
applied. Adrian Utley remembered it as a journalistic
catchphrase for generic music that came after us and a
plethora of bands that were forced into sounding like us
because we were successful.
The label seemed contrived, something imposed upon
artists from wildly disparate musical backgrounds. To
some it was reductive, suggesting a slavish relationship
to hip-hop an imitation, a failure to effect a trans-
formative treatment of infuences or a cheapening
of that genres vibrant dominant infuence. For others
there were suspicious racial overtones, perhaps the impli-
cation that a predominantly black art form was in some
ways being made more accessible by white musicians.
Moreover the association with background ambience for
bars, lounges, and dinner parties suggested a particular
class trajectory: hip-hops rough-edged, often militant
street attitude (and origins) softened and smoothed for a
bourgeois palette.
Barrow had always downplayed attempts to claim a
cultural tradition so associated with African-American
culture. I would never make out like I was a hip-hop
kid, he told Michael Goldberg. Because Im a little
white kid from England. Im not living the lifestyle. Its
disrespectful [to] people who have either chosen to live
B.B.C. 2010.
Gundersen 2008.


the hip-hop lifestyle or who have been made to because

of the surroundings they live in.
With this in mind it is possible to understand some of
the disquiet at articles suggesting trip-hop was the most
exciting thing to happen to hip hop for years.
Or, of
For 45 minutes it seemed conceivable that the worlds
most popular music had not been invented at Bronx
block parties at the end of the 70s at all. Instead it
seemed far older, a product of 60s spy themes, 50s
crooners and 40s torch singers.
In these genre labels, ambitious artists saw their music
categorized with material that was commercially oppor-
tunistic, quickly produced, and destined for transience.
Complex production processes were characterized as
crazy beats and fucked up sounds
quirky party
noises, cheap effects, spoken-word samples taken crudely
and obviously from cult flms. These were the materials
of novelty ephemera, unserious, unambitious. A world
away from Portisheads belabored and artisanal sound-
craft. Trip-hop came with a built-in incentive for artists
to transcend it, spurn it, leave it behind, in order to prove
their own authenticity. Only the imitators remained.
* * *
Goldberg 1997b.
Pemberton 1994.
Harrison, Review.
Pemberton 1994.
R . J . W H E A T O N


The presence of a Bristol sound was also endlessly

invoked by the national and trade press. The term was
almost absurdly reductive for a city with such a complex
and multi-faceted musical base, numerous studios and
venues, and a musical environment that collectively
voiced and reimagined infuences as diverse as punk,
reggae, Lovers Rock, dub, ska, rock, hip-hop, electro,
house, and drum & bass.
Nonetheless, its easy to see why journalists and
listeners perceived a shared genealogy and assumed a
continued collaboration. For example: Tricky appeared
on Massive Attacks Blue Lines and Protection. For
Overcome, on his debut album Maxinquaye, he reused
lyrics from Massives Karmacoma. A Portishead remix
of that track appeared on the single and on numerous
Phil Johnsons suggestion of a house style is perhaps
as close a statement as it is possible to make. A slower,
heavier, lovers-rock-paced pulse that was displayed
frst by the Wild Bunchs The Look of Love, Mark
Stewarts appropriation of Smith and Mightys Stranger
Than Love, and Smith and Mightys own Walk On By
and Anyone.
But the desire to identify a local sound
exerted crushing pressure. It eliminated difference,
narrowed the aesthetic range, and constrained many
bands coming out of the region. People will try to put us
into a Bristol scene, Earthlings Tim Saul told Billboard
in 1995, but listen to our album and youll hear levels
Johnson 1996, pp. 197198.


of irony and humor that arent in some of those other

peoples music.
If anything, a more realistic model might be Bristol
as an anti-scene: a space suffciently distant from the
London record industry that innovation not neces-
sarily with regard to other innovation from the same
place could take place. Geoff Barrow told a French
documentary after the release of Dummy that:
Its relaxed down here. Its a creative area. You dont get
the pressure from the big London record companies or
anything like that. Thats why theres a lot of good experi-
mental music down here. In London its like, if youre
in the music industry you get surrounded by the music
industry because its everywhere you look in London. In
Bristol you just dont get it.
The characterization of a local scene was continually
rejected by Portishead; the idea that these artists were
collaborating on a collective sound was simply not
refective of the relationships or production method-
ologies at play. Barrow observed that people keep their
projects and their work pretty private and I would say,
pretty paranoid.
There is no scene, said Adrian Utley. Of course
we know Massive, Tricky and Smith & Mighty but we
dont hang around the same studios.
Beth Gibbons
commented, The notion of a Bristol scene makes
Pride 1995.
B.B.C. 2010.
Watt 1997.
R . J . W H E A T O N


wonderful copy for you guys but Im afraid we dont go

down the pub together in a big gang or drop round each
others houses for cups of tea.
* * *
Some of the techniques employed in the studio make
Dummy resemble something more like sculpture, like
design. In his book Understanding Records, Jay Hodgson
describes the extensive use made by the band of ducking,
whereby a particular instrumental track, sometimes just
for fractions of a second, is made relatively louder or
quieter in certain frequency ranges to allow another
track to be more clearly audible or impactful. It is typical
to duck mid-range instruments under a vocal track,
but Dummy is replete with examples. On Biscuit the
third note in the Rhodes bass riff seems to draw for a
split second the entirety of the rest of the track into a
compact, dense, sonic implosion. Hodgson describes the
complexity of that passage:
The main 8-second sample which underpins the track,
audible in its entirely from 0:12 to 0:20, features at least
the following ducking sequence during its frst iteration:
(i) the opening kick, on the downbeat of bar one, ducks
everything but the Fender Rhodes; (ii) the second kick,
which sounds like it is accompanied by some kind of
sub-bass, on beat two, ducks everything which precedes
it, including the vinyl hiss, the Fender Rhodes and the
Clark 1995.


resonance of the frst kick and snare hit; and (iii) the
second snare hit ducks everything which precedes it.
What is remarkable about the number and the complexity
of these ducking choices in Dummy is how diffcult
they would have been to undertake before the software
sound-processing plugins now available via digital audio
workstations like ProTools. At the time, Hodgson
recalls, it was mysterious how they were getting a lot of
these things to happen.
Dave McDonald admits that the mixing process was
arduous, manual:
We were not using automation. We didnt have
automation for these mixes. The artistic thing you do
many runs of it until you fnd the mix that you like. But
as youre actually doing those mixes youre fnding out
what works, what works, what works Like a martial
art. Its like a pattern. You learn the moves to what makes
that track sound correct and right. Once you learn that
pattern you never forget it. You can probably put me in
front of the desk now with those tracks running and I
would do exactly the same things.
* * *
Dummy has little in the way of stereo separation, in part
because of the limitations of the sampling hardware
the band had used to build the tracks. Dave McDonald
recalls that: If you were to sample stuff in stereo on an
Hodgson 2010, p. 97.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Akai S1000 youd have no memory at all. But if you were

to do it in mono, you could probably get your 30 seconds
of whatever it was. If you did it in stereo you wouldnt
get anything.
But it also allowed Portishead to stay true to their
I think there was quite a deliberate decision to keep it
that way a lot of the records we were listening to were
mono. There wasnt much stereo spread going on. So I
think it was just a deliberate decision really. And also I
think at that stage we hadnt learnt our trade fully. So it
was an easier decision to work in the world of mono
with a hint of stereo.
Where stereo differentiation does exist, the effect is
subtle but lends to the albums presence. Some reverber-
ation on the vocals; the organ in Its a Fire. On Roads:
some tape hiss, the wah-wah guitar panned slightly to the
left; some depth and complexity to the strings. Theres
a delay effect on a sample at 2:22 in Strangers which
rings out on the left side of the mix. And, on Glory Box,
the opening loop seems to swagger into view from one
side of the mix to the other; the ragged guitar parts that
appear at the end of the frst verse claw asymmetrically
against the sides of the song.
* * *
In some ways, Dummy had been too successful for its own
good, a problem that Geoff Barrow foresaw in 1995. We
didnt expect to sell more than 30,000 copies in England,


he told Cary Darling. I wanted to release three albums

before we crossed the channel, and its all gone wrong.
And I think it will fnish us, to be absolutely honest.

With the albums commercial and critical success came
greater creative freedom and less immediate pressure to
produce a second album quickly.
And there was the
lethally short trend cycle governed by the U.K.s over-
saturated media environment. Barrow predicted that
the second album will be damned in England. There
are trendier people out than us now.
Even if the
second album was good, fundamentally good, said Beth
Gibbons, I dont think theyre going to say its good.
Still, the essentials of Portisheads sound seemed
viable. Barrow told Jaan Uhelszki that: Obviously
theres going to be a natural progression, but Im not
going to go looking to fnd something that has to be on
the other side of the world.
But by the time of the
publicity interviews surrounding 1997s Portishead, their
second album, it was clear that such an approach had
been deeply compromised. Adrian Utley commented
that quite apart from the enormous pressure,
Another disturbing thing was hearing a lot of our sounds
in T.V. commercials and all kinds of other bands. We
didnt want to have anything to do with that entire
trip-hop wave, it only made our music more cheap. We
Darling 1995.
Barrow 2000.
Darling 1995.
Gibbons 1995.
Uhelszki 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


started distrusting our own sound and everything we

believed in. We came into this stage in which we imposed
several stupid rules on ourselves; we werent allowed to
use Fender Rhodes piano anymore, no guitar, no strings
ridiculous really.
Moreover, what had been one of the Portisheads
core creative processes seemed under threat. Record
companies were beginning to serve the sampling market
with mass-produced compilations, which, along with
bootlegs, were taking the challenge out of crate-digging.
The discovery, the promise of alchemy, were gone.
Because all the struggle of developing those sounds has
kind of gone out the window, Barrow said. And now its
like cans of beans on the shelf.
Portishead responded by building a rich library of
custom samples. Dave McDonald recalls that:
The whole idea of the second album was about these
were the kind of conversations we had imagine your
greatest record collection ever, with the greatest samples
in. And so we spent two years making this greatest record
collection ever, with the greatest samples in. And after
two years we didnt have a single song or tune. But we
had some amazing samples. And suddenly realized that
you have to put an album together from that point.
A further creative block was Geoff Barrows perfec-
tionism. He described it with characteristic candor:
Watt 1997.
Goldberg 1997a.


When I actually went to work on all the ideas I had,

everything sounded awful, so we literally just had to start
from scratch. Thirteen months in and I was completely
lost. Id go into the studio, be working and it sounded
okay, but it just wasnt good enough for the second
record. I overanalyzed. How can I make another record
that will sell like Dummy? How can I make people
It became an immobilizing, agonizing experience. The
only relief was when Ade turned up his guitar and I got
on the drums and basically we just smashed the hell out
of everything.
That, ultimately, was what provided a way out. With
the insistent need to complete at least one track, Half
Day Closing was the product of a jam by Barrow on
drums and Utley on bass. From there, Barrow remem-
bered, it took fve months to fnish the rest of the
In the process they rediscovered their sound,
and were able to cast aside the rules they had imposed
upon themselves. Equivocating about whether to use a
theremin on the introduction to Humming, Adrian
Utley recalled:
There was a moment when we questioned if we could
use that sound. And the decision was ultimately up to
Geoff if hed said, No we cant, we would have
dropped it. Then we thought, So, we shouldnt use it cos
Hughes 1997.
Trynka 1997.
Wiederhorn undated.
R . J . W H E A T O N


it was on the frst album? Does that mean we shouldnt

have Beth singing cos she was singing on the frst album?
Or guitar, cos we had guitar on the frst album? The
Theremin is a sound I love, and I got really pissed off
with people going, Oh, everybodys using Theremins.
Its a voice we have. And we all fnally decided, fuck it,
this is one of our sounds, and we are going to use it. Yes,
fuck it.
* * *
The album itself, released as Portishead in September
1997, is different from Dummy. There is a stronger
live aesthetic to it, although the production remains
predominantly sample-based, albeit with fewer from
other artists. The vocal processing is even more experi-
mental: Dave McDonald remembers running Gibbons
voice through a bullet microphone, a Leslie speaker and
the Space Echo. Then youre really going into weird
and wonderful worlds. There is a movement away from
the warmth of Dummy, a greater emphasis on the higher
frequencies what Steve Berson, a mastering engineer,
characterizes as a lot of sizzle its fairly brittle it
has this artifcial sparkliness to it.
The production feels cleaner but more spacious,
too, with even more room between the vocal and instru-
mental parts, which feel more abrasive. The overall
experience is perhaps more dramatic, more theatrical.
The menace is symphonic where Dummys is propulsive;
the suspense meticulous. The dominant emotions are
Trynka 1997.


mysterious, aloof, where Dummys, for all their intimi-

dating candour, are democratic. It is a much stronger
album that people typically remember: austere, extrav-
agant, thrilling. In research for this book I came across
many people who were infuenced, moved, and shaken
by Portishead. Dummy inspires shock, solace; Portishead
inspires duck and cover.
* * *
Part of the publicity tour for Portishead was a one-off
concert in New Yorks legendary Roseland Ballroom,
flmed, according to Adrian Utley, in the style of an old
movie capturing Miles Davis collaborations with Gil
Evans cameras moving slowly or having to look
through cymbals to see Geoff across the room we
wanted it to have a slowed-down, drifting across the
room feeling.
Recordings of the concert were later
released both as an album and video. The songs from
Dummy on Roseland NYC Live are of course different from
the original versions, recorded after years of touring and
performing the material, recorded before an audience of
rapturous fans instead of in solitude and obscurity. There
is a crispness and confdence to these performances;
Strangers seems almost to swing, to swagger; Sour
Times, without its Lalo Schifrin sample, is the thick and
murky treatment that the band had characterized as a
grunge version.
Polygram Press Release undated.
Miller 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


* * *
Following the Portishead tour, the band took an extended
hiatus after personal and creative burnout. Over the
following years, Geoff Barrow spent time in Australia; he
later told The Guardian that during that time I thought
that every idea that I had about music was fairly boring. I
had no direction to go in no real spark.
He founded
a record label, Invada, with Australian hip-hop producer
Katalyst. Tim Saul co-produced with him 2003s striking
McKay, a marriage of the kind of beats production that
were into, but with an authentic American soul vocalist.
Adrian Utley worked on soundtracks and contributed
to Goldfrapps 2000 album Felt Mountain. He also worked
on Beth Gibbons Out of Season, her collaboration with
former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb. Other Portishead
alumni appear on the album, including John Baggott,
Gary Baldwin, and Clive Deamer. Tracks like Spider
Monkey particularly in its live performances
suggest some of the directions that 2008s Third would
Dave McDonald returned to live work Air, Sigur
Rs, Junior Senior, Florence + the Machine, Adele. I
like that one take and I like the energy, he says. Its an
artistic thing. As opposed to a technical thing.
* * *
Desire for new material from Portishead continued.
Live bootlegs circulated online, as did tracks purporting
Lynskey 2008.


to be Portishead material, including Natalie Imbruglias

Leave Me Alone, and tracks from Empathy, the 1998
debut album by U.K. band Mandalay. There were some
abortive attempts to record material in 2001 but, Geoff
Barrow later told Uncut magazine, It didnt feel like we
were breaking any new ground.
Work on Third began in 2005. The bands traditional
methodology simply no longer worked:
It just seemed so backward, and like something wed done
too many times. The songs sounded okay as instrumental
hip hop, but as soon as Beth started singing, it was like
Oh man, no way. The idea of us just trying to be Gang
Starr with Beth on top just was not really interesting to
any of us any more her included. We ended up going
back to early hip hop drum machines, because they were
the only things we could really stand listening to. The
idea of classic breaks that had been chopped up was not
really palatable any more.
The process was no less tortuous Barrow quipped in
2008, If we didnt have to work this way, we wouldnt,
believe me but it had changed.
There was a delib-
erate move away from the sonic signature of the frst
two albums writing a big string thing, and playing
a Rhodes piano, is just so obvious and a shift from
Robinson undated.
Thompson 2009.
Robinson undated.
R . J . W H E A T O N


beats and towards a live groove from start to fnish,

hammered out on guitar, keyboards, drums.
The revision extended to the bands visual aesthetic.
Long-time collaborator and designer Marc Bessant
moved away from the bands classic iconography
anonymous, utilitarian, noir overtones to something
more in keeping with the new music so brutal and
honest. The record had the most austere of sleeves,
nothing but everything, essential minimalism.
The resulting album was very different, and surprised
and alienated many listeners, although Barrow
asserted in an interview with NPR that the same reactions
had been elicited by Dummy:
it was the same questions we were asked about when we
frst came out. It was just seen as a strange record. And
then our second album was a strange record. And now
this ones a strange record. It was just how the frst album
has been absorbed into the mainstream.
Robinson undated; Jones 2008.
NPR 2008.


Associations Internet sex threads Languorous
lovemaking A taxonomy of desire Glory Box
A sample A Christmas party Timing
A man with a megaphone Traditional gender roles
A glory box Meanings A night in the city
Climax Noise and nightclubs
A mastering session The divination of success Elder
siblings Contradictions Connections
Among the song lyrics and shout-outs, the following
are terms, phrases, and topics commonly or occasionally
associated on Twitter with Dummy and its songs:
a bit gloomy
spy movies
in tears
pure sex
R . J . W H E A T O N


vehicular fres causing traffc delays in the Portishead

break-up song
every single time
msica relaxa
msica para striptease
on the train
sexy music
genuinely sexy
msica exala sexo do incio ao fm
* * *
There exists a Facebook group called I Love having sex
to PortisHead.
A description helpfully clarifes the


For those who love sex with portishead playing in the

A thread on Reddit proclaims I just had the most
amazing triple orgasm masturbating to Portis Head
and Planet Earth. (dont judge me.)
A Google search
for portishead sex yields at least eight results before
the inevitable dating and swingers sites relating to the
municipality of Portishead., an online magazine dedicated to sex,
relationships, and popular culture, announced the
upcoming release of Third in a post entitled Soon
There Will Be Another Portishead Record to Screw
There are message threads with titles like
Your favorite songs/music to have sex too
Favorite songs too have sex too!!!!
and Do you
have sex with music on? (and if so, give examples).

Among the answers, song titles from Dummy recur
with a frequency unmatched by even Marvin Gaye and
* * *
R . J . W H E A T O N


For Dayna Vogel, Dummy in some ways outlines the

journey she has made since 1995, when she self-identifed
as bisexual but was only dating men:
The experience I have of sex with women is very different
from the experience I had of sex with men. Its not a
negative thing its just a very different experience, and
in my path to discovering that for myself, I guess Dummy
helped. By somehow mirroring maybe my experience
something about a languorous session of lovemaking. Ive
had it on endless repeat and it plays several times and I
never had that experience in my sex life with men.
She describes how her wife experiences Dummy: it
makes her feel fuid. It makes her feel like she can
permeate another body I think thats a fair description
of what it can add to a room. A looseness. Warmth.
* * *
This musics place in a partial map of desire.
August Rodins The Kiss, secluded from the public in
1893 at The Chicago Worlds Fair.
Film noir: Art Deco; fedora hats; cities punctuated
by neon. Voices bathed in shadow and night. The
frst 20 minutes of Billy Wilders Double Indemnity;
the frst 20 minutes of Lawrence Kasdans Double
Indemnity (better known as Body Heat). Gilda; Laura.
Roads, endless in the subliminal throb of its intro-
duction. As used in Ilene Chaikens The L Word: a


rich, symphonic longing; the illicit and inevitable

consummation of an affair. There is a moment of
extravagant doubt the forethought of regret,
hesitation on the lips, before the haltless longing.
How can it feel this wrong?
Christopher Marlowes translations of Ovids Elegies:
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see?
Night shameless, wine and love are fearless made.
Or John Donnes poetry: This bed thy centre is,
these walls, thy sphere.
The plunging, dipping bassline of Pedestal: a
movement supple and infnite; regular, rhythmic,
repetitive; cumulative.
Cocktails: the pouring of spirits into vessels; the thin
flm of liquids residual against the side of glasses.
Exhibition, aesthetics. The slow slip of inhibition
upon the tongue.
Solo Andatas Together Apart from the 2006
album Fyris Swan. A hymn to the skin; breath, touch,
gesture. Used in a Calvin Klein commercial featuring
Eva Mendez, the full version banned from U.S.
television networks.
It Could be Sweet; Its a Fire. The touch of
her voice, breathy sibilance; proximity, intimacy,
presence. Close enough to hear everything, close
enough to forget what you should know.
And: Glory Box.
* * *
Glory Box features one of the better-known samples
on Dummy, a thick, languid loop pulled from the opening
R . J . W H E A T O N


of Isaac Hayes Ikes Rap II, from his 1971 double

album Black Moses. It sounds like the loop is actually an
amalgam of more than one moment from the frst minute
or so of the track, seamlessly stitched together to avoid
Hayes vocal and to make the string fgure gracefully
rise and descend in ways that it does not on the original.
The tumbling, jangling piano riffs that are prominent on
Ikes Rap II are fltered right to the back of the mix in
Glory Box; they are barely audible, kindling carefully
separated from the sparklike vinyl artifacts that becrackle
the song. The bass is drawn out, descending steplike
and longlimbed before the listener, footsteps amid the
delicious natural resonance of the songs snare sounds.
The sample commands Glory Box, despite efforts
by Adrian Utleys guitar to slowdance it to the foor.
But Beth Gibbons vocal crackles like lightning above,
threatening to ignite at every moment the song in its
indefnable heat.
The sample is irresistible. According to one source,
Geoff Barrow played Tricky a demo of Glory Box in a car
outside a Christmas party hosted by Fruit, the management
company that represented both acts. The sample later
appeared on Trickys Hell is Round the Corner. The
band were diplomatic when asked by interviewers about
the apparent coincidence; later, there was reportedly an
incident at the Mercury Music Awards ceremony at which
Maxinquaye was nominated alongside Dummy.
* * *
With Roads, in particular, Glory Box has generated
numerous covers on YouTube. There is a Latin jazz-pop


cover of Glory Box on YouTube, shocking in the

caustic reach of its tastelessness. There is an emo cover
of Glory Box on YouTube. There is a harmony and
synthpop cover of Glory Box on YouTube. There is a
bedroom-and-acoustic-guitar cover of Glory Box on
YouTube. There is another there is always another
bedroom-and-acoustic-guitar cover of Glory Box
on YouTube.
More than one of these covers speeds up through its
duration, the song almost impossible to contain in its
* * *
There is on Dummy a dramatic rhythmic sensibility, a
permanent sense of tension, rarely released, drawn from
hip-hops swung, snappy syncopation. A delight in the
entrance, the manifestation, of rhythm. Geoff Barrow
described the appeal to The Wire magazine in 1998:
that dangerousness, when you put on an old record,
whether a soundtrack, a soul record, and its got an
orchestral build-up, and then you hear the beat drop
on it for me, theres nothing like it. That gives me
shivers: that is the absolute right thing that should be on
the record. And creating that atmosphere is what were
all about.
You can hear those moments throughout Dummy: the
opening of Strangers; the moment in the middle of
Young 1998.
R . J . W H E A T O N


Wandering Star, at 3:21, where the song is open at its

chest; the moment of superb rhythmic battery in the
middle of Numb. You can hear the impeccable sense of
timing in Barrows turntablism: the hold and release of the
vocal sample at the end of Biscuit; the guitar riffs cast
across the surface of Wandering Star. The kick and lurch
lent to Mysterons with the Porters Head vocal sample.
(He can be heard doing the same thing on a vocal sample
recorded in the same style Barrows own voice through
a megaphone, according to more than one interviewee
on Earthlings Nefsa, from 1995s Radar.)
One of the least appreciated aspects of Gibbons craft
is her sensitivity to timing. Listen to what she does to
articulate the word loneliness on Numb; how the
verses on Wandering Star sew so much rhythmic
complexity into the mirthless dirge of the songs bass
riffs. (A bizarre Latin-jazz cover of Wandering Star,
by Quantic & His Combo Brbaro, uncoils some of the
songs rhythmic possibilities.) Watching the way Gibbons
moves in concert during the introduction of Roads
in the Roseland performance, for example you can see
her deep, somatic, understanding of the rhythm of these
There is a conspiracy of timing between her voice
and the albums ferocious snares, an ability to pivot
from disconsolate malaise to dervish impetus as the
songs backbeats detonate around her. On Glory Box,
listen to how time is spooled up and then cast out in the
frst lines of the lyric: the subtle push into tired and
playing after the pressurized delivery of the words
that precede them. The testing, fexing timing that leads
into the bow and arrow. She is toying with teasing


the apparently untroubled rhythmic core of the song.

Listen to the pressure she exerts on you at 1:55, a
fraction of a second later than you would expect. She is
in consummate control.
* * *
With a chorus as immediately quotable as that of Sour
Times, Glory Box has been subject to numerous inter-
pretations. Prominent is the belief that the lines I just
wanna be a woman, and dont you stop being a man,
constitute a call for return to traditional gender roles.
As Beth Gibbons pointed out in an interview with Ben
Thompson in 1994:
The key line in the song really is Move over and give
us some room, because I do think that women are very
much taken for granted. Im more an easy-going than a
rabid feminist, but women in general are very supportive
to men history has made them like that and this is
not something that is always reciprocated.
A glory box better known as a hope chest in North
America is a chest used to contain items collected
by a young woman in preparation for marriage. Its an
image that stands with razorsharp irony against some of
the lyrics. But the overt sexuality of the song itself, the
resolute sense of longing, suggests additional meanings.
As with other songs on the album, the lack of a fnal
precision leaves it open to interpretation, although the
Thompson 1998, p. 222.
R . J . W H E A T O N


sense of gender role empowerment of liberation is

never missed.
For Belinda Kazanci:
I think Give me a reason to love you, give me a
reason to be a woman, I just want to be a woman its
just so simple. I think every woman feels that way. And
shes saying it. Shes outright saying it.
For Nikki Lynette, who covered the song in a mixtape
with elements of Camp Los Luchini and Portisheads
Only You:
To me that song captures the way a woman feels like glory:
shes kind of guarded; shes protecting her heart. But at the
same time, while being guarded and protecting her heart,
shes still dealing with guys and still kind of fraidy and cold
and detached. And I think that kind of sums me up pretty
well. I have this horrible gaping fear of commitment but I
do have these times where I dont want to be so guarded.
And I would totally not be that way more if a guy gave me a
reason to not be. I think any woman can relate to that song.
For singer Helen White, Glory Box exemplifes the
melodic reach of Dummy, and the extent to which its
arrangements complement Beth Gibbons voice: Who
didnt just want to be a woman listening to that song?
* * *
Gwen Howard remembers the frst time she heard
Glory Box. At 19; dating a man fve or six years older;


a sophisticate of music, the city; of travel. He was every-

thing I was not, but wanted to be. Staying with him in
the city; listening to music together while falling asleep.
The close presence of doubt: the age difference; his
experience in the world.
That night we went to sleep and I knew something was
wrong. I knew we were on the outs, but I savagely wanted
this to work. I can still remember that I thought the end
of the world would happen if our relationship ended I
couldnt sleep and I just got it into my head that I needed
to mend this.
She remembers the kiss. The kiss.
Then it happened Glory Box came on. And it wasnt
just the sound of the song it was the words that just
happened to ft perfectly in that moment: I just want to
be a woman
Things happened. The mix C.D. on repeat.
Glory Box played a few times through before we were
done. I fell in love with him then, while that song was
playing. I ditched Britney and Justin and got hooked to
real music, I was no longer afraid of relationships or
kissing or boys or being not good enough.
* * *
In Bernardo Bertoluccis 1996 flm Stealing Beauty, Glory
Box is used in the scene in which Liv Tylers character,
R . J . W H E A T O N


exploring her own somehow particularly American

innocence, decides to take control of her experience. To
pursue. It is an understated use of the song; clear in its
intent but still somehow thoughtful, delicate; a moment
of soft determination in the flms soft, slow narrative.
In a Twitter post, Elizabeth De La Piedra described:
Highschool nostalgia. Listening to Portishead on the
bus. Beth you dream. Didnt every girl want to lose it to
Glory Box #stealingbeauty
* * *
In contrast: in Andrew Niccols 2005 Lord of War the
song is used without irony, a scene of thoughtless
exploitation: two girls in a failed African state offered,
offering themselves, to a mercenary gun dealer. The
use of the song feels opportunistic. Its like everyone
wants to use Glory Box in sex scenes, complained
Geoff Barrow in 2008. Can you not fucking hear what
shes singing?
* * *
There are numerous videos on YouTube and elsewhere
in which pole dancing in practice or performance takes
place to songs from Dummy.
Elizabeth De La Piedra can be found at http://elizabethsmart.tumblr.
Lynskey 2008.


Others take the Sofa Coppola-directed video of The

White Stripes I Just Dont Know What to Do with
Myself, Kate Moss dancing in the videos thick, redolent
waves of darkness and light, and set it to the centrifugal
throb of Glory Box or Numb.
In these performances the guitar solo in Glory Box
seems somehow to loosen itself from the song, to engage
in a tensile firtation with the fuid and supple limbs of its
* * *
A few reasons why Dummy is a great guitar album:
The simple arpeggios long and resonant that
open Dummy, so drenched in reverb that it immediately
sets expectations for the album. The effect is rather
like being so accustomed to the pitch and roll of a ship
that it is only with great surprise that you perceive the
undulation of the external world.
The swinging jazz chords that offer brief respite from
the sonic turbulence of Strangers. That was an absolute
piece-of-shit acoustic we found lying around the studio,
Utley told Guitar Player magazine in 1995. We tuned it up,
recorded it onto a dictaphone, and put it on Strangers.
On Wandering Star, the mysterious swelling,
shimmering sound that appears around 1:48; chords
washed backwards into the song by the manipulation of
the guitars volume.
Like the broad, washy wah-wah on Roads, or Sour
Times, with its twangy reverb and edgy, brittle tones,
Fine 1995.
R . J . W H E A T O N


these are moments of texture, rich and suggestive, to

augment each songs unique atmosphere. This is not
a guitar thing, really, Utley told Jason Fine for Guitar
Player in May 1995. Its about using guitar as a source
rather than guitar for guitars sake.
* * *
Glory Box is where one of Adrian Utleys original
infuences Hendrix is most audible: the harnessing
of feedback, the overdriven distortion, the imitation of
the cadences of the human voice. There are two parts,
thickly interwoven from the end of the frst verse.
Theres a fantastic moment of metallic shrapnel amid
the distortion that closes out the frst chorus, at 1:09;
and diminishing eddies of feedback receding back into
the song seconds later. The guitar solo sounds like an
explosion from the heart of the song: a Hammond organ
thickly underbleeding it, ruthlessly driven through a
Leslie speaker. The effect is raging, astringent, something
progressively untethered from the song. Geoff Barrow
I can remember Ade playing the guitar in Glory Box
and we were always worried that it was just too straight,
him playing. So he was playing, and I had a hold of his
whammy bar, and by the end of it if you listen to it
its going absolutely wrong. Its out of tune and everything
Fine 1995.


but still kind of hangs in there. It was those scenes of

trying to push things out.
Its a part that foregrounds the bands delight in noise,
instability; their desire to create a listening experience as
harsh as it is accessible. At the end of the song, starting
at 4:13, the bass and kick drum are hauled to the top of
the mix; everything else is submerged beneath a thrilling
smear of dirt and reverberation; the song lies inverted
in a piston-like performance of its tension. Something
hydraulic, withdrawing, asthmatic, mechanical. It sounds
like warfare; it sounds like release.
* * *
Dummy was mastered in early summer, 1994, by Miles
Showell at a West London facility called, at the time,
Copymasters. I pretty much took what they gave me
and made it a bit more extreme, Showell remembers.
I made it my mission to have hip-hop bass juxtaposed
with the lo-f samples they were using as I thought it
was a brilliant contrast. The band wanted big bass
and huge drums, a very percussive sound, but they
loved the a high contrast approach that, in hindsight,
distinguishes Dummy from many albums mastered just
a few years later at the beginning of the Loudness
B.B.C. 2010.
See Milner 2010, Chapter 7, for an excellent discussion of The
Loudness Wars.
R . J . W H E A T O N


I suggested to them that to keep the contrast between

the more delicate parts and the louder bits would make it
very dramatic. I played them an example of mastering it
squashed to hell so it was all loud all the time, then the
same track but mastered with a more dynamic approach
keeping the quieter parts in proportion. They agreed
with me that the second approach was far and away better
and this was the blueprint for the whole album.
* * *
Perhaps it is true that, amplifed to its most cavernous
qualities, Dummy exemplifes the alienation and violence
outlined by Jacques Attali in his 1985 polemic, Noise:
The popular dance, which has in part become a concert,
is a release for violence that has lost its meaning. Carnival
without the masks and the channeling of the tragic; in
which the music is only a pretext for the noncommuni-
cation, the solitude, and the silence imposed by the sound
volume and the dancing; in which even in its worldly
substitute, the night club, the music prevents people from
speaking people who in any event do not want to, or
cannot, speak.
And yet in some ways the opposite is true. Music
governed by chance, or music operating at extremes,
releases a set of social interactions that explode the
possible. Loud music deafens us to our inhibitions. It
puts us in an alien soundscape where the atmosphere
Attali 1985, p. 118.


itself, so different from its normal state of rest, response,

seems alive with contingency. Surely this cannot last.
We are so subject to its terms. Anything could happen.
Experienced in a communal setting, an atmosphere and
ribcages reverberating to an external heartbeat; acted
upon, together. Sounds resonant at once in one anothers
bodies. We must lean close to one another to be heard:
lips close to ears, necks. We speak curtly, we are heard
partially: meaning is elliptical, subject to interpretation,
ambiguous. Does he mean what I think he means? Pauses are
no longer prolonged, uncomfortable: they are licensed.
These are the elements of firtation: uninhibitedness,
proximity, ambiguity. Loud music makes us strangers
to ourselves, intimates to others. It becomes a social
* * *
Dave McDonald remembers completing work on Dummy
at Bristols Coach House Studios:
we were very very close to completion and some of the
guys next door I think it was with Neil Davidge who
used to do a lot of stuff with Massive Attack they
were hearing it You know when you play something
to somebody and they kind of go oh, yeah, thats nice?
But then you play something to somebody and theyre
just there listening? And theyre still there listening.
And theyre still listening? Thats quite unusual when
people are involved in music. To just not move from that
spot and listen to the end of it. And then want to hear
something else.
R . J . W H E A T O N


That happened a few times. And then you kinda knew

that, ah, this is maybe going to work.
* * *
For listeners like me who were turning 18, 19,
20 at the time of Dummys release, it seemed to offer
a kind of generational differentiation. A release from
the collective identity defned around and inhabited by
our elder siblings an identity already being reifed,
ossifed, becoming the subject of winsome nostalgia
in the seminal Gen X flms (Singles, Reality Bites) and
grunge albums of the frst years of the 90s.
Dummy spoke to us in a way that albums of a couple
of years before The Stone Roses, Pills n Thrills and
Bellyaches, Screamadelica had only suggested. Those
were the albums that spoke to our elder siblings. We
heard them through particleboard walls and from cars
driven away into the fare of the evening.
I remember hearing Massive Attacks Blue Lines within
the context of Soul II Souls Club Classics Vol. One: a thick
synthesis of infuences, of sounds, of ideas not before
brought together. Blue Lines was a record of rebellion, its
chin smugly forward; its noncommittal cross-racial dynamic
a thumbed nose at the British popular culture that still
retained the trace of racial and social and cultural divisions.
Blue Lines was the album you heard later, heard from your
brothers stereo, heard after Club Classics, heard from car
stereos under the sodium haze of streetlamps igniting softly
within the murk and haze of the blunt summer twilight.
Dummy was a younger sibling to Blue Lines elder:
freer perhaps to have an identity on its own terms, less


marked by the struggle to defne identity itself. Yet it

is the witness to consequences, an intimate of doubt.
Romantic, ironic. Unrequited love; sour independence.
It is an album of the thick night, of two a.m. midnight.
Desire, despair. Resonant comfort; unanaesthetized loss.
Blue Lines was a record of rebellion. Dummy is a
record of disorder.
* * *
It is an album of contrasts. The vocals so isolated,
alone, intimate; the background massive, reverberant,
constructed. Its impact is physical as much as it is intel-
lectual or emotional. Vintage instruments, thick and
resonant in their presence, tighten the atmosphere to
a skin. The snares snap and crackle and infame the
air before you. The bass sounds shudder against your
heart. Yet meaning is deferred, understanding denied.
Lyrics sketch a self amid fractured images, expres-
sions of solitude, grief, alienation, distance, exile. Vocal
infections suggest multiple meanings. Beth Gibbons
perpetual voice recognizes, describes, acknowledges,
consoles allows more varieties of pain and longing
than we know the words for. And yet behind it, a warmth:
weathered and aged sounds organic and rich in their
texture. A statement luminous of the self against the
strangeness of the world; and, so stated, it becomes a
consolation for those same conditions.
Assembled, collaboratively, in the studio, and in
isolation. It is human and it is artifcial. Its touches are
immediate: Gibbons vocals rich with sounds heard only
in the most intimate presence of another, suggesting
R . J . W H E A T O N


no intermediate technology. And yet it comes from

a production approach that favors the weathering,
twisting, wearing down of isolated fragments, moments.
Songs were allowed to coalesce, conglomerations of
texture, coalitions of accident. Atmospherics, space, and
vibe; above structure, formula, or convention. Studio
noise unusual or unintended echos or fragments from
recording setups. The sound particular to an instrument; a
timbre unique to its tuning or treatment or its replication
through an amplifer intended for another purpose. The
sound of technology itself. A delight in artifce. Songs not
just an interaction of melody and harmony, mathematical
and calculated, but an encapsulation of the conditions of
their production. An engagement in the materiality of
the world.
Dummys aesthetic is drawn from hip-hop, with which
it shares its thunderous bass, its downsampled mono drum
samples, its riffs from funk and R&B and soul. And yet the
theremin recalls the ethereal delusions of the late nineteenth
century, the unrealized futurescapes of the early twentieth.
The hammered dulcimer of Sour Times reaches
through The Ipcress File, through The Third Man to a
Central European past of indeterminate antiquity. Gibbons
voice invokes the vivid, hollowed grief of a Billie Holiday.
The female voice pressed to the edges of expression by
technology. Synthesizers and electric pianos saturated by
warmth and texture, born in veterans hospitals, fred in the
engines of jazz fusion. Something organic yet mechanical:
meaning distributed across voice and technology.
Permanently unfamiliar in its depths and forcefully
strange in its presence; yet its avant garde inclina-
tions absorbed too quickly; its strangeness masked in a


world where communications are instantaneous, music

ubiquitous, connections associative, infuence diffuse.
Musics ubiquity has increased even as the absolute power
of its cousin, night, has waned. Dummy is, at low volume,
an album quintessentially ambient, easy to make ubiquitous
and to defang. Yet in the strangeness of its arrangements
and its lyrics a strangeness easily uncloaked with an
increase in volume and attention there is the presence
of the nocturnal conditions of the past.
The manifestation of these and other contra-
dictions, Dummy remains open to as many responses as
there are individuals who hear it. It assembles itself anew,
coalescing from the darkness before each listener, each
listen, only to disappear unresolved into the anonymous
consolation of the night.
Although the album was built built, not recorded
collectively, we do not respond to it at frst
collectively. We create our own valances to this music. It
is not music that we hear and say I want to be a part of
that; instead: that music is part of me.
* * *
And yet: so many people I spoke to, in writing this book,
put me in touch with other people to whom they had
become connected by Dummy. Lee Thomson observed
that Anyone thats ever bonded with me on an intimate
level friend or lover has experienced Portishead
through me if they havent already.
It was a key connection between Nikki Lynette and
the charismatic best friend who frst insisted she listen
to Dummys slowed-down breakbeats. Very few of my
R . J . W H E A T O N


black friends liked the album, she remembered; as a

young rapper, it was considered odd that I split my time
between freestyling with my crew and running around
with my gay, punked-out BFF singing Wandering Stars
a capella in two-part harmony.
* * *
The experience of connection was true too for those who
were involved in making the album.
For Tim Saul:
If I free associate, it makes me think of family, actually.
I mean very specifcally my musical family. Particularly
Geoff is like family to me. I suppose personally for me it
makes me think of a time where I was starting to fnd my
voice as a musician and it was just an amazing experience,
to have been involved, even in a slightly fy-on-the-wall
way, in such a great piece of music, great piece of art.
Adrian Utley commented in an interview for the B.B.C.
in 2010:
Ive never really felt this empathy that I feel when were
together. Even though sometimes we can squabble and
its not always easy. I think were all very close and were
all kind of musically close. We all understand and trust
each other. I think that sort of happened fairly quickly. It
sounds so epic when you say it but its not like that. You
feel like youve come home at last.
B.B.C. 2010.


* * *
At its most intimate, Dummy remains richly associative;
for all its misplaced categorization, its submergence into
the musical environment of the mid 90s, it retains, in its
warmth and its edge and its intimacy and its strangeness,
the ability to connect people. Across borders; through
There is a solitude in its throat, but a community at its
If you listen to the Dummy album, says Nikki
Lynette, it does not sound like they were trying to
defne the times. It doesnt sound like they were trying
to defne this whole sub-genre. It doesnt sound like they
were trying to relate to millions and millions of people.
They just did.


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Portishead are known for their reluctance to give inter-
views, preferring instead to let the music speak for itself.
I hope that this work will not impede that objective but
instead suggest new perspectives on Dummy and on the
other music discussed in this book. This book owes a
great deal to the journalists and music critics who have
interviewed and covered Portishead since 1994. I have
noted all sources as transparently as possible throughout.
Two invaluable online resources are Phead (http://phead.
org) and Heikki Hietalas [P] (
I am inexpressibly grateful to numerous people
for their time, patience, and insight, including but
certainly not limited to Michael Almereyda, Tom
Astor, Marc Bessant, Steve Berson, Amy Clarke, Sean
Cranbury, Zeid Hamdan, Alexander Hemming, Jay
Hodgson, Gwen Howard, Jay-Jay Johanson, Belinda
Kazanci, Nikki Lynette, Nightmares on Wax, Bram
Schijven, Miles Showell, Anna Shusterman, Rachel
Talalay, Ira Tam, Lee Thomson, Dayna Vogel, Helen
White, and Andy Wright. And, most particularly, to Dave
McDonald and Tim Saul.


I am indebted to Jay Hodgson, musician, recordist,

and writer, for his innumerable insights into Dummy and
production techniques. To identify just two areas, this
books discussion of Dummys vocals and its snare sounds
would not exist in the same form without his perspective.
Similarly, my thanks to Steve Berson, Mastering
Engineer at Total Sonic Media, for his considerable
insight, including into the albums stereo differentiation;
and to singer/songwriter and vocal coach Helen White,
M.Mus., for the beneft of her experience and insight (not
to be confused with the Helen White who recorded with
Bristol band Alpha). All errors are, of course, my own.
Zeid Hamdans music can be found at http://www. and http://www.lebaneseun- Please see the online resources
below for links relating to other music and musicians
described in this book.
I must thank Steven Connor for his earlier critical
guidance, so important in matters of taste, style, and
judgment, and, for the purposes of this book, subject matter.
My limitless thanks to those whose support sustained
me during the writing of this book, many of whom
became at various stages this books frst readers. Among
them: Freddie Arps, Sam Mamudi, Natalie Bromehed,
Justin Sorbara-Hosker, Sebastian Hanna, Margaret
Abela, Rekha Lakra, and Chris Mousseau.
Mike Denney, not least for the long-standing excel-
lence of his musical taste; the PopMatters team; the people
at Literature & Latte for their outstanding Scrivener
software; David Barker for his extraordinary patience
and support; all at Continuum for this opportunity.
My family.
R . J . W H E A T O N


* * *
For further material, including a discography and further
listening resources, please visit http://www.rjwheaton.
com/dummy or
The author can be found online at http://www.rjwheaton.
com and on Twitter as @rjwheaton.
Also available in the series:
1. Dusty in Memphis by Warren
2. Forever Changes by Andrew
3. Harvest by Sam Inglis
4. The Kinks Are the Village Green
Preservation Society by Andy
5. Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice
6. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
by John Cavanagh
7. Abba Gold by Elisabeth
8. Electric Ladyland by John Perry
9. Unknown Pleasures by Chris Ott
10. Sign O the Times by
Michaelangelo Matos
11. The Velvet Underground and Nico
by Joe Harvard
12. Let It Be by Steve Matteo
13. Live at the Apollo by Douglas
14. Aqualung by Allan Moore
15. OK Computer by Dai Griffths
16. Let It Be by Colin Meloy
17. Led Zeppelin IV by Erik Davis
18. Exile on Main Sreet by Bill
19. Pet Sounds by Jim Fusilli
20. Ramones by Nicholas Rombes
21. Armed Forces by Franklin Bruno
22. Murmur by J. Niimi
23. Grace by Daphne Brooks
24. Endtroducing by Eliot
25. Kick Out the Jams by Don
26. Low by Hugo Wilcken
27. Born in the U.S.A. by Geoffrey
28. Music from Big Pink by John
29. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by
Kim Cooper
30. Pauls Boutique by Dan LeRoy
31. Doolittle by Ben Sisario
32. Theres a Riot Goin On by Miles
Marshall Lewis
33. The Stone Roses by Alex Green
34. In Utero by Gillian G. Gaar
35. Highway 61 Revisited by Mark
36. Loveless by Mike McGonigal
37. The Who Sell Out by John
38. Bee Thousand by Marc
39. Daydream Nation by Matthew
40. Court and Spark by Sean Nelson
41. Use Your Illusion Vols. 1 and 2 by
Eric Weisbard
42. Songs in the Key of Life by Zeth
43. The Notorious Byrd Brothers by
Ric Menck
44. Trout Mask Replica by Kevin
45. Double Nickels on the Dime by
Michael T. Fournier
46. Aja by Don Breithaupt
47. Peoples Instinctive Travels and the
Paths of Rhythm by Shawn Taylor
48. Rid of Me by Kate Schatz
49. Achtung Baby by Stephen
50. If Youre Feeling Sinister by Scott
51. Pink Moon by Amanda Petrusich
52. Lets Talk About Love by Carl
53. Swordfshtrombones by David
54. 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Drew
55. Horses by Philip Shaw
56. Master of Reality by John
57. Reign in Blood by D. X. Ferris
58. Shoot Out the Lights by Hayden
59. Gentlemen by Bob Gendron
60. Rum, Sodomy & the Lash by
Jeffery T. Roesgen
61. The Gilded Palace of Sin by Bob
62. Pink Flag by Wilson Neate
63. XO by Matthew LeMay
64. Illmatic by Matthew Gasteier
65. Radio City by Bruce Eaton
66. One Step Beyond by Terry
67. Another Green World by Geeta
68. Zaireeka by Mark Richardson
69. 69 Love Songs by L. D. Beghtol
70. Facing Future by Dan Kois
71. It Takes a Nation of Millions to
Hold Us Back by Christopher R.
72. Wowee Zowee by Bryan Charles
73. Highway to Hell by Joe Bonomo
74. Song Cycle by Richard
75. Kid A by Marvin Lin
76. Spiderland by Scott Tennent
77. Tusk by Rob Trucks
78. Pretty Hate Machine by Daphne
79. Chocolate and Cheese by Hank
80. American Recordings by Tony
81. Some Girls by Cyrus R. K. Patell
82. Youre Living All Over Me by
Nick Attfeld
83. Marquee Moon by Bryan