Dummy at 25: How Portishead defined the Nineties while remaining completely mysterious
There are many possible starting points for the story of Portishead and their debut album Dummy, which marks its 25th anniversary this week.
You could begin with the teenage Geoff Barrow falling in love with hip-hop and sampling while attending youth club funk nights in rural Somerset in the Eighties.
Or with the first, fateful meeting between future beat-whisperer Barrow and singer Beth Gibbons at a work experience course in Bristol, 11 miles down the road from his home town of Portishead.
We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.
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You might even begin with Dummy itself and opening track “Mysterons”, with its mash-up of hissing vinyl, slowed-down James Bond guitars and Doctor Who-style scary effects. If the earth was invaded by theremin-wielding aliens, this is how they would announce themselves.
But perhaps the most appropriate entry point is the moment the world at large first discovered Barrow and Gibbons’ singular, slightly scary chemistry.
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“We should go over to Portishead,” a mullet-and-leather-jacket sporting Jools Holland declared, welcoming the band to his Later… studio on 12 November 1994. “The singer and the DJ met on an enterprise allowance scheme.”
It was a strange introduction to what was, by the standard of mid-Nineties British pop, a strange band. “We played ‘Glory Box’ and ‘Wandering Star’ and the interest went crazy,” Barrow would later tell me of that performance.
He spoke as if Jools Holland had happened only yesterday. That it would be seared so powerfully into his memory is no surprise. The rendition of “Glory Box”, in particular, was an unforgettable avalanche of late hours catharsis. Amid scratching vinyl and grooving guitars, the haunting sample of Isaac Hayes ”Ike’s Rap II” sweeps in. Gibbons stands with her eyes closed, mouth shaped into a snarl. Even before she sings, you know something special is happening.
“With only three albums, Portishead brought an amazing story to British music,” says Melissa Chemam, author of Massive Attack: A Bristol Story, one of the definitive chroniclings of the city’s music scene through the Nineties.“They’re absolutely revered in the rest of Europe. Their sound is more related to jazz than hip-hop… They cultivated their own identity, at a time of massive trends like Britpop. They never fit into a commercial model.”
Portishead, as Chemam suggests, are part of the secret history of British music in the Nineties. It is a narrative that has come to be thoroughly obscured by Britpop. Dummy was released the same year as Oasis’s Definitely Maybe and Blur’s Parklife. At the time, and certainly within the critical community, it was accorded equal prominence.
Dummy would go on to shift an estimated 3.6 million units. In an era of blockbuster records it was right up there. And of course it won the 1995 Mercury Music Prize, seeing off Oasis, PJ Harvey, Leftfield and fellow West Country boundary-breaker Tricky.
It has also weathered the decades better than many of the albums with which it jostled for attention. The average Britpop LP of the period nowadays sounds as creaky and quaint as a Pathé newsreel. Because Portishead never fitted in to begin with Dummy remains its own mysterious thing: timeless and unknowable.
That’s even more remarkable considering little about either the group or their approach to music was particularly enigmatic. Dummy took hip-hop and its DIY sampling culture in a mildly left-of-centre direction. The primary ingredients were guitarist Adrian Utley’s jazz-inflected licks, Barrow’s passion for Sixties and Seventies soundtracks and Gibbons’ supernatural coo. And they spent an age labouring over their soundscapes. There was no secret formula.
“The album was a game changer in Bristol’s music history,” says Chemam. Portishead were, she points out, operating in the shadow of Massive Attack, pioneers of the swampy, rumbling sound that would – to the horror of everyone involved – quickly be dubbed “trip-hop”. Yet if the story of Dummy has to be told in the context of Massive Attack and of their sometime collaborator Tricky, it’s equally obvious that Portishead were their own thing, out there in the lonely margins.
“Dummy came out only a few weeks before Massive Attack’s second album, Protection,” says Chemam. “Portishead had some dark imagery and some hip-hop influences. [But] they were not creating the same kind of music and were not at all the same kind of band. Massive Attack came out of eight years of work in sound systems, and had a strong Caribbean identity.”
“Nobody in Bristol apart from team at the Coach House Studios expected Dummy,” adds Richard Jones, author of Bristol Music: Seven Decades of Sound. “Like Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, it was completely unanticipated. The broken beats, the plaintive guitar, the devastating sadness of the vocals were truly groundbreaking.
“For decades, Bristol music had barely troubled daytime radio or the charts. The city had refused to dance to the London beat and so had developed a musical style in isolation drawing, perhaps subconsciously, on the city’s traditions of jazz, folk, reggae and hip-hop and adopting an international perspective that surely had something to do with Womad [the international arts festival] being based in the city. Perhaps this helps appreciate where Dummy came from, but there’s no explaining genius.”
Dummy was a spectacular record made by unassuming and in some ways ordinary people. Barrow, the group’s founder and driving force, had started out as a tape operator and general runabout at Coach House Studios, situated then, as now, close to Bristol city centre.
Coach House was a gathering point for faces on the local trip-hop scene, among them the members of Massive Attack. Twenty-year old Barrow was on hand, brewing up a cuppa and delivering the post, as the group assembled their 1991 debut Blue Lines.
He later worked on Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew alongside her producer husband Cameron McVey (who had overseen Blue Lines). The lesson he took from these experiences was that by the early Nineties musicians were no longer hidebound by convention. They were at liberty to make up their own rules.
One of the most revolutionary aspects of Massive Attack, after all, was that they weren’t a band in the traditional sense. They were a collective, with a free-floating family of members and influences that encompassed graffiti and vintage scores as much as hip-hop or pop.
What Barrow lacked was Massive Attack’s encyclopaedic grasp of pop history. A shy lad from the sticks, he wasn’t much of a crate digger. One of his early demos sampled his sister’s copy of the Grease soundtrack. That was all there was to hand. Everything changed when he struck up a friendship with DJ and musician Adrian Utley, the very disc-spinner whose youth club gigs he’d attended as a teenager.
“We kind of hooked up, with our knowledge of old school hip-hop and current hip-hop at the time, and breaks and stuff,” Utley told Medium in 2014. “I’d kind of play him old breaks that he’d never heard before to work on tracks.”
All Barrow needed now was a vocalist. He held a mini X-Factor competition in his mum’s kitchen in Portishead. A gaggle of hopefuls got the bus down from Bristol to audition. None chimed with his distinctive vision.
As with all the best pop stories, Portishead’s features a heavy dose of serendipity – never more so than when Barrow bumped into vocalist Beth Gibbons at that fateful enterprise scheme induction day. They got to talking and realised they had a mutual acquaintance in Utley. Portishead was progressing from pipe dream to flesh-and-blood pop group.
Still, they in many ways remained at the baby steps phase. There was no record label interest. They didn’t play live. And didn’t have anywhere to rehearse. But Barrow was still working at Coach House and had use of the studio during downtime. He took full advantage. Painstakingly over the course of 18 months, the record that would become Portishead’s debut came together.
Dummy, it’s worth remembering, was not a slow burner nor an underground hit. It was as an immediate sensation. In 1994 rave reviews could still make a difference and the music press was head over heels for Dummy. In a summer dominated by Oasis, Blur, Pulp and the rest, it was dark and unfathomable. And in Gibbons it offered a bleak, twisted and completely novel vision of what a blues singer could be.
Success thus arrived more or less overnight. Portishead’s response was to recoil in horror. Gibbons sang because she felt isolated from and unmoored by the world and wanted to communicate with others with similar experiences. Now she found herself the poster child for upwardly mobile angst. The breaking point was when Portishead were repurposed as aural wallpaper for the BBC’s aspirational Gen X drama This Life (thanks to the show’s music supervisor, Ricky Gervais).
“Half the reason you write… is that you’re feeling misunderstood and frustrated with life in general,” Gibbons protested. “Then it’s sort of successful and you think you’ve communicated with people, but then you realise you haven’t communicated with them at all – you’ve turned the whole thing into a product, so then you’re even more lonely than when you started.”
Geoff Barrow fell in love with hip-hop and sampling while attending youth club funk nights in rural Somerset in the Eighties (Rex)
If a low profile was what they wanted, difficult times lay ahead. Their debut London performance, at the Eve Club on 28 November 1994, was a glittering event, with a huge media coverage and a guest list that included INXS’s Michael Hutchence.
A mild backlash ensued. Dummy was ridiculed in some circles as manicured misery for the dinner-party set. This hurt. And when Portishead were nominated for the Mercury, they were more or less appalled at all the exposure.
The lesson they took away was that the less people saw of them the better for Portishead. An eponymous second album followed in 1997. A full 11 years would then elapse until its follow-up, Third. In the interim, they’ve maintained a cautious silence. Portishead’s success would, it was clear, be on their terms. They’ve kept a tight grip on that narrative ever since.
“We never went to parties or award ceremonies,” Barrow told me. “We never actively sought to be famous. We won the Mercury, which was bloody uncomfortable. It proved a point to us. We weren’t those kind of people.”