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Placebo

A nu noise for the nutty 90s, the PLACEBO effect was miles apart from the pseudo battles within the Britpop fad. Spearheaded by the openly bisexual, androgynous-looking Brian Molko – a geezer that drew comparisons with 70s glam idols BOLAN and BOWIE – the music, however, traded in the glitter for a darker listening experience. Taking the fast lane out of the post-grunge pile-up, London-based PLACEBO fused elements of avant-garde rock and cerebral metal; Molko’s paint-stripping shrill drawing comparisons with RUSH’s Geddy Lee and PAVLOV’S DOG’s David Surkamp – ah! prog and the 70s.
Formed in October 1994 by the cosmopolitan pair of singer/guitarist Molko (Belgian-born son of American and Scottish parents) and bassist Stefan Olsdal (from Sweden), they’d attended the same American International School of Luxembourg; they met up again on a South Kensington tube having spent time in the States and Sweden respectively. Early the following year, Ashtray Heart – as they were then briefly billed – recruited Englishman Steve Hewitt, although the sticksman had commitments with another band, Breed. Demos cut, drummer/percussionist Robert Schultzberg (also from Sweden), was drafted in as they chose the name PLACEBO. Press blogs at the time stated they’d been joint winners of the “In The City” Battle of the Bands competition – unconfirmed?
Late in ‘95, `Bruise Pristine’, was chosen by Fierce Panda Records as the trio’s debut 7”, although it’d be another act, Soup, who’d appear on the flipside. After only a handful of gigs, PLACEBO signed for Deceptive Records (home to ELASTICA and others), leading to tours with ASH, BUSH and WHALE. However, on the strength of one solitary single, `Come Home’, Molko and Co hit the proverbial jackpot via a deal with Virgin/Hut subsidiary, Elevator Records.
Roping in producer Brad Wood, the trio’s eponymous PLACEBO (1996) {*8} debut album was released to a fawning music press; metal-mag Kerrang!’s strong support helping the record dent the Top 40. Hit singles, `Teenage Angst’, and the glorious chartbuster, `Nancy Boy’, helped regenerate sales of a now Top 5 set which many hailed as one of the year’s best. In addition to the more incendiary tracks, the record also contained such hauntingly reflective songs as the sweet `Lady Of The Flowers’ and `Hang On To Your IQ’.
With Steve Hewitt back in the stool to replace Schultzberg, PLACEBO were back with a bang in the autumn of ’98; two blistering Top 5 singles in quick succession: `Pure Morning’ and `You Don’t Care About Us’, premiering their equally superb Steve Osborne-produced sophomore set, WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING {*7}. `Every You Every Me’, and the collaborative title track (with Molko’s idol, BOWIE), kept the band in high profile the following year, although the latter track was excluded from the charts for breaching regulations.
With BLACK MARKET MUSIC (2000) {*7}, Molko took his brooding sexual vision to its twisted climax on an album which ranked as one of PLACEBO’s most darkly satisfying to date. Long-time fans would be glad to know that the ever-androgynous frontman was still wrestling with his soiled demons, content to provide a mascara-smeared foil to the bloke-rock clogging up the music biz. And with a couple of further Top 20 hits in `Taste In Men’ and `Slave To The Wage’ (`Special K’ was again deemed too lengthy in format to achieve chart status), PLACEBO’s vision was still in tact.
Still going strong after three albums, PLACEBO issued their fourth, the hauntingly-titled SLEEPING WITH GHOSTS (2003) {*6}. The disc saw a more mature Molko letting down his glam-rock snottiness, in favour of dark rock in the vein of MUSE and the COOPER TEMPLE CLAUSE. As always, his high-pitched whine was ever present, as were the complex guitar rhythms and the off-kilter backbeat by the ever reliable Olsdal and Hewitt; best examples were from hit singles `The Bitter End’, `This Picture’ and `Special Needs’. Add to the mix some dark electronica and the occasional ballad (`English Summer Rain’) and what emerged was a deliciously brash and delicately dark pop-rock record that would be hard not to impress the rock fraternity.
Fans buying the deluxe double-cd version of the set were in for a treat by way of a bonus “Covers” B-side collection that consisted of:- `Running Up That Hill’ (KATE BUSH), `Where Is My Mind?’ (PIXIES), `Bigmouth Strikes Again’ (The SMITHS), `Johnny And Mary’ (ROBERT PALMER), `20th Century Boy’ (T. REX), `The Ballad Of Melody Nelson’ (SERGE GAINSBOURG), `Holocaust’ (BIG STAR), `I Feel You’ (DEPECHE MODE), `Daddy Cool’ (BONEY M) and `Jackie’ (SINEAD O’CONNOR), while there were others in the pipeline through `Wouldn’t It Be Good’ (NIK KERSHAW), `Hardly Wait’ (PJ HARVEY) and `Fuck You’ (Archive).
Following on from the anthology, “Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996-2004”, MEDS (2006) {*7}, stripped it back even further, dispensing with any lingering production frippery on an album which returned the band to the scabrous, dirty rock thrills of their debut. On a record which followed the “greatest hits” set into the Top 10, Frenchman Dimitri Tikovoi was charged with the sonic reduction (achieved over an impressively concise two months), surpassing himself with the garish grind of `Infra Red’. Guests included an unobtrusive Michael Stipe (on `Broken Promise’), and The KILLS’ Alison Mosshart, who sassed-up the title track.
While the Yanks were beginning to take notice of the band’s self-conscious alt-rock sounds, and with Steve Forrest now in charge of the drum-stool in place of Hewitt, PLACEBO took on the might of America on album number six, BATTLE FOR THE SUN (2009) {*7}. Released by PIAS for worldwide distribution (Vagrant in North America), and produced by David Bottrill, the impact across the seas was immediate, as it not only underpinned the US Top 50, but smashed the charts all over Europe and beyond. Unlike its predecessors and due to the takeover of all things digital and downloadable, the PLACEBO singles (`For What It’s Worth’ and `The Never-Ending Why’) failed to reach out to the public. Despite this, Molko’s paeans of poetry and gothic glam were dispatched on the hook-line, churning of `Kitty Litter’, the title track and something somewhat déjà vu on `Ashtray Heart’.
Switching to Vertigo Records, the `B3EP’ (featuring a cover of Minxus’ `I Know You Want To Stop’) was issued toward the fall of 2012, while most fans were concerned that it was years since an album. Revolving around themes of inner love and all it encompasses, LOUD LIKE LOVE (2013) {*6}, was again led by mixed reviews. If decreasing sales were anything to go by (peaks of UK No.13 and US No.98), PLACEBO looked to be in danger of crashing and burning. Biting wordplay on the Facebook-(un-)friendly `Too Many Friends’ (the video highlighting a voiceover for transgressive novelist Brett Easton Ellis), was moody Molko searching out for solace from somewhere; other touching songs came by way of `Hold On To Me’, `A Million Little Pieces’ and `Begin The End’.
Marking their 20th anniversary on the rather old-hat/low-key MTV UNPLUGGED (2015) {*6}, PLACEBO sounded decidedly humdrum and unadventurous. Recorded live in front of a select audience in London Studios, only the guest tracks, `Protect Me From What I Want’ (featuring JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN) and `Every You Every Me’ (with Majke Voss Romme aka Broken Twin), and possibly the dependable PIXIES, SINEAD O’CONNOR and PAVEMENT covers, unmasked anything worth shouting about.
© MC Strong 1998-2006 / rev-up MCS Sep2013-Dec2015

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