Why Portishead still matters

Published at the Toronto Standard

With the band playing Toronto this weekend, we consider the many reasons why we still care about Portishead and its landmark record Dummy, in spite of their many long absences.

In 1994, British band Portishead released Dummy, a record that helped define the trip-hop moment and is still considered a classic by many. Since then, singer Beth Gibbons, producer Geoff Barrow, and producer-guitarist Adrian Utley have resurfaced for only two more studio records, 1997’s Portishead and Third in 2008. Each work is difficult in its own way, but somehow Dummy struck a chord that’s resulted in a lasting, albeit frustrating legacy for the notoriously reserved group.

Toronto writer Robert J. Wheaton explores the curious happenstance of Dummy in a new book issued as part of the music geek “33 1/3” series. (The Standard’s own Carl Wilson wrote one in 2007: a tangled ode to Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love). Wheaton, who listened to the album “at least 600 or 700 times” during the book writing process alone, has (amazingly!) never seen Portishead live. Touring North America for the first time in 13 years, the group plays back-to-back dates at Toronto’s Sound Academy this Sunday and Monday so I asked Wheaton for five reasons Portishead still matters. You still have time to get tickets.

They want to give you a distinct experience.
Talking to key people who were around during the recording of Dummy, Wheaton gleaned that although the record plays pristine at times, Portishead are perfectionists about imperfection. “You can’t reproduce their process live,” he explains. “All of that experimentation and cutting and messing with each version… They were quite happy to produce a live performance that was quite distinctive in the way that their studio work is.” This means their stage set-up is minimal, compared to the full-bodied moments on recording. “’Wandering Star’ is an aggressive song with up-front drum and bass figures, but they now perform that live in a really stripped down way,” explains Wheaton. “They’ve gone from this pushy, unsettling version to a haunting sort of unsettling version.”

They prove ‘trip-hop’ was nothing more than a selling point.
A lot of bands hate the terms dreamed up by quick-trigger branding hacks at records labels, and Portishead isn’t an exception. “They hated it then and they probably hate it now,” says Wheaton. “Most of the credible musicians (Massive Attack, Tricky) felt the same way because it was sold, in the music press, as a distinctly British ‘improvement’ upon American hip-hop.” The weird racial and class subtext pointed to trip-hop as a ‘safe’ alternative to rap, which is why Barrow himself disparaged Dummy’s massive, early embrace as “yuppie music.” Post-Public Enemy’s zeitgeisty It Takes A Nation Of Millions… Barrow, who came from a hip-hop background, was insulted. “The good musicians ran from ‘trip-hop’ as fast as they could,” explains Wheaton. “And the industry got two-and-half to three years out of it before everyone got bored.” But look who’s still around.

They combined music in a way everyone is replicating now—without the help of YouTube or FilesTube.com.
Portishead spent years refining their unique combinatory approach to music. “Barrow’s biggest inspiration was hip-hop, and same with Utley although he came from a jazz background,” Wheaton points out. “And Beth doesn’t come from a soul, R&B or jazz background; she did a lot of new wave stuff with a singer-songwriter bent.” This very real mix made Portishead so distinctive. Wheaton feels trip-hop’s packaging forced musicians away from the “fertile ground” of a great moment in experimentation between electronic music and production techniques, with genres like lover’s rock and dub and reggae and hip-hop. Danger Mouse, of Gnarls Barkley fame, has clearly nerded out on Portishead’s production techniques—a casual listener can hear it in his dense atmospherics. It has thinned out traces in James Blake and Toronto’s The Weeknd. More than anything, says Wheaton, it’s licensed people to bring influences together they normally wouldn’t.

They want to challenge you. Who does that anymore?
Along with being weirded out by yuppies throwing fondue parties with Dummy playing in the background, Portishead were troubled by the rapid absorption of their early music into the culture. “It was a CD with vinyl cracks, pops, and scratches all over it and these big chunky basslines,” Wheaton points out, also describing parts of Dummy as “shockingly avant garde.” Third was even more experimental and brutalist in its aesthetic, and it makes sense: Portishead’s ethos has never been to release anything unless they have something to say. “They’re not interested in generic, imitative or unoriginal,” says Wheaton. And yet, somehow they’ve managed to provide difficult, scuzzy, emotionally fucked up music to people who don’t believe they like challenging music.

They are what we need, especially right now.
Think about the ’80s and early ’90s, politically. “England in the ’80s was a really aggressive, uncomfortable and unsettled place,” says Wheaton. “It was recessions and race riots and lots of anger, very much like right now.” This would have been inescapable for a band out of Bristol, which housed racial tensions (the 1980s St. Paul riots between police and black youth) and a thriving underground scene increasingly targeted by a rave-hostile government. Portishead was never overtly political like, say, Massive Attack. “But there are ideas on Dummy about how to be in society, and self-doubt and questions of intimacy,” explains Wheaton. “At the time, the rhetoric of Thatcherism was about the privacy of self and so this was quite radical in an intimate and unsettling way.” Ultimately, their aesthetic brashness can feel like an uncomfortable statement.