Placebo were formed in 1994 after a chance meeting on a London tube platform between Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal, who had both previously attended the American International School in Luxembourg. Their first album was released in 1996 and in celebration of its twentieth anniversary the boys are doing a number of retrospective projects including the recent MTV Unplugged set of primarily early material. As such, it seems like as good a time as any to celebrate the work of one of my favourite alternative rock bands.
Born in the midst of Britpop and inaccurately labelled as such, Placebo have always trodden their own path, often in the face of senseless criticism, and have succeeded in amassing a consistently high quality body of work. Placebo albums are a bit like Denzil Washington‘s films, never bad.
Although ostensibly a British band, Brian was born in Belgium to an itinerant Scottish Mother and American Father, while Stefan, despite being born to Swedish parents in Sweden, also moved around a fair bit before settling in London. For me, this is one of the principal reasons for Placebo never quite fitting in, they have a multi-cultural background and a kind of rootlessness that enables them to play by their own rules.
Their sound is very much their own, not only down to Brian’s distinctive vocal, but also instrumentally; their hard edged alt rock sound, owing as much to Wedding Present as to Marc Bolan, never plays it safe and they are also not afraid to explore more atmospheric airs, regularly incorporating piano and strings. I’ve had the privilege of seeing them live just the once, at Reading in 2000, and although they put in a great performance, I had the distinct impression that headliners, the Stereophonics, were worried and made sure their volume was turned down.
Anyway, here’s a handful of songs celebrating the awesomeness of this criminally underrated band of outsiders who despite bucking trends and media hostility have managed to sell in excess of eleven million records – count em!
‘Nancy Boy’ was the first Placebo song I ever heard and in the post grunge comfort zone of overblown Britpop it was refreshingly loud and crunchy, yet had just enough pop sensibility to nag its way into my unconscious. Love the guitar sound on this version from Later with Jools.
Placebo were unaffected by “difficult second album” syndrome; following up the top 5 success of their debut with a dark brooding slab of hard edged intensity. The title track of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ (see below), ‘Pure Morning’ and ‘Every You, Every Me’ are the obvious killer cuts from the album, but ‘Brick Shithouse’ is as hard as it’s title and ‘Scared of Girls’ has a groove vaguely reminiscent of early Cult. Check out this badass version of ‘Scared of Girls’ from their debut headline show at Brixton Academy back in 98. The action starts at about 3’50.
‘Without You I’m Nothing’ is an epically dark ballad that is superbly intense in it’s own right, but as a duet with David Bowie could not have had a better compliment paid to it.
‘Plasticine’ – love it. Rocks hard from start to finish. “Don’t forget to be the way you are.”
‘Protect me/Protege Moi’ finds Brian at his wonderfully pretentious best.
‘Battle for the Sun’ is one of the more unusual Placebo tracks, but the building intensity and insistent vocal give it a defiant urgency.
Back in December of 2008 Placebo played a unique semi acoustic set at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia at the beginning of the ‘Battle for the Sun’ tour. The 40m showcase is really something special with its atmospheric vibe; check out this mesmerizing version of Meds with a superb performance from the new boy on drums at the time, Steve Forrest.
Placebo has never shied away from doing a cover and ‘Sleeping with Ghosts’ saw them bring an album’s worth of B-sides and one offs together for a bonus disc that included songs by artists as diverse as Kate Bush and Darts. Their version of Where Is My Mind by the Pixies is so damn good that even Black Francis (A.K.A Frank Black) came out at the legendary Paris show to play on it. I actually get goosebumps from head to toe when I watch this.
Check out the trailer for the MTV Unplugged show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVGrqoOxT4o