Andrew Darley looks back at the subversive career of Placebo and asks if the latest EP shows a loss of direction.
Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal have recorded and performed as Placebo for nearly twenty years. Surviving and remaining creative as band for two decades is a great feat and something rare in today’s commercial music business. In this time they have released six studio albums, established themselves as a reputable live act, and rounded up an intensely devoted fanbase along the way. With as long-standing a career as they have had, it’s inevitable that things are going to evolve in terms of both music and style. However, their output in recent years, including their latest B3 EP, raises the question of whether that journey has taken them in a direction too far removed from the best work and one lacking the essence of the band.
Placebo landed on the music scene in the mid 1990s, a time when Britpop had a firm hold on the charts. The likes of Oasis, Blur and Ocean Colour Scene reflected and fed into the ‘lad culture’ that has taken hold of the testosterone-fuelled men of Great Britain. The machismo mentality prided itself on football, drink, hooliganism and generally just being a “man” (whatever that meant). Thus, when Brian & Co. arrived with their tight, urgent post-punk and gender-blending image, it felt nigh-on-time that the British rock scene was shook up. And that is just what happened.
Their sexually-charged music and androgynous appearance came at a time when the Gallagher brothers were obnoxiously mouthing off about everyone who wasn’t them and every other frontman was trying to be tougher than those around him. Molko and Olsdal would have been prime targets to get their heads knocked clean off their shoulders “down the pub” on a Saturday night. It’s no surprise that they were quickly branded by many as a “faggot band” based on their image and frankness about sexuality (Brian identifies as bisexual, Stefan as gay). Yet, there was something fearless, stoic and thrilling about the way they presented themselves and the sound they created. You need only look at their early ‘Nancy Boy’ video to see they weren’t painting from anyone’s palette but their own. Some musicians take offence at the term ‘alternative music’, but that seems to be a sufficient term for Placebo as that’s what they did: they offered an alternative. And they must have done something right as people were taking notice and most of their singles were hits on the mainstream music charts.
Music aside, one of the most captivating aspects of the band was the image. Brian’s decadent aesthetic in their early years provided an otherworldly element: something that people could not quite understand but did not dare look away from. Some may have condemned it as gimmicky or attention-seeking but it was his own self-expression and was a visual introduction to the music. His penchant for glamour could be compared to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona as they both underline the importance of the way in which music is presented. It gives people something to believe in, and to cast their imagination onto a person that can take them somewhere else and escape the mundane. Molko was never short of keeping people guessing about his endeavours on and off stage.
The millennium brought a new era and development for the band. Brian swapped his skirts for shirts and the band started taking themselves and their songwriting more seriously. On their third album, Black Market Music, they became more adventurous with composition and branched out into genres such as house music and rap, and made it their own mark on them without disregarding the design of their two previous albums. Whilst 2004’s Sleeping With Ghosts was immersed in the electronic stream running through their work, it was a brave step, with some songs having no guitar on them. That reaped its own rewards since the album contains some of their strongest and most recognisable work to date, including ‘The Bitter End’ and ‘Special Needs’. Although Placebo’s experimentation placed a recognisable distance from their early albums, their output never felt dislocated; rather, it felt like an organic extension of the band’s signature sound.
After using computers and technology in their writing, Placebo decided to strip things back for album No. 5. The aim of 2006’s Meds was admittedly to take a more live-sounding, direct approach and lyrically “communicate the human condition in the simplest way possible”. This line of attack made for their most bleak and claustrophobic work to date. Although it has moments of unwalked territory, Meds ultimately felt uninspired and often uncomfortable to listen to. In addition, things did not appear right within the band. During the promotion of the album, internal tensions quickly became apparent and resulted in the departure of long-time drummer Steve Hewitt after their extensive tour. The future of looked uncertain following the split, and Brian and Stefan didn’t appear to be having fun anymore. Interviews seemed awkward and performances looked stilted.
Reloaded and rejuvenated, Placebo came blazing back in 2009 with a new drummer, Steve Forrest, and a new record, Battle For The Sun. This album took another change in both sound and scope. The band moved away from the introspective experimental approach of their previous work in favour of brash, straight-forward rock. Though the album felt more full-bodied, with a newfound joy of being in the band, there was something ultimately lacking about it as a whole. The record favoured stadium-sized numbers that were more opulent than its predecessor but its lyrics took a stumble and drifted into clichéd territory. Bigger is not necessarily better.
Last month saw the release of B3, a five track EP of brand new material. This small collection of songs will no doubt keep long-time Placebo fans content, if not happy, as it contains glimpses of their signature sound. The title track combines their distinctive synthesizer wobbles with the cinematic sound achieved on Battle For The Sun. Nonetheless, the EP feels like the band are staying stationary. Although two of the songs are from an earlier recording session, this new release does not offer any new ground for Placebo fans; rather, it unfortunately rethreads the familiar.
It’s uncertain whether Placebo will ever make a record as imaginative or charismatic as any of the earlier albums. And this is an age-old dilemma: fans start to lose interest when bands start to make music that differs from their original style. It’s a fair reaction to have. Yet it’s unrealistic to expect a band to continue making the same music from the same mind-frame they had in their twenties. Even Kylie Minogue had to break away from the never-changing sound of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman machine. To expect a band to recapture old magic or sounds would be like asking any one of us to behave or think the way we did five years previously.
It may be that Brian and Stefan need to find new ways to push their sound to determine the next stage in their career. Take Radiohead’s Kid A album for example. After three hugely successful albums, Radiohead threw out all their maps of songwriting to create an album that was explicitly electronic. The drastic departure in sound alienated a large section of followers, yet it also expanded their audience as it allowed listeners to hear the band in a completely new context. If Placebo was to dare such a creative risk and re-imagination, the band certainly have a devoted fanbase to support and follow such a venture, successful or not. It may be time Placebo took a dose of its own medicine to shake the band up in the same way it shook us up in the ’90s.