"Dummy wasn’t a chillout album. Portishead had more in common with Nirvana"
Waxx Lyrical's Record Of The Month in April, 2022 offered many their very first listen to Portishead's incredible 1994 debut album, Dummy. Sure, most knew the album's biggest single- 'Glory Box' - but few had previously learnt the importance, the impact and the influence of the album before now.
1994 was quite the year! Both Nelson Mandela's swearing in as South Africa's first black President and Tonya Harding and the planned attacks on Nancy Kerrigan are all over the news. As is OJ Simpson, who is "100% not guilty" and Michael Jackson who settled the first of his many legal dramas out of court. Sadly, Richard Nixon, John Candy and Jackie Onassis passed away, but none struck sadness en masse more than the tragic loss of Kurt Cobain. In happier news, however, babies Dakota Fanning, Justin Bieber and Harry Styles are delivered while classic films Pulp Fiction, The Lion King, Schindler's List, Four Weddings & A Funeral and Forrest Gump have been released to rave reviews, forever finding a place in our heart, On the small screen, six close Friends would sit down for their first caffeinated brew at a little cafe called Central Perk.
In the music world, it's a year now oft-associated with the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Green Day on one side of the globe, Blur and Oasis on the other, everyone in somewhat of a post-grunge hangover that was manifesting in many different sounds and moods, extraordinary personalities and outputs. In August 1994, the Aussie charts are, umm, interesting to say the least. Bryan Adams is mid-winning streak, while Prince celebrated his last ever #1 and chart hit with 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World'. Seal's 'Kiss From A Rose' is a hit, as is Wet Wet Wet's 'Love Is All Around', Celine Dion's 'The Power Of Love' and All 4 One's 'I Swear'. Never fear though, Silverchair would release their debut single 'Tomorrow' in just over a month, offering some much needed reprieve to the power ballad and pop cheese. The album chart, is frankly, a mess and has been dominated by a Bryan Adams best of most of the year so far, but new releases by The Rolling Stones (Voodoo Lounge), Soundgarden (Superunknown), Stone Temple Pilots (Purple) and Pantera (Far Beyond Driven) have snuck in a week at the top spot here and there. But it's the much-hyped new direction of this youngster Mariah Carey's third album Music Box that is shaping up to be the biggest album of the year and, frankly, one that probably appears on all-time highest selling lists - "Did you hear she can sing, like eight octaves or something and hit frequencies that shatters glass and dogs can hear."
But thankfully, there also was a darker, stranger record released which would become huge. The name and mood of Portishead’s Dummy took inspiration from a 1970’s TV show of the same name, about a young deaf woman who becomes a prostitute. Their sound used hip hop production techniques - sampling, scratching, crate-digging and looping - and was dubbed ‘trip hop’ alongside only a handful of associated artists such as Massive Attack and Tricky. Dummy’s melange of vintage touchstones, slow breakbeats and murky atmospheres woven together by Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utely would be impressive isolated, let alone with the haunted desperation and emotional extremities of Beth Gibbons.
It was dark, English blues sung by an extraordinary, rural-tinged and raw voice which would evoke this strange feeling of joyful sadness and ambience. And it had songs ... boy, oh boy, did it have songs. 'Glory Box' is the obvious classic now, but the Isaac Hayes-sampling mini-masterpiece was the last single to be issued early the following year. Before it was the minimal, yet gothic turntablism of 'Numb' which was a first taste of the entire affair. After it, the yearning 'Sour Times' with its heart-wrenching refrain of "Nobody loves me, it's true, not like you do", descending basslines and spaghetti-western guitars rapidly creating a achey lump in your mid-chest. However, 'Roads', sitting beautifully two thirds of the Dummy journey, would be the one which one properly stand the test of time. With its gothic organs eventually giving way to stunning string lines, i's a song that cannot be pigeonholed specifically to 1994.
There's no doubt, Dummy was more than a bit left-field back then, but it wouldn't go unrecognised for its landmark release and innovative creativity. Their music, with ideas initially founded in Neneh Cherry's kitchen, wasn't recorded digitally at all and uses techniques not too dissimilar to that of hip hop - sampling, looping and scratching.
In fact, what can only be thought of as analog turntablist inception, they not only sampled music from other records, but also recorded their own original music onto vinyl and manipulated them live on decks in the studio to sample. The vintage sound you hear on Dummy - the warm crackles and pops - is thanks to using an old broken amplifier and was achieved by "distressing" those records by walking across the on the studio floor and using them like a skateboard. In an ironic meta twist, many 90’s rap producers commonly used Dummy as prime sample material and, weirdly, Tricky sampled the same song as Portishead did on 'Glory Box' (Isaac Hayes' 'Ike's Rap II') the same year in his song 'Hell Is Round The Corner.'
The first song to be finished, as early as 1991, was 'It Could Be Sweet.' It was a revelation and the truest introduction to exchanging ideas between Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley in the initial instance. Barrow and Gibbons had already writing together, but once Utley was introduced to the fold, he began to bring unusual instruments like the theremin and cimbalom into their "amalgamation of ideas."
Barrow recounts of Utley joining them: "It was like a light bulb coming on." It was the beginning of them actually making their own samples not found on other records, allowing them to create a new and one of the most distinctive sounds of the decade.
Alongside Massive Attack's Blue Lines and Tricky's Maxinquaye, Portishead are credited as popularising this new genre - "trip hop" - and cementing Bristol as the trip hop capital of the world. It won the coveted British Mercury Music Prize in 1995, beating off some serious competition: Oasis (Definitely Maybe), PJ Harvey (To Bring You My Love), Tricky (Maxinquaye), Van Morrison (Days Like This), Supergrass (I Should Coco) and Elastica (self-titled).
These days, music like this is dubbed "hauntology", loosely defined as sounds which purposefully evoke cultural memory and aesthetics of the past. The impact of Portishead and their innovative sound, however, is immeasurable and lives on today. The stylised vintage of Lana Del Rey and even The XX as well as the murky beats found with in Soundcloud rap all wouldn't exist if Portishead didn't come first.
These days you can spend days on many an internet wormhole, diving deep on the importance of Dummy. It's still included on lists of "the best of the 1990's" as well as "essential albums of all-time". Portishead went on to record two more albums - 1997's Portishead and 2008's Third. Though neither would have the cultural impact of Dummy, they are both excellent and innovative for their time. They've sporadically played shows over this time and recently announced their first in seven years at Academy Bristol for War Child UK, a show which will benefit refugees and children affected by the current Ukraine war.
PORTISHEAD DUMMY | A WAXX LYRICAL RECORD OF THE MONTH (APRIL 2022) [BUY]