Perfect 10: Placebo

“I’ll say that I spotted them, I thought they were a really terrific band. And Virgin let me have their very earliest things, including Nancy Boy. I thought, ‘That’s a terrific song for a bunch of jacks to sing, I think they’ll probably be huge!’ And I kept on at them like a dog with a bone, excuse the pun, to put out Nancy Boy, which of course became a very good song. All of their songs, of course, are very good. I think their songs are much better now. It’s been a very good relationship, I’ve enjoyed it a lot, watching them grow. Hopefully I shall watch them grow into old age as well, because I’m never going to die (laughter). — David Bowie on Placebo, 1999

When Steve Pafford asked to write another of these Perfect 10 song lists, my mind instantly went to Placebo. Partly because I’ve loved these British-based Benelux alt. rockers for a long time so it’s nice and easy to suggest a few excellent songs plucked from their considerable back catalogue. Another reason is, that I know a lot of people that may not regard themselves as fans, yet most have come across and loved one or two of their darkly twisted oeuvre. These articles are great introductions to a wider listening experience for those people. 

Of all the bands to emerge from the British rock scene in the 1990s, Placebo are one of the most unique and indeed long lasting. Their sound was the antithesis to the Blur and Oasis-led Britpop, combining the abrasion of the American underground with an androgynous European sophistication. The secret ingredient is a gritty, pervy sexual touch that had a long and storied history in UK music, from glam rock and Soft Cell to Depeche Mode and Echo & The Bunnymen, but was almost forgotten by that time. They’ve seven studio albums to their name, covering a variety of genre-bending sounds and styles, but still unmistakably them. Though their influence is widely observable, from the dramatics of goth leaning indie — Queer Cure anyone? — to a number of the post punk revival acts, there is still no band out there quite like them. 

As soon as Steve and I started discussing a draft list of potential tracks, Placebo announced that their COVID-delayed eighth studio album Never Let Me Go would be released in March 2022, making it the perfect time to assess what has come before. The announcement wasn’t a massive surprise as the project’s first single, the beguiling bombast of the Muse-like Beautiful James, had already been released in September 2021. NLMG is also their first album to be recorded as a duo, following the departure of drummer Steve Forrest in 2015. 

Founded by International School of Luxembourg pupils Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal, the indie outcasts have gone through several drummers in fact, most notably Sweden’s Robert Schultzberg (1994-1996) and Cheshire’s Steve Hewitt (1996-2007). Sometimes the sticksmen departed because of inter-personal tensions, other times simply because the band was moving in a different direction. Quotes from former colleagues are largely carefully worded and professional. Reading between the lines, it seems that as founding members, Brian and Stefan share a very clear idea of what the Placebo brand should be and what they should be doing with it.

They chose the name Placebo with the Latin translation “I shall please” in mind. Brian also says that it was a sarcastic critique on a then-popular trend of bands naming themselves after drug-taking (cf Jane’s Addiction, The Crystal Method, My Chemical Romance). Well, it beats titling yourself after Bruce Springsteen.

Bruise Pristine (1995)

“We really hate that version, it’s so fast and, honestly, I do sound like Mickey Mouse on it. But it’s so ridiculous it has to be documented in some way. I can really understand where this helium thing came from. My balls have dropped since then.” — Brian Molko

As you can tell from the quote Brian doesn’t exactly look back on the first released version of this song too fondly, and he’s spoken in a few interviews about trying to soften the edges of his voice a bit over the years. It seems that the original recording is a reminder of what he was born to run away from, both vocally and legally, as the debut Placebo release was a split single with the band Soup by the then fledgling new London indie label Fierce Panda in October 1995. After the trio decamped to the Virgin EMI-owned Hut Records, Bruise Pristine was re-recorded for the band’s self-titled album in 1996, and an edit of this thrusty industrial version was released in 1997 as the fifth and final single from the LP.

Genre wise the LP was quite hard to place. It has the intricacy of indie rock, and the quiet-loud dynamics of grunge but the guitars are more spiky than sludgy — and it’s not quite horrible enough to fit in with the noise bands. Mr Molko may have some negative things to say about some of this scrappy early work, but he does, however, recognise that those songs brought them a lot of the attention and the opportunities that they have enjoyed.

Personally, I loved Bruise Pristine. Chaotic, blaring and energetic, the band just moves into your head and starts knocking things over. Brian’s vocals cut through it all like a knife, in a way that only a voice like his could. There was a lot of dull and dreary music getting lots of airtime on the radio back then. Delivered with such potent urgency, this one rose above many of them and screamed out for your attention. When it had our attention, people like me were hooked. Beautiful men, not much older than me, dressed to kill with fabulous make-up. It didn’t feel like they felt the pressure to make grand statements about gender expression and sexuality. Instead, they just told their truth and invited you to come along for the ride or not.

I was along for the ride.

Nancy Boy (1996)

“It’s not absurd. It’s obscene. A song this rude should not be number four in the charts.” — Brian Molko 

“The ideals of gender fluidity weren’t really happening back then. It’s much more at the forefront now, along with pansexuality and this non-binary scenario. Placebo were always championing these issues.” — Stefan Olsdal 

The song in question was partially inspired by a quote from Suede’s Brett Anderson, the infamous “I’m a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience.” Like a lot of their work, Nancy Boy talks about drugs, sex and sexuality. Brian would also say that in the song they were commenting on people who found it fashionable to be hitting the switch: “I’m questioning people’s reasons for sleeping with someone of the same sex. In the same way that heroin is very hip today, being bisexual seems to be very chic.” 

In 2016 the singer described his relationship with Nancy boy as ambivalent. He recognised that it was instrumental in their growth but looking back, found it immature. 

Of course, for the young fans who had been waiting for songs like this, it was exactly what we needed it to be. Loud, rude, rebellious, it was a great, snarling tune and fully informed you of where you would be going with this band. The way Placebo presented themselves and their lyrics screamed “We look this fabulous, we fuck and take drugs – what of it?  That was just the kind of music I was looking for at the time. The song also attracted the attention of one Dame David Bowie who invited them along as support act on his European ‘Outside’ tour after Morrissey did a runner. 

Sweet Prince (1998)

Generally, Placebo’s sophomore set was less harsh and energetic than its predecessor. They were still tackling the subjects of codependency, drug addiction, dirty sex and sexuality, but the album just felt more reflective whilst still being brutally honest. Where the debut grabbed your attention by being loud and in your face, Without You I’m Nothing grabbed your attention in a more seductive way, drawing you in so that you listen to what they are telling you.

The driving, punchy first two singles, Pure Morning and You Don’t Care About Us, both reached the top five on the UK singles chart (the last time the band reached the top ten, in fact), but I’ve opted for a deep cut, and one of the album’s slower and sadder songs. Brian has described Sweet Prince as being about two romances, one with a man and the other with drugs, with both ending tragically. There are obvious references to heroin throughout the song but then, most lines can be swapped between the relationship with drugs or a destructive relationship with a person. 

Most people can understand addiction in one of its forms. Whether with drink, drugs, sex or even with a person. This speaks to the dependency, the lies people tell themselves to justify things that are hurting them. It comes across as a person’s realisation that they’ve been ignoring the damage done by the things that they crave. Addiction, denial and self-harm are all tackled but the delivery is beautiful and draws you in rather than pushing you away.

Without You I'm Nothing (1999)

As an obsessive fan of Bowie and loving everything about Placebo, this team-up was match perfect. Having opened for the Thin White One at several concerts and played at his televised 50th birthday gig in New York, perhaps it should have seemed inevitable that they would collaborate at some point. I still remember being shocked and thrilled when this single was announced. After second album Without You I’m Nothing was issued in 1998, its gem of a title track was re-recorded and released as a kind of duet with DB in 1999, apparently at his request. 

I think this shows the respect the older man had for his charges. For a relatively new band having one of your heroes wanting to work with you must have been an unbelievable thrill (To be fair — it was actually Stefan put the idea in Bowie’s head, publicly, during a BBC Radio 1 broadcast on the day of his half-century in January 1997 – Ed.).

I imagine for a lot of young bands, if a living legend like David Bowie wanted to come in and rearrange everything, most would just go along with it. But then, Bowie understands what collaboration means. He comes into this with respect for them and their doomy song, with its crushing wall of sorrow. His contribution simply adds texture to what was already a great track. Brian’s keening vocals work beautifully with David’s, winding around each other perfectly.

Taste In Men (2000)

Taste In Men, from the group’s third album Black Market Music, was a regular fixture on several tours and used as the closer for all of the Battle For The Sun concerts. According to Brian, the song was influenced by Nine Inch Nails, especially the track Wish, from the 1992 EP Broken. The music is as hectic and energetic as it is dense, but Molko’s voice pulls the separate threads together well. It was described in Gigwise as a “bubbling, space-age blast of howling, claustrophobic electro-rock.” Other critics were less kind, suggesting that it was basically more of the same from Placebo. I think it’s possible to agree a little with both. 

The album got a bit of a mixed reaction — it’s essentially a darker take on their sound, with more in the way of electronic experimentation, though without stretching themselves on the songwriting front. Even Brian describes BMM as his least favourite. I loved it at the time but this single is one of the few that I still regularly come back to. Other Placebo albums, like Without You I’m Nothing, I could listen to all the way through, anytime. Taste In Men is just a typical Placebo track that people will love or hate. The lyrics are simple, the music is mental. Some days that’s just what you need.

Onwards and upwards then.

Running Up That Hill (2003)

Even when you love a band, their decision to cover a song you have loved since before they even existed can make you a little nervous. In this case, the worry was misplaced. This excellent rendition of the timeless Kate Bush classic manages to be both faithful to the original and something new at the same time. Q magazine described it as  “sound[ing] more like a pact with the devil” than the original “deal with God”. It does feel bleaker and more downbeat, but it still works fantastically.

The deal that the narrator is asking to make is about being able to swap lives with somebody else. It talks of being able to fully understand each other’s point of view by inhabiting each others’ world for a while. It was originally written about a man and a woman exchanging roles to fully understand each other. It could easily be about swapping places with anyone who has a different life from you. The singer is asking to be understood but also asking how to better understand the other person.

You can find Running Up That Hill on Covers, the bonus collection that initially came with editions of Placebo’s fourth LP, the less grungy more electronic Sleeping With Ghosts, in 2003. And where it is joined by tracks made famous by stevepafford.com faves Serge Gainsbourg, Sinéad O’Connor, The Smiths, Depeche Mode and even Boney M. After being used for the fourth-season premiere of The O.C., RUTH received considerable attention on both sides of the pond, peaking at 44 on the UK singles chart and acting as a prelude to the long-awaited return of the great Kate herself, with 2005’s Aerial.

Protège-moi (2004)

This is essentially a French-language version of Protect Me From What I Want, originally found on Sleeping With Ghosts. This re-do actually keeps the chorus in English although the French title is sung in the background, creating a charming Franglais-style hybrid that acted as the lead single for Placebo’s first best-of collection, Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996–2004

Of the original track, Brian has conceded that it was “written when I was hurting deeply and coming out of a very self-destructive relationship, hence the creepy atmosphere.”

Again, this is the realisation toward the end of a relationship that things haven’t been working and probably never can. There is the feeling of addiction to people and things that are harmful. It’s a person begging somebody else or maybe part of themselves to stop them going for something that they think they want but is bringing nothing but misery. 

C’est la vie.

Pierrot The Clown (2006)

Quelle surprise, the title of this deep cut from Placebo’s fifth album Meds conjures up the obvious image of the sad clown of pantomime and commedia dell’arte, hopefully a bit more Ashes To Ashes than tragic Leo Sayer.

The music fits that image perfectly. Slow and melancholic, Pierrot The Clown is the story of someone who has been in a physically abusive relationship. Mirroring the painted, pained theatre character, the singer seems to be pining for somebody that doesn’t care about them. 

The song manages to be beautifully tender in defiance of the difficult subject matter. Meds was a successful and balanced reconciliation between Placebo’s heavier past and their more textured present. Like a lot of the material on the album, Pierrot’s instrumentation is more stripped back and less chaotic than some of the band’s early work, but all in all the straightforward rock record approach works well with the lyrics. For some reason, US pressings have different arrangements of various tracks; most noticeably on Pierrot it omits the glockenspiel, giving a much more bare-bones version of the song.

The Never-Ending Why (2009)

We’ve made a record about choosing life, about choosing to live, about stepping out of the darkness and into the light. Not necessarily turning your back on the darkness because it’s there, it’s essential; it’s a part of who you are, but more about the choice of standing in the sunlight instead.” — Brian Molko

Brian described Placebo’s sixth album, 2009’s Battle For The Sun, as being the first with a discernible thematic unity. It’s certainly their most American sounding record to date (Canada-recorded to boot), with a lot more in the way of strings and brass and bigger, hulkier almost nu-metal riffs.

A personal highlight has always been its second single The Never-Ending Why, a patently more outward-looking song than some of the others I have mentioned here. Indeed, Brian went on record to explain that the track is “about the questions that will never be answered. Anyone who has an interest in the meaning of life will come up against a brick wall, but you must accept the fact that there will be no answers and try and get the best out of now.”

Whilst they have employed more instruments here, it still doesn’t sound overly busy. It’s actually one of the band’s more instantly catchy tunes. The lyrics are interesting but simple enough that you’ll be singing along by your second listen. And as you can see from the link, the video is a lorra lorra fun too.

Too Many Friends (2013)

Opening with the immortal line “My computer thinks I’m gay/I threw that piece of junk away”, the lyrics of Too Many Friends, the lead single for seventh album Loud Like Love, are some of the most straightforward in a Placebo song. The subject matter is something that most of us who use any of the social media applications or websites will recognise. You can have hundreds or thousands of friends on these apps but often not many that you could turn to in times of trouble. For some, these online interactions can actually make them feel more lonely.

Aided by an LA-shot promotional video featuring American Psycho author Brett Easton Ellis, the track talks about how many of those people will you ever meet or be there for when they need a friend; about the overwhelming nature of following so many people and the feeling of relief if you just plucked up the courage to close it all down and walk away. 

The internet, eh? Just where would we be without it.

Callum Pearce

BONUS BEATS

Wanna delve deeper? If these songs have just got you in the mood for a bit more, go down the Placebo rabbit hole on YouTube. 

Placebo’s super-charged cover of T. Rex’s classic Twentieth Century Boy is definitely worth a look at, which was originally recorded for Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (the band appear briefly in the film too). David Bowie even joined the band on stage when they performed it at the 1999 Brit Awards, which was doubly ironic considering how much he hated the movie — he dubbed it “The David Bowie Story” — for not being nice enough about him.

In addition, Brian does an excellent cover of Bowie’s Five Years on a French chat show here. 

A couple of brilliant ‘bubbling under’ singles: 

Pure Morning (1998) has some fabulous lyrics: “A friend in need’s a friend indeed, a friend with weed is better.” The video is great too. Molko stands at the top of a tall building teetering on the edge as a crowd of onlookers and would-be rescuers gather below. Police rush up the many flights of stairs toward him. Eventually, he steps off the edge and there is a twist (spoilers!).

Twenty Years (2004) was a new song on the Once More With Feeling Album. This is a steady and quiet reflection on mortality, reflecting on the past and looking toward the future. They don’t do anything massively new with the music. But on an album full of the greatest hits, you need something that can pull the threads together and tell a story and this song does that very well. Slow, deliberate and thoughtful.

Lastly, with its sledgehammer beat and Molko’s lamenting vocal, Life’s What You Make instantly reminds you of all the reasons you fell in love with this band. It’s the lead track from the 2016 EP of the same name and there is a great deal in common with the work of Talk Talk (who released the original in 1986) and Placebo: both remained true to their artistic vision, even if that has sometimes meant not taking the easy route. The song’s message of making the best of circumstances strikes a particular chord in the challenging era in which we live. And how.

Placebo, Black Market Music in Steve Pafford’s MOJO album review is here

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Callum Pearce
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