PLACEBO SINGLES COLLECTION:
ONCE MORE WITH FEELING, SINGLES: 1996−2004
Hey there, baby, welcome to the party. Grab yourself an absynthe, pull on this black mesh vest, let me introduce you around. There’s your old pal Nancy Boy still rubbing himself enigmatically against all and sundry in the kitchen, you’ve got a gaggle of wage slaves moshing their nine-to-five sorrows away in the front room, and if you step over the E overdose on the stairs there’s whole rooms of ketamine-fueled psychosis and despair going on upstairs. A motley bunch, agreed, but simply fantastic company. And the music may not exactly be TRL’s Beach Party – a savage riff-rush blur of drugs, deformity, depression, sexual deviance and, um, the weather in England of a summer – but it’s certainly some of the most vital, infectious and exhilarating of the past decade. Oh, and don’t mind the 600,000 screaming French kids outside, you’ll get used to them. This is gonna be the wildest party of your life.
Ready for the stats? You’d better sit down, they’re a whole lot bigger than you think. 5 million of their four albums sold, of which 1.4 million is accounted for by the international phenomenon that was last year’s ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’. ‘…Ghosts’ went Top Ten in 20 countries (including the UK, where their three sell-out nights at Brixton were the band’s fastest-selling UK dates so far) and Number One in Belgium, Greece and France, where it hit the top spot this July, having hovered around the upper echelons of the chart for a full sixteen months after it debuted at Number Two. That’s France, where the band are bona fide superstars, playing to rammed town squares this summer and performing their biggest indoor European show to date to 18,000 of those screaming French kids we mentioned earlier, climaxing with a duet on Pixies‘ ’Where Is My Mind‘ with Frank Black. To date the DVD of the gig sold 200,000 copies, the biggest selling DVD for Virgin ever. And that’s without even mentioning Eastern Europe, where they’re considered the new Depeche Mode, or Mexico where the stadiums just aren’t big enough to hold them anymore.
Add it all up and you have to conclude that, on a worldwide scale, you could gather together all of the members of all of the contemporary UK rock bands that are bigger than Placebo right now and you’d barely have enough heads for a game of five-a-side. And, with their tenth birthday fast approaching, that sounds like one hell of a cause for celebration.
“It just keeps growing and growing, y’know?” Brian Molko says, himself slightly stunned by the figures. “Even in the UK, ’English Summer Rain‘ was the fourth single off the album and it still went to Number 23. I was quite impressed with that, without any Radio One support or anything. It’s been a brilliant year. And we’ve done all this without compromising ourselves, we haven’t played the game, we’ve stuck to our principals. It might have happened a lot quicker if we did play the game a lot more, but we wouldn’t be able to do it that way.
”The Paris gig was nerve-wracking, it was one of the more stressful dates of the tour because you’re in a situation that’s triple pressure. It’s your biggest show, they’re recording it for a DVD so it’s going down for posterity – and whenever you stick a camera in front of a rock band they instantly tense up and make mistakes – and then the fact that you’re going to go onstage with one of your heroes. We were very tense. In fact we spent most of the gig waiting for it to be over.“
Of course no birthday party would be complete without the baby pictures. So here they are: 17 snapshots from Placebo’s rampantly successful youth and young manhood, charmingly entitled Once More With Feeling. Here’s them as hedonistic, androgynous S&M wildboys prompting all sorts of inappropriate trouser stirrings in the indie dives of Britpop Britain on ’Nancy Boy‘ and ’36 Degrees’. Here they are relishing the agonies and ecstasies of their musical adolescence (and enjoying their first million-selling album) during the dark, epic dramas of 1998’s ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ – guided through rock puberty by David Bowie on the re-recorded title track and producer Phil Vinall on the android death march that is ‘Pure Morning’. Here’s them getting so off their faces they come out as secret Blondie fans on ‘Special K’ and ‘Slave To The Wage’ and, finally, here’s a fully mature Placebo branching out from the Chiming Rock highway onto experimental electro backroads on ‘English Summer Rain’ and ‘The Bitter End’. Over a single hour it charts the birth, development and creative fruition of one of Britain’s most potent musical forces; you can hear goals being set and surpassed, visions broaden, horizons stretch ever-wider.
”It’s a reminder to ourselves of what we’ve been and what we’ve achieved over the last ten years,“ says Brian. ”We’ve never been a band that’ve worked to a formula and if you listen to this album all the way through you can really see an evolution in the band. You can hear how much we’ve changed over the past ten years and it’s really interesting.“
Coincidentally, but fittingly, it also comes as a tribute and summation of their years on the Hut label which folded earlier this year (Placebo are now signed to Virgin worldwide).
”I’m really sad,“ Brian says, ”those people have been with us since the beginning. But it’s the nature of the business at the moment and there’s not much we can do. It was a very sad day when we found out, but for us it’s a new beginning.“
And naturally the collection has to include some shots of Placebo as they are today. And they’re almost unrecognisable. For the first of the two new songs on Once More With Feeling Placebo returned to the studio with Phil Vinall and two rules: 1) no guitars and 2) it had to come in under two and a half minutes. The result is ‘I Do’, influenced by Neu! and Laurie Anderson, which is – and bad news for fans of bad news – it’s Placebo’s first happy love song. No, really.
”We’ve been threatening to do it for years and we’ve finally done it“, says Brian. ”This has been coming for two or three years, Placebo’s first happy love song. You’re either gonna love it or hate it, it’s a track that’ll polarize opinion. I think it’s gonna come as quite a shock. I don’t know if it’s going to alienate some of our fans, but being in a vital band is about taking risks. The song’s about meeting someone and falling head over heels in love and the feelings you experience at that time, which are usually quite fleeting. It’s about meeting someone and wanting to be that person because you think they’re so gloriously wonderful. We created a very dysfunctional pop song, which shouldn’t work but it does. It sounds so absurdly happy that it sounds like it’s on Prozac. It’s anti-depressant induced mood elevator music. There’s something quite prescription-druggy about it.“
Crikey. But before all the ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ fans run off to wallow in the slightly darker vibes of the new Rachel Stevens album, never fear: the skeletal fingers of existential angst fold gently around the soul of the second song, ‘Twenty Years’. An eight-years-in-the-writing collaboration between Brian and AC Acoustics singer Paul Campion, it is, according to Brian ”pure epic melancholy, a meditation on the passing of time and mortality.“ Phew. ”But it’s not miserable.“ Bugger.
The first line of ‘Twenty Years’, in the closing song on Once More With Feeling is ”There are twenty years to go“, a message to fans and haters alike that, despite the usual trend of singles-collection-as-epitaph, Placebo aren’t going anywhere for quite some time to come. Indeed, before they head into the studio in the New Year to begin work on their fifth album (which Brian promises will be another dramatic departure based around ”the best songs we’ve ever written“) Placebo bring the singles party to a place they swore it would never venture. Wembley.
”It’s something we said we’d never do,“ Brian says sheepishly, ”but it’s partly to stick a middle finger up and partly to say you’ve done it. It’s gonna be a bit of a party. It’ll be the last gig until 2006. It’s gonna be a fun night."
You’re all invited. If you dare.