Barrow and Gibbons were born in the West Country and coincidentally both had parents who divorced. Adrian Utley, the oldest member, hails from Northampton and he brought along a love of vintage guitars and effects, jazz training and the bouncy grooves of hip-hop. A mutual love for drum loops, sampled breaks, James Brown and Blue Note golden era sounds became the background over which Gibbons’ husky contralto conjured up visions of smoky jazz lounges. Then again one detects layers of ska and swing and the riff from Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap 11” on the monumental “Glory Box”. In that sense Portishead are comparable to the best French house scene makers, always prone to locate the funk button. “Sour Times” samples Lalo Schifrin’s “The Danube Incident”, “Wandering Star” beds in War’s “Magic Mountain” and “Biscuit”, weirdest of all, goes to the root of Johnny Ray’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”.
The sensuous cabaret mood is everywhere on Dummy and it remains a highpoint of 1994 while the singles “Numb”, “Sour Times” and “Glory Box” are classics in any genre.
The Portishead album showed that brilliant start to be no flash in the pan. The singles “All Mine”, “Over” and “Only You” graced the airwaves with additional horns, Clive Deamer’s click drumming, extra violin, and keyboards simmering perfectly. The outstanding opening track “Cowboys” is one of Gibbons’ most intriguing lyrics: ‘Did you feed us tales of deceit/ Conceal the tongues who need to speak/ Subtle lies and a soiled coin/ The truth is sold, the deal is done….’ Spooky in the extreme, this could be music made by androids.
With extra attention to sonic detail and smart cinematic videos to backdrop their tunes Portishead’s scratch deck approach translated well in America where they played an epic concert at the Roseland in 1997 accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a five-piece horn ensemble. Go Beat released a DVD of that event in 2002 and it’s one of the most stupendous things you will witness.
After three years of touring and various external issues Barrow put Portishead on hold because he’d grown disillusioned with music in general. In 2002 Gibbons made her solo debut with former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb using the pseudonym Rustin Man. Out of Season was a quiet success but is an essential purchase for her fans and it also went silver. Meanwhile Barrow and Utley remained locked in their studios but emerged to produce The Coral’s’ psychedelic gem The Invisible Invasion and enthused by the young Merseysiders energy decided to reactive their own band.
Third eventually dropped in Spring 2008. Using a battery of analog synths, ancient drum machine FX and even a hurdy-gurdy on “Magic Doors” which would be cleverly remixed later by DJ Green Lantern, the songs are perfectly Portisheadian. Other key tracks are “The Rip”, something Radiohead covered, and the pulsating “Machine Gun”, a number that became huge on the hip-hop and club circuit and would have had Portishead feted as superstars in America, had they been the types to do the social whirl. Given that Third has attained top ten placing’s in 18 territories it’s apparent that the band remain in demand though they haven’t released anything officially since 2009’s “Chase the Tear”, a fundraiser for Amnesty International UK.
They have enjoyed playing the festival circuit this summer (2015) and were rapturously received at Latitude and Benicassim where their set included “Mysterons”, the crowd slaying “Sour Times” and “We Carry On”. Barrow has promised new music is bubbling away but no dates are specified. Don’t worry though because it will be worth the wait. With Portishead it always is.
Words: Max Bell