Placebo - Biography
By Brad Austin
Take away the makeup-wearing, the cross-dressing, and the all-around androgyny of singer/guitarist Brian Molko, and you still have a compelling band in London-based Placebo. Utilizing his fondness for alternative bands such as Smashing Pumpkins and the Pixies, Molko's songwriting was often quite derivative, but thanks to his gender-bending vocals and the energy of his band members, Placebo sounded new, original, and rarely boring on their 1996 debut. Molko had a penchant for exploring the fragility of human relationships, especially romantic ones, and he never turned his back on these darker themes, which included tales of drug use and two-faced ex-lovers. Although there is nothing inherently glam-oriented in Placebo's music, they have often been touted as a glam-rock band, a reputation helped along by David Bowie, who sang the band's praises early in their career.
Brian Molko (Scottish-American) and bassist Stefan Olsdal (Swedish) both attended Luxembourg, but were not aware of each other during their time there, as they met in London in 1994, after graduating. Olsdal saw Molko perform one night and was impressed. He suggested they form a band, and along with drummer Steve Hewitt, they did. They started with the name Ashtray Heart, and began writing original material in the vein of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and especially Smashing Pumpkins. After changing their name to Placebo and completing a couple of demos, Hewitt was called back to his main gig, Breed. Reluctantly, Molko and Olsdal welcomed Robert Schultzberg back into the fold. They'd played with Schultzberg before, and had less chemistry with him than they'd had with Hewitt. The band was signed to Caroline Records, a label started by Virgin owner Richard Branson in the 70's designed to put albums out by bands who did not have a great deal of mainstream potential. This label also put out the Smashing Pumpkins' debut, Gish.
The self-titled debut was released in 1996 and spawned the surprisingly successful UK singles, “Nancy Boy” and “Bruise Pristine.” They enjoyed playing opening slots for bands that ranged from popular to legendary, including Weezer, U2, and the newly-reformed Sex Pistols. By this time, tensions were coming to a head between Schultzberg and the other two members, and when Molko and Olsdal were able to persuade Hewitt to come back, as things were really starting to happen for Placebo, Schultzberg was sacked for good. Soon after Hewitt's return, David Bowie, who was an outspoken fan of Placebo, invited them to play at his 50th Birthday Bash at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1997.
Just as the Pumpkins did with Siamese Dream, Placebo switched from Virgin subsidiary Caroline to Virgin itself for their second LP, Without You I'm Nothing (1997). The album did very well in England, and based on the popularity of first single, “Pure Morning,” it seemed that Placebo were about to break into the big-time in the US as well. The song was a number 19 modern rock track by 1998. Their next couple of singles didn't catch fire the way “Pure Morning” had, however, and Placebo were forced into one-hit wonder status in America. The band recorded a cover of “20th Century Boy” by T. Rex for the soundtrack to the 1998 film, Velvet Goldmine. They also appear in the movie playing the song, further cementing their association with glam. In 1999, they played the song at the Brit Awards, and this time were joined by Bowie. During a show in New York, Bowie appeared with the band on-stage once more, and he also guested on a re-recording of the song “Without You I'm Nothing.” This was issued in single format in 1999.
In the UK in early 2000, Placebo put out their third album, Black Market Music, on Hut, another Virgin subsidiary, and tried to expand their sound a bit, going as far as to add rapping to one track. The US version, which came out in fall of 2000, also included a cover of Depeche Mode's “I Feel You” and the past Bowie-collaboration on “Without You I'm Nothing.” Hits in the UK included “Taste in Men,” “Special K” (which drew controversy for its specific use of a drug high as a metaphor for love) and “Slave to the Wage.” In spring of 2003, the band was back with Sleeping With Ghosts which went to the top ten in the UK and sold 1.4 million copies worldwide. This fourth album had everything fans had come to love about Placebo, but with more electronic flourishes. They toured Australia with Elbow and played shows in the UK with Har Mar Superstar the next year. Before 2004 was up, they released Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996-2004. One of the compilation's 19 songs was a new one called “Twenty Years.” The group played a show at Wembley Arena to celebrate the release of the compilation, and were joined by Robert Smith of the Cure on a couple of songs. In 2006, the band recorded a slow, down-trodden cover of Kate Bush's “Running Up That Hill,” which reached number 95 in the pop 100. The video for the song includes clip after clip of Placebo fans singing the song, many of whom are just as androgynous as Molko himself.
Placebo's next album, Meds (2006, Astralwerks), was helmed by French producer Dimitri Tikovoi, who mixed songs on Once More With Feeling. Here, he pushed Placebo to turn their new batch of songs into a straight-up rock & roll record. Allison Mohart of the Kills performs guest vocals on the album's title-track, the video for which shows Molko sporting a shaved head and no make-up on his face. Another duet occurs on “Broken Promise,” this time with Michael Stipe. The LP reached number 180 on the Billboard 200 and the song “Infra-red” was a number 35 modern rock hit in the US. Placebo were scheduled to tour with Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance in 2007, and before the tour commenced, Virgin released Extended Play '07, an EP meant to introduce new fans to Placebo's older work. Shortly after this, Hewitt split from the band, citing artistic and personal differences. He was replaced by Steve Forrester. In 2009 the band released a new CD entitled Battle For The Sun, follwed by an EP in 2012 called B3.