Portishead - Biography

By David Downs


Displaying Dick Cheney-like information control, UK trip hop trio Portishead haunted college bedrooms and eventually mainstream America starting in 1993. Birthed at ground zero of the electronic music movement, Bristol, England, alongside Massive Attack -- vocalist Beth Gibbons, producer Geoff Barrow and jazz drummer Adrian Utley remain as inscrutable as they are brilliant. Gibbons avoids being profiled, while Barrow and Utley's backgrounds are less murky. The band is unique more for the sheer lack of tawdry details about fighting and drug addictions. From the beginning, the Brits kept a tight and stiff upper lip while crafting debut single “Sour Times”; sonically evocative of the foggy, West Coast town with its big public university, ample record collections, working class shipping industry and dark history of slavery. Portishead became bedroom music for depressives and people who loved noisy the noisy weirdness of samples with strings, drums played through distorted amps. Their debut LP Dummy (1994-Go! Discs) featured singles "Numb", "Sour Times", "Glory Box". Most songs harbored pop themes like love or the lack thereof, but Gibbon's melodrama was locked in with Barrow's equally operatic instrumental ideas. The album oozed a dark romanticism and “Sour Times” hit number five on the Billboard Modern Rock charts. By 1995, Dummy had shown its legs, moving to the number one spot on the Billboard Heatseeker's chart. The record won the Mercury Music Prize for Album of the Year, beating Blur, Oasis, and Pulp. Then things got really got out of hand. Portishead was so different and fresh the sound was immediately co-opted. Their self-titled sophomore release Portishead·(1997-Go! Discs) which displayed a certain sonic contentment in singles "All Mine", "Over", "Only You", which led to the twenty-one spot on the Billboard 200 in America; a remarkable achievement for an emotional experimental noise band from the corner of the UK. A live album, Roseland NYC Live 1998 (1998-Go! Discs) rode the cultural bandwagon to number 155 on the Billboard 200 and then all communication ceased. Barrow quit music. Gibbons noodled. But after a ten year-hiatus Third (2008-Island) destroyed any doubts about what had happened. Portishead had refueled and gotten darker and weirder. Even though Gibbons' lyrics were more positive, they were subsumed in a newer, aggressive timbre. "Machine Gun" and "The Rip" helped Third to an astonishing number seven on The Billboard 200. They've done more to toughen up the ears of mainstream America than perhaps any other band from that historic scene.


In 1992, Barrow (born 1971) moved to Portishead. He was a lifelong drummer who entered a career in music production and worked at the famous Coach House Studio, which included a lucky bit as a part time tape-operator on Massive Attack's debut album Blue Lines (1991-Circa). Blue Lines became a critical must-have album of the early '90s, and Barrow went on to remix Primal Scream, Depeche Mode, Tricky and had written songs for Neneh Cherry – enabling him to meet vocalist Gibbons.


Gibbons was born in 1965 in Devon. It's fair to characterize her as extremely shy. In a rare interview, Gibbons said she's a sensitive, impulsive, emotional person, and is a counterpoint to Barrow, who she says is objective, pragmatic and aloof. She found him extremely talented, and he found her voice exquisite. The two went to the Coach House to record a session with Adrian Utley, a R&B jazz session guitar veteran. "Sour Times" was the result.


Gibbons quit her job at a Bristol advertising agency and Portishead formed in the Spring on '93. Go! Beat signed them and was later folded into Universal. The "Numb" EP of (1994-Go! Discs) preceded a single live show. Dummy (1994-Go! Discs) ended their normal lives as they knew it. Told to expect sales of 50,000, it did ten times that amount, swamping the resources of the tiny label. In 1995, Dummy went gold in the UK and Portishead toured eight countries including a stop at Glastonbury Festival. More tours followed and another  recording.


In 1997 the band played one date at New York's Roseland Ballroom backed by a thirty-piece orchestra as a rehearsal for touring their next album Portishead. Dummy went gold in the U.S. and Portishead (1997-Go! Discs) entered the UK chart at number two. The band started touring in December and played through May 1998, before Gibbons now thirty-three, fell ill. A few more dates followed, as well as the release of eleven-track live album, Roseland NYC Live (1998-Go! Discs) which was recorded live at the Roseland Ballroom, New York City in July 1997, except track nine, recorded live at the Warfield, San Francisco in 1998, and track ten recorded live at the Quart Festival, Kristiansand in 1998. Portishead packed it in in 1999.


Barrow formed Invada Records in 2001. In 2003, Gibbons collaborated with Rustin' Man on the 2003 album Out of Season. Rumors of new record occasionally surfaced, but were tamped down by the band, who later stated that their immense overnight success and subsequent touring had sucked the creativity out of them. The rush to co-opt Portishead and indeed all of trip hop had forced a tactical withdrawal. In 2005, Portishead and Massive Attack played a Tsunami benefit relief. In 2007, Portishead curated UK underground music festival All Tomorrow's Parties "Nightmare before Christmas" and previewed new songs. Later, Barrow would say that that ATP lineup featured most of the influences for the new record.


On April 14th Third (2008-Island) came out with single "Machine Gun", appearing in March. The record became the band's first ever U.S. Top ten album on the Billboard 200, reaching number seven despite its aggressive, atonal mix of degraded samples and other noise music. It's creepy and sorrowful, yet paranoid. DJ/producer Madlib, ambient metal band Sun O))), U.K. grindcore act Extreme Noise Terror and Prague's avant-garde Plastic People were listed as influences.


Portishead toured some dates for Third, but nothing like the strenuous runs of the past. Now label free, the band says it will continue to record and play. The trio will likely get more extreme and uncompromising – and they are one of the few of their ilk who can claim as much success, longevity and artistic integrity.

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