I cannot write about Massive Attack. This reminds me of the narrative viewpoint of a guilty observer in a few modern poems that are hurled at teenagers in anthologies. I shall not write about what I’m writing about because words can’t capture the true sadness of what I see. The Warsaw Ghetto, child workers in the developing world and hapless urban music buffs from Bristol about to be turned into a middle class must have and discussed at woefully grim dinner parties. Discussed? No, played in the background. I shall not turn up the hi-fi too much and cheapen the then deeply fashionable trip hop by actually listening to it, no it is an item in my designer life. It’s cool and I aim for some of that cool to rub off on my new semi-detached box which I expect you to be impressed by as I offer you an olive and a very slow bit of rapping from Daddy G. Please believe that I’m urban but not a criminal. That spliff in the ashtray line? Well, maybe later but not now – Christ! What would the neighbours think? Mind you, when I buy my, err…shit, I do so from a proper Yardie…oh yes! Proper dangerous it is when I score, I’ll take you some time. You can sit in the car while I shit myself waiting on the pavement. Anything ringing any bells yet? No, you really wouldn’t be reading this would you? You were leaving the building in the mid 90s, now you are halfway home in a cab to mediocrity if you’re not already there. And besides, it wasn’t cool, it was just urban music that a somewhat self-conscious section of society that eventually gave up its self-consciousness to Ritchie (not Lionel) and the Gallaghers (not Rory) were prepared to accept. No obvious sexism or references to killing or race? Great, you can count me in then!

This is why ‘Blue Lines’ needs defending. It need rescuing from blind tributes. It is one of the hugely important albums that came out in 1991 that mapped the future. You can fight over the others but ‘Blue Lines’ remains more cohesive than ‘Screamadelica’, less familiar than ‘Nevermind’, just plain better than either ‘Banwagonesque’ or ‘Gish’ and if you have Pearl Jam or U2 in mind for the rest of your list then please delete them now. Did you just suggest R.E.M.’s ‘Out of Time’? Really?…

Originally, I had decided to get a piece written on Blue Lines in time for the recent remastered reissue. I rate it as one of my favourite albums of all time and it would be a way towards expanding what I can write about an album towards an eventual 33/3rd book project. Not only that, but the album brings back personal memories of Bristol in the early 90s and the eventual rise of trip hop. However, this album also proved the bridge from 3 weekly music papers in the 80s to just 1 nowadays and a lot more music coverage appearing in the newspapers, well, The Guardian is the one that gets the notice for me or from me depending. What band better demonstrates a move from inky indie publications like Sounds to the coffee table covering Guardian? Why none better than Massive Attack – urban culture in your living room possibly from IKEA. So, as the reissue came closer, so did the articles from authentic mid-90s chancers. The memories of somehow ‘being there’ which cannot be true as the collective did not really court publicity but struggled to shrug it off. It wasn’t there for ‘Blue Lines’ but kind of stuck about 4 years later and led to Madonna practically stalking them for a collaboration – always a bad sign.

Yes, at some point in the mid-90s, possibly as a gut reaction to the mundane aura of Britpop, the middle classes developed a sophistication that could not possibly have true mass appeal. The drawback was that it was so successful that in actual fact it was mainstream and Portishead became the new Sade and possibly influenced Dido. As a result, almost any anecdote on this album sounds like a second-hand cliché. You’ll notice this, I’m sure but you are no longer allowed to criticise because I’m pointing out the flaw in advance. This of course allows me to let through all sorts of second-rate writing but I promise not to do so. You may have your doubts based on these last 3 sentences if not the ones that preceded them. Also, ‘second-hand cliché’ IS a second-hand cliché.

So, Bristol in 1991. I’d left home to attend Bristol Polytechnic in September of the previous year. As Massive Attack were about to introduce the idea of Bristol being a hip place for the 1990s, I was living in halls of residence in Fishponds. Bristol seemed like something very laid back and yet urban when compared with someone like myself who had always lived in a little village previously. It was apparent in the music that I listened to as a lot more of an urban influence came into my thinking and yet Bristol is never far from cider references and the least urban accent of any city in the world (someone might want to research their own article on that point, mightn’t they my lover?) and let us not forget that ‘Fishponds’ could never sound particularly urban as a place to be based and it was also a long bus journey through traffic to get to the centre. In Bristol, Massive Attack did not sound hip or cool, they sounded gert lush and their loosely formed collective made sense in this environment. However, they appeared on some youth culture magazine show very briefly when the video for ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ must have been given approximately 2 minutes preceded by a yoof presenter already claiming them to be cool. To be cool and unheard of seems a dangerous precedent. In fact, it was an image the band could never emerge from under. Ultimately, Massive Attack would always suffer from being too cool rather than benefit from it as it became them and they became it. A new Massive Attack song would, within 10 years, become something that just sounded cool and would cause listeners to nod their heads calmly to the downbeat rhythm whilst watching from the side on Later with Jools. Thankfully, Jools himself would not be encouraged to add his tedious brand of honky-tonk ragtime bollocks to ‘Inertia Creeps’. Essentially this had become coffee table dance music. It was dance music for the background of dinner parties. It was an instant cliché drawn from something which had previously sounded totally original.

The music itself has had so very many attempts made at describing it. Essentially it is a form of blunted backbeat led hip hop and soul mixed together. Less upbeat than Soul II Soul but of a similar ilk, and obviously much cooler. It sounded very stoned. It sounded like a type of music I had associated with the mainstream had instantly leapt into a more self-conscious/self-obsessed genre of its own. This was outgoing music for introverts not just the comedown album after the club, and it had its own language that would exclude others and even most of its fans on some levels. Though emerging at the same time as the Acid Jazz label and various soul/jazz/funk type outfits who harked back to the 60s and 70s, Massive Attack’s music never sounded backward-looking or nostalgic. Clear influences from other eras can be heard in the samples and even the choice of a cover version but it was incorporated into a fuzzy vision of the future which ironically became much less human as Massive Attack evolved into a fully formed band.

‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was what it was really all about for me. The wonderful layering and building of the strings with simple percussion and bass drum backing and a seemingly improvised soul prayer. Apparently, the lyrics were originally improvised which will make a lot of sense to anyone who has tried to unveil a narrative thread to this song and many others from Massive Attack. However, this somehow fits the song, as universal themes emerge from the unspecific allowing anyone to create their own moody perspective even their own lyrics as the song reverberates around their head. Dramatic strings perhaps show the way to the future: as the group developed and left them behind, other later Britpop artists would incorporate them into their own fuzzy visions. ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ borrowed its string sample from the Stones and all the royalties thus had to be signed over. However, the title, using strings, the walking video, the repetitive anthem without chorus and possibly improvised lyrical ideas suggest that three-quarters of what was borrowed was taken from Massive Attack.

Some people went as far as embracing the half-baked secret identities that seemed to exist in Massive Attack, though The Wu Tang Clan were always a better source of material and, if you can be bothered to look, there are still more than one random Wu Tang member name generator sites out there. But with Massive Attack, the names seemed more homely, even 3D but especially Mushroom. Tricky Kid approached interesting but less so when shortened to the eventual Tricky. 3D became the driving force in the band though one suspects Mushroom’s record collection had more of an influence on the earlier DJ based material and had left by the time the group had morphed into moody stadium rock with a dance music twist and a former Blue Aeroplane on guitar. Daddy G left the group for ‘100th Window’ which therefore acts as more of a Robert Del Naja solo album and is all the more tedious for it. The gang was augmented by/with Shara Nelson’s restrained soul diva stylings and Horace Andy’s reggae falsetto which seemed just as at home with rockers, roots, lovers, dub and now a bunch of stoned Bristolians who were much younger than him. Later on the guests seemed more obvious or even contrived. Nicolette was clearly seen as a Shara replacement to begin with, Tracey Thorn and Liz Fraser seemed obvious in the mid 90s in a way that might have been innovative in the mid 80s. Sinead O’Connor? It could be worse…oh, the bloke out of Elbow? Maybe it couldn’t.

Samples were used that hooked people into that most middle class of music obsessions: crate digging. Now it was time to head for the Record and Tape Exchange armed with a little pre-wiki information about the source of said samples spread through word of mouth. You really wanted that Archie Shepp album which Galliano sampled but realise to your horror, that apart from the title track it is really quite irritating (Attica Blues – just download the individual track, trust me). There are plenty more cool funk, jazz-funk and soul samples used for you to hunt down from Isaac Hayes, The Blackbyrds, Tom Scott, Funkadelic and Al Green. Oh! Let’s not forget Sade! Now, you’ve discovered that the bassline from ‘Safe From Harm’ is lifted from Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ album. Better still, the album is widely available for very little money as most Atlantic Jazz is. Great! Now all you have to do is to convince yourself that you actually want to listen to a jazz fusion album. Good luck with that, there’s a Mahavishnu Orchestra sample on ‘One Love’ to give you the excuse for more jazz fusion. Wait a minute! You started off trying to be cool with your fancy Massive Attack collective – not even a proper band, and now, NOW, you’ve just doubled the jazz fusion section of your record and or CD collection. Next stop facial hair and Camel albums you tedious old hippy. Jazz fusion and prog rock were very similar except for the fans who never seemed to be able to assimilate Steely Dan and Tolkein or a funk influence and anything or anyone involved in Gentle Giant. It’s like the best guitarists belonging to jazz or metal – there’s a long way to go between an alto sax and bloody Saxon. Back to the samples, the obligatory hard to find funk bits are all now easy to find thanks to this album and its fans not being willing to let things lie. Oddly they didn’t explore the entire recorded output of, say, the actual bass player of that funky line in ‘Safe From Harm’. The best-selling album that he appeared on was probably ‘No Jacket Required’ (sadly he’s not on ‘Sussudio’, the Philster saved that for himself) and his best-selling single probably Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’. What a guy Lee Sklar was and is. He is one of those session musicians who appeared on seemingly anything and everything. No pretension of cool and hip for this guy, just look at him:

Yes, the man who gave you what you thought was the ultimate in cool, original and impressive basslines did also play bass on a Leo Sayer album! HE’s on Rod’s ‘Atlantic Crossing’! His session appearances also include Jackson Browne’s most successful work, David Cassidy, 2 Phil Collins albums and live recordings too, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Donovan, Hall & Oates, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Roger McGuinn, 4 Dolly Parton albums, Linda Ronstadt, Diana Ross, Neil Sedaka, James Taylor’s regular bass player throughout his entire career, The Weather Girls (!), Robbie Williams, Warren Zevon and, while ‘Safe from Harm’ became a cool club hit, Richard bloody Marx.

What exactly has dated the album in the last 20 odd years? Well, ‘Hymn of the Big Wheel’ sounded naive at the time and just because Enigma were around didn’t mean that some of us were not impressed by the use of dolphin song for an environmentally themed song. Some keyboard sounds seem a little out of place seeming to exist in a world in-between analogue and digital that had surely passed by the time of the album’s release. Some of the lyrical references seem a little corny now ‘spliff in the ashtray’, please! Also, whatever did ‘happen to the niceties of my childhood days’? What on earth were they talking about? To my mind, not a lot has dated other than the more primitive methods used when compared to today’s building of similar albums by an individual like Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd. He has gone straight into the world of alternative samples by using Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cocteau Twins and Beach House. Massive Attack would only later venture into less urban samples such as Smashing Pumpkins and less urban vocalists like herself out of The Cocteau Twins again.

After ‘Blue Lines’, Massive Attack continued to rise in reputation but failed to really deliver on it. 1994’s ‘Protection’ seemed rather formulaic in structure and the warmth had gone as Tracey Thorn arrived, mind you the instrumentals were somewhat reminiscent of Paul Hardcastle’s work that wasn’t either ’19’ or the Top of the Pops theme. ‘Mezzanine’ followed a long time later and reflected a much darker and louder band that wouldn’t sound uncomfortable in stadiums. Professional and proper moody it was though it’s opening 4 songs work wonderfully together. ‘100th Window’ as already mentioned was like a duller version of ‘Mezzanine’ as the ideas seemed to have run out as mine for commenting on it surely have. That’s one interpretation, another would point to greater commercial success for those last two albums and a more developed band rather than a loose collective. Both interpretations seemed to come together for their most recent album, 2010’s ‘Heligoland’. However, this seemed to be more roundly ignored than previous work (there had been an 8 year gap mind) and the group seem to now be seen as part of the establishment and rather dull. ‘Heligoland’ was not played at many middle class dinner parties.Mind you, originally, I’m not sure the dinner party holders knew much about Budokan headsets but they had read up on Studio One’s role in Jamaican musical history and they were all desperately pretending to have cared more about Subbuteo when they were younger than they ever really did. It could have been worse, they could have put ‘What’s the Story, Morning Glory?’ on and started singing along to ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ and pretended to be a bit more Northern than they really were, I mean, just because Northampton’s got ‘North’ in the name doesn’t mean you can call yourself a scally, young man. Some people did come out of this very 90s obsession with a much better and more diverse understanding of music or at least a more developed relationship with music after ‘Blue Lines’ than before. The real worry seems to be that Massive Attack themselves got lost in this 90s blancmange of style which ultimately led to very little style. Mushroom and Daddy G seemed to vote with their feet and showed diminishing interest in the project before ultimately leaving Robert Del Naja to his own devices.

Ultimately though, writing about ‘Blue Lines’ should not be about missed chances. When it came out, it was just the debut album by a promising Britsoul artist. It didn’t go top ten, it didn’t produce massive hits but was instead a slow burner that developed a stronger reputation each year until suddenly it lost its edge to some ears but not these. Listening again after all this time, I have decided that I do not need a remastered edition that cleans up the sound. The original album still shines through its muddy early 90s digital mastering and may even have added darkness or bluntedness from this effect. Muddy production on some rather clubwise material created the Massive Attack image, but in seeking to develop that sound more authentically they lost a lot of charm as things became overblown, a criticism that could be made of almost any band that appeared when they did and peaked in popularity when they did – see The Verve, Manic Street Preachers even Blur – the other option might have been to either disappear into Acid Jazz obscurity or turn into Jamiroquai. Maybe Shara Nelson could have had a massive career as a soul singer, but these never seem to last in British soul singers and also her protective lyrics from ‘Blue Lines’ can easily be read in light of her subsequent problems of her own which led to Pete Tong having to get a restraining order against her.

So, I guess I can write about Massive Attack without too many of the usual references or at least a fresh view on them. What makes it so difficult is the music journalism of the past that creates the self-consciousness of any sincere appreciation of the music. I have tried to shed that load in getting this piece completed, I hope that I have at least partially succeeded. Regardless of the Massive Attack’s development since ‘Blue Lines’, I still enjoyed their gig in Mexico at the Auditorio Nacional and they even came back within 9 months of it to play again in 2010. ‘Heligoland’ seemed a partial return to form and may point towards better things to come but nothing on it matches ‘Blue Lines’, a fan also has to wonder exactly how long it will take to get another album release together on this occasion.

Advertisements