New Release! Portishead’s Dummy

We are very please to announce that R. J. Wheaton’s 33 1/3 on Portishead’s Dummy is on shelves as they hit the US and Canada for a series of concerts throughout the month of October. We’ve got an excerpt from the book for your reading pleasure below. Feel free to hit up @dummy333 on Twitter as well.
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Geoff Barrow recalled in 2010 of Dummy that:

The strangest thing, and the most annoying thing, is that “chill-out” thing, that’s come out of it. For me. Dummy as chill-out, yuppie, shagging music. It wasn’t supposed to be about that. It wasn’t like something to kind of like chill to. It was actually supposed to be quite harsh, and alternative, and noisy.

That potential for easy listening was something that the band had worked against from the outset. Barrow remembered, as the band added the guitar parts to “Glory Box,” “we were like, ‘What are we doing?’ It just seemed so horribly commercial. I hated commercial music.”

The commercial reception troubled Beth Gibbons too:

You write songs and you hope you’re gonna communicate with people — half the reason you write them in the first place is that you’re feeling misunderstood and frustrated with life in general. Then it’s sort of successful and you think you’ve communicated with people, but then you start to think you haven’t communicated with them at all — you’ve turned the whole thing into a product, so then you’re even more lonely than when you started. But when you think about something like the mannekins [sic] in Blade Runner, the only reason they think they’re human is the pictures they hold.

* * *

The band left State of Art at the end of 1993 and moved to Coach House Studios to complete the album. Adrian Utley recalled that “We did go down to a big London studio to mix, but we hated the result because we weren’t used to it. We know that the studios around us have got what we need and we know the sound of them.”

It was not possible to recreate some of the State of Art material with the same character, so the original 16-track demo tracks were laid down to the 24-track at Coach House. Adrian Utley told Sound on Sound that “When you first get that vibe of the moment, it’s a pain in the arse trying to recreate it. Once it’s on tape, as far as I’m concerned, that’s it, even if it’s got little mistakes in it. To us, saying, ‘Okay, let’s go to a real studio now and do it for real’, is a ridiculous concept.”

Tim Saul describes the process as “demo-it is”:

As a producer you’ll go through months of working on a track and in your mind you’ll think, “I’m going to tidy that up later.” In the final mix. And then actually when you get to the final mix you tidy it up and you realize that you’re taking out something which actually gives it its character.

“We were quite commando at that stage,” recalls Dave McDonald. “We knew what we were doing to a degree but we weren’t sort of high-end studio bods. It’s a policy that … it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as it sounds okay.”

No rules. “There’s nothing you can’t do,” Barrow said in 1997. “To achieve a sound on a beat or on a vocal or on a guitar or whatever, there’s nothing that is wrong to achieve that sound.”

There was an aesthetic of imperfection. “I’m not so keen on modern technology,” Geoff Barrow told Spin in February 1995, “that’s why a lot of our stuff sounds rough. If you polish everything up too much, it sounds stale. Like plastic music.” Talking to Michael Goldberg in 1997, Barrow railed against the restrictive production methodology of the ’80s — “everything had to be cleaner, everything had to be tighter. It kind of squashed a lot of the emotion and mistakes and all kinds of things that go to make good music out of the music.”

The band was deliberately trying to produce music that would challenge quick absorption into the culture, a too-easy integration into the collective aural imagination.

Tim Saul remembers that:

Beth would kind of goad Geoff into not making the music sound too — not that he was [inclined to] — too formulaic. I can remember times where she would just say, “That sounds too normal.”

* * *

There are numerous moments on Dummy that confound your first reaction, that present discoveries to additional listening. Moments that defy easy listening. The album’s imperfections. “We’ve put some trapdoors in our music,” Barrow told Jaan Uhelszki in 1995.

Among them the willful detritus of the recording process. Dave McDonald remembers:

We sampled one of Adrian’s guitar loops, and it was picking up the radio. The amp was picking up the radio for some reason, just as we were doing the take on it. It was talking about Roy Orbison … that was the only take which was the perfect take. But it was damaged because it had this vocal sound in it. But we kept it — and that’s on the album somewhere … I always remember that as being very very bizarre.

The opening chords of “Roads,” so smothering, thick, so absolute, are nonetheless occasionally smudged, individual notes landing fractionally out of time with one another. At 1:25 in the same song there is a noise in the background which sounds very much like someone dropping something. It’s perfect.

There are of course the vocal intrusions — Gibbons’ voice captured to a closeness beyond intimacy. The moment, for example, near the end of “Roads” where you can clearly hear her swallowing. There is what sounds like a failed vocal sustain right at the end of the final note of “Pedestal”: a moment of gorgeous fragility. As Adrian Utley told Phil Johnson: “There was an awful lot of time spent on it though there are still things that we didn’t get right, like an out-of-time piano on one track, so there’s still a rough edge to it.”

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