In honor of RJ Wheaton’s 33 1/3 on Portishead’s Dummy as well as the 20th anniversary of the album, we bring you the first installment of Portishead Week.
Portishead’s debut album Dummy turns 20 this week. In spite of some influences worn very heavily on its sleeve — hip-hop’s production method and turntablism; dub’s studio aesthetic; even English new wave — for many listeners Dummy seemed to come out of nowhere in 1994.
And just as the album’s palette was widely imitated in the wave of ‘trip-hop’ releases that followed, so too the album’s overall aesthetic — its austere, noirish look — seemed to fit into the nostalgia for ’60s London which was then co-opted into the facile ‘Cool Britannia’ moment. The press release for their second single, “Sour Times”, proclaimed that:
“Sour Times” is all bottled blues, sweeping songs and hip-hop beats, a Sixties filmic fantasy in sensurround sound.
(Sensurround sound, it turns out, is an actual thing.)
The band’s minimalist, enigmatic projection of themselves was perfectly encapsulated by the austere ‘P’ which label Go! Beat’s Tony Crean used in marketing: on matchboxes left at London clubs; on blue-painted mannequins that were distributed around London (purportedly provoking calls to anti-terrorism helplines); and projecting it onto the side of MI6’s headquarters on the banks of the Thames.
As we’ll see this week, the band’s interest in film deeply informed much of their early work. Designer Marc Bessant originally met Portishead producer Geoff Barrow while working as a singer.
Bessant’s recollections about the formation of the ‘P’ itself reflect the found-and-reused methodology that dominated the band’s studio process:
In the early days we played around with different typography; I remember there was something with the Porsche typeface, it was fairly dreadful but it was all very formative. The graphics were almost born out of necessity (a bit like the name itself) rather than any grand plan, none of us were formally trained in design, moreover just recognized the need for something to be a public face allowing for a certain amount of band anonymity. If I remember rightly the ‘P’ stemmed from the old Phillips logo on a bit of kit Geoff had laying around and it just rolled out from there, eventually gathering speed and becoming the recognizable emblem that solitary digit has become today.
The band’s second release, Portishead followed in 1997 after an agonizing production process. The album built upon many of the techniques and themes of Dummy, but listening it today it is clear how exacting a record it is, sitting in stark contrast to the imitative genre releases by that time collectively labelled ‘downtempo’, ‘trip-hop’, and much else. Visually, the ‘P’ had become further refined. Bessant believes that “the sturdy upright ‘P’ letter with its anonymous, utilitarian, noir overtones” had effectively “reached its peak in its original form”:
By the time of the band’s third studio album, released in 2008, Bessant felt that the visual approach had to some extent “run its course”:
With the new music so brutal and honest, it needed something else, in fact it needed to be completely sewn up, almost back to its original form, lo-fi and analogue. Design-wise, there was a departure of sorts. I didn’t want to do a ‘design’ or come up with a ‘new concept’ and fortunately the band felt exactly the same way. It was to be the most austere of sleeves, nothing but everything, essential minimalism. It had been a difficult record to make, things were raw and uncomplicated and that’s what needed to be reflected in the packaging. I think we did that.
Just as the ‘P’ had been refined and developed over the band’s history, Bessant sees a trajectory from the first album through Third in the visual imagery, including the albums’ cover designs:
As far as background colour to the ‘P’ goes, its always been fairly straightforward as far as I’m concerned and that is effective use of contrast in order to show what’s important. ‘Third’ was probably the least ‘contrasted’ graphic of all the albums: until then it was dark blue/white, black/white, white/black. I guess with ‘Dummy’ with its noir, urban blues connotations, the colour was befitting; then by the time you get to ‘Third’ the tone is more bruised, worn and altogether austere.
There’s a great interview with Marc Bessant at graphic-exchange
Portishead have reissued Dummy on 180 gram vinyl for its 20th anniversary; and Marc Bessant’s commentary on the repackaging of Dummy for its anniversary speaks to the amount of imaginative reconstruction necessary to return the album to its original aesthetic.
Thanks to the macollected site for some of the images used in this post. – RJ Wheaton