Portishead Week – Day 2: From Film

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 second installment of Portishead Week.

I wrote yesterday about the visual aesthetic that seemed so bold when Portishead’s debut album Dummy was released 20 years ago this week.

That aesthetic was obviously richly influenced by film: stills from the band’s short film To Kill a Dead Man appeared on the covers of Dummy and its supporting singles “Numb”, “Sour Times”, and “Glory Box”; and its noirish overtones informed much of the band’s early presentation.

But it speaks to the wider influence on Portishead and Dummy of the soundtrack work of composers and artists like Lalo Schifrin, Bernard Herrmann, Quincey Jones, John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone, and Nino Rota, among others.

Bristol-based producer Tim Saul (whose Earthling album Radar sits alongside Dummy, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, and Massive Attack’s Protection in that 1994-1995 Bristol cohort) was involved in Dummy‘s pre-production sessions and remembers listening with the band to Italian soundtracks, Riz Ortolani, “Greek soundtracks as well.”

For Portishead producer Geoff Barrow, the film soundtracks were a place for sample-hunting in the ferocious game of invention and one-upmanship which characterized the craft of hip-hop production in its late golden age.

One of Dummy‘s few easily identifiable samples is the transformation on “Sour Times” of a segment of Lalo Schifrin’s theme for “Danube Incident”, recorded for the Mission Impossible TV series.

In “Sour Times” the sample is almost turned inside-out, all the swing and charm snapped out of it, strung with tension, sharpened and dusted with drum figures from yet another record, Smokey Brooks’ “Spin-It Jig”

Portishead have always been remorseless at taking ideas suggested by their influences and pushing them to extremes. Listen to the opening chords of the theme to 1971’s Confessione di un commissario (Confessions of a Police Captain), by Italian composer Riz Ortolani.

And now the opening to “Wandering Star“, from Dummy:

Dummy has outlasted almost all of the crudely imitative ‘trip-hop’ sub-genre, not least because of the band’s attention to detail, substance, and texture. A wealth of vintage sounds — an L-100 Hammond organ; Fender Rhodes; two Vox Continentals — is nested amid the album’s hip-hop turntablism and technique, the range of Beth Gibbons’ voice, and the dub-influenced studio processing. Here too there is a strong influence from film. You can hear, for example, the tremolo guitar sounds characteristic of 60s espionage movies; the iconic theremin used (admittedly among many other places) in Bernard Hermann’s score to The Day the Earth Stood Still; and, as guitarist Adrian Utley described it to Sound on Sound, “the electric guitar on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, which is such a disgusting noise when it comes in”.

But beyond that, it was the sheer experimentation of soundtracks from this period that Portishead admired — and approach that mirrored the limitless studio experimentation of Dummy and its 1997 follow-up, Portishead.

Utley said, “all they’ve got is a Fender Rhodes and an echo unit. They haven’t got masses of technology, so they record something really dodgy with that and then flip the tape over so it’s backwards. It’s really inventive, a little bit crap and just sounds really vibey.”

As Barrow told Eric Gladstone, “they had to do it with guitars, backward tapes and all kinds of madness.”

Ortolani’s soundtrack to 1972’s Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids) has something of the same sense of murky, contingent suspense that dominates Dummy; as we’ll see tomorrow, it’s the same feel that made Dummy so attractive for some of the more talented film-makers who heard it. – RJ Wheaton



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