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Members include SteveHewitt (born c. 1971 in the United Kingdom.; joined band c. 1997), drums; BrianMolko (born c. 1973; son of Scottish and American parents), vocals; StefanOlsdal (born c. 1974 in Sweden), bass, guitar, keyboards; RobertSchulzberg (left group c. 1997), drums. Addresses: Home--London, England; Management--Riverman Management. Booking--Creative Artists Agency (U.K.).
The London-based trio known as Placebo takes pride in creating provocative music. "We like to provoke strong reaction in people," bassist Stefan Olsdal admitted in an interview with the iMusic.com website. "Indifference is something we try to avoid. Sometimes that leads to confusion, or anger, or interest--but you can never really predict the outcome." And for those who follow up-and-coming pop-rock bands, figuring out Placebo did prove challenging at first. Based on appearances alone--frontman Brian Molko favored an androgynous look with heavy dark makeup--reviewers most often dubbed Placebo a goth-rock ensemble. But after the release of the band's eponymous debut in 1996, followed by 1998's Without You I'm Nothing, pop enthusiasts discovered that there was more to Placebo than meets the eye. Rolling Stone writer Chuck Eddy, for instance, asserted, "Placebo are the latest--and toughest--in the recent line of English pretty-boy guitar-glam bands ([London] Suede, Supergrass, Mansum, Rialto, Elcka)." Soon, the band earned a reputation for their eclectic songcraft, as well as for their ambiguity and uncertainty, and also gained admiration from such accomplished musicians as R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, U2's Bono, David Bowie, and Marilyn Manson, all of whom Placebo claimed as friends.
Gender-bending lead singer Brian Molko first met Swedish-born bassist/guitarist/keyboardist Stefan Olsdal while attending school in Luxembourg. However, even though both students shared the common interest of music, the pair didn't become fast friends. Olsdal was a jock and played sports, on the one hand, while on the other hand, Molko was a self-described loser. Although they never hung out together much during their school days, the two did meet up again by chance years later in London and decided to form a band. Together, along with drummer Robert Schultzberg, Molko and Olsdal formed a group called Ashtray Heart. By around 1995, Ashtray Heart transformed into Placebo.
For Placebo's first release, the band enlisted the technical skills of Chicago-based producer Brad Wood, who also worked with Liz Phair, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Jesus Lizard. On the surface, Placebo, issued by Caroline Records in the United States, contained some more traditional rock and roll ingredients, like heavy-metal guitar riffs and lyrics that celebrated sex and drugs. However, as Mark Jenkins concluded in a review for the Washington Post, "the effect of the band's self-titled album is not exactly routine. Indeed, such ironically titled songs as `Teenage Angst' and `Hang on to Your IQ' are engagingly askew.... Molko's vocals are so ambiguously high-pitched, on `I Know,' he scales heights reminiscent of the Undertones' Feargal Sharkey." Placebo's debut also spawned the band's first hit single, "Nancy Boy," which peaked at number four on the British charts.
Soon after releasing their highly-anticipated, self-titled debut album, the group seemed well on their way to establishing a name for themselves, appearing on the covers of both New Musical Express and Melody Maker, two well-known British publications. Moreover, they opened for the legendary punk group the Sex Pistols, David Bowie, and U2 in Europe, as well as for the pop band Weezer during that band's American tour."A lot of people were there just to hear [Weezer play] `Buddy Holly,'" Olsdal recalled of Placebo's lukewarm welcome from American audiences, as quoted by Doug Reece in Billboard. "We were getting coined [having coins thrown at them by the audience], so we just punked it up and ended up winning over a lot of crowds." Spending most of 1996 through 1997 touring in Europe and abroad, Placebo was also invited to perform for Bowie's fiftieth birthday celebration held at New York's Madison Square Garden. By the end of 1997, Placebo had gained a respectable audience in Europe, and their fan base continued to grow in the United States.
Before starting work on their follow-up and debut major-label release for Virgin Records, Placebo replaced Schultzberg with a new drummer, Steve Hewitt, and also enlisted producer Steve Osborne. The addition of Hewitt and Osborne to the team, Olsdal believed, helped the band achieve a new direction for Without You I'm Nothing, released in November of 1998. Comparing the band's first album to Without You I'm Nothing, Olsdal described the latter as "more schizophrenic," according to Reece. "The first album was a very sexual record," Molko further explained, "packed full of youthful vigor and lust. The new album is introverted, more of a post-coital depression: the comedown. It deals with an ever-pervading heartbreak and loneliness that seems to be in the air. The morning after is usually more analytical than the night before, and it's often more painful," as quoted iMusic.com. "On this album, we wanted to go away from that classic rock sound toward a more modern sound," Olsdal added, as quoted by Reece. "It's more textured with expensive toys. On the first album, we were using toy instruments."
The time between Placebo and the debut's follow-up allowed the band to explore other musical pursuits and renewed their focus and energy. "There's two years between the two albums, and there's been a hell of a lot of living going on during that time," admitted Molko to iMusic.com. "In many ways it feels like a different band. This is our first album with Steve on drums, and the band dynamic has changed. It can seem a bit schizophrenic, but we're just trying to take it as far as possible in each direction: stretch it, and aim for a wider scope." And although Molko wrote most of the lyrics for the tracks on Without You I'm Nothing, all of the band members contributed to the music's sonic flow. "The first album was pretty much written by Brian in his bedroom. This album has been a three-way collaboration," revealed Olsdal.
The album's first single, "Pure Morning," introduced Without You I'm Nothing in a big way, debuting on the British singles charts at number four. A song that sounded somewhat reminiscent of the Butthole Surfers' hit "Pepper," "Pure Morning" immediately took hold of modern rock radio in the United States as well. "I personally feel this is one of the most compelling-sounding albums to come out of England since Radiohead," a Los Angeles radio station executive, KROQ's Gene Sandbloom, commented to Reece. "[`Pure Morning'] is very unique, very alternative, and just something that immediately stands out on the air." Likewise, the expansive concept video for the single earned positive feedback on cable television network MTV.
In addition to giving a nod of approval to "Pure Morning," music critics such as Eddy provided favorable references to the album's other songs as well. "Tracks like `Every You Every Me' and `Scared of Girls' gallop with exhilaration; `The Crawl' and `My Sweet Prince' prance into preening spaces of piano gloom," wrote Eddy. "The disc winds down to the triumphantly downtrodden `Burger Queen' (which swipes its sad tune from Altered Images' 1981 New Wave classic, `I Could Be Happy').... Molko's hissy-fit voice cracks toward transcendence whenever he hitches its pitch up another fruity notch."
By coincidence, the release of Without You I'm Nothing corresponded with the November/December release of the glam-rock-era, Mirimax film Velvet Goldmine, produced by Michael Stipe. The movie includes a cameo appearance by Placebo, for which the band performed a cover of Marc Bolan's [formerly of the now disbanded T. Rex] "20th Century Boy." Placebo's version of the song also appeared for the soundtrack. "In the great tradition of T. Rex--whose `20th Century Boy' they actually improved for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack--Placebo's hooks are no less muscular for their androgyny," commented Eddy. About Placebo's role in Velvet Goldmine, Olsdal recalled to Reece, "We got dressed up in these ridiculous glam clothes and a lot of makeup and strut around onstage. It was a bit like being on a video shoot."
by Laura Hightower
Formed in London around 1995; released self-titled debut on Caroline Records, 1996; toured with the Sex Pistols, U2, and Weezer, 1996-1997; released Without You I'm Nothing on Virgin Records, played cameo role in Velvet Goldmine and appeared on the film soundtrack, 1998.
- Selected discography
- Placebo Caroline, 1996.
- (With others) Velvet Goldmine (soundtrack), 1998.
- Without You I'm Nothing Virgin, 1998.
- Alternative Press, August 1999, p. 42.
- Billboard, October 10, 1998, pp. 14, 20.
- Melody Maker, July 24, 1999, p. 4.
- Rolling Stone, February 4, 1999, p. 61.
- Washington Post, September 20, 1996.
- iMusic.com, http://www.imusic.com/showcase/modern/placebo.html (November 29, 1999).
- Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (December 7, 1999).
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