When Massive Attack released Blue
Lines in 1991, it seemed the whole world fel I in line with their langourous
step. Now they're back with a
new album that takes their dubbed up blues to new blunted heights.
"Hurry up/Get yourself together/Have you noticed the change in the weather" Allen Toussaint
"Walking on sunshine/Still we're treading water." Massive Attack
Summer in the city and the living is weary. Motion isn't advisable, lungs contract in the thick viscous air like trying to breathe in lungfuls of soot-filled honey. Stifling humidity seems to seep into everything bodies, technology, thoughts. In the space of a few days both my video recorder and my amplifier give up the ghost, as if a gust of malignant air or a surge of bad electricity is playing tricks with my circuits. I feel too drained-out and sun-damaged to do anything about it; instead I daydream about letting everything wind down into unsalvageable disrepair; a house emptied of sound and vision, swarming with the spectres of dormant electricity.
Allen Toussaint is in town, and as it happens the perfect soundtrack to the urban summer haze is his haunting Southern Nights LP. Thanks to the demise of my amp, I can only listen to cassettes; as luck would have it, I own a tape copy of this masterpiece, which I found on sale in a shabby little electrical shop in Dalston over ten years ago. I play Southern Nights over and over again little else seems to make sense, seems to fit the weather, the mood. A few other records seem apt: Bark Psychosis, early Dr John, All Farka Toure with Ry Cooder, Lee Perry, Tricky's two astonishing 45s "Aftermath" and "Ponderosa": music that doesn't so much seem to move horizontally down the narrative tracks of conventional rhythm so much as spatially compose>decompose>recompose itself in the humid air like some kind of sonic mirage... /
And just then, as if by sympathetic magic, an advance tape of the new Massive Attack LP arrives. The music on Protection is as slow, stoned, spatial, spectral, special as ever: music to gaze into, to draw sustenance from, to float away on. New words, new worlds, new configurations. There is something about the Massive vibe (collectively achieved by the group's core members, Mushroom, 3D and Daddy G) that has a slight edge of timelessness to it. Like close musical neighbours One Dove and St Etienne, they produce music that is distinctly British; music whose elements can sound simultaneously neoteric and archaic. Two sides to every story. It even 'reads' (even on CD) like a two-sided work. Five tracks a side, featuring in this order: Tracey Thorn, a Tricky/3D rap, new girl Nicolette, a 'soundtrack' interlude, and the veteran JA vocalist Horace Andy.
"Sly" and "Three" feature the sinuous, ultramarine vocals Billie Holiday relaxing on a Moroccan holiday of new singer Nicolette. "Karma Coma" and "Euro Child" are the typically Massive overdaub raps: tense, absurdist, rapt. "Weather Storm" and "Heat Miser" are movie instrumentals in search of a worthy (British) movie Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert meets Giorgio Moroder's Cat People soundtrack. Tracey Thorn liberated from the slightly too fluffy middle-of-the- indie-road ambience of Everything But The Girl contributes two pointedly bittersweet tracks: "Better Things" and the title track, the latter an opus so achingly sublime it achieves the impossible and stands as a worthy successor to "Unfinished Sympathy".
One idea of Massive Attack's alchemy might read like this: AIR = Mushroom. WATER = 3D. EARTH = Daddy G. FIRE = the spark of 'X' factor 'plus one' contributors, be it a certain sample, or mercurial rapper Tricky, or producer Nelle Hooper, or singers like Shara Nelson (on Blue Lines) and Tracey Thorn (on Protection). In conversation, 3D has a virtual monopoly speedy, skimming, half-sincere, half-sardonic, and punctuating every other sentence with one of two phrases: "You know what I mean?" or "At the end of the day." (At times, this makes him sound something like a raggamuffin football manager.) Mushroom says virtually nothing, especially the night we meet, and he has just returned from the hospital with a cast around his neck, suffering a mild case of concussion sustained the day before when the trio got a bit too caught up in a game of Quasar (laser gun) warfare. Daddy G older, taller, quiet but authoritative seems to be the wise old man of the Massive massive: their Papa Legba. When I meet them at a photographer's studio in North London things are sprawled, tired, smoking, hungry, humid.
Things pick up over a tape of remixes (of the new single, "Sly") that has just been delivered into their hands; but as it turns out this excitement is short lived, and 3D declares a consensual disappointment with the three rejigs. Not for the first time, you (and they) wonder whether remixing Massive Attack is a good idea. Tracks from 1991 like "Unfinished Sympathy" and "Daydreaming" called out not to be tampered with; likewise, Protection's spread of sonic jouissance may well be just too poised and perfected to admit any modish tampering. There's an awful lot of amateurish, short-term smudging and fudging about right now under the rubric of 'Remixed by. . .' Another plan currently underway sounds a lot more seductive: which is to hand over the entire LP as an entity to veteran UK dubmeister The Mad Professor to etch out a Protection Version, just like they used to do in the 70s.
I remember the first time I heard
them. (it's been exactly three years since Blue Lines.) I was the passenger
in an open top car dead heat of summer again driving up Hornsey
Road, a late afternoon breeze cooling us off. The radio was bland, then all
of a sudden there's a track on and it's 'What is this?' It was "Day Dreaming"
and I didn't even get the band's name. I was vexed, and it was months and months
before I found out who it was I'd heard.
I even remember the second time I heard them: I had left the city to go and cool out in the country; rid my body of some city sickness. I was slumped watching some pop show on TV and on came the oddest video and the most uncharacteristically ambitious music: "Unfinished Sympathy". Cliched but true: I rushed out the next day and bought the 12". I played it over and over again, for days and days; literally couldn't get through a day without waking up with it, falling asleep to rhythm was my rhythm, its sadness my sadness, its memo memory. And it healed me. "You're the book that I have opened now I've got to know much more..."
So here we are and its summer 94 and Massive Attack are sitting sipping some rum and some beer in London and trying to cool out.
I flash on a line from the new album: I drink every day but it seldom cools my temper, no it never cools my temper."
These sort of lines are one of the things I love about Massive, I tell them. They can be silly "Seduce me, seduce me/Dress me up in Stussy"; they can be mordant "You sure you wanna be with me?/i've got nothing to give"; they can be repetitive, piercing, lazy, hazy. Unlike a lot of rap, they admit of an inner (uncertain, perplexed, ambiguous) voice, full of murmurs, ellisions, lacunae. Rather than the 'Don't worry be happy' UK skank of Soul II Soul, for instance, Massive are far more like, 'Don't worry, be gloomy'. They're not frightened to admit of the absence(s) in their Soul.
The Massive rap is like having a tape of your muddled day played back to you at night in your dreams some bits are obscure, you'll probably never clear up what they mean, some bits make perfect sense, are frighteningly intimate and true. Some bits are silly, some bits verge on the tragic. Some bits are social, some bits are where the social crumbles away and all that is left is you.
"That's right, yeah, that is the vibe." says 3D. "It's that stream of consciousness thing on "Karma Coma" we started with like about 20 tracks of nonsense and whittled it down. That works for us because we're not really into messages as such. You get some groups who come from a certain angle and that's their sole angle. With us we're so different in our beliefs and our views that when we do write things together there is a lot of conflict and contradiction going on which is why you get that quality.
"With the rap tracks the first time [on Blue Lines] me and Tricky used to get together, sit down and actually write it all we were in the studio all the time and we knew what each other was doing; this time we got together the day before and said 'What you got?' It's got a different quality this time because we'd see each other for half an hour and spend most of the time arguing and shouting at each other and throwing that down and trying to make it work. So you get that vibe that disjointedness you feel the tension, which I think is quite nice."
Massive don't try and erect some Tuff Rapper pose of living urban nightmare; their corkscrew raps are scattered with refererences to singularly English things. Far more honest.
"It's tongue in cheek as well, you know what I mean?" continues 3D. "It's like being aware of how ridiculous it all is creating this kind of scenario for yourself, and tryin' to live up to it. Like, in the old Wild Bunch [their pre-Massive configuration] days we used to look at record sleeves and dress ourselves by them you know what I mean? Go out and buy the latest fuckin' shoes because someone had them on the record sleeve and at the end of the day you end up laughing - you look in your cupboard, look at yourself and think, 'You're a joke!'"
Any particular sleeves? There seemed a point where everyone was trying to look like a Best Of Gregory Issacs sleeve. "Nah! I wouldn't look good in Clarke's shoes!" says 3D.
Daddy G: "I tried to grow the dreads but it didn't work..."
3D: "I slipped into the Clarke's shop every now and again and tried a few on but they were like pasties, you know? Like those Cornish pasties!"
We break up in embarrassed mutual laughter; there follows a discussion about inter alia gold chains, Italian clothes, and people who'd rather pay £150 for imitation Jamaician casual wear from a certain trendy Soho shop than get the real thing for a tenner at Brixton market.
One of the many reasons I liked Blue
Lines was that it sounded like someone playing back an entire time capsule stretch,
from my rural soulboy adolescence to London reggae fanaticism and my first sound
system experiences to late(r) 80s club culture (Rockers Revenge, Blackbyrds
and others are sampled or quoted or namechecked). At this point, we could say
quite a lot about sound systems and their pivotal importance in the historical
scheme of things, but it's too much to say... a massive topic In its own right.
"Someone said to me the other day that The Wild Bunch had collectively killed live music in Bristol, 'cos at that time everyone used to go to gigs and we started doing these jams and warehouse parties and everyone started going to those things instead of gigs," says 3D.
Not necessarily a bad thing... "No, it was a good thing at the time but I think music's come round another generation since then."
You seem to have been massively and positively influenced by the whole sound system set-up/culture. You've been going a long time now, where a lot of groups have fallen by the wayside and one of the reasons groups do seem to fall apart so quickly these days is that everything becomes loaded onto just one singer...
Daddy G; "We don't need no real focal point like a singer, so we don't get that egotistical overexposure."
3D: "In some ways, it's much harder to make a record but at the end of the day you can move on and not be stuck in a rut. Just keep changing. I think if Massive Attack ended up being a formula thing with set ideas it'd very quickly finish..."
The 'live' track on Protection features Horace Andy toasting a version of "Light My Fire". Was that a strategic nod to your sound system past?
Mushroom: "It wasn't deliberate though, was it?"
3D: "It just sort of came about because Horace would warm up with it when he was doing a mic check: he'd start singing "Light My Fire" and it sounded so fucking mad we thought: let's go do a little live show and let it happen..."
People might find it weird, but there's a long tradition of JA/reggae artists doing covers of the most unlikely hits.
Daddy G: "That's exactly it. It goes back to the beginning... Back in the old days when they used to import a lot of R&B records they decided it was cheaper to do their own sort of copies and that's how it all sprung up."
I've got a great record of The Mighty Diamonds doing "The Age Of Aquarius". Very odd.
Daddy G: "I've got some dodgier tunes than that! I've got "Puppet On A String" by Ken Boothe, an old Studio One record and old Cliff Richard covers and stuff like that."
Blue Lines has a lot of throwaway quotes from a variety of 70s pop hits: "Take a walk Billy, don't be a hero..."
3D: "I think that was how we got into the studio really. Doing the live thing, we used to mix up tunes in a weird way and it carried into the studio: that was our real transition from sound system to studio, doing that thing. We were into doing covers originally when we did "The Look of Love" [as The Wild Bunch] it was the same kind of theory really of doing a really crusty version of something. Originally it was just a little echo of the past. But Horace doin' it the way he did wasn't even really a cover version..."
Mushroom: "He'd never even head The Doors one. As far as he was concerned he was singing a Jose Feliciano song..."
Here is another reason I have always
liked Massive Attack: they seem tuned in to the same vibration as me: a certain
slow, aching, sluggish beat that has always enraptured me: a serpentine line
from from Billie Holiday to Protection. Do they all feel attuned to this certain
sort of mood/rhythm?
Daddy G: "I think so, yeah, because even though outside Massive we've got different tastes when we're together there's that same sort of mood prevails all the way through, and we wouldn't be happy together in the studio without it.. It's weird because we all like listen to a lot of different stuff. Me being a DJ I listen to like rave and Jungle, where Mushroom's more into moody stuff and so is D."
Do all your songs start with an idea of a certain mood?
3D: "Even though there is a mood there's a lot of contrast between the tracks themselves. I think it just comes naturally whenever anyone works with us, and picks up on our vibe. When we worked with Craig Armstrong who played the piano on "Weather Storm" we gave him a briefing for "Sly" to arrange the strings and to sort him out we gave him a lot of influential tracks, a lot of 50s big band music like Les Baxter and stuff and really filled him in on what we wanted. And given like four or five reference tracks and the groove and the song, he could have gone anywhere with that, but he picked up on the vibe and came back with the mood we're all into..."
Daddy G: "We've always been laid back we've never really thought about going straight for the jugular as such. We always get there in the end... in a roundabout, circular kind of way."
Ask them how it all began back in
Bristol, where they met, what brought them together and as ever the 'P' word
comes to the surface.
Daddy G: "It's basically the whole punk thing; not strictly speaking punk, but through punk's amalgamation of reggae. Like, I used to play the same sort of gigs as Mushroom and D and Nelle [Hooper] and there was a strong attachment from then, back in the late 70s."
3D: "I remember going to see Stiff Little Fingers, The Clash, UK Subs, Dead Kennedys wicked gig The Dead Kennedys, that was one of the all time best gigs. And Bad Brains remember Bad Brains?"
PiL get a namecheck on Blue Lines, and Massive Attack revive some of those lost micro-utopian dreams of 80s pop: all those PiLs and Heaven 17s and Scritti Polittis who were going to do so much and just disappeared in a puff of slick marketing. They never quite connected like some faulty map of the humours, they forgot to put in the heart, and none of them ever came within an erratic pulsebeat of a record like "Unfinished Sympathy" or Protection.
"We supported The Buzzcocks in Chicago the year before last," says 3D. "We met them afterwards and they said what we were doing was brave because it was harder than what anyone else was doing. And it was a fuckin' sound system tour in stadium gigs!
How did it go down?
"How did it go down? It went down as well as Diana Ross before the World Cup trying to kick that shot into goal she was about two foot away from goal and she missed that's how our set went down.
"That was the wicked thing about being at the World Cup Final; you've got the most famous female star on stage in front of you waiting for the teams to come on... and nothing else beats pop stars and media star but soccer stars. Who's the most famous person in the world: Maradona or Madonna? I'll tell you who Maradona."
The Wire. Story by lan Penman. Photography by Matt Anker