8. Portishead: ‘Undenied’, Go Beat 539 435 2

The twenty-one tracks on Portishead’s two albums (‘Dummy’, 1994 and ‘Portishead’ 1997) demonstrate a highly original and artistically distinctive style. Track after track, the same sound manipulation techniques are recycled repeatedly, but with endless variations. The sound, as a result, is highly distinctive - it’s their own sound - and it’s instantly recognisable as Portishead.

Beth Gibbons, the vocalist, is close miked, so that even though she is ‘in front of the mix’, she appears to achieve this with very little effort. It’s always an intimate performance. We hear her draw breath. The timbre of her voice is usually unstrained because she is very close to us. Frequently she sings in a weak part of the register, but nevertheless appears to dominate the sound. In short, we appear to be listening to monologues. It is a girl talking/singing to herself.

Beth invariably sings against a mechanistic background, constructed from sampled rhythm loops and other sampled source material. Most of the time, the backings are self-consciously mechanical. No attempt is made to disguise the synthetic quality of the music. In fact quite the reverse, because within the context of the music it is absolutely essential that these are man-made artefacts, industrial products. Against this deliberately mechanistic backcloth, Beth Gibbon’s voice sounds vulnerable; something soft and human in an unyielding environment.

Throughout the songs there are odd samples and inclusions which seem out-of-place in this rather dehumanised world. A brief harmonica fill (‘Wandering Star’), a fleeting turn around from a Weather Report recording (‘Strangers’), an unearthly flute from an Inspector Clouseau film (‘Only You’), and many more. Sometimes these inclusions are not actually sampled from their original sources, but are rerecorded to sound very similar to the original. In this way several oblique references are made to James Bond culture by way of brass and trombone stabs (‘All Mine’) and a pulsating minor ninth chord ( at the end of ‘Western Eyes’). These are synecdoches - musical devices whereby the whole world of - for instance - James Bond can be conjured up by a single highly characteristic reference. What is the effect of these inclusions - these decontextualised borrowings - from other worlds of sound? Each one of them suggests another culture or another set of musical signifiers to the one in which Beth Gibbons and the unearthly Portishead sound machine appears to operate. Each one of them sounds distinctly more humane than the deliberately mechanistic universe suggested by the sampled rhythm tracks. Often, the apparent humanity of these inclusions is a result of a kind of musicological nostalgia, a fondness for things past.

All of Portishead’s songs feature this characteristic alienation from pleasure. They’re sad songs. Not sad in the ordinary sense, but songs in which the only pleasure is that frisson of excitement that is to be gleaned from achieving a knowing insight into a dehumanised, existential present. The nature of this intellectual pleasure is hard to explain, but certainly one feature of it is the suspicion that, at certain moments in the past, things were better. The bossa nova rhythm that opens ‘It could be sweet’ conjures up a world that we once inhabited where we could enjoy corny latin rhythms absolutely uncritically. In ‘Sour Times’ the cimbalon sound ( - Eastern Europe) and the pointed allusions to ‘James Bond culture’ allow us to luxuriate in the unquestioning moral certainties of the cold war. The pulsating valve amplifier tremolo in ‘Glory Box’ reminds us of a lost innocence when good bands like the Beatles brought meaning and happiness to millions through their unsophisticated Vox AC30 amplifiers. If these signifiers pleased us once, why can’t we enjoy them as we used to? The existential sadness referred to above results from the fact that knowledge cannot be undone ... like the fruit of the tree of knowledge, once it had been eaten, everything subsequent was poisoned, spoilt. The bossa nova rhythm is still catchy, but the pleasure is moderated by a surfeit of knowledge - we know it as inauthentic - but before we learned to be critical of middle-of-the-road music, it pleased us well enough. And we were really excited by James Bond - who, despite the fact that he encapsulated imperialism, sexism and bigotry, was a hero that, in a more politically sophisticated age, we knew we had to disown. And if we seriously chose the Vox AC30 as the amplifier of choice, it would be to pretend, for a moment, that the last thirty years in the development of sound technology hadn’t happened. So part of the pain of Portishead is the pain of knowledge. Portishead remind us that we live in a very knowing age. It is the fond remembrance of things past, for an age of childhood innocence, moral certainties and the absence of the responsibilities of consumerism. These are the mechanisms of nostalgia for the 60s and 70s.

The song ‘Wandering Star’is a particularly bleak song about depression and ‘the masks that the monsters wear/to feed upon your grave’. Suddenly, at 1’48", there’s a jolly little harmonica fill which could have originated in blue-grass or an up-tempo blues. The fill utterly contrasts with its immediate sound environment, and punctures any certainties we may have been developing about it. This fill suggests different ambient conditions: it comes from a different culture. It was originally recorded in a different place at a different time. Simply the fleeting reference to it reminds us that other possibilities exist out there. As if to stop us feeling confident and secure about where we are here and now, we are reminded of other worlds. It’s all about getting ourselves into perspective, and it is very un-Romantic. If Romanticism was about erecting elegant castles of ideologies, this postmodernism of Portishead’s is about questioning and destroying such certainties. Postmodernism consistently reduces cultural security by reminding the listener of the existence of these other sound-worlds. In each Portishead song, five or six such sound-worlds may be alluded to, in an album perhaps fifty or sixty. In romantic music there is one - it is the sound-world of the subject-as-hero, the subject-as-lover, the subject-as-whatever. In romantic music, the subject is important: the integrity and consistency of the musical language lends meaning and gravity to the subject. In Portishead, this collage of musical styles devalues any one particular one of them: a particular style becomes ‘one among many’ as opposed to ‘the indivisible truth’ of the romantic statement. The postmodern condition, as presented here, is one of dispossession: it is a language of no tradition, constantly referring to other established sound-worlds for structures of meanings.

Another interpretation of this existential crisis of meaning is to consider that the 1990s as the age of the psychoses. That is to say, that psychosis - the condition of dissociated identity and schizophrenia - is somehow endemic in the age. The tenets of romanticism, by contrast, and the behaviour and the world-outlook that it signified, could be viewed by modern standards as neurotic. Hysterias, fainting fits and obsessions were routinely the stuff of 19th century artists’ lives. All would now be considered treatable conditions. In the 19th century, one popular view of art was that it somehow existed on the fringes of sanity and madness, and was to be visited by a few crazy individuals who would bring back its magic distillate for the betterment of humankind generally. Whether one viewed the artist as essentially neurotic (Freud), or simply that the artefact prompted fundamental questions about what constitutes sanity (Lacan), was up for grabs:

‘While Freud saw the artist as necessarily neurotic, Lacan meant something different when he attributed symptoms to artists. While Freud elevated the artist to a sacrificial position, one whose repressed neurosis provides others with cathartic release, Lacan argued the opposite. The purpose of art is not to permit repression, but to pose a question that the artist him or herself has not answered or resolved. Artistic productions are not then in and of themselves pathological or neurotic’.

Ragland-Sullivan (1990), p69

As a society, we have perhaps moved away from these inclusive generalisations, but the curious lack of cohesion between Beth Gibbons’ voice, soft, lonely, apparently singing to herself, and the mechanised environment into which she is consistently put, creates an image of pathological dysfunction. But she is not neurotically extroverted, she does not obsessively attach herself in any way to the things in her sound world, but remains isolated, unattached and uncommitted to whatever is happening around her. When her song is punctuated by the absurd intrusion of a blue-grass harmonica (or whatever), she remains unaffected. She holds all possibilities open in equal non-commitment. This is a psychotic position. R.D.Laing, in a chapter headed ‘The inner self in the schizoid condition’, writes:

‘It is well known that temporary states of dissociation from the body occur in normal people. In general, one can say that it is a response that appears to be available to most people who find themselves enclosed within threatening experience from which there is no physical escape. Prisoners in concentration camps tried to feel that way, for the camp offered no possible way out either spacially or at the end of a period of time. The only way out was by a physical withdrawal ‘into’ one’s self and ‘out of’ the body. This dissociation is characteristically associated with such thoughts as ‘This is like a dream’, ‘This seems unreal’, ‘I can’t believe this is true’, ‘Nothing seems to be touching me’, ‘I cannot take it in’, ‘This is not happening to me’, i.e. with feeling of estrangement and derealization.’ 

Laing (1959) p78

Beth Gibbons remains soft and human in a forbidding and dehumanised world. Although her environment is brutal, she has not been brutalised by it. If she sang in the clipped computerised vowels of Kraftwerk, or adopted the robotic persona of somebody like Gary Numan, she would have been destroyed by her surroundings. In the twenty one songs she is not joined by any other singers: she is alone on the stage of her dream-world. Another disembodied voice joins her on ‘Western Eyes’, but it’s the recorded voice of Sean Atkins singing to us in the present from way back in 1957.

There is a growing belief that the internal structures of music somehow encode something about the cultures from which they come - that if we have enough perseverance and insight, and the odd lucky break, we should be able to understand something about a culture from the music it produces. John Shepherd, Susan McClary and others have thus concluded that the grammar and vocabulary of western European music somehow encodes aspects of western European history, attitudes and world-outlook. Max Weber makes the point that western European harmony, with its ‘... formation of the tone material on the basis of three triads with the harmonic third ...’ reflects a distinctly Western view of the cosmos and life. What, then, do we conclude about a music which doesn’t move in the rational ways prescribed by the recognised formulae of western music? In the electronic backings of Portishead, there is a new sort of harmonic movement. It is not derived from the tonic - dominant formations of most western music, neither are the tonal relationship between triads always operative in the same way that they would in more traditional music. This is not to say that traditional tonal relationships are never operative - an impossibility since whatever is intended by Gibbons, Barrow and Uttley, most people hear music in a traditional and culturally determined way - but that ordinary harmonic procedures are suffused with a new kind of awareness. New protocols have been introduced that show traces of the way that the music was composed. So what is this new development? Many of the songs on both albums feature parallelism as a key element in their composition ... nothing new about that; Debussy, Vaughan-Williams, and more besides have exploited the harmonic possibilities of sideways moving chords. But Portishead’s parallelism is slightly different because it is achieved by the wholesale movement of a single sample. Nearly all the examples of this feature samples which - when they were recorded - already had a minor mode associated with it. So, in ‘Mysterons’ the slide is between Bflat minor and B minor. In ‘Biscuit’, the riff moves between E minor - F# minor - F minor and back to E minor: all minor chords. A similar effect in achieved in ‘Cowboys’, this time a four bar riff is constructed from E flat minor - D minor - C minor and back to E flat minor. The reconstructed ‘James Bond’ stabs in ‘All Mine’ move from B flat in the verse section, and then, in a short bridge, there’s a sequence F# - G# - A - G# - F# which actually imitates the John Barry theme from ‘Dr. No’. The following example from ‘It could be sweet’ demonstrates the phenomenon:


(click the diagram for a better image)

This, in terms of the usual ‘grammar’ of harmony, is new. It is a procedure which has its origins in the way that the sampler is used. Many of the time-honoured rules of music have evolved alongside the instruments that play the music. These minor thirds in ex. 8.1. above do not function quite like minor thirds in an ordinary diatonic context but, as more and more groups use samplers in this way - sampling minor chords and then transposing them wholesale using a keyboard, the characteristic sound of this musical procedure will seem perfectly acceptable, and the ‘rules’ of the grammar of music will become updated. Because ex. 8.1. is mathematically simpler than a more complex diatonic version of the sequence, it reinforces the robotic fantasy of the music: in its formulaic perfection it resembles the sort of music machines might make. Machines, after all, care little for the protocols of tonality, which is a purely human invention.

In absolute contrast, some of the songs exhibit remarkably traditional harmonic procedures. ‘Undenied’ starts with a sort of lower mordent on the Rhodes piano.


(click the diagram for a better image)

In the same obvious way that the harpsichord comes, in language of vernacular music, to mean ‘old fashioned’, ‘medieval’ or ‘classical’, the Rhodes piano has a similar set of meaning associated with it. It signifies ‘70s style’, ‘class’ and, because it was favoured by jazz players in the 70s - players like Joe Sample, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul who have become mythologised in the retrospective musical fashions of the 1990s - it signifies discerning taste. So, to the list of things that can be associated with the Rhodes sound, we can add the Mozartian accompaniment figure and an approximation of a baroque ornament - the lower mordent. And then, at bar 4, an unearthly rhythm department chimes in. The drums, sampled of course, are not so much played as switched on, because the suddenness of the entry of the rhythm track, with its different EQ and reverb, alarms and even startles the listener. Any invitation to savour the nostalgic moment is brutally swept aside. To complete the pot-pourri of meanings that can be drawn from this opening fragment, there is a layer of surface noise added, rather like the scratchiness that had to be ignored when you listened to your worn out record collection. It’s a masterpiece of musical imagery, and paints for us a picture of a pathologically depressed female searching through old 45s for something authentic: nothing is more potent as a signifier of nostalgia than the surface noise of an old recording. She sings a song:


(click the diagram for a better image)

The musical phrase can be reduced to a falling 5 - 4 - minor3 - 2 - 1 sequence. This is well trodden ground. Deryck Cooke writes:

‘Descending 5-(4)-3-(2)-1 (Minor). We have a phrase which has been much used to express an ‘incoming’ painful emotion, in a context of finality: acceptance of, or yielding to grief; discouragement and depression; passive suffering; and the despair connected with death.

Deryck Cooke(1959) p133.

The next phrase can be reduced as follows:


(click the diagram for a better image)

This time the phrase ascends from 5 - 1 - 2 - minor3. Deryck Cooke again:

‘Ascending 5-1-(2)-3 (Minor) [...] expresses pure tragedy, by aiming at the minor third. And to move upward firmly and decisively from the lower dominant, via the tonic, to the minor third, gives a strong feeling of courage, in that it boldly acknowledges the existence of tragedy and springs onward (upward) into the thick of it [...].’

Cooke (1959), p124-5.

Cooke then produces musical examples from classical music to substantiate the assertion, as before.

As mentioned at the outset of this chapter, the musical devices used by Portishead in their two albums can be listed. High up on such a list would be the following: close miked vocals so that Beth Gibbons sounds as is she’s in a confessional (though sometimes with a spacious reverb so that the confessional itself might be in a cathedral.): the integration of classical procedures with a self-consciously harsh industrial backings: the introduction of a range of ‘foreign sounds’ which reinforce the psychotic position of ‘holding all possibilities open in equal non-commitment’. A further collection of devices are associated with James Bond culture.

The opening of ‘Sour Times’, one of the few Portishead recordings to make it into the UK charts, is represented below.


(click the diagram for a better image)

The harmonic sequence indicated in example 8.5 above includes a very mysterious sounding sharpened II7 chord. This chord, although part of the common repertory of orthodox harmonic procedure, is a feature of Russian folk songs and romances when used in a minor key context. The Eastern European flavour of this musical opening is similarly suggested by the ‘cimbalon’ tremolando. However, when used by Portishead, the references are not to Russian culture, but to the culture of the spy movie. Cold war intrigues, as represented by dozens of influential movies (‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’, ‘The Ipcress File’ and more.) all contained music which suggested the isolation of the spy in the climate of distrust and suspicion. Since most of these films exploited the political conditions of the cold war, they used Eastern European musical signifiers to set the location of the action. These films were the means by which most people in the west gathered information about life behind the iron curtain in the post-war era. It’s important to realise, then, that although it is quite possible to discover many genuine Russian tunes which have this distinctive harmonic feature, when ‘Sour Times’ is heard in Britain in the 1990’s, it contains references not the original Russian item, but a second-hand vaguely Eastern European ambience mediated through the music of classic spy movies. In the same way that Hollywood B-movies have become the source of so many postmodern signifiers, British spy movies function in exactly the same way and with particular relevance to the British audience.

The final ingredient to this language of isolation and alienation is a peculiar affinity between Beth Gibbons’ enunciation and that of Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday was quintessentially the isolated female who remained somehow in touch with her feelings despite her desperate and brutal surroundings.

Portishead have constructed essays of late twentieth century isolation. By utilising the semiotic vocabulary of films and television, they have put together a jig saw of meaning which has particular relevance to urban life in the late 1990s. Does it matter that the generation of young people who buy Portishead records might have little knowledge of the original sources of this vocabulary? That many of them do not know where a cimbalon comes from, or may never have heard Billie Holiday? Not really, because although these signifiers are very remote from contemporary urban life, they comprise part of the rich backcloth that informs our lives through films and television. Few people have seen Billie Holiday live, some may have recordings of her, but millions have seen Diana Ross in the romanticised version of her life ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ (1972). Similarly, it doesn’t matter that very few people had first hand experience of political espionage, because all of us perceive the glamour, romance and anguish of the secret agent through the medium of film. Our knowledge of Russian folk music may be hazy, but we all know John Barry’s version of Russian music, and it is this that informs out contemporary, postmodern sense of what signifies Eastern Europe. In drawing these strands together, Portishead demonstrate an unerring knowledge of contemporary maps of meaning. No explanations are necessary.


Contact Patrick at info@patrickdailly.f9.co.uk
This site is hosted by F9 Internet and is created and maintained by: