Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



British rock group formed in 1991 around a nucleus of Geoff Barrow (b 1971, Weston-Super-Mare), keyboards, theremin, computer programming; and Beth Gibbons (b c.1965, Keynsham), vocalist and lyricist. Halfway through the making of their first album, the duo were joined by guitarist Adrian Utley (b c.1958, and assorted musicians and samples add to the lineup. They could be a definition of '90s music, being neither rock nor ambient, hip-hop nor contemporary classical.

Barrow and Gibbons met on a government-run Enterprise Training Scheme. Barrow worked as a tape operator before going on to production, arranging and songwriting work, including co-writing with Neneh Cherry for her Homebrew album, remixing for Depeche Mode, Primal Scream, Ride and others, and production work for Carleen Anderson, Earthling and Tricky. At home in the studio, they created music ranging from an ethereal, eerie mood to hip-hop sublime. Their two-pronged debut included a mini-album 'Numb' and soundtrack music for the ten-minute short To Kill A Dead Man, both in June 1994; the single 'Sour Times' appeared the next month; their place at the front of popular music-making in Britain was staked out with their first album Dummy on Go! Discs, released in August 1994, selling a million copies worldwide within a year and scooping end-of-year polls. 

It may have been difficult to tell the songs apart after listening to them, tending to merge into one another, but that did not detract; the otherworldly feel of 'Mysterons' for example was swiftly latched on to by TV producers seeking spooky music. Dummy won the Mercury Prize in 1995 and tipped them as the living embodiment of 'trip-hop', but the follow-up was elusive; they scrapped an entire album because, said Barrow, 'Our music wasn't exciting me one little bit.' Finally Portishead '97 on Go! Beat developed their exploratory nature, marshalling keyboards from Moog to Wurlitzer and Rhodes pianos: 'Half Day Closing' was inspired by the 1960s electronic group United States of America; 'Humming' was a mini-series of sci-fi film motifs, theremin and hip-hop; 'Mourning Air' was B-movie desolation, and 'Western Eyes' had a rinky-dink toy piano and 1940s-style crooning from Shawn Atkins, all reinforced by Gibbons's vocals. Again they had set standards of postmodern strangeness. Glory Times was a 2-CD compilation and PNYC (aka 'Roseland Live NYC') was a souvenir of their 1997 live gig at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City, both in 1998.

The band scattered; Barrow went to Australia, where he and a partner started an Invader label for avant-garde jazz and heavy metal. Utley 'went on to do as much music with as many people as I could: writing, soundtracks, producing things and playing with people.' Gibbons continued developing as a torch singer. She collaborated on music with Rustin Man (real name Paul Webb, former bassist with Talk Talk); the album Out Of Season on Go! Beat 2002 was released in the USA on Sanctuary in 2003 as she appeared in New York city with a band including Utley and other veterans of Portishead and Talk Talk. Meanwhile Portishead had quietly renegotiated its major-label contract and begun to come back together. (The band manages itself, cooperatively deciding on everything from artwork to merchandising, including Portishead tea mugs.) Then after a decade came Portishead's third album, called Third, in 2008.

Earlier the band had recorded orchestral bits and then used them to sample from; Barrow didn't like PNYC, made live with a 35-piece orchestra, and has never listened to it. He does not enjoy performing live and he and Utley would rather communicate with a sound found in the studio. Gibbons is painfully shy and self-critical, and does not give interviews; they say that she began singing because that is the only way she could communicate, and now that she is a performer she feels that her interpersonal communication is even worse. Barrow paraphrased her saying that the third album is about 'the ability of the human race to communicate properly, and about how you want to live your life compared to how you actually live it.' On the Third album, Barrow said of the track 'Machine Gun', 'once every five years' he gets excited about a beat he has created, partly because pop music is saturated with mechanical beats: Portishead are not more prolific because they want to advance their hypnotic noirish atmosphere while remaining themelves. 'We Carry On' evolved further after an early version was accidentally erased; it is relatively uptempo for this group, with unique harmonies from Gibbons. 'It sounded like us, but further down the road,' said Utley. 'The Rip' began with a chord change borrowed from a song by the Mystic Mood Orchestra. 'Even though people don't say it, musicians work as magpies,' said Barrow. 'You listen and absorb.'