Placebo’s back story is about as multi-national as can be. Swedish bassist/keyboardist Stefan Olsdal and Belgian-born singer/guitarist Brian Molko — the son of an American father and a Scottish mother — met at the American International School of Luxembourg, but didn’t actually become friends until they reconnected in London several years later. The duo recruited English drummer Robert Schultzberg (who was born in Switzerland and had known Olsdal at school in Sweden) and started out calling their new group Ashtray Heart (after the Captain Beefheart song) before settling on the name Placebo. (The group bears no relationship to the Canadian all-female band of the same name — no matter how effeminate Molko makes himself look.) They appeared determined to give Suede a run for their money, with a flamboyantly glam image and emotionally ambivalent lyrics about sex, drugs and decadence. Placebo released its debut single, “Bruise Pristine,” just as the ’90s Britpop wave was cresting and is nearly the last band standing from that scene.
Recorded in Dublin with American producer Brad Wood (Eleventh Dream Day, Liz Phair, Sunny Day Real Estate), Placebo establishes the band’s sound: tense, fast-rocking songs with cleanly articulated guitar riffs, heavy bass grooves, busy drumming, spare synthesizers coloring the margins of a few songs and Molko’s distinctive voice slicing through it all. His quavery whine almost exemplifies the word androgynous; indeed, a casual first-time listener could be excused for mistaking a few of Placebo’s songs for Alanis Morissette. The single “Nancy Boy” sets forth Placebo’s lyrical fixations in no uncertain terms: “Alcoholic kind of mood / Lose my clothes, lose my lube / Cruising for a piece of fun / Looking out for number one / Different partner every night / So narcotic, outta sight / What a gas / What a beautiful ass.” The band slows down a bit and lightens up its playing on such songs as “Hang on to Your IQ” and “I Know” (which has Schultzberg on didgeridoo!) but the subject matter doesn’t change: “Got a head rush in her pocket / Two rubbers, two lubes, and a silver rocket … I’m a fool whose tool is small / It’s so minuscule, it’s no tool at all” (from “Hang on to Your IQ”). Although the album drags to a weak ending with “Lady of the Flowers” and “Swallow” (two sound-alike slow-tempo tracks marked by muted, distorted spoken vocals), Placebo still establishes the trio as a strong contender in the Britpop scene.
As with many Britpop bands, Placebo’s discography is swarming with non-album B-sides, special editions and re-releases. The debut’s 2006 reissue on Astralwerks adds four B-sides, the instrumental “Hong Kong Farewell” (a hidden track on the original CD) and a bonus DVD of live performances, television appearances and promotional videos.
Schultzberg packed up his drum kit (and didgeridoo) after Placebo’s first American tour. He was replaced by former Boo Radleys drummer Steve Hewitt. Placebo’s sophomore release, Without You I’m Nothing, gets off to a discouraging start with the turgid one-chord riffing of “Pure Morning.” The song’s lyrics confirm that Molko’s obsessions remain solidly in place: “A friend in need’s a friend indeed / A friend with weed is better / A friend with breasts and all the rest / A friend who’s dressed in leather.” Producer Steve Osborne (Curve, Lush, Suede, Happy Mondays) gives the music a heavier sound. In place of the first album’s clear rush of guitars, the riffs on Without You I’m Nothing are layered much more densely, curling and echoing to fill every frequency of the music. This brings a new dimension to the songs, making their seamy subject matter feel less like compulsive thrill-seeking than insecurity and agoraphobia — especially in the slower tunes. On the noirish “My Sweet Prince” and “The Crawl” and the desperate title track (whose underpinning synth riff imitates the didgeridoo on the previous album), Placebo sounds drained and dissolute, as if hung over from the late-night carousing they celebrate. On the other hand, “Scared of Girls” hurtles forward more feverishly than any track on the debut, and “Brick Shithouse” is a fast, noisy number that (apart from Molko’s distinctive voice) could pass for the Prodigy. The singles “You Don’t Care About Us” and “Every You Every Me” hook the listener as cleanly and effectively as anything on the first album, and the ballads “Ask for Answers” and “Burger Queen” carry the same combination of dreamy music and lurid images (“Goes out to cruise and to meet his connection / He never scores / He just gets an infection / Dreams of a place with a better selection / Still, it takes him all day just to get an erection”) that distinguished the debut album’s quieter moments. The album closes with a hidden track, “Evil Dildo,” that places an obscene threat left on Molko’s answering machine back over a tensely plucked bass groove and erupting squalls of guitar and drums.
Producer Paul Corkett (who engineered Without You I’m Nothing) continues to thicken Placebo’s sound on Black Market Music, but prevents it from weighing the songs down, as it did sometimes on the previous album. Even at its heaviest (as on the opening track “Taste in Men”), Corkett and the band balance the riff overload of Without You I’m Nothing with the tightly wound tension that distinguished the first album. On the surging single “Special K,” Molko sings, “More than just a leitmotif / More chaotic, no relief / I’ll describe the way I feel / Weeping wounds that never heal,” which sums up his worldview about as succintly as any one verse can. On “Slave to the Wage,” however, the singer offers a surprisingly uplifting credo: “All it takes is one decision / A lot of guts, a little vision / To wave your worries and cares goodbye.” The US release of Black Market Music includes a version of “Without You I’m Nothing” with vocals by David Bowie (one of Placebo’s high-profile fans) and a cover of Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You.”
Sleeping With Ghosts, produced by Jim Abbiss (Kasabian, Sneaker Pimps, Editors, Arctic Monkeys, Ladytron), launches out of the gate with the rocking instrumental “Bulletproof Cupid” before moving into the beautifully spare, synthesizer-flecked single “English Summer Rain.” That song sets the tone for the remainder of the disc: Abbiss’ electronic touches give color, rather than just weight, to Placebo’s songs. Even more striking, the band addresses more mature concerns than whoring and scoring. In “Protect Me From What I Want,” Molko asks, “Remember when we’d celebrate? / We’d drink and get high until late / And now we’re all alone.” In the haunting title track, Molko gives voice to a sense of geopolitical paranoia (“This one-world vision / Turns into compromise / What good’s religion / When it’s each other we despise? / Damn the government … Damn the lies”) before turning his attention much closer to home (“Hush / It’s okay … Soulmate, dry your eye / ‘Cause soulmates never die”). The protagonist of “Special Needs” pleads to a friend on the fast track: “Remember me when you clinch your movie deal / Think of me stuck in my chair that has four wheels.” In the closing ballad “Centrefolds,” the singer entreats an aging roue, “All the centrefolds that you can’t afford / Have long since waved their last goodbyes … You’ve long since faded from their eyes / So be mine.” And in the churning rocker “Plasticine,” Molko warns the listener, “Don’t go and sell your soul for self-esteem.” A cut above the last two albums. The “special edition” of Sleeping With Ghosts adds the bonus track “Protège Moi” (a French version of “Protect Me From What I Want” that was released as a single in its own right) and a second disc of cover versions.
Once More With Feeling offers an excellent starting point for newcomers, gathering 17 of Placebo’s singles (skipping only “Come Home” and “Burger Queen Français”) plus two new tracks, “I Do” and “Twenty Years.” The compilation is available in a single-disc package or with a second CD of remixes. (Another version of this album, released in Spanish-speaking countries, includes a CD of revamps by Latin remix artists, reflecting Placebo’s surprising popularity south of the Rio Grande.)
Producer Dimitri Tikovoi (Goldfrapp, Cranes, Raveonettes, Future Sound of London, John Cale) gives the music on Meds a sleeker, more deliberately mechanical surface that underscores the anxiety in the songs. “Infra-Red,” the Pixies-ish “Space Monkey” (right down to the “planet of sound” lyrical reference) and “Blind” all surge with plenty of rock momentum; “Drag,” “Because I Want You,” “Follow the Cops Back Home” and “Song to Say Goodbye” deliver the same energy but with a surprising undercurrent of warmth beneath the music’s brushed-metal finish. Molko’s lyrics here steer further away from decadence, focusing instead on its usual aftermath: loneliness, depression and loss. Over the blissful music of “Pierrot the Clown,” he assumes the role of a prostitute addressing an abusive john: “When I dream, I dream your kiss / When I dream, I dream your fists / Leave me bleeding on the bed / See you right back here tomorrow for the next round.” The album also includes two of the most powerful, distinctive songs Placebo has committed to disc: “Broken Promise” and the title track — both recorded with guest vocalists. The verses on “Broken Promise,” quietly sung by Michael Stipe over mournful piano, are torn apart by Molko’s anguished chorus. The title song, with its tense, clipped guitar strum and Molko’s stark voice giving way to a rush through a metallic tunnel of sound, captures the paranoid fear that comes with anti-depressant withdrawal in under three minutes. Kills/Dead Weather vocalist Alison Mosshart whimpers about “the sex / And the drugs / And the complications” in the bridge, and croons the chorus, “Baby, did you forget to take your meds?” Molko seems to have been inspired by working with these renowned singers: throughout Meds, he sings with more passion than ever, and delivers his previously shaky high notes with more control than on previous recordings. A mature peak for Placebo, and arguably the group’s best CD. (The 2007 reissue adds the Placebo original “UNEEDMEMORETHANINEEDU” and a cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” It also replaces “In the Cold Light of Morning” with “Lazarus” and replaces the original album’s version of “Post Blue” with a different mix.)
Following extensive road work in support of Meds — including a support slot for Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance on the 2007 Projekt Revolution tour — the trio took a year-long break (and became a duo with Hewitt’s departure). The next two Placebo discs were released during the group’s hiatus. The 2007 EP combines five of Placebo’s biggest UK singles — one from each of the band’s studio albums to date — with sharp live recordings of “Pure Morning,” “Infra-Red” and “Running Up That Hill” recorded at shows in France and Chile. A good, inexpensive sampler for newbies, but not essential.
Covers is a reissue of the bonus disc from the special edition of Sleeping With Ghosts. The band’s rendition of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” originally was used on the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine (in which the trio played members of other bands). Its version of “The Ballad of Melody Nelson” was used on a Serge Gainsbourg tribute album. (Molko lent his voice to another worthwhile Gainsbourg cover not included here: a version of “J’e Taime…Moi Non Plus” by Dimitri Tikovoi’s band Trash Palace, in which the Placebo singer exchanges lines — not to mention gender roles — with actress Asia Argento.) Most of the remaining tracks on this disc first showed up as Placebo B-sides.
Meanwhile, Stefan Olsdal kept busy with Hotel Persona, his side project with singer Javier Solo (who trades off vocals with Olsdal) and DJ David Amen. In addition to club appearances, the group has done remixes for She Wants Revenge and Queens of the Stone Age, among others. Hotel Persona’s album In the Clouds features vocal cameos from Molko, Panamanian singer Miguel Bosé and British singer/actress/Page Three girl Samantha Fox.
Placebo returned to the studio in late 2008, with American drummer Steve Forrest replacing Hewitt (and extending the group’s multi-national history across the Atlantic). Producer David Bottrill (King Crimson, Tool, Muse) gives Battle for the Sun a lean, sharp sound, stripping away a lot of the synthetic weight that bulked up the group’s last few albums. Placebo hasn’t come across this muscular and spare since its debut CD. “Kitty Litter,” “Devil in the Details” and “Breathe Underwater” are among Placebo’s toughest rockers. Lyrically, the album is like a sequel to Meds, as Molko explores the struggles people face as they recover from their wounds and dysfunctions. On “Breathe Underwater,” he sings, “I’m coming up for air / I wanna see another dawn.” In “Bright Lights,” he sings, “Cast your mind back to the days / When I’d pretend I was okay … Now that I’ve stared into the void / So many people I’ve annoyed / I have to find a middle way / A better way of living.” On the title track, he stares down his antagonist with, “I will brush off all the dirt / And I will pretend it didn’t hurt…You are a cheap and nasty fake / And I am the bones you couldn’t break.” And “For What It’s Worth” (not the Buffalo Springfield song) and “Ashtray Heart” (not the Beefheart song from which Molko and Olsdal got the band’s original name) both join Placebo’s list of choice singles, with “The Never-Ending Why,” “Bright Lights” and “Speak in Tongues” showing signs that they’ll follow those tunes eventually. The UK release of Battle includes an in-the-studio documentary DVD. The deluxe edition of the album (also a British release) includes two extra songs — “In a Funk” and a cover of Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good” — as well as the documentary and a second DVD of Placebo’s 2008 concert at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
If Placebo sounds like the band of your dreams, The Hut Sessions offers serious one-stop shopping. The ten-disc box combines the band’s first five studio albums, the Covers disc, and two CDs of B-sides and live tracks (including the ones from the 2006 download-only release Live at la Cigàle) with a DVD of promotional videos and another DVD of the band onstage in Paris in 2003 (previously released as Soulmates Never Die). Note: The DVDs are mastered in the PAL/Region 0 format.