20th Century Boy


20th Century Boy (T. Rex, 1973).
20th Century Boy (Placebo, Velvet Goldmine, 1998).
20th Century Boy (Placebo and Bowie, BRIT Awards, 1999).

Placebo formed in 1994 when Brian Molko, waiting for a train at the South Kensington tube station, spied Stefan Olsdal, who’d gone to school with him at the American International School of Luxembourg (Molko was Scottish and American, Olsdal a Swede). Noting that Olsdal was carrying a guitar, Molko called him over to invite him to a gig. Soon enough the two had formed their own band, Olsdal shifting to bass.

Two years later, Placebo had cut their first album and were opening for Bowie on some of the later Outside tour dates. He’d been the band’s advocate since he’d heard their demo, touting them in the press, even having them as the opening act of his 50th birthday concert in 1997. For Bowie, Placebo offered a third way for British rock in the late Nineties, avoiding both the laddishness of Oasis and the growing hermeticism of Radiohead. Placebo were eye-liner-sporting Goth scamps who favored bizarre guitar tunings that suggested they’d been holed up with Silkworm and Slint records. Visually, they were a Mutt & Jeff double act: Molko was small, nasally and pushy; Olsdal was built like a totem pole yet carried himself with elegance. (They went through a few drummers.) Placebo got a few pop hits but kept up a vaguely disreputable image; Bowie’s love for them seemed genuine.

A collaboration between Bowie and Placebo seemed inevitable, and it was. First came a joint performance at the 1999 BRIT Awards of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” which Placebo had covered for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack (Molko said his work on the film was something he and Bowie “agreed never to talk about”).

“20th Century Boy” had been Marc Bolan’s last great pop moment, the end of a run of singles that had kicked off with “Hot Love” in 1971. Essentially the Bolan formula distilled to its basic elements—a guitar hook so overwhelming that the song barely needs a chorus, a lyric of precisely nonsensical boasts and come-ons, garnished by wailing harmony vocals—“20th Century Boy” had become something like “Louie Louie” for Nineties British bands: a song you could play in your sleep, one you could pull out at a gig whenever you were losing the room.

The Bowie/Placebo cover is a bit shambling (“We weren’t too bad, we were in key at least,” Molko told Melody Maker. “But we could never really get the lyrics right. We were doing ’20th Century Boy’. We had a fucking laugh.”) Molko was being diplomatic: he was letter-perfect, where Bowie cheerfully bungled his way through one of his verses. It’s in part due to the imbalanced sound mix, but Molko’s the dominant figure in this performance. Bowie, playing his Tin Machine-era “headless” Steinberger, seems happy to be on stage as his guest.

Broadcast 16 February 1999, at the London Docklands Arena. Bowie and Placebo performed the song again a month later at a New York gig. Tony Visconti mixed the BRIT Awards performance for possible use as the B-side of…

Top: Lou O’Bedlam, “Amanda and the Wall ’98.”

31 Responses to 20th Century Boy

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Oldie pedant alert: I’m pretty sure Ride a White Swan came before Hot Love and was the first, and perhaps the best, of that run of singles.
    I knew I was getting old when my own teenage son got interested in the electric guitar a few years ago and the first song he learnt to play was 20 C Boy. (It was a film and big hit in Japan in around 2008.)
    When Bowie did a BBC radio thing playing his favourite songs – I think it was to promote Lodger – 20 C Boy was surprisingly his T. Rex choice.

    • col1234 says:

      yes, though i’d argue “Swan” is more of an intro to the big run, as it still has one foot in hippie T. Rex. Hot Love, Get It On, Jeepster, Metal Guru, Telegram Sam, Children of the Rev., Solid Gold, this one are the glam heavy hitters. And while “the Groover” (follow-up to 20c Boy) hit #4, it’s been pretty much forgotten.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        Fair point. The guitar from Swan belongs in the big run, but he’s still talking to the druids. The other thing is those crucial backing vocals make their first appearance on Hot Love. Since I was still a child, I was more of Bolan fan than a Bowie one at this time, but even as a child I knew the end was nigh for Marc Bolan with his ‘superfunk Christmas’ greeting on the B-side of Solid Gold.

      • Maj says:

        Great. Now I have Swan stuck in my head. Won’t get it out for the next few days. Thanks a bunch, guys.

      • col1234 says:

        “ride it on out, like you were a bird” Maj

      • Anonymous says:

        The groover, clearly not forgotten by bowie: d-a-v-i-d on cactus

  2. Maj says:

    I’ve been a bit of a Placebo fan on and off since Sleeping With Ghosts. I missed their 90’s period because, well, I was wee. Not ashamed to say I don’t care for their more rock, less melodic stuff. I’m in it for the pop songs. Even the pop songs sound hard/sad enough though. So it’s all good. Not a bad band. Hugely popular in my country, and unlike many other bands I actually listen to they play here quite often. Yet I’ve somehow missed them live so far…incl. this year – they’re playing here in a month but this student is jobless & broke so bye bye balding Brian.

    Re: this entry. What a coincidence, I got their new album just yesterday which made me go back and have a few listens to the old stuff. I dunno, I might be growing old for this shit. I think it works better when you’re 16.

    20th Century Boy is probably the best glam rock song innit. Earlier this year I decided to finally learn more about Bolan, having heard stuff abt him in connection with Bowie & knowing a few songs, I bought a biography & found out that I pretty much already know all of the Good Songs. But he did have great hair.

    Placebo did well with the song in the film…rewatching The Brit Awards performance…I want Bowie’s coat. Not a particularly memorable performance otherwise though…which is why I had to rewatch it. Ha.

    Is there gonna be an entry on Without You I’m Nothing?

  3. drawninsnow says:

    I really like this one, wish Bowie was a bit louder.
    Bowie looks likes he’s really having fun playing it, I don’t care if they are messing up some lyrics, it’s a bit of kick ass glam rock fun, I would not mind seeing Bowie having more careless fun like that.
    Placebo’s Covers that came as an extra with Sleeping With Ghosts I believe, gives me a lot of joy, today it’s pretty much the only thing I play by Placebo. They go all out having a party on that one. Daddy Cool and Running Up That Hill are my favorites besides 20Th Century Boy.

  4. rufus oculus says:

    Anyone got any thoughts on the Bowie/Roxy covers on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack? I must admit a certain fondness for them and their ersatz quality which fits the glam ideology. And The Whole Shebang by Grant Buffalo is just ace.

  5. The Ziggurat says:

    Next Day Related
    Hi friends –

    It looks like Tony Visconti is doing a bit of press for Bowie’s latest. NME promises exclusive track-by-track analysis: http://www.nme.com/magazine/issue/david-bowie-the-past-present-and-future-of-music

    – VM

    • col1234 says:

      British folks—if anyone could send me a copy of this NME (i’ll pay for overseas postage and the price of the mag), I’d be grateful. Just shoot me an email: coleary8@gmail.com.

      • Patrick says:

        Would a pdf be acceptable? Just say and I can email you the issue.

      • col1234 says:

        thanks–someone’s sent it along! I greatly appreciate the several offers I got! a very generous readership I have.

  6. s.t. says:

    Their cover on Velvet Goldmine was the only Placebo song I had heard until just now. After checking out a few of their other songs, I think Molko sounds much better when he’s working within a more accessible pop context. Otherwise the band comes off like a strange combo of Rush & Smashing Pumpkins (!!)

    I’ve always wondered what Bowie thought of Radiohead. I can’t imagine he would have liked Creep, but what about OK Computer and Kid A? It may be that by that point their popularity had soared too high for Bowie’s comfort. It’s always easier to promote the underdogs ans obscure acts. There was an interview that I can’t seem to find now where Bowie says something to the effect of “Nirvana had that one great song, but to me, Sonic Youth was really playing the exciting stuff.”

    I’m guessing he’d say something similar about Radiohead, but I can’t say for sure.

    • Maj says:

      “sounds much better when he’s working within a more accessible pop context.” I think you’re spot on.

    • Roman says:

      Bowie was supposed to duet with Radiohead sometime in the late 90’s at the euro MTV awards. But it fell through at the last minute. I think it was the one where he ended up doing The Man Who Sold The World (introduced by Jean-Paul Gaultier).

      • CosmicJive says:

        PJ Harvey was supposed to guest on TMWSTW but she and Bowie couldn’t agree on the arrangement of the song. Bowie wanted to do the Outside tour version while Harvey wanted to do a more traditional version. A shame I think. That Outside era version would’ ve sound great with her on vocals

  7. Roman says:

    Re – The film Velvet Goldmine.

    Although Bowie slated the film and refused to have anything to do with it, it didn’t stop him from cashing in on the publicity and putting out Velvet Goldmine on the then current compilation, Best of 69-74.

  8. Ramzi says:

    In that performance is Bowie playing the same guitar he does in the Valentine’s Day video?

  9. Anonymous says:

    He did the Brits performance with a new face. It was the first time I noticed his plastic surgery.

    • Anonymous says:

      algeriatouchshriek -made the comment above

    • Maj says:

      Umm, what?? He always seemed appropriately wrinkly to me, ever since the late 80’s. The haircut he had in ’97 made him look more severe, which made the wrinkles pop, while having his hair grow out & more subdued Hours dress sense made them less obvious. Also the work on his teeth changed his face a bit. He might have tried botox but I doubt he ever had any actual “work” done. I mean he looked (and still looks) well for his age but not extraordinarily well.

      • Patrick says:

        Apart from his teeth obviously, I also don’t recall anything that he’s had any work done. He has (not surprisingly) denied it. Did that Celeb Plastic surgery site (which often alleged with very little evidence anyway ) ever speculate he had? Looking at the latest videos he ,as I’ve said before is turning a bit late Leonard Nimoy – wrinkles and bags (even under the eyes) of alien character. As said, he’s averagely preserved for a man of his age. Doubtless he just has to lie back each morning while Iman applies one of her magical creams. The cream does nothing, but the touch of the woman, a power of good.

      • Ramzi says:

        Patrick, those last two sentences may be the best thing I’ve ever read in a comments section.

      • s.t. says:

        You know, I had assumed simply because he looked so great at 50 that he had some work done. But he looks to be aging pretty normally now, while those who go down the road of plastic surgery tend to keep it up for as long as they can.

    • Ramzi says:

      He’s wearing a ton of makeup but I don’t think it’s a new face.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        He does not seem to have any of the facial weirdness of a facelift anyway.

        But I suspect that a lot of the photographs that have been released of him in the past year must have been photoshopped to hide signs of age.

        Not sure why they’d bother though given that he makes a thing of his wrinkles in the Where Are We Now video.

        He and a number of other people make growing old seem cool, which I personally – approaching age 43 – feel grateful for.

    • CosmicJive says:

      Its all make-up, trust me. I was waiting outside at the Storytellers gig with a couple of other fans and saw the band and bowie arrive one at the time. Bowie didnt have any make up on and looked like any other man in his 50s. I took some pictures and later I had to tell people it was Bowie.
      It really is amazing what make up can do to a face.

  10. postpunkmonk says:

    Yeah. I have friends who assume that he’s had work but when there are high res images knocking around, he looks normal to me. Apart from his obvious [and necessary] dental work that he had done [finally] around the time of his marriage to Iman, he seems to have let it ride. His peer, Ferry, also looks real, though he may be hitting the dye.

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