Without You I’m Nothing

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Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and David Bowie, single).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, “live” video).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, UNKLE remix).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, Flexirol Mix.)

Having played live with Placebo on “20th Century Boy,” Bowie now wanted to cut something with them in the studio. Yet as the band had just put out their second album and with Bowie consumed by his own growing heap of new projects, there was no time to work on a fresh track.

The original plan had been to do a studio take of “20th Century Boy.” Then, perhaps recognizing how superfluous this recording would have been (and with Tony Visconti mixing the BRIT Award performance of “20th Century Boy” for possible use anyhow), Bowie said he wanted to sing harmony vocals on a remix of “Without You I’m Nothing,” the title track of Placebo’s new record. Brian Molko, on vacation when he heard this change of plans, rolled with it. “When [Bowie] calls up and asks to sing on something, you don’t say no.”

Molko later admitted there had been “too many slow songs for a second album,” and there were few slower than the title track, a brooding obsessional whose title the band had taken from a Sandra Bernhard film and which was also meant “as a message to each other. And it’s a message to our fans—-which is that old Judy Garland thing,” Molko later said.

Bowie’s vocal begins as a lower harmony to Molko’s lead, holding back his strength until the chorus, when he swoops over Molko. Bowie gave a gravity to the song, but it had too much gravity already; he wound up being an intriguing color in a washed-out landscape. The liveliest version of the track was the eight-minute Flexirol Mix, which isolates Bowie’ s most dramatic vocal spots and uses them as sound effects.

Recorded (Bowie vocal) 28 March 1999, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 16 August 1999 as FLOORCD 10. The video used footage of Bowie and Placebo’s live performance of “Nothing” during an encore on 29 March 1999 at Irving Plaza, NYC.

Top: Placebo, a cheery Bowie, a pensive Visconti pose for insert of CD single (Frank Ockenfeld).

10 Responses to Without You I’m Nothing

  1. Maj says:

    Not a fan of this song, though I do prefer the version with Bowie. He & Brian sound well together. I never much liked this song & having re-listened to Placebo’s older stuff I realised I no longer have any patience for the slow, depressing, draggy numbers, even those I used to like 10 years ago.
    Them duetting (later on) on Centrefolds or Placebo’s version of Running Up That Hill could have been more interesting, those songs at least have a proper melody and some meat on them.
    Maybe they should have reverted it & Brian could have sung on one of Bowie’s songs on Hours? He was already working on that album by then or not?
    Anyway. Underwhelming collaboration, my final verdict.🙂

  2. I still enjoy the Placebo track (and the album), but I always felt this was a lukewarm collaboration. Bowie’s vocal gymnastics are sadly distracting to an otherwise manic depressive gem. While Bowie remains the stronger vocalist, it’s Molko’s edge that gives this song its weight.

  3. s.t. says:

    The approach here is not that different from the TV on the Radio track Province: they both use Bowie to add depth to a slow fuzzy rock anthem. It just worked better that time, because of the melodies and the sense of warmth throughout. This isn’t terrible, but it does sound like an afterthought.

    Speaking of collabs, the “without you I’m nothing” sung at 3:12 brings to mind Arcade Fire’s Wake Up (“hold your…mistake up”), which sounded great when played live with Bowie.

    • BenJ says:

      I look forward to reading the “Province” entry. It also helped that Tunde and Kip from that band had figured out how to add some variety to their own harmonies. Their previous album was certainly not bad but could be a little same-y in some respects.

  4. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Molko’s irritating sinus-y whine, coupled with the song’s heavy portent combine to make this a pretty dreary listening experience for me. As a Bowie completest I have burned this onto a cd of rarities, but I do tend to skip this track a lot.

  5. Mike F says:

    Great photo! Bowie and the Placebo guys are all smiles, dressed up, and look like they’re at a party. Contrasted with Visconti who is working and doesn’t have any time for chit chat.

    Yeah, this song kind of sucks.

    • Patrick says:

      A few weeks back , I thought I spotted Visconti on the London tube
      (we were crossing paths briefly between platforms and escalators. But he seemed of quite slight frailer build than I expected, could have been his doppleganger. Maybe I was mistaken. Or maybe he and Bowie were meeting up in London……..?

      • Maj says:

        A while ago he produced some songs for Marc Almond (EP should be released next month) but TBH I don’t remember if Marc worked on them in NYC or if Visconti was in London for the work. That doesn’t answer your question but I thought I’d share.🙂

  6. CosmicJive says:

    Funny thing with Placebo, I used to love them a lot back in the day, but these days I can hardly listen to their work. For some reason it didn´t age well for me. This track in particular I’ve heard too many times, it was already becoming a bore at during the Black Market Music Tour. The only album of theirs I occasionally give a spin is their first one.

  7. One of the things that interests me here is the way in which Molko’s vocal style and tendency to attack phrases leaves little space for Bowie to get any sort of space in the track. He can’t overpower the early verse lines because it would break the song, and the chorus is already so howled out that there’s nothing for him to do. In fact, it would be like trying to add a second vocal to “Heroes.” Which is not to say that “Without You I’m Nothing” is anything near as good as “Heroes,” because it’s not, but it’s tangibly a trick Molko learned from Bowie, and one that prevents Bowie from making much headway on Placebo’s turf. Somewhere in here there’s a metaphor for late career Bowie – an artist unable to get the drop on a wide range of music that’s learned and integrated his tricks.

    (For my part, I quite like bits of Placebo, including this track. Meds has been one of my most-listened to albums over the last few years.)

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