20th Century Boy

October 8, 2013

bedlam

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…

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