Without You I’m Nothing

October 11, 2013

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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).


20th Century Boy

October 8, 2013

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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.”