(Since some say Placebo is worse than the Cure)

“Absolute shit. The worst. ‘I’m depraved, me'”

Nobody likes Placebo. Except their fans, and nobody is a fan. Except the people who buy the records and show up at the shows, etc. Substitute eight million names and nothing really changes over the past few years/decades/whatever amount of time you want to mark out. So the passion of fans is no surprise and the contempt of those who don’t like them isn’t a surprise, much in a way like Placebo isn’t a surprise either, at least not when broken down to its constituent elements.

I was thinking about them the other day, though, for a very good reason, namely that I finally picked up their DVD compilation Once More With Feeling, which has been out for a few months. And so I watched it and once again I thought, “Damn, this is one of the best bands ever!” Which, again, is not one of those sentiments people are supposed to believe, etc. etc.

Apologizing for a band, however, strikes me as a bit counterproductive — not in the sense that undiluted praise is the best approach to a group in all ways when one is trying to convince others that there’s something of worth there. Rather, it strikes me as a bit of embarassment and reticence when it’s not needed — perhaps an obvious conclusion. Still, consider this:

Today I was thinking that there’s something as equally important to my long-stated belief in the primacy of radical subjectivity, the sense that what matters if one likes something is one’s own conclusions, not what other people or other sources of influences might say or convey, implicitly or overtly. This is almost a canard now, its many implications expressed in many different ways much more cohesively (and attractively) than I can. One of my favorite examples came from Tim Finney, who observed a couple of months back that there’s a difference between liking something in the charts and liking something because it is in the charts.

“Wretched, hideous, just plumb awful dud.”

My realization today as such wasn’t monumental, but it was a key corollary to this philosophical approach towards art that I don’t think I had ever quite fully grasped before, or stated to myself quite so clearly — namely, that there is no point in resisting something that is (however unintentionally) geared towards you if you enjoy it. Cynically, this could be said to be a success of marketing, namely that someone or something somewhere knows exactly how to connect with you despite your best overtly stated efforts to resist it, or perhaps more accurately be above certain things. That you make certain choices or react certain ways not because you truly believe in something’s worth but because it would be impossible for you to react otherwise, being the person you are or have chosen, to whatever extent, to be.

To me that seems to stretch the bounds of credulity. That we are consumers in a particular society I don’t question, that we make our judgments as we do on conscious and unconscious levels based in part on social conditioning (or perceived resistance to it) I don’t either, but I don’t see this as leading to the creation of drones, instead being something that makes a certain logical sense. Ultimately, the fact is that something presented as what one would ‘want’ might not be like that at all, it could be just plain trash, not worth the effort to investigate further. Something else could find the spirit or feeling one is looking for (however indirectly) further, or maybe one’s attention can be captured by something else entirely different.

But sometimes the pieces, whatever they are, however they’re assembled, connect and work, and sometimes they work near perfectly. Not always, to be sure, but if the results are enjoyable, who’s to complain? Looking at other bands of more recent vintage that have been accused of being similarly obvious as the subject in question, personally I have no problem at all with the Rapture or Bloc Party or Franz Ferdinand, where others of recent years I just don’t feel work, though I’ll spare you names here (for once). And sometimes a new band just plain flatout works — and that’s where, stepping back a few years, Placebo comes in.

“Bet they get dropped when his hair falls out.”

The self-titled debut was one of the last promo releases I got while working at the UCI student newspaper — I was soon to leave the grad program for a variety of reasons, sidestepping into the library work I still currently do at the school. I was probably feeling pretty frustrated and annoyed with my situation, so likely I was in the mood for something loud. I didn’t know anything about the band — my regular reading of the Brit weekly music press had ceased two years beforehand and while the incipient popularized Internet was helping it was far from the obvious and immediate reference source it is now for nearly anything and everything. All I saw was that the cover looked pretty good — the color of the photograph, the slightly odd pose of the boy — and that the press release probably dropped a few obvious names here and there. I looked at the promo photo, thought, “A female-fronted trio, bit like how PJ Harvey started out” (I’ve since discovered I was hardly alone in the gender mistake) and took the CD home and put it in the player and pressed play.

And I was a fan about ten seconds in. That was a really nice experience, I love whenever that happens and I love it even more when I can look back over time and still feel that rush. So I was already sold and the rest just sorta came from there, as shown six years ago here and here. There have been other places as well.

Trying to figure out why Placebo in particular seems to have attracted such venom from many corners, though, is perhaps a bit of a mug’s game. Why does any band or performer attract it? The reasons are near endless and I don’t think there’s any musician truly universally liked, not in toto at least. So singling out said Placebo reasons might seem to miss the point when one could advance reasons against almost anyone — but like I said, there should be no need to resist something that you really adore, so why not see if the criticisms are part of the reason why you like them? The amount of venom might not make the music any better, but it does provide a context, of a sort.

“Even in interviews you can just feel the utter twattishness. This is a compliment, of course.”

Placebo are, as noted, not a surprise. They are perfectly obvious. They are guitar/bass/drums at heart. They have loud songs and they have soft ones, and at points have ones that are both. They wear black clothes and makeup. The lyrical tropes are sex/drugs/angst/death/love/lust. The rhymes are almost always patently straightforward, as are the songtitles. In otherwards, they’re not only like a lot of other bands, but like a lot of other performers in general they have a particular approach that they employ without much in the way of specific variation. There might be putative variations, of course, and there are also plenty of examples of performers — famous or not — who show change or fluidity or reinvention or whatever you would like to have. Then again, does this always mean that they’re automatically better than others? No real way to measure that in the end, one might be impressed but might not be convinced.

But the point is that they push my buttons effortlessly — or so I dream, but the reality would have to be different. Like another oft-maligned band I adore, them Smashing Pumpkins, Placebo give me an idea of what a band I might have formed would be like (I wouldn’t fit the exact model, brilliantly outlined on ILM by Sundar Subramanian, as to what goes into the creation of a band like Placebo…but I suspect I’d be closer in ways than I realized). They took the loud guitar noise from a variety of bands from the late eighties and early nineties I liked — besides the Pumpkins themselves, there’s Sonic Youth in there, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, Pavement (to the point where the opening guitar part to “Texas Never Whispers” was sampled for a song, but more on that shortly) — and welded it to a keep-it-simple, keep-it-catchy approach that can be found in acts like T. Rex and Depeche Mode, Bowie and the Cure, all at their most populist. It’s so simple — indeed, so obvious — that it seems to provoke annoyance. (Of course, similarly obvious fusions via other bands provoke annoyance in me, so I know what it’s like from both sides — AND I DON’T CARE, but that’s perhaps the point.)

As much as ‘substance’ — in rockcrit terminology the actual music, plus usually something evanescent, something apparently involving sweat and grit, which feedback is often alleged to provide — there is ‘style’ — in rockcrit terminology, something horrifying, or meaning that all pleasure arrived must be guilty. Well, to hell with that, but I’ve already said that. Anyway, it’s accurate enough to say that the look is as important to the impact of the band as anything else (and again, no new surprise there), and that not everyone will feel thrilled by a short singer with a baffling array of black hairstyles and a definitely non-classically attractive face, a tall Swedish stick insect and a hairy drumming feller, sometimes bearded, all usually wearing something between bondage goth and absinthe-sipping goth clothes and almost always wearing it in black. This is in large part precisely why I like them.

“for ansgst riddled teens with spots and greasy hair who think no-one understands them”

Placebo are a perfect fantasy band for me in look and attitude (as generally described) as they are musically. It’s adolescent only if you want it to be (only one song is specifically about “Teenage Angst,” after all — and notably the words themselves aren’t used in the lyrics), and similarly dressing up and looking fabulous and louche and all that in your own way, even if it’s not the way others might prefer — well hey, sign me up! I’ve often always said that if it wasn’t for the weather around here I’d probably just give in and goth it up on a regular basis — but frankly black clothes absorb heat and my makeup would run. Be fun to tease up my hair, though (even if that’s more of a Robert Smith thing, but I digress).

So it makes sense that the videos I liked the most on the DVD collection were the fantasy ones, mostly directed by Howard Greenhalgh, noted for his line of videos for the Pet Shop Boys circa Very and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” For Placebo, after a couple of initial vidoes of implied spunk and far less implied s&m, he oversaw minifilms that veered between stories and performance videos in odd or impossible settings — the image of Placebo rocking out in the Jodrell Bank telescope dish for “The Bitter End” pleased my astronomy loving self. Either way, in his hands the band find the ‘maximum visual impact’ dreamed of by one Billy Corgan, using the (relative) variety as contrast and looking agreeably cinematic or frenetic, as desired.

At the same time there’s the lingering sense of imperfection, being uncomfortable in one’s own skin — putting on a show to put on the alternate identity, to indeed dress up. Another example of the perfect obviousness of Placebo is the tour film included on the DVD which would screen behind performances of “Nancy Boy” at one point — finding a cross between John Waters, Harmony Korine and Was Anderson, a hypergeek-nerd looking figure on grainy film dreams or appears to dream of turning himself into a drag queen par excellence. But not a glamourous one in a traditional mold, much more of a Divine one — imperfect, messing up, getting drunk, being a wreck in his room. It’s an x = x move and, again, I love it — I mean, WHY NOT? It’s not new at all and yet it works. I don’t think I was ever going to be that extreme or outre when I was growing up, my interests and fever-dream desires went different routes, but it’s a path I could have taken (and this while earning my Eagle Scout badge, that would have made for a strange ceremony in the local Catholic church where my troop was based — I was Anglican, though, so no guilt factors, happily).

“I’ve actually started to enjoy some of their stuff while fully realizing it was completely dumb and derivative.”

“Slave to the Wage” is one of my favorite songs by them, one of my favorite videos as well. When I first saw it, the setting and the extras and their look, I thought, “Oh, it’s like Gattaca” — which Molko then later confirmed in the commentary. Again, obvious, a reference to something then current and notable. The song is as direct as one can make it — working for the man sucks rocks, therefore be wild and free. To here Molko tell it again in the commentary, he got the idea reflecting back on a job he had to do shredding papers at a bank, and wanted to capture the feeling of just busting loose and leaving it all behind. Completely and utterly obvious, there’s nothing new there — but then again who HASN’T had that feeling? There are always new love songs, there are always new hate songs, there can be new songs about that subject too.

And musically, time to bring in Pavement again — so what Placebo does is play pop-Neu rhythms (again, so VERY obviously nineties, is it not? Neu and the Krautrock revival and so forth) and then slam in that “Texas Never Whispers” intro as a further addition of guitar glaze. It’s BEAUTIFUL. It’s a silvery bit of perfection that frankly equals the German source on the one hand and outstrips the American one on the other, because, again, it works — for me at least. Combine it in with, yes, that voice (why does Molko’s voice work for me where someone like his semi-contemporary Jaime Harding is a sprawling mess? who knows?) and all of a sudden my heart’s skipping a beat and the impulse to just get out and get away is…fresh. Perfect. Hummable. Even futuristic in a retro way, which is sorta the point.

I could also go on about the performance of them and Bowie ripping ten kinds of shit out of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” on the Brits — seriously, it’s goddamn loud and pretty damned great — or how the interview sequence had just enough Spinal Tap bits while also showing humor, reflection, a bit of calm. You get a sense that they’re a band who have realized that they have found exactly their particular niche and can build on it, and I wonder sometimes what that will yet lead to. I don’t think they can quite replicate the way that the Cure or Depeche took a decade to full break the States or anything, it may never happen, but they’ve got the arena-filling levels elsewhere, the rabid fanbase — I get the sense, rightly or wrongly, that they can quite happily pursue their particular path for the rest of their time together just doing nothing but refining that niche over and over again. And you know, I don’t really mind that if the buzz remains. Why worry about getting bored with a band until you actually are bored with them? It’s been almost ten years for me and I’m not bored yet.

“Placebo are actually class A stone cold fucking great, aren’t they? I mean, like, seriously. Eternal teenage angst with girly vocals, nagging guitars, and dumb as fuck lyrics. Plus Brian Molko irritates music journalists, which for that alone makes him a CLASSIC.”

Well, he doesn’t irritate me. Then again I’ve never interviewed him.