The Roots Of… Portishead

Each week we take an artist, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences. This week, it’s Portishead!

“I don’t really like [Portishead],” musician and producer Geoff Barrow said of his band’s nominal hometown back in early 1995. “It’s a place you can go to die…” In fact, Portishead have largely been driven by the way it has given four very different people a place to live. Geoff met farmer’s daughter Beth Gibbons in 1991. She was writing her own songs, while Geoff had spent a couple of years as a £60 a week tea-boy job at the city’s Coach House studios. That same year, while Massive Attack were recording their debut LP Blue Lines there, they gifted Geoff some spare studio time to record his own stuff. It would take a couple of years for these ideas to really come together as Geoff and Beth traded home made tapes, but when they did, Portishead were born. Well, nearly.

Beth wanted to perform live; Geoff wanted to stick to the studio. Beth wrote incredibly personal lyrics, but Geoff didn’t hear them the way everyone else did; “He has no idea what I’m singing about,” she said in an extremely rare interview back in the spring of 1995. “He’s not interested and he admits that.” For a beat-digger and sound designer like Geoff it was all about the feel of something – the sonics, not the specifics. Alongside his friend, guitarist Adrian Utley and aided by super-engineer Dave McDonald, Geoff would create new music to press onto vinyl which he would then reuse and resample.


Portishead’s debut album Dummy arrived in the summer of 1994, it’s crunchy weaving of funk, jazz, vintage soundtrack and prog-rock samples marked the last great high-water mark of pre-digital production – where vinyl records were physically manipulated on actual decks – and the music was a huge and immediate hit. Spare, emotionally resonant songs like Roads and Sour Times came to define the time so succinctly that when it came time to record album two, Geoff found he was in trouble. “I went through a 13-month complete head fuck,” he revealed in 1997. But that’s all to come, what we want to know is how did they get to Dummy in the first place?


In The Beginning
An escapee drummer from some, “awful rock bands” (like his covers outfit Ralph McTell’s Official Fan Club), the teenage Geoff Barrow developed into a bedroom DJ mixing up MC Shan, Run DMC and Roxanne Shante records before he landed his studio gig. There he worked with Massive Attack and Neneh Cherry on her Homebrew album – Geoff wrote and produced the track, Somedays – while developing his blend of hip-hop, soundtrack atmospherics, ambient noise and dub.

Meanwhile, Down On The Farm
Beth Gibbons was writing songs and singing Janis Joplin (although she preferred Janis Ian) covers in pubs around Bristol. A huge fan of Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Nina Simone and Jimmy Cliff, Beth ewas also developing a thing for U2, particularly The Joshua Tree; “I love Bono’s voice,” she said in 1994. “It’s very inspiring…” When she and Geoff first listened to each other’s tapes they were both convinced it wouldn’t work, but when her other ventures began to wobble – and seeing how quickly and imaginatively Geoff was working with other singers – they teamed up again. Beth brought her song It Could Be Sweet. Geoff entirely remodeled it for her. Right there, Portishead were born.

Tribal Allegiance
“I worry too much about being a combination of your influences,” Geoff once said, but that’s not to deny there are three crucial records in Portishead’s history. A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, 1991’s Low End Theory, Public Enemy’s 1988 LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Black Sheep’s 1991 debut, A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing. Here was live instrumentation and crisp samples, raw noise, dark atmospherics, a powerful sense of newness and serious experimentation. “There was a new door here,” as jazz-schooled Hendrix fan Adrian noted some years later.

Blend Of Days
Portishead’s initial genius – one of the reasons they took off with such force – was Geoff’s innate blend of two prevailing trends: bang up to the minute hip-hop and retro easy-listening. The clicky basslines, exotic sounds and sweeping strings of 60s and 70s soundtracks by composers like John Barry, Lalo Schifrin and Ennio Morricone sat fantastically well alongside the band’s funk and soul, electronic and avant-garde influences. Indeed, Wu Tang offshoot Gravediggaz would deliver 6 Feet Deep, a rather more blood-soaked take on the same idea that Dummy arrived. But that’s a whole other story…


More in this series

The Roots Of… My Bloody Valentine
The Roots Of… The Libertines
The Roots Of… Nirvana
The Roots Of… The Smiths
The Roots Of… The Killers