When Brian Molko met Stefan Ofsdal both young men were attending the American International School of Luxembourg but their paths would cross again in earnest in 1994 after a chance meet outside South Kensington tube station. A group called Ashtray Heart was formed and that became Placebo – the perfect name for the ideal drug taken from the Latin word meaning I will please.
Their first album, Placebo, was released in summer of 1996 and made the Top Five despite going against the trend of Britpop in every way imaginable. So more power to their elbow. Spawning the hits ‘Nancy Boy’ and ‘36 Degrees’ this self-styled glam rock epic was recorded with grunge man Brad Wood – a native of Rockford, Illinois and au fait with the Chicago sound - at Westland Studios in Dublin. It simply bucked every available trend. Available now in remastered and re-edited format (like all their albums) the songs within demanded attention, particularly as Molko’s distinctive gender bending vocalese and distinctive appearance, not to mention an integral flair for melodrama drag the listener into a quite alien world to the norm. Stand out cuts to consider here are ‘Bruise Pristine’, a superb riff heavy extravaganza, and ‘Come Home’ while ‘Teenage Angst’ served as a calling card favourite on live shows then and now.
Making up for lost time Placebo got down to creating Without You I’m Nothing, a million selling platinum triumph. The band now seemed fully formed and hit the ground at breakneck speed with the key songs ‘Pure Morning’ and ‘You Don’t Care About Us’ replacing some of the more overt glam hues of the debut with a spikier if occasionally more mellow approach akin to Sonic Youth. As ever with Molko there’s a bittersweet romance and an edge to the lyrics. He can deliver a close to the bone number like ‘Scared of Girls’ or ‘My Sweet Prince’ and make you inhabit his world, albeit vicariously. A thrill for all concerned comes in the fact that David Bowie was so enamoured of the title track he agreed to add vocals for the single which Placebo rerecorded in English and French as a thank you to their massive following in France.
Black Market Music (2000) is another million seller that took nine months of gestation. It’s a fine child for that. A dark, guitar rock masterpiece at its core there are several other layers to unravel. Hip-hop Emcee and rapper Justin Warfield appears on "Spite & Malice" and Rob Ellis (known for his production and drumming with PJ Harvey) provides string arrangements. Ambitiously decadent on Special K and microscopically exact on the ménage a trios ‘Taste in Men’, ‘Black Market Music’ sounded like a dangerous vehicle at the time. The detractors simply weren’t paying close attention.
After a hiatus Sleeping With Ghosts upped the guitars and kissed away some of the frayed, louche edges of previous albums, allowing Molko to spend some time examining his own recent emotional terrain and make a weird sense from the entrails. ‘English Summer Rain’ and ‘This Picture’ deal with the doomed and the fetishist side of life head on. Never one to duck a challenge musically or lyrically, Molko saw the album’s ghosts as the baggage one needs to get off one’s chest before moving on.
They did exactly that with Covers – imagine a kind of Placebo Pin Ups - and Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996-2004 which exorcised some demons by compiling most of their singles and adding three new songs: ‘I Do’, ‘Twenty Years’ and the witty ‘Protégé-Moi’. Heard in such a super saturated condensed form many suddenly got what Placebo were about and we’d point you here for an enormously rewarding taster.
It’s back to solid studio business on Meds (2006) where producer Dimitri Tikovi persuaded Placebo to move away from programming and sampling and synths and revert to their three-piece punch. Not that Meds is without colouration. Far from that since guests include Michael Stipe, Alison Mosshart from The Kills on the title track and a raft of strings arranged by Fiona Brice who has since become a regular side woman with Placebo in her own right. A fantastically effective and focussed disc Meds placed Placebo back on centre stage where they belong. Another major European success the album went Gold in the UK and Russia!
So to the very recent Loud Like Love (2013) recorded back at RAK with producer Adam Noble. Yet another deviation from the expected the album has caused a stir for engineering a hook up with novelist Bret Easton Ellis who appears in the video for the first single ‘Too Many Friends’ that confronts a world where the Internet and technology in general may create an emotional vacuum. The title song is an instant anthem while ‘Rob The Bank’ reminds one of dark humorous undertow in Molko’s writing just as ‘Hold On To Me’ reinforces his tender side. The whole thing is destined to improve with listening and is available as a box set and a deluxe digipack. So there they are. Twenty years on from that fateful tube station meeting. Still going strong and still offering their Placebo. Pleasing indeed….
Words: Max Bell
While Placebo's self-titled debut contained mostly elements of '90s alternative (Smashing Pumpkins, etc.), their second album, Without You I'm Nothing, is full of '70s glam rock and punk references. Placebo's rhythm section of Stefan Olsdal (bass) and Steve Hewitt (drums) is impressively tight, but the band's star attraction is undoubtedly androgynous singer/guitarist Brian Molko. Wherea
Since the band's 1996 self-titled debut, Placebo has penchant for delivering spiky, stylishly slick pop songs, in particular "Nancy Boy" and "Pure Morning." Brian Molko's femme-like vocals and androgynous appearance is matched with Stefan Olsdal and Steve Hewitt's solid glam-inspired instrumentation, giving Placebo a spot of its own in the typically cheeky Brit-pop scene. Fourth album Sleeping with Ghosts works with the band's post-grunge/experimental desire to keep things campy and emotionally intact; however, Placebo's a bit reserved this time around. While Without You I'm Nothing boasted a glam rock edge and Black Market Music captured more of a punk-glam polish, Sleeping with Ghosts crawls with mopish, gnarled ballads. "Bulletproof Cupid" is a vibrant album opener with classic guitar snarling, but the album's intensity quickly drops when "English Summer Rain"'s flimsy electronic bits lose step with Molko's dismal interpretation of nature. The electric riffs of "The Bitter End" stick with Placebo's frenzied rock style, and "Plasticine" and "Second Sight" are equally cool dark pop, but stand in contrast to the bigger standouts of "Taste in Men" from Black Market Music and "Every You Every Me" from Without You I'm Nothing. Placebo has an undeniable swagger, and any attempt to tame its overconfident character simply doesn't work. The whiny, synth-driven "Protect Me from What I Want" is a perfect example; Molko's sharp wit is much too literal in criticizing social conformity, typically mocking and self-deprecating as in the song "Special Needs." Sleeping with Ghosts doesn't venture out lyrically or sonically, but that's not to say it's a bad album. The members of Placebo, now in their early thirties, move beyond the spit and scowl of their previous albums, and new fans will find Sleeping with Ghosts to be a good record. Old fans, though, might think the band wimped out while growing up.
Words: MacKenzie Wilson
The key to Placebo's sound is singer/guitarist Brian Molko, whose impersonation of a woman goes far beyond his appearance and into his singing voice. His trio brings together various influences -- the epic, noisy "Chicago sound," late-'70s prog rock, and late-'80s "college rock" -- but boils them down into fairly conventional, guitar-heavy melodrama, with the sort of opaque and angst-ridden lyrics usually found in that genre. That's not to say that Placebo's sound is boring; churning guitars and direct, heavy basslines give the album a good deal of strength, and Molko is able to write moving, gritty melodies and fairly clever lyrics. Placebo may sound like a mix between the Smashing Pumpkins and Rush -- and the levels of melodrama on the album may stretch far beyond most people's tolerance -- but it's well-written and performs enough variations on those genres to keep it interesting.
Words: Nitsuh Abebe
As it turns out, it's rather telling that not far into their career, Placebo made a memorable appearance in Todd Haynes' 1998 David Bowie roman a clef/glam rock homage Velvet Goldmine as a sinewy band clearly invented as a stand-in for T. Rex. In the years since, the members have shown little interest in branching out into broader areas of pop, and have instead focused largely on the passionate goth niche they originally carved for themselves, relishing Marc Bolan-esque cult status rather than pursuing radio-friendly superstardom. And indeed, this single-mindedness has rewarded the band with a devoted fan base -- one that went so far as to start a viral campaign to celebrate lead singer/songwriter Brian Molko's 40th birthday in 2012. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Placebo's seventh studio album, 2013's Loud Like Love, will certainly appeal to the band's longtime fans more than to casual listeners. That being said, the release is among the group's most accessible material, even if their tendency toward goth romance and arch fantasy are still very much intact. Produced by Adam Noble, who has worked with a variety of artists including Haley Westenra, the Guillemots, and Paul McCartney, Loud Like Love has a sonic warmth that helps buoy Placebo's often melancholy songs. Along with the warmer production, there is a maturity and long-form dramatic tension to many of the songs on Loud Like Love. To these ends, we get the jangly, R.E.M.-sounding title track, the anthemic moodiness of "Too Many Friends," and the slow-burn power ballad "Hold on to Me." Many of these songs play like less-alienated, if no less paranoid, OK Computer-era Radiohead cuts. However, the songs here are still laden with Molko's high-pitched vocals, which he characteristically uses to play the eternally angst-ridden and alienated teenager -- something the band's fans will surely appreciate.
Words: Matt Collar
With 2004's release of Placebo's singles collection, the band reaffirmed that it has never quite fit into any particular fad. Their success has been gradual in the sense that their style and sound have progressed naturally with each album. Meds builds upon that notion while also embarking on a new phase for Placebo. Meds is their second coming. Frontman Brian Molko is no longer the glam-chic, gender-bending firestarter he once was. His songs are still angry and twisted in self-reflection and social rejection. Meds doesn't contain the rush to experiment like their previous records do. It's as bare and honest as Placebo have ever been, thanks to French producer Dimitri Tikovoi's straightforward approach in getting the band to make a bona fide rock record. There's a fresh vulnerability here and a sense of danger, too; the album's title track quickly enters this sphere. It's an obsessive moment confronting the social hypnosis and dependence of medication. The Kills' Alison Mosshart lends an anxious vocal backdrop as Placebo deliver an aggressive guitar-driven assault. Meds doesn't stop for breath until its end. Fans should be pleased with the menacing "Infra-Red" and the sexy ensnaring of "One of a Kind," two tracks that showcase Placebo's signature fiery performance style. When they're not deconstructing social expectations, Placebo's storytelling is equally powerful on the more lilting tracks. The shifty slow burn of "Space Monkey" is an epic ballad for the band. Placebo step out of their skin here. A squall of fuzzed guitars, strings, and Molko's brooding vocals strike to knock down the celebrity pedestal that creates a false human image. "Broken Promise," a duet with Michael Stipe, takes similar shape as a dramatic tale of adultery unfolds into a dark, emotional storm. Letting go of toxic relationships on "Song to Say Goodbye," a melancholic closing to Meds, brings the album full circle. To some, Meds might come off as less interesting compared to the slickness of older tracks such as "Taste in Men" and "Every You Every Me." Some may be over Molko's constant analysis of sex, drugs, and desire. What you see is what you get with Placebo and, for the first time in a long time, that vision is clear. [The U.S. limited edition release includes a bonus DVD. Additional features include four previously unreleased audio tracks, their Wembley performance of "Twenty Years," a duet with the Cure on "If Only Tonight We Could Sleep" as well as bonus material from backstage at Live 8 and special studio footage.]
Words: MacKenzie Wilson
After almost five years, the vile, nasty, spunk-filled world of Placebo has refused to go away. Marilyn Manson has turned a satirical eye on his own media status and even Suede have since come to swoon over girls "shaped like a cigarette." Yet it's Brian Molko that's steered his band from premature randiness (Placebo) to fearful regrouping (Without You I'm Nothing) without once batting a makeup-smeared eyelash. Black Market Music finds Molko in such moody lust that his strangled, androgynous wailing rivals anything the band has previously flashed to the world. Whether it's the dripping, slithery punk circle of songs like "Black Eyed" or the choir-boy enthusiasm of others like "Special K" (strangely echoing Midnight Oil's "Warakurna"), Placebo seem to have finally found that sweet wet spot between beauty and perversion. Even at its worst (the "Block Rockin' Beats"-sampling "Taste in Men"), past glories sometimes fail to be repeated with at least grand, postcoital contentment. Because it's hard to hate an album with such fascinating softer touches. In one moment, Molko cries respect to his mother; in another he counsels, "You better keep it in check/Or you'll end up a wreck/And you'll never wake up" -- a paternal warning seemingly directed at his fellow hedonists. Of course, there's a thin line between trying to perfect old efforts and stumbling into laughable self-parody. But Placebo now seem more in control than they ever have before. The spectacular "Commercial for Levi," for example, is some perverted, weary take on a childhood lullaby, only one written in a parallel dimension about "spunk and bestiality." True, there's no "Nancy Boy" or "Pure Morning," yet the album's consistency easily outmatches even the highest watermarks of either predecessor. This is a dank, lusty moment in the band's career that is about as good as Placebo "mark 1" can go. They now have the talent, the intelligence, and the distorted arousal to possibly become unstoppable. It's only a matter of time before they finally find love amid the lust.
Words: Dean Carlson
Placebo's career is a living, breathing example of the power of a niche audience. After making a mild splash in the glam-friendly Brit-pop aftermath -- they ratcheted up the gothic androgyny of Suede, straightening out the guitars while piling up the makeup, vocal tics, and tortured poetry -- the group settled into an appreciative cult that never seemed to penetrate the pop consciousness on either side of the ocean. Battle for the Sun, the band's sixth album and first with drummer Steve Forrest, is given a steel-reinforced production by David Bottrill, a sound that could conceivably be placed on mainstream rock radio if that format still existed, or if it were used as a vehicle for something else than Placebo's music, which remains resolutely pitched toward a niche audience, no matter how many little frills of horns or farting synths grace their guitar grind. Certainly, a good portion of what makes Placebo a cult band is Brian Molko himself, how his strangled vocal affectations and enduring angst speak directly to a small, dedicated batch of listeners while alienating all others, something that Molko, after a decade and a half of semi-stardom, rightly wears as a badge of honor, but the increased care spent on the sound of Battle for the Sun emphasizes how the band's sound -- an extension of '80s growth, right down to its reflected love of '70s Bowie, but never unfriendly to any passing electronic fad -- is never quite hooky, nor does it have a rock kick. Instead, everything about Battle for the Sun -- the thumping rhythms, the subtly churning keyboards, the clanking grind of the digital distortion -- is coloring for the group's disaffected stance, not so much stylish but terminally out of time, alienation preserved in amber for those few who understand.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Originally appearing as part of a special edition of Sleeping with Ghosts, Covers rounds up ten covers Placebo released as B-sides and stray tracks during the first decade of their career. Most of the selections make sense -- they’re ‘80s alt-rock and ‘70s glam rock staples, never departing from the canon (the Smiths rub shoulders with T. Rex), but not disappointing, either, and always displaying the band’s good taste if not quite their interpretive skills.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine