Wednesday, September 20, 1995

Portishead

ENOUGH, already. The word "Portishead" may never complete the journey from the pages of the Portishead and North Weston Town Guide to those of the Oxford English Dictionary, but it still is a signifier that looms over a significant swathe of contemporary culture, and a word as dreaded as it is unavoidable.

There was a time when most of those who regularly used the word "Portishead" lived in or around the estuary town of that name near junction 19 on the M5 in England, and were just as likely to be familiar with the towns of Clevedon and Yatton. While two employees of Robert John, a local chain of hair salons, achieved some notoriety when they represented Great Britain in the hairdressing event at the International Youth Skills Olympics, their success did little to popularise the word.

By the autumn of 1994, however, the number of people using the word in everyday conversation had increased beyond even the most extravagant dreams of the Portishead Urban District Council. A group of local musicians calling themselves "Portishead" had released an album called Dummy, and suddenly the word was dotted through the pages of the broadsheet newspapers and the grown ups' music press like a particularly virulent strain of lexical measles.

Initially, the word stood for rather nice digital torch songs, cooked on sequencers and samplers to a fairly simple recipe. A bass line strolled along as though on a nocturnal wander through the lamplit streets of suburban England, smoking and occasionally fingering the knot on its tie. Then some sparse drumbeats cut in, presently followed by a withered female vocal, seemingly emanating from behind the clenched jaws of a corpse in the advanced stages of rigor mortis. All this would carry on for several minutes before tumbling to a halt in a grid lock of reverberation, and starting all over again.

Pretty soon "Portishead" came to mean the soundtrack heard whenever the makers of a TV programme (particularly of the bitty, magazine variety) wanted to stoke up some generic atmosphere. Pitching such an item, a researcher could forgo any struggling references to film noir, Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, or Funeral in Berlin, by saying simply "the atmosphere is completely Portishead."

But the word also means something much, much more. It is not simply that Dummy won last week's distinctly uncoveted Mercury Music Prize. Long before the award, "Portishead" had assumed a central position in describing the 1990s. How you stand in relation to "Portishead" does much to determine how well you are coping with balding/love handles/the fin de siecle. Well adjusted citizens tended to see "Portishead" as a wonderful new beginning, representing the advent of classicism in turntable culture. Others, however, couldn't help thinking: "Cheer up, luv, it may never 'appen".

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