It seemed like the most unlikely of collaborations. A teen hip hop fanatic, a pub singer in her mid-20s and a seasoned jazz session guitarist in his 30s.
No one would have picked that they’d have much common creative ground, let alone the wherewithal to craft one of the 90s most stirring sonic distillations of melancholia and despair. One that would reverberate around the world.
But that’s exactly what Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley did in 1994 when they delivered their exceptional debut, Dummy.
Put it down to desperation, or maybe even destiny. Both played a role in how this breakthrough album came to be.
Geoff Barrow crossed paths with Beth Gobbons at their local unemployment office, of all places. In an effort to qualify for funding under a government scheme for new enterprises, Barrow told the jobs officer that he wanted to start a music production company. Gibbons was part of the same group of applicants and mentioned she wanted to be a singer.
“We didn’t instantly click, like, that we were going to work together,” Barrow told Richard Kingsmill on triple j in 2011.
But he made a strong enough impression on the aspiring singer, putting together six backing tracks for her in a single afternoon ahead of a gig she had booked.
What Gibbons brought to Barrow’s murky, highly textured music tracks is remarkable for its raw honesty as well as its complete mysteriousness.
In Welcome to Portishead, the 1998 French documentary on the UK trio, Barrow discusses his enigmatic bandmate.
“What she does is real, her lyrics are not made up just for a song, they are, her real emotions. She puts everything into the music, she opens herself up on the records and to me, that’s brilliant.
“Her voice, you know, for me, she’s shocked me, she surprises me every day. I always try and judge people, well not judge people, but try and work out what they’re like. But, with Beth, I can never work out what she’s like. She constantly keeps on changing.”
Doorways to many more intriguing dimensions of her personality are revealed through Dummy’s songs. From the broken innocence of ‘Roads’ with lyrics like ‘From this moment…how can it feel this wrong?’, a sashaying femme fatale in ‘Glory Box’, ‘Pedestal’ and ‘Strangers’, at her most vulnerable in ‘Numb’ and ‘Sour Times’ and bringing us the kind of spook only the girl at the bottom of the well could summon in songs like ‘Mysterons’ and ‘Biscuit.’
But Beth Gibbons is at pains to emphasise she’s just like anyone else.
“I don’t particularly want to be a pop star,” she explained in the aforementioned doco. “I don’t want people to think that I’m something I’m not. I don’t want them to think I’m particularly mysterious or interesting. I’m just exactly the same as they are.”
In her own inimitable way, however, Gibbons was able to channel haunting grief and the beauty in misery with such hypnotic, icy clarity. And it was driven by a strong personal need, as she told Hot Press in 1995.
"I do have an emptiness but, then again, everyone has to a lesser or greater degree,” she said. “I tend to dwell on mine more than other people do which I'm sure manifests itself in my lyrics. Suffering for your art is most definitely overrated but I do get a certain, I don't know, satisfaction from being able to deal with my paranoia and insecurity. I wake up sometimes and think, 'no way am I going to be able to get through the day', but you do and at the end of it you feel a tiny bit stronger."
The huge success of Dummy wasn’t something the frontwoman could have imagined.
“When the album came out, I wasn’t sure if it was any good or not,” she told Hot Press. “You could have said it was crap and I’d probably have agreed with you.”
But Gibbons, together with Barrow and Utley, produced a record that is a hallmark of the decade’s musical innovation, and along with Massive Attack’s Blue Lines – which Barrow, as the studio’s young tape operator, also worked on – brought worldwide attention to the peculiar creative hub in their hometown of Bristol.
Her bandmate, Barrow, however had a very different mindset according to his friend DJ Andy Smith.
“Geoff was always on that mission, that this would be big. Even in the late-80s when he was at my house, it was always ‘when.’
“‘When this blows up (as I’m sure everyone says), you can DJ, you can warm-up for us, do a scratch mix thing, be DJ and represent Portishead.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, right. Yeah, cheers, Geoff. Thanks a lot’.
“I didn’t really believe in it, but he always believed in it and knew it was going to get somewhere. He had such drive in him; I guess he always thought he would make it and do something big, even in the 80s, which is amazing because it didn’t happen until ‘94. I admire that; I still do.”