Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

Unfinishedsympathy

Artist: Massive (Massive Attack)
Title: Unfinished Sympathy
Description: single; track, Blue Lines
Label: Wild Bunch
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

Heyyy hey hey-hey

Always good fun: a partial list of songs withdrawn from air by the BBC during the Gulf War in 1990-91

Abba Waterloo
The Bangles Walk Like An Egyptian
The Beatles Back In The USSR
Kate Bush Army Dreamers
Cher Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
The Cure Killing an Arab
Cutting Crew I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight
Jose Feliciano Light My Fire
Roberta Flack Killing Me Softly
Elton John Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Lulu Boom Bang A Bang
Rick Nelson Fools Rush In
Queen Flash
Bruce Springsteen I’m On Fire
Stevie Wonder Heaven Help Us All

Indeed. Massive Attack had bigger problems during the blackout. They were forced to foreshorten their name to “Massive” to avoid the BBC shit-list of unpatriotic words while the Scud missiles and the B-52s exchanged fire. Bristol’s trailblazing trip-hop faculty made a rare concession to wood-panelled elite institutions and avoided ending up on the infamous list of 67 titles deemed unsuitable for life during wartime. Radio silence, especially on wonderful Radio 1, was unthinkable. Somerset and Avon’s co-operative of collectivist cool reasoned that it was better to be heard than unheard while the bombs dropped.

That said, Unfinished Sympathy wasn’t released until after the war, in February 1991. (Desert Shield shocked and awed from August 1990 to January 1991, and Desert Storm was over in February, so just in time for culture to resume.) But the question remains: how can you have a day without a night? You can’t. Just as you can’t have silence without a noise, or peace without a war. When I think of Massive Attack, I imagine dusk and all its subtleties, illusions and possibilities. It’s where they live, in that twilight zone between day and night. In the shadows. At the back of the hall. Under cover of darkness. Blue Lines, the debut, was a finished symphony, a new kind of dance record from an old set of heads on young shoulders with ready foreshortened names: 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom. (Thinking about it, Mushroom ought to have been banned during the Gulf, too.)

Into every dream home a little darkness. The world seemed ready for the heady aromatic moan of trip hop when it found a shape and was given a name at the dawn of the 90s. Run on inventive studio beats at a leisurely speed, cloudy with the fug of war and wearing a late-nite philosophical hat, it was post-rave comedown music that mixed drum and bass with a multi-media appetite for reconstruction. Robert Del Naja – 3D – is a graffiti artist and a contemporary of Banksy’s (whatever happened to him?), and there’s a sense of Massive Attack being less a band and more of an initiative, possibly council-funded, certainly artistic. Bristol is a bohemian port city which has seen everything pass through at one time or another.

An impatiently tapped hi-hat, some rogue warm-up scratching, a resonant bass drum, a typically relaxed count-in (“two … three”), someone nattering in the background and then the first epochal movement falls into step. The hi-hat is suddenly and all at once augmented by a rattling chorus of trebly cymbals and bells, then, over deeply cinematic chords, the first heyyy hey hey-hey – a distress signal as much as a chorale, trapped in the middle distance. I always assumed it to be sung by Shara Nelson, but it’s a sample of a high male voice from John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, possibly bassist Ralphe Armstrong. You see, it’s wrong to make assumptions about this record.

The string section sounds so parodically luxurious you start to wonder if it’s actually the work of synths, but Massive Attack were convinced to travel down the M4 and record the strings at Abbey Road with arranger Wil Malone, blowing their budget in the process. The core beat is expertly extracted and spun out of the brief percussive opening of an instrumental recording by bebop trombonist JJ Johnson, Parade Strut (featured on his score to the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite). Magpie eyes are always hungry for a prize.

Shara Nelson makes herself felt at 30 seconds.

I know that I’ve been mad in love before

As well as the siren of this remarkable record, Nelson is also one of five songwriters credited, along with the three chaps and co-producer Jonathan “Jonny Dollar” Sharp. The germ of the song was hers. She means it when she sings of the “curiousness of your potential kiss” that has got her “mind and body aching.” While she channels the great soul singers of the past, she also luxuriates in echo and space that didn’t come as standard in the studios of the 60s. The gentleman about whom she is aching, is a book that she has opened – “and now I’ve got to know much more.” It’s easy to be distracted by the studio hardware and the collection-tin percussion and the melodramatic orchestration: the heart of the matter is a protagonist on the cusp of a love that may consume us all. There are two gulfs at play here.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part

There’s more nattering over the end section, as if someone has left the talkback on in the studio, while the various parts of a strange arrangement recede like a film set being dismantled, and it actually finishes in a squall of echo and a ball of confusion. It is track six on Blue Lines, with its queue of guests, the feral input of Tricky, the earth-mother Zen of Neneh Cherry and the faltering tones of Horace Andy, but if one piece were to represent, it’s Unfinished Sympathy. It never bores us, but neither does it get to a chorus.

Unwitting future suppliers of the heyy hey hey-hey, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sang these words in 1976, not knowing how pertinent they would sound in 1990-91, or beyond: “We’re planetary citizens of the human race and we want to make the world a better place. Love is the answer to all the wars, when we love one another, we can open doors.”

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6 thoughts on “Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

  1. Hi Andrew, nice to see you’re putting these out again.
    I remember getting a Sky satellite subscription so that I could see Music videos at all times of the day. I recall seeing the video of this song and (purely from memory and not googling to remind myself!)noting how it followed somebody travelling around a city on a skateboard (as an ersatz wheelchair) and things happening around the central action which were not directly connected which seemed like a visual rendition of the song. I didn’t know about “trip hop” or whatever but have enjoyed Massive Attack ever since

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  2. Mate, that is a masterful review. Thanks.

    The layers, of sounds, samples and concepts on those records is staggering. I’ve learnt so much about music i would never have known about from MA.
    Billy Cobham from Safe from Harm
    Lowrell on Lately (my favourite I think)
    Isaac Hayes and Mahavishnu are all over that album of course.

    Bearing in mind they famously didn’t get out of bed before lunchtime, you’re right dusk is definitely where they live.

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    • Good point. Margaret Thatcher famously only slept for a few hours a night and when did she achieve anything as great as Blue Lines?

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  3. Great piece of writing as always. I was working in HMV Trocadero in London when this song And it’s album came out. I was in the middle of a Neds/Carter etc phase, and so it passed me by. However when staff (standing, coolly smoking at the tills.. remember that?!) were asked to vote on album
    Of the year, did I choose God Fodder? No I still had an ounce of sense, and I chose Blue Lines.

    I don’t think ANY British band has come close to such an extraordinary album since. And this track distilled it perfectly. Extraordinary.

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