Happy 25th Anniversary to Massive Attack’s debut album Blue Lines, originally released April 8, 1991.
Just a few months ago, the Albumism team and I were relishing the glorious return of Massive Attack with the unveiling of their stellar Ritual Spirit EP, which arrived following the pioneering group’s six-year hiatus from crafting new music. Today, we revisit the revolutionary recording that established the Bristol, England band as the visionary forefathers, for better or worse, of one of the most thrilling musical movements of the past 25 years.
The trio of Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles is most commonly regarded as one of the driving forces behind the emergence of trip-hop, the musical style that developed in the early-to-mid 1990s, predicated upon the confluence of electronic, hip-hop, reggae, dub, bass, R&B, funk, and jazz music, among other sonic inspirations. However, the media-constructed term itself didn’t formally enter the musical lexicon until June 1994, when Mixmag journalist Andy Pemberton coined it in reference to “In/Flux,” one of DJ Shadow’s earliest singles. By that time, Massive Attack’s career had already been evolving for a handful of years, so the trip-hop label was subsequently bestowed upon them and retroactively applied to their initial recordings.
The origin of Massive Attack dates back to the mid 1980s, when 3D, Daddy G, and Mushroom formed the now-legendary Bristol sound system The Wild Bunch with their kindred musical spirits, including producer Nellee Hooper (Soul II Soul, Bjork), DJ Milo Johnson, and Adrian “Tricky” Thaws. Through their shared admiration of graffiti art and various musical styles, downtempo rhythms, and subdued vocals, the collective both embodied and advanced the Bristol underground scene. “[Bristol’s] like a town masquerading as a city, and what it's always been good at is the underground scene, in both art and music,” 3D, a former graffiti artist, told The Telegraph in 2008. “Bands would flourish locally before they reached a national level and because there was never a big media or music industry here, people were doing it for their own gratification. Creativity here never grew in a contrived way, people were just teaching themselves and beating off the competition to become a big fish in a small pond."
Presumably while harboring ambitions of expanding beyond the insular creative confines of Bristol, 3D, Daddy G, and Mushroom morphed into Massive Attack in 1988, a name that, as 3D explained to the Belgian magazine Humo in 2003, “derives from a groovy warehouse party in Bristol of which we were quite fond.” The threesome released their debut single “Any Love,” produced by their fellow Bristolians Smith & Mighty, later that same year. Two years later in 1990, with the generous support and insistence of their confidante and financial benefactor Neneh Cherry, fresh off her acclaimed 1989 debut LP Raw Like Sushi at the time, the group signed their first deal with Circa Records.
From their earliest days to their aforementioned recent recordings, Massive Attack have avoided succumbing to narcissism and the celebrity spotlight, as their mugs have never appeared on any of their albums or singles’ front covers. It would seem, then, that the group prefers for their music, and not their faces, to define their artistic identity whilst preserving their professional integrity. Moreover, their reputation as ambassadors of the so-called Bristol Sound has always seemed to make the group a bit uneasy. “There’s this Bristol myth,” a dismissive 3D insisted during an April 1991 NME interview. “Everyone talks about a Bristol sound, but half our album was done in London and the video for ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was shot in LA.”
Geographical contextualization aside, Blue Lines, their debut long player from which the masterful “Unfinished Sympathy” originates, was a landmark achievement at the time of its release. Together with Soul II Soul’s Club Classics Vol. One (1989), The KLF’s White Room (1991), LFO’s Frequencies (1991), The Orb’s The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (1991), and Primal Scream’s Screamadelica (1991), Blue Lines proved a vital blueprint for the proliferation of British dance music as the end of the 20th century approached. Its mellifluous mélange of various inspirations characterized by assorted hip-hop breakbeats, expertly selected samples (Billy Cobham, Funkadelic, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, etc.), dense dub rhythms, cerebral rhymes, and soulful guest vocals is unabashedly reverential to the past, but still represents a fresh and novel sound imitated by no one at the time.
Recorded in Bristol and London in 1990 into early 1991 and released on their own Wild Bunch imprint by way of Virgin/Circa, Blue Lines was the outcome not just of Massive Attack’s musical vision, but also a fair amount of coaxing by one of the group’s most devoted champions. “We were lazy Bristol twats,” Daddy G conceded to The Observer in 2004. “It was Neneh Cherry who kicked our arses and got us in the studio. We recorded a lot at her house, in her baby's room. It stank for months and eventually we found a dirty nappy behind a radiator. I was still DJing, but what we were trying to do was create dance music for the head, rather than the feet. I think it's our freshest album, we were at our strongest then.” Executive produced by Cherry’s musical collaborator and husband, Cameron “Booga Bear” McVey, the album was co-produced by the group and the late Jonny Dollar. (As a side note, due to assumed sensitivities concerning the Persian Gulf War raging at the time of the album's completion and per McVey's urging, the initial pressings of Blue Lines and the "Unfinished Sympathy" single were adorned with the temporarily abbreviated band moniker "Massive." A ceasefire was declared on February 28, 1991, and "Attack" was then reincorporated for all subsequent LP pressings and singles.)
Two singles were released in advance of Blue Lines’ April 1991 release, both featuring the impassioned, emotive vocals of then-newcomer Shara Nelson. Though the London-bred singer’s relationship with the band would prove ephemeral due to ensuing professional conflicts, as soulhead.com’s Michael A. Gonzales recently explored, their initial collaborations provided the standout fare across the highlight-filled album.
In October 1990, the group delivered the rollicking, heavily percussive “Daydreaming” as the lead single, the demo of which ultimately helped the group secure their first major record deal. “Virgin/Circa were the most interested at this time, but there was a general sense of caution from the industry,” 3D wrote on the band’s message board in 2002. “I played everyone a rough vocal idea that I’d done with Tricky, this became ‘Daydreaming.’ We demo’d it and everyone went crazy. Everyone wanted us. We went with Circa, released ‘Daydreaming,’ and finished the album.” While Nelson contributes her vocals, which contain subtle echoes of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 single of the same name from her Young, Gifted and Black album, the rhyme exchange between the gravelly-voiced duo of 3D and a remarkably coherent Tricky is the driving force here. “Daydreaming” functions as a manifesto of sorts for the group’s enlightened musical vision, as evidenced by 3D’s nod to “lyrics on the dance floor that raise your spirit level” and Tricky’s proclamation of “hip-hop ya don’t stop.” A handful of political and pop culture references are included among their ruminations, most notably 1980s Thatcherism (“Maggie this Maggie that Maggie means inflation”), Fiddler on the Roof (“If I was a rich man”) and The Beatles (“Here comes the sun little darlin”).
Loosely based on a work-in-progress melody that Nelson had been developing at the time, the multi-textured “Unfinished Sympathy” garnered widespread attention immediately upon its release as Blue Lines’ second single in February 1991. Now universally hailed as one of the greatest dance tracks of all time, the expansive “Unfinished Sympathy” sounded unlike any other dancefloor fare at the time, largely due to its sweeping strings courtesy of the Will Malone helmed 40-piece orchestra recorded in London’s famed Abbey Road studios. Though the end result was more magnificent than anyone could have ever imagined, the band have admitted that they were unprepared for the price tag associated with hiring the ensemble, which fell outside of the original budget earmarked for the album’s recording. “We had to sell the car to pay for it,” 3D confessed to NME shortly after the album’s release. Beyond its ambitious instrumentation, the song derives its power from Nelson’s examination of the curiosity and lust she feels toward the elusive object of her affection, her voice simultaneously embodying a raw emotional vulnerability and poised sophistication.
Album opener and third single “Safe From Harm” offers one of the album’s most dramatic and foreboding arrangements, largely built around the sample of the revered jazz fusion composer Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” (1973). The track’s subdued, swirling sonics provide the perfect backdrop for Nelson’s defiant voice to shine, as she vows to protect her “baby” amidst the inevitable madness of the world and convincingly admonishes “if you hurt what's mine / I'll sure as hell retaliate.”
Though Nelson casts a wide spell across Blue Lines, the same can absolutely be said for the prolific, sweet-voiced reggae crooner Horace Andy, who features on three tracks with the geopolitically charged album closer “Hymn of the Big Wheel” the most memorable of the bunch. Andy assumes a paternal tone throughout the track, as he reflects on life (“the wheel”) and the human struggle to preserve one’s innocence in the midst of the world’s destructive forces. He laments the environmental impact of industrialization across the song’s most poignant verse:
We sang about the sun and danced among the trees / And we listened to the whisper of the city on the breeze / Will you cry in the most in a lead-free zone / Down within the shadows where the factories drone / On the surface of the wheel they build another town / And so the green come tumbling down / Yes close your eyes and hold me tight / And I'll show you sunset sometime again
Despite its plaintive lyrics, “Hymn of the Big Wheel” concludes with a redemptive refrain, as the sanguine Andy surmises “The ghetto sun will nurture life / and mend my soul sometime again.”
Other standouts include the dubbed-out “Five Man Army,” the slinky groove of the Nelson blessed “Lately,” and slow funk of the title track, which lifts Tom Scott & The L.A. Express’ “Sneakin’ in the Back” (1974) to great effect. Featuring Tony Bryan on vocals, the group’s cover of William DeVaughn’s 1974 hit “Be Thankful for What You've Got” is faithful to the original—a tad too faithful, perhaps—and easy on the ears, but it’s also the album’s most incongruous moment, largely owing to being the most obviously derivative among Blue Lines’ nine compositions.
In the twenty-five years since Massive Attack dropped Blue Lines, the group has persevered through inter-band turmoil, departures, and reunions to cultivate one of the most indispensable discographies of the past few decades, with Protection (1994) and Mezzanine (1998) completing their trio of transcendent album masterpieces. For better or worse, they will likely forever be regarded as the patriarchs of trip-hop, with Blue Lines the natural precursor to other esteemed debut LPs with parallel sonic pedigrees and structures, such as Portishead’s Dummy (1994) and their long-time comrade Tricky’s Maxinquaye (1995).
With no pun intended, trip-hop is a tricky term, a la the equally contrived “neo-soul.” Particularly so when artists’ musical identities are more broadly associated with a genre or movement, which unfairly obscures the merits of their specific works. Indeed, such media-driven, cookie-cutter categorization risks diminishing the uniqueness and dynamism of a band like Massive Attack. But those able to cast such superfluous labels aside recognize Massive Attack’s music for what is fundamentally is. Quite simply, great music.