Portishead formed in Bristol, England in 1991 and is credited with being one of the first bands to popularize the trip-hop genre. Their seminal 1994 album, Dummy, brought trip-hop to the British mainstream and introduced the music to the American “alternative” scene.
The band is named after the town where founder Geoff Barrow grew up. At the dawn of the ’90s, Barrow was making a name for himself as a remixer, working with such artists as Primal Scream, Paul Weller and Depeche Mode. In addition, Barrow had produced a track for Tricky and written songs for Neneh Cherry.
Aided by a financial grant, Barrow formed Portishead with vocalist Beth
Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley and drummer Dave MacDonald. The band’s first project was not an album but the short film To Kill a Dead Man. Barrow and Gibbons wrote and acted in the film; Portishead provided the soundtrack. The project attracted the interest of several record companies, including Go!Beat, which signed the band mostly on Barrow’s skill as a remixer.
Portishead’s first album for Go! was Dummy, released in 1994. Promoting the album, however, was a big challenge for the label, as Barrow and Gibbons refused to do interviews and had no interest in touring. Go! was forced to tap all its creative-marketing resources, coming up with a campaign involving promotional mannequins (“dummies”) displayed in various London locations. In addition, Portishead’s videos for tracks like “Sour Times” and “Glory Box” created memorable visuals. Dummy received immense critical praise in England, topping many album-of-the-year lists.
The record was a commercial success despite a lack of radio support; in early 1995, Dummy’s third single, “Glory Box,” debuted at No. 13 without the benefit of airplay. In America, the single “Sour Times” caught on at MTV, and Dummy sold over 150,000 copies without any live Portishead shows to promote it. In mid-1995, Dummy won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize as England’s top album.
Portishead, having become a big hit almost in spite of themselves, began
writing material for a follow-up. However, creative tensions almost destroyed the band as Barrow, a self-described perfectionist, delayed the release of the new record. Portishead’s self-titled second album finally came out in September 1997. Although it failed to expand the band’s sound and its commercial success, Portishead was not viewed as a step backward. The band undertook a tour of Britain, Europe and the U.S. to promote the album.
Portishead was followed by Glory Times, an album of remixes, and the live album PNYC, issued in November 1998