I love music videos. I used to watch them frequently and discovered a lot of great music doing so. Every now and then I will post about an interesting video to recall those times, hence Music Video Throwback.
It's been awhile since we've done a Music Video Throwback post and for some intangible reason (not that I'm unhappy about it) I've had Placebo on the brain, so let's jump back to 1998 and look at their video for the great song "Pure Morning." I'm not sure how memorable Placebo is to most people and would expect that the extent of it is just this one song – although "Every You Every Me" was on the Cruel Intentions soundtrack – but they were a cool band in the landscape of late 1990s alternative rock.
Honestly, I didn't remember this video too well, but upon rewatching, my first connection point was the video for "Just" by Radiohead, mostly for the band-in-high-building-and-group-of-people-on-the-street-below dynamic and the overall mysterious vibe. The other connection that comes to mind is the final scene of The Hudsucker Proxy, but instead of the Coen Brothers channeling Frank Capra and screwball comedies, we get more of a David Fincher, proto-Matrix vibe.
I always thought "Pure Morning" was powerful. The video gives it shadings of fear and paranoia. The clanging guitar that opens the song and persists throughout seems less anthemic than it does a persistent threat – the siren of oppressors closing in – when watching the dark, slow-motion clip here. I like the way the leap of lead singer Brian Molko matches the build to the huge chorus around the 2:20 mark, a fitting release after the previous scenes.
Let's talk a little more about Brian Molko. Seeing this video and hearing this song were fairly early occurrences in the "I am now serious about music" period that began during my early adolescence. This was before I had discovered David Bowie or glam rock or had any idea what androgyny even was. But that word was inescapable when it came to Placebo, and I consider them a somewhat important introduction to something that would have seemed weird if defined to me in another context.
I hadn't really encountered anything like this before. Sure, some 90s alternative rockers were sensitive, but 1998 specifically saw the rise of aggressively masculine bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, which many of my peers were gravitating towards. This video is almost the complete opposite. Brian Molko's appearance blurs the line between masculine and feminine with his long hair, makeup, and nail polish. More significantly, his voice does too. Or maybe more accurately, it doesn't sound strongly like either a man or a woman, which is pretty rare and interesting.
I do think the voice however you want to classify it works perfectly for the song. I read that the band has kind of disowned "Pure Morning" for not making any sense, but how the words sounded together was what I may have loved most about it. Each verse follows a similar pattern, starting with "A friend in need's a friend indeed" and though I can't say they hold up when analyzed, they clearly have a certain momentum that fits with that clanging guitar. Musically, it's a great rock song from the period. I still think the moment after the first two verses when that overblown, sputtering, fuzzed out guitar foreshadows the "Pure Morning" lines of the chorus is classic.
I can't end this post without sharing my other favorite Placebo song, "Lady of the Flowers," from their self-titled debut album ("Pure Morning" is on Without You I'm Nothing). Not as propulsive as "Pure Morning," it starts out with some picked out chords, a light drum shuffle, minimal bass, and an almost spoken word verse. But things slowly build to a crescendo with the full-on "She wears her tears on her blouse, confused and wracked with self-doubt" part that still takes my back to my friend Hank's basement where I heard it the first time and was just blown away.