Following its 20th anniversary and with a new book about the Bristol band on its way, we look back on their fraught third album
“When the Wild Bunch started,” Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles told Mixmag in 1998, cutting a haunted figure in a cover story on the return of Massive Attack, “we called it lover’s hip hop. Forget all that trip hop bullshit.” Apparently, Vowles couldn’t stand doing interviews, because he always got “the same bag of questions they’ve pulled out the journalists’ vending machine”. It sounds like sour grapes now, but read the whole story, and another picture starts to emerge.
Massive Attack were formed in Bristol in 1988. Rising from the ashes of The Wild Bunch, a sound system crew that helped establish the beginnings of the ‘Bristol sound’ (“lover’s hip hop” refers to lover’s rock, a smooth reggae subgenre originating in London), the group were a loose coterie of collaborators focused on a trio of key players. There was Vowles, a hip hop fanatic with mixed Dominican-British ancestry; Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, a graffiti-artist and punk of Anglo-Italian extraction; and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall, a second-generation Barbadian immigrant whose love of soul and reggae began with the ‘blues parties’ his parents used to throw when he was a kid.
Exploding out of the scene in 1991 with Blue Lines, the group’s sound spoke to romantic ideals of a modern, multicultural Britain that’s constantly embattled in 2018. But the trio were a combustible mix in the studio and, by 1998, long-simmering tensions within the group had come to a head. “You’ve talked to the other two and they’ve said something different, haven’t they?” Vowles says later in the Mixmag interview, which is actually three interviews for the price of one: Vowles, Del Naja and Marshall all taking turns to hold forth without the inconvenience of having to listen to each other speak. Suddenly, Vowles seems unsure of himself, paranoid: less like a man with low opinions of the music press, more like a man who’s scared the thing he helped build is being taken away from him.
The group conducted all their interviews separately for the release of Mezzanine, their landmark third album which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. They recorded it separately, too: if Radiohead’s OK Computer was Sgt Pepper’s for the ‘Xennial’ set – that sub-generation of kids who came of age on the cusp of the digital era – then Mezzanine was its White Album, a creative tour de force that was also a portrait of a group in the process of unravelling.
Released in April 1998, the album was hit by delays resulting from Del Naja’s compulsive tinkering, and internal disagreements that would eventually see Vowles leave the group. Del Naja, stung by criticism of the group as making ‘coffee table music’, wanted to bring a post-punk direction to their sound. He professed to have “grown out of” hip hop to anyone who would listen, much to the annoyance of B-boy Vowles, who famously rowed with him over the merits of Puff Daddy in one interview. (Another feature from the time took its title, simply, from an accusation levelled by Vowles during the record’s making: “Are we a fucking punk band now?”)
With backing from Marshall and producer Neil Davidge, Del Naja eventually got the upper hand in the unfolding civil war within the group, but not without Vowles landing a sneaky suckerpunch or two along the way. Mushroom wanted a soul singer to lay down the vocal for “Teardrop”, a glittering highlight of the album he built around Davidge’s circling harpsichord melody, but Del Naja and Grant pushed for Liz Fraser, lead singer of shoegaze pioneers The Cocteau Twins. Vowles, in retaliation, offered the track to Madonna in secret, which the rest of the group discovered by way of an email from the pop star’s manager, saying she would love to sing on the track.
In the end, Mezzanine had a harder, dubwise edge inspired by Del Naja’s love of post-punk luminaries like PiL, Wire and local heroes The Pop Group. It felt like a logical end-point of British punk’s flirtation with reggae some 20 years previous, a dense, paranoid swirl enveloping tracks like “Inertia Creeps”, “Risingson” and “Man Next Door”, a moody cover of John Holt’s 1968 reggae song about a noisy neighbour. In its prevailing mood of paranoia, the record was in tune with other albums from the Britpop hangover years (OK Computer, Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, Blur’s self-titled 1998 effort). But there’s another side to this story, one that goes to the heart of Massive Attack’s story as one of the most compelling adverts for multiculturalism Britain ever produced.
Mezzanine broke the band in America even as it broke the band full-stop. Vowles left Massive Attack in 1999; Marshall followed him out in all but name two years later. Their follow-up, 2003’s 100th Window, abandoned sampling altogether in what felt like a pointed break with the past. When Grant returned to the studio full-time in 2007, the group’s sound had evolved to the point where he was able to joke that he was “here to put the black back” into Massive Attack.
But Melissa Chemam, author of the forthcoming book Massive Attack: Out of the Comfort Zone, cautions that the group’s evolution should not be read as a simple transition from ‘black’ to ‘white’ sounds. “One dimension of the band’s music disappeared with Mushroom’s departure, for sure – the hip hop way of producing tracks, based on beats and samples,” she says. “But the band would have evolved anyway. That’s part of their DNA. They produced the equivalent of an album of new songs for the compilation album, Collected, in 2006, and one of the highlights was ‘Live With Me’, a song 3D wrote with Terry Callier, probably the most ‘soul’ song the band had written since ‘Unfinished Sympathy’.”
In fact, says Chemam, one of the keys to Massive Attack’s success as a group was the fact that, due to Bristol’s melting-pot scene of the 80s, its members had internalised influences from across the musical spectrum before they even played a note. “They grew up with a passion for both reggae and punk, because Bristol has long been a multicultural city. Each member inherited different tastes regardless of their own family and culture. Because Bristol had a small but fascinating underground scene... DJs with a Caribbean background became passionate about punk, and Anglo-Irish-Italian MCs and musicians learned early about African-American trends in music and reggae from Jamaica. Massive Attack embody this hybridisation inside each of their members.”
The group’s celebrated debut, Blue Lines, arrived in 1991, bringing trip hop into the public consciousness at a time where hip hop, house, baggy, rave and, later, reggae all enjoyed a moment in the sun on the singles charts. But Mezzanine feels rife with intimations of darker times ahead. It was released less than 12 months into Blair’s Labour administration, in 1998, a year that saw a threefold increase in the number of migrants coming to the UK. The following decade saw rising immigration figures reflecting the realities of an increasingly globalised workforce, especially after the expansion of the EU in 2004, but the numbers only told part of the story. As a 2015 Guardian investigation into New Labour’s immigration policies observed, the 7/7 terrorist attacks, global financial crisis of 2007 and media scapegoating of immigrants combined to lay the ground for the ‘hostile environment’ policies of today, abetted by the failures of neoliberal policies in creating social cohesion. From there it’s a direct line to Brexit, and the arguments that continue to swirl around national identity today.
In fact, the group might never have materialised at all had Grant’s parents been forced to leave the country when the musician was a child. “I remember when I was a little kid in the late 60s, when they really clamped down on the immigration laws,” he told Dazed in an interview from 1998. “They said that anybody who’d been living in the country for less than seven years had to reapply for immigration. Quite a lot of my dad’s friends didn’t qualify for that and some of them had to go back. Even my dad and mum were going around trying to make sure that they were all right.”
Britain had extended UK citizenship rights to all Commonwealth subjects in 1948, as a means of attracting labour to rebuild the country after the second world war. But successive governments spent much of the 60s and 70s attempting to row back on this position, finally leading to the Windrush scandal of this year, when it was revealed the Home Office had been deporting legal immigrants who’d been resident in the UK for over half a century.
“(In the 70s) the British government struggled with unemployment,” says Chemam. “And by then, the former Caribbean colonies like Jamaica and Barbados had become independent. So the supply workers called in the 1950s, after World War II, to rebuild the country, were suddenly not so welcome any more. And many had to face paperwork issues, visa refusal and so on. Many had to leave.”
For Chemam, who spent time reporting on Brexit and the refugee crisis of 2015 for the BBC, the parallels with today are clear: “The situation is indeed quite similar for foreign workers today, except that the UK isn’t exactly in a financial or commercial crisis in 2018. Now, despite the fact that Britain is one of the richest countries in the European continent, it is also one of the most unequal. And by far the least open to receiving immigrants from warzones. (Massive Attack’s) music is a testimony for sure of the richness of any social mix and diversity. It’s a beautiful story, and a rare story that can only inspire in our days of neo-conservatism and division.”
Two years on from Brexit, the battle for Britain’s soul is still raging. Mezzanine stands as a thrilling reminder of what can be won – and lost – when we decide how we feel about the proverbial man next door.
Massive Attack play the Eden Project on June 15 and 16