Make what you will of it, but Placebo thrive on ambiguity and confusion; a glorious noise which at once both confronts and celebrates the uncertainties at the heart of the band. Even at their most elemental level, Placebo challenge the stereotypical notions of identity and gender - the pure adrenaline rush of testosterone from a band that playfully revel in subverting the sexual norms.
If there is a rock lineage to which the band belong, it would include such artists as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie, all of whom explored the dangerous ambiguities in their own identities. It is this sense of being unsure, of not knowing, which finds a deep resonance with an audience attempting to articulate their own disaffection. No other contemporary band is so nakedly confrontational in their collective persona.
Placebo are Brian Molko (vocals, guitar), Stefan Olsdal (bass, guitar & keyboards) and Steve Hewitt (drums). One American, one Swede and one Englishman. There is no common background, although Molko and Olsdal have known each other since early schooldays in Luxembourg.
PlaceboMolko came to London when he was 17-years-old, studying drama at Goldsmithâ€™s College. Olsdal, meanwhile, moved to a school in Sweden. It was thus serendipity that they were later to meet by sheer accident on the streets of London: Olsdal had followed his parents to England, and was studying guitar at the Musicians Institute in the East End. By that time Molko was also working on his own musical ambitions, writing songs as well as playing occasional gigs with a drummer called Steve Hewitt.
Molko and Olsdal decided to form a band. Steve Hewitt - whom Molko had met through a mutual friend at Goldsmithâ€™s - was also involved with another band called Breed, but contributed to Placeboâ€™s initial demos when time permitted.
In the peculiar alchemy of natural bands, the trio quickly found their own voice and vocabulary, owing very little to the then-burgeoning trends of â€˜Britpopâ€™. Rather, their music had much more in common with the possibilities explored by Sonic Youth, mixed with the aspiration to match the nakedly confessional qualities of, say, PJ Harvey and the emotional edge which informs Tom Waitsâ€™ best work. The result, however, was utterly original and compelling: there really wasnâ€™t another band quite like Placebo.
Because of his conflicting commitments with Breed, Hewitt was replaced in Placebo by a Swedish drummer called Robert Schultzberg. It was the original chemistry, however, which eventually proved to be the most enduring, and Hewitt was to permanently re-join Placebo in 1996.
By that time the band had already made an extraordinary impact. Starting with their live debut - at Londonâ€™s Rock Garden in January 1995 - Placebo rapidly acquired a dedicated audience, which clearly identified not only with the sheer power of the band, but also their manifest contradictions.
Placebo made their recording debut with Bruise Pristine, released on the Fierce Panda indie label in 1995. The band were also constantly on the road, playing club gigs and support spots in order to properly hone their music. Indeed, at the end of the year Placebo had their first taste of tangible success when Come Home, a single recorded for the Deceptive label, reached number three in the indie chart.
In January 1996, Placebo signed a deal with Hut Recordings. Around the same time, the bandâ€™s demos came to the attention of David Bowie who, deeply impressed by their remarkable verve and dexterity, invited Placebo to support him on several of his European concert dates. Given Bowieâ€™s own enigmatic history, perhaps there was a certain piquant symmetry in the billing.
Placeboâ€™s first album was recorded in Dublin during the spring of 1996. The 10 tracks were mostly about sex, with new versions of Bruise Pristine and Come Home together with Hang on to your IQ, a song which had its roots in Placeboâ€™s very first demo sessions, recorded with Steve Hewitt at the start of the band.
The eponymously-titled debut album was released in the summer of 1996 and went on to achieve gold status. Placebo then returned to the road, re-tracing their touring schedule of the previous year, this time playing to packed houses throughout the country. The band also embarked on a series of international tours - in America, Germany and France - by which time Steve Hewitt had replaced Schultzberg on drums.
If confirmation was ever needed about Placeboâ€™s rising fame, it came in January 1997 with the release of Nancy Boy as a single. One of the standout tracks on the album, Nancy Boy went to number four in the UK chart. The same month Placebo played at Madison Square Garden in New York as special guests on the bill of David Bowieâ€™s 50th birthday party.
The band were clearly visible throughout much of the year, headlining their own UK tour - culminating with a show at Londonâ€™s Brixtonâ€™s Academy - before supporting U2 on many of the Popmart European dates. Placebo were also invited by executive producer Michael Stipe to play parts alongside Ewan McGregor and Eddie Izzard in the acclaimed film, Velvet Goldmine, released in the autumn of 1998.
By the time the movie opened, Placebo were also preparing for the release of their second album, Without You Iâ€™m Nothing. The first taste of the new material was Pure Morning, which entered the UK chart at number four in August 1998. It was followed by You Donâ€™t Care About Us c/w Twentieth Century Boy, another massive hit single which came immediately prior to the launch of the album on 12 October 1998. A third single, Every You Every Me, also made the charts.
Without You Iâ€™m Nothing has since sold over 300,000 copies in the UK, with further sales of a million around the rest of the world. Placeboâ€™s Pure Morning video was also nominated for a 1999 Brit Award while Without You Iâ€™m Nothing received tremendous critical acclaim from the UK press in their end of year polls.
Both Q and Select magazine featured the album in their best of the year polls, NME readers recognised the band in their Best Band, Single, Album and Video categories and the Melody Maker voted Pure Morning the Best Single of 1998.
There followed a unique one-off. For some time, of course, Placebo have been linked with David Bowie. The band played at his 50th birthday party in New York three years ago, and Bowie joined Placebo on stage at the 1999 Brits Awards to perform Twentieth Century Boy. That relationship took a further step with a new version of Without You Iâ€™m Nothing, credited to â€˜Placebo featuring David Bowieâ€™. The song, also the title track to the bandâ€™s album, was recorded in New York in early 1999 and was released as a limited edition single on Monday 2nd August 1999.
And so to 2000. Placebo returned to the studio at the start of the year, co-producing their next album with Paul Corkett. The band also decided on a number of collaborators for the new record, including such artists and musicians as American rapper Justin Warfield (formerly with One Inch Punch); PJ Harveyâ€™s drummer and string arranger Rob Ellis and Severe Loren, (AKA Caroline Finch), the singer / guitarist in Linoleum.