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Publication Date: March 1991

In room 821 of Los Angeles Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 3D of Massive Attack is about to celebrate his birthday. It’s a strange thing, to commemorate your birth when you’re 6,000 miles from home, in a country that has just gone to war. But the laidback 3D doesn’t seem to mind.

After all, tomorrow, he and the rest of Massive Attack – Mushroom, Daddy G and honorary member, vocalist Shara Nelson – will attempt to make video history. Under director Bailie Wash, they will shoot the video for their new single, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ in one take. No edits, no cutaways, no jump cutting. The whole video will be one fluid camera shot.
They have one day downtown in the Hispanic neighbourhood of Pico to realise this ambition, and an amount of quiet pressure is starting to build. Walsh, whose idea it was, has to pull this feat off, if only for credibility reasons. And Massive Attack have to start justifying the amount of money that has been poured into them.

A sizeable advance, a video for ‘Daydreamin” – the debut single that is rumoured to have cost around the 50 grand mark – and now a trip to LA to cut the second film, indicates that a lot of faith and moolah is being expended on this oufit. You only have to hear their forthcoming LP, ‘Massive’, to understand the fuss and expense, for if LPs are simply a couple of hit singles and some songs cobbled together to meet a deadline, then this is a different proposition altogether.

Although the group’s name and image suggest an outfit that’s immersed in club culture, their music argues against easy categorisation. Massive Attack create a dance music that’s eminently listenable. By devising clever aural twists and turns to layer on top of their measured bass and drum sound they are approaching a unique style of music.

The single kicks off with a touch of scratching, a rattling drum sound, a voice echoing in the distance, a keyboard line that is dramatic and persuasive, and what suspiciously sounds like a ship’s fog horn. Then, with Shara’s captivating vocal holding the song together, a 40 piece orchestra playing an almost dissonant melody, enters, lending the song an emotional charge.
This song is an inspired piece of music. If you follow it with, say, ‘One Love’ in which reggae star Horace Andy’s plaintive vocal is set against a simple guitar riff, or ‘The Hymn Of The Big Wheel’ where a didgeridoo is featured, you’ll understand why adjectives like ‘brilliant’ or ‘unusual’ are bandied around when the group’s name comes up.

“It’s always been the same, music,” muses 3D. “It’s never been any different. If you listened to a stack of LPs from every era, it would all sound the same to you. And that applies to everything, from rock to indie, House to hip hop, or even jazz sometimes.”
Mushroom is quick to interject on that last slur. “I’m sorry,” he says in his broad Bristol accent, “but jazz isn’t like that. Jazz follows a lot of patterns,” 3D points out. “I’ve got jazz LPs and I can’t play whole LP’s because it starts getting boring R&B and blues, they’re all the same chords a lot of the time. Dance music and indie music are the two worst in those fields. Obviously, you get wicked things coming through but on the whole it’s really bland, really mediocre.
“It’s like that film Amadeus, when Salieri says, ‘I’m the King Of The Mediocre’. That’s what he had resigned himself to and that’s what I think most music is at the moment. Everyone is content to be mediocre.”

There’s an air of agreement in the room. 3D looks out of the window. “Can you see the Hollywood lights from here?” he asks. Ironically, by this time tomorrow, even if they wanted to put the group’s name in lights they wouldn’t be able to. By tomorrow, the group will no longer be called Massive Attack. Just Masssive.

“Hey you guys, I like your song.” It’s a clear day in Pico and Massive Attack are on location. In front of them is a producer who is enamoured in the way only Americans can be. “See, in this song, ” he enthuses, “I hear a bit of soul, a bit of rap, some R&B, all kinds of different things. But I guess you guys don’t like to be categorised. Right?” The trio nod.
“But,” he continues, oblivious to the group’s amused looks, “you also kinda remind me of The Specials. You know, that whole multi racial thing?” “That’s probably because you think I’m Terry Hall,” 3D drily replies. Down the street a Pico resident is explaining the neighbourhood. “See,” he says to one of the extras, “I like it round here during the day. But at night I never go out. That’s when you hear the gunshots.”

A weird and wild assortment of local homeboys, bikers, drunks, professionals and Hispanics mill around on the streets, carefully watched by off-duty policemen all wearing shades, moustaches and billy sticks.
Their presence is angering some of the locals. There will be no drug dealing on the street corners today. People are not happy about that. Nor is 3D, but his discomfort has been caused by news from home. The media are asking that, given the current Gulf crisis, the group change their name. Now is not a good time to be called Massive Attack.
They have three choices: carry on regardless (impossible given the money behind them. Even if the group wanted to, many would ‘persuade’ them otherwise); or wait until the war is over, then release the records (silly option); or change the name.

The latter is their only feasible choice. But would the same stricture have been applied to their previous group, The Wild Bunch? This was a sound system that they ran with Milo and Nelle Hooper. Playing reggae and rap records in cities as diverse as Bristol, London and Tokyo, the system ran for eight years then imploded.
“We were all trying to be the same as each other,” says Daddy G. “We didn’t realise that it was alright to go off and do our own thing.” 3D agrees. “With The Wild Bunch everyone was battling for supremacy. Now we fight and argue but we know we’re not going to change. Before, someone had to be right and everybody had to be wrong.”
The Wild Bunch made one great record – the B-side of the average Tearing Down The Avenue’, a cover version of Baccharach & David’s The Look Of Love’ which can lay claim to truthfully breaking new ground.

3D is quick to lay the praise at Milo’s feet because it was his suggestion to strip the song down to just drums and voice (in this case Shara’s shimmering vocal) a technique that Nelle later expanded on in Soul II Soul, to far wider acclaim.
When The Wild Bunch split, Milo moved to Japan, Nelle moved to London’s Camden Town and the remaining trio cut a version of ‘Any Love’, another Baccharach & David tune. Produced by Smith & Mighty, who are synonymous with the ‘Bristol sound (which seems to consist of covering Baccharach & David songs with a drum machine) the single’s attitude gave some notice of the group’s ideas and talent.

It got them mentioned in various articles last year, in which the Bristol sound was examined and offered up for public consumption. It’s an angle that the group are ready to deflect at every opportunity, although the town has offered some striking individuals over the last 15 years: Mark Stewart, Andy Sheppard, Julie Burchill…
“But it doesn’t make a blind bit of diiference,” says 3D, “because most of them move to London anyway. We recorded half the album in Bristol but we went to London to finish it off.” Though they’re adept at hedging around the subject, the reason, surely, for the striking nature of their music is down to the balance of the group’s personality. Daddy G is still a man obsessed by club music. 3D and Mushroom lean the other way.

Sounds, noises, anything that disrupts the predictability of music is what grabs them, what pushes them into tinkering so magnificently with their songs. A straight dance record from Massive is about as likely as John Major calling the boys back home. But then a straight anything from this outfit is rarely on the cards.
“Basically, when I make music,” Mushroom says, “I shut the front door and stay in for weeks making whatever is conjured up in my head.”
A worried director calls the group to their positions and the trio amble onto the set, ready to make video history. I ask what the last records they bought were. The list goes from Clint Eastwood and Twin Peaks soundtracks to the En Vogue LP and an Arsenio Hall rap compilation.

It’s the sort of mix that makes groups massive.

Written By Paolo Hewitt