ScanS → Uncut Magazine Feature
Publication Date: February 2010
The first single to be taken from Massive Attack’s ‘ groundbreaking album, Blue Lines, sounded like no R&B you’d heard before. It set the tone for the “Bristol Sound” – meditational beats; ambient sounds; eerie, disembod led vocals -while Shara Nelson’s lyrics, of love, loss and loneliness seemed to establish the mood for a new kind of soul music. The producer Jonny Dollar- who died in May 2009 after a battle with cancer- chose the raw breakbeat, which came from smooth jazzer Bob James’ Latin-tinged version of Paul Simon’s “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”. The song started out as a jam session, and Robert Del Naja describes the songwriting process as one of‘deconstruction”, in which ideas were constantly edited out. What remained by the end was Wil Malone’s lush, elaborate string orchestration and Shara Nelson’s astonishing vocal performance, one in which her lyrics are punctuated by operatic flourishes and ghostly falsetto wails.
Nelson stars in the iconic promo video, shot in January 1991, on the West Pico Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. The song was remixed by Nellee Hooper and Paul Oakenfold; it was covered by Tina Turner (a version which went Top 10 in France); it was performed as a classical piano solo by Maxence Cyrin, and it has since found itself in numerous “greatest ever singles” lists.
SHARA NELSON: The song started while we were rehearsing at the Coach House in Bristol in mid 1990. We had already recorded a few tracks that went on Blue Lines, including “Safe From Harm”, and we had been struggling to record a track called “It Will Rain”. I couldn’t concentrate very well, so we were told to take a break, have a cup of tea. I didn’t drink tea at the time, so I just stood in the corner and started trying to put together this idea that had been going around my head for a while. I started mumbling to myself, half singing the lines, “I know that I’ve imagined love before”. The melody and the words started to come into shape. At the time Mushroom [Andrew Vowles], was in the room with [the producer] Jonny Dollar. Mushroom heard what I was doing and said: “What’s that? Sing up, girl! ” So I started to sing, and Mushroom put some beats towards it, and Jonny Dollar started playing synthetic strings, and that was it! It was a real rogue track.
ROBERT DEL NAJA: The whole of the Blue Lines album was about us being coerced into a studio, and then confronted with trying to make a demo. It wasn’t like we sat around on the piano writing songs together. We’d
always be in the studio separately. We’d come up with ideas and people would add or subtract. “Unfinished Sympathy”, for instance, started out as a jam in the studio in Bristol. It was just breakbeats and a percussive line.
SHARA NELSON: The idea for the title came from a conflab between myself and the band. My working title was something like “Really Hurt You Baby” or something, but they wanted something more abstract. In the end, the title suited the song perfectly, because the lyrics are about something unfinished, and it’s about something that hasn’t happened. There’s also the obviously symphonic overtones. We’d written the song with lots of space, space which we filled with the string orchestrations.
ROBERT DEL NAJA: Everyone’s lost the sense of how important silence is. That was the way we first made music – keeping a lot of space in it, using very sparse arrangements and production. A lot of the beauty of “Unfinished Sympathy” was in the editing of ideas.
SHARA NELSON: The song sounded pretty good even at that early demo stage, without the breakbeat or the proper strings. The main difference was that it had more of a verse /chorus structure at that point. Then the band started editing bits out of the song, leaving more space, and then filling it with the string orchestrations.
WIL MALONE: I’d previously worked on Neneh Cherry’s album Raw Like Sushi (1989). That album was produced by Cameron McVey, who managed Massive Attack, and I think Cameron had suggested that they use me if they needed any strings on the Blue Lines album. For “Unfinished Sympathy”, the producer Jonny Dollar gave me a demo, which had synthesised strings, and he wanted it to be revoiced so that it would sound really big and symphonic. Most people will record with a small amount of strings-maybe a 10-piece or 15-piece section, and then put lots of heavy digital delay on them to make them sound bigger.
Instead of doing that, we decided to use a lot of strings, so that it’s big to start with, and then we can keep them dry So we booked Abbey Road Studio Two, which is a pretty big place, with amazing acoustics, and got a 40 or 50 -piece string section. So there’s more texture, more gut.
SHARA NELSON: I was in and out of the studio at Abbey Road when they were recording the string parts. It seemed to be such a big undertaking. It was amazing to watch this piece really coming to life.
WIL MALONE: When I first spoke to Jonny Dollar, the idea was that there would be no specific bassline. The bass would the double basses. So the bass strings are very prominent, and I think that’s what makes it sound so dramatic. High-pitched strings tend to sound a bit cute, low-pitched strings are more suited to beats. They sound darker, growlier. I thought I’d scored the piece quite straight, and the string charts are quite conventional, until Shara’s voice drops out about three minutes in. Because the chords are quite repetitive, my string arrangements start getting a bit more elaborate. The violas start playing the occasional augmented fourth. There’s lots of chord extensions, a slight jazz air, the kind of chords that Gil Evans might use with Miles Davis. It starts to become more of a jazz groove, but on strings.
PAUL OAKENFOLD: It’s a difficult song to remix. The original is an absolute classic, probably my favourite pop song of all time, so why fuck around with it? As Mushroom said at the time, why do we need a club hit? He said a remix would be like smashing up a clay pot and trying to rebuild it! And, in a way, he’s right. In the end I did two things. I put in a bass line and I took out the original Bob James breakbeat: my breakbeat is much simpler. It’s a much sleeker, more dancefloor-friendly piece. As it happens, Massive Attack’s Daddy G [Grant Marshall] used my remix as the last track on his DJ-Kicks album, so he obviously doesn’t hate it that much!
WIL MALONE: As I remember it, the band weren’t even at Abbey Road when we did the strings! They seemed to be a very loose collective in those days. From my point of view, the producer JonnyDollar seemed to be in charge.
ROBERT DEL NAJA: Jonny’s death, earlier this year, was really shocking to us. We didn’t even know he was ill. And it being sudden and not being able to get to see him after such a long time, it was very sad, man.
WIL MALONE: The first time I met Massive Attack was to record the song again for Top Of The Pops. You had to do TOTPlive in those days, you see. Do I think I should have got a songwriting credit? What do you think? Ha ha!
BAILLIE WALSH: I got to know Massive Attack through stylist Judy Blame. They liked a video I’d recently done for Boy George, called “Generation Of Love”, and wanted to let me loose on their whole album. They sent me the tracks and let me dream up whatever ideas came to mind. The idea I had for “Unfinished Sympathy” was trying to capture the feel that you’re walking down the street and-you’ve been so affected by love or hurt that you don’t know where you are, you walk in a daze and you haven’t noticed anything. So I wanted to take that emotion and make it big and cinematic, which is why I took it to LA. Iliked the quality of light and the wide open streets in the slightly run-down parts of town.
SHARA NELSON: The art director on the shoot was [legendary performance artist] Leigh Bowery, and he sorted out my costume. He was wonderful! Good job it was a puffy little number, because we shot it in late afternoon in LA, on a slightly chilly January afternoon. The sky had that beautiful, orangey, golden colour, which is really striking about the video. It was all quite complicated -they were playing the song on a boombox, I was lip-synching, and there was a guy carrying this huge Steadicam in front of me. Remember that not everyone on that set was an actor – a lot of them were just people who lived there, or worked there, and you had to respect that.
BAILLIE WALSH: It was quite a difficult shoot, but I love presenting myself with those challenges. It was a single shot, no cuts. It’s a technique that had been used in a few film scenes, Hitchcock’s Rope, that Orson Welles film with Marlene Dietrich [Touch Of Evil], Absolute Beginners and Robert Altman’s Shortcuts. But I don’t think it had been done in a pop promo before. It was scary. I didn’t have a big budget, I was shooting alone in winter, in a place where it gets dark at 5pm. I still hadn’t shot anything by one o’clock!
SHARA NELSON: I seem to remember the guy with the Steadicam finding the length of the take a bit difficult. Six minutes is a long time to be holding one of those things!
BAILLIE WALSH: The Steadicam operator couldn’t hack it, and he collapsed halfway down the street, on the first take! So I had to pull it all back and make it simpler. But I think the promo gained from that. I wanted people to pick up new ideas each time they watched it, so I tried to layer it. You notice new things each time you watch it, when you watch the people in the background, the tramps fighting, the beggars, the couples snogging, the boy with his dad, the cars that nearly knock Shara over! All that stuff.
SHARA NELSON: It’s a pity how things ended up with me and Massive Attack. Put simply, the structure of the band changed, and we didn’t get the same vibe working together. But I’m still hugely proud of the album we did together and I think “Unfinished Sympathy” is a brilliant, timeless song. It still sounds fantastic to this day.
Written By John Lewis