"All The Young Dudes"

Chart, Jan'99

by Sean K Robb

"In a way I don't feel that we have any contemporaries in Britain or Europe... We feel pretty alone. Which is good."

Placebo have landed in America. Drummer Steve Hewitt is on the phone from New York City. The band (which also features singer Brian Molko and bassist Stefan Olsdal), have gone gold (500,000 copies sold) twice in Britain; had several Top Five singles; and have journeyed to NYC to play this year's CMJ Music Marathon. While in New York, they'll also do an in-store signing session at a downtown record megastore -- part of the band's big push to promote their new sophomore album, Without You I'm Nothing. It's their first attempt to storm America's ramparts.

The very idea of trying to break into America's xenophobic heart is one that Hewitt admits has left him "petrified" in the wake of failures by Oasis ("But then again they did come over and tell everybody to fuck off"), Blur and The Verve to duplicate their superstar U.K. status in the U.S.

Likely to complicate things is the fact that frontman Brian Molko looks, for all intents and purposes, like an incredibly sexy -- even gorgeous -- young woman.

"It's been going on for so long now, and people still don't know whether he's a girl or a boy," laughs Hewitt. "It's still doing people's heads in."

With diminutive posture, raven-coloured hair, and eyes like a casting-couch-bound Hollywood starlet, Brian is quite the stunner. Especially when sporting five o'clock shadow and a cigarette that dangles helplessly from the corner of his ruby-red lips.

"Brian's been wearing make-up for years and years and years," says Hewitt. "Dressing up for a performance, for me just goes kind of hand in hand. It's always good to make the effort. Just wanting to be as individual as possible." Some people (rock critics and other boring old musical "purists", mainly) tend to resent the over-importance of image in some musical circles. For Placebo, the image and the music are inexorably linked.

"You wanna go up onstage and create some kind of distance between you and the audience, so the audience can look up on something which is different, and feels kind of... removed. I don't think we were ever into the idea of walking on stage in t-shirts and jeans, like we just walked off the streets, and picked up a guitar..."

A far cry from the motives of both punk and grunge, which always seemed intent on destroying the illusion of separation between the audience and the performer.

"I went to see The Cure, on the 'Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me' tour," the drummer recalls. "When they first came on, there was that separation, that God-like thing, and the feeling's amazing. And if you instantly can do that to an audience, you've more or less got them straightaway, I think."

Those wishing to dismiss Placebo as perhaps a Culture Club or Dead or Alive for the '90s have another thing coming when they listen to Placebo's eponymous debut album (released in 1996) or the utterly brilliant Without You. Hewitt (who joined the band six months after the first album) lists an impressive string of artists that inspired Placebo's peculiar sound: "The Cure," he begins (quite obvious, if you listen to the first 25 seconds of "They Don't Care About Us", or just about any slow number on the new album). "Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode," he continues. "A lot of Prince, Sly and the Family Stone... Public Enemy." The heart flutters.

Brian Molko's voice is an odd thing, too. A clench-nosed cross between Suede's Brett Anderson and Canada's own Geddy Lee, it has a quality and a character that render it instantly recognizable -- though perhaps a bit of an acquired taste.

The lead single from Without You is the awesome "Pure Morning", which can lay claim to the best opening couplet of any song this year: "A friend in need's a friend indeed/A friend with weed is better". The song is accompanied by an equally impressive video, which goes far enough to depict Brian as an almost supernatural being. Ballsy.

"I think we're playing with image," Hewitt says, "but we're still gonna keep it in the context of what we are. Messing around but not posing... just trying to work ourselves out."