"The Arts: Sex gods for every possible taste..."

The Daily Telegraph, Jul'98

by Neil McCormick

London, Jul 30, 1998

The Arts: Sex gods for every possible taste. Sexual ambiguity is not new to rock, but it has turned Placebo into stars. Neil McCormick meets the non-lad trio.

BRIAN MOLKO's nail polish is looking a little the worse for wear, haphazard in application and chipped around the cuticles.

It is, he insists, all part of the look. "This is the trashy, been-up-all-night effect," he explains, holding out his fingers for examination. If you ask me, the varnish - a very dark silver colour - creates more of a haven't-washed-your-hands effect. But then, I'm no fashion guru. "It's Urban Decay Uzi," Brian informs me. The nail polish no self-respecting gangster should be seen without.

Somewhat disappointingly for an individual who has been hailed in the music press as an "androgynous sex god", the polish is the only indication that Molko is on intimate terms with the contents of a make-up bag. There is no sign of his trademark eyeliner and lipstick, the first faint hints of stubble are showing through on his chin, and even his unisex haircut is looking a little lank and untended.

Apparently he was in too much of a rush this morning to worry about his appearance. He does, however, describe with some amusement an incident which occurred during the filming of Todd Haynes' forthcoming Seventies glam-rock movie, Velvet Goldmine. Molko's group, Placebo, appear in the guise of decadent glitter band the Flaming Queens, for which Molko received the full slap job. "We were shooting in the city for the opening credits," he gleefully recounts, "when a German tourist managed to walked right into shot, came up to me and went: `Excuse me, are you Boy George?' "

Molko is the latest in a long line of gender-bending figures in rock. In the Fifties there was Little Richard, with his make-up and mannerisms. In the Sixties, Mick Jagger's camp flamboyance was at the core of his appeal.

In the Seventies, David Bowie's self-professed bisexuality and androgynous look almost single-handedly redefined the concept of rock stardom, exerting a profound influence on both glam and punk. By the time Boy George emerged in the Eighties, the glam, punk, New Romantic and Goth movements had made the whole concept of men in make-up almost passe.

This year, that bastion of conservative, middle-of-the-road pop, the Eurovision Song Contest, was won by an Israeli transsexual.

And then there's Placebo. Pitching themselves against the prevailing strain of laddishness that dominated Britpop, the three- piece rock group reached number four in the singles charts in January last year with their theme song, Nancy Boy, a celebration of sexual hedonism. Molko milked the initial confusion about his gender for all it was worth, making bold pronouncements such as: "I want to provoke reactions in people from `* you, faggot' to `Oh my God, she's gorgeous'. Our sexuality is something that is challenging the preconceptions of what a man is supposed to look like at the end of the millennium."

The band's debut album, Placebo, went gold. David Bowie ("the man who pioneered bisexuality", according to Molko) invited them to play as special guests at his 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. They toured with U2, were befriended by Michael Stipe of REM and made their movie debut in Velvet Goldmine.

With a new single, Pure Morning, out next week (on Hut) and an eagerly anticipated second album due in October, it is safe to say that role reversal has been good to Placebo.

Yet in some senses it's a wonder anybody still cares. So a rock star wears make-up and flirts with sexual ambiguity? It's hardly news.

Perhaps surprisingly, Molko tends to agree. "I don't understand what is so shocking about a boy in make-up these days. But if it still irritates people, then there's obviously something wrong.

"We've been insulted in so many colourful ways. If it still creates a feeling of insecurity in people to the point that they have to be aggressive about it, then there must be something to fight against out there - which is just displaced homophobia."

"There are a lot of closets to be thrown open," insists drummer Steve Hewitt (who is, nonetheless, avowedly heterosexual).

"Burn down the House of Lords!" declares bassist Stefan Olsdal (who is gay, and presumably smarting from the rejection of plans to lower the age of consent for homosexuals).

HUNKERED together around some beers, Placebo give the impression that they are still fighting rock wars. Young and passionate, given to occasional bouts of sloganeering ("All great rock and roll has had an element of homosexuality in it," according to Molko) and hopelessly generalised politics ("We're fighting against absolute corporate governmental shite,"insists Hewitt), they hark back to an era when rock was equated with rebellion, generation gaps and a moral battle between "us" and "them".

It all sounds more than slightly dubious when their chosen musical format is that of the essentially old-fashioned power trio, whose biggest audience is probably the thirty-to-fiftysomethings marketing men have taken to referring to as "middle youth". The days of rock as a generation-defining movement seem long gone.

"Johnny Rotten said that it was the nature of rock 'n' roll to create generation gaps," Molko reluctantly concurs. "But now grandmas are listening to the Verve and kids are more likely to spend money on computer games."

Considerably more articulate than his band mates, Molko appears to have given the matter some thought.

"In order to try and understand where that leaves the band, you have to understand what the cultural significance of computer games are, whether they've got anything to do with rebellion or whether they're just pure escapism.

"I think the difference between art and entertainment is that art forces you to ask questions about yourself, it forces you to question the human condition in one way or another."

The band clearly feel that their very existence poses questions that society finds it uncomfortable to answer. "The first stimulus for what we do is artistic expression," Molko says.

"But if what you do for a living is pushed by sex - which I think rock 'n' roll always is - and if your sexuality does not seem to conform to what the powers-that-be consider moral and correct behaviour, then you become a kind of opposition. And if the only representations of homosexuality in rock are people like Boy George, then the world needs a band like Placebo. Everything is represented in the three of us: straight, gay, bisexual. That's why we're so dangerous."

`THERE's gotta be kids coming up who find out they're gay and they need something to hang on to," Hewitt interjects. "This is it. When people talk about `the kids' they always assume that all kids are the same age and into the same things, but people are different. That's where the rebellion in rock 'n' roll comes in."

Turning into an unlikely social worker, Molko reveals that he receives a lot of letters from young people regarding their sexuality. "I've even had letters from parents, saying thanks for being there for my kids because I remember times when I was younger and feeling confused, and there wasn't a band there to speak to me in the way that you do."

So what message, I wonder, do Placebo convey to these confused souls?

"Essentially all we're doing is saying, `It's OK', " grins Molko. "It's OK to fancy your best mate. Even if he does play rugby."