16 Years Ago: Placebo Fuse Glam and Punk Into ‘Without You I’m Nothing’
"You feel like there's this cartoon character version of yourself following you around and, basically, it's starting to get a bit irritating."
That's lead singer Brian Molko talking to England's Melody Maker just after the release of Placebo's second album, Without You I'm Nothing. If not an odd sentiment, it's a little disingenuous given that the line was delivered – while, according to the article's author – "a thick layer of black mascara is applied to his long lashes." Such is the schizophrenic nature of a young band acclimating to huge recognition. Placebo had only been around for four years and released one album, after all.
Their 1996 self-titled debut did great in the U.K., but '98 marked the year the band went worldwide. Not only did the band drop Without You I'm Nothing in the fall of that year, but they also showed up on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack with a great cover of T. Rex's "20th Century Boy." They appeared in the film, too, cementing Molko's androgynous good looks to the glam movement that predated him by a generation. If that wasn't glam coronation enough, Placebo earned an on-stage endorsement from none other than Bowie himself in the wake of the album.
Interestingly, the band (or their label) opted to release the Bowie collaboration as a single only – the version of the title cut that appears on the album is 100 percent Thin White Duke-free, but it's still heavy.
But we've gotten ahead of ourselves. "Without You I'm Nothing" was the album's fourth single, released almost a year to the day after its first – the driving "Pure Morning" – which sounds like a truckload of Nine Inch Nails collided with the Pet Shop Boys. The track went Top 5 in the U.K. and received quite a bit of attention in the U.S., too, likely thanks to its imaginative video. "Yeah, it's all kicking off in the States now," Molko told Melody Maker. "'Pure Morning' has gone really quite severe on commercial radio over in America. I think we've got a Radiohead on our hands."
Neither the album nor "Pure Nothing" quite reached Radiohead status stateside, but both did well enough. On the other hand, overseas was an entirely different story: The album went platinum in both the U.K. and Australia while going gold in France.
The British press eyed Molko's plan for world domination with a mixture of bemusement and cynicism. In their review of the album, NME wrote:
You see, at heart, Brian Molko is quintessentially American in outlook. Fiercely ambitious, unafraid of fame and desperate to be noticed, you just know that he'll do whatever it takes to fulfill his ambitions (you only have to look at his burgeoning friendship with Marilyn Manson to realize that he's already got the U.S. market in his sights). He might have no soul – just look at his steely green eyes glaring out from the sleeve – but who cares? That's what makes Placebo what they are: a filthy and enthralling hive of dubious excess.
And they liked the album, calling it "a record where every note is shot through with [Molko's] real character."
Pitchfork slammed the album but predicted fairly accurately (give or take a few years) the future existence of the article that you just read: "Strangely, Without You I'm Nothing appears to be late '90s alt-rock referencing a lot of early '90s alt-rock – as if it were some nostalgic trip happening long before its time. Or maybe the record is ahead of its time in the sense that the '90s should be hugely popular around 2010, if the current trend shift patterns hold."