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Sunday 26 January 2020

2632 West Pico Boulevard

Like yesterday's Gary Clail song, this song was inescapable in 1991 but is cut from superior cloth, a genuine contender for Best Song Of The Decade etc.

Unfinished Sympathy

Describing the constituent parts of the song doesn't really do it justice or come anywhere near identifying what gives Unfinished Sympathy its power. The scratching at the outset, as soon as the needle hits the groove, some studio voices and the tsk tsk tsk of a hi- hat, locate the song in Massive Attack's roots as a 1980s hip hop collective, the programmed drums roll in, and then we're off, the strings rolling ominously, the 'hey hey hey' sample (John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra apparently), leading into Shara's 'I know that I've imagined love before...'. For the next few minutes the strings and Shara swell and soar, drama and emotion building, and little touches like the piano rundowns and more scratching keep the song firmly rooted. It sounded 'classic' the first time you heard it. It's never really sounded dated. It can still silence a room.

The stings were added afterwards by Will Malone. Massive Attack tried synth strings but they didn't cut it and so opted for a full orchestra, having to sell a car to pay for it ( a Mitsubishi Shogun fact fans).

Nellee Hooper's 12" mix is pretty smart, re-arranging it for the dance floor, opening with piano and pushing the piano and drums to the fore. Less dramatic and less deep than the album mix but when those extra vocals come in around three minutes it's all arms in the air and spines a- tingling. Plenty of scratching, some chanted backing vox, thumpier drums- its all good.

Unfinished Sympathy Nellee Hooper 12" Mix

The video is famous, filmed in a suburb of Los Angeles with Shara shot in one take as she struts through the streets, ignoring everyone around her. The group, 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G are all there briefly. Some of the other people in the video are extras and some real residents of the area who wouldn't get off the streets. The main reason they went to L.A. to film the video, 3D said, was for the light, a golden light you don't get anywhere else. It's a brilliant video, the perfect accompaniment to the song, and much copied. This map pinpoints Shara's walk should you find yourself chasing the golden light and in L.A. with the desire to recreate it.

Blue Lines was a stunning album, a record I don't think they've come close to matching in the years that followed. That's not really a criticism- nobody else has come close to it either. It was a genuine crossover record, growing through word of mouth, passed on from hand to hand by cassette through the spring and summer of 1991. From the opening paranoia of Safe From Harm to the slow- slow- quick- quick- slow rapping of 3D, Tricky and Daddy G, to the groove of Be Thankful For What You've Got, the zonked out calm of Daydreaming to the closing beauty of Hymn To The Big Wheel, whale song, liquid beats and Horace Andy's vocals.


Echorich said...

You said it all with "It can still silence a room."
I'm with you on Blue Lines being just about the best album of the 90s. There is something organic and unspoiled about the final product.
And that video. Staged or not, it is a slice of life in real time.

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, The Verve pawned a pair of old roller skates to film their homage video for 'Bittersweet Symphony' on Hoxton Street, North London, where the radiation from a kebab grill cast a unique reddish glow on the proceedings.

The Swede said...

In full agreement with your assessment of 'Unfinished Sympathy' SA, but how have I managed to go nearly 30 years not knowing that the sample is from a Mahavishnu Orchestra track?

Anonymous said...

As we know Massive Attack sprung out of breakbeat sound system culture. Artists had been rapping over breaks for some time creating Hip Hop. But what separates Massive Attack and the Bristol crew (Smith & Mighty, Portishead etc) is that they had started to construct melodic songs from breaks. This I think was truly new (please let me know if this was going on previously?). They had made a giant leap doing this and owe a great debt to the singers, Shara Nelson especially, that wove these melodies out of their brilliant sample selections.

Swiss Adam said...

I kind of love it when that happens Swede.

You're absolutely right SRC.

Patrick said...

I always loved the song, but had never seen the video until tonight. I lived on that section of Pico blvd about seven years ago and the flashbacks I just experienced were palpable. The world is small in great and profound ways...

Swiss Adam said...

Comments like yours Patrick remind me why blogging is so worthwhile.