Placebo is wonderfully anachronistic in their outlook. They refuse to let the early ’70s die. They fashion themselves as the heirs of the glam rock legacy bequeathed by David Bowie, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, and Iggy Pop. Like their glam ancestors, they are steeped in makeup, sex, and drugs — frontman Brian Molko is as much a pinup as he is a musician. Image is everything — the image being one of ambiguous sexuality, life lived on the edge, questioning all boundaries and borders. They staked their claim to this position with their scorching cover of T Rex’s “Twentieth Century Boy” for the glam rock love letter film, Velvet Goldmine. Molko’s sexy sneer, somewhere between Brian Eno and Neil Young, and the hell hath no fury wall of electric guitar injected the ’70s hit with a vigor and vitality that made the original seem tepid.
Black Market Music, however, presents a band struggling to live up to its billing as the next glam rock kings (real glam rock, not that eighties Duran Duran thing that took glam rock’s look but none of its attitude). The first three tracks are blistering and assaulting. “Taste in Men”, “Days Before You Came”, and their first single, “Special K”, give us a glimpse into a dark and seedy world of sex, drugs, and frustration. “Taste in Men” is especially penetrating. Its deep, thick drums joined by the wall of sound electric fuzz reach a raging fury as the track — much in the dark homoerotic spirit of Reed’s Transformer — slams to a close. Like their ’70s icons, Placebo is all attitude and posturing, coy and ironic, playful and provocative.
Or are they? Unfortunately for Placebo, it takes a little more than wearing makeup to qualify as bona fide glam. If anything, on this record, Placebo show themselves to be children of the nineties. Call it alternative with makeup (taking the next step from Kurt Cobain appearing on stage in what appeared to be one of Courtney Love’s dresses). For one thing, their immense guitar sound recalls not Mick Ronson, but rather the larger than life drone of such mid-’90s acts as Smashing Pumpkins and Hum. More importantly, their music bears the indelible mark of mid-’90s alternative angst. Placebo may sing about sex and drugs, but the real issues in these songs are Molko’s inner demons. This is loud confessional rock, not coy, elusive rock in the spirit of, say, Roxy Music. This alterna-angst reaches its apex on “Black Eyed”, a slithering rocker in which Molko sings “I was forever black eyed, a product of a broken home.” I can think of no clearer expression of Placebo’s real agenda behind all of the makeup — Molko is sad and he is screaming about it. Would David Bowie ever do that? Of course not. Did Bowie even have feelings? Isn’t he always putting off emotion and sincerity in favor of the pose, the image, the ever-important snapshot?
I would not harp on comparing Placebo to ’70s glam if they didn’t harp on it themselves. In fact, in 1999 they rerecorded their single “Without You I’m Nothing” with Bowie himself. I am simply disappointed that they chose to incorporate glam rock’s least interesting feature (the clothes). Bowie sought to transcend everyday, humdrum reality through his musical and stylistic explorations. Rock music had amazing vitality and possibility for Bowie — it could save and it could destroy. The rock star was a pivotal, controversial, complicated, and dynamic individual. Placebo, unfortunately, are anachronistic not only in their ’70s garb but also in their ’90s bellyaching. All that said, however, Black Market Music is highly listenable dark guitar rock. It just is not what it is billed to be. But if you are gripped by the bizarre desire to relive the early ’70s and the mid-’90s at the same time, well then, Black Market Music is for you.