The moment Placebo and David Bowie covered Marc Bolan’s ’20th Century Boy’ for the BRITS, 1999
We’re taking a trip back to 1999 to witness the moment David Bowie and Placebo get together at the Brit Awards to give an incredible performance of Marc Bolan and T-Rex’s classic hit ’20th Century Boy’.
Fronted by the enigmatic Brian Molko, Placebo was a force to be reckoned with in the ’90s — they offered something different to the ‘lad’ culture of Britpop and the nerdiness of Radiohead. They also managed to pique the interest of one David Bowie.
Their brand of subversive alt-rock cultivated a mass of fanatical followers and an unbreakable fandom. Placebo were all caught in the tightly woven net of androgynous angst and sublime songwriting. It was only a matter of time before the original agitator Bowie would find a project for the pair of artists to collaborate on.
That project came sooner rather than later. In the early days of Placebo, with Molko and Osdal having only demos to their name, they had one major fan and that was Bowie himself. Never one to miss the opportunity to promote the music he felt deserved a place on the mantel of music’s greatest, Bowie then invited the band to open for his now-infamous Outside Tour. The pop icon would also lend his vocals to the 1998 recording of Placebo’s single ‘Without You I’m Nothing’. In particular, singer Molko was very close to Bowie with the latter providing Molko with advice throughout his career.
Remembering his relationship with Bowie, Molko opened up to the NME about his presence: “He was my friend and my mentor. He gave me a lot of advice. I’m meditating more on how he was quite a sage and quite a raconteur as well.”
A more intimate collaboration came in the form of a special BRIT Awards performance in 1999 that saw Placebo supported by Bowie covering another glam-rock icon and longtime friend of Bowie’s biggest hit; Marc Bolan and the unforgettable hit ’20th Century Boy’. Released in 1971, the song marked one of the last triumphant moments of Bolan’s sadly short career. It was a song that Placebo was already familiar with having covered the smash-hit for the soundtrack to the film Velvet Goldmine. However, following Bowie rejecting the chance to have his own music appear in the film, Molko said the pair “agreed never to talk about”.
The track was and remains to this day, an absolute dancefloor smash and it rang out as succinctly in the late ’90s as it did when it was first released. Built on a simple but encouraging lead guitar (so chunky it barely needed dressing), flourished with garish and provocative lyrics capable of making teens lose their minds, the song has effortlessly become a cross-generational smash. Nowhere is that more easily seen than in this clip from the BRIT Awards.
On one side of the stage stands the present of rock and roll, Brian Molko and his sparkling charcoaled eyes, full of the kind of sneering misunderstanding that can drive so many to mania. On the other stood an original of the glam-rock era passing the goth-glittered baton across with every word he sang.
He plays his Tin Machine-era headless guitar and seems happy to let Molko take the spotlight. “We weren’t too bad, we were in key at least,” Molko later told Melody Maker. “But we could never really get the lyrics right. We were doing ’20th Century Boy’. We had a fucking laugh.”
The sound mixing may be a bit dodgy, the ’90s after all, but the performance of this song, in particular, strikes a special chord with fans of both artists.
For Placebo fans, it marks a moment in their history that they were named as “the future” by Bowie, of all people. While for Bowie fans it’s a clear indication of his admiration for them, as well as a rousing tribute to his departed friend.
Whichever way you look at it this is a moment worth savouring. So watch as Placebo are joined on stage by David Bowie to perform T-Rex’s hit ’20th Century Boy’ live at the BRITS in 1999.