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(Credit: Massive Attack)

Music

Massive Attack: A history of female collaboration

Massive Attack became a household name in British music during the 1990s. The band, formed in 1988 from the ashes of The Wild Bunch, a hip-hop and reggae fusion collective where Robert Del Naja, Grant Marshall and Andrew Vowles of Massive Attack had begun their careers. After the release of their first single, ‘Any Love’ in the late ’80s, part of a street art exhibition at MShed Museum in Bristol, the trio gained a small following from fellow musicians who saw great potential in the group.

Among the interested was the singer and DJ Neneh Cherry, who helped the band sign to Virgin Records and subsequently release their debut album, Blue Lines, in 1991. The album is the birthplace and one of the most refined examples of trip-hop, the genre that would put the group’s hometown, Bristol, on the musical map.

Blue Lines is a menagerie of low tempo hip hop tracks blended with a bounty of genres, including reggae, soul and electro. For a change in vocal style from the rapping on some of the songs, the band brought in singer Shara Nelson. Nelson sang on three of the album’s four singles: ‘Safe From Harm’, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and ‘Daydreaming’.

Most memorable of all the singles was ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, arguably one of Massive Attack’s finest songs to date. It is a beautiful and atmospheric electronic dance track layered with intriguing textures and instrumentals thanks to a full orchestral arrangement recorded in Abbey Road studios financed by the reluctant sale of the band’s car. Nelson’s soulful vocals accompany the music perfectly to give an eerie chill down the spine – something dance music doesn’t often achieve. Topped off with a starring role in the music video for the track, singing whilst walking the streets of Los Angeles, Nelson played a profound role in the group’s rise to fame and recognition.

Shara Nelson’s departure from the band after Blue Lines ushered in the age of Tracey Thorn, the dynamic singer-songwriter of Everything But the Girl. Thorn not only offered her voice but also wrote the lyrics to the single ‘Protection’, the namesake of the 1994 album. The single was a triumphant stitch in the tapestry of the genre with a sound not too dissimilar from that of budding Bristol trip-hoppers, Portishead. Thorn’s brooding vocals met with a guitarist’s foot heavy on a wah-wah pedal and carefully placed samples from James Brown’s ‘The Playback’ and Bill Cosby’s ‘Get Out of My Life Woman’, gave a recipe for the band’s second top 20 hit to date. Thorn also co-wrote and sang ‘Better Things’, released on the same album. In 1995, she played her final part for Massive Attack, singing ‘The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game’ for the soundtrack to Batman Forever.

It wasn’t until 1998 that Massive Attack released their long-awaited third album, Mezzanine. The album was the result of a few meticulous and tempestuous years in the studio that tore the band apart at the seams. Fortunately for us greedy listeners, the album was not only a corker, but a hit-laden masterpiece. ‘Teardrop’ was the most successful single on the album and the group’s only UK top 10 hit to date. The song was originally written with the intention of Madonna performing the vocals after the group previously collaborated with her on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. However, Madonna was ultimately voted against in favour of Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Frazer.

We will never know what Madonna’s version might have sounded like, but Frazer was perfect for this track; her unique – almost yodelling – vocals roll beautifully with the punchy harpsichord led instrumentals. Mezzanine marked the last album by the original line-up of the band. Andrew Vowles left the trio due to ongoing creative disputes – his outnumbered vote in favour of Madonna for ‘Teardrop’ being but one of the nails in the coffin. 

In my opinion, Massive Attack have no “bad” albums, but 100th Window is, for me, the least memorable. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have moments that shine; many of these moments owe thanks to Irish singer Sinead O’Connor. She sang and co-wrote three songs on the album, including the lead single, ‘Special Cases’, which broke into the UK top 20. The album was, however, limited by its lack of variety, which was perhaps compensated for in 2010 with Heligoland.

For this fifth studio album, Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Guy Garvey (Elbow) were among the titans brought in to add variation and vigour to Massive Attack’s fifth studio album alongside seasoned trip-hop singer Martina Topley-Bird; but the most memorable of the Heligoland collaborations was ‘Paradise Circus’. For this single, the band wielded the plaintive and demure, yet powerful voice of Hope Sandoval, vocalist of the Californian dream-pop band Mazzy Star. The atmospheric and profound feel to the instrumentals perfectly frames Sandoval’s voice in a hit reminiscent of ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ with its prosperous use of orchestral string arrangements. 

Massive Attack have stood at the helm of British electronic rock music for 30 years, creating an impressive back catalogue. Their friendly rivals Portishead were lucky enough to come with a built-in singer, Beth Gibbons. Being a collective of male musicians, Massive Attack took a different approach, using their status to attract extremely gifted vocalists and songwriters to collaborate with. This gave them a broader palette to wield in the studio, allowing them to keep their sound fresh. While the group’s talent as producers, musicians and rappers is undeniable, the influence of the vocal collaborators has been pivotal in their climb to worldwide fame and commercial success.