Fronted by the enigmatic Brian Molko, Placebo were a force to be reckoned with in the ’90s – they offered something different to the laddishness of Britpop and the nerdiness of Radiohead. Their brand of subversive alt-rock cultivated a mass of fanatical followers caught in the tightly woven net of androgynous angst and sublime songwriting. It was only a matter of time before the original agitator David Bowie would find a project 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 – David Bowie. Not a bad place to start eh? Never one to miss the opportunity to promote the music he felt deserved a place on the mantel of music, Bowie then invited the band to open for his now-infamous Outside Tour. Bowie would also lend his vocals to the 1998 recording of Placebo’s ‘Without You I’m Nothing’.
In particular, Molko was very close to Bowie with the latter providing Molko with advice throughout his career. He recently 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’s biggest hit; Marc Bolan’s ’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 were already familiar with having covered the smash-hit for the soundtrack to the film Velvet Goldmine, though 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 today, an absolute dancefloor smash. Built on a simple but encouraging lead guitar (so chunky it barely needed dressing), flourished with garish and provocative lyrics, the song has effortlessly become a cross-generational smash. Nowhere is that more easily seen than in this clip from the 1999 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 lyric 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.”
Listen back to David Bowie’s epic cover of Iggy Pop’s iconic track ‘Lust For Life’ live at Rockpalast, 1996
The sound mixing may be a bit dodgy 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.