I have been a fan of Placebo since the beginning of the new millennium. My curiosity was triggered by an article in a Belgian newspaper about the band, quoting a phrase from “Slave To The Wage” about how to leave your problems and boring life behind:
“All it takes is one decision
A lot of guts, a little vision”
I found that very inspiring, and decided to borrow the album the song was on, “Black Market Music”, from the local library. “Slave To The Wage” was obviously the first song I listened to, and I loved the sound and Brian Molko’s typical nasal voice. I listened to the entire album, and loved it. I decided to check out the rest of their discography. I remember laying in bed and listening to the album “Without You I’m Nothing”, how the first notes of opening track “Pure Morning” came in and I was hooked on it. The sound somehow got me entranced and then the vocals came in. It remains one of my favourite Placebo songs to this very day. I still remember that very moment clearly, and how I loved the entire album. Still my favourite Placebo album to date, a true masterpiece! I soon enough bought the three albums the band had released to that day. I also clearly remember my first Placebo concert experience, in the Hallen van Schaarbeek in Brussels, Belgium. An amazing concert. I soon enough began collecting their CD singles too in order to have all the B-sides. Of some singles, several versions exist with different B-sides, so you had to buy all of them to have all the B-sides. It was the good old days when, instead of streaming, you would still buy tangible CD singles with a nice artwork. I miss those good old days. It was always blissful to go to record stores in Aalst, Oudenaarde, Brussels, … and go through all the shelves and boxes in the independent record stores, hoping you’d find a rare CD single.
Let me share my enthousiasm about Placebo with you, hoping you will feel curious enough that you’ll give the band a try. Be aware: their music is addictive!
Placebo was founded in 1994 in London by Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal. Placebo has always been a quite international band. Brian Molko was born in Brussels to Scottish and American parents who traveled the world due to his father’s career as a banker. Molko, as a child, lived in countries such as Scotland, Liberia, Lebanon, Belgium, and eventually would spend teenage years in Luxembourg (a country he always disliked). His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a banker too, but Brian had other plans. Brian said growing up in Luxembourg was very boring, and that he would find himself in his room very often, just listening to music and learning to play guitar.
Stefan Olsdal on the other hand was born in Sweden but moved to Luxembourg with his parents. Later members would be Steve Hewitt from the UK and Steve Forrest from the USA.
So Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal both spent part of their youth in Luxembourg (and didn’t like it at all). Moreover, they both attended the same school, the American International School of Luxembourg, but they were not friends and not in the same social circles. Both of them moved to London and, as if destiny had planned it as such, ran into each other in a London subway station in 1994. Brian Molko spotted that Stefan Olsdal had a guitar strapped to his back, and invited him to attend a local gig of his. Olsdal accepted the invitation and was impressed by Brian’s performance, so he proposed the two of them would form a band. This band was named Ashtray Heart, named after a Captain Beefheart song. Molko would later deny that this was the first name of the band. It was a short-lived four-track lo-fi project, but soon enough they realized they wanted to have a proper band. Molko wanted a friend of him, Steve Hewitt, as drummer, but he had commitments with local band Breed. Robert Schultzberg, who attended the same school in Sweden as Stefan Olsdal and had moved to the UK too to study art (another very odd coincidence) would take on the rule as drummer.
The band settled on the name Placebo. Placebo is Latin for “I shall please”, and also the band decided to name themselves after the one drug that actually doesn’t work.
In 1995, the band had its first release when “Bruise Pristine” was released as split single with Soup. This song would later be re-recorded for the Placebo debut album, and this new version would be released as final single of the album in 1997.
The self-titled debut album “Placebo” was released in 1996 and reached the 5th spot in the UK Albums Chart, their highest chart position in the UK to this day. In my opinion, the album was a bit more raw and less polished than their later albums. It wasn’t punk, but there were certainly some punk-ish elements in there.
From the very start, the band stood out due to their androgynous appearance (Brian Molko was wearing make-up and nail varnish) and their explicit lyrics containing references to sex and drugs. These subject matters returned often in later songs too, the band has often sung about sexual fluidity, bisexuality, kinky sex, and drugs. The band members were also open about their own sexuality. When Steve Hewitt would eventually become the drummer, the band said they were “50% gay”: Stefan Olsdal is gay, Brian Molko is bisexual, and Steve Hewitt is heterosexual. Brian Molko was also open about his own drug use.
The song that really caused a breakthrough to the mainstream audience, was the very explicit “Nancy Boy”. A song that dealt with subjects such as alcohol, drugs, bisexuality and hedonism. Even Brian Molko found the song “obscene” and said such a rude song should not have made the top-5 of the singles chart. But alas, it did happen. When he wrote “Nancy Boy”, Molko was partially inspired by a quote from Suede frontman Brett Anderson, who had said “I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience.” The single version is different from the album version (as is the case with “Come Home”).
With their androgynous appearance and lyrics that dealt with subjects such as sexuality and drug use, the band stood out in a time when Britpop was at its peak.
Looking back on the early days of the band, Brian Molko said “We were reacting very strongly against the machismo, terrace chants and revisionism of Britpop, and the nationalism that we interpreted as xenophobia of the musical kind. We were trying to make a strong political statement about the fluidity of sexuality with the dresses and make-up that we wore. We set out to confuse, and I guess Nancy Boy was the perfect soundtrack to that.”
Stefan Olsdal said “Any time you challenge people’s sexuality, especially males and their masculinity, it can be a very sensitive area.”
In another interview, Brian Molko said how he sometimes finds men horrible, infantile and offensive, as a sort of anti-role model. He said he finds male attitudes in the streets, bars etc that he sometimes witnessed, repulsive.
Molko was frustrated though that the media associated Nancy Boy quite heavily with the band itself, as if Placebo were “the faggy indie band who wore dresses”, while other aspects of his songwriting were overlooked. Brian actually considers Nancy Boy to be one of his more immature songs.
Other songs worth mentioning on the debut album include “Come Home”, “Teenage Angst”, and “Bruise Pristine”.
“Teenage Angst” dealt with the heavy emotions you experience while growing up, containing the lines
“Since I was born I started to decay
Now nothing ever-ever goes my way”
Molko said of “Teenage Angst”: “It’s about the intense emotions you feel as a teenager the way you have a tendency to close yourself a bit, create your own little world.”
The debut album was the first of three consecutive albums with a hidden track at the end, following minutes of silence after the conclusion of the final track listed on the back of the album’s track list. The hidden track on this album is “HK Farewell”.
In 1996, the same year as the release of the debut album, Robert Schultzberg left the band due to frequent conflicts with Brian Molko. This time Steve Hewitt did join as drummer as a full-time member. The line-up in which I got to know the band was now a fact.
Nobody less than the grand David Bowie was impressed by the band, and had them play as support act of his own concerts regularly. The support of Bowie too would be a major step for the band.
In 1998, the band covered “20th Century Boy” by T. Rex for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. The band members themselves had minor roles in that movie. The song can be found as a B-side on the “You Don’t Care About Us” single. They performed this song live with David Bowie too.
In 1998, the band released their second album, “Without You I’m Nothing”, one of my favourite albums. It opens fantastically with the epic “Pure Morning”, but alternative rock and very heavy songs (such as “Brick Shithouse” and “Allergic (To Thoughts Of Mother Earth))” were alternated with slow songs such as “Ask For Answers”, “The Crawl”, “My Sweet Prince” or “Burger Queen”.
The sleeve picture of the album shows two almost identically looking women, possibly twin sisters, sitting opposite of each other, hardly making eye contact but still close to each other, while a yellow-ish light comes in through the window. I don’t know if the women are actually twins, but if they are, it would suit the album title perfectly, given the very unique and to others often ununderstandably strong bond between twins.
“Pure Morning”, which had a promo video in which Brian Molko stands on top of a building as if he were to commit suicide, but then walks down the building, contains lyrics that were supposed to be “like a celebration of a friendship with women”, but contain some lines about kinky sex too:
“A friend with breasts and all the rest
A friend who’s dressed in leather”
“Pure Morning” equaled the chart success of “Nancy Boy” in the UK, and reached the US audience too. Molko however was not pleased with the lyrics, and for years refused to play the song live.
On the album, the epic title track has only Brian singing, but a special version of the song in which David Bowie sings along was released as a single. This version was recorded on request of Bowie himself, being a strong Placebo supporter.
The track “Allergic (To Thoughts Of Mother Earth)” has lines that seem to have a negative view on religion, describing someone who suffers in the present but comforts himself with the idea of a pleasant afterlife:
“Any means in your horizon, Heaven in a tourniquet
The afterlife to keep your eyes on, bitter pill you take today”
Another song I love a lot from this album is “Burger Queen”, a song about an outcast in the conservative Luxembourg. A French version of this song, “Burger Queen Français”, was released as a CD single to reach out to the French audience. While the lyrics were not translated perfectly (it was not translated by Brian himself ; Brian is fluent in French) I adore the French-language version of the song even more than the English-language original. I remember playing the single for the first time and being impressed by how well Brian sings in French, loving to hear his voice in this beautiful language. It wasn’t the only time during their career that Placebo would have a French-language song, though they were either B-sides or special CD single releases, as you will read further on in this article.
Other tracks from the album I strongly recommend are the heavy “Brick Shithouse”, “My Sweet Prince”, and “Summer’s Gone”.
The hidden track on “Without You I’m Nothing” is called “Evil Dildo”. It is a chaotic sound on which a transformed voice can be heard making threats to Brian Molko. This was an actual message Brian received on his answering machine. Back then he was still in the phone book. Instead of worrying about the message, he used it in this track!
In 2000, the band released “Black Market Music”, which was my introduction to Placebo.
I already mentioned how the track “Slave To The Wage” was the song that triggered my interest in the band. The video for this song shows a woman at work in an office where things literally seem to shred. Brian looks great in this video (and in the promo pictures for the album). The song could very well be about the boredom of an average job in Luxembourg, knowing where Brian and Stefan came from.
Another song from this album I love, is the song “Black-eyed”. Some lines of it tackle mental health:
“I was never faithful
And I was never one to trust
And guaranteed to cause a fuss”
Forever biting on your nuts”
I used to wonder if the latter phrase would not be a wordplay on Brian being bisexual, “bipolar” being a term to indicate manic depression but it could also be a pun on being attracted to both poles, or two genders in this case. Maybe this is just me wondering if there is a pun intended though.
The song “Blue American” also has lines refering to mental health:
“I read a book about the self
Said I should get expensive help
Go fix my head
Create some wealth
Put my neurosis on the shelf”
Other songs I recommend from this album are “Special K” (this is slang for ketamine), and the hidden track “Black Market Blood”, which is a beautiful slow song.
“Black Market Music” was the first of several Placebo albums to reach the top position in the French album charts.
In 2003, the band released their 4th full length album, “Sleeping With Ghosts”. This is the first Placebo album to not feature a hidden track at the end of the album. It opens with an instrumental track, the heavy “Bulletproof Cupid”.
The album and its title refer to carrying the ghosts of past relationships with you, where the person almost seems to come back when confrontated with a small memory they left behind, or a certain smell or certain situation… It is about the relationship you have with your memories.
“This Picture” is one of my favourite songs from this album. The song deals with kinky sex and SM with an abusive female in a position of dominance, whilst also containing lines about fear of growing old. To me it sounds like remembering someone you’ve known, or a particular time in your life. To me it sounds like a goodbye song, and a goodbye to youth. A song dealing with resignation. A saudade song.
The video accompanying the song was censored in media as it contained bare breasts.
The title track is a very beautiful song, centered around the line “soulmates never die”. It also contains the lines
“This one world vision
turns us into compromise
What good’s religion
when it’s each other we despise?”
Another song I particularly love from this album is the heavy “Plasticine”, centered around the line “Don’t forget to be the way you are”. The line “Beauty lies inside the eye of another youthful dream” is a direct reference to the Sonic Youth song “Beauty Lies In The Eye”. Brian is a heavy Sonic Youth fan.
Other songs from the album I recommend are “The Bitter End” and the beautiful slow song “Special Needs”.
The song “Protect Me From What I Want” was translated into French and released as a single called “Protège-moi”. It featured a pornographic very explicit promo video.
A special version of the album was released in 2003 and contained a second disc containing 10 covers, this bonus CD simply called “Covers”. The Kate Bush cover “Running Up That Hill” was released as a single ; the quite uptempo original was now turned into a beautiful slow song, a great cover indeed! Other songs on this covers collection worth mentioning are the Pixies cover “Where Is My Mind”, The Smiths cover “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, the Robert Palmer cover “Johnny & Mary”, the Sinéad O’Connor cover “Jackie”, and the already mentioned T. Rex cover “20th Century Boy” and Depeche Mode cover “I Feel You”.
A song such as “Bigmouth Strikes Again” is worth mentioning because I, a Smiths fan, like the song a lot, but it doesn’t come close to the original. “Jackie” is a beautiful song, but the cover misses the dramatic feel of the original. “I Feel You” sounds OK, but it doesn’t really add anything extra compared to the original. So this covers collection is mostly interesting because of the great Kate Bush cover.
The compilation would later be released as a stand-alone album named “Covers”.
The promotion tour for “Sleeping With Ghosts” included a concert at the market square of Arras, France, a square surrounded by beautiful old buildings. A wonderful setting for a concert. I remember taking the train from Belgium to Arras, arriving there only to find out every hotel was fully booked. The city was literally taken over by Placebo fans. I experienced a wonderful concert though, after which I spent some time in a rock bar, and once that one closed I slept on an inner-city bench until the first train in the morning… on which I fell asleep again, only to wake up in a remote train depot somewhere near Lille. Good memories!
In 2004, the band released the live DVD “Soulmates Never Die (Live In Paris 2003)” and the compilation album “Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996-2004”, which was also available with a bonus disc containing remixes and a DVD containing promo videos of the songs. “Once More With Feeling” also contained 2 new songs: “I Do” and “Twenty Years”. The DVD with all promo videos was also released seperately as “Once More With Feeling: Videos 1996-2004”, also featuring live videos, an interview with the band and video audio commentary by the band.
More compilation albums would be released later on in the band’s career, including several collections of B-sides.
In 2006, the band released their next album, “Meds”. I very much recommend the songs “Infra-red” and “Song To Say Goodbye”. The title track features Alison Mosshart of the band The Kills, while “Broken Promise” features Michael Stipe of R.E.M.
“Song To Say Goodbye” features some lyrics that make me puzzle what it could mean:
“Before our innocence was lost
You were always one of those
Blessed with lucky sevens
And a voice that made me cry”
Not sure what the lucky sevens could refer to…
In 2007 the record label released the compilation “Extended Play ‘07” with one song from each of the albums to that date each + 3 live songs. It was a US-only release to introduce the band to new fans after Placebo participated in the Projekt Revolution tour 2007. Projekt Revolution was a series of tours organized by the band Linkin Park, in which Linkin Park always performed alongside bands from different genres of music.
Shortly after this tour, Steve Hewitt was forced to leave Placebo due to tensions with the other band members. Hewitt would later on found the band Love Amongst Ruin, where he also does lead vocals and guitar.
In 2008, Steve Forrest from Modesto, California, US, was recruited as new drummer. He previously played in the band Evaline, who were the support act for Placebo during their US tour in October 2006.
In 2009, “The Hut Recordings” was released. This was a compilation set of all 5 studio albums the band had previously released, “Covers”, a collection of B-sides, a live performance in La Cigale, the “Once More With Feeling 1996-2004” DVD with promo videos, and the “Soulmates Never Die: Live In Paris 2003” DVD. This release was a quite complete overview of the band catalog so far.
Also in 2009, the band released “Battle For The Sun”, the first album with Steve Forrest on drums. I very much recommend the title track and the rocking “The Never-Ending Why”.
That year, on the MTV Europe Music Awards, Placebo won the prize for “Best Alternative”.
A live album “iTunes Live: London Festival ‘09” was also released ; throughout their career, several live albums have been released.
Promotion for “Battle For The Sun” was not without its problems though, as Brian Molko struggled with his health. Several live dates had to be cancelled because of that.
In 2012, the band released the EP “B3”.
In 2013, the band released a new album, “Loud Like Love”. A track on the album I like a lot is “Too Many Friends”, which is about the artificialness of online friends that you never meet in real life.
In 2015, Steve Forrest left Placebo. Since then, Placebo is a two-piece when it comes to permanent members: Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal.
That same year, the band released a live album and DVD, “MTV Unplugged”. It contains songs that were never played live before and songs from the entire back catalog of the band. Brian Molko called “MTV Unplugged” his favourite Placebo album in a 2016 interview with VICE in which he had to rank the Placebo albums. Oddly enough (in my opinion), he ranked the three first albums on the bottom three spots, meaning they are his least favourites.
The band then announced a new tour, “A Place For Us To Dream – 20 Years Of Placebo”, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of their self-titled debut album. Songs from the band’s entire career would be played live as a gift to the fans, including songs the band had sworn to never play live again, and songs that had not been in the setlists for a really long time.
Brian Molko stated: “I think it’s time that we purposefully acknowledged what a lot of Placebo fans really want to hear. They’ve been very patient with us since we rarely play our most commercially succesful material. A 20 year anniversary tour seems like the right time to do so. That’s our intention.”
He also stated that this may be the last time some of the old songs would be played live again.
In 2016, the compilation album also named “A Place For Us To Dream” was released: a 2 CD best of with one new song, “Jesus’ Son”.
The same year, they also released an EP, “Life’s What You Make It”.
Also in 2016, Placebo released a documentary film called “Alt.Russia”. It covers a 2014 tour in Russia the band did, and contains comments about the social situation in Russia, including homophobia, and restrictions to artists imposed by the regime. The documentary was narrated by Stefan Olsdal himself.
Throughout their career, Placebo have often stood up for cases such as LGBTQ+ rights, including Brian and Stefan kissing on stage in countries where there is still a stigma on homosexuality.
In 2022, the band released their new album after a few delays, “Never Let Me Go”. The band now had a new look, with Brian having relatively long hair and a moustache now. Recording of the album was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic and London being in lockdown for a while. Several singles were released from the album, including “Beautiful James”. A new tour with both festival appearances and proper concerts is following the release of the new album.
It is worth mentioning that of several of the band’s albums throughout their career, special versions for a specific country exist containing bonus tracks, or that a couple of albums had reissues containing bonuses.
For example, the US and Japanese version of “Black Market Music” contain “Without You I’m Nothing” featuring David Bowie and the Depeche Mode cover “I Feel You” as extra tracks.
In 2006, the self-titled debut album was reissued with with bonus tracks and a DVD containing live performances and promo videos.
In 2010, the “Redux” edition of “Battle For The Sun” was released, containing the “Bright Lights” single version and a bonus disc with re-recorded old tracks and a few new songs.
These are a few examples; more such releases exist.
For several years, I have collected the band’s singles in order to also have the B-sides. Some of these B-sides are actually worth a listen. For example the Nick Drake cover “Been Smoking Too Long”, the almost psychedelic “Hare Krishna”, the bizarre and sexually explicit “Mars Landing Party” (of which an English-language and French-language version exist ; the song isn’t that good but it’s worth a listen due to its bizarreness), the already mentioned T. Rex cover “20th Century Boy”, the beautiful slow song “Leni”, the somewhat cute “Bubblegun”, and “Little Mo”. This is not a complete list of B-sides but just a couple of personal recommendations.
Throughout his career, Brian Molko has collaborated with numerous artists, including the single “Carbon Kid” with Alpinestars, the single “The Metric System”with Trash Palace, and the song “Pink Water 3” with Indochine (a band I adore as well).
Stefan Olsdal has a side project Digital 21 + Stefan Olsdal, as well as a side project Hotel Persona. Hotel Person creates music, does DJ sets, and remixes other artists’ and bands’ songs.
Placebo is (permanent members):
This article was written based on spontaneous personal knowledge, and with the help of the following sources:
placeboworld.co.uk (archived pages)