“The Rip” is on Portishead’s third album, imaginatively called “Third”. It came out in 2008, 11 years after the second album, imaginatively called “Portishead”. Portishead made their name with their brilliant first album, released in 2004, called “Dummy”. It was the epitome of what the press called “Trip Hop”. Music with a hip hop beat, slowed down a bit, and musically mellow, dreamy, maybe a bit jazzy or soulful. Music presumably to chill out or “trip” to.
“Dummy” wasn’t all easy listening. Some of the big songs – “Sour Times”, “Glorybox”, “Numb”, had a bit of an edge to them. It was nervy music – a bit ironic when the band were being portrayed as the ultimate in easy listening trip hop. My favourite tune was “It Could be Sweet”. It was on the jazzier end of their sound. A chilled dance anthem. Hints of Sade, but just like when you poked under the surface with Sade, not a happy song. But it was the groove, more than the lyrics, that appealed to me. It was just about as cool as music could get. Here’s a cut off You Tube. Gets you in the mood for “The Rip”.
When “Third” came out it got some good reviews and I bought it. I liked it, but not as much as I had “Dummy”. I found it a bit harsh in places – not what I wanted from Portishead. ”The Rip” sounded good, but I didn’t go mad for it there and then. In fact, and here’s a confession, it wasn’t Portishead that made me love “The Rip”. It was Radiohead. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood got their acoustic guitars out and performed a version of the song, which they posted on their website. This I did love, and partly because it felt like it could have been on their brilliant album, “In Rainbows”. It reminded me a bit of my favourite song on that album, maybe my favourite Radiohead song ever, “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi”. What I loved on that song – and “The Rip” – was that lovely, lilting, insistent, plucked guitar in the background, which conjured up for me scenes of a babbling stream, winding its way through a forest. Dappled in sunlight. Just like a scene that has always stuck in my mind, from a walk down the Samaria Gorge in Crete, where the landscape changes constantly as you descend, from bleak mountain, to stark gorges, to that sunlit forest, and gradually an opening out to the parched rocks and the beach.
And on top of that lovely rhythm were the aching vocals of Thom Yorke. Both “Weird Fishes” and “The Rip” had that beautiful, haunting sadness that Thom’s voice conveys on the mellow songs. The lyrics don’t always make a lot of sense, but there’s just that feel.
So “Weird Fishes” opened my ears to “The Rip”, and the Radiohead version of that song took me back to Portishead’s original. And I realised that it too was good, very good, Beth Gibbons’ vocals as striking as Thom Yorke’s: stronger, less fragile, but equally entrancing. And that rhythm – it was there again. The brook was babbling, electronically.
So let’s work our way through the musical story here. First up, the song that paved the way, “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi”.
And then that acoustic version of “The Rip”, which alerted me to the raw beauty of the song.
And so to Portishead themselves. I like this version from the Jules Holland show: it brings out the intensity – and the serenity – of this lovely tune.
So there it is, “The Rip”. But there’s something else lurking. Another memory. Another song that conjured up that same tender, fragile, image of the mountain, or forest stream. The respite from a life of conflict and hurt. Or in this case war and strife. It’s a song by Wishbone Ash, from their album “Argus”, a bit of a seventies prog/metal classic. Easy to sniff at now, but it was one of the great early seventies rock albums. And on it was this gentle tune, “Leaf and Stream”, an escape from the general bombast of the album, the warriors and the wizards. From the very start I loved it – so simple, so beautiful. To this day it’s a favourite, and I think it might have been there in the background when I took to “Weird Fishes” and “The Rip”. I wonder if Thom Yorke or Johnny Greenwood had it in mind when they wrote “Weird Fishes” or whether Portishead had ever come across it. I doubt it, but you never know…