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Not Fade Away 1991: Unfinished Sympathy, by Massive

Not Fade Away 1991: Unfinished Sympathy, by Massive.

"Massive Attack have always striven, in the nicest possible way, to leave a bad taste in our mouths. Blue Lines was a full basket of chocolate-coated grenades, all with slow fuses but each a killer cocktail of reggae, rap, soul and Ennio Morricone." Stephen Dalton, NME, February 1992

"You might say that Massive Attack were important, if saying that a pop group is important wasn't the best way of robbing being in a pop group of its point and the word important of its dignity. With the help of an elite squad of collaborators, 3D, Daddy G, Mushroom have taken dance music off the dance floor and put it into people's heads. They have redefined the relationship of the song to the human voice in an age where machines seemed to be taking over. They have established an ideal of multi-cultural British cool from which no-one need - or would want to - feel excluded. And they have done all this without ever seeming to break sweat." Ben Thompson, The Daily Telegraph, May 1998.

"Massive Attack are Pink Floyd with bigger bass sounds and better drum patterns." John McCready, The Face, 1991.

No, not Nirvana. I think everything you need to know about my attitude to rock music can be found in that fact. Because Smells Like Teen Spirit is as good a rock record as I can imagine; raw rage channelled into a noisy pop song.

I do have a couple of minor issues with it. Partly to do with the lyrics. "A mulatto, an albino/ A mosquito, my libido" doesn't work for me (though "A denial, a denial ..." is as potent and eloquent a rebuke of the grown-up world as Lydon's "No Future" and Morrissey's "I was looking for a job and then I found a job/And Heaven knows I'm miserable now").

Partly to do with the fact that it opened the door to the grinding, tedious, humourless, self-importance of other grunge acts like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden (though in its favour it also killed eighties hair metal stone dead). And, yes, partly to do with the fact the Kurt Cobain would end up another lost boy, one of the many who have haunted this blog from the beginning.

But it's still a great record. The roar and surge of the thing, the sheer electric rush of it, is exhilarating.

Even so, it's not my favourite track of that year. We have to travel to Bristol (again) for that.

The perceived wisdom about trip-hop - a term that Massive Attack have disputed applies to them pretty much from its first coining -is that it was, by all accounts, very quickly absorbed into bourgeois lifestyles, and became the soundtrack of dinner parties.

Not being invited to many dinner parties back at the start of the nineties I can't tell if that's true or not. But, frankly, so what if it was? Presumably there was the odd accountant who liked Nirvana too.Music is for whoever wants to listen to it.

The thrill of hearing Massive Attack's debut album Blue Lines when it came out was the way it absorbed and interiorised the dance music of the previous decade. It drew on everything from rap to reggae, from dub to dance, then slowed it down, infused it in a narcotic fug. Head music in every sense - perfect for me at a time when my trips to the dance floor were becoming fewer and fewer. The Pink Floyd comparison is valid, though the Floyd never sounded this good.

As well as that, though, there's a widescreen ambition at work too; it's music for movies yet unmade (an idea that you could possibly trace back to Barry Adamson's Moss Side Story two years before).

All of this is on display in the single Unfinished Sympathy - released with the band's name redacted to Massive in a bid to defuse any offence at the time of the first Gulf War. Even now, repetition and dinner parties haven't rubbed off its cinematic grandeur. The oceanic swell of the strings (co-producer Jonny Dollar arranged for a 40-piece string section at Abbey Road to play Will Malone's arrangement) those rolling rhythms, adroit samples (of tracks by JJ Johnson, Bob James, Era and the Mahavishnu Orchestra) and the keening soar of Shara Nelson's voice all sound as potent as they did more than two decades ago when it first appeared.

Unlikely fans include the novelist Will Self who raved about Massive Attack in the Sunday Times three years ago. Not uncritically, it should be said: "Lyrics have never really been the best part of what Massive Attack do; even with the magisterial 'Unfinished Sympathy', and its exquisitely tortured refrain, 'Like a soul without a mind/In a body without a heart/ I'm missing every part', there's a sense that the words can't really match the grandeur of the soundscape."

I'm not sure that's true though, or, if it is, whether it really matters. The words are part of the friable, sticky texture of the sound in Massive Attack records. They're both upfront and fading into the mix.

And anyway, as Self acknowledges, Unfinished Sympathy's lyrics have a real weight to them (I personally love the line "You're the book that I have opened"). Plus, they are sung by Shara Nelson, one of the great black British singers.

Shara Nelson, like Caron Wheeler, who sang with Soul II Soul, and Carol Kenyon, who worked with Heaven 17 a decade earlier, or even Estelle a decade later (who had to go to the US to find a career), is one of a number of black British female singers who have struggled to impose themselves beyond their initial impact.

And the truth is that Nelson is herself a lost girl now. She couldn't find a lasting vehicle for her voice (though I'd recommend you track down Keeping Out the Cold, the final track on her second solo album Friendly Fire and something of a neo-soul classic) and, sadly, her only newsworthy appearance in the last few years was when the DJ Pete Tong was granted a restraining order against her.

Massive Attack, meanwhile, have continued to make music at their own pace, with collaborators such as Tracey Thorn (Protection), Liz Fraser (Teardrop) and even Madonna (they worked on her gorgeous cover of Marvin Gaye's I Want You). The depth and space they find in their soundscapes is what makes them memorable. Unfinished Sympathy - in which a heartbroken ache of a voice is set against the deep throb of the music - may be the most memorable of them all.

This week anyway.

Other Contenders

Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana

Safe From Harm, Massive Attack

Apparently Nothin', Young Disciples

You Got the Love, The Source featuring Candi Staton

Justify My Love, Madonna

Set Adrift on Memory Bliss, PM Dawn

Weather with You, Crowded House

Railwayed, Kitchens of Distinction

Until the End of the World, U2

Higher Than the Sun, Primal Scream

Get the Message, Electronic

Only Love Can Break Your Heart, St Etienne

You Love Us, Manic Street Preachers

Wear Your Love Like Heaven, Definition of Sound

What Do I Have to Do, Kylie Minogue

Shocked, Kylie Minogue

Loose Fit, Happy Mondays

Rush, Rush, Paula Abdul (no, really)

I Love Your Smile, Shanice

John Peel's Festive 50 Winner: Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana (nb - this only emerged two years later, as Peel aborted the vote in 1991)

NME Single of the Year: Higher Than the Sun, Primal Scream

And the best-selling single of the year: 1991 (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, Bryan Adams

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