Updated: Jan 21
Massive Attack: Out Of The Comfort Zone: The Story of a Sound, a City and a Group Of Revolutionary Artists by Melissa Chemam, Tangent Books, 2019
Being brought up in Sheffield and then studying in Birmingham and London, Bristol seemed a million miles away and very little to do with me. I came to the South West to work but was happy to leave the grime behind which is why I steered clear of Bristol. Yet I understand so well the stresses and strains of the city-mix and in finding identity in a harsh environment.
Bristol is surrounded by natural beauty and with its maritime past, was a gateway to the world, yet it seemed remote from other major UK conurbations; a city with an independence and vibrancy out of which came a sound and culture that is uniquely generated by its very difference, diverse population and history.
Musically, all cities have an impact of their own and Bristol's mixing pot of cultures was always destined to create something special. Melissa Chemam, a French journalist, broadcaster and nomadic world traveller adopted Bristol as her spiritual home and her writing reflects her connection and passion for Bristol’s sound and artistic culture with extensive research and interviews which breathe life and intimate detail into a unique cultural development.
Massive Attack were three talented DJ's: Robert del Naja (3D or D), Grant Marshall ( Daddy G) and Andrew (Mushroom) Vowles - all Bristolians, and Chemam sets the scene with an outline of Bristol's history, charting its diverse musical influences and Massive Attack's development from early days as The Wild Bunch and collaboration with iconic singers such as Tracy Thorn. The reader becomes embroiled in the complex tapestry of creative sparks which bring so much feeling and say so much. Their first live appearance on an intimate TV stage in the video above brings them close to you.
Massive Attack did become "massive" and I know the sound they created spread over the world as far as Japan where there is a shop dedicated to the Bristol Sound and city dwellers across the globe identify with the “Bristol Sound” and the melding of art and graffiti that goes with it.
I find Massive Attack an edgy and unsettling experience evoking dark and bleak urban landscapes I suffered in Sheffield and Birmingham. Their sound was an underground electronic sound of under-stated power that epitomised the challenges of urban existence, similar to the shrill tones of a lone jazz trumpet echoing through the streets of Chicago.
Massive Attack are quoted to say that their music is "dancing for the mind", not for the feet and indeed it is a massive soundscape with subjects that take you out of your comfort zone, but the overall effect relays a compassionate empathy for all of those who live in unsettling environments and seek solace in its silky ambience.
Through this book, Melissa takes us on the journey to understanding the complexities of its creation and also captures the multi-faceted connections and influences across the music world that came with Massive Attack's development, their engagement with the wider world, tours, disappointments and artistry which was sought for collaboration with other giants like Radiohead, Damon Allbarn and Bowie.
Chemam also integrates the street art development of 3D and recently Banksy to give a pan-cultural history of the city and its influence elsewhere. I never really liked graffitti in other cities as it seemed to make a harsh environment harsher and bleaker, although in Bristol it actually brought eye enhancing art, colour and humour.
The book finishes with the social change and politics of Bristol today, a city that has evolved into a cultural icon with a reputation for being open and friendly, where over 90 languages are spoken and 62% voting to remain in Europe. Maybe a reflection of how Britain was 2000 years ago with a flow of music and art to influence the world.
Reading the book, I became involved in the phenomenon just through the author's own drive and energy to relate a story of creativity which consumers take for granted. However, whatever we do in this world, we should remember that it is the music and art that makes it more palatable, can heal us and can change the world, massively.
Aligned with this article is Music Eye's video of Peter D Rose's presentation on the Bristol Sound and his work with Massive Attack and Smith and Mighty. It can be found on the Music Eye website by typing in the search box for "Bristol Sound"