How Placebo's Nancy Boy kicked against the "laddism" of Britpop

20 January 2022, 21:38

Brian Molko of Placebo in 1997: "It was very, very important for us to not be ashamed."
Brian Molko of Placebo in 1997: "It was very, very important for us to not be ashamed.". Picture: Pat Pope/Shutterstock

25 years on, the lyrics to Brian Molko's provocative hit took aim at the macho world of indie rock: "People hated us for it and I adored that."

Radio X

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In the era of Britpop Placebo were something different. The trio came from diverse backgrounds - frontman Brian Molko was born in Brussels to an American father and Scottish mother, while bassist Stefan Olsdal was Swedish, as was original drummer Robert Schultzberg.

But it was Molko's image that attracted most attention. Placebo's debut single, Bruise Pristine, was issued on the indie label Fierce Panda in October 1995 - the same month as Oasis' generation-defining album (What's The Story) Morning Glory?

In the middle of the "new laddism" that saw magazines like Loaded and FHM set the agenda, Molko was a defiantly androgynous figure - he wore glamorous make-up and "feminine" clothing when his peers were more likely to be dressed sports casual. Molko's lyrics were similarly provocative when it came to sexuality, relationships and drugs.

Brian Molko applies the eyeliner, 1997
Brian Molko applies the eyeliner, 1997. Picture: David Tonge/Getty Images

"A lot of our cross-dressing was a political statement against the music scene at the time which was very laddish and macho," Molko told Kerrang! in 2009. "We wanted to stand up and be counted. There's no better way to do that than by putting a bunch of slap on, wearing a skirt and f**king with people's heads. People hated us for it and I adored that."

He told The Guardian in November 2021: "It was very, very important for us to not be ashamed. And inadvertently, hopefully, we perhaps created something within people who listened to us where they felt that the necessity for shame was decreased.”

Placebo's breakthrough track was to be a mission statement for the band. Released on 20 January 1997 as the fourth single from their self-titled debut album, Nancy Boy took a homophobic insult for its title and turned it into a topic for satire.

"My sexuality is very fluid but it's very real," Molko revealed at the time. "I have had confusing and contradicting emotions since I have awakened sexually and it's something that I have come to terms with."

"And it all breaks down at the role reversal / Got the muse in my head she's universal / Spinning me round she's coming over me..."

"Sonically, we tried to capture a kind of drug-induced sexual rush," Molko told Melody Maker when the single was released. "It's obvious that the character in the song is kind of drug crazed in that moment. There are times in your life where you are so off your head that all you really want to do is f**k."

He went on: "It's a celebration and a slag of that behaviour at the same time. It doesn't promote promiscuity, but it doesn't judge it either."

According to Molko, the lines "Eyeholes in a paper bag / Greatest lay I ever had" were intended to "poke fun of very macho classic phrase: 'I'd f**k her with a paper bag over her head...' It's attempting to reach some kind of twisted, perverse beauty."

The original line-up of Placebo at the time of Nancy Boy, 1997: Stefan Olsdal, Brian Molko, Robert Schultzberg
The original line-up of Placebo at the time of Nancy Boy, 1997: Stefan Olsdal, Brian Molko, Robert Schultzberg. Picture: Pat Pope/Shutterstock

Nancy Boy made Number 4 in the UK charts in February 1997 - it remains Placebo's highest charting track , alongside the classic Pure Morning. It remains a live favourite, and was included in the encores at the band's "20 Years Of Placebo" tour in 2017.

But for Brian Molko, while Nancy Boy may have put Placebo on the map, it harks back to a more innocent era for the musician. "When I look back at the album, I see naivety, missed opportunities and mistakes," he said in 2009. "I view Nancy Boy in a way I imagine Radiohead look at Creep. I just wish the song that propelled us into the limelight had been a little bit better written. It's the lyrics that make me cringe most. They're me trying to find my feet."

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