I heard Suggs on Radio 2 this morning, waxing lyrical about Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack. Without a doubt one of the greatest singles of the last 20 years, it was probably the first record of it’s genre to turn me onto music that wasn’t guitar-based and played by skinny, spotty wee boys from the Home Counties. Hearing it again had me scrambling around my record collection to find all the other mixes of the track that I have. The best ones are available below…
The track originally appeared on Blue Lines, which you knew anyway, and is an album you’ve probably heard/got already. If not, it’s never too late. Go seek it out. The single was released around the time of the Gulf War starting in 1991 and as a result Massive Attack were forced to shorten their name to Massive. A wise move, as Unfinished Sympathy was all over the airwaves. Every time I saw MTV at my girlfriend’s house, the video was on. Pre-dating Richard Ashcroft’s cocky gangling swagger in the video for Bittersweet Symphony (coincidence?) by a good few years, it showed guest vocalist Shara Nelson walking through the steets of LA’s West Pico Boulevard seemingly unaware of the chaos around her. Apparently it was shot in one take. If I could, I’d include the video below, but YouTube being what it is these days doesn’t have the original promo on it anymore. I’ll have to make do with this still instead.
As you will be aware, the track is a cracker. However, you may not be aware that it starts with a percussion sample from Bob James’ version of Paul Simon’s ‘Take Me To The Mardi Gras’. Bob James’ whole track is a wee bit elevator muzak for my liking, but if you listen carefully you’ll hear that distinctive banging on pots’n’pans and tapping on glasses filled with water percussion break. Massive Attack speeded it up a wee bit and built their track around it. There you go.
The track is mostly revered for its string part. The story goes that the band had used synthetic strings in the studio but knew that the track really need the full orchestral swoop that their keyboards just couldn’t replicate. But that cost money. Lots of money. And the band were skint. So they hatched a plan. Tossing a coin, the loser (don’t know who it was) was forced to sell his BMW in order to pay for the string section. Luckily for all involved, every one of them would soon be able to have any BMW they desired, but who knew that at the time?
Hear No Evil. See No Evil. Speak No Evil. Make brilliant record.
I have 5 versions of the track. There may be more, I don’t know. To be truthful, the mixes I have all sound quite samey to these ears. But as it’s such a brilliant track, who’s complaining? The Paul Oakenfold Perfecto mix is a good remix, building on the percussive base of the original and taking it into slightly Stone Roses territory. Or at least, I thought so 18 years ago. Nelle Hooper’s mix is fairly straightforward, adding some choral backing vocals and pushing the bass a wee bit more to the fore (I’ve included the 12″ mix, but not the 7″), but for me, the original is still the best. Contrast and compare below.
Naturally, the success of the track spawned a thousand imitations. Bjork’s ‘Play Dead’ being one of them. (But that’s a great record too). Less successful were the cover versions. I know you’re sitting there thinking, “Who’d even attempt to cover Unfinished Sympathy?” Well. Tina Turner. That’s who. What d’you make of this? Yep. Takes me right back to my days on the shop floor in Our Price. A right stinker, just as I’d remembered. Overblown, windswept and bloated. With a hilarious spoken outro. Gads! We don’t need another hero, Tina. Stick to singing Mark Knopfler throwaways. She used to be great in the 60s too. What happened?
Oh, and another thing. When I eventually get round to learning the piano, the piano part from Unfinished Sympathy is the one thing I’ll aim to master. Those big bassy minor chords and the tinkly melodic bit. Hey, hey hey-a hey!