"Are we a f**king punk band now?" The ugly truth behind Mezzanine, the bleak, beautiful masterpiece which ripped Massive Attack apart

Massive Attack's Mezzanine
(Image credit: Virgin)

Arriving in the spring of 1998, as Girl Power shot dayglo beams across the cultural landscape, and the Union flag-draped dream of Britpop died a slow, ugly death, Massive Attack’s prescient third album stood out like the towering black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Foreboding and bleak, yet alien and beautiful, Mezzanine looked, felt and sounded like nothing that had come before. It barely even resembled the work of Massive Attack – at least not as the world had come to know them. That, as Robert Del Naja (the real name of graffiti artist-turned sprechgesang-rapper 3D), the record’s chief creative force explains, was entirely intentional.

“It was a chrysalis moment,” he told Wallpaper* in 2018. “We were trying to emerge as something different. We had gone through that whole ‘90s thing of being the new kids on the block and becoming part of this movement called trip-hop, which was like a small satellite feeding off Britpop. And none of us felt a part of that. We just wanted to firmly establish our own identity.”

While artists like Sneaker Pimps and Morcheeba enjoyed success by riding trip-hop’s coattails, Del Naja felt the walls closing in. He bristled at the thought of his band being reductively pigeonholed as “coffee table music”. The febrile concoction of dub, soul, funk and hip-hop that characterised Massive Attack’s arrival on Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994), had been co-opted, he believed. Serving up more of the same would surely spell the end of the band. Little did he know that in ripping up the rulebook to reclaim a sense of creative agency, they’d come perilously close to imploding regardless. So much so, that by the end of the process the group’s core trio of Del Naja, Andrew Vowles (stage name: Mushroom) and Grant Marshall (aka Daddy G) couldn’t even stand to be in the same room as one another. 

“I love D, he’s like a brother, but he’s an argumentative bastard, and he’ll run rings around people if they’re not switched on,” says co-producer and engineer Neil Davidge, the other driving force and one true constant throughout the process of making Mezzanine

“There was a lot that went into making that album,” he told Headliner. “It took several years. There was a lot of band in-fighting, and a lot of working long hours trying to pull it together and to make it happen. There was also a lot of protecting people's integrity.”

To avoid potential clashes or conflict, the former Wild Bunch brothers wrote their parts separately. Tensions became so extreme that the band’s manager Marc Picken had to text Davidge, notifying him when one member wanted to use their Christchurch Studios base. Meaning someone else had to clear off. Somehow, the fragile peace of this arrangement worked. 

“I think it actually helped give the album energy and momentum,” the de facto peacekeeper reasons. “I definitely used [the arguments] as fuel for getting things done. It's part of what makes music really connect with other people: the fact that it's inspired by life. We're creating music that connects to those emotions that we feel in life. That's the real magic.”

But before there was magic, there were mere ingredients. Several years’ worth of them. At first Del Naja had a vision of the songs forming a concept album, drawing influence from his teenage love of post-punk acts like Wire, Public Image Ltd, and fellow Bristolians, The Pop Group. “Are we a fucking punk band now?” an apparently less-than-enamoured Vowles protested. The band even recorded a cover of Gang Of Four’s Damaged Goods, using that as the record’s working title before eventually scrapping the idea. 

One day, a box of Bibles arrived at the studio, without an origin address or sender. But inside the package was a note that ominously read, “Read these and you shall be enlightened.”

Acknowledging the fractious atmosphere in the camp, management wisely booked a secondary studio in a holiday cottage in Cornwall. Del Naja and guitarist Angelo Bruschini, however, almost died while exploring a cave during a break in recording, escaping just before the tide filled it and trapped them inside.

“I looked at Angelo and thought, ‘This will make the third page of the Bristol Evening Post: Men Die In Caving Tragedy,’” he jokingly recalled to Mojo in 1998.

Despite the near-death experiences, surrounding dramas and dysfunction, not to mention the endlessly protracted sessions, a record of iconic grandeur emerged. Unsurprisingly, its pioneering sense of invention was matched all the way by its darkness. 

Opening track Angel (a loose reworking of vocalist Horace Andy’s own 1973 song You Are My Angel) virtually slithers through the stereo speakers, playing out like a panic attack coming on. An unerring menace reveals itself as the sounds roll in like clouds, building to a torrential force as it crescendos in a hail of heavy beats and guitars. 

Listen closely and you’ll hear the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of The Cure’s 10:15 Saturday Night and the fills from Led Zep’s When The Levee Breaks on Man Next Door (itself a reinterpretation of John Holt’s I’ve Got To Get Away). Elsewhere, Inertia Creeps smothers with an uncomfortably claustrophobic intensity, which mercifully gives way to the loungy zen of Exchange.

Lead single Risingson samples The Velvet Underground’s I Found A Reason and perfectly captures the griminess of 3am, powder-fuelled paranoia. ‘I’ve seen you go down to a cold mirror/It’s the way you go down to the men’s room sink,’ Del Naja hisses, before Marshall icily intones, ‘Every time we grind, you know we severed lines’.

There’s an abundance of lyrical beauty on Mezzanine, too. That’s most poignant on the timeless Teardrop, opening with ‘Love, love is a verb/Love is a doing word’ and littered with the rich poetic imagery of ‘black flowers blossom’ and ‘teardrops on the fire’. The soprano delivery is made all the more affecting by the knowledge that Cocteau Twins vocalist Liz Fraser – famously described by one journalist as “the voice of God” – learned of her ex-partner Jeff Buckley’s tragic passing on May 29, 1997, the very day she was recording her contribution. 

“That was so weird,” she later confided in The Guardian. "I’d got letters out and I was thinking about him. That song’s kind of about him – that’s how it feels to me anyway.”

The disquieting Walter Stern-directed video gave the track a whole new dimension and emotional gut-punch, depicting an animatronic foetus singing along inside the womb. Accepting an MTV Award for it later, Del Naja caused a stir by refusing to shake hands with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess Of York. “Someone’s having a fucking laugh, aren’t they?” he spat, exasperated by the apparent scheduling stitch-up.

Someone definitely not having a laugh, though, was Vowles. It was that song which put the mockers on their collective working relationship, in fact. Feeling particularly close to the early demo version (then named No Don’t) Vowles desperately wanted Madonna to sing on it, revisiting their 1995 crossover on the Marvin Gaye tribute I Want You. The first anyone else seemingly knew of this potential collaboration was when the pop star’s management got in touch, keen to do it, but checking if the group’s interest was legit. As history attests, everyone else won the battle and the resultant awkwardness was never really resolved.

“At the time,” Marshall told Q magazine, “it seemed like an act of treachery.”

Teardrop really was that final nail in the coffin,” Davidge confirmed. “It was pretty controversial.”

Soon, the trio were doing interviews to promote the album separately, and not long after the release tour, Vowles called it quits. Marshall eventually followed, but returned to the fold again in 2005.

Despite the upheaval, Massive Attack have continued to make glorious sounds that push boundaries ever since, but have rarely reached the heights attained on their third album. It hit the number one spot on the UK album chart, and broke the band in the US, yet those achievements almost feel like footnotes in retrospect. In the latest ranking of Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time it proudly sits at number 383. It has sold upwards of two million copies and for its 20th anniversary, the band marked the milestone with a reissue in synthetic DNA format. But even in live celebration of the record back then, Del Naja was determined not to make it a nostalgia exercise.

“You’re not trying to relive Mezzanine,” he insisted to The New York Times.Mezzanine was about that space where things weren’t real. For me, it’s the limbo between the night and the day. And now it’s about the same thing in a way, the limbo between what is real and what isn’t real. You’re not trying to conjure up 1998 — it’s not like a séance.”

Now marking a quarter of a century since its release, that statement holds firm and true. The enduring spirit of Mezzanine still speaks for itself.

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Formerly the Senior Editor of Rock Sound magazine and Senior Associate Editor at Kerrang!, Northern Ireland-born David McLaughlin is an award-winning writer and journalist with almost two decades of print and digital experience across regional and national media.