Arriving at the back end of 90s Britpop, Placebo were something else entirely. They weren’t from round here, for a start. Nor were they in thrall to the laddish, oddly conservative sounds that defined what was ultimately a very insular period in British rock. Instead they were brash, arty and sexually ambiguous.
Led by openly bisexual American frontman Brian Molko, Placebo replastered the spunk’n’glitter of glam, Bowie and Bolan onto the post-grunge era. And nothing seemed to distil their image better than 1997’s breakthrough single, Nancy Boy.
“We were reacting very strongly against the machismo, terrace chants and revisionism of Britpop,” says Molko, “and the nationalism that we interpreted as xenophobia of the musical kind. We were trying to make a strong political statement about the fluidity of sexuality with the dresses and make-up that we wore. We set out to confuse, and I guess Nancy Boy was the perfect soundtrack to that.”
The track surfed a wave of angsty, punky guitar noise, led out by Molko’s quivering vocals. It was a three-minute rush of unfettered hedonism, streaked with references to illicit sex, booze, gender mutations and junkiedom. It was hardly Shed Seven.
“I wrote it in 1994, around the time that Suede were massive,” Molko explains. “That infamous quote of Brett Anderson’s – ‘I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience’ – was being reprinted in every magazine. I saw that as a very opportunistic statement, and it led me to want to write something about tourism of the sexual kind. Which is where the chorus comes from: ‘It all breaks down at the first rehearsal.’ I had in mind a tourist who gets stuck in and then realises they’re out of their depth.”
Molko had formed Placebo in ’94 with Swedish bassist Stefan Olsdal, whom he’d first met at school in Luxembourg, and drummer Steve Hewitt (prior commitments meant the latter was replaced by Robert Schultzber, though Hewitt would later rejoin). They were still without a record deal when they recorded a demo of Nancy Boy, and weren’t exactly living out the Dionysian dream the song depicted.
“I remember the day Brian came round to my flat with the chorus for Nancy Boy,” says Olsdal. “I was sitting there with an old £15 Casio keyboard that was about to fall apart. When we first demo’d the track we did it in an eight-track studio in Deptford, which we’d booked from midnight till six in the morning because it was cheaper. Our social life then was basically a couple of cans of Stella shared between the three of us. But Nancy Boy pre-empted what was in store. I guess we lived that song a couple of years later.”
Placebo’s self-titled debut album crept into the UK Top 40 in July 1996. Teenage Angst, their third single, gave them a minor Top 30 hit. But it was Nancy Boy that really launched their career.
“It was the one that pushed us into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops,” Olsdal recalls, “despite the subversive lyrics. For that to get on the BBC certainly rubbed some people up the wrong way. Any time you challenge people’s sexuality, especially males and their masculinity, it can be a very sensitive area. And we didn’t shy away from pushing that side of our personalities forward, either. If you look at photographs of us from back then, we spent more time in the women’s clothing section than the male one.”
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There are whole internet forums dedicated to the ambiguous nature of Nancy Boy. Some fans are convinced it’s about a transvestite, others say it’s a prostitute. Some say it’s about Molko himself, perhaps guided by his infamous quote following Placebo’s 1997 world tour, when he said he “left a trail of blood and spunk across three continents”. Lubricious lyrics such as ‘Kind of buzz that lasts for days/Had some help from insect ways’, which, as Molko explains today, “is about an aphrodisiac – maybe GHB or Spanish Fly. Any substance, controlled or otherwise, that makes you want to fuck.
“Nancy Boy isn’t about anyone in particular, but it did amaze me at the time how much a cock in a frock was still shocking at the end of the 20th century. It was as if Boy George had never existed! It was alright to cross-dress in pop, but to go into grunge territory with a dress was so shocking to people.”
The success of Nancy Boy brought its own stigma. “My only regret is that in the eyes of the media it seemed to encapsulate what Placebo were – the faggy indie band who wore dresses,” says Molko. “It seemed to become such a strong identifying song with us that the other aspects of my songwriting – which I considered to be better and more developed – were being overlooked.”
That has resulted in the band admitting to an uneasy association with the song ever since. “I have a very ambivalent relationship with Nancy Boy,” the singer says. “I was still learning how to write songs, so I consider it one of my more immature ones. At one point we got so sick of it that we stopped playing it for five years. But now I can relate to it in terms of what it is. Emotionally for me it’s still bothersome, but I want to be at peace with it. However, it opened so many doors for us. It went to number four in the chart, got us on Top Of The Pops and a tour with David Bowie. And I wrote it before we’d even signed a record deal. It was very instrumental in us becoming successful. I just wish I liked it better.”
Olsdal is similarly philosophical. “It’s not the biggest hit we’ve had and it’s certainly not the song that the three of us like the most, but Nancy Boy is probably the most identifiable. We don’t have another song quite like it. Do I still enjoy playing it on stage? It’s actually fun. It’s a three-chord punk song. I guess the question is how long can we sing: ‘Lose my clothes, lose my lube’? I mean, can you still sing that at 70?”