Thus far, Placebo are best known for hit songs such as "Nancy Boy", "Pure Morning", "Every You Every Me", "Infra-Red" and a cover of the Kate Bush song "Running Up That Hill". Their style has varied greatly. The band's first album featured a raw sound and a fairly minimalistic instrumental lineup, but proceeding ones have had a slower, more melancholy, tone and they started experimenting with synthesisers and other, less traditional, modes of sound production (particularly after Black Market Music).
The band have gained some measure of notoriety for the sexualities of its members (Olsdal is gay and Molko is bisexual) as well as for their excessive lifestyles and Molko's androgynous image, which are often referred to in their songs (see Style and Songwriting). In recent years, however, the band have become less sexually charged.
Placebo were formed by singer/guitarist Brian Molko and bassist Stefan Olsdal. Earlier, both had attended the American International School of Luxembourg, but didn't cross paths properly until 1994 in London, England. At the time, Olsdal was taking guitar lessons and was on his way home, when he met Molko at the South Kensington tube station. Molko, observing that Olsdal had a guitar strapped to his back, invited Olsdal to watch him perform at a local bar. On the strength of Molko's performance, Olsdal decided that they should start a band.
Originally the two were unable to decide on a drummer. Molko had some experience playing with Steve Hewitt, making Hewitt the ideal choice for drummer (the two were introduced by Hewitt's ex-girlfriend in 1991 outside of Burger King). Because Hewitt had prior commitments to the London band Breed, he only had time to play on occasional demos with Molko and Olsdal, however. This led to Robert Schultzberg assuming the position of drummer when the band signed its contract with Caroline Records. Schultzberg had known Olsdal from school in Luxembourg as well as from an earlier Swedish band which they had both been a part of.
As to the name "Placebo, Stefan Olsdal remarked in an MTV interview that it was chosen because of its Latin origins; “placebo” literally translates from Latin to English as “I will please". Frequently in interviews, Molko has stated that the name is loosely a satirical reflection of the 1990s cliche of naming one's band after a drug. When asked about naming a band, Molko said:
It’s a complex question to answer, really. As musicians you try to find a name for your band that represents you and you never really do, because, basically, names for bands lose their meaning after a while. They become a series of sounds that you associate with people in music. The most important thing for a name is that you can imagine forty-thousand people screaming it in unison.
Placebo's self titled debut album was released 16 July 1996 and was a major success, peaking at five on the UK Albums Charts at the height of the Britpop era. Placebo featured ten tracks (eleven including the hidden bonus track "Hong Kong Farewell"), their most popular being Nancy Boy. In 1998 Q Magazine readers voted it as the 87th greatest album of all time. The band remastered and reissued the album on 18 September 2006 for its tenth anniversary.
Tension with Schultzberg began to rise. The band initially let him go in September 1995, but he was rehired to record the first seven inch single "Bruise Pristine". After an argument in August 1996, right before doing their first TV show, Molko decided that it would be best for the band if Schultzberg left. Schultzberg suggested playing together until they finished the promotion of their first album, Placebo.
Eventually, Schultzberg did indeed leave the band. In September 1996, Placebo was on a United States tour; before going on stage for their first show in New York state, Olsdal informed Schultzberg that he wasn't going on the tour in Germany that was following the US one. At the manager’s request, Schultzberg did two more shows with the band in Paris after the US tour, the last of which was a performance on “Nulle Part Aillleurs.” Molko has said that he was "tired of being the focus of Robert’s rages against the world". While Schultzberg was with the band, several early works were recorded including their first 7" single "Bruise Pristine", the "Come Home" EP, the single version of "Nancy Boy" with B-sides "Slackerbitch", "Miss Moneypenny", "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and their eponymous debut album. On the track "I Know", he played didgeridoo as well as drums. Schultzberg's departure left many fans disappointed, with the band switching to a softer sound after his leaving. In the same year, however, they were able to convince Hewitt to return to Placebo as their full-time drummer. Molko remembers: “Even at the beginning, Robert and I couldn’t be in the same room with each other without wanting to be violent".
In early 1996, Placebo opened several concerts for David Bowie in Italy, France and Switzerland as part of his Outside Tour after he had only heard one of their demos. Placebo's initial success has partially been accredited to their relationship with Bowie.
One of Hewitt's first performances with Placebo, upon returning, proved to be a big one. Bowie invited the trio to play at his 50th birthday at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1997. The party also included such luminaries as Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Robert Smith of the The Cure, and Lou Reed.
The band's glam connections continued. In 1998, Placebo recorded a cover of T.Rex's "20th Century Boy" for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. The band also had minor roles in the film. Bowie made a special appearance onstage with Placebo during a tour stop in New York. A version of the song "Without You I'm Nothing", which originally appeared on the album with the same name, featured a duet containing both Molko and Bowie. Placebo played "20th Century Boy" live with David Bowie at the BRIT Awards show in 1999.
In 1998, Placebo switched to the major label Virgin Records, and issued their album Without You I'm Nothing in November. It was another large seller in England and initially appeared to be the group's breakthrough in the US, where MTV embraced the album's lead single "Pure Morning", but subsequent singles/videos failed to match the success of its predecessor.
The singles "Nancy Boy", from Placebo (1996), and "Pure Morning", from Without You I'm Nothing, were the peak of their British success, both charting in the top ten. Since Without You I'm Nothing, the band have received less positive coverage from the British music press who, on occasion, have mocked the perceived pretension of front-man Molko. However, the band has retained a huge popular and critical following in continental Europe. By way of their English-accented fluent French front-man, France has become their first target market in Europe, which has led to them gaining a huge popularity there, even in excess of their British fan base.
The band's third release, Black Market Music, added hip-hop and disco elements to the band's tense rock sound. The UK saw a release date in October 2000; US fans were treated to a re-sequenced version that autumn. The US version featured a slightly different track listing, adding the aforementioned Bowie version of "Without You I'm Nothing" and the band's cover of Depeche Mode's "I Feel You". The recording spawned additional UK hits such as "Taste in Men" and "Slave to the Wage".
Placebo encountered resistance from the British music industry upon release of the single "Special K" due to its use of a ketamine high as a simile for love. The song was released in Australia as a single before eventually being made available in the UK as an EP featuring the B-sides and remixes that would have filled out a conventional two-disc single release. At the time the band claimed this was due to dissatisfaction with the two-disc single format, a claim somewhat undermined by their subsequent single releases all being made available in two-CD formats accompanied by a 7" vinyl.
Their style altered little from Placebo through Black Market Music, based around fairly straightforward guitar playing, often influenced by the style of 1970s British and American rock, and Molko's high-pitched vocals. The first single for the album, "Taste in Men", was one of their most popular, with a trance synthesiser in the background and wailing distorted guitars. Black Market Music did not receive the same level of long term recognition and media hype as Without You I'm Nothing did, but its peak sales outperformed those of its predecessor, in both the UK and France.
In spring 2003, Placebo showcased a harder edge with the release of their fourth album, Sleeping with Ghosts. The album went Top Ten in the UK and sold 1.4 million copies worldwide. Australian tour dates with Elbow and UK shows with Har Mar Superstar followed in 2004. Sleeping with Ghosts was more adventurous than Black Market Music, experimenting with dance tunes, electronic music influences and a less rocky, more polished guitar sound, though keeping the traditional sound for several songs, including the first single "The Bitter End".
In autumn of 2004, Placebo's singles collection, Once More with Feeling: Singles 1996-2004 (on both CD and as a DVD featuring the band's videos) was released. The 19-song compilation included their biggest UK hits and the new track "Twenty Years". That same year, they played a one-night-only gig at Wembley Arena. Robert Smith of The Cure guested with them on two tracks, "Without You I'm Nothing" and a cover of the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry". This performance was to be their last UK gig until 2006. After the Wembley gig, Placebo went on a short Once More With Feeling tour in South America. On 2 July 2005, the group performed "Twenty Years" and "The Bitter End" at the Live 8 concert, at the Palais de Versailles in France (see Live 8 concert, Paris). Their 2006 tour of the UK sold out in one weekend.
There was a bit of controversy while the band was on their promotional South American Tour. As revealed on the Once More With Feeling DVD Extras, whilst on tour in South America, Placebo and Limp Bizkit played on the same evening. Trouble occurred when Placebo's manager would not let Fred Durst on stage as he did not recognise him and thought he was simply a fan trying to get an autograph. After eventually getting on stage, Durst began the chant "Placebo sucks". Placebo roadie Adam Okrasinski was later charged with aggravated battery when he allegedly punched a member of Durst's entourage in an altercation that took place after the show between members of both band's camps. Charges were later dropped in lieu of community service.
In September 2005, the band finished the recording phase of Meds which was released on 13 March (delayed in US until 4 April). The first single on the new album to be released in the UK was "Because I Want You". "Song To Say Goodbye" was the first international single (released simultaneously with "Because I Want You"). The album was remastered from October to January. Two songs, recorded on the album, feature duets with American singers: "Meds" with Alison Mosshart of The Kills and "Broken Promise" with Michael Stipe of R.E.M.. Frenchman Dimitri Tikovoi (Goldfrapp, the Cranes) who mixed select songs on Once More with Feeling, produced Placebo's fifth effort. The band has stated that the album is an attempt to capture the feel of a first album, though the album has not forgotten many of the techniques used in their previous ones.
Meds was leaked over the Internet on 17 January 2006. The official release date of Meds was 13 March 2006, making the leak almost two months early. It was projected by the band's record label to potentially cause a very dangerous loss of profit upon the album's release; nevertheless in most countries the album debuted relatively well, at #4 in Australia and #7 in the UK. The second single from Meds was "Infra-Red". It was released on 19 June 2006 in the UK.
In 2006, Placebo switched labels to Astralwerks and re-released several revisions of their earlier works. In October their debut album Placebo was digitally remastered and re-released with the title "10th Anniversary Collectors Edition"; the box set also includes a DVD containing music videos, concerts and TV performances. Three additional songs: "UNEEDMEMORETHANINEEDU", "Lazarus", and "Running Up That Hill" were added to the US Version of Meds (and the song "In The Cold Light of Morning" was taken off of the album).
Placebo joined Linkin Park and various other acts for 2007's Projekt: Revolution tour. The tour is an annual event and, in 2007, Linkin Park decided to make the tour ostensibly "green" by donating $1 of every ticket to American Forests through their charity Music for Relief.
In 2007, after the tour "Projekt: Revolution" had been scheduled, Virgin released the Extended Play '07 EP as a simple introduction for new fans to the band's past decade of music. The compilation features eight songs, namely: "Nancy Boy", "Every You Every Me", "Taste In Men", "The Bitter End", "Meds", "Pure Morning", "Infra-Red" and the cover "Running Up That Hill".
On 1 October 2007, Steven Hewitt left Placebo. Brian Molko commented "Being in a band is very much like being in a marriage, and in couples—in this case a triple—people can grow apart over the years. To say that you don't love your partner anymore is inaccurate, considering all that you've been through and achieved together. There simply comes a point when you realise that you want different things from your relationship and that you can no longer live under the same roof, so to speak." In mid-2008, the band acquired new drummer Steve Forrest.
Molko gave two performances in 2008. The first was in late October, when he performed on the Serge Gainsbourg tribute show that was recorded and posted on the Internet; this was the only video of any Placebo member since Projekt Revolution ended in 2007. The second was with the rest of the band, when they gave one live performance in 2008, as part of an MTV Europe Foundation event, a campaign against human trafficking held in Angkor Wat in December 2008.
Placebo left EMI in 2008, but the label plans to release the complete Placebo recordings including all the studio albums, DVDs and B-Sides. Released on 8 June 2009 it holds ten discs.
In January 2009, Placebo confirmed that they had finished working on the follow-up to 2006's Meds and plan to release it in June 2009. The full track list was announced on the band's website in March 2009. The album, Battle for the Sun, is the first to feature new drummer Steve Forrest. It was released on 8 June 2009, through the PIAS Entertainment Group. The album was recorded in Toronto, Canada, with producer David Bottrill.
The album's theme song "Battle for the Sun" debuted on Zane Lowe's BBC Radio 1 show on 17 March 2009. Subsequently, it became available for free download on the band's official website. On the same day, they played a secret concert in London, performing some of the material from the album, including the tracks ‘Ashtray Heart’, ‘Julien’, ‘Kitty Litter’, ‘Speak in Tongues’ and ‘Devil in the Details’. In their review for the gig, Rock Sound wrote that the new album is a heavier-sounding record compared to its predecessor Meds, and recalls the atmosphere of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’. There are also string arrangements present on the new tracks.
The first single, "For What It's Worth", made its radio debut on 20 April 2009. It became available for download on iTunes and emusic from 12:00am GMT on 21 April 2009, and the video for the single premiered on Myspace at the same time. This was physically released on 1 June 2009.
In May 2009, Placebo went on to perform three concerts in the United Kingdom, at relatively intimate venues in Sheffield, Bournemouth and London, before departing to the 2009 summer festival season in Europe and Asia. Unveiling the new album with a full track-by-track rundown, Molko told the Scottish News of the World's A-Listed magazine: "It feels like a new beginning...we're reinvigorated, refreshed and ready to take on the world." .
On 13 May 2009, the band's official website, "Placeboworld", was launched in a revamped version with more interactive features and an online shop. From 29 to 31 May 2009, Placebo streamed the new album on their official website. Fans signed up for the official mailing list received an unique code for logging in to 5 listenings of the album in its entirety.
In July 2009, Placebo - "Every You Every Me" was voted #83 in Triple J Hottest 100 of all time, voted by the Australian public.
On November 5th, 2009, Placebo won the MTV Europe Music Awards for Best Alternative. Placebo have been preparing their new videoclip for single "Bright Lights", which is going to be released in the middle of January. It's a remix of the original song.