“You’re the book that I have opened,
And now I’ve got to know much more…”
Massive Attack’s seminal Unfinished Sympathy might have been released some thirty-odd years ago (11 February 1991), but to this day it stands out as a trip-hop template-setter – ethereal strings, dub-heavy bass and shuffling bass combined with Shara Nelson’s soaring vocals.
It also boasts one of the most iconic videos of the 90s, directed by Baillie Walsh, as Nelson makes her way down West Pico Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles on a sunny afternoon, a timeless short to accompany a legendary track.
To mark its anniversary, here are five interesting facts that you might not know about the Bristol band’s breakthrough single.
The track’s iconic ‘bell’ sounds were influenced by a jazz-funk cover of a Paul Simon track
The track’s iconic ‘bell’ riff is inspired by Bob James jazz-funk cover of Paul Simon’s Take Me To The Mardi Gras, released in 1975. Unfinished Sympathy isn’t the only song to be inspired by that track of course – in fact it’s something of a hip-hop and dance staple, having been used on Run-DMC’s Peter Piper, Chemical Brothers’s Dig Your Own Hole, Beastie Boys’s Hold it Now, Hit It, PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss, Public Enemy’s 1 Million Bottlebags, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Expression, LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells and many more.
Also notable is the “hey, hey, hey, hey…” vocal refrain, which is taken from John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Planetary Citizen, while the drums are borrowed from Parade Strut by JJ Johnson, taken from the soundtrack to the 1973 film Willie Dynamite.
Director Baillie Walsh got the idea for the ‘single shot’ video from old Hitchcock and Orson Welles movies
The video for Unfinished Sympathy was famously shot in one take, a trick that had been used in several iconic movies but never before in a music video. As Baillie Walsh told Uncut in 2010, ” It was quite a difficult shoot, but I love presenting myself with those challenges. It was a single shot, no cuts. It’s a technique that had been used in a few film scenes, Hitchcock’s Rope, that Orson Welles film with Marlene Dietrich [Touch Of Evil], Absolute Beginners and Robert Altman’s Shortcuts. But I don’t think it had been done in a pop promo before.
“It was scary. I didn’t have a big budget, I was shooting alone in winter, in a place where it gets dark at 5pm. I still hadn’t shot anything by one o’clock!”
The Verve later paid tribute to Unfinished Sympathy with their video for Bittersweet Symphony.
Legendary performance artist and fashion designer Leigh Bowery was art director on the video shoot
One of fashion’s true bon vivants, Bowery was appointed art director on the video shoot, but given the video’s urban setting, he kept his often outlandish wardrobe under wraps for the shoot, instead adopting a more ‘low-key’ demeanour, as 3D explained to The Guardian in 2010. “Leigh Bowery was definitely the most outrageous character, but because we weren’t part of that London scene, he tried to dress down and go low-key around us,” he said. “This basically meant he turned up to the shoot for Unfinished in LA, dressed in this mental outfit, like a faux-Manc casual. Massive parka, a mad pudding-basin wig, big Stone Roses baggies, and dripping with sweat.”
Speaking to Uncut, Nelson described Bowery as “wonderful”, saying that the artist was responsible for her costume for the shoot. “Good job it was a puffy little number, because we shot it in late afternoon in LA, on a slightly chilly January afternoon,” she said.
The band had to sell their car in order to pay for the string arrangement
Originally, the string section on Unfinished Sympathy was played on synthesisers, but lacked the fulsome sound that the final version would have, so producer Johnny Dollar opted to use a full orchestra, bringing on board arranger Wil Malone to record an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios.
As a Sounds article from 1991 revealed, however, the group had not taken the cost of this into account when budgeting the album, Blue Lines, and were forced to sell their Mitsubishi Shogun to pay for it.
Tina Turner performed the song alongside Bruce Willis during her 1996/97 tour
Having recorded a version of Unfinished Sympathy for her Wildest Dreams album, as well as releasing it as a b-side on the single Whatever you Want, Turner took to performing the track as a surprise encore during the Wildest Dreams tour, which ran through 1996 and 1997.
Bruce Willis and his band The Accelerators were the support act on that tour, and for three nights in Paris, the Die Hard star joined Turner on stage to perform the Massive Attack hit. Simply the best!
If you have any interesting facts about Unfinished Sympathy that you would like to share, please share them in the comments below.