Geoff Barrow: soundtrack of my life

The Portishead producer on the Laughing Policeman, body-popping to Afrika Bambaataa and his belated discovery of Can

Geoff Barrow had a hand in two of the defining records of the 90s: first as teaboy and tape operator in the studio where Massive Attack made Blue Lines, then with his own band Portishead, whose 1994 debut, Dummy, won the Mercury prize. Eleven years after their eponymous second album, Portishead returned from hiatus in 2008 with Third. The band, who have been working on a fourth album, are currently touring Europe; Barrow's other band, Beak>, release their new album called >> on 2 July.


The Laughing Policeman by Charles Jolly (1922)

When I was four I'd go into the local village shop after infant school. I was in there buying my sweets and I noticed there was this strange noise coming out of a Cornflakes packet. It sounded like a really scary bloke laughing. The shop owner must have had his radio on the shelf behind the packet but I remember my brain having to work out what it was. When you're really young, you don't really notice music in the same way and then there's this realisation – "That's a song." I was scared by it, but I felt intrigued by it too.


Have I the Right? by the Honeycombs (1964)

I started playing drums when I was nine. We lived at the end of the village so it didn't seem to bother the neighbours. The drums can be very unmusical; if you're playing by yourself, you're not really making music, you're making a racket. I'd play along to my Dad's record collection and particularly this Honeycombs' track. It was actually produced by Joe Meek and the beat I'd play along with was the sound of people jumping up and down the stairs. But I didn't know anything about him or production then, I just liked it because it had a real stomping beat.


Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force (1982)

You can't mess with Planet Rock – it's got a roughness and an evilness to it. I got really into hip-hop and electro when I was about 14. It was so powerful; it was about music and art and fashion. You'd have your crew and there would be the bloke who was a DJ and the bloke who did graffiti and the bloke who was a body-popper. I was the body-popper who became the scratcher. We'd go into local towns where there were the blokes who were our arch enemies and we'd dance against them. It was like a terrible scene from Footloose.


Rebel Without a Pause by Public Enemy (1987)

I'd go with my friends to this underage night at a Bristol club called Studio. The local radio DJ would be playing and you'd get dressed up and go there to meet girls. They'd play soul and early Whitney Houston but one night I remember seeing someone bringing over a 12-inch to the DJ and it was Rebel Without a Pause. When it came on, I had to sit down. I was absolutely floored by it, and all the other stuff going on – "Danny wants to kick your head in" or "You should try to ask Sasha out" – just completely disappeared. It was a life-changing moment for me. The enormity of Chuck D's voice and the enormity of the sub-bass and the complete fuck-offness of it! It was like punk. It was my punk.


Vitamin C by Can (1972)

In about 1991, we were recording the earliest takes of what would become Dummy in Neneh Cherry's kitchen in London. Mark E Smith was on the radio talking about some of his favourite songs and he put on this track by Can. It had come out in the early 70s but I didn't know about it and I just thought, "Wow, this band are the greatest new band ever." It freaked me out so much that I put it aside for a long time; it was almost like I couldn't understand them properly until I'd grown up. I had a long period of time off [after Portishead's second album] when I wanted to change the whole way I worked, and Can were one of the instigators of that period of growth and change.


Champion Sound by Jaylib (2003)

I'd got really sick of hip-hop and hip-hop production in about 1999. But there's no one like Madlib (who made Champion Sound with fellow producer J Dilla). He's like the Frank Zappa of hip-hop; they're both trying to push music to its outermost limits. He brings a completely human element to beat-making, which is almost impossible to do, and his music is always evolving, even between the start and the end of a track. I don't think these new laptop kids come close. The music they make is too technically minded – technique over soul, and he's the opposite of that.


Assault on Precinct 13 OST by John Carpenter (1976)

I stopped listening to music as much when I first started doing things with Portishead; I'd put every bit of musical energy I had into my own stuff. But this record has been there since the beginning and it continues to inspire me now. There's one bit that led to Roads (on Dummy) – it's not the same chords but it's trying to achieve the same emotion – and it inspired Machine Gun on Third and film projects I've done since. It's a very short soundtrack made with a couple of synths and a drum machine in a little studio but the simplicity is incredible. It made me realise you don't need to overindulge musically to create emotion.

Listen on Spotify


Ally Carnwath

The GuardianTramp

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