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The First Time Around: What Muse Got Right On 'Showbiz'

Friday, 31 May 2019 Written by Huw Baines

Look at the name ‘Newport Centre’ from any angle and you won’t find a lie. It’s a leisure centre in Newport. You’ll smell the chlorine from the swimming pool on your way in, and see glimpses of badminton court markings between rows of Converse once the crowd assembles in front of the stage. It’s an honest venue: no frills, no pretence, no attendant sense of theatre. It’s a blank canvas.

Some bands thrive in this sort of environment, others are swallowed up by the sterile mediocrity of their surroundings. Muse are in the former camp, and they have been since day one. In October 1999, during a run opening for Skunk Anansie, they walked out at the Newport Centre armed with songs from ‘Showbiz’, their first album. Against the odds, they managed to leave an impression.

In the 20 years since their debut’s arrival, Matt Bellamy has ditched the awkward, spangly shirts and frosted tips (solid move, my dude) but so much of what later made them superstars was there right at the start. Under the lights at the Newport Centre, peak-spangle, they were shockingly loud and endearingly overwrought.

Doubtless they’ll be same at the London Stadium to open their latest run of enormo-shows on June 1, so join us as we slip into a pair of Berny jeans with a six foot wingspan to look back at the core materials of ‘Showbiz’—a minor work in relative terms that became the cornerstone of one of modern rock’s biggest success stories.

Under The Influence

At a remove of two decades, ‘Showbiz’ appears every bit the debut LP. It’s home to Muse staples—Bellamy’s propensity to shift between guitar and piano, dramatic quasi-classical arrangements, Chris Wolstenholme’s melodic bass runs—but it is also in hock to its influences in a way the band would never truly be again.

To call the record Radiohead-lite would be to dismiss the debt it owes to Sonic Youth and Nirvana, even if it shares a common bond with ‘The Bends’ through producer John Leckie. It’s the work of three people who had been playing together since they were kids—they learned how to be a band as they learned what music they liked—and unavoidably sounds like it. It feels human in a way Muse’s later dystopian sci-fi work almost consciously seeks to avoid.

Misery Business

The LP’s bleeding edges are there because that’s the sort of thing Bellamy, Wolstenholme and drummer Dom Howard went searching for in other artists. “People like Nick Cave—that ridiculous, over-the-top doom, taking it to extremes,” Bellamy told Uncut’s Stephen Dalton in 2000. “I find it uplifting because it’s like someone else is feeling what you’re feeling and putting it into their music.”

From there it’s easy to extrapolate things out to Muscle Museum, one of five singles released from ‘Showbiz’. Over a circus mirror bass riff and Jonny Greenwood-adjacent guitars, the verses set the table for the chorus’s outpouring of suburban ennui. Bellamy’s words are one part existential pain and another part kitchen sink reality. It’s “I don't want you to adore me, don't want you to ignore me when it pleases you,” one minute, and “I have played in every toilet” the next. The song is undeniable, which throws up a sticking point for the band’s detractors.

Boys on Film

Throughout their career, Muse have made every effort to marry their music to a strong visual aesthetic. This has filtered into their stadium shows, which are heavily produced, all encompassing events teeming with effects, but the seeds were planted in the promo videos for the ‘Showbiz’ singles: Muscle Museum’s washed out California angst, the creeping weirdness of Unintended, or Sunburn’s horror movie pastiche. Back in 1999 these clips represented an available outlet for a band whose ambitions would soon cross the rubicon in terms of spectacle. Making these videos feel big was quite an achievement.

Twenty years on, Muse continue to view video as part of the band’s identity. The promos for their recent ‘Simulation Theory’ LP, for example, were nostalgia fests that sought to connect the men they are now with the kids who fell in love with Star Wars and Back to the Future. Looking back at ‘Showbiz’ there’s a similar element of wish fulfilment: those videos look like what we expected music videos from the late ‘90s to look like. It’s almost as though they slipped into their heroes' skin for a few minutes.

Go Big or Go Home

You can have all the pyro in the world (and Muse sort of do have all the pyro in the world) and still fail to create much in the way of drama. It’s difficult to manufacture spectacle when your music requires subtlety to be understood: there are a lot of good bands who get big and are swallowed whole by cavernous arenas. Muse never really had this problem.

From ‘Showbiz’ on they had the minerals to fill almost any room. Take the ascending chorus of Fillip segueing into one of those atmospheric piano lines, or the title track’s tangle of guitars opening out into Bellamy’s emotive hook. These are songs to shake rafters, even if they don’t get the chance to do so anymore. As time rolls on, this record becomes more and more of a curio. It’s very much the work of a band figuring things out, but it’s still intriguing to see how many answers they got right the first time around.

Muse Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat June 01 2019 - LONDON Stadium Olympic Park
Wed June 05 2019 - BRISTOL Ashton Gate Stadium
Sat June 08 2019 - MANCHESTER Etihad Stadium

Click here to compare & buy Muse Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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