Massive Attack and the search for Shara Nelson [March 11, 1991]
This week’s number 12: “Unfinished Sympathy”, Massive Attack
“Unfinished Sympathy”, Massive Attack
Whatever happened to Shara Nelson?
I admit, it’s not something I really thought about until this week, when I started looking into the history of Massive Attack and “Unfinished Sympathy”. She was, to me, one of the interchangeable voices that swam between the beats in the early years of electronica.
As it turns out, Nelson went through a tough time recently. Back in 2011, she was the subject of a restraining order after years of harassing DJ Pete Tong, who she claimed was her husband and father of her son. The Sun newspaper wrote a gross headline about the event: “It’s all gone Pete Tong for Massive Attack star Shara Nelson”. The Guardian published a more sympathetic editorial by her friend, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, which seemed to indicate that she had developed serious mental health issues and deserved help.
There’s not a lot of other public information available. It’s actually hard to find out anything about Shara Nelson, except what you learn from listening to her music. And then you feel like you know everything about her. There’s a raw, vulnerable quality to her voice that makes every song sound like a plea for empathy. Intimacy. Connection.
That sense of intimacy is the engine that powers Massive Attack’s best song (and one of the best songs of the 90s), “Unfinished Sympathy”.
“Unfinished Sympathy” is all about conflict. Jangling trip-hop beats, which sound remarkably progressive by 1991 standards, crashing into a lush orchestral arrangement. Massive Attack initially tried creating this sound with synths, but instead ended up selling their car to pay for a real live orchestra.
It builds and builds and then… a soaring voice emerges from the chaos, tying the whole thing together with some of the most aching, yearning lyrics ever uttered in a studio. “You’re the book that I have opened / And now I’ve got to know much more.” A thousand lovelorn teenage mixtapes suddenly found their opening track.
Nelson wrote the lyrics and most of the melody for “Unfinished Sympathy”. The story goes that they she was working on the Blue Lines sessions while trying to write some of her own material. The band heard her singing the tune during a break, and were so taken by it that they decided to build track around it.
She’s also the focal point of the video, an unbroken steadicam shot that moves through an LA barrio during golden hour. Things happen around Nelson as she strides down the street in a high-collared mourning dress, but she is oblivious to all of them. She looks genuinely sad, like she’s feeling every syllable of the lyrics, like the wound’s still raw.
Despite her contributions, Shara Nelson was never really a formal member of Massive Attack. The track on Blue Lines before “Unfinished Sympathy” is a band manifesto called “Five Man Army”. Nelson is not one of the five men.
Massive Attack went from strength to strength, and eventually found the sweet spot between critical acclaim and selling absolute truckloads of records. Shara Nelson dropped two quite good solo albums but mostly continued as a guest vocalist on other songs.
Doesn’t it kind of feel like she was cheated? I think she deserved more.
In the opening paragraph, I referred to her as an “interchangeable voice”, and it’s important to remember that this was literally true in the early days of dance and electronic music. House music DJs sprinkled their mixes with soul samples and it never occurred to anyone to acknowledge the person (often a Black woman) who provided the voice. A couple of high-profile examples sping to mind:
“Theme from S’Express” by S’Express: based on an uncredited sample performed by Toni Smith, performed on TV by lip-syncing models
“Ride On Time” by Black Box: based on an uncredited sample performed by Loletta Holloway (who was pissed off and tried to sue), re-recorded with vocals from a young and uncredited Heather Small, performed on TV by a third woman who is a lip-syncing model
“Everybody Everybody” by Black Box: vocals by the extremely famous Martha Wash (of “It’s Raining Men” fame) who is uncredited and replaced in the video by a lip-syncing model
“Gonna Make You Sweat” by C+C Music Factory: Another uncredited Martha Wash, this time replaced by a lip-syncing model who claims for years that she’s not lip-syncing
None of this is Massive Attack’s fault, and Shara Nelson is at least prominently featured in the video and credits for her songs.
But this was the cultural context of the time. Black female vocalists simply didn’t get the acknowledgment they deserved. Are things better now, in an age of hastags and cancel culture? I hope so. You’ll have to ask someone smarter and younger than me.
There’s not much information about Shara Nelson on the internet, and I don’t feel like digging any deeper. I’m glad she has her privacy. I hope she’s well. I know she is still making music, which is what matters. Last year, she did a track called “This is Real” with Charles Webster. She still sings like she feels every syllable.
Elsewhere in the charts
The Clash remain at Number One with “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Many, many jeans were sold because of that song.
Quartz entered the top ten with a mellow reworking of Carly Simon’s “It’s Too Late”. Vocals are by a young Dina Carroll, who went on to have a much better solo career.
Two VERY EXCITING new entries in the top 20 from Chesney Hawkes and REM. We’ll be discussing those at length soon.
Hey, remember that time Anthony Head, aka Giles from Buffy, released an 80s-dance tinged version of “Sweet Transvestite”? I don’t. Maybe we all just collectively agreed to forget, in which case I’m sorry I brought it up.
This week’s lucky Top of the Pops audience would have seen performances from Chesney Hawkes, Ride, Massive Attack, and Happy Mondays, which is actually a great lineup. You’d go see a festival with that bill.
I guess it’s Red Nose Day because “The Stonk” by Hale and Pace is Number One.