Massive Attack - a floating collective of rappers, DJs, singers and musicians - have featured at one time or another, talents such as Tricky, Shara Nelson and Nellee Hooper... 'Protection', a No.14 hit in January '95, features the vocal talents of Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn.
Funny they should mention Tricky, when only a couple of days ago he was performing on Radio 4 alongside June Whitfield. Not a very obvious combination of bookings, that. However, he's not involved with this particular track, though he does appear elsewhere on the album. Nellee Hooper's production is unmistakable of course.
In her autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star, Thorn describes receiving the original demo cassette which included the backing track for the song song that became 'Protection'. With no lyrics or vocal melody, there was only a very minimal loop, presumably just the beat and guitar samples from 'The Payback' by James Brown (which had of course already appeared as part of 'The Payback Mix' on Now 12) at a very slow pace. She admits that it was a difficult sound to get used to initially, but claims to have finally got the inspiration to write a lyric and finished the whole job in ten minutes.
And what a lyric it is too. The arresting first verse "This girl I know needs some shelter... You can't change the way she feels, but you can put your arms around her" was apparently inspired by an unnamed person some friends had told her about, but the later parts of the song are of course based on her own protective feelings towards partner Ben Watt, then recovering from a near-fatal illness. In truth, the two parts are not entirely distinct, the real point of the lyric being about mutual support "I leaned on you for years, now you can lean on me/ That's more than love, that's the way it should be", reinforced by the swapping "You're a boy and I'm a girl" lyric to emphasise the role reversal not as a novelty but as a natural even instinctive reaction. Of course this also fits with Thorn's feminist principles and rejection of gender stereotypes. In this context, it's hard not the feel that the "girl I know" in the first verse could easily be the protagonist, though of course not necessarily the real-life Thorn. A song of determination rather than than physical strength or aggression (and thus, as some have pointed out, an inversion of the James Brown source) it's perfectly set by Thorn's mournful but steely vocal and the gradual sweep of Hooper's brilliant arrangement.
You can see why Massive ended up naming the album (their best one, in my opinion) after this song, although oddly it was only the second single released. Perhaps this was intentional so that they could put it out in January for maximum impact. Even in the shorter radio edit featured here the track packs a big punch, though even more so with the addition of Michel Gondry's outstanding promo video. Much as I'd like to boast about being into this at the time, the reality is that I was even less ready than Tracey Thorn and didn't really appreciate the song until a few years later. Still, I was lucky enough to acquire both CD single formats in that nice cardboard wallet (protection, you see) for only 50p a couple of years ago. And much as I hate to end on a superficial note, aren't the discs a lovely shade of blue?
Also appearing on: Now 19 [as Massive], 29, 40, 54
Available on: Singles Collection