Unfinished Sympathy

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"Unfinished Sympathy"
Single by Massive Attack
from the album Blue Lines
Released 11 February 1991
Format 7-inch, 12-inch, CD
Recorded 1990
Coach House, Bristol;
Abbey Road Studios, London;
Genre Trip hop
Length 5:08
Label Virgin
Writer(s) Grantley Marshall, Andrew Vowles, Robert Del Naja, Jonathan Sharp, Shara Nelson
Producer(s) Massive Attack, Jonny Dollar
Massive Attack singles chronology
"Unfinished Sympathy"
"Safe from Harm"

"Unfinished Sympathy" is a song by English trip hop group Massive Attack. Featuring vocals from British singer Shara Nelson, the song was released as the second single from the group's debut studio album Blue Lines on 11 February 1991. The song – produced by Massive Attack and Jonny Dollar – incorporates various musical elements into its arrangement, including vocal and percussion samples, drum programming, and string orchestration by arranger Wil Malone. Upon release as a single, "Unfinished Sympathy" topped the Dutch Top 40 and became a top twenty hit on the singles charts of countries such as Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Recognized as a pioneering song in the trip hop genre, "Unfinished Sympathy" was acclaimed by music critics for its unique production and Nelson's vocals. It ranked highly on several publications' year-end lists of the best singles of 1991. The song's music video, directed by Baillie Walsh, is a continuous shot of Nelson walking through a Los Angeles neighbourhood, detached from her surroundings, as the members of Massive Attack gradually start walking behind her. A cover version of the song by American singer Tina Turner became a top ten hit in 1996.

Background and composition[edit]

Featuring vocals from Shara Nelson, the song utilizes a bell rhythm and various vocal and percussion samples.[1]

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"Unfinished Sympathy" was produced by Massive Attack and close collaborator Jonny Dollar for the former's debut studio album Blue Lines (1991).[2] The song was recorded in several locations, including the city of Dublin and the Coach House in Bristol; British music producer Wil Malone conducted and arranged the song's string section in Abbey Road Studios, London.[2] Vocals were provided by English singer Shara Nelson,[2] whom the group had known from their days as a part of sound system The Wild Bunch.[3]

A trip hop song, "Unfinished Sympathy" incorporates drum programming and scratching performed by group member Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles into its arrangement; John Bush of Allmusic refers to these elements as references to the group's "b-boy past."[4] The song's initial tone is set by "chilled hip hop beats" and samples of a percussion break from "Parade Strut (Instrumental)" by J. J. Johnson.[1] Notably, the original album version of "Unfinished Sympathy" does not feature a traditional bass line.[1] Vocal samples of a man singing "hey, hey, hey, hey..." – originating from John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Planetary Citizen" – are present throughout the song.[1][5] It also makes prominent use of a string section orchestrated by Wil Malone,[1] which serves to compliment Shara Nelson's vocals.[4]

Nelson has referred to "Unfinished Sympathy" as a "very emotive track to sing" and later recounted the song's recording process: "We recorded that with a full orchestra in Dublin... For me, as a singer, it was really difficult to follow someone waving a stick around!"[6] Explaining the title "Unfinished Sympathy", group member Robert "3D" Del Naja explained: "I hate putting a title to anything without a theme, but with 'Unfinished Sympathy', we'd started with a jam... and added an orchestral score later. The title came up as a joke at first, but it fitted the song and the arrangements so perfectly, we just had to use it."[7]


"Unfinished Sympathy" was released as the second single from Blue Lines on 11 February 1991. As the single was released in the midst of the Gulf War, the word "attack" was temporarily dropped from the group's name at the advice of their record company and management.[5] The name "Massive Attack" had previously been deemed "unpatriotic" by the BBC – thus, the name change was carried out to prevent the single from being banned from airplay.[5] The single was a commercial success for the group, managing to chart highly in several European countries. "Unfinished Sympathy" became a number-one hit on the Dutch Top 40 and peaked at number two on the Dutch Mega Single Top 100 chart.[8][9] It also gave the group their first major hit in the United Kingdom, where it peaked at number thirteen and remained on the charts for nine weeks.[10] The single reached the top ten in Switzerland and the top twenty in Germany and the Belgian region of Flanders.[11][12][13] Outside of Europe, it peaked at number forty-eight in New Zealand.[14]

Music video[edit]

A partial map of West Pico Boulevard, with the path Nelson takes in the video marked in yellow

The music video for "Unfinished Sympathy" was directed by Baillie Walsh and filmed on the West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.[15] It is a single continuous shot of Shara Nelson walking along a sidewalk unaware or uncaring of her surroundings, which include drunks, gangs, bikers, and disabled people,[16] as the members of Massive Attack gradually start walking behind her.[17] Leigh Bowery served as the video's art director; the group later described him as "definitely the most outrageous character," recalling: "Because we weren't part of that London scene, he tried to dress down and go low-key around us. 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."[15]

Dan Kneece, best known for his work on the 1986 film Blue Velvet, operated the Steadicam for the video shoot.[18] Equipment utilized in the filming included an Arriflex III camera, a Cooke triplet lens, and a 400-foot camera magazine.[18] Precision speed control was used to fit the entirety of the song onto the camera roll.[18] The video was originally supposed to conclude with an overhead shot of Los Angeles, but the scene was ultimately scrapped.[15] Sean O'Hagan of The Guardian described the clip as a "benchmark in modern video direction, more a breathtaking short film than a mere pop promo."[16] English alternative rock band The Verve later paid homage to it in the video for their 1997 song "Bitter Sweet Symphony".[19]

Track listing[edit]

7" (WBRS 2)
  1. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Nellee Hooper 7" Mix) – 4:34
  2. "Unfinished Sympathy" – 5:12
12" (WBRT 2)
  1. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Paul Oakenfold Mix) – 5:18
  2. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Paul Oakenfold Instrumental Mix) – 5:18
  3. "Unfinished Sympathy" – 5:12
  4. "Unfinished Sympathy" (instrumental) – 4:08
  1. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Paul Oakenfold Mix) – 5:18
  2. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Paul Oakenfold Instrumental Mix) – 5:18
  3. "Unfinished Sympathy" – 5:12
  4. "Unfinished Sympathy" (instrumental) – 4:08
12" remixes (WBRR 2)
  1. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Nellee Hooper 12" Mix) – 5:50
  2. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Nellee Hooper Instrumental Mix) – 5:34
  3. "Unfinished Sympathy" (original) – 5:12
2010 Remixes (WBRN 2)
  1. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Congorock Remix)
  2. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Steve Aoki "I Love Techno" Remix)
  3. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Tocadisco & R3hab Remix)
  4. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Paul Van Dyk Remix)
  5. "Unfinished Sympathy" (Oakenfold 2010 Rework)

Critical acclaim[edit]

In European media, "Unfinished Sympathy" has frequently been placed highly on lists of "the best songs of all time":

Credits and personnel[edit]

Credits adapted from Blue Lines liner notes.[2]

  • Engineered and recorded in Abbey Road Studios, London.
  • Mixed at the Matrix Recording Studios, London.
  • Recorded in Coach House, Bristol.
  • Strings conducted and recorded in Dublin and Abbey Road Studios, London.


Chart (1991) Peak
Belgium (Ultratop Flanders)[13] 15
Germany (Media Control AG)[12] 17
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[8] 1
Netherlands (Mega Single Top 100)[9] 2
New Zealand (RIANZ)[14] 48
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[22] 40
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[11] 9
UK Singles Chart (Official Charts Company)[10] 13


  1. ^ a b c d e Murphy, Colleen (28 May 2013). "Classic Album Sundays' Colleen Murphy listens to Unfinished Sympathy". Bowers & Wilkins. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d Blue Lines (liner notes). Massive Attack. Virgin Records. 1991. 0777 7 86228 6. 
  3. ^ "Massive Attack". CMJ New Music Monthly: 20. July 1998. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Bush, John. "Unfinished Sympathy – Massive Attack". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c O'Hagan, Sean (2 February 2003). "The brand plays on". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 June 2006. 
  6. ^ Pride, Dominic (23 September 1995). "Chrysalis Act Shara Nelson Captures Spirit Of U.K. R&B". Billboard: 111. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  7. ^ "5. Blue Lines – Massive Attack". Select (London): 51. January 1992. 
  8. ^ a b "Top 40 week 14 van 1991" (in Dutch). Stichting Nederlandse Top 40. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  9. ^ a b "Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy". dutchcharts.nl (in Dutch). Hung Medien. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  10. ^ a b "Massive Attack". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  11. ^ a b "Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy". hitparade.ch (in Swiss German). Hung Medien. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  12. ^ a b "Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy" (in German). Media Control. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  13. ^ a b "Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy" (in Dutch). Ultratop. Hung Medien. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  14. ^ a b "Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy". charts.org.nz. Hung Medien. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 
  15. ^ a b c Iqbal, Nosheen (6 February 2010). "Massive Attack's art of darkness". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  16. ^ a b O'Hagan, Sean (28 October 2012). "Blue Lines: Massive Attack's blueprint for UK pop's future". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  17. ^ Collected (liner notes). Massive Attack. Virgin Records. 2006. CDVX 3017. 
  18. ^ a b c Kneece, Dan. "Massive Attack: 'Unfinished Sympathy', By Dan Kneece". SteadiShots. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  19. ^ 100 Greatest Pop Videos. 4 Ventures Limited. 8 February 2005. 
  20. ^ "bbc - radio 2 - sold on song - song library - top 100 - number 44 - unfinished sympathy". BBC. April 2005. Retrieved 26 March 2010. 
  21. ^ Darren Tate
  22. ^ "Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy". swedishcharts.com. Hung Medien. Retrieved 6 June 2013. 

External links[edit]