Archive for May, 2013

A band who, tragically, have lost a lot of respect through the release schedule of the past thirty-five years is the Sex Pistols. The undeniable brilliance of their one and only album, the fact they defined punk and their lead singer was a figure of genuine originality who went on, with Public Image Limited, to bind together three albums that kicked-off and defined the post-punk era, none of it can overlook the discomfort when studying how they’ve approached music releases.

The damage commenced early thanks to Malcolm McClaren-fuelled randomness, with Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Sid Vicious cheerily going along with it all. The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, the associated singles (none of which feature anything interesting to a rarities collector), the Flogging a Dead Horse set, Some Product (consisting of interview snippets and adverts), Sex Pack (another re-compilation), — for at least the next decade and a half after the Sex Pistols’ demise the majority of associated releases were intermittently interesting at best.

That spell could have been forgotten given the legal situations and the open hatred among the surviving band members provided a legitimate reason to ‘start over’in the Nineties. The only problem being that the feeling of repetition set in fast. The Kiss This compilation succeeded only in scraping in a few of the single b-sides on top of the regular candidates. The Filthy Lucre Live tour of 1996 was a worthy venture but the audio document, like most live albums, wasn’t not of long-lasting entertainment value. Regular reissues of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols had already become a tradition every five years, the Jubilee set in 2002 was essentially worthless, the three-disc box-set that same year was pretty well the first and only truly essential post-break-up compendium of the band’s material. The thirty-fifth anniversary brought a listenable remaster, a few slivers of outtakes and a grand total of one unheard studio track; a Denmark Street rendition of Belsen Was a Gas with Johnny Rotten on vocals.

Around that, the flood of semi-official releases, the live bootlegs of variable to atrocious quality usually packaged with all the aplomb of cut-price supermarket own-brand soup. Essentially the waver-thin quantity of the Sex Pistols’ output left the 2002 box and the latest Super-Deluxe of Never Mind as the two sources covering everything the Sex Pistols laid to tape. Everything else is ephemera at best unless well-drilled but fuzzy repetitions of live hits keeps you entertained.

A further key issue was that the Sex Pistols’ knowing critique of music as commercial product, the repetition of a thirty-five year old joke about openly seeking to fleece the public and others, was a case of the skit, the story, forming the reality. It became hard not to see the entire Sex Pistols’ enterprise, post 1978, as a rip-off. Even the two well-intentioned releases mentioned above were hard not to look at with a cynical eye.

Nirvana certainly can be admired for avoiding what has been a fairly bargain-basin release schedule. Likewise, they’ve left a more substantial reservoir of leftovers than I’ve probably given them credit for given previous comparisons I’ve made have been to The Stooges and Jimi Hendrix — both apparently incontinent studio players. But then, the Sex Pistols were barely a band for more than two maniacal years, Nirvana kept it together a full seven. While I’ve certainly advocated further Nirvana outtake releases I’m certainly not desirous of seeing a lightly tweaked Nevermind emerging every half a decade. What I’d be interested in is the kinds of outtakes, alternative takes, early versions and test-runs that make up the majority of the material on the two major Sex Pistols post-death boxes.

A prime concern of mine at the moment is the idea of what can and can’t be released officially.
Well, in 1999 Rhino Handmade, under license from Arista released the ultimate testament to one of the rare albums that stands as peer to Nevermind.

Complete Funhouse

On the table before me is the seven disc boxset of The Stooges Funhouse: The Complete Sessions. And they do mean complete. This is eight hours worth of session recordings, there are over well over thirty takes of some songs, it’s literally everything they could find; Funhouse’s seven songs played out to infinity across 140 tracks with the addition of a minute and a bit shred called Sliding the Blues and one unreleased track called Lost in the Future.

What stands out for me though is that they could do this and it hasn’t in anyway harmed the band’s reputation; this limited edition box-set is now a hallowed release among the kind of deep fans who give a toss whether a band releases its rarities and outtakes. Instead of wasting time worrying about the tastes of the dilettante fans who just want the greatest hits album, Arista released that all re-releases are ultimately unnecessary and simply went ahead and pleased the true fans who were still writing, reviving and appreciating The Stooges after all these years. It’s a very digestible release too; it emphasises the hard work the band put into trying tweaks and alternative ways to get these songs into best shape, there’s a snippet of dialogue in which Iggy Pop’s sensitive ears note a string ringing on one of the instruments and makes the retake totally belying the band’s reputation as slackers, damn they work hard.

The Stooges and Nirvana are two of the only bands whose outtakes really fascinate me; the comparison also appeals because the lo-fi nature of live recording technology in the early seventies means it’s a challenge to find polished material. It leads me to question what is/isn’t capable of being released. Take a look at the release below:

You Want my Action

The booklet on top is the You Don’t Want My Name, You Want My Action box-set gathering up recently discovered recordings of The Stooges with a short-lived two guitar live line-up. The sound quality declines from front to back going from reasonable (if one is tolerant of pops and clicks) to severely degraded. The crucial point is that it doesn’t matter. The expectation and direction is set, it’s acknowledged, one buys in the knowledge of what this is — it’s exceedingly rare material and if one is the kind of fan who wants to hear multiple versions of songs then you’ll love it anyway.

The two CD version of Metallic K.O. wedged there is also an argument against audio quality being the defining reason for or against a release. It’s a famed album, it’s achieved a cult status in spite of and partly because of the low audio fidelity. It basically records a now stoned-to-the-eyeballs Iggy Pop, fronting a band about to break-up, for an audience that wants to hit him with the various glasses flying overhead. And still, with a great band, even releasing this simply reinforced the iconic value, the underground heroism and the position of The Stooges as forefathers of punk confrontation and one of the finest rock outfits ever unleashed.

Nirvana needs to decide, or already has decided, how they want to be remembered. The choice is between the overground success with feet and souls planted in the underground or as a slick well tuned, corporate rock behemoth that left the underground behind. There was criticism of the With the Lights Out box-set for the sound quality on certain tracks, but then there’s been criticism of the Nevermind anniversary release on the same topic but for having been excessively pumped up and compressed; oh and of the boombox demos of Nevermind back on the audio quality issue. There’s no happy medium. Releasing lo-fi material is fine so long as people know what to expect — only the fanatics buy regardless.

The final item is the Heavy Liquid box-set. To distinguish The Stooges from Nirvana, it must be recognised that the depth of outtakes and leftovers The Stooges left behind is vast compared to the relatively shallow pool of genuinely unheard Nirvana/Kurt Cobain originals. The Stooges poured out material and, in the absence of solid relations with record labels for a lot of their time as a band, a lot of it poured into the unofficial realm. This box, again going from highest to lowest fidelity, brings together a ton of non-album tracks plus such curios as a full disc of the band experimenting with the song I Got a Right across thirteen takes — different lyrics, instrumental, no solo, different effects, and so on. The rest is everything from soundchecks to off the cuff studio sessions at various locations. Tragically Nirvana could never compete with this, With the Lights Out is the nearest they’ll ever come; there simply isn’t enough left in the vaults of true originality. But that doesn’t mean a specialised box-set of this nature wouldn’t appeal to fans, wouldn’t be worth listening to and wouldn’t tantalise.

Heavy Liquid

Compliments to Jason Stessel over at LiveNirvana for bringing this to everyone’s attention – I’m just relaying the news today, no originality!

Over on YouTube, there’s been a bit of a clear out of one of the largest distributors of Nirvana live footage, similarly a few pieces related to Nirvana’s MTV Live n’ Loud performance have been taken down. It’s still possible to find clips but, compared to just a month or two ago, it’s near impossible to find a full recording of the Live n’ Loud broadcast. A search today on one of the few active links came back with this simple declaration:

Copyright

It’s hard to tell if this is just a regular stripping out of supposed infringements or a targetted attempt to remove competing sources for what everyone has predicted for a couple years will be the DVD component of a Super Deluxe edition of the In Utero album ready for the anniversary this year.

I think private trading of recordings is a legit exercise for the enthusiasts. Hand-to-hand propagation of music has kept interest alive in Nirvana’s music for years. Its the, often illicitly sated, appetite for unheard material that has plugged the gaps between official releases and allowed the major labels to reap such profits from the reissues, DVDs, boxsets and so forth. Plus, there’s very little damage done by people trading live recordings, demos and all the shreds the major labels are too snobby to release.

If there was a legitimate official source for all this material the fans would buy it. A fair example of the process would be the switchover from the dodgy ethics of Napster to the dodgy, controlling yet official order of iTunes. Once a legal channel of sufficient scale and diversity was available the market moved very rapidly away from what had been an illegal experiment. Most people don’t want to be acting illegally if there is an alternative. That’s why organised crime gains its most extensive profits from what cannot be acquired legally, people want to do good. I’ve no great affection for websites ripping DVDs and films. But then, I’ve never been that visual.

The whole tale of downloadable music and so forth interests me more in terms of the way it reinforces power in the hands of those who created the systems responsible. This roams toward conspiracy theory if taken the wrong way, take it more that I think similar people make similar decisions and that people in particular situations are equally likely to adopt the frame of reference arising from the social scenario, the group, in which they find themselves.

Essentially, teams of engineers created the forms via which music could be reproduced and distributed. Having control of the medium gave them power over what was contained therein whether overt or subconsciously adopted by the bands. A fair example is the way Nirvana’s albums, those released while Kurt Cobain was alive, are built around the idea of a vinyl LP record, even the bonus tracks on Nevermind and In Utero, by their very nature, are a reaction to the new medium of the CD.

The problem is, of course, that being able to do something doesn’t mean one should. The engineers discovered they could turn music into data, having done so, creating the MP3 format and others that allowed cheap and massive distribution via the Internet was a logical step. In doing so the people involved successfully extinguished the means of support for hundreds of thousands of musicians. Arguments about how “musicians used to survive performing live” are as spurious as pointing out that the entire financial industry was barely a glimmer until 1980s liberalisation opened the flood gates. Claims that its just a case of adapting are as viable as telling flood victims they just need to see it as an opportunity. As for people salving their consciences by saying it was rich millionaires they were taking from…Untrue. The long tail of bands who were living on the proceeds of their releases had to undergo a radical reduction in their income that sent many back into regular day jobs.

What the engineering graduates had done was define the products of liberal arts graduates as something that wasn’t worth paying for, something that was overpriced and therefore something they could rip. Meanwhile, the devices sold by the engineering graduates are sucking in small fortunes with minimal competition. The new reality is one in which musicians need an alternative source of income (same as authors) unless, by sheer chance, they become the one in a million everyone likes to point to when they claim it’s easy to make money from creativity. A lack of worth placed on the results of creative endeavour has led to a mass market that isn’t willing to pay for it and the tools to assist.

So, to say I have ambiguous feelings about the kinds of innovations, like YouTube, from which I have benefitted is an understatement. I don’t rule out some of the good these things do; but I like to be aware that there are two sides. In other words, I’m cool with Universal and whoever else taking down content that directly and knowingly competes with their official product – because the rule applies to the little people not just the big guys. Musicians now have been robbed of the chance to have a long-term career, one they can live off, in the field to which they are dedicated unless they conform to the mass tastes and fashions. More people than ever can make music, that’s a thrill, but it’s harder than ever for the devoted to live on it.

Just a whimsical post for a quiet kinda day…I found it interesting to think of the fact that a completely different standard applies to audio works as compared to literature; I mean, an academic archive might be keen on having my scrap notes someday if I do something that gains weighty note beyond my limited realm of interest and attention. But I can’t imagine any one reading this article being keen on having the rough notes that came to make it — do you want the piece of gym scrap paper I started this on? It’s unreadable. Yet I better keep it just in case given the kinds of trends that have been witnessed in prices for author’s archives:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/dec/12/doesthenationneedauthorsa

Yet, what we’re looking at here, is not something that anyone except a fanatical researcher would sit down and read for pleasure. The blend of humdrum notes, rough one-liners that might one day become significant when allied to other words in an overall narrative or structure, letters and stubby thoughts, there’s no way to experience them in any coherent or enjoyable fashion. As far as public consumption goes, we may see sifted fragments in a well choreographed tome.

In the case of music, however, the rough workings of a musician possess a far more immediate impact and enjoyment. Of course that doesn’t mean every shred of tuning up, between take banter, butterfingered miscues or cack-handed lumpen error would or should emerge — I can live without a tape of Kurt Cobain practising the pentatonic scale repetitively. What I’m referring to is both rough takes yet to be honed into their final song form, to solo run-throughs of ideas or even stray riffs if sufficiently polished, full group improvisations and jams around an idea or theme — these all have an interest that an author’s fag-packet-musings rarely possess.

Part of the reason is the relative length of the experience. A draft of a song is comparable to a full page or two of written material — each is a substantial outpouring that one can engage with. Just as the rough copies of a full chapter might prove intriguing, a lengthier jam has a thread that can be followed whether that interest is formed by its unity or by its breaks and diversions.

The further difference between reading text versus listening to music, as mental processes plays a role also. The body and mind can feed on even random noise as an experience in a manner more akin to how it can detect shapes and patterns in paint splatters and ink blots. In each case what is being engaged is the brain’s capability as a pattern-finding engine; this isn’t what occurs when sifting page after page of short thoughts and ideas, the immediacy is lacking. Similarly music can be felt and experienced as a physical sensation, a further level of experience that is lacking from an author’s archive and a further reason why something like the rehearsal tapes and home demos of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana have a deeper interest and aren’t the equivalent of an author’s stockpile of abbreviations, shorthand, on-the-spot thoughts or observations.

I was reminded of this old thought of mine when going through material related to the Nirvana LLC court battle between Courtney Love and the duo of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. In response to a statement from Courtney stating that Krist had threatened to toss Nirvana tapes off of a bridge, Krist/the lawyers replied:

“After listening to hours and hours of recordings for the box set project, I determined that there were some outtakes that sounded really bad. In this day and age of limited copyright protection in cyberspace, I was afraid that these recordings could leak out of our organization and hit the World Wide Web. I told Courtney that I felt we should erase some of these tapes because they are redundant and a poor representation of the group. Having worked so closely with Kurt Cobain, I know that he would feel the same as we occasionally practiced this while he was alive. Kurt had a very high level of discretion in regards to art. Artists do this, it’s no big deal.”

Certainly it means Courtney was correct and Krist probably had threatened to do some chucking out — a first thought that comes to mind is whether he has done something of this nature in the years since, there’s no information either way. He certainly seems convinced it was the right thing to do and gives four reasons (a) they’re bad (b) they’re not needed (c) they make Nirvana look bad (d) Kurt wouldn’t want them to emerge.

The ins-and-outs of my feelings about this quotation are essentially focused on the first of those points. The other three I can summarise my thoughts on fairly rapidly; (b) is any music truly needed? Why is a poor rendition or an early effort any less valid to those who would love to hear it? (c) the fan community is used to lo-fi renditions and sluggish live material but it humanises the increasingly sainted band (d) channelling the voice of a dead man to justify an action in a future they never reached is a poor way to make any choice.

But that point that they “sounded really bad” is what intrigues me. There’s no indication if it’s a reference to low-fidelity sound that may be beyond salvageable; if so it’d have to be pretty awful given the state of the Boombox Demos from 1991 that secured an official release — it can’t be worse than some of the snippets on various bootlegs which were interesting partly because they retained a sense of mystery in amidst the tape hiss.

The quotation doesn’t say if it’s a reference to bad playing on the part of the band; on this matter, if we’re talking tapes of retuning or twenty minutely distinguishable renditions of About a Son then maybe he has a point. On the other hand, the Heavy Liquid bootleg from The Stooges contains a disc featuring thirteen renditions of I Got a Right in various conditions (i.e. “no gtr solo”, “false start”, “instrumental”, “+ gtr solo”, “too slow”, “two false starts”, “different lyrics Outro”, “not Leslied”, “diff drums”). I’m not saying I’m listening to the disc every day but it’s a perfectly enjoyable experience and lends a real appreciation of how hard a supposedly messed up and wild band actually practised on getting their sound. Plus it’s a cool song so it’s no different to hitting the ‘repeat’ button, fine.

The quotation doesn’t state if the tapes contained jams that never went anywhere; improvisations that eventually broke down; snippets that might have become true songs if anyone had remembered them or taken a second shot — now, as a bona fide fanatic, these really would be of interest. I’ve said before that there’s insufficient on disc evidence of Nirvana’s talents as improvisers, certainly a feeble minimum that wasn’t on stage. This would have some virtue if properly curated.

Anyways, that’s where my curiosity hinges. What was so bad that it must be destroyed?

Kurt Cobain_27

I admit to finding coincidences intriguing. A coincidence, the admission of the hand of chance on a seemingly repetitive basis, sparks my curiosity regarding whether what we’re seeing is an actual trend that can be shown with data, or merely a deceptive slice of cherry-picked data points, or a case that the belief that one should see a particular something leading the mind to filter out contradictory information and home in on reinforcement for what one believes.

Luckily, other people look at something like the well-known coincidence of rock star deaths at age 27 and use it as a point for creating art and items of deep and less geeky engagement.

http://sarasotavisualart.com/2012/01/jack-dowd-27-when-the-music-died/

I’ve known of this exhibition for months courtesy of a fellow rock enthusiast at work, the VP of Corporate Communications to be exact; I just didn’t get round to sharing it. I’m not sure I have much feeling for the images, they’re a little too photographic to inspire but I recognize the difference between being in a gallery studying the paintwork up close versus a flat Internet image; it’s like the comparison between being at a live show versus the YouTube clip.

The overall concept engages me more but brings me back to my reasons in the first paragraph, that I enjoy coincidences because they make me want to look more closely. A few months back a major study concluded that music stars did indeed have higher mortality than the average population until they reached their forties and fifties at which point mortality was no different (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/02/01/the-effect-of-childhood-trauma/). The combination of a relatively volatile grouping of individuals, in risky and unstable circumstances, with an excess of opportunities to engage in risk-increasing behaviours was what was, apparently, responsible for the trend. The data-set is good, it’s sheer size giving it authority, the source authority is excellent. They didn’t dwell on the 27 issue at all…

…But in the same Journal another article a year before did:

http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7799

The study limited itself to just the U.K. and noted no stand-out number of deaths associated with the age 27 though it confirmed the overall heightened chances of dying among musicians. Does that kill the myth?

Not at all. Like all good stories no amount of data can eliminate the enjoyment of an ominous portent, tales of the grim reaper will always remain something to relish…Or to paint.

I was simply curious on this occasion how long, in Nirvana’s live sets, they persisted in playing more songs from a previous album than they did from the next. In my initial naivety I made the simple assumption that a band would simply move on from each album at some point and, through sheer boredom, substitute newer songs that hadn’t been as well-thrashed on stage. Of course this simply isn’t true. Later in life many bands end up retreating to greatest hits’ medleys as their audiences come to focus more on reminiscing rather than on a band’s new material. And sometimes certain songs are more amendable to a live arena than others; Led Zeppelin never let go of Whole Lotta Love.

In the case of Nirvana though, a band in motion and still somewhere amidst a creative and popular peak in the 1989-1993 era between album releases, I wonder if anything altered. The difficulty, of course, is that songs from Bleach had been played right from the band’s earliest days meaning, by 1993-1994, they’d flogged some tracks for 7 years; neither Nevermind nor In Utero had received anything like that workout with the earliest Nevermind song appearing live in mid-1989 and the earliest In Utero song in mid/late-1990.

Also, Nirvana’s live-sets gradually got longer by, on average, one/two songs each year from 1987 to 1994 so more songs were needed to fill the sets resulting in a lot of material from Nevermind and In Utero throughout those latter years. What we’re really looking at therefore is how long it took for Bleach to be overtaken as the key source in Nirvana set-lists.

The first notable element is the switch evolving across the course of Nirvana’s, admittedly short, set-lists in 1988. On January 23, 1988 the songs that later featured on Incesticide were still making up five of the set while Bleach was only two; Spank Thru, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew and Erectum also featured with a couple of covers tagged on the end. By March 19, 1988 Bleach and Incesticide are on even-pegging with the aforementioned four randoms still attached. Basically it shows that from kick-off in early 1987 right through until sometime in summer 1988 the focus was on this alternative vision of Nirvana in which the songs recorded in January 1988 still formed the crucial spine of Nirvana’s identity as a live band.

From October 30, 1988 onward it’s Bleach that rules. The switchover will have come in the sixteen shows between March 19, 1988 and then. As could be expected this dominance only begins to draw to a close with Nevermind hoving into view. Yet the expected takeover is significantly forestalled. There’s one show on May 29, 1991 where Nevermind predominates, after which its late August 27, 1991 before Nevermind again comes to establish control but even then it’s more of an unsteady parity with numerous shows where Nirvana returns to playing more from Bleach.

I wondered if this indicated Nirvana trying to maintain some secrecy around their newest material — like Krist Novoselic claimed they had to do in 1992 to avoid bootlegging. There’s a simpler reason though; while in retrospect, looking backwards, hearing early versions of Nirvana songs prior to their canonisation on an alum is great — it relies on knowing the songs already for them to have significance. Usually at a gig, when the band show off some new material, it’s a bit of a momentum killer, people don’t know the tune, they can’t sing along, they can’t anticipate moves and motion. So, until Nevermind was out, there’s a very ordinary reason not to overpopulate a set-list with it; the crowd would tire of hearing mystery songs, so it’s a crowd-pleasing behaviour. The showcasing comes only in the run-up to Nevermind’s release, then the dominance commences after that.

Finally in the last days of October Nirvana ease up and Nevermind takes its place as the provider of some eight songs a night with Bleach throttled back to four, sometimes five. Bleach’s dominance lasted a minimum of 36 months, October 1988 to October 1991, probably slightly more somewhere in those obscure mid-1988 months. Yet, given set-list lengths, Nevermind shares the limelight with Nirvana playing anything up to seven songs from Bleach on a number of occasions throughout 1992. It’s only in 1993 that Bleach fades out leaving Nevermind and In Utero on level begging…

What would it mean for the future? Well, there we’re into the realms of what probably can’t be told. Nevermind would have faded slightly perhaps but could Nirvana resist the pressure to play what would still have been their top hits? And given headliner status and longer set-lists it was hard for any album to slip away…

Apologies, was a public holiday in UK yesterday and I was at my grandfather’s… Now! Awful lot written about the Cobain roar, his particular skill for being able to hold a single note while screaming, to be able to twist a scream up, down, wherever he wished it — that’s a genuine technical ability on display, not just an unpractised gut talent. And that’s what has made the various vocal-only/acapella versions of Nirvana’s songs so interested. None have been officially released (as far as I know) and I can’t imagine they ever will be although voice only versions of hip hop albums are not an uncommon phenomenon given the desire of remix artists to get working with individual voices. Given the rather unlovely nature of a hip hop vocal, those releases are usually best for the appreciation of lyrics, for the dexterity with which an individual plays with syllables and their control over speed and breathing.

In the case of Kurt Cobain’s voice, isolated from the instruments, there’s a wide range of material to choose from stretching from early efforts — the very gruff, paint-stripping growl on Negative Creep or thick tone of Blew — to the frailty that has crept in on a song like Very Ape or All Apologies. Of course I’m sure that what we’re hearing is not necessarily the development of a voice but deliberate decisions regarding what to emphasise or discard — we’re hearing control, an expanding and experienced talent.

One major contrast is being able to hear so clearly the work done to the vocals on Nevermind. The slight echo on a track like Drain You softens the edges; check the almost syrupy effect added to In Bloom alongside the more extreme doubling of Kurt’s voice on the chorus; the demo like quality of Something in the Way is a welcome release with the visibility of each vocal tic and slur now starkly present. There are plenty of sources and certainly their availability is well-known across the fan community:

The additional touches aren’t as visible on the other albums, they’re there, of course, but the nakedness of the voice is plainer. This is my particular favourite. The gulf between the downbeat verses, the ability to let the voice break over a note — I’m very sure it’s deliberate, he did it so perfectly during Where Did You Sleep Last Night from MTV Unplugged — the building snarl of the bridge then the sustained chorus…And yes, there’s plenty of doubling going on at the end there but still…What a song and what a voice.

MV (*cough*) is also available in this form showing him stretching his voice from the initial croak to the dredged up choruses…Another late era experiment with the voice.