If you look back across my two-part/three-part chats you’ll often see that I spend the second half cutting my own argument from part one to pieces. I’m not going so far today, given I successfully demonstrated Cobain’s completely normal musical taste yesterday, but I’ll still pick at a few stray threads.
I pointed to Cobain’s peak spells of musical inspiration, in fact, I think there are three; 1976-79, 1981-1984, 1987-1990. The peaks simply coincide with the primary phases of inspiration and development in the genre Cobain was devoted to; punk rock. What’s interesting is how thoroughly Cobain ignores the deeper American lineage of mid-Seventies punk rock — the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Johnny Thunders, the whole No-Wave spell. Instead, the line goes the hard rock route via Iggy and the Stooges and the Aerosmith. This is understandable, American punk made hardly a dent on public consciousness. Cobain’s own journey picks up the tale in 1979 with, on the one hand, The Knack reinforcing his new wave tendency (i.e., watered down and more pop-orientated punk) while Greg Sage and the Wipers lead into the deeper pool of U.S. punk-influenced music of the 1980s.
The 1981-1984 spell, again, simply reinforces Cobain’s strong attachment to a specific facet of music. In those years U.S. punk morphed into hardcore and a dozen other inclinations and Cobain was well-aware of all of them whether Black Flag, Flipper, the critical Void/Faith split, Swans, Bad Brains, Butthole Surfers, M.D.C. or Scratch Acid — there are few key names he misses out. It’s clear though that Cobain’s interests remained in a fairly narrow channel. There’s no room here for any of the electronic-infused material coming out of what would come to be known as industrial; similarly that one Swans record is as avant-garde as he gets; there’s nothing until Public Enemy in 1988 from any genre that isn’t (white) Anglo-Saxon guitar music so no jazz, no funk, no soul, just that one old blues record long sanitised by Sixties white-boy blues guitarists — this isn’t a racial point, it’s a music culture point; he doesn’t delve too far into hardcore (a fairly shallow pool of inspiration); and he erases any hint of mainstream taste altogether.
The final spell he captures, 1987-1990, is actually two-fold. Firstly, these years did see a number of genuine classics which he could hardly fail to be aware of — R.E.M’s Green, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Mudhoney’s quintessential grunge album, Pixies and so forth. Cobain, really, was just showing his awareness of the albums that stood out and gained greatest acceptance as stand-out releases. On the other hand, however, he was demonstrating his allegiance to a very specific strand of indie music that was rising at that point. Beat Happening, Half Japanese, Mazzy Star, The Vaselines, Shonen Knife, Daniel Johnson — running back through the Eighties was a lineage of whimsical, playful music that Cobain adored and that reached its full flourishing in that late Eighties phase. The list captures both his more muscular punk taste and this separate, gentler side; both often equally in love with lo-fi fuzz and an embrace of amateurism as a defence against the sheen of corporate enslavement.
Separately, Cobain’s female-orientated side emerges and also seems to take over; the most recent three albums on his Top 50 — Mazzy Star, the Breeders and PJ Harvey — are all female-fronted bands. His choice of album by The Frogs is also a curious one; that album was a parody record pretending to be out-gay and caused wilful offence among conservative groups — again, it seems to be a push toward his interest in femininity. Other candidates more likely acquired in this late Eighties-early Nineties spell rather than at the time of their release are Kleenex, Slits, Marine Girls and The Raincoats (the Incesticide liner notes make clear he was running around in mid-1992 trying to find this album he cites — also, he met The Frogs sometime in 1993 which may or may not push back the date when he wrote this list if that meeting links to the acquisition of their album and the desire to include them.) It combines with the almost total absence of anything that could be deemed mainstream rock to present Cobain’s tastes as firmly on the side of progressive values and the underground which had a powerful openness to women long before Riot Grrl made it explicit.
That’s not to say that much of this list is overtly political. There’s nothing like Crass or the anarcho-punk scene; there’s nothing that foregrounded a political opinion. That suited Cobain’s belief that music should be music first and a gateway to wider socio-political thinking not something subsumed by a cause and a demand that someone listen.
Returning to a point made earlier, note the absence of anything truly mainstream other than Aerosmith’s Rocks; note the complete absence of anything even arguably mainstream until the very end of the Eighties. At first its fair enough given his oft-expressed hatred of most of what rock became in the Eighties. But then recall that Cobain was endlessly aware of audiences and not above tweaking reality to fit the right storyline. In the case of his musical tastes, it’s well-known that he was a big fan of Metallica — Metallica themselves remember meeting him sometime in the late Eighties and him explaining how much he loved Kill ‘Em All — similarly his inclusion of Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills within the Montage of Heck suggests he knew a little of one of the most unavoidable rock bands of the Eighties (also note the depth of his Metallica knowledge given he plucked a hidden parody they performed of said Iron Maiden song from a not particularly easily found EP). He loved Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin enough to name a song after the two bands, played Led Zeppelin songs fairly regularly with Nirvana, but eliminated them from this list altogether.
The list, overall, is a neat document capturing a combination of personal taste, wavering life circumstances (for example, his well-publicized boredom with guitar-based music in the Nineties doesn’t leave him many places to go given all but one of his favourite albums is in that arena), independent trends in the music scene, and potentially a mild touch of deception. As usual with Kurt Cobain, there’s always more to be teased out.