Archive for July, 2013

A carrot is the nearest a rabbit will ever get to a diamond. The fact monkeys fall asleep easiest when listening to Metallica contains no value judgment on the monkey’s part. While music, or structured sound if you prefer, may be intrinsically human, relying as it does on the ability to make sound deliberately and then to edit, tweak and position that sound according to a background meta-narrative of internal deliberations, it doesn’t make it something ‘natural.’ No piece of music is bestowed with an intrinsic value decreed by nature; its value is defined and judged by human observation and criticism. The value of a piece of music can be altered by time, geography, culture in which consumed, purpose/functional context — the same data (i.e., the specific locations and relationships of the sound being listened to) takes on a different value along a sliding scale from priceless to worthless.

In the case of the music of Kurt Cobain, death at close to his peak of success essentially lent his music an exceptional quality; the creation of scarcity enhanced the value to the market. If the zeitgeist had been allowed to pass just another couple of years, the impact of Kurt Cobain’s passing would have been significantly lessened — look at Layne Staley. Similarly, if Nirvana had openly ceased to exist prior to the death of Kurt Cobain, or if it had been the drummer (no offence Dave!) who had died, then the band would be respected but, again, it’s less likely they’d be sainted.

A crucial factor is also age. The other week I pointed out that the five year age difference between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain (1962 and 1967 babies respectively) meant one experienced his teenage musical renaissance in the peak of Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Queen, just prior to the rise of punk; while the other’s self-discovery coincided with the bizarre second wave of punk in the U.S. Music will never mean what it does at first listen, the unveiling of something fresh and new at the precise moment someone has no considered preconception to influence its reception. The passing from one generation to another tends to kill the momentum of a band or artist and their persistence and recognised greatness relies on them sticking around until there’s another generational shift — it’s good to wait ten years. The long gap between the first proper and worthy archive release in 1994 (MTV Unplugged) then the barely interrupted gap until 2002’s greatest hits and 2004’s With the Lights Out allowed the Nu-Metal generation to pass and a new tranche of fans to discover an acknowledged greats.

It was also a good time for a truly shocking rock death; Elvis, Lennon, Vicious — none of these had been artists at their peak and the memories had faded by the mid-nineties. Ian Curtis or Dead from Black Metal band Mayhem had been big figures but only in a relatively minor sub-culture and fan-base. Cobain rightly pointed to Freddie Mercury in his suicide note because Mercury was the only recent rock star death of any significant scale but, again, this was a band past its peak and into ‘institution’ territory while the manner of his death — complications from AIDS resulting from unprotected homosexual activity — hardly lent itself to deification.

Accidents and disease don’t really have any kind of glamour (for want of a better word). A juicy murder or an equally rare suicide — now that has an unnatural quality that lends itself to mystique and curiosity. It helped that Cobain was photogenic too and lent himself to those wide-eyed portraits that became so ubiquitous. The same occurred to Tupac Shakur, the hip hop generation, the non-rock audience, required its eternal image of tragic loss but Eazy-E’s death from AIDS didn’t match up — a dramatic shooting on a crowded main strip in Las Vegas did.

In terms of the music, however, the posthumous reputation of an artist doesn’t necessarily mean hearing genius bound intrinsically within its tune, melody, rhythm or riffs. The significance of music is as much about the listener, about the cultural moment, about what that music was a figurehead for or represented. Don’t expect to love every ‘classic’.

A couple weeks back I was examining the table of Nirvana songs showing the songs we can demonstrate were played the most/least. One category that I didn’t get to was the matter of songs for which we have no evidence at all that they were played — though I like to believe in miracles I genuinely believe there’s a number where there’s next to no chance of there being lost Nirvana shows where they were unveiled:

Picture1

One could also point to Beans and Escalator to Hell but realistically they are all tape/home studio experiments making little sense to even attempt live. The sliver of music known as The Landlord (or “The Landlord is a Piece of Sh** from Hell” to give it the full line) falls into the realm of Krist Novoselic fronted joke-songs so while, theoretically, it could have been worked up for a stage performance its unlikely to have had much time or commitment expended on it barring what might well have been an ad-libbed, improvised piece during an early practice session.

The most surprising songs on the list are slap-bang in the middle of it; Opinion and Old Age. In the case of the former, the song seemed well-evolved and well-worked by the time it appeared on Calvin Johnson’s radio show in September 1990 but this is belied by Cobain’s statement that “I just wrote most of the lyrics this evening.” While that may have been an exaggeration it’s unlikely to be too far from the truth given the utter absence of any sign of the song in any other form during the preceding months. Nirvana had barely been playing or practising given the temporary nature of their drummers since Chad Channing’s departure in a few months earlier; there was the short tour in August with Dale Crover, then the one-off show with Dan Peter’s three days before Calvin Johnson’s show but otherwise plenty of time for Cobain to prepare the music and tweak, re-tweak and re-write the lyrics. Old Age meanwhile seems to have been at a very early stage of gestation during the Nevermind studio sessions — another period with relatively few live shows taking place — then ignored during the craziness of the end-of-year tours and Nevermind’s explosion. What’s unusual about those two songs is that they’re they only songs between Big Long Now (January 1989) and the In Utero leftovers (Jan-Feb 1993) to not end up road-tested live at some point. Nirvana had reached their live peak, they were able to tweak set-lists and toss in songs in a wild fashion night-by-night, yet neither song seems to have been well-liked enough to be given an unveiling; a bit of a commentary on the status of each song and perhaps making it understandable why Cobain would give one of them away.

The Fecal Matter songs are a curiosity as it’s probable that at least some of them were played in amid the smattering of pre-Nirvana shows (three.) The discarding of identities in the early years of Nirvana was a crucial feature and, just as the new wave styling would hit the rubbish bin almost as soon as Sub Pop brought the band on board, so the garage punk version of Kurt Cobain’s music, the most overtly Melvins material he ever wrote, was a face he was fed up with in the two years before he properly took to the stage. Mrs Butterworth sits in the realms of “God Knows what happened” but if I was theorising the song belongs more to the Fecal Matter era than the Nirvana age. It’s quite similar to Downer in terms of the fairly ‘square’ structure, the relatively uncomplicated guitar riffs and the wordy approach — but, like a lot of the material recorded later in January 1988 it features experimental elements (most specifically the spoken-word interruption) so the song feels like a half-way house. The problem with it is that Cobain was already writing far more complex and interesting songs and it sounds more like a training exercise by comparison to Aero Zeppelin and such like.

Opinion should perhaps be considered primarily alongside Cobain’s experimental material from the 1988-1990 period. People forget that acoustic guitars were one form of experiment to a player who hadn’t spent much time with one and wouldn’t use one in a studio until the April 1990 version of Lithium, let alone on stage. In this category we can rank the song now known as Creation (still wrong but what the hey), Clean up Before She Comes, Opinion, Don’t Want it All and even Beans too (I’m ignoring Black and White Blues which sounds like a technical exercise or piece of whimsy) — Polly made it into the live arena because it was easily electrified as was Dumb (note first appearance in Nov 1990: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_EQsUqlqno). Very few acoustic tracks made it into full Nirvana performances or onto albums — the MTV Unplugged performance has warped the view people have of Nirvana when really acoustic guitar was the realm of practices and messing about but rarely of ‘real’ songs.

This leaves the In Utero era foursome; is it strange that these four songs never made it onto the stage at any point? I think it says much about the way the songs were created. Again, like most of these songs we’re discussing, there’s very little evidence of extensive work on these tracks, at least two (Gallons and The Other) are an improvisation around pre-prepared slivers of lyrics, the other two sound like they were jammed together by Nirvana during or just before the January 1993 practice session with little more than riff and a few ideas from Cobain to work around. All four songs, despite their rough edged charm and original features, seem unloved fillers at best, songs that aren’t necessarily needed but might come in handy. Nirvana’s high standards are clear in the way that even some of the songs that made it onto In Utero itself didn’t receive many airings — with so many songs to choose from, and relatively static set-lists during the 1993-1994 touring, it was rare for any rarities to make it on let-alone these half-formed songs. Perhaps if there had been more touring then we might have seen something more but it’s unlikely. The rumours of a sound-check performance of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol may be true (or maybe not) but I can’t imagine it being a word perfect rendition — more a loose jam around the theme perhaps?

In various sources people have pointed out that with one exception (the false ending provided to Pen Cap Chew so Nirvana didn’t have to pay for another reel of tape in January 1988) Nirvana songs didn’t end with fade outs – they all end dramatically on a final punched chord or a collapse into feedback. While this has often been said as if it had some mystical significance the same statement could be made of much output from the punk scene – I’m presently unable to think of a Sex Pistols song that fades…

As drug rumours circulated in 1992 Cobain took to making gallows humour comparisons recasting himself and Courtney as Sid and Nancy and even booking Nirvana into a recording session as The Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble in a reference to both the drug-addled collapse of the Sex Pistols’ number one fan and final bass player and to the general perception of Nancy Spungen as the woman who got Sid Vicious (A.K.A. Simon Ritchie) addicted to heroin just as Courtney was receiving blame for hooking Kurt on drugs (for the record, no, she didn’t.) This was as far as the connection seemed to go.

A deeper connection exists, however. I was questioned last year on whether I knew whether Kurt Cobain had made the decision regarding the lettering for Incesticide’s front cover and whether it existed on the initial painting he supplied to Geffen. I admit I didn’t, however, as Cobain was specifically granted complete artistic control it was, at the very least, approved by him. My belief at this point, however, has gone deeper.

Very early in Nirvana’s career the typography of their logo was set and remained relatively stable throughout their career – omnipotent during their major label spell with the exception of this one major release. The change to newspaper lettering was an echo of the Sex Pistols’ use of ransom-letter-style slicing of anonymous newspaper print. The original use of this in the 1970s was designed to be simultaneously a high-art concept indicating the way in which the influence of the media was integral to the success of the Sex Pistols to such an extend that it was integrated into the very way they presented themselves, as well as to exude pseudo-cheap n’ nasty qualities which were just as much a component of the identity.

The reuse of the concept by Kurt Cobain/Nirvana in 1992 came at a time when Cobain seems to have been well-aware of the points of comparison between his own band and their seventies’ precursor. By deviating from the band’s normal practice and adopting a Sex Pistols-esque text format for Nirvana’s name what was being pointed out was the way in whcih the band had suddenly become as much a construction of the over-the-top and ridiculous media frenzy as a real band. Nirvana in news-print was their primary existence in 1992, a year in which they barely toured and in which the majority of interaction with audiences and fans (and enemies) was conducted via newspaper and magazine pages. Similarly the trashy aspect of it fitted well with the nature of Incesticide, a leftovers collection, and with Cobain’s increasingly soured view on what was his main creative outlet.

MMsPackshot

While I’m whiling away the tail of the weekend spreading news of obscure music I’d like to draw attention to what I believe is the most bizarre record ever released. I’m referring to Trunk Records’ release of the buffet carriage announcements from the Midland Mainline train company’s London-to-Leicester route.

I’ve known of the release for years but never had the courage to order it. Basically, Trunk Records is an exqusitely eccentric outfit run by one Johnny Trunk. They seem to make many of their release decisions by going down the pub, drinking twelve pints of beer and waking up two days later to discover whether they unleashed a moment of genius or madness. I swear to you now, if you like downloads, take a look, if not, then make your life better by ordering one of their final copies of the “Now We Are Ten” sampler – it’s less than five pounds (as is the latest Lard sampler) and will make your life better.

http://www.trunkrecords.com/intro.shtml

At its most eccentric, Trunk has released recordings of his sister’s porn starlet fan mail set to music and other material that is funny for a listen or two but no more. At the other end of the spectrum, however, it has been an outlet for an entire era of British music that has been overlooked, minimised, dismissed and under-appreciated. The label specialises in rare film music (the finest are the soundtrack to Blood on Satan’s Claw and the Psychomania soundtrack), TV soundtracks with quite a few children’s shows (I own both the Fingerbobs music and The Clangers), old BBC electronics music (I recommend the Tristram Cary compilation, The John Baker tapes and an old school programme called The Seasons), plus a load of jazz-orientated material with other deviations into advert music and commercial music libraries.

Now, let’s be fair, I’m not expecting to be more than bemused by the MMS Bar Recording – I’m certainly going to wave a copy at my father and at my uncle (both train fans). The label, however, by its willingness to pursue a vision to the nth degree, to pause for playfulness, combined with the obvious effort put into finding much of this music and the extensive notes that help me make sense of their discoveries, have made a loyal fan.

The music I love from Trunk is that which captures a particular time in British music when the world was trying to come to terms with the arrival of new instruments – electronics – that offered a brief window when escape from the traditional structures of the western musical tradition seemed possible. its that sense that here i’m listening to a genuine moment of escape – to music that was trying forty-fifty years ago, in vastly more difficult technological circumstance, in a deeply conservative environment, to flee centuries of inherited musical systems. The window never opened too far, most music ever since has retreated to the rulebook with the new musical potential of electronics simply added to the palette alongside traditional acoustic instrumentation rather than acting as a way out into something truly new.

That doesn’t mean I think “modern life is rubbish”, not at all. The prominence of these experimental forms in primetime TV broadcasts helped create the vast appetite of today’s music for sounds and styles that are a world beyond what came before. Even in the most mainstream pop recordings we’re regularly hearing sounds that squelch, crackle, burr and quiver in ways that would never have been envisaged as any part of musical composition barely a single lifetime ago.

The other element that’s so potent (the Ghost Box label really delves into it), particularly on the Blood on Satan’s Claw soundtrack, is the brief openness to quite esoteric subject material. This was the height of British consideration of laylines, druidic rites, UFOs, mysterious big cats loose in the countryside – the merging of the ancient, wild and uncontrollable rammed directly into the ultramodern and similarly unknown potentials of new technology and new futures. It was a tantalising vision and a beautiful meshing of what seemed at first to be opposing interests. Musically the result was recordings that featured the latest in synthesiser technology, tape experimentation and early drum machines – while ghostly string and wind instruments played over the top or known forms would intrude.

On Psychomania,the link between past, present and future is made explicit. It follows the attempts by a young biker gang delinquent to use his mother’s talents as a witch to die and return as the undead. The soundtrack flares in all directions with modern funk and acoustic interjections sitting alongside slithers of uncomfortable conversation from the film and haunting electronic effects…

…What the hey. Go buy the samplers. I just fleshed out the collection a little and barely spent a tenner. Have a good Monday!

I’ve posted before about the way in which the age of mass electronics has elevated the work of engineers to gold status, economically, while downgrading the goods created by musicians and writers to junk. Naturally I’m fan of incomplete answers, reality is far more complete than either/or will ever allow for.

One massive benefit of the times in which we live is the ability for the willing amateur to project sigificant quantities of curious and (often) fascinating material out into the world. Over the past few months I’ve been awestruck by some of the work done out there by people tracking down and posting out-of-print and little remembered music from the late Eighties-early Nineties.

I’m not here on Monday so I thought I could draw your attention to some of this now and it’d keep people indulged and amused through Monday. What I do is use http://www.NirvanaGuide.com to identify bands who crossed paths with Nirvana at whatever point in time then use these sites to locate them…

My top four, all of which I’d like to recommend to you, are:

http://myhairsprayqueen.blogspot.co.uk/
I bow down in awe to this guy…The very first thing loaded up today is a 1985 Seattle compilation released on cassette with Bundle of Hiss, with Jack Endino, with The Walkabouts all featured. Digging further into the site there’s music from Bible Stud (shared a gig with Nirvana in May 1989), music plus an interview with My Eye… Stunning work and enjoyably expressed.

http://wilfullyobscure.blogspot.co.uk/
Wilfully Obscure, meanwhile, does exactly what it says on the tin. This dude must have one incredible vinyl collection because I thought I had deep awareness of long-forgotten music acts but again and again I’m having to look up what this guy comes up with…Incredible. You could listen for days here and always find someone new. Well worth exploring.

http://lamestainnorthwest.blogspot.co.uk/
Lame Stain meanwhile is leading with a comparison of TAD and Vampire Weekend; quite rightly pointing out the lack of sweatmarks, dampness and stomach disorders in today’s polished-to-a-sheen indie darlings. Useful, I admit TAD are a band I’ve known of without knowing and this is a good antidote. More to come apparently showcasing pre-TAD outlets for the various members.

http://cosmichearse.blogspot.co.uk/
I like this guy for taking the time to put up his statement of belief at all times – it sums up most of what all these sites are about, sharing music that has been lost in time, letting people know about it, while not disrespecting the artists involved and their rights. There’s a lot of unusual material here straying across punk/metal boundaries and touring the U.S. in an eccentric and all-devouring manner.

Flaky blog service this week I confess, purely down to work pressures; would you believe me if I told you I was in this chair yesterday from 8.55am until 1.30am this morning minus bathroom breaks and a 30 minute lunch outing? Then back up to do it again!

I’m presuming everyone has read the interview with Jason Everman in the New York Times by now?

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/magazine/evermans-war.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

And in another aside…Not that I’m fixated on making the comparison, but today I’m musing on one more factor making a crucial difference between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose; guess what it is? It’s 1962 versus 1967. Earlier this week we were looking over and considering the well-known list of Kurt Cobain’s Top 50 albums and it was very visible that the peak of his musical revelations came between 1981 and 1984 – somewhere in amidst his teenage years from age 14 to 17. That five year gap between February 6, 1962 and February 20, 1967 pushed Cobain into the era of the emerging punk-influenced alternative scene. Axl Rose, by contrast, hit age 14 in 1976, the year of Aerosmith Rocks, of Led Zeppelin releasing Presence, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, Elton John Blue Moves…The Sex Pistols hadn’t even made it over to the States or released an album yet. Basically the generational shift placed each man at one side or other of the great punk divide, one as both the last great hard rock showman and a genuine fan of interesting twists on rock music, the other steeped in punk rock and also gravedigger to the hard rock superstar. The next shift was to the Seventies babies (Fred Durst, August 1970 – Jonathan Davis, January 1971 – Billie Joe Armstrong, February 1972)…What a difference time makes.

Anyways, recently I’ve been thinking about the nature of performance. Despite the near complete (and ongoing) relegation of guitar-based music to a ghetto underneath the avalanche of electronics, or to a hybridised status designed to make it fit for the dance floor, the reality is that it is still guitar-centred bands who are making the money in the live arena. I believe the nature of live performance inherently favours live instrumentation…Why?

As an audio experience, as pure sound, let’s be honest, music will always have greater clarity and detail on a stereo or over headphones. But we go to live shows because the physical kick of organic sound on vast speakers in a room full of juiced up fans is what makes the difference – the human buzz. Related to that, the visual factor in live music is sorely underrated. Music DVDs fail to capture the connection between humans, that’s why they’re such disappointing objects; there’s a flatness to them. Similarly, at venues, seating can kill the mood because it removes a lot of the proximity and press of actual flesh – likewise seats and positions with restricted views will always be cheaper because the absence of sight strips away a crucial part of the live experience; a live performance is about music as it is performed not just about sound as a singular sensory avenue.

With laptop based music and mixing decks, the relative absence of motion from the performer, the relatively static nature of their role makes it a very pure audio experience – which in turn makes it completely unexciting. It’s why most laptop artists perform against video backdrops; they’re aware that something is lacking within the experience. It’s why dance music is still the primary realm for electronics/computer based music because the action and activity of the audience substitutes for the absence of a true performer or performance and reinstates the buzz of human connection.

The predominance of what are, now, traditional instruments (whether in classical performance, rock-derived modes, jazz and so forth), despite their relative death in terms of commercial audio home/portable listening sales, is because they remain absolutely crucial to observed performance. The ‘buzz’ people describe in live music is about the presence of living breathing humans and is at its most intense when one can see those creating the music meaning one’s mind associates the motions seen on stage with the sounds assailing the ears. To quote a friend of mine “if you’re singing, your lips, face, and chest all move; and if you watch the best singers, they tell a story with their eyes as much as with gestures; if you’ve got an instrument then you’re physically interacting with it, your arms, fingers, and whatever else you use to get it to make a sound.” Laptops and table-bound articles obscure movement and involve only limited motion. They’ll never compare to a singer stretching out to catch a high note, a guitarist wrenching notes from the guitar or throttling a riff from it, it’s nothing like seeing a drummer deluging their kit with blows in a spray of sweat.

The best laptop performance I saw was a guy who performs under the name, The Caretaker. The two preliminary acts were fairly traditional laptop acts, cool but not visually that interesting – watching films with some music over the top. The Caretaker (Leyland Kirby being the guy’s name) stepped on stage, chatted to the audience, then asked to be allowed one self-indulgent tradition from his wilder musical days – so commenced a mental karaoke version of “Here I Go Again” the Eighties rock tune by Whitesnake which concluded with him having rolled himself off the stage altogether and being in a heap in the middle of the audience. It was deliberately parodic, undermined the audience/performer gap, wiped away the po-faced chin-stroking aspect of his present music (he manipulates classical music and old 78 RPM records)… Next, he put up a video that commenced with a message explaining it was a video diary of his time living in Berlin and the collapse of his relationship with then girlfriend which gave it a humanity and a poignancy it was hard not to look for…He meanwhile, departed entirely from the ‘performer’ script and simply sat down by the desk on stage, set the laptop going, got a full bottle of whisky and proceeded to polish three-quarters of it while sat on stage watching with us. The initial five minutes of sound were a full blown assault – genuinely nasty – drove the pop fans out the room altogether…And THEN finally he commenced with the softer material he’s been known for recently for those left behind who had been OK to accept the deviations… He was totally and deliberately amateur, genuinely unwilling to stick to the increasingly rigid script to which musicians must work live (i.e, turn up on time, respect commuters, be nice to those bringing their kids, play the hits, be good…) and utterly wonderful for it. It was that rarest of things; a genuinely unpredictable and unforeseeable show. Not many about these days; commoditised performance for ease of consumption.

It’s up online at the official Nirvana Facebook page. Nothing at http://www.nirvana.com as yet but it’ll be coming. Keep your eyes open for track listings and official info imminently I guess…

The LiveNirvana forum is the best place for staying up-to-date on this as it emerges plus some wicked speculation and discussion going on around what it might feature or include…

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.

Top 50

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.

I’ve gotten into a habit of just calling him ‘Cobain’ at the moment. When writing Dark Slivers I bounced appallingly between Kurt Cobain, Kurt and Cobain depending on topic, mood and inclination — it took hours during the review phase to try and make some kinda sense of it. Please bear with me as I work through my typing tics and foibles.

Hand’s in the air if you HAVEN’T seen the list of Kurt Cobain’s Top 50 Albums? Yep, as I suspected, it’s only those miners in Chile who were stuck underground. Alas, in this visual age, what I rarely see is any real discussion of it beyond using it as an excuse to link to pre-written reviews of some of the albums mentioned or to blurb about the bands on the list — it’s easy space-filling fodder.

What interests me about the list is two elements; the nature of the bands present and secondly the eras shown. To start with, here’s the original list of albums, with the years appended. Please note immediately that the list can be positively identified as having been written sometime after the release of PJ Harvey’s Dry in June 1992 making it a relatively good indicator of what Kurt viewed as his key albums looking back across his still-young life:

Top 50

Now, here’s the list rearranged chronologically from earliest to latest:

Top 50-Chronologically

There’s no way to definitively connect the year of an album’s release to the year Cobain first heard it, but there are definite peaks in the eras to which he looked for pleasure and felt worthy of note on his extensive list:

Top50_Years of Release(Graph)

Top50_Years of Release

It’s neatly poetic that the first phase of sustained musical interest commences the same year as Cobain’s parents divorced. I’m unsure, however and alas, whether I believe nine year old Kurt salved his woes in Aerosmith’s Rocks; it’s a possibility that the album marked a significant event, the Cobain family was certainly steeped in music as a mode of emotional expression, but it’s not definite.

Again, though it’s impossible to prove which years Cobain first listened to albums in, its notable that the peak of his preferences arise in the years immediately preceding and including 1983-84 when Buzz Osbourne was feeding Cobain the tapes of U.S. punk and underground music that Cobain describes as his epiphany. Even in 1992-1994, whenever he wrote this list, that period of music remains of critical importance to him with 1981-1984 yielding 19 of his favourite albums, well over a third of his entire list and matching precisely the most critical spell in the evolution of this teenager into a would be punk musician.

The lull from 1985 through 1987 could perhaps be put down to an absence of ground-breaking albums but it simply wouldn’t be true; numerous underground legends were kicking off in those years or burnishing their credentials so why the lull? To some extent I credit age and the inevitable aftermath of a revelation — after so many new discoveries its maybe inevitable that there might be a couple years where things felt a little ‘samey’ or more like reinforcement. Was 1986 really an off year for interesting music? All opinions welcomed on this point!

An alternative presents itself. I looked back to a previous piece from this site (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/28/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-1/). Essentially, while preceded by a long spell of dislocation and movement between family members, from April 1984 onward, 17-year-old Cobain’s life enters a truly rough spell punctuated by three spells of temporary homelessness, a brief return to his father and an extended period as a guest of the Reed family. Cobain had left school, he was in paid employment for certain lengths of time, those few years simply weren’t suited to get to grips with music or absorbing new discoveries.

Finally, in April 1987, Cobain benefitted from the longest period of stable home-life he had experienced in many a year and, in fact, the final time in his life he would spend a year in a single location (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/29/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-2/.) From that month, he moved in with girlfriend Tracy Marander, living in the same block, though two different apartments, and with Dave Grohl after Tracy moved out, right the way through until July 1991.
This coincides with and perhaps is a key factor in the second spell of new discoveries with the years 1987-1990 yielding twelve further albums from the Cobain Top 50, plus the Leadbelly record too. It’s easy to point to these years as ones in which Cobain was surrounded by fellow music-lovers and able to cherry-pick new discoveries and new moments…

…One thing I’ve underrated, however, is simply the matter of age. Really all I’ve shown is that Cobain’s years of maturity from age fourteen to age twenty four saw the majority of his musical favourites, in other words, that he was a perfectly normal young man in terms of the time in his life when music really meant something to him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/jul/04/sub-pop-25-years-underground-rock

Quite a decent essay over at The Guardian detailing the ongoing history of Sub Pop. Rather like it for paying more attention to the post-Nirvana era and what happened next given how much work has been lavished on the pre-1990 history of Sub Pop’s first flourishing.