Archive for July, 2013

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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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?

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 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 ( 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 ( 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.

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.

Thank you to Brutus the Barber for pointing out the absence of MV and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die from the list of officially released, but never performed live, Nirvana songs. Amendments duly made. Today I’m just looking at the data another way, I was curious whether certain songs were played irregularly but persisted across a substantial number of months, and/or whether certain songs were resurrected after substantial gaps.

Fewest Months Performed

The month-by-month list reiterates and reinforces the lack of attention given to, primarily, songs that Nirvana deemed either b-sides only or not ready for release at all. The focused nature of Nirvana’s live trialling of songs is also a notable point — they would work a song deeply over a short period of time then haul it out of public sight to either work on it and fashion it into something worthwhile or never to be seen again.

There are twelve songs on the list that either emerged on a single or compilation during Nirvana’s lifetime or didn’t come out until the With the Lights Out box-set; of those twelve songs only one can be shown being played in more than three months.

Now, it’s clear, given the majority of those songs belong to the early days of Nirvana, that we’re missing significant numbers of the set-lists that would reveal further cases when they were played — we only know complete set lists for two of six shows in 1987, five of 24 for 1988, 43 of 82 in 1989 with almost nothing for the first six months of the year. For some of these songs, however, I wouldn’t expect the pattern to change significantly:

Potential Showings

Strangely, it’s songs like Tourette’s where their throw-away nature is really clear; the majority of post-1991 set-lists are known but that song barely appears with few further opportunities for it to do so; the other In Utero era songs feature due to the curtailed nature of Nirvana’s touring in 1993-1994 but Tourette’s simply doesn’t seem to have been popular enough to bother with.