Gosh, has it really been a month since I was working on this? Darn…Sorry…Sorry…
A diversion today though, wanted to look at Melvins’ Houdini record. I’d always noticed that commentary on Cobain’s involvement with the album is focused on his role/non-role on the production side with barely a mention made of the part he played as a musician on the release. I couldn’t help but want to satisfy my curiosity by grabbing a copy of the album and finding out why…
…Oh dear…It’s pretty obvious. The real story of Houdini, the real fun and drama, come from discussing the record company’s cynical behaviour – their determination to have the name ‘Kurt Cobain’ written on the record by any means necessary and to see if Melvins’ association with Nirvana could be turned, at the peak of Nirvana’s fame, into success for their own artist. I’d have to admit though that a lot of albums never make money I can understand a label executive wanting to exploit the very clear and visible connection between their ‘token grunge band’ and the world’s biggest group – it’s logical, it’s sensible, it’s helpful. Melvins’ status at the time is also fascinating, this was a pretty drug-addled time and examining the album, it’s not bad but there’s definite filler compared to their most glorious excursions. Thing is, for Cobain’s name to be exploited in this way he had to agree to it – his instinct to support his friends, coupled with the fact that it’s fair to say that in the early days he’d made use of his Melvins’ connections and owed them to some extent for early breaks, meant he was happy to involve himself despite there being no apparent evidence of him being interested before in the mechanics of recording beyond asking for a particular sound and a producer fulfilling the desire as best they could. Similarly the mood is visible in the way the relationship between Melvins and the production staff broke down a touch, you can see it in the way that Jonathan Burnside – an experienced producer who’d worked on several other Melvins’ albums and releases – was relegated to ‘engineer’ in the credits when it’s become very obvious that Cobain certainly was not producing in any active sense. Melvins also had to join in with the urge to use Cobain’s presence for commercial purposes. Buzz Osbourne has stated he wanted Cobain there for inspirational purposes and so forth – yeah? Let’s just check, Kurt Cobain had been a presence in the life of Melvins for some ten years by that point but suddenly he was wanted as a collaborator? Alas, hate to say it, but I think it’s more likely that just as Melvins’ arrival on a major label was tied directly to Nevermind’s explosion, the arrival of Cobain in an amorphous and vague role on Melvins’ first major label record was simply a knowing desire to try to keep the label happy and gain some commercial glitter. Nothing wrong with that, useful to have a rock star friend.
Did I say filler earlier? That’s where the Cobain contributions come in; Cobain is given a credit for playing on two songs – Spread Eagle Beagle and Sky Pup. What that involvement amounts to is participation in Melvins’ very own Moby Dick (a la Led Zeppelin.) Spread Eagle Beagle is a lengthy percussion piece that doesn’t feel the desire to go anywhere in a hurry. Lulls at about five minutes and ten minutes – where the drums give way to the light rumbling of what sounds like a steel sheet then the patter of drum sticks being rubbed – almost count as moments of tension simply because so little happens. I’m a fanatic for unusual noise records, for a certain quantity of extremity, but this doesn’t have the same momentum Melvins lent to something like their collaboration with Lustmord – it’s just ten minutes of relatively static thudding, little intricacy or drama. On live bootlegs of Nirvana sometimes you’ll hear for a few seconds the drummer warming up, clattering a few drums before the start of an actual song, just setting the beat and waiting for his comrades to join in…This feels like Melvins playing those few seconds ad infinitum, over and over, while everyone else is too busy nodding out to join in. It could be a joke – that they’ve tagged this nothingness onto the end of a real record in which case it’s a bit sad because Melvins have always managed to be whimsical, experimental, out for just trying things and seeing what might happen – without creating ‘nothing.’
There are several sources within the song. First, a drum kit keeping up a solid heavy thump in the middle, a consistent zing of bent metal that echoes accentuates or follows certain moments in the main rhythm, a separate and far lighter set of accents is being added by a separate drum kit occasionally echoing the main rhythm while a further piece of equipment producing something like the sound of a light switch or thin stick being hit on the edge of a drum – a whip sound – sometimes intervenes. The rhythm is fairly unvarying – the pauses give me the impression of active improvisors pausing to look one another in the eye before a change of direction…Except the direction doesn’t change. The ‘song’ pauses then simply proceeds in pretty much the same manner as it had been. There’s a change up at about six minutes in to a far denser drumming with each instrument gradually rising up for the next couple minutes and the pace picking up while still amounting to little more than a swifter clatter.
For evidence of Cobain’s continued collaborative or creative impulses in the 1993-1994 period Spread Eagle Beagle isn’t the place to go. It’s impossible to tell what contribution he made, there’s no way of teasing out a signature sound or anything identifiably Cobain-esque. In a way that’s perhaps what makes me smile widest because, if I was being generous and clever-clever, I’d suggest that the anonymity of Cobain’s presence is precisely the point. The album’s own merits were being overshadowed by the mere presence of an (unwilling) global superstar. Whatever Melvins did on the album, the label were far more concerned with just plastering Cobain’s name on it. Cobain himself undoubtedly knew that he was helping friends but simultaneously that he was being exploited due to his fame and that it wasn’t just ‘helping friends’, it was also supporting the label people suggesting and coaxing them into it…These are musicians, while most people simply say what they feel is wrong/right, musicians can comment via music, via performance. What Melvins create at the end of the album, was a graffitti track stating “yes, Kurt woz ‘ere” at the same time as it makes him completely invisible, a cipher, a name, nothing more. They’d erased him from the track even as they satisfied their bosses that they’d included him. Great! Doesn’t mean I necessarily am going to listen to the track often even if it potentially says much about the circumstances of the album. Buzz Osbourne’s apparent resentment/irritation with Cobain’s posthumous status perhaps has roots in this kind of moment where Melvins’ own achievements are pushed to one side in favour of their friend’s commercial cachet. Understandably annoying.
So what of Sky Pup where Cobain was coaxed into handling a guitar? Hmm. Perhaps this feels disrespectful but in the songs four minute duration the usual heavyweight chug of Melvins at full pelt is stripped back to a pretty jazzy bass/drums duet which works neatly, but the guitar is missing in action. Oh, no wait! There it is. There’s a repeating sequence during the early minute or so of the song – I was aware that this was Cobain on a right-handed guitar with Buzz Osbourne manipulating the peddles but then it dissolves to a low-in-the-mix watery sounding diarrhea that eventually becomes nothing more than drain noises for the rest of the song matched against some vocal chokes and coughs and ad-libbed squarks. I was hoping to say more about it but there really isn’t anything there to comment on. Apparently Cobain handed the guitar back as rapidly as possible – there’s no indication that this was a live jam, it sounds like a recording of the guitar was mixed in later with the rest of the band playing over the top. I wouldn’t even be surprised if that introductory semi-riff was looped after the fact or if the same minute or two was reused throughout most of the song. There’s some kind of a solo from about 1.50 through around 2.30 then a skeletal 25 seconds in which the finger positions move back-and-forth a couple of times without achieving anything much. There’s a hint of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol’s spindly moments at that point but it makes the latter Nirvana jam look like gold-dust by comparison (I really like Gallons I admit.)
The most crucial reason that the two Cobain contributions stand out is simply that everything else on the album actually sounds like a Melvins’ song. This is a cohesive and coherent album if one erases Sky Pup and deletes the ten minute marathon finale. That final track simply feels like a band low on inspiration needing to get the song up to some kinda contractually mandated run-time though, in tone, it at least feels consistent with the album as a whole. Sky Pup is a mid-album interlude adding neither a pause for breath nor an intriguing switch to leftfield – it doesn’t sound like it belongs on the same album as the other tracks. It’s a remarkable commentary really – to make the interloper stand out so prominently on the album that it’s clearly the thing that simply didn’t fit into what the Melvins were doing with the Houdini album prior to the intervention of major labels and the potential cash bonanza.
Anyways, a good album…If one deletes Sky Pup and Spread Eagle Beagle.
9 thoughts on “Kurt Cobain’s Contributions to Melvins’ Houdini Album”
i always thought that was Kurdtdt doing the backup vocals in “set me straight”
Oooo…Intriguing…Now I want to go look too.
I’ve actually interviewed Jonathan Burnside about the recording session in the “I Found My Friends” book….
Interesting. Thanks for the analysis.
I heard Buzz saying on interviews that Kurt didn’t actually do anything and he got him out of the studio because of the drugs.
sky pup is definitely Kurt Cobain playing
You are pretty close to the money. In the recent book by Nick Soulsby “I Found My Friends”, I speak to most of this. Answer SkyPup questions and most other points brought up here..
Do you know the exact dates the melvins where in the studio with Cobain during the making of this album?
Alas not, it’s really unclear. Appears to be multiple spells across late ’92-mid ’93.