Sheesh, did someone blow the doors clean off the Universal/Nirvana vault?
For those who want a new ‘holy grail’ to hope for, remember that Fecal Matter rehearsed with Greg Hokanson on drums before this tape of Cobain and Dale Crover was made, then there was a project with Mike Dillard and Buzz Osborne. There’s no known recording of any of this. Plus, there’s Cobain’s 1982 solo recordings to keep wishing for too. Ah, does it ever end? Thank God Cobain was a good self-archivist and kept all this material! It’s remarkable in a way, that someone with such insecure living arrangements, self-esteem and life prospects held onto all of this no matter what. It gives me the impression that music really was an anchor, a safe harbor, something to cling to – he didn’t dispose of tapes or chuck away the fruits of his creativity, he treasured them.
So, again, this’ll be hard to keep the door on, even when its pulled down from YouTube you’ll find it. A full hour tape. Makes me wonder, if they filled this cassette, did they start in on another tape? Is there more? Nah, unlikely, the final section is a repeated instrumental then stray leftovers. Thanks to DB for sorting me with this, hugely appreciated.
Most of the key named songs you’ll have heard. Around that though…
‘Unknown #1’ is a real ripper, one of the fastest most hardcore Cobain songs I think. Hammered through. Then that surviving line about “my asylum”, the chorus vocal melody survives to become part of “If You Must” in the Nirvana era. Nice effects in the outro.
‘Unknown #2’ has a nice drive, entirely new to me, excellent! Love how much Cobain experiments with his voice on this early tape, he goes in so many directions. Here he sounds alternately sick and snotty – real teen high pitch on that “I’m a punk rocker!” line. The words ‘anti-solo’ don’t cover what he does with his guitar here but it’s a really effective finish to a song, instead of it flailing back into another verse or fading out or any trad. trick the guitar goes haywire then the bass follows and the song falls apart. Great!
‘Unknown #3′ another joke voice song. There’s a doubled vocal at one point which sounded more like Dale added on. Those little touches are kinda impressive – there’s real thought going on about how to put together sounds for emphasis and impact, they’re not just splattering songs onto cassette rough n’ ready. “No you’re not mine” becomes the outro refrain. Cobain loves coughing sounds, choking, it’s like my nephew blowing raspberries through his entire christening the other day – a certain glee in making the throat do odd things.
‘Unknown #4’ yeah, again, Cobain sounds like he’s going to puke in this first verse. I remember hearing how Chris Cornell’s early work with Soundgarden was always like listening to an air raid siren because he’d not yet learned to moderate and carefully deploy his wail. That’s true of Cobain here, he’s aiming for those high notes, screams and screeches over and again. This track repeats elements of “Love my Family” and other lines or motifs I know from existing sources of Fecal Matter. Notable how ‘metal’ the bass work on these songs is, back before grunge brought hard rock back into repute, just after ‘da yoof’ were getting sick of straight punk. This is a very long song, potentially more of an improvisation which would explain why it seems to loop in elements of other tracks – it’s roughly ten minutes long with a long slow ‘doomy’ section.
‘Unknown #5’ kicks off with something kinda new wavey – guitar even sounds like an early keyboard, then vocals like an early rendition of “Beans” (it’s not but Cobain’s thing for helium voices apparently kept him happy for quite a few years.) Then the dynamic kicks in, like a hugely slowed down “Big Cheese” riff. The time changes are pretty great, the song rips up to full hardcore stomp after a minute or so. “I’m not a Russian, not a spy…Somebody said, should have been dead…Accusation…”
I’ll never get tired of “Spank Thru”, it’s a great early Nirvana song and, viewing the material they had available to them in early 1988 I can understand why they decided to get it out there on Sub Pop 200. I used to think it was a showcase for the ‘Nevermind’ era dynamic of songs, loud-soft etc. I was wrong. The guitar intro is wicked, always was.
‘Blather’s Log’ is a great story-telling song in the Cobain fashion, more stray images than a full narrative. There’s a court scene being laid out here, various aspects of the tale weaving in and out and all done in this forced croak. I’ve heard this before but still an impressive early work. Cobain really hasn’t found his voice yet, sure, from the start of the Nirvana era he has a lot of control over his voice, he can do a lot with it, but it’s always recognisably Cobain. On these early songs he’s working it in all kinds of directions, a lot of which don’t have any later markers in his calendar. The amount of work the guy put into finding his place in music, his desired identity, ‘himself’, it’s underappreciated. He’s not just been writing songs he’s been speaking in tongues – that must be hard, adopting a voice appropriate to a song or a mood or a vibe.
‘Class of 86’ heads down that same road, he impersonates made-up classmates, comes close to spoken word, snarls the chorus, screams “clone!” It’s a welter of different voices, far more than a two and a half minute pop song would usually incorporate. Some stray noise on the outro I hadn’t noticed including a background sound that runs straight into the start of ‘Unknown #6’, did they just take a breather than carry straight on into the next song?
‘Downer’, another great survivor from Easter 1986 through to January 1988. I’m not sure I ever got Cobain’s Black Flag comparison for this one. But I love the whistling solo. Cobain moved so fast through musical styles in the mid-to-late Eighties. There’s these hardcore/metal/punk hybrid tunes, then the new wavey oddness he’s reaching by the Jan ’88 sessions, then the grunge vibe mid-to-late ’88 which comes out on “Bleach” (which couldn’t sound more like a Sub Pop album if it tried), then the pop-punk vibe that barely lasts longer than the time it takes to hammer out Been a Son – Stain – Even in His Youth – Token Easter Song, the acoustic work in the background, then the big switches in 1990-1991. Cobain had a real gift for incorporating other influences into his work, for learning quick, for moving between styles. Some bands might take years of work just to create another album sounding just like what they’ve done before. This guy has left us with recordings from ’86, ’88, late ’88-early ’89, late ’89, early ’90, early-mid ’91 each with a different air.
‘Instramental’ is marked as a version of ‘Unknown #3’, again, there’s quite a few differences. It’s like comparing “Sifting” from “Bleach” to the instrumental version from the summer of 1988 – general vibes, riffs, reworked in substantially different ways. It doesn’t seem too defined, just playing around with ideas until they fall apart.
After that the tape features “Turnaround” by Devo – ye gods! Cobain’s love of early influences, his fidelity when it comes to his favourites. The idea that we get a tape here of that song then four years later he pulls that track out for BBC Radio and two years beyond that we get it on “Incesticide.” The guy knew what he liked…
You get near three minutes of “Turnaround” before the tape returns to Cobain working over riffs. This is actually a lot better than you’d imagine, hearing the riffs in isolation gives an opportunity to appreciate some of his guitar work without the rather muddy bass and cardboard drums clogging the sound (heck, without Cobain’s still thin voice over the top.) You’ll recognise most of these riffs from elsewhere on the tape. I swear that’s the “Big Cheese” riff coming in again!
I can see why, if this is the tape that Krist heard back in ’86, why it would make him want to team up with Cobain. There are so many ideas going on. That’s my biggest impression, often a single song goes in so many directions, sure, there may be a core riff, or a vestigial verse/chorus structure but usually there are off-kilter bridges, breaks, outros, intros, deviations going on. He’s not starting with something utterly basic, he appears to be past that already. I recall talk of how people found it surprising that Cobain could write something as sophisticated as “Spank Thru” so early in his career but it makes so much more sense in the context of these other early efforts where there’s a visible chomping at the bit, a desire to try different things. So much variety crammed into a single tape, it’s intriguing in a way that the progress from here to Nirvana was about paring back, simplifying, reducing the pebbledashing of ideas onto tape.
Gods it’ll be nice to hear a properly polished up (as best as possible) release some day. I’m sure Universal will get to it sometime. Why’s it coming out now? Intriguing…Is this someone linked to ‘Montage of Heck’ or to the release apparently coming later this year. If so, wow, could be we hear that official version sooner rather than later.