Archive for the ‘Incesticide’ Category

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My favourite record shop really came through this week when I found a copy of an item that’s been of interest to me for quite a few years now; the Mesomorph Enduros compilation from 1992. Why of such interest? Well, take a look at this shot of the back cover of my copy – spot it?

Back Cover

Yep, that’s right, industrial star JG Thirwell – A.K.A. Foetus – uses the made-up word Incesticide for a song on this release. It certainly intrigued me a couple years back when I was preparing the Dark Slivers book – I actually seem to recall someone who read the first edition of the book (Brett perchance? Edit: Brett Renaud! For it was indeed he!) raised the question with me sending me scurrying off to investigate before adding a new footnote to the second edition. I actually spoke with JG Thirwell over email and he confirmed that he had made-up the word independently of Cobain and applied it to the song on this record. His view was that it was perfectly imaginable that he and Cobain had, independently, arrived at this invented word – it’s certainly one possibility and there’s definitely no clear statement from Cobain claiming to have appropriated the title from another source.

To eliminate the alternative, it’s at least certain that the Foetus use of the word came prior to Kurt’s usage. With Incesticide not released until mid-December 1992, with the names “Filler” or “Throwaways” being released to the press as late as mid-November, with JG Thirwell positive that the compilation was out in mid-1992 it would be highly unlikely (even impossible given the compilation is out in 1992 which would have meant less than a month of the year in which Foetus could switch the title and the record could still be printed and issued) that Cobain’s was the first use of Incesticide as a title. Here’s the song by the way with its prominent use of “Incesticide” as a chorus line:

The actual physical record gave another lead also as shown in the picture below:

Inlay

The inlay included the intriguing tease that the song had been previously included in a give-away release from Reflex magazine – that opened up the possibility (for me at least a brand new avenue I was unaware of until Sunday) that Cobain had an even earlier opportunity to observe the song title prior to mid-1992. Unfortunately, alas, it’s a dead chain; it turns out that the song did indeed appear on a September 1990 compilation…

…But only under a different name – Somnambulumdrum (http://foetus.org/content/discography/releases/foetus-inc-somnambulumdrum) – therefore there is only the one opportunity for Cobain to observe the title “Incesticide” unless there’s yet another completely unknown source from which both artists were drawing. As an aside, the songs on the compilation, where it’s possible to date them, were all from 1991 releases such as Tad’s Jack Pepsi single and earlier releases from Melvins, Jesus Lizard, etc. – again seeming to date this record earlier in 1992 than Nirvana’s release.

Is there a possibility that Kurt Cobain saw the title on this compilation or heard the song then adopted the song title for his leftovers’ compilation? Well, beyond the dating, beyond the fact that the Incesticide title seems to suddenly jump up out of nowhere and onto the front cover of a Nirvana album in very very late 1992, there’s the various links between the artists on the compilation and Cobain. Nirvana had shared the Dallas, TX gig with Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 in late 1991, Tad were friends (of course), Cobain hadn’t physically met up with Jesus Lizard since a Denver show in 1991 but some contact was ongoing in 1992 in preparation for the planned split-single…Less significantly Nirvana had shared the stage with Barkmarket back in 1990 and with Cop Shoot Cop even further back in 1989 – still quite a range of casual or less casual connections between Nirvana and the bands present on this compilation but, of course, no solid proof that anyone gave a copy to Kurt Cobain sometime in mid-to-late 1992 much though I like the idea of an artist going through a fixation on baby-related medical imagery taking a song title by a performer called “Foetus.” Another excellent little tease from a guy who does seem to like jokes and word games and playing in this way.

Apparently a new source has surfaced featuring a chunk of the misbegotten performance Nirvana turned in on January 16, 1993 in Brazil…Anyways, it reminded me that I’d been thinking about the Argentina concert and why it was such a mess.

Obviously Nirvana made a deliberate choice and were very overt about saying so around that time – audience sexism toward Calamity Jane being the suggestion. One thing that struck me though, in my ever over-thinking way, is that if the set-list played that night wasn’t an on-the-spot and deliberate act of aggression toward the audience, then it was still a poorly chosen cluster of songs that were almost bound to create an underwhelmed reaction.

Why do I say so? Well, Nirvana seem to have gone to Argentina with little idea about how limited the penetration of underground and indie music into that continent had been. They had complained in 1989-1990 that barely anyone in U.S. could find their Sub Pop releases – well imagine how much worse that situation was in South America; MTV had only just started broadcasting locally, the only songs the audience knew were those from Nevermind because there was no local Sub Pop distribution.

Much comment has always been made of Nirvana’s improvised opening song – a real declaration of intent toward the audience that night. Problem is, only nine other songs were drawn from Nevermind – the rest of the set was utterly unknown to the crowd. Imagine that experience, going to a show at which almost everything played is a mystery so no one can tell the difference between errors on stage, deliberate laxity (i.e., his mumblings of Beeswax) or the way songs were meant to be. The other ten songs played that night consisted of four songs from Bleach (it’s unclear if even the Geffen reissue in April 1992 had made much inroad in this market by October), four songs that would only see wide release on Incesticide which wasn’t out yet, Spank Thru from the Sub Pop 200 compilation and a later single neither of which would have been seen, plus All Apologies, which obviously wouldn’t emerge on record until In Utero a year later. While to a U.S. audience this would have been a perfectly fine line up, it was an odd choice for their first South American gig because for over half the night the audience wouldn’t have known what they were hearing. I don’t know about you, I like hearing something new, something off-the-cuff, something unreleased…But most of a night being dedicated to it?

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.

The straight history of the Hormoaning EP by Nirvana was that it was the second time Nirvana released an EP to support an international tour. The Blew EP of 1989 had been intended to support the band’s European tour but had been delayed — the Hormoaning EP landed right on time in February as Nirvana were criss-crossing Australia for 11 shows, prior to the one in New Zealand, the four in Japan and the pair in Hawaii.

In the case of Blew, Nirvana had been forced, because of a lack of serviceable leftovers, to retreat to the studio to prepare a few new songs; its notable that already, in mid-1989, Nirvana didn’t want to return to the songs of January 1988 nor to Big Long Now, the only leftover original from the Bleach sessions (barring the revised Hairspray Queen). By 1992 the band’s archive was more capacious, but it was still devoid of originals that were finished ready to be released, and so the result was a reliance on previously released B-sides and radio session recordings.

Unlike the later emptiness of mid-1993 when Nirvana really did have next to nothing left, it’s very clear how many relatively new songs Nirvana had in the back pocket in early 1992; Old Age, potentially Tourette’s, All Apologies, Dumb, Rape Me, Sappy, Verse Chorus Verse, Token Eastern Song — that’s without looking toward Opinion and others. What Nirvana lacked throughout winter 1991-spring 1992 was time. The success of Nevermind had taken everyone off-guard and so the band were out touring right through until just after New Year, then doing several days of TV appearances in New York until heading home on the 12th before a first show in Australia just 12 days later.

Similarly, Hormoaning wasn’t a priority — it was a ‘nice to have’ opportunity for added sales rather than a ‘need to have’ release. The official sum quoted on Wikipedia is an eventual complete run of 15,000 copies in Australia and an unknown number in Japan; it doesn’t state how many of these were pressed and ready to go by February 5, 1992 — far less undoubtedly. With an existing album flying off the shelves, unlike Bleach’s initially delayed and limited presence in Europe, there wasn’t the same impetus behind the release to be worth driving Nirvana back into the studio. The result is the cobbling together of the Smells Like Teen Spirit single B-Sides with the four BBC session tracks from October 1990 — a quick fix.

Today — given the ready availability of the SLTS single, given D7’s presence on With the Lights Out, given the Incesticide album — the Hormoaning EP is a bit of a nothing, I have it on my shelf but there’s no real reason ever to pick it off and load it up. What I’m interested in, however, is getting back to the mentality of the time; Incesticide wasn’t yet on the radar, it hadn’t been conceptualised let alone had a track-listing prepared — this release was the first time Cobain, Nirvana, and/or someone at Geffen had looked to this radio session of covers as a source, the December 1992 release simply reconfirmed a thought that someone came up with sometime in the last days of 1991. If you’ve read Dark Slivers you’ll know I point to various evidence that significant thought and effort went into the track listing of Incesticide — the transplanting of this previous effort into that compilation, rather than being an after-thought, is made to look ever more important to Kurt Cobain; sharing his good fortune with his favourite bands seemed so important to Cobain that he did it twice in one year.

Similarly, the Hormoaning EP, on import, was the only official way to get hold of those BBC songs for ten months, the best part of a year — for that brief spell it was a genuine rarity for Nirvana fanatics and their chief chance of hearing more ‘original’ Nirvana material barring the one fresh original on the Lithium single, the smattering of live tracks on the singles, the release of D7 on a special edition version of the Lithium single. For ten months the EP was genuinely something rare and fresh…Then it reached obsolescence, it’s vital life curtailed.

As you’ll have noted at some point, particularly if you’ve been checking the blog for a while, the initial reason I kicked it off was I wanted to make use of some leftovers from a book I wrote on the subject of the Nirvana album Incesticide. Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide took me most of last year, most evenings, notes written around daytime activities, scraps of paper from the gym, thoughts in the swimming pool, even a holiday at my parents spent doing extra hours long into the night. In summary though, why did I bother? Why is a half-forgotten compilation from twenty years ago worth another look?

Well, the book is my argument for it, but here’s the overall summary in ten quick n’ easy points:

(1) While rarities collections are increasingly common, in 1992 it was unusual for a band to showcase its abandoned material except posthumously and note the sheer focus on quality; no live cuts, no sketches or half-hearted demos of songs that weren’t finished pieces of work, the time taken to swap out versions that were disliked

(2) Except for the most fanatical Nirvana fans, the vast majority of the songs were unreleased or appeared in a different version from that already visible. It was an extremely generous release both to fans, given the depth of material present, and to friends given the exposure given to The Vaselines

(3) The release was Nirvana’s first major post-fame statement and was Cobain’s first real reaction to his discomfort; he gave it an un-family friendly title and stuck a well-publicised message inside attacking his enemies (the earlier draft having been refused for simply being a screed of personal abuse against certain individuals)

(4) It’s the best opportunity to glimpse Nirvana pre-Bleach/pre-Sub Pop/pre-Grunge. Side B is an EP length 1987 Nirvana showcasing what they sounded like prior to any substantial live experience, without any guidance from a label, simply playing the kind of music they enjoyed at that point; they wanted to channel Melvins, Scratch Acid and Butthole Surfers

(5) The release was the first time Cobain had received so much personal control over an album and he personalised it massively; he supplied the cover art (rather than making suggestions that an art director carried out), he made his first big written address to his fans and selected or discarded possible songs for it depending on his feelings about the songs, their state of completion or whether they were potentially for the next Nirvana release; songs only went onto Incesticide if they were ‘dead’

(6) I would argue, there are games and intentional moves going on with the structure of the entire album; a number of jokes implanted — for example, note how Nevermind Side A finishes with Polly, Incesticide Side A finishes with Polly and In Utero Side A finishes with Dumb which Cobain stated on MTV Unplugged was cribbed from Polly. This also emphasises the unity of Nirvana’s catalogue

(7) A further vendetta played out on Incesticide, outside of the liner notes, was the desire in 1992 to take control of Nirvana’s finances. The Incesticide release featured Downer that Sub Pop had tried to use in 1992 as an incentive for sales of Bleach and Dive, which Sub Pop had used for the same purpose in late 1991. By including those two songs so soon after Sub Pop’s use the opportunity for Sub Pop to profit from Nirvana’s success was reduced

(8) The release was a very specific part of Nirvana’s flight back to the underground post-Nevermind. It sits solidly within a lineage of uglier, less pop releases thus pointing the way to the future of Nirvana and forming part of the reaction against Nevermind’s polished perfection; it was a declaration of the past and of future intent

(9) It’s a vital testament to the way Nirvana abandoned two alternative paths; firstly the new wave orientation of 1987 and then the power-pop/K Records vibe of 1989-1990. Incesticide makes clear that Bleach’s grunge direction wasn’t inevitable, nor was Nevermind’s mainstream/Pixies-influenced rock take either. Incesticide shows what masters Nirvana were of styles prevalent in the alternative rock and indie underground and how they could make all those sounds their own while always moving on — it’s a great statement of Nirvana’s restlessness and how many styles they attempted

(10) It shows how literary Kurt Cobain was; his earliest songs are in fact among his most lyrically complicated and extensive. At one stage it used to be felt that Spank Thru couldn’t possibly have been on Fecal Matter because there’s no way Cobain could be that sophisticated that early; Incesticide shows him to have been a wordy, varied lyricist — one who learnt later to reduce and simplify and to write in pop modes. In terms of non-repeating lines, these were his longest songs

Did I say ten reasons? I could go on. For example, I’d argue that Incesticide is Nirvana’s tribute to Eighties underground music and as such is the best selling examples of a decade of music — the first top-selling true punk album in America. I’d say that With the Lights Out showed that Incesticide really was the cream of Nirvana’s outtakes — that Cobain et al. had cherry-picked the finest in 1992. I’d also point out that given how many songs Cobain wrote in total this is a substantial collection in simple numerical terms. It’s also a demonstration of the more experimental vibes of Nirvana at the same time as showing the contrast between the kinds of material Cobain brought to Nirvana versus the deeper experiments he played with in the late Eighties such as backwards recording, sound collage, voice effects and so forth.

In other words, I wrote about Incesticide because it’s a compilation with a hell of a lot going on. You should check it again and, if I may be so bold, I think my book might help – as it says at the top, order from me directly via NirvanaDarkSlivers@gmail.com or nicksoulsby@hotmail.com

How could I possibly let a week go by without taking time to play with a spreadsheet at some point or other? This would be a surprising, nay, shocking occurrence. Today’s question is rather a simple one; based on the data available at http://www.nirvanaguide.com which album did Nirvana play most on stage?

I’ve talked before about album dominance in terms of how long it took for the number of songs played from Bleach to decline (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/05/08/how-long-did-albums-dominate-on-stage/) and about the total dominance of side A of each of Nirvana’s albums on stage (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/03/28/live-set-lists-and-side-a-dominance-nevermind/). This time it’s a more detailed, yet also simpler comparison of the thirteen songs on the 1992 CD of Bleach, versus the thirteen songs on the 1991 CD issue of Nevermind, versus the thirteen songs on the 1993 (European) CD of In Utero — plus sidebars on Incesticide and non-album Nirvana originals while we’re on the topic:

Songs Played Live_By Album

I wish, to be honest, I’d had this data put-together when I wrote the Dark Slivers book last year regarding the Incesticide album — it’s a notable point that the songs making up the Incesticide album were a far more significant component of the live history of Nirvana than those on In Utero which, entirely due to its late positioning in the history of the band, ends up being a relative rarity. The overall trend, quite visibly, is one based on longevity; Bleach, the earliest album is played more than Nevermind, which is played more than the pieces that came together on Incesticide, which is played more than the final studio effort In Utero.

On the other hand, the lengthening set-lists of Nirvana’s later period does have an influence in that, despite being released a full two and a half years after Bleach, Nevermind’s songs make only forty fewer appearances than those of its predecessor. In Utero would have caught up, at least to Incesticide, relatively quickly given the 20+ set-lists of 1994 in which Incesticide was racking up only single appearances, Bleach only three at most per show.

I think of this less as data and more as a reason to cherish certain songs’ rare appearances.
And what of the non-album tracks…? It’s always been very clear that Nirvana’s live selections were substantially guided by their degree of satisfaction with the songs. The result is that those songs that never made a Nirvana album don’t even make significant appearances live:

Non-Album

In total, buoyed substantially by Spank Thru’s 31 appearances, the overall total is still a paltry 72; lose that one song and we’re down to 41 known appearances in seven years by the fifteen other Nirvana non-album original compositions. That’s how clear Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were about how strong or weak their material was — and also how professional they were — nothing that needed major work stayed outside of a studio rendering for long nor survived long if not up to scratch. Given the existing ratio of appearances — album tracks appeared twelve times for every one appearance by a non-album track (72 versus 927)— there’s little reason to expect many unseen performances of these songs. Cherish them.

Just as amusing, showing the relativism inherent in any game with data on the move, if Nirvana had kept touring, Bleach would have been superseded by Nevermind as the most played Nirvana album within just eight more performances given the fact that throughout 1994 Nirvana were playing nine songs from Nevermind per night in comparison to Bleach’s three:

Nevermind_Catches Up

As mentioned last week, it was Sappy that received the most notice in studio with multiple takes across four separate sessions placing it in a class of its own when it comes to Nirvana songs. Meanwhile, in another category of records, I was curious which songs were the staple diet of the Nirvana set-list between 1987-1994. The result was that, thanks to my colleague Shrikant Kabule, we created the full table of how many known performances were made across the years. This selection is the list of those songs known to have been played more than one hundred times.

Examining set lists had already identified Blew, About a Girl and School as the three tracks that survived from Bleach right through until Nirvana’s 1994 shows. School is the most impressive performer after all only 241 of Nirvana’s 369 known gigs possess full and complete set-lists; essentially, from the time it was written School featured including on quite a few partial set-lists. Tales of how nervous Kurt Cobain was of playing About a Girl don’t stop it being a similarly highly featured and beloved song for the band.

In past months I ranted about the way Nirvana gave near complete primacy to Side A rather than Side B of their albums when playing them live. The table below of most played songs shows that pattern holds in relation to Bleach where, of the six songs from that album that are played more than one hundred times, all are from Side A. The picture with Nevermind is slightly more mixed but not unsurprisingly. Firstly, the popularity of Drain You in concert is absolutely clear, in fact it’s only just behind Smells Like Teen Spirit, secondly, Territorial Pissings surprised me a little more but still, there it is as the seventeenth most played song. Just as noticeable though, the whole of Side A of Nevermind features on the list — Polly, Breed, SLTS, Lithium, CAYA, In Bloom.

Songs Played More than 100 Times

To some extent it’s still true that age makes a difference — the Bleach era songs, written prior to the big gap in set-lists in early 1989, are the only ones with sufficient opportunity to feature 200+ times — Polly was written as far back as 1987 and played from May 1989, Breed came along later in 1989. Yet, the tangle of creativity, Kurt Cobain’s peak writing years in 1990-1991, coincided with an explosion of touring allowing the appearances of his other songs to evade mere chronology; preferences begin to play a role. This, for example, explains why SLTS and Drain You, relatively late productions, should appear more than Lithium or In Bloom which, though featuring on the same album, made their first appearances a full year earlier — April 1990 as opposed to April 1991.

The gradual increase in Nirvana’s average set-list length also influences the results; head-liner status meant that even while many older songs were squeezed out to accomodate the In Utero era songs, a lot of songs survived because the set-lists in 1993-1994 were more than half a dozen songs longer than in 1990. The shorter set-lists and lower expectations in the early era made it more likely for songs to be flipped in and out regularly. Despite the lower number of shows after 1991, the set-lists had a greater regularity (particularly on the In Utero tour) so a core set of songs were able to rack up large numbers of appearances.

The table also emphasises how firmly focused on their albums Nirvana were; Spank Thru and Been a Son are the only non-album tracks to enter the list of songs played more than one hundred times. The popularity of the relatively slight Been a Son remains a mild mystery to me; it’s a song with the most solid presence on Nirvana posthumous releases on top of its multiple releases during Nirvana’s lifespan.