Archive for the ‘Other Bands and Nirvana’ Category

http://www.radionz.co.nz/collections/under-the-influence/nirvana

February 9, 1992 – Auckland. Gotta love the extended riff intro to School (I can’t tell if it’s a loop by the radio station or actually what Cobain played on stage) – it reminds me of an old bootleg of Nirvana remixes I had. This has been floating around a while – it came out back in April and consists of interviews by Radio New Zealand National about this southern-most of Nirvana gigs.

Lots of neat details, few revelations – the stepping up of the venue as each one sold out, Cobain’s ropey condition by the time he arrived, the fact the band spent only 36 hours or so in the country because they were so determined to get him out and get him a break. Even the witnesses feel the band ‘only played 12 songs’…Which isn’t true but it seems they did race through it and get off. There’s no indication greatness was on stage.

There’s also an old poster on the website showing the original venue – a nice historical touch.

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I remember a friend handing me Sweet 75, Krist Novoselic’s post-Nirvana project back sometime late in my time at school. I also remember not thinking much of it –with age I begin to wonder whether I may have overlooked some essential quality within the album…So, given Novoselic’s post-Nirvana releases are so cheap on eBay I did some digging and decided it was time to revisit Sweet 75, the No WTO Combo and Eyes Adrift. What do Novoselic’s post-1994 releases demonstrate about Kurt Cobain’s chief lieutenant and are they worth time and energy in and of themselves?

Starting with Sweet 75, OK, it vanished without a trace at the time despite ongoing work right through into 2000 – curious to think of it as a five year project when Nirvana itself barely lasted seven. Of course it doesn’t seem to have been a band with great ambition behind it – a significant contrast to Nirvana’s 60-90 gigs a year heyday and regular recording and release schedule. That’s often the problem with something so casual – as a one-off, as a document of a specific moment in time, they can often be effective. But the idea that this album is a testament to efforts between 1995 and 1997 – the same length of time it took for Nirvana to go from Mrs Butterworth to the January 1988 sessions, through Love Buzz and all the way to Bleach…Of course, Wikipedia states that he met Yva Las Vegas at one of his birthdays – which would mean either the association began around May 1994 (which seems a bit swift and sudden perhaps?) or didn’t begin until May 1995…Oh well. What of the album?

This is going to come as a controversial statement, but the Sweet 75 album stands as a real testament regarding Krist’s hidden talent as a guitarist. Trying to focus down simply on his guitar-playing, it’s remarkable how adaptable he is. On Cantos de Pilon he contributes a beautifully finger-picked Spanish guitar backing. On Ode to Dolly, Dogs and Japan Trees you’ll hear a jazzy guitar vibe similar to Cobain’s Black & White Blues home demo. Lay Me Down, Six Years and Nothing all plumb the Americana vein. La Vida meanwhile is bloody crooner-jazz music more befitting Michael Buble…I admire that last piece of open-mindedness while still not wanting it on my stereo. The rest of the album has a firmer alt-rock feel but always with other touches emerging like Bite My Hand’s South American breakdown. He’s certainly a more traditional guitar player than Cobain – the moments of overdriven fuzz on the record are used sparingly while little here feels wildly out of control – he has a clear grip of technique and such a wide awareness of styles and techniques which he deploys with real precision. The song Six Years moves through several different feels and vibes in a relatively brisk four minutes.

The only slight issue one could point to is that across the album there’s a relatively limited tempo to all the songs. It’s like comparing top form Lil Wayne mixtapes to the walking pace approach on The Carter IV where he could barely break out of ‘talking speed’ for more than a song or two. The same affliction is present on Sweet 75 – it’s an album of half a dozen dominant styles, divided again by the diversions taken within each individual song, but all taken at the pace one might reserve for practising an instrument. Accuracy rules over heart n’ soul. Praising the openness to neat instrumental touches – like the really well placed mellotron interventions on Fetch, or the accordion on Oral Health – is genuine, the compositional talent on display is very clear but, again, it feels constructed in it’s precision while simultaneously lacking a unifying feel.

On Game’s The RED Album there’s a horrendous mid-album R n’ B segment which seems cynically planned to permit sales to the dominant music market and to open it up to the female demographic. It totally ruins the momentum of the overall album, destroys the flow – not to mention that the songs are appalling crap. There’s absolutely no sense of anything so strategically planned out (and strategically flawed) on the Sweet 75 album – it feels far more spontaneous, it is what it is…The problem being that there’s not much sense of a plan at all. Nevermind clearly has a plan – Cobain quite clearly is mapping out the flow of the LP and does so for quite a long time prior to the album’s finalisation. That album is also a very focused object – there’s no huge deviation into completely disparate territory and yet, simultaneously, it certainly doesn’t belabour a single sound nor outstay it’s welcome. The Sweet 75 album is of comparable length but flies off in so many directions there’s no flow or development to it – there’s no movement, no reason why a song should be in one place or another and as a listening experience it’s really audible. While the Game’s effort wants to be a gangsta rap revival AND a chart-bothering R n’ B EP all on the same overlong album, the Sweet 75 album doesn’t seem to have any determined identity, it simply flits between guises to the detriment of some good touches, good moments and details. It’s wrong to read too much into a single release but if it said anything about Novoselic it would be that he has an incredible amount of under-exposed and under-rated musical talent that went to waste in the dictatorship that was Nirvana – however, it suggests he functions better with a leader, with someone saying what will fly and what must die.

What more can I say? At its core Sweet 75 has a suite of really excellent alt. rock songs with Take Another Step and Red Dress being tracks I’ll happily listen to again – there’s something that reminds me of Babes in Toyland about the vocal delivery which is eminently listenable. Around those songs, however, are so many diversions it’s impossible to love it all. I’ve spoken to two journalists who say that after Cobain’s death they had to move away from working on rock music because Kurt, for them, had exposed all the gross consequences and endings of the clichés of rock n’ roll. I would understand Novoselic wanting to play something a world away from Nirvana – which he does here – but at some point this album needed someone to decide what it was, it doesn’t have that. Foo Fighters got it right; a punk rock/pop rock band – set the controls, go. It doesn’t mean I always loved them but it was clear what was being delivered. Sweet 75 is three EPs in 14 tracks – I still don’t know who they are.

Eyes Adrift is a firm correction of almost all those question marks. It further expands my appreciation of Novoselic as a musician too – Krist sings! And he does a good job of it too! His voice is surprisingly similar to Curt Kirkwood’s, maybe his voice is just something he had to grow into because it’s a world away from his 1987 take on Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. I’m immediately fond of his gentle approach on Inquiring Minds – it’s a great lil’ song! And, this time around, Curt clearly provides the leadership and the focus lacking from Sweet 75 – the album has a defined identity, a solid core, a unity that lends coherence. But wait…Agh. OK, I like the Meat Puppets, I like Meat Puppets II, I like Up on the Sun…But the problem is there’s only so much southern hospitality rock I can take. The focused identity of the Eyes Adrift album is that particularly gentle country rock vibe Meat Puppets ended up with – it’s ultimately a Meat Puppets album with one Krist replacing one Cris, when what would be a neater thing would be a Nirvana-ish album with one Curt replacing the other Kurt. Instead it just feels a bit…Gentle, a bulbous summer warmth that never boils into sweaty motion or dries to frazzled crispness. It also shows Krist, on the Dottie Dawn & Julie Jewel track, again proving quite keen on the Leadbelly guitar influence a few decades too late. But maybe it’s just me. Middle-of-the-Road indie is as irksome as MOR rock always was.

Which brings me to the No WTO Combo – phew, Gods, it’s nice to hear some raw guitar and an impassioned vocalist at last! On Full Metal Jackoff Jello Biafra’s delivery recalls Johnny Rotten’s style on Pretty Vacant – a good sound to emulate. Again, there’s a clear leader here – the first fifteen minutes are Jello hyping the cowd, there’s a Dead Kennedys’ song, there’s a song from his 1989 collaboration with D.O.A., there’s two new songs he’s written. But what the hell, it means there’s a sound being aimed for and it works well. Plus it’s a focused recording – a single night, a specific point in time, a quality line-up including Kim Thayil who kills on guitar. When defending Sweet 75 or Eyes Adrift I can understand people saying that they’re unpretentious records, that they’re the sound of musicians enjoying themselves…Except I think the No WTO live show sounds a lot less pretentious, a lot more like musicians enjoying themselves – the albums are not people just cutting an album for the hell of it, they’ve made an album because they want to release some music and have formulated it as such. No WTO Combo is about highlighting a cause, getting attention, putting the word out there…But it kicks ass in a way the other two don’t. There’s a real feeling of being sat bobbing head up-and-down on the corner of a stage in a club so full everyone has an elbow in there gut one way or another – the production is somehow so clear and yet it also that slight mist over everything that makes it live – you can hear Jello breathe…Momentum matters, Jello spending a minute or two ranting doesn’t break the intensity at all thanks to his practised delivery, it just lends outrage in between the bursts of straight-forward punk.

I’m definitely aware that what I’m feeling is my preference for rock over indie – my assessment has to be judged on those terms, that I’m arguing from the perspective of someone who ‘feels’ the rough-edged punk guitar but feels no affinity for quite a lot of country-influenced music (there are exceptions! The Broken Family Band, early Meat Puppets, Herd of Turtles!) The drift toward stripped down acoustic music seems to be a simple part of the life progression of the average noisenik or ex-alt. rocker, even Thurston Moore has ended up there (thank God for Chelsea Lights Moving and Twilight) while Michael Gira has really owned it (thank God for the Swans revival but also for Gira being able to make even the most lite song sound menacing.) Being aware of it, that eventually turning down the volume is all anyone seems to be able to do doesn’t make me a vast supporter of it. The directness of the No WTO Combo, the absence of any attempt to create an album makes for a far stronger connection with the artists while Sweet 75 and Eyes Adrift…They don’t speak with me, I don’t feel someone communicating to anyone outside of the circle of players. Ah well.

Again, the inlay booklet presents Krist on articulate form – he wears his intelligence lightly, it’s been impossible for years to ever mistake the guy for a fool. He writes well, speaks well, makes points effectively and with a clear depth of knowledge and awareness. Again, reading the liner notes of the No WTO Combo gave me a further appreciation for Krist Novoselic. Really glad I spent the £6-7 it took to get hold of the three records even if they reminded me of what was lost when the stakes got too high. The result is that zone of comfort, of lack of consequence to music – when it’s just something nice to do rather than something one has to do, the millionaire rock star syndrome or just the aftermath of the horror?

This piece came to me via a gentleman called Shane Tutmarc – great-grandson of a gentleman who is both a significant part of music history AND of Seattle music history simultaneously, Paul Tutmarc (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tutmarc). It’s a quite dramatic reworking of Aneurysm on which he plays all the instruments. I think it’s a brilliant move the way the song commences with what sounds like an old school blues rhythm, the kinda thing Jessica Rabbit might croon over only to open it up rapidly to a far tenser and uncomfortable build made up first of just an omninous bass, then the minor key strings before eventually roaring into the Aneurysm chorus which, despite the lighter tone of the backing, is impossible to detach from the surrounding creepy elements. Stabbing piano keys and the rising strings give that sense that a climax is being reached, it’s the point where the axe might come through the door or the shadow is traced on the shower curtain.

The treated vocals continue this uncanniness. I wondered at first if it was a remix of Cobain’s own vocals but recognise now it isn’t. The uncanny, a core horror concept (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny) is centred on the idea of things that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar which is why the subtle deviation from the original vocals is such an effective touch.

Aneurysm was built on rock and roll cliches (“come on over and do the twist,” “love you so much,” etc.) but the cleverest touch was the way it then warped each one (“…overdo it and have a fit,” “…it makes me sick…”) turning it into a joke, a refusal, a sardonic parody. The song’s other great strength (I think it’s one of Cobain’s finest lyrical efforts) is the way it turns every emotional statement into a physical symptom – whether love meaning he brings up his guts, keeps his heart pumping – and each act into a biological concept – dancing leads to a epileptic episode, even the use of the cliche “shoot the shit” looks deliberate given it ends with the human physical output – shit. For such a short, mantra like and repetitious song, it was clogged with cleverness. As has been pointed out a million times, yes, the ‘she’ of the song and an awful lot of the phrasing could be considered as heroin references. This kinda multi-layered composition, conducted in a song with really only six different lines to it, is a great case for Cobain was an astronomically good writer.

This revision of the song is remarkably true to the original in these respects. Stripping it even further to a smaller cluster of repetitions is effective. Altering the voice remains true to the sense of human physicality derailed. Also, while Cobain’s lyrics walked a careful line between rock n’ roll cliche and impassioned believer statements – this song does it musically. The musical choices shift between night club tunes and modern ecstasy while soundtracking an uncomfortable tale of heroin, physical collapse, love and discomfort. The video is crucial here, this isn’t just a film soundtrack, but the film and the interpretation are so well integrated – the film brings the physical concept to the fore, it brings the ‘horror’ element to the fore, it has a physicality that a cartoon or modern CGI effort couldn’t match – the jerky quality of this work benefits the overall unsettled emotion and bodies.

I think musically it’s managed the impressive feat of taking the song in an apparently fundamentally different direction while remaining surprisingly true to the original warping of potentially traditional themes; visually it’s hammered in the crucial kinetic element of the original; and Shane’s managed – overall – to combine the elements present in a remarkably strong way where each reinforces and is mutually dependent on the others to create the overall effect. Impressive.

Anyways, enough of my prattling. Shane kindly gave me some time to describe a little more of his work and what was done here so I’ll let him speak for himself:

“I come from a very musical family going back to my great-grandfather, Paul Tutmarc, who has been credited with inventing the electric guitar. His son, my grandfather Bud Tutmarc, was a well-known Hawaiian Steel Guitar player, and both my parents played music around the house growing up. My favorite movie in kindergarten was Amadeus, so music was always a big part of my life. I remember singing melodies to my mom around that age to have her notate on sheet music so she could play it back to me. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making some sort of music. After discovering Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, I immediately started a band. There was something about Kurt’s music and attitude that made me feel I could do it too. Looking back, I feel so lucky that I was able to grow up in Seattle during that pivotal time in music.

I’ve explored so many different avenues over the years, and each release becomes the “highlight” of each era. From 2001 – 2005, I released five experimental pop records under the moniker Dolour. After a short sabbatical from music, I dug into American roots, country and blues, with Shane Tutmarc & the Traveling Mercies, releasing two albums back-to-back. I went even further down that path with my first solo album, Shouting At A Silent Sky in 2009. Since moving to Nashville in 2010 I’ve worked on a number of projects, including last year’s trio of covers, which includes Aneurysm. I wanted to choose a song that was slightly off the beaten path. I’ve always loved the tongue-in-cheek humor in the lyrics, “Come on over and do the twist,” and the very-Cobain line, “I love you so much it makes me sick.” I started messing around with the arrangement using only midi sounds. There are no real instruments on the recording. The intro has a very Twin Peaks vibe. I was re-watching the show at the time, and the soundtrack definitely crept into the arrangement. And I went with a sort of Michael Jackson Thriller groove on the verses. I made the connection with the background vocals being “beat it, beat it.” Growing up in Seattle, people rarely covered Nirvana songs, it felt too sacred, or it carried too much baggage. But with this cover, it was a joy to take the song completely out of its original context, and reintroduce it in a fresh way.

I don’t remember how I first saw the short film, I used to work at a record store and was always taking home weird art DVDs, and that’s probably where I first came across it. In any case, I remembered it once I had the song finished, and I tracked it down again, and it was a perfect fit. It reminded me a lot of Kurt’s style of art, like the Incestiside album cover.

I sent the video to my brother, with extensive notes of where to make the cuts, and I’m really happy with what we ended up with. My brother Brandon and I have always collaborated. He’s been involved with my web and design projects since my early days with Dolour. He did the artwork for Dolour’s 3rd album, New Old Friends, and has had a hand in every project I’ve done since then. He’s just so fast and easy to work with. I’m sure it helps that we know each other so well, and know the same references. You can see more of his work at his website:

http://www.brandontutmarc.com

Living in such an active music city as Nashville, I’ve been able to get involved in so many different areas of music – from playing shows, co-writing, producing other artists, playing with other artists, etc. Currently I’m finishing up producing a record for Tanya Montana Coe, which should be released later this year. And I plan to start recording a new album of my own in the next month.
To keep up with me, check:

http://www.facebook.com/ShaneTutmarc
http://www.shanetutmarc.com

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.

Let’s get the easy bit out of the way straight-up; I’m not speaking about comparing the ethics of either band, I’m not running back over the points of comparison between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain as products of the white rock-loving underclass nor as enemies of industry business-as-usual. I feel there are interesting ways to look at the two bands as rock industry phenomena.

Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been kept trimmed to the bone; outside of the core four albums there’s the lean eight track stop-gap Lies from 1989, there’s 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident? covers compilation, after that we’re onto the record label desperately trying to claw money out of the band via the Live Era ’87-’93 release and the inevitable Greatest Hits. Digging around on the official single releases yields a cover of Whole Lotta Rosie, a live cover of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a demo of Don’t Cry, Shadow of your Love and some live tracks. Similarly, on bootlegs, on YouTube, there’s barely a shred left of the original band; a lot of live covers, some appalling recordings like That’s Something, Crash Diet, Cornshucker, Just Another Sunday…A few more pieces from the last decade and a half edition…Then some early demos that all sound like they were recording from beneath a duvet.

That’s not necessarily a criticism. If audio fidelity and quality are the issues that the Nirvana camp circa-1995 to 2013 have specified then they must envy the sheer force of will Axl Rose exercises in his unwillingness for anything that isn’t polished within an inch of its life to be seen. The Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been sternly curated with no clutter of anniversary editions, bonus live discs, demo discs, single-gathering compilations or outtake sets. The point, however, is that the reality seems to be that there simply isn’t anything left to find from the 1985-1995 edition of Guns n’ Roses bar the most minor of scraps — they make Nirvana look profligate in terms of the amount of material that never made it onto a core release.

The second crucial point is that the relatively pristine nature of their back-catalogue, unlike that of The Stooges which we looked at yesterday, has mattered not a jot to the critical reputation of the band. It’s extremely hard, post-Nirvana, to find any great appreciation for the work of Guns n’ Roses. There’s plenty of kudos, particularly in hard rock magazines for Appetite for Destruction, but this never translates from a liking for the album into a liking for the band. There’s virtually no one willing to stand-up for the world-bestriding colossi status of Use Your Illusion I and II with their packed-to-the-gills approach — the most that gets said is a whiny regret that Guns n’ Roses didn’t release Appetite for Destruction Part Two. What matters is that by the time the latter two albums made it out in 1991, Guns n’ Roses had muddied their reputation, had been absent long years, had lost the pop market by showing themselves to be anything but. The nail in the coffin was then Nirvana declaring a band barely half a decade older to already be the sound of the reactionary past.

In terms of live activity, the table below shows the live statistics for Guns n’ Roses 1985-1994 iteration versus the path forged by Nirvana:

Comparison-Nirvana_vs_GnR

I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a similar collapse in performances the year after success had been achieved. It does put Nirvana’s fall into perspective — regardless of reasons, maybe it isn’t that unusual for a band to reach a peak of intensity and then retreat. Of course, if record labels were calling the shots then that’s precisely the point at which they would likely be trying to get bands out on the road for promotional reasons — these two bands did the opposite.

A further point of comparison is that there’s a similar pattern of releases which suggests a specific strategy at DGC when it came to wayward stars. In each case, the runaway success first major label album — Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind — was followed by the gap-filling b-side and extras compilation — Lies, Incesticide. It’s notable also that both those stop-gap releases specifically took aim at media interventions and criticisms of the bands and band members — at the very least it could be said that both bands hated scrutiny, however warranted or unwarranted. The overall approach though suggests a shrewd desire to buy time and/or take advantage of maximum point of success in the case of each act; perhaps DGC saw two bands who they weren’t entirely sure were going to survive long enough for a follow-up album?

A band who, tragically, have lost a lot of respect through the release schedule of the past thirty-five years is the Sex Pistols. The undeniable brilliance of their one and only album, the fact they defined punk and their lead singer was a figure of genuine originality who went on, with Public Image Limited, to bind together three albums that kicked-off and defined the post-punk era, none of it can overlook the discomfort when studying how they’ve approached music releases.

The damage commenced early thanks to Malcolm McClaren-fuelled randomness, with Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Sid Vicious cheerily going along with it all. The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, the associated singles (none of which feature anything interesting to a rarities collector), the Flogging a Dead Horse set, Some Product (consisting of interview snippets and adverts), Sex Pack (another re-compilation), — for at least the next decade and a half after the Sex Pistols’ demise the majority of associated releases were intermittently interesting at best.

That spell could have been forgotten given the legal situations and the open hatred among the surviving band members provided a legitimate reason to ‘start over’in the Nineties. The only problem being that the feeling of repetition set in fast. The Kiss This compilation succeeded only in scraping in a few of the single b-sides on top of the regular candidates. The Filthy Lucre Live tour of 1996 was a worthy venture but the audio document, like most live albums, wasn’t not of long-lasting entertainment value. Regular reissues of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols had already become a tradition every five years, the Jubilee set in 2002 was essentially worthless, the three-disc box-set that same year was pretty well the first and only truly essential post-break-up compendium of the band’s material. The thirty-fifth anniversary brought a listenable remaster, a few slivers of outtakes and a grand total of one unheard studio track; a Denmark Street rendition of Belsen Was a Gas with Johnny Rotten on vocals.

Around that, the flood of semi-official releases, the live bootlegs of variable to atrocious quality usually packaged with all the aplomb of cut-price supermarket own-brand soup. Essentially the waver-thin quantity of the Sex Pistols’ output left the 2002 box and the latest Super-Deluxe of Never Mind as the two sources covering everything the Sex Pistols laid to tape. Everything else is ephemera at best unless well-drilled but fuzzy repetitions of live hits keeps you entertained.

A further key issue was that the Sex Pistols’ knowing critique of music as commercial product, the repetition of a thirty-five year old joke about openly seeking to fleece the public and others, was a case of the skit, the story, forming the reality. It became hard not to see the entire Sex Pistols’ enterprise, post 1978, as a rip-off. Even the two well-intentioned releases mentioned above were hard not to look at with a cynical eye.

Nirvana certainly can be admired for avoiding what has been a fairly bargain-basin release schedule. Likewise, they’ve left a more substantial reservoir of leftovers than I’ve probably given them credit for given previous comparisons I’ve made have been to The Stooges and Jimi Hendrix — both apparently incontinent studio players. But then, the Sex Pistols were barely a band for more than two maniacal years, Nirvana kept it together a full seven. While I’ve certainly advocated further Nirvana outtake releases I’m certainly not desirous of seeing a lightly tweaked Nevermind emerging every half a decade. What I’d be interested in is the kinds of outtakes, alternative takes, early versions and test-runs that make up the majority of the material on the two major Sex Pistols post-death boxes.

This week I’ve been thinking about the bands who triumphed in the grunge wave. Essentially it was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Hole who made it through before the door closed but the latter three bands have all had to deal in some way with the primacy and power of the first. It was only Hole, however, who deliberately and/or naively bonded their own efforts to that of Nirvana, the other two carved their own path and were unwillingly subjugated to the storyline of Nirvana as the uber-grunge band and the unwilling mainstream rockers.

The issue with Hole was always the same; Hole were whatever the underground zeitgeist said they should be but never at the right time. Their early recordings positioned them in the lineage of avant-rock/noise-rock bands with prominent female members (think Lydia Lunch, think Kim Gordon), but their high point, Live Through This, moved them into the alternative rock domain shared by their lead singer’s husband’s band, while their post-grunge album sidled ever closer to straight ahead shiny hard rock. The real flaw, however, was that they were permanently poor at hitting that zeitgeist at its peak potential. In their first incarnation they were too late for the Eighties noise-rock scene, the next wave of bands on the up were more closely embracing hard rock and the mainstream; Hole learnt and shifted focus but their 1994 identity (and the genuinely near perfect album they released in that guise) only hit at the moment when the grunge balloon was deflating; then in 1998 they went to the trouble of enlisting Smashing Pumpkins style rock just at the point where the Smashing Pumpkins were about to fall off into irrelevance – Hole were always one step too late.

Leaving aside questions around how much a role Nirvana/Kurt Cobain played in getting Hole signed to DGC, the more crucial component for this week’s discussion is that by becoming such a visible (and vocal) presence alongside Kurt Cobain, there was no way of separating from his achievements, from comparison to him and from a constant sharing of whatever limelight strayed their way. It’s another fair point of comparison that in the case of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, involvement with John totally obscured the fact that Yoko was a long established and significant presence in her own right within the avant garde art and music scenes. In the case of Courtney Love, she had paid her dues in various bands, learnt well, formed a quality band…And couldn’t ever speak of it without talk of ‘him.’

The merging of Kurt/Courtney/Hole was certainly something encouraged at the time; Courtney’s presence at Nirvana’s October 1992 Word of Mouth sessions, the partial-Hole presence at the January 1993 Brazil sessions, Courtney’s brief appearance at Pachyderm Studios in February 1993, Kurt joining Hole during their October 1993 recording sessions for Live Through This, Courtney’s presence at the MTV Unplugged show…They may have shared stages on only a few occasions but in terms of recording and making music it was Hole/Courtney all the way. Media appearances too changed, the Kurt/Courtney pairing was, from 1992, just as likely to appear in interview as any other combination of Nirvana (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/11/22/killing-nirvana-part-2/). It was this piece, speaking as a couple to those who broadcast and decide on the story, that turned Kurt and Courtney into a clichéd phrase and bonded them irrevocably in the public eye.

The years since the initial collapse of Hole have helped to reinforce this because Courtney’s musical inactivity led to her being known simply for being Courtney Love – the name always coming with the prefix/suffix “widow of Kurt Cobain/former wife of Kurt Cobain”. She’s lived her life since her late twenties as an appendage to a dead rock star. Just as Nirvana was, at its core, Kurt Cobain’s vehicle, Hole was Courtney’s and therefore, when she linked herself personally to him, it was impossible not to irrevocably tie the band to him too. It’s visible in the way the front cover of Hit So Hard, a documentary about Hole’s drummer, has a front cover where ‘Hole’ at the top and ‘Kurt Cobain’ at the bottom top and tail the list of key participants and where his name takes the most visible bottom-right corner position in huge letters.

While the bonding with Nirvana brought benefits – a lot of publicity and visibility that undoubtedly did play a role in influencing the bidding wars and high advances for Hole to join a major label – it meant ceding a degree of independence and it is that loss of freedom that is the ongoing fate of Hole; they’ll never be appreciated without reference to Nirvana, they’ll never be examined or remembered without a mention of Kurt Cobain, there’s no legacy of the band or place they’ve earned in rock history in which they’re not part of someone else’s story. That’s independent of having released three excellent albums one after the other.

It was remarkably indicative of the tight bond between Hole’s status circa 1994 and Kurt Cobain that Live Through This, an album that really did deserve its platinum sales and should be remembered as a triumph, came out on April 12, 1994. It therefore remains smudged in an indelible pall of crematoria smoke and psychic discomfort arising from his absent body. It’s how it should be, the band was bound to the fate of Kurt Cobain so the album by necessity should be stamped with his presence/absence. But for a band wanting to be recognised on its own merits this is the danger that results from riding the dominant storyline of an era; when it falls, so do you. Hole had sacrificed their own momentum to get a ride on the rocket to the top and it crashed down into the dirt before they had a chance to climb off and find their own way to stay aloft.

Hit so Hard