Archive for the ‘Trends – Hip Hop, Grunge and Alternative’ Category

I was honoured to be asked by Trebuchet Magazine (thank you Kailas and Naila!) to contribute a brief article to their website…And I totally failed them by contributing a lengthy rant instead! Luckily they’re kind people and found enough of substance in my growling that they were happy to publish it as a two part discussion piece.

In essence, have you noticed how inescapable ‘the beat’ is? In a world of infinite possibility how limited the possibilities used actually are? I’m not talking absolute rejection but I like the thought that my world might be limitless rather than limited by unconscious design.

Spent the last few days living with the three disc ‘Be Here Now’ reissue – Oasis, credit to them, they always knew how to cram a single with worthwhile B-sides (always the maximum number of fresh originals every time) and that gives them the depth to sustain a substantial reissue too where most bands can barely fish out a live show to fill up a supposedly ‘deluxe’ edition.

Doesn’t mean I love ‘Be Here Now’ of course. But it’s a moment I recall, that time when Oasis really did feel like something everyone of any age could love. Speaking to so many musicians and journalists these past couple of years, quite a few have spoken of feeling the need for change after 1994 – things had become too pressured, too precious, something lighter was needed to refresh the palette. Oasis provided that to the popular mainstream in the U.K. and for a few years they felt untouchable.

A side bar topic really, research indicating that there is a genetic component involved in whether someone is able to master a musical instrument or not. In the tales of Kurt Cobain’s upbringing there’s much emphasis placed on the presence of musical relatives and his acquisition of instruments and ultimately on his meeting with the Melvins and other local punk fans which all leads him toward developing a particular style and approach as well as solidifying his musical direction. Actually, none of that emphasis is invalidated by saying that some of his abilities are innate and nothing to do with the environment in which he found himself. An inbuilt ability is nothing if there’s never an opportunity to exercise it (yes, that’s why the socio-economic divide in education matters; some kids would be just as good as the privileged few but are never given that chance – what a waste), likewise a gift for something will come to naught if not pursued and encouraged. Cobain’s family members encourage him to practice which means he gets better, his new friends point him toward a particular sound, his own self-motivation and satisfaction keep him putting in the hours that ensure his instrumental and vocal abilities are sufficient to get him noticed.

Where the genetic element makes a difference to his tale is simply in allowing him to be more responsive to practice and to musical stimulus. One of Cobain’s greatest traits was that he seems to be able to listen to other facets of the underground music scene and very rapidly cherrypick those styles to incorporate them into his own idiom. The Fecal Matter demo covers most of his nascent influences, the January 23, 1988 session is an entire new world of alternatives and options, he takes less than a year to create something tailored to Sub Pop’s specific sound, then between January and September leaves it behind and lets his power pop influences show for the Blew EP bonus tracks, by April 1990 only Lithium has the Pixies-ish dynamic going but by the end of the year he’s perfected it…His talent for hearing things and knowing how to use them within his own vision is what puts him above a lot of players who perhaps had a more singular sound throughout their career (perhaps altered only by changing the cast of collaborators) but couldn’t match Cobain’s very good ear for what made things new and different.

Just placed this one here because it intrigued me. Essentially the modern age in which money goes to technology firms not to publishers, agents or – god forbid – the majority of writers has its plus side (i.e., yes, the majority of people can now create and upload art, photography, music and writing in a form accessible by others) at the same time as it’s hugely reduced the opportunity for anyone to actually practice a creative skill as a full-time occupation outside of the designated corporate business outlets and career paths. An occasional one-off will rise to the top but basically, as those running technology firms and financial institutions can’t comprehend things that aren’t processes of manufacture with a pre-defined and near-guaranteed outcome, there’s an ongoing effort to convert it into something they do comprehend; delivery mechanisms that systematically undermine the power of any individual creator and derive profit from the agglomeration of a large number of micro-payments from which they take their cut with the majority seeing little fruit from their work…Until they re-enter the standard and approved path.

Oh, and this one is just a glorious example of the wealth of random connections the world possesses – intricate ol’ place isn’t it?

In this age of endless reformations it’s easy to overlook the bands who survived as ongoing creative concerns. The indie superstar perennials (i.e., the only bands making enough money to continue to live on music) stand out — Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Melvins — but most others are a rebooted and rehashed occurrence giving bands a chance to finally take the bows they never get first time around. It also somehow feels reasonable, bands that have gained significant posthumous popularity receiving the chance to earn the money they never had an opportunity to first time around — I’m strangely accepting of it.

What’s most interesting is that this is a genuinely new mass phenomenon in music akin to the BBC’s discovery a few decades ago that, contrary to their policy right through into the 1970s which saw them erase numerous tapes of their shows, people often do want to watch repeated content and that there was a market for video recordings of such material. Music, to an even greater extent than television, has been a market piling new trend on latest fashion on quick fad. We’re not much over one hundred years from the first commercially available sound recordings and still witnessing new deviations and adaptations of this cultural element.

The release of greatest hits recordings started fairly early and has never ceased being a critical source of sales. Live recordings soon followed and archive recordings got going by the late Sixties when Jimi Hendrix had appalling trouble with unscrupulous characters reissuing his pre-Experience material and when the first major bootleg releases (Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes) commenced. Tribute records were more recent, the first came out only in 1981, and they’ve maintained a minor league existence ever since. The biggest shift though was the reissue of albums on CD from the mid-Eighties onwards — this gradually led to the desire to move beyond LP lengths and to fill space with bonuses and extras to encourage purchases.

Discovering that people were indeed willing to pay to buy material that, essentially, they already had was a crucial moment. Gradually reissues gained the same weight as new releases, magazines began reviewing them side-by-side, entire reissue sections entered magazines. The record company’s responded to this by placing more weight and effort into the reissues, ladling on the b-sides, the demos, the live shows until eventually the market diverged into straight reissues (usually with the pointless word Remastered emblazoned to try and claim some justification for the release as the reissued albums became CD-era) and the larger Deluxe edition for the fanatics. The arms-race didn’t cease there, however, soon Deluxe editions edged over into three disc versions until eventually the entire concept of the Super-Deluxe came about. Next the programme of reissues became a matter of packaging; the long established concept of the box-set (way back in the 1930s substantial 78 RPM vinyl sets used to come in boxes which was part of their elite cache) became a regular part of the armoury and still people were willing to buy in sufficient quantities to justify further box-sets and anniversary editions.

Somewhere in amidst it all, the same concepts became applied to live acts; if people were willing to pay to repurchase the music, there’s no reason they wouldn’t pay to see the bands essentially engage in high-quality karaoke. Reformations had always happened going right back to the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, but usually a reformation involved new material being written and an attempt to resuscitate a career because of the feeling that progress had to be made. Other artists had never gone away, they’d simply been repackaged into Golden Oldies tours and smaller venues and package tours — but the last decade has seen a fresh development.

The idea of progress has come to a halt. A few decades of seeing that people were quite happy to pay an inflated price to see a band that they never caught in their heyday (i.e., Sex Pistols Filthy Lucre Tour of 1996), as well as the realisation that most long-term artists increasingly end up playing a greatest hits medley as a crucial and favourite component of a show (i.e., everyone from Elton John to Bon Jovi), led to the realisation that a band could be resuscitated and pushed, zombie-like, onto a stage without any need to do anything new at all. This was a cheap and easy way to make substantially more profit than a lot of new acts and ongoing artists would reap — the ticket prices can be higher, the band will take a lower cut to get the second chance, there’s no need to plan around album releases or recording commitments; just get ‘em up, on stage and done. And, of course, that’s a perfectly satisfying music product for the audience; there’s nothing wrong with one quick evening of nostalgia, or that one-off sight of the heroes you never caught working through the songs you never saw when they were still a natural entity.

One element may be that the pop world has degenerated into an endless remarketing of echoes whether in the form of the kareoke contests that fill primetime TV or the reappropriation of tunes wrapped into beat-heavy remixes and major league pop product that fill the charts. With audiences used to the small endorphin thrill of recognition even the most non-mainstream audiences are simply more used to hearing the past reiterated.

And that’s the truth…There’s nothing wrong with it. A few artists, still caught in their own desire for artistic authenticity and a sense of creative validity, take the chance to whack some new music out; but Swans are a rarity in that they’re currently doing phenomenally well by being one of the few outfits to genuinely go someplace new with the music even if I don’t enjoy either of their newest recordings anywhere near as much as I did Soundtracks for the Blind or Swans Are Dead.

“Is there a clean white shirt ready for the bomb?”

This film will make more sense to those who are aware of a film called The Snowman — it’s a Christmas tradition in U.K., a whimsical and nostalgic piece in which a young boy enters his garden on Christmas Eve to find his snowman has come to life. The piece is wordless, story conveyed in drawn figures and landscapes and a swooning soundtrack; a warm dream. The piece above is by the same author/artist, Raymond Briggs, very familiar drawing style, childhood associations…And naturally disturbing because of the sheer Englishness of the characters’ responses and discussion — the myth of ‘the last war’ circles through the entire piece. The serious point being that in 1983-1984 the Soviet leadership was genuinely of the view that NATO was preparing a strike against the Soviet Union. Rhetoric from the west was sparking a reaction and that, in turn, led to escalating responses. The Able Archer exercise in November 1983 ( was the closest the world had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Russians genuinely believing the war games were our cover for a pre-emptive strike.

Direct cause-and-effect relationships are hard to find when tracing the interaction of the background scenarios that rule over the lives of entire societies and the cultural outbursts those societies then enact. Musical motion arises on the back of and in relation or reaction to previous music; technological shifts drive changes in instrumentation, sound, style and approach; musicians arise from familial, comradely, educational and psychological advantages, pressures or drivers; scenes arise supported by the emergence of supporting infrastructure whether broadcasting media, means of production, venues for dissemination. Music doesn’t, however, float free of the politics or economics that drive a society and that are so intimately intertwined.

In the glow of victory, and contrary to what one might expect, the crime rate in the U.K. and U.S. after World War Two increased — the Golden Age of Bank Robbery was over the next two decades as demobbed soldiers, trained in the use of weapons and explosives, lucratively deployed their talents. While prefabricated homes spread home ownership across the U.S. and suburbia became a new reality, war industry used to churning out metal was retooled to churning out cars. The massive organisation of society that had arisen as a consequence of war never went away, it shifted objectives, names changes but the new institutions and the accepted levels of their intrusion into the daily lives of people had simply become accepted.

(Threads — 1984)

Rock n’ Roll, then whatever it was that was started by The Beatles in the Sixties and evolved into hard rock, heavy metal, punk and so forth tended toward less emotionally revealing lyrics — artful phrasings or vagueness substituted for stark self-examination. This evolved throughout the seventies and eighties, until the heart of mainstream rock music was a macho, dominant, hyper-masculinity that matched the defiant sense of ‘them and us’ that ruled everyday reality — in the U.S. punk barely made a dent on the mainstream leaving the Seventies rock motif to live on. Remember this was a society living under the very real threat of genuine annihilation not by zombies (heh!) but by nuclear weaponry that would halt real life in its tracks with a four minute warning for the U.K. and not much more for the U.S. The renewal of the core rock image, the penis-centric God figure, fitted like tight blue jeans to the early Eighties when figures within the U.S. military scene, in concert with the conservative figures around Ronald Reagan began focusing not on the megadeath perspective of mutual destruction, but on a belief that even amidst the graves of hundreds of millions, there was such a thing as victory in a nuclear future. There was no reason to relinquish the externally directed aggression inherent in the rock star image when there was a vast existential enemy always present.

(The Day After — 1983)

Nirvana lived out their entire youth in a world where everything was about to be blown to smithereens at any moment. By 1987 when Nirvana became a reality, nothing had yet changed. The Pacific North-West was potentially one of the few places where at least some portion of the outlying population might have made it through — a survivalist community did exist in State of Washington — but the background reality of atomic decimation and the collapse of organised society walked in step with a music culture that leaned toward Superman with a pumped up and screaming wild edge that was simply a demonstration that the superheroes of rock music were meant to show we could survive any excess, any destructive act. The drugs, the sex, the lunacy of the mainstream rock scene was part of showing that America was indomitable, indestructible — its denizens did not die when famous, when centre stage, when flaunting their power before the world. This would change.

For the record, Ian MacKaye is on my list alongside Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain, Michael Gira and Thurston Moore as one of the most epoch-making figures in punk rock over the past thirty years. I make the judgment not on record sales or temporary tabloid worthiness but on being a catalyst for numerous bands and resulting strands of musical endeavour. A sincere salute.

The gentlemen behind this film have entered the production phase but, as they’re essentially self-funding this, I can only encourage and support their request for donations toward the conclusion of this work.

The film seems to provide the cinematic counterpoint to the excellent Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. The surprising quality of the footage, the slivers of revealing interview…And yes, Dave Grohl lines up to discuss his time in DC stars Scream.

By synthesising two guys tied to the North-West grunge scene, with their new drummer from the East Coast hardcore scene, Nirvana essentially placed a full-stop on the underground scene of the Eighties. While various bands and outfits dragged the overall genre in new directions at various points of the decade, the defining geographic entities were Washington DC and Seattle, the defining labels became Dischord and Sub Pop.

There’s a fair argument that the latter learned from the former. Their impact came from tying themselves so firmly to a specific location, they were not just labels based in a particular location, putting out bands who happened to be from a certain place; they made their identity synonymous with the city from which they were from and during their defining days they bound the bands on each label to that same specific identity.

The more open geography of labels such as SST or Alternative Tentacles gathered up many of the best bands playing but never unified those bands. The DC/Seattle identities gave the illusion of a gang, a home turf, people known to each other and gathered round the label flag. That sense of intimacy made each label stand out and makes it impossible to separate the label from the city and the bands from either. It’s comparable to the way bands are regularly portrayed as ‘bands of brothers’. That united front can equally apply to a label or a place and seems equally attractive; a community of people choosing to believe in and support a sound, an approach, a philosophy. It’s, to some extent, illusionary, a projection of external desire for something to belong to onto the bands/labels/people at its centre, but it retains huge power as an idea.

So! Salad Days! Take a look, support, encourage…And sometime soon I hope we’ll see the finished product. Here’s the Facebook group for further updates and beyond that…Scott Crawford and Jim Saah? I salute thee.

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.

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.

One of the tragic findings of market research firms and sociologists is that when enough people are lined up under an overall guidance, personality makes surprisingly little difference. Individual morality and beliefs fade, not because the group imposes will on the individual, but because the individual and the group work together to find the point of agreement at which they can coexist while the central decision of the group remains unchanged. It’s simply a case that there are significant boundaries to how exceptional an individual can be – on multiple levels the choices available are constrained by social norms, educational structures, physical requirements, the need to exchange/interact. We’re only exceptional by comparison to a norm, the depth of our exceptionalism relies on what the norm is and can stretch to. It’s why a modern western society can be so accepting of a diversity of life choices and still pull toward an imaginary centre, even without laws mandating a set social reality, and simultaneously why most “alternative lifestyles” aren’t more than a few steps from the norm, they’re expressions of an accepted consensus. That doesn’t mean individuals disappear, it just means the overall significance of individuals fades within wider moments.

That’s where the purveyors of the idea of an ‘alternative nation’ and Kurt Cobain, with his oft-expressed annoyance at the nature of his audiences, both proved tragically deceived. What they were, in fact, doing was observing an overall cultural moment then trying to claim that the music should mean the audience was a specific and unified phenomenon. This meant attempting to place a box round an amorphous and ill-defined component of the whole of late Eighties-early Nineties youth then painting music over the top of them as if music was so clearly decisive in defining social values. Too much energy was invested in setting up an imaginary conflict between those listening to heavy metal, who as a consequence were supposedly macho and sexist; versus those who listened to the next fashion trend in music who were apparently purveyors of enlightenment. Essentially distinguishing aspects of the front-men, characteristics of the band identities, were observed and then assigned uncritically to the audience as if one was a standardised reflection of the other. It produced a simplistic vision in which you, individual music consumer, were not simply listening to Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain, you were a mere blank template on which the media-distorted and accentuated aspects of their personas were projected.

As an aside, the false nature of the ‘alternative nation’ hypothesis set up a moment in which Axl Rose, as a huge fan of Nirvana’s music and of up-and-coming currents of alternative music such as industrial, was fundamentally precisely the alternative consumer being tagged as the ‘alternative nation’ at the same time as being held up as the pantomime villain the ‘alternative nation’ was attempting to topple. The ‘alternative nation’ was a ragged tarpaulin hung over a very broad tent of people and saying nothing about those within its confines. Instead of seeing the gap with reality and then reacting by halting the lazy attempt to read the characteristics of the audience from the item hung over their heads, the challenge was resolved by an appeal to invisible enemies; the claim that some parts of the audience were illegitimate, unworthy, untrue. Of course, as usual with these kinds of witch-hunts, no one actually believed that they could possibly be the person being targeted. It would have been a lot more true to simply recognise that whatever comments could be made about the actions and beliefs of Kurt Cobain or Axl Rose, those actions and beliefs belonged to those individuals and were true or untrue of most of either audience because those two individuals were inherently just part of the generation making up the audience rather than superior to it.

The idea of an ‘alternative nation’ fundamentally undervalued the audiences. The bands tagged as the representative voices of a new generation didn’t arise and then create the audience; those bands arose because that audience was already in existence – the fact it took the means of music production, distribution and promotion time to recognise that there was a music consuming audience, with liberal social values, that would be interested in listening to something more than Genesis, is the crux of the issue. The audience itself was already there and consisted, like any audience, of those who can critically listen and distinguish between fact and fiction and who do think about the perspectives the bands are relaying; plus those who critically listen but primarily to the music rather than the lyrical philosophies and intent; plus those who could give a darn either way. The idea of ‘alternative nation’ was essentially an elitist view in which the masses slavishly follow the ‘great men of history’ and therefore are defined as a single bloc, with a single intent – rather than a temporary accretion of a range of individuals with a range of reasons for listening. It suggested that you, as a member of that audience, regardless of whether you were in a music venue or listening in a public or private location, were indistinguishable from someone in a completely different location.

To reemphasise, it relied on overrating the unified nature of music audiences; a few thousand people in a room pledged to deliver a particular social/political change is a movement, a few thousand people with nothing else to do on a Saturday night and a desire to pump fist/head is just a crowd. Consequently, whether that audience listened to Guns n’ Roses or to Nirvana was a foolish distinction to make; the audience listening to either band didn’t base their views on gender, race or sexual orientation wholesale on the politics of the band they were observing.

The belief that there was ever one single audience for grunge, or more specifically for the music of Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains et al., and that it wasn’t, at least from 1991 onward, primarily a mainstream rock audience, relied on an overestimation of the difference between rock music and this particular sub-category. The music had fed – just as Guns n’ Roses, Poison, Whitesnake did – on Led Zeppelin, on the Beatles, on Black Sabbath, on punk and emerged with a different sound but a vast range of shared characteristics that made them close brethren. If you wanted to state that those specifically pledged to the K Records DIY scene, or those ascribing to Riot Grrl principles, or who were living within one of the small local scenes of any music subgenre that defined itself not by sound but by a particular methodology or philosophy, therefore derived actions or behaviour or opinions from the music – you’d have a case. But within the melting pot of the mainstream, a non-‘scene’ with no core pledge or commitment, trying to distinguish the fans was ridiculous…

…Except it did serve a purpose. Kurt Cobain felt at times he had been rejected and spurned as a sell-out by those who remained in the K Records circle; to what extent this was true versus being representative of his own inner conflicts is hard to say but I’ve yet to see any comments attributed to any of the key figures in the underground scene doing anything other than celebrating Nirvana. From mid-1992 Nirvana’s sound was refocused, attempting to push away from the mainstream tone into which the band had dived. In the background, launching attacks on both Guns n’ Roses and Pearl Jam simultaneously set up a distinction between a supposed ‘past’ generation, represented by Guns n’ Roses who were busy selling seven million of each volume of Use Your Illusion at precisely the same time Nirvana was declaring them irrelevant, and a ‘false’ generation of fans who preferred Pearl Jam and therefore weren’t real fans. The fact that Nevermind (and In Utero) were selling to precisely the same hard rock audience as Use Your Illusion I and II or Ten or Vs was the background reality; the fact that listening to a record isn’t the same as endorsing all its views was reality; the fact that Kurt Cobain despised the sexist, homophobic, racist and macho element of his audience; none of these made the existence of a cohesive or coherent ‘alternative nation’ a reality.

It also makes explicit how silly it is to accept ‘music journalist reality’. That’s not meant to be derogatory, each group of commentators in society formulates a vision of life in which their particular priority is at the centre whether that places economic uber alles, or politics, etc. Kurt Cobain himself was someone for whom music was of vast importance and who explicitly seemed to define friend or foe through their musical choices and tastes. The result was he was extremely open to a vision of the world in which the young were not individual personalities with a vast range of drivers, motivations, views and visions but could instead be defined according to their music tastes.

Instead, that idea rests in the realms of utopia, like the Leninist idea that a bourgeois vanguard could spark the ‘natural proletariat’ to rise up and take over the revolution; or that anyone and everyone will become an entrepreneur if they’re simply encouraged by changes to the tax system; or that creating a monotone nation with a unifying strand of race, religion or creed will miraculously remove all social tension. Kurt Cobain’s demand in the original liner notes for fans to “leave us the fuck alone!” was always a hopeless request for people to deselect themselves and felt more like a sop to the conscience of the writer than a genuine avenue of progress. The myth of the ‘alternative nation’, unlocatable, hidden, impossible to distinguish from simply ‘the young’ laid a heavy burden on Kurt’s shoulders at the same time as fuelling a good many playground battles but it was always destined for disappointment as reality warmed the Earth and the idea evaporated.

Over this past week of holiday the crucial theme has been electricide; I’ve set fire to the toaster twice, I made an attempt to burn out the blender while squeezing oranges (which is how I annihilated my parents last one too), today I yanked the wiring out of an extension cable. As an aside, my mum was bemused that rather than rescuing her toast I simply poured the whole lot out onto the terrace balcony upstairs; she was even more amused when I swept up the crumbs and burnt toast dust and proceeded to dump the entire mound of debris off the top balcony and instead of hitting the flower beds I deluged my parent’s bedroom balcony instead. Brilliant. So, please offer kind thoughts and prayers to my dear (and long-suffering) parents and if this laptop blows part way through this communiqué don’t be surpri

In 1989 a lady called Lisa Orth was engaged by Nirvana’s label, Sub Pop, to do the graphic design work for the cover of the album Bleach. Reasonably enough not wishing to pump excessive work into an unknown band, on a nowhere label that apparently still owed her money for previous work, she paid a typesetter, Grant Alden, the princely sum of $15 U.S. dollars and he, in turn, whacked out the band’s name in a font known as Onyx, a proprietary font installed on his Compugraphic typesetter. I’ve not noted any great commentary on the band’s own feelings about the font but, to be fair, it’s the one they used for Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero; for the Blew EP and the Hormoaning EP; all singles on Geffen plus the Oh the Guilt single. The only exceptions are the Love Buzz/Big Cheese single released prior to Bleach; the split single with The Fluid released on Sub Pop as Nirvana were leaving the label; the Here She Comes Now split single with the Melvins released on another label and the Incesticide compilation. More fool me spending a whole book (Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide) arguing the unity of Incesticide with Nirvana’s catalogue when the font on the front declares that the compilation is something different!

Anyways, the logo has become part of the band’s identity. A brand is something beyond who someone is or what someone is. My comrades more deeply involved in branding work will be able to supply far more sophisticated definitions of the purpose, function and definition of a brand so in advance I’ll admit I’m just making an argument here not a technical dissertation. Leaving to one side the infinitely irksome ownership of the brand concept by the world of business and it’s vomitorious and nausea-invoking bleed into other areas of human life (“be your own brand!” “Think about your personal brand!” Please hit anyone who ascribes to these views…) there’s something here that seems very simple at root. A brand is a rapid-fire statement of identity that goes beyond a recognised visual symbol to link the mind of the onlooker, in an instant, to a list of associated individuals or products and, in turn to that amorphous but no less real set of values, declared moral allegiances and/or deeper purposes that the company, or object, or band attach themselves. It’s a mental shortcut.

The element that most organisations are seeking to establish, when they speak of their brand, is a positive shortcut. On a daily basis an individual is beset by thousands of barely noted collisions with products, or people, or companies – the brain is sifting data in vast quantities and deciding what to look at, what to choice, what to ignore, or even just filing away the items that would be competing if a decision did have to be made at some point versus those items that wouldn’t even compete hypothetically. Yes, decisions are complex involving personality, quality, price (whether monetary or via some other means such as time and effort), loyalty, group opinion as well as recognition – but the brand is an attempt to cut through those factors and often it succeeds in being associated in a human mind with certain qualities, with a dependable outcome, with a particularly desirable level of result.

Doing precisely what I criticised earlier in this piece (that bit about nausea…) certain reports now state that evolutionary markers used to try and ensure maximum breeding potential ( are now, in humans, being transferred to brands. With a vast number of potential mates to choose from individuals use pointers provided by the presence of a brand as a first-sight shorthand way of indicating the qualities, values, class, status and power of a potential partner. Thank God, for most of us, then that it’s an infinitely more complex process with other psychological and physical factors coming into play but still, the adoption, by an individual, of a trusted symbol, can provide a message to an onlooker.

Looking past the well-known logo of Nirvana, past the smiley face symbol that apocryphal tales state was based on the logo of a strip club in Seattle. Nirvana benefitted from a variety of personal indicators of quality. Firstly, it was Jack Endino’s recognition of Dale Crover’s name that led him to accept a studio booking from a young band he’d never heard of until then. Dale Crover, as drummer in the Melvins, had built up credibility that Nirvana benefitted from. Jack Endino’s personal credibility in Seattle music circles meant Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop were willing to have a look at this band at a time when Nirvana’s recorded music alone was getting tossed in the trash at indie labels across the U.S. In both cases, it wasn’t the music that opened the door. At a later stage, the move to DGC was greased by the way label executives respected the taste and recommendations of Sonic Youth’s power-couple, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore; again, the personal connection brought Nirvana their new home.

The Sub Pop label itself was a hive of brand-orientated thinking:
Everything from the Singles Club idea, the use of Reciprocal Recordings as the ‘house studio’ in the early days, the commissioning of photography from Charles Peterson with a very specific style and look, the Sub Pop Sunday shows, the Lamefest events in U.S. and U.K., the decision to lure journalist Everett True over to create a buzz in the British media – the entire label was built around the idea that they had the music, that their product was good, but what would elevate them above the hundred other indie labels with decent bands was how they staged events and managed appearances.