Tag Archives: Kurt Cobain

Rocks In The Attic #642: Nirvana – ‘In Utero’ (1993)

RITA#642Last weekend I found a pair of perfectly good speakers on the side of the road. A handwritten sign – ‘FREE’ – was standing next to them. I did a quick u-turn and threw them in my car. New Zealand’s attitude to freecycling occasionally delivers gems like this. You could probably drive around all weekend and furnish your entire house with kerbside treasures that people are throwing away. The speakers are a lovely pair of Technics, standing 18” tall and my vinyl-collecting friend at work, who’s far more knowledgeable about hi-fi equipment, assures me they’re a very, very good find.

That’s if they still work, of course, because who in their right minds would throw away a perfectly good set of speakers? A quick trip to the local electronics store to get some speaker cable, and I can rest assured that not only do they work perfectly, but they also sound fucking awesome. It makes a world of difference to the set of (perfectly good for purpose) surround speakers I was running my turntable through previously.

Whenever I’m testing a new set-up – be it a new turntable, or a new amp, or a new set of speakers – the album I always turn to is Nirvana’s In Utero. My clear favourite of their three studio albums, it towers over their unripe debut, and their too-slick crossover follow-up. Steve Albini’s production sounds more like what I imagine the band’s natural sound to be, and it was the record I turned to when Kurt died as it was their final studio album.

The reason it’s so good to test hi-fi equipment is that it’s so dynamic, and so well recorded that it doesn’t sound like the product of pro-tools. After Albini’s initial production (foreshadowed by a great letter to the band), Geffen Records attempted to fix what they saw as an uncommercial record by employing Robert Ludwig to master it. Still unhappy, the master tapes were then given to REM producer Scott Litt, who remixed the singles alongside Andy Wallace (who had mixed Nevermind). With so many cooks in the kitchen, the album should sound conflicted, but to my ears it sounds perfect.

RITA#642aThe hi-fi recommendations in the inside cover of the CD booklet, something that you just don’t usually see in liner notes, have always made me chuckle. I suspect that rather than being a genuine instruction to listeners (unlikely), it’s an irreverent poke at the casual music fans the band were attracting (a more obscure jab than the lyrics to In Bloom).

RITA#642dAlthough I own a late ‘90s reissue of In Utero, I jumped at the chance to get the Steve Albini mix of the record, released to mark the album’s 20th anniversary. Running at 45rpm, and split across two discs, it’s a wonderful package. But while it’s very interesting to hear, I think I’ll always prefer the original version. Albini’s mix of the singles sound so much more in line with the rest of the album, and if anything the contrast shows how much the Scott Litt mix of those songs sounds like the range of dynamics you would hear on an REM single.

One thing I really liked around the 20th anniversary re-release was a memo that did the rounds on the internet, mocked up to look like a letter to record store owners, pleading with them to get behind the album’s reissue. I seem to remember some discussion at the time around whether it was genuine or not, but it’s clearly a joke – it’s dripping in cynicism, and reads like something that Kurt Cobain might have composed from beyond the grave.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the ‘thank you’ lists in liner notes, but there is one particular name on the In Utero sleeve that is deserving of a mention. The band listed Quentin Tarantino in this section – in 1993 a relatively cult director with only one film, Reservoir Dogs, to his name (and Pulp Fiction yet to be released). When the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction eventually saw the light of day in September 1994, Quentin repaid the favour and thanked the now-departed Cobain.

Hit: Heart Shaped Box

Hidden Gem: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

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Rocks In The Attic #571: Soundgarden – ‘Badmotorfinger’ (1991)

rita571I think I remember the first time I ever heard Jesus Christ Pose. Who wouldn’t? It was a B-side on the single to Black Hole Sun; a live version from South Dakota. Boom – what a song. Just white noise and a screaming vocal. What the hell are these guys smoking?

Then I found the album somewhere. Maybe Jesus Christ Pose is the only good song on the album, I thought? Pah! First track – Rusty Cage. Oomph! Then Outshined – what a groove!

Soundgarden are from Seattle – so the obvious thing at the time was to lump them in with the grunge movement of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But that grunge label was really just a lazy way to pigeon-hole a bunch of bands together that didn’t really share anything except geography. Where Nirvana was just a punk band, and Pearl Jam was a classic rock band with an overproduced debut album, Soundgarden’s sound was straight ahead metal – a heavy, sludgy, American answer to Black Sabbath, with a scream to match.

Badmotorfinger is album number three for Soundgarden, and their last one before they crossed over into the mainstream and onto MTV with 1994’s Superunknown. It’s also the first Soundgarden record to feature Ben Shepherd on bass, who replaced Jason Everman following the Louder Than Love tour.

Jason Everman – the man that grunge forgot – is an interesting character. First, he was credited as the second guitarist on Nirvana’s debut Bleach, despite not playing on the record (Kurt Cobain provided the credit to thank Everman for stumping the $606.17 it cost to record the album) and being ejected from the band shortly after. He joined Soundgarden for the Louder Than Love tour, before leaving straight after – and effectively missing out on the band’s advancing career. In 1994, just as grunge was imploding on MTV, Everman joined the U.S. Army, and completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a nice nod to their former member, Nirvana invited Everman along to their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2014.

Hit: Jesus Christ Pose

Hidden Gem: Mind Riot

Rocks In The Attic #563: Stone Temple Pilots – ‘MTV Unplugged 1993’ (2016)

rita563Thank f**k for bootlegs. I reckon I might be waiting until the end of my days for Atlantic Records to dig this one for an official release, so thankfully the enterprising Russian chaps at DOL Records put this out last year. DOL were also responsible for putting out Aerosmith’s 1973 radio appearance at Paul’s Mall, so they’ve come out of nowhere to be one of my favourite – ahem – enterprising record labels.

I used to listen to so much STP in my teens that I almost can’t tell when one songs ends and another one starts. They’re burnt into my DNA. I was sad to see it was the anniversary of Scott Weiland’s death at the beginning of December. What a loss, albeit certainly not an unexpected one.

I don’t think I ever saw the original transmission of STP’s Unplugged set back in the day on MTV. While it might have been in heavy rotation across the Atlantic, it definitely didn’t see that kind of airplay in the UK. In fact, once Kurt Cobain killed himself, pretty much all of the rock programming on the channel was taken over by Nirvana.

When STP released their second record, Purple, they released one of the singles, Vasoline, with a couple of songs from the Unplugged set. I know these versions of the debut album’s Crackerman and David Bowie’s Andy Warhol like the back of my hands, and have always wanted to hear the full set. The wonder of the Internet allowed me to watch the show a couple of years ago, and then I finally got my hands on this disc last year.

Hopefully an official version will see the light of day someday. DOL are great at finding unreleased material to put in stores, but their mastering leaves a lot to be desired. On that early Aerosmith record, they change the running order of the songs to make them fit on the two sides better, and on this STP record there’s a one-second gap of air in the audience reaction between a couple of the tracks, like a badly mastered home CD. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.

Hit: Plush

Hidden Gem: Crackerman

Rocks In The Attic #560: Guns N’ Roses – ‘Appetite For Destruction’ (1987)

RITA#560.jpgI saw something last night I thought I’d never see – Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan on the same stage together. It’s been a long time coming, but for a large part of the twenty five years since I first heard Appetite For Destruction, it seemed unlikely that a reunion would ever happen. Slash kept himself busy, playing in Velvet Revolver (with Duff) before going on to record several decent solo albums. Axl retained the Guns N’ Roses name, touring the band in the 21st century with a host of stand-in musicians and finally releasing the long-threatened Chinese Democracy album in 2008. The new Axl was a portly fellow, rumoured to have an addiction to fried chicken and was described by one audience member in London as ‘a gold lamé blob up on stage.’ A reunion seemed as unlikely as all four Beatles playing together on stage.

Then the unthinkable happened. In 2016 Axl, Slash and Duff patched up their differences and announced a reunion tour. Who needs differences anyway when you’ve got millions of dollars to earn touring the world as a nostalgia act? Plus, that fried chicken won’t buy itself…

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The initial reaction was one of cynicism. Surely Axl would keep everybody waiting like he did in his prima donna days during the 1990s. Would it be worth buying a ticket if it meant waiting around for a few hours in the rain, waiting for Axl to finally take off his bathrobe and finish that last bucket of KFC? Of course it would!

Then the unthinkable part two happened. Axl landed the job as stand-in vocalist for AC/DC. It seems that Brian Johnson’s eardrums had enough of his own high-pitched screaming and put up a protest. He got a sick note from his doctor, ruling him out of that band due to the threat of permanent hearing loss. Step up, Mr. Rose.

It still hasn’t really sunk in that this actually happened – Axl Rose singing with AC/DC sounds like such an off-the-wall idea. Comparable to Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell singing in front of Rage Against The Machine. Oh wait, that actually happened too.

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What a great pairing – Axl DC – can it get any better? Brian Johnson’s vocals have never really fit the band if I have to be honest – there’s only so much shrieking I can handle, and after 1980’s Back In Black, there was a pretty consistent dip in quality. Other than Steven Tyler, Axl is the best choice to front Angus and company – he has the range to hit Brian Johnson’s high notes, and the ballsy tone to handle Bon Scott’s earlier material.

So the rock world waited with bated breath, and the unthinkable part three happened. Axl turned up on time and did his duty. No diva behaviour whatsoever – and best of all, his inclusion prompted the long-standing – and frankly, now quite boring – AC/DC set-list to change. They started playing songs they had rarely, if ever, played with Brian Johnson. Songs such as Riff Raff and Rock And Roll Damnation from 1978’s Powerage, If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) from 1979’s Highway To Hell, and 1975’s Live Wire (from the Australian T.N.T. album, or the international version of High Voltage). It was so refreshing to see these songs performed once again.

Then, one show into the GNR reunion tour, the unthinkable part four happened. Axl broke his foot. It’s still unclear how he did this – so one can only speculate that a bottle of Hot Sauce fell on his foot as he opened the fridge for a midnight feast of fried chicken. He ended up fulfilling the rest of GNR’s U.S. tour, and the remaining AC/DC dates sat on a throne of guitars borrowed from Dave Grohl.

Last night my wife took a bullet and stayed home to put the kids to bed so that I could go down early to catch the support band, Wolfmother. When I got to the stadium I spoke to a lovely lady named Lucy, who had endured a 9-hour bus trip from Gisborne to see the show. Crikey! She sat next to me as she rolled a joint, out of sight of the security staff, and in minutes we had bonded over our mutual dislike of Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers.

I was really looking forward to seeing Wolfmother after I caught them supporting Aerosmith in Dunedin back in 2013. At that concert, the sight of the band bouncing on to the stage like exuberant puppies made me smile. Four years later and they’ve reduced their ranks significantly. What was once a boisterous four- or five-piece back in 2013 has now distilled into a tight trio. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it meant one member was pulling more than his fair share of the weight – bassist Ian Peres also played keyboards, incredibly both at the same time during some songs.

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Twenty minutes later and Guns N’ Fucking Roses emerged. My wife had made it with just minutes to spare, and thankfully she was there to see opener It’s So Easy. They followed this with Mr. Brownstone, and Western Springs went off like a firework.

Axl did that jaunty side-to-side dance with his microphone stand, looking like a menopausal Nicole Kidman, Slash took all his solos with his guitar propped up on one elevated thigh, and Duff kept up on the bass, sticking his neck out to sing backing vocals.

The set-list was really strong with songs from Appetite For Destruction, and while I like most of the singles from the Use Your Illusion records, the songs from the debut record are just in a different class. They’re truly magical, and the whole of that first record is like lightning in a bottle.

I could never really work out why I liked Appetite so much more than the Use Your Illusion albums, and it wasn’t until I read Slash’s autobiography that I figured it out. Drummer Steven Adler – the one missing component that didn’t survive into that second line-up of the band – really provides the groove of ­Appetite. His replacement Matt Sorum is a powerhouse drummer himself, but Adler had something else – a swing that you don’t get with most 4/4 rock drummers. I’d have loved to have seen a full reunion with Adler on board, alongside original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, but I’m more than happy to have seen three out of the original five.

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Covers were well-represented, not surprisingly for a band with only four albums of original material to their name. As well as the likely contenders – Live And Let Die and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – they also played the Misfit’s Attitude, the Who’s The Seeker, and in one really touching moment, a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here afforded Slash and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus the opportunity for a lovely bit of guitar work. November Rain was prefaced with Axl playing the piano outro from Derek & The Domino’s Layla, and Slash played snippets of the Godfather theme, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) and Zeppelin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You before the night was through.

If I had one criticism, it was that the show could have easily been an hour shorter. After two hours when I told my wife that there was almost another hour left, she mimed shooting herself in the head (I noted that this was an odd thing to do in the presence of Duff McKagan, the last person to see Kurt Cobain alive; they found themselves sitting next to each other on a flight to Seattle where Cobain took his life a few days later).

At one point, the audience nearly chuckled themselves to death when Axl sang his big emotional number – This I Love, from the Chinese Democracy record. This was like bad wedding music; just awful and such a polar opposite to the youthful vibrance that is all over Appetite For Destruction.

Hit: Sweet Child O’Mine

Hidden Gem: Mr. Brownstone

Rocks In The Attic #558: Foo Fighters – ‘The Colour And The Shape’ (1997)

rita558Foo Fighters’ sophomore album The Colour And The Shape marks the true beginning of the empire of Dave Grohl. The band’s self-titled debut album had been released two years earlier, but that was something else, a solo record of sorts with Grohl playing everything on the record.

Foo Fighters wasn’t even intended as the name of the band when that debut was being recorded. It was just the name of the album, the name of the project – in the same way Grohl has subsequently done with ventures like his metal project Probot. In 1995, Grohl employed a group of musicians – guitarist Pat Smear, formerly of the Germs and the latter days of Nirvana, and bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, both from the recently defunct Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate. He called this band the Foo Fighters – why not, that’s what the album was called? – but lived to regret this as bad idea much further down the line. To be fair, it is a terrible name for a band.

The recording of the band’s second album included one unsavoury moment that would prove to characterise the band over the rest of its lifetime. Unhappy with William Goldsmith’s drum tracks for the record, Grohl re-recorded them himself, behind Goldsmith’s back. As a result, the hired drummer understandably quit the band. Here was the thing – the Foo Fighters weren’t a democracy, they were a dictatorship, and Grohl was the man in charge.

As much as I loved the charm of the first record, I found its follow-up to be something else entirely. The songs were bigger, more bloated and Everlong pointed to the radio-friendly path the band would subsequently take. Even worse, I couldn’t even work out who a song like February Stars was aimed at – it was completely at odds with the rock band I thought the band was. This was only three years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and the former Nirvana drummer was now recording weak material for album filler. It didn’t help that my roommate at University started to like them around this time, and he really only noticed big, mainstream acts like U2 and R.E.M.

Listening back to the record now, I like it much better than I did back in 1997. Perhaps it’s because that for all its differences to its predecessor, it actually sounds more like that first record than anything the band recorded later. Songs like Hey, Johnny Park! and Monkey Wrench are more in line with the Foo Fighters of 1995 and it’s just a shame there wasn’t more of this kind of material across the album. I tried my best in 1997 to like all of The Colour And The Shape, but for me its weaker points outweighed its strengths.

In fact, by the release of Everlong as a single three months after the album dropped, I had checked out. A band – or more fittingly, a recording – I had invested so much in back in 1995 had turned out to be something else entirely, and I just slowly forgot about them. I kept one eye on them, and was sickened by what seemed like a never-ending cast of musicians came and went – Goldsmith was replaced by Taylor Hawkins, formerly of Alanis Morissette’s touring band, and Pat Smear left to be replaced on guitar by Frank Stahl, who ended up being fired by Grohl before they recorded third album There Is Nothing Left To Lose. A stable line-up only came when Chris Shiflett joined as the band’s guitarist after that record was in the can. Pat Smear seems to come and go as he pleases, but generally the band’s line-up has stayed the same in the 21st century.

In 2011’s Foo Fighters: Back And Forth documentary, Grohl reasons that all bands go through firings and difficult line-up changes, it’s just that the Foo Fighters did theirs after the band was already established in the public eye. As much as I agree with this, I just wish that initial foursome of Grohl, Smear, Mendel and Goldsmith had survived. There’s a band picture included in the packaging of that debut record, of the four original members looking very happy – maybe I’d still be a fan of the band if this line-up was still intact? My mild OCD seems to think so – I tend to prefer bands with a measure of stability in their line-ups.

Hit: Everlong

Hidden Gem: Hey, Johnny Park!

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Rocks In The Attic #389: Foo Fighters – ‘Foo Fighters’ (1995)

RITA#389A big, big album for me, this came out in the summer of 1995 (which would have been in between my two years of sixth form / A-levels). It’s wrapped up in my head with a lot of good times, and a couple of regretful decisions. I might not be a big fan of the music they bring out these days (too middle of the road for my tastes), but I can proudly say that I was a Foo Fighters fan from day one.

I wasn’t that much of a Nirvana fan before Kurt Cobain killed himself. A lot of my friends liked them, and I was very aware of them, but the whole grunge thing didn’t really float my boat. Of the other bands around at the time, I probably preferred Stone Temple Pilots who seemed to be coming at everything from more of a classic rock approach. I did come to appreciate Nirvana though – endless viewings of their videos and the Unplugged show on MTV in the months after his death meant that you couldn’t really avoid them.

Of the stuff I had heard, I definitely leant more to the rawer sound on In Utero than the slickly produced Nevermind. I liked Heart Shaped Box so much I bought the single on CD, and ended up really digging one of the b-sides – Marigold – written and sung (in a bathtub?) by Dave Grohl.

Fast forward to the next summer, and I read – probably in Kerrang – that Dave Grohl had put together his own band. I hadn’t heard anything by them, but I bought their debut single – This Is A Call – purely on the strength of what I heard in Marigold. I loved every second of it, and the two what-ended-up-being non-album b-sides, Winnebago and Podunk, were great too.

A month later, I bought the debut album on the day of its release. Boom, I was definitely a Foo Fighters fan now, and to me they felt like the world’s best-kept secret. There was no hype – nothing – about the band at this point. Dave Grohl might be a household name now, but back then he really was just ‘the drummer from Nirvana’.

A couple of months later and we arrive at the first regret of this story. It’s actually one of my biggest musical regrets, and I’m still sore about it. The Foo Fighters were coming to Manchester – 5th September 1995 – to play a gig at Manchester University, supported by the Presidents Of The United States Of America (another band I would have killed to see at the time). I couldn’t go, for some reason, despite regularly attending gigs at the University, or the Academy next door, around those couple of years. I seem to remember it being something to do with having an exam the day after, but the date doesn’t stack up – why would I have had an exam at the start of the new school year?

Anyway, for whatever reason, I missed it. This annoys me so much – I don’t want to be one of those fans who ditches bands as soon as they become famous, but here was a band I was really into from their very early days, after hearing the promise of a b-side and reading about their formation in a couple of centimetres of newsprint. Grrr.

Their second album came out when I was in my first year at University, and almost immediately I started to lose interest. That second album – recorded by the full band, but with drums naughtily re-recorded by Grohl – was good, but it went down a different road than the personal feel of the debut album.

I did eventually get to see them – at a V festival in Stafford in 2001 – but by then I didn’t recognise them anymore. The line-up of that small group he had originally put together had already changed four times (in just six years). Drummer William Goldsmith had enough of his drum parts being re-recorded by Grohl and left in 1997, followed soon after by Grohl’s Nirvana bandmate, guitarist Pat Smear. By the time I saw them in 2001, even Smear’s replacement, Franz Stahl, had come and gone, replaced by Chris Shiflett. I don’t remember enjoying them. They didn’t belong to me anymore, they belonged to everybody else.

As a measure of how turbulent the band was at the time, on the day that I saw them in Stafford in 2001, drummer Taylor Hawkins – drafted in from, ugh, Alanis Morissette’s touring band – was hospitalised after a drug overdose following their set. Thankfully, these days they seem a little more settled.

I saw them again in 2006, at another festival (Manchester’s Old Trafford cricket ground). Again, meh. Music for panel-beaters and hairdressers.

My second regret came in 2011 when, now living in New Zealand, I missed the chance to see them play a small intimate charity gig at Auckland’s Town Hall. The reason this time – a work event I couldn’t get out of. I recently almost missed out on a repeat of this gig earlier this year, which they had to cancel at the last minute due to one of their equipment trucks crashing on their way up to the gig.

It looks like if I ever want to see the Foo Fighters play a small gig – which I feel I deserve – I’ll have to kidnap Dave Grohl. Now, where did I put that masking tape…

Hit: I’ll Stick Around

Hidden Gem: Good Grief

Rocks In The Attic #294: Nirvana – ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

RITA#294Like a lot of people my age, this was the first exposure I had to grunge music. At first, the very idea of grunge just didn’t appeal to me – a genre made up of scruffy guys with bad hair and lumberjack shirts. Then my friends kept playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, and the intro burrowed into my head like an earworm.

I have trouble listening to this record now. I can’t hear anything resembling punk or new wave anymore; all I can hear is the perfect production by Butch Vig – the fantastic separation of voice and instruments, and the rampant double-tracking on the vocals.

There’s a great episode of Classic Albums where Vig isolates the vocals on In Bloom and you can hear just how strong those vocal melodies are on the chorus – Cobain’s lead vocal double-tracked, and then supported by Dave Grohl’s backing vocals, also double-tracked. Vig convinced Cobain that this was a good idea because it’s something that John Lennon would have done. That in itself sounds like a million miles away from punk rock.

Of the two albums, I prefer In Utero as a piece of work, and always have done. The songwriting isn’t overshadowed by the production on that album; and despite that album being the soundtrack to Cobain’s suicide, there doesn’t seem to be as much hype and baggage to put up with. I do enjoy the second side of Nevermind though, when you get away from all the overplayed singles that are littered on the first side. The album just seems to breathe a little easier on that side.

Still, Nevermind holds a lot of memories for me, and always will. That crazy photo of the baby underwater is a beautiful image – and proof that classic album covers didn’t die out in the digital age. Even the blurry photo of the band (on the back of the record sleeve, but on the inlay of the CD if I remember correctly) brings a smile to my face. In fact, the whole production design of the album is pretty awesome – the album title written in a font to make it look like it’s floating on top of water, and the back cover made to look like shimmering sunlight refracted through the water of a swimming pool. I spent many an hour of my teens just looking at the album art, and at that age you read far too much into every little thing. It just seemed important.

Throughout my adolescence (in the UK) I encountered plenty of people who were anti-American. These people will eschew anything from that side of the Atlantic, while singing the praises of anything recorded by the British, just simply because it’s British. I’ve never really understood this musical racism, and some of my closest friends have been blighted by it.

I was asked once why would I want to listen to an American chap singing about killing himself, when I could listen to an Englishman sing about living forever?

The answer is simple – there’s more joy and energy in one line of a Kurt Cobain’s song than in a lifetime of Oasis records. I’ll take invention and imagination over mediocrity any day.

Hit: Smells Like Teen Spirit

Hidden Gem: Lounge Act