Tag Archives: Nevermind

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 #566: Duke Ellington – ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ (1959)

rita566Forget Sgt. Pepper’s and Nevermind. Forget Axis: Bold As Love, Abbey Road and Dark Side Of The Moon. The greatest album cover in the history of recorded music is this one, designed by Hitchcock alumnus Saul Bass.

Of course, that’s only my opinion, but that’s what the internet is all about, isn’t it?

Saul Bass’ titles of Hitchock’s films throughout the late ‘50s are peerless – and his work here on Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy Of A Murder is probably my favourite if I had to choose a single image.

A couple of years ago, this album cover was quite rightly included in a touring exhibition, Degas To Dali, which was showing at the Auckland Art Gallery. I wonder how long it will take until art galleries are showing album covers as exhibitions in their own right. We can’t be that far away, if it hasn’t happened already. The world of album cover design is as strong as any other medium, and contains as many surprises as you can find turkeys. I’ve just glanced at Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Album Covers – I’d question a lot of them, but isn’t that what art’s all about, to provoke discussion and to continually question what has come before?

Hit: Main Title And Anatomy Of A Murder

Hidden Gem: Flirtbird

Rocks In The Attic #458: Garbage – ‘Garbage’ (1995)

RITA#458Like most men (and probably most women) who saw Garbage on their first tour, promoting this debut album, I fell in love with Shirley Manson; totally unconditionally, head-over-heels in love. If she had clicked her fingers, I would have followed, asking questions. All despite reading that she once squatted over the kitchen table in her boyfriend’s apartment and took a dump in his bowl of cornflakes. She had caught him cheating apparently.

I’m always a little suspicious when rock bands enlist a hot lady to sing. Sex does sell, but so does talent and the other three quarters of Garbage already had that in spades. Drummer Butch Vig (the super-producer of Nevermind, Siamese Dream), guitarist Steve Marker (sound engineer on L7’s Bricks Are Heavy) and bassist Duke Erikson (guitarist with Spooner and Fire Town, both alongside Vig) started a new project in 1994 and decided on a female vocalist to distance themselves from the all-male bands they had prior experience with. The female angst thing was popular around the mid-‘90s, with Alanis Morissette and Meredith Brooks ploughing the same field, so Manson’s vocals fit right in.

I remember hearing Queer first, and thinking it sounded very different to everything else at the time. It was still rock, but with a dark, electronic pop edge. In fact, it sounds a lot like today’s stripper pop (as Dave Grohl calls it) but in 1995 it ticked enough boxes for my ears.

I saw them play at the Apollo in Manchester, supported by Bis, in March ‘96. I remember seeing the roadies set up the stage for the headliners, and noticing the sheer amount of technology in Marker and Erikson’s flight racks. The LEDs from the various amps, processors and effects units was dizzying, and created a great backdrop.

Right from their opening number – Queer, no less – Manson owned the stage. As the band played through the opening bars, she walked out wearing knee-high leather boots, a corset and a pink feather boa. Boom. Like a thunderbolt.

I even liked their follow-up album, Version 2.0, but by the time I saw them again, at Glastonbury in 2005, I had moved on. As such, I quickly forgot about the band. Times change, and all that.

Twenty years on, the debut has been re-released in a beautiful 45rpm double pink vinyl package. It sounds great, and has definitely taken me back to those post-grunge days. I still love Queer, but it’s I’m Only Happy When It Rains which really impresses me. I’d go so far as saying that it’s one of my favourite songs from that entire decade. That’s a huge call, considering the amount of great music that the ‘90s gave us, but there’s something about the song’s ‘pour your misery down’ refrain that just speaks to me.

Postscript: Sex might very well sell, but without any discernible talent, it’s about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. In the mid-2000s, Shirley Manson appeared as an antagonist in The Sarah Connor Chonic…, The Sarah Cronner Chon…, The Sarah Connorcles…ah fuck it, that lame Terminator TV series that swiftly got cancelled. Manson might ooze talent and sex appeal on stage, but she most definitely cannot act, and her unconventional looks (upside-down eyes, pale skin and bright ginger hair), which looked great on stage, just made her look odd among the stereotypically beautiful people on TV. The show was bad enough before she appeared, but she just seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.

Hit: I’m Only Happy When It Rains

Hidden Gem: Supervixen

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

Rocks In The Attic #203: Nirvana – ‘Bleach’ (1989)

RITA#202I remember wanting this album so much to be better than it actually is. That’s the curse when you start listening to music – your ability to critique isn’t fully established, so instead of just accepting that an album isn’t all that great, you just dig your heels in and listen to it more, as though you can potentially make it better just by the act of repetition.

Bleach is far from being as good as Nevermind, and it’s not even in the same league as In Utero, which I’ve always regarded as their best and most consistent album. Listening to Bleach now though, it seems to have aged very well. I remember listening to the album throughout the ‘90s was always a bit of a chore, something I had to do every once in a while to fulfil my duties as a Nirvana fan.

One aspect I could never get over at the time was how laid-back the drums were, by Dave Grohl’s predecessor Chad Channing. Again, in hindsight the drum parts don’t seem too bad. The technique and power of Dave Grohl from Nevermind is noticeably absent, but I feel pretty guilty that Chad Channing had been unfairly maligned simply for not being Dave Grohl.

Dave Grohl eh, I wonder what ever happened to him?

Hit: About A Girl

Hidden Gem: School