Tag Archives: Nirvana

Rocks In The Attic #828: The Backbeat Band – ‘Backbeat (O.S.T.)’ (1994)

RITA#828One of my favourite soundtracks from the 1990s, from my favourite Beatles biopic, it was a touch of genius to put a contemporary band together to record these early Beatles favourites.

Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) and Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs) share lead vocals, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Don Fleming (Gumball) provide vocals, Mike Mills (R.E.M.) plays bass and Dave Grohl (Nirvana) completes the band on drums. In fact, it’s the last Nirvana-related release before the death of Kurt Cobain just four weeks later.

The film, directed by Iain Softley, feels very Hollywood, despite it being a UK / German co-production, and it reeks of the ‘90s with heartthrob Stephen Dorff in the lead role as the doomed Stuart Sutcliffe. The script is effervescent, and the casting is superb, but it is Ian Hart’s uncanny turn as the acerbic John Lennon that stands out (the second of three times he has played the character).

RITA#828aThe Backbeat Band play a selection of covers the Beatles played in their Hamburg days – no expensive licensing required here – and they’re belted out with gusto. There’s just enough reverence for the songs, and the late ‘50s era of rock and roll, to prevent the songs from descending into a grunge-fest. It was great to see them play a couple of these songs live at the 1994 MTV Music Awards, followed by a heavy cover of the White Album’s Helter Skelter.

The final shot of this film, showing Sutcliffe and Lennon and their respective girlfriends (Sheryl Lee as Astrid Kirchherr and Jennifer Ehle as Cynthia Powell) playing in the twilight on a German beach is a deeply evocative moment of 1990’s filmmaking. The first screams of Liverpool’s Beatlemania fade away, replaced by the stark guitar and piano of Don Was’ score. Slowly, the intertitle text tells of cruel twisting of fate around Sutcliffe and Lennon’s doomed friendship:

Stuart Sutcliffe died of a brain haemorrhage in Hamburg on April 10th 1962. His legacy is a highly acclaimed collection of paintings that has been exhibited all over the world.

That same year, Pete Best left the Beatles and was replaced by Ringo Starr, on December 17th they entered the charts with “Love Me Do”. The following year, the McCartney / Lennon song “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sold 13 million copies worldwide.


They went on to top the U.S. charts a record 20 times and remain today the biggest selling pop group of all time.

Klaus Voorman designed the cover of the Beatles’ 1966 “Revolver” album. After the break-up of the Beatles in 1970 he joined John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, playing bass on the “Imagine” album.

Today Astrid Kirchherr’s photographs are recognised as the definitive record of the Beatles in Hamburg, and her visual ideas influenced the Beatles’ “look” throughout the sixties. She now lives happily in Hamburg.

On December 8th 1980 John Lennon was shot dead in New York City.

Hit: Twist And Shout

Hidden Gem: Bad Boy

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Rocks In The Attic #811: Pearl Jam – ‘MTV Unplugged (1992)

19075921591_JK001_PS_01_01_01.inddAnother year, another Record Store Day: Black Friday event. These have always been hit or miss for me in the past. Most years I’ve stumbled into my local stores on the weekend following the Friday and picked up one or two things, and some years I’ve disregarded it completely. Back in 2012, I walked into Real Groovy on the Sunday following Black Friday and picked up their only copy of the super-limited 10” pressing of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, now highly sought-after but evidently not by Auckland folk at the time. Last year, I think my only purchase was a rainbow-coloured vinyl pressing of the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing.

The continued rise of soundtracks has meant that the last couple of RSD events have seen some interesting releases. Earlier in the year, at the main April event, I picked up soundtracks to the Knight Rider TV series, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Lost In Translation and Howard Stern’s Private Parts: The Album. This Black Friday, I was lucky enough to pick up soundtracks to Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and Bill Conti’s score for 1987’s woeful Masters Of The Universe.

One of my non-soundtrack purchases from this year’s Black Friday event is this 1992 classic: Pearl Jam’s entry to the MTV Unplugged series. Strangely, considering the band’s stature during the grunge years of the early ‘90s, this marks the first time that the performance has been officially released on vinyl (several bootleg releases have made it to market in 2016 and 2017, but this one’s the real deal). R.E.M., Nirvana and Alice In Chain’s respective entries into the Unplugged cannon have slowly crept into each band’s back catalogue as essential releases, and so it seems like this will do the same for Pearl Jam. Now, if only they would release Stone Temple Pilot’s performance officially, so I can retire my bootleg copy.

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Comprised of six songs from their debut album Ten, plus one of their contributions to the Singles soundtrack (State Of Love And Trust), Pearl Jam’s set starts off slowly with the slow-burning Oceans. ‘A little love-song I wrote about my surfboard,’ Eddie Vedder tells the audience, as the applause dies down. There isn’t a great deal of communication with the audience, and very little of the surprisingly amusing banter you can hear on Nirvana’s Unplugged performance (‘What are you tuning? A harp?’). It’s this earnestness which turned me off Pearl Jam from the start, and which I’ve only been able to look beyond over the last decade or so.

All the big hits from the band’s debut are covered – Alive, Jeremy, Evenflow – but if anything it feels a bit too short. The seven songs featured are the same as those which were broadcast in the original 60-minute (including commercials) TV special. Their cover of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World is omitted, plus any rehearsal and off-screen performances.  I have a bootleg of the full Aerosmith unplugged performance from 1989 which is almost twice the length of the version that was broadcast. I wonder if the same can be said of Pearl Jam, particularly when we’ve just recently seen a reissue of Nirvana’s unplugged set containing previously unreleased rehearsal takes.

The one thing I can’t stand about these early ‘90s unplugged releases is the amount of whooping and hollering from the audience. I can appreciate the applause when a song ends, but the ‘realisation’ sounds of approval from the crowd, one or two bars into each song really irks me. It reminds me of ITV’s Stars In Your Eyes when the studio audience would give a complimentary round of applause one line into the first verse of Rocketman when they suddenly realise that yes, that tubby little IT consultant from Walthamstow really does sound like Elton John.

Hit: Jeremy

Hidden Gem: State Of Love And Trust

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Rocks In The Attic #665: Fastway – ‘Trick Or Treat’ (1986)

RITA#665Watching this film the other night, I was reminded of the decision I made somewhere in my teens that heavy metal was in a really bad place in the mid- to late-1980s.  At school, I was very much like the protagonist of this film – I’d wear double-denim, scrawl things like the AC/DC logo on my schoolbooks, and spend more time laughing than studying. Who knows where that might have ended in a parallel universe?

Thankfully, the appeal of heavy metal stopped where hair metal / glam metal started. I have no interest in listening to music played by musicians who have better hair than the girl next door. I can just about handle Def Leppard and early Ozzy Osbourne, but I avoid pretty everything else from that period. It’s generally very weak-sounding rock and roll, played by men wearing eyeliner and rouge.

When I see people on Facebook posting photos of Mötley Crüe or Poison records, I simply can’t understand the appeal. The cover image of Poison’s Look What The Cat Dragged In should be enough to deter anybody, yet is bandied around as a classic of the period.

I used to work with a guy who liked that sort of music. He was an old-school metalhead, and used to go to Donington’s Monsters Of Rock festival every year in the late ‘80s. I was speaking to him once and the conversation turned to the subject of Nirvana. He couldn’t hide his hatred for the band, seeing them as the reason why hair metal / glam metal had died. I just couldn’t understand this. The logic was that he felt that like he was onto a really good thing with that type of music, and when grunge kicked off, it killed all those bands.

Good riddance.

RITA#665bAs a film, Trick Or Treat owes more than a little to the plots of Halloween III: Season Of The Witch and Christine. The highlight is the appearance of Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons in small cameos, but even this novelty doesn’t save what is ultimately a wishful revenge fantasy with poor dialogue and a weak storyline. Backmasking should never be a plot-device.

The soundtrack features a bunch of dated heavy metal songs from the period by the band Fastway, formed by ex-Motörhead guitarist, ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke. As with anything from the period, it’s very much hard-rock-by-numbers, and probably does sound better played backwards.

Hit: Trick Or Treat

Hidden Gem: After Midnight

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 #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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