Tag Archives: Nirvana

Rocks In The Attic #478: R.E.M. – ‘Unplugged 1991’ (2014)

RITA#478I’m glad that MTV’s Unplugged shows are gradually becoming more and more available on vinyl. Only the other day I picked up a bootleg of Stone Temple Pilots’ fantastic Unplugged set from 1993. Of course, the really famous ones are Eric Clapton’s Grammy award winning record from 1992, and Nirvana’s swansong show in 1993, also a Grammy winner.  Now if they would just release Aerosmith’s 1990 show, I’d be very happy.

As cynical as you want to be about the whole Unplugged thing – a soul-less cash-in by a corporate TV station only interested in producing programming content – it’s become a nice little time capsule of early ‘90s rock and alternative rock. Of course the show is still going to this day, but the last one recorded was by Miley Cyrus in 2014 which shows just how much it’s devolved over time. It’s just a ratings chaser and always has been. In the early ‘90s, it was Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans who were propping up the album charts, these days it’s tweens propping up the download charts.

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R.E.M.’s first Unplugged set (they recorded another one in 2001) is dated between 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People – effectively smack bang in the peak of their career. They take the time to go as far back as their debut record Murmur( for Perfect Circle), and of their studio albums only Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction are passed over. The set does lean a little more towards the later albums – Green and Out Of Time – which is understandable considering how the music videos from those albums had opened the door to the wave of Alternative Rock which would fill the station for the first half of the 1990s.

The sound on this record is superb, and my only gripe is that the guitars all sound a little too clear and bright. That’s R.E.M. all over though – jangly ‘80s pop guitars rather than an authentic dusty blues guitar vibe.

Hit: Losing My Religion

Hidden Gem: Rotary Eleven

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 #419: Talking Heads – ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food’ (1978)

RITA#419This is the second Talking Heads record, released two weeks to the day I was born in 1978. I always spot in those lists that the number one record when I was born was You’re The One That I Want by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. I think I prefer this.

The one thing that amazes me about this album – except for the music of course – is the cover. It’s probably one of my favourite pieces of album artwork – a collage of 529 close-up polaroid photos, showing the four members of the band standing looking at the camera. I never see this regarded as being a classic album cover though. Maybe it’s a little too artsy for classic rock fans – but as far as pop art goes, this is a beautiful image.

This is the first Heads album to feature Brian Eno in the producer’s chair – a partnership that would eventually see them change the face of American music, turning new wave into alternative rock, paving the way for the likes of R.E.M. and subsequently Nirvana and beyond. In terms of a comparison to their first album, this one is tighter and, dare I say it, not as fun as that debut record. One of my favourite looser moments on Talking Heads: 77 is the steel drum break in opening song Uh-Oh, Love Comes To To Town. You still hear steel drums on More Songs…, but this time it’s in a much more controlled manner (towards the end of Found A Job).

That said, Bryne is still having a whale of a time, whooping and hollering on songs like Artists Only. Here you can hear him starting to loosen up, heading in the direction of his crazy vocal performance on Once In A Lifetime. Maybe that was Eno’s plan all along – get the band under control, but let Byrne go crazy over the top?

Hit: Take Me To The River

Hidden Gem: Thank You For Sending Me An Angel

Rocks In The Attic #393: Cheap Trick – ‘Live At The Budokan’ (1979)

RITA#393I bought a great rock magazine in the early 2000s. It was published by one of the established monthly magazines – Mojo or Q, I can’t remember which – but it was a special issue about essential rock albums you might not have heard. So, there was no Beatles, Stones or Floyd in there. No Bob Dylan. No Zeppelin. No Nirvana. Those would be obvious choices for an essential albums list – this was trying to present something a little out of the ordinary.

This one magazine turned me on to so much – ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, Ted Nugent’s eponymous debut, Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents Of Fortune – as well as a couple of albums I knew like the back of my hand – Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic.

It also turned me onto a couple of albums I’ve still not got my head around. One of them is this, Cheap Trick’s 1979 live album recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo. There are a bunch of rock bands from the ‘70s that never really left a lasting impression in the UK. Cheap Trick, Kiss and Aerosmith are definitely guilty of this. I’m not really sure why – but for some bands I suspect it has something to do with a failure to promote their albums, or tour, outside of their native America. Aerosmith only ever crossed the Atlantic once in the ‘70s, to play the Reading festival in 1977. So it might not be hard to believe that some people thought that they were a new band when they came back from the dead in the late ‘80s (they’re probably the same people who thought that Run DMC wrote Walk This Way).

So when I hear a record like this – effectively Cheap Trick’s greatest hits performed in concert – I have no frame of reference. I didn’t grow up listening to these singles, like somebody growing up in the USA might have done. The radio stations in the UK never played them – so I’m like a blank canvas. Even something as ubiquitous as I Want You To Want Me – now on the soundtrack to every teen flick to come out of Hollywood – was a rare sound in the UK.

I recently watched the Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways episode filmed in Chicago. It’s a great series, and nice to see them paying respect to Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. His guest appearance on the song recorded there – Something From Nothing – does leave me scratching my head though. It’s a great song, with a little funk to it, but Nielsen’s contribution is minimal – and barely audible. A wasted opportunity!

Hit: I Want You To Want Me

Hidden Gem: Hello There

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 #326: Transvision Vamp – ‘Velveteen’ (1989)

RITA#326Ugh. I don’t know why I have this in my record collection. Just listening to it makes me feel unwell. That opening “Waaaggggghhhhh” is a foreboding wail of plastic attitude and try-hard anarchy.

Transvision Vamp’s music belongs on the soundtrack of a very bad late ‘80s film. Maybe some sub-Richard Curtis romantic comedy, set in London, starring Richard E. Grant or Hugh Laurie.

I was in a meeting at work once, and somebody’s mobile phone rang out. The ringtone was Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and it belonged to an odious senior executive at an advertising agency.  She laughed, and said “I’m such a rock chick!” Groan. If Nirvana hadn’t have come along when they did, providing accessible popular rock for people to use to claim some sort of ‘alternative’ness, lame people like her would still regard Transvision Vamp’s style of music as cutting edge.

Still, Wendy James is super hot.

Hit: Baby I Don’t Care

Hidden Gem: Song To The Stars

Rocks In The Attic #308: Boston – ‘Boston’ (1976)

RITA#308More Than A Feeling is always mentioned as an influence on Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and held up as the one song it shares the most DNA with. The similarities are there – a catchy rock song built around a cyclical guitar riff – but that’s about it. A lot of famous guitar riffs are cyclical – it’s a hallmark of a catchy riff – but I see no reason to single Boston out.

You wouldn’t think it, but once you get past the family-friendly More Than A Feeling, Boston’s debut turns into a decent hard rock album – the pop single is definitely the softest thing on there. I know Smokin’ from the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and the rest of the album can be summarised by that song much better than its opening hit single. If anything, Boston come across as an American Deep Purple – guitar and organ led rock songs, with an unrelenting rhythm section.

The album is still the second best-selling debut album of all time in the United States (after Appetite For Destruction), and I guess that fact alone points to how important this album is to the musical psyche of that country – something that may not translate as well to the rest of the world.

Hit: More Than A Feeling

Hidden Gem: Foreplay / Long Time