Hair Metal… Dude!

I like hair metal. It is simply mainstream rock from the 1980s. Much of what has remained in the critical memory from that decade, like Metallica, wasn’t that successful at the time, while bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Van Halen, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi were selling zillions of records. If you’ve ever seen The Decline of Western Civilisation II: The Metal Years (and if you haven’t I recommend you do so), you get a sense of the whole ecosystem of LA rock bands, from the bottom feeders to the aspirants to the kings of the jungle. What I like about hair metal (the name is of course derogatory, but it’s a useful tag) is that it’s fun. It’s celebratory, emboldening, empowering. Nirvana came along and destroyed all that, making rocking an embarrassment; thereafter wiping out the joyous, hedonistic aspect of rock, leaving nihilism, (self)loathing or pure aggression. Bands like The Darkness who wanted to return to the fun of rock had to do so semi-ironically, with a wink and a nudge to say “We know it’s ridiculous…”

Still, there’s a lot worthwhile from the decade that taste forgot, where women were women and the men were women too. Here’s a few of my favourites.

Alice Cooper, “Poison”

After spending the early 80s in a drug funk, Alice cleaned up and needed to earn some serious $. Teaming up with songwriter Desmond Child, he made a successful comeback, showing Aerosmith the way to do it (they followed the exact same route about a year later). “Poison” cops the intro from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and uses the “bad drug” metaphor earlier seen in Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine”.

Poison, “Ride The Wind”

Never critical favourites (hey, but then neither were Black Sabbath), Poison were always derided for being too poppy, too popular, too fun. There’s little more self-righteous than the rock fan. In their third album Flesh And Blood, Poison added muscle to their guitar sound and wrote about topics more varied that sex, partying, rock and more sex. This ode to motorbiking is undeniable.

Quireboys, “Hey You”

Rock in Britain in the late 80s was in a poor way. Iron Maiden were the kings of the jungle, but had obviously fossilised, churning out the same album time after time. The NWOBHM similarly had faded, and nothing had managed to hook audiences in the same way – with LA rock consuming American interest, most British bands tried to follow suit into sleaze rock, often appallingly. The Quireboys wisely ploughed the Rolling Stones/Small Faces influences. Shame that the Black Crowes took the same idea but being American got the big audiences. Still, this is a classic song with a wonderful chorus. I hope it still gets played in biker bars in the sketchier parts of the UK.

Motley Crue, “Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S.)”

Before Guns N’ Roses blew them out the water, the Crue were the kings of the LA rock jungle. Their albums were the precise embodiment of the hair metal thing, with tales of hedonism and cheap regret, rocking but melodic riff-monsters and sing-together power ballads. Dr Feelgood remains their best album, in part down the production, which brings out the arrangements and song craft better than any other. (Metallica liked the production so much that they hired producer Bob Rock to do their fifth album). “Same Ol’ Situation” is a case in point – stomping intro (thumping snare from Tommy Lee), catchy verse (sassy vocal from Vince Neil) and great singalong chorus (terrific massed backing vocals makes it massive). So much FUN.

KISS, “Crazy Crazy Nights”

I never knew KISS as the masked demons of pop-rock fantasy, just as their 80s rock incarnation. I love how much they celebrate the joys of life, of Friday nights and blue-collar thrills with such relish. Nothing snobby here! Funny how this attitude is celebrated in Jack Kerouac (for example) but despised in music. I have no idea why that is, but it’s to the impoverishment of those who feel that way.

Mr. Big, “To Be With You”

The ballad was of course a big part of the hair metal armory. It was usually a power ballad with a slow intro and rousing ending (with shredding guitar solo): simple but endlessly effective. This isn’t one, being an accoustic singalong, but it’s notable for the excellent vocal harmonies in the chorus. This song is still very popular in China!

Ugly Kid Joe, “Everything About You”
Juvenile, adolescent, childish… yup. That’s not to be derogatory, but just to point out its qualities. Still great fun.

Aerosmith, “Love in an Elevator”

After losing their way in the 80s (no real surprise when every album title was a reference to cocaine: Rocks, Draw The Line, Done With Mirrors), Aerosmith followed the Alice Cooper template, cleaning up and getting together with outside writers to get back in the charts. This is not to say their comeback albums, Pump and Permanent Vacation, are vacuous sellouts. The guitar interplay and the exceptional vocal harmonies in the outstanding song from Pump, “Love In An Elevator”, show that form might be temporary but class is permanent.

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Out The Ordinary

It’s often nice when a band does an album out of left-field. I seem to be in the minority in believing this, as these albums tend to get fans up in arms about “selling out” or some such fucking nonsense. This is especially true in metal, but generally observable throughout rock – rock fans being the most inanely conservative and tediously unadventurous of any genre (perhaps excepting the selfrighteous folkies screaming “Judas!” when Dylan went electric in 1965). I don’t, of course, mean when a band loses it and goes all crap – as can be seen when they only have one good album in them (Tricky, Oasis, The Cranberries). I mean when they are good and try something different, take some risks, branch out, have a bit of fun, stretch themselves. Here’s some examples of when artists try something different and pull it off.

Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline

Though I am not really a big Dylan fan (I mean, really, where’s the beef?), this is a beautifully done album. That near-yodel of a singing voice, coming from his normal acerbic nasal register, must have knocked lots of his fans for six. Then too, the lyrical content, far from the early political protest songs or the hipster-period cryptic allusions and wordplay (“Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, indeed) is quiet, meditative tales of love and loss. The music of course is country, but in the folky, rural sense, not the absurd cheesy gash beloved of white trash around the world. (Trust me, I know). Though Dylan had to some extent prepared the ground with John Wesley Harding, that retained his familiar voice and harmonica. Nashville Skyline, with its steel guitars and cornpone twang, is something else altogether. I really like it.

U2, Achtung Baby/Zooropa

These albums have to be considered companion pieces, and were of course unified by the Zoo TV tour. There’s also the fact that both are only half-good, with noticeable declines in quality on side 2 in both. Achtung Baby is where U2 dropped the earnestness and the bombast and went post-modern: with magnificent Brian Eno production, it shakes their sound out from top to bottom, reconfiguring and reimagining it completely. (Remember, they had been critically slaughtered for the rootsy Rattle And Hum three years earlier). Opening with “Zoo Station” and its direct lift from Bowie’s Low tune “Sound and Vision”, it leads directly into the cool, hip “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the (now cliched, but still majestic) “One”. Superb triptych! With fluid rhythms and swirling neo-psychedlic guitars, the whole album mostly keeps to rock structures but is endlessly inventive with the sound. Zooropa on the other hand delves even further into dance music (“Lemon”, maybe my favourite U2 song ever), electronica (“Numb”, which is a kind of counterpoint to Tubular Bells, but contrasting the mush of modern consumerism where Oldfield found affirmation in musical layering), found sounds (the opening half of “Zooropa”, for which the album credits thank “the wold of advertising”, and the innocence of “Babyface”, four full years before Radiohead’s “No Surprises” – honestly, compare the two) and tops off the opening half with the heartbreaking “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”. Shame, then, that the second half is turgid. Apparently Zooropa was going to be an EP made during the Zoo TV tour: if they’d only taken the time to write a few more songs to knock off filler like “Some Days Are Better Than Other” and “Dirty Day”, it might have been an absolute monster of an album. The post-modernism of Achtung Baby is refined even further: where that album is most about relationships and loss, Zooropa is about the human condition in the late twentieth century. It’s a staggering achievement… for five songs out of ten. Still, at the time, I found it one of the most intellectually exciting albums I had ever heard.

REM – Monster

So the plan was REM were going to do a proper rock album and Nirvana, following up from Unplugged, were going to do something a bit more pastoral, like Automatic For The People. Well, that didn’t quite work out. Great idea though. REM still made their rock album in Monster, which comes across as a cathartic blurt after the pastoral Out Of Time and the sombre Automatic For The People. But rather than rock, REM “rock”. It always seems like a genre exercise, a self-conscious effort which never escapes inverted commas. This can best be seen in songs like “Crush With Eyeliner” (great video, too) and “Star 69”, which is about the first time the REM have done a song about sex and getting some. Self-conscious hipsters that REM are, they can’t really rock out like Nirvana would, or even as Pearl Jam did in their wilder moments like “Porch” or “Leash”. Monster therefore comes across as tongue in cheek, as a glam rock album akin to Mud or The Sweet rather than the alt rock sincerity of Seattle bands. But given REM’s need to catharsize and to slough off their earnest image, it all works rather well, if one-dimensionally. Still, the guitar sound in “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Let Me In”, and the tickled eroticism of “Tongue” and “Strange Currencies” are fine additions to REM’s palette.

Slayer, South of Heaven

Slayer’s early albums focus on speed and aggressive attack, like being slashed with a stanley knife. The ferocious riff that tears open the first track on their first album (“Evil Has No Boundaries” from Show No Mercy) shows this perfectly. Insanely fast, like Iron Maiden on demonic amphetamines, the riff explodes into the first verse with a shrieking scream from Tom Araya, before storming into the unsurpassable couplet “Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell / No-one can stop us tonight!” Hell yes! The second album Hell Awaits mixes it up a bit but the short savage blast of Reign In Blood cannot be beaten for speed and intensity. It’s insanely, demonically ferocious. Fortunately Slayer realised this and switched tack for the subsequent South of Heaven. With slower tempos, the music is now more full bodied, thicker, beefier. (This was three years before Metallica did something similar with Metalllica, AKA the Black Album). It was then a side of Slayer no-one had really heard before, but they do it really well, and in fact South of Heaven is my favourite Slayer album. The opening title track has a spooky, haunting opener and builds and builds in intensity; “Silent Scream” has terrific breakbeats from Dave Lombardo; “Behind The Crooked Cross” is a fascinating tale of a Nazi trapped “by a cause I once understood”; the ending of “Mandatory Suicide” is horrifying; the crunching ending of “Ghosts Of War” is fantastic; and the cold sparkling arpeggios which open “Spill The Blood” show the way to the next album’s “Seasons In The Abyss”, which would actually be an MTV hit (!). Far too few metal bands have a good grasp of dynamics, and are content to pound away without variation in tempo or intensity, making it far too homogenous. In South of Heaven, Slayer show their master of both.

Talking Heads, Remain In Light

Starting out as a nervy CBGBs/new wave band, Remain In Light is a real leap. It showcases the band trying out polyrhythms and jungle funk, and is marvellously produced with liquid fluidity by Brian Eno. The centrepiece is “Once In A Lifetime”, which everyone should know by now, but there’s lots of killer tunes, such as “Born Under Punches”, “The Great Curve” and (my favourite) “Seen And Not Seen”. David Byrne, man, is a goddamn genius. This is a terrific example of a band developing their sound while staying true to their aesthetic. Some bands change their approach and with it what seems to be their entire guiding principles – for example Suede after the aching romantic heartache of Dogmanstar shed the angst to become upbeat glamsters on Coming Up and subsequent albums. Which might be alright as an album, but like… what happened to the band I used to like? (See also Poison, chasing their tales in an attempt to gain critical favour with posturing bluesy albums like Native Tongue). Talking Heads here show how to do it, with this exceptional album.

Unfashionable Albums I Like

I guess I’m pretty proud of my taste in music, am vain enough to think I’ve got excellent taste. The good side of this is that I’m always keen to pass on discoveries I have made, to share good music I know; the negative obviously is a pride, a quickness to mock the taste of others. There are worse vices, I’m sure, but this isn’t pretty. A good friend of mine (whom I’ll call Stuart, as that’s his name) was always into what you might call soft rock when we were growing up: the kind of stuff you see in adverts for compilations called LEATHER AND LACE or DRIVETIME CLASSICS: stuff like Whitesnake, Meatloaf, Kiss, Heart, and Roxette: power ballads and melodic rock. Well, for ages I ripped the shit out of him for this, though quite rightly he never paid the slightest bit of attention to my bitching. And now I find I, um, kinda like that kind of music after all. It’s mindless fun, maybe, but it’s fun.

So I think it only right to ‘fess up and make a list of the chronically unfashionable albums I like. In the end, of course, it shouldn’t matter in the slightest whether an album is fashionable; but taste is often influenced by your friends and the broader concensus on what’s good and what’s not. So let’s start 2012 with a look at albums which may have a bad reputation or not be cool, but which I think are actually very good.

1. George Michael, Older

Not many artists get out of being a pop starlet when they were younger, so George Michael went for the explicit “maturity” angle with Older. Of course, he’s really a pop and soul guy, and by refining his music to smooth rhythms, he started appealling to housewives, while his outing didn’t really endear him to the gay audience (since it was dragged out of him) or to the straights (cottaging not being very hip). No matter. I think Older is a very good album, smooth perhaps, but heartfelt, and never bland or boring (Michael’s pop hookery never really deserts him). The atmosphere is dusky or downright late-night, as in the title track (with it’s jazz-clubby trumpet) and “Move On”. The atmosphere of the whole album is quite similar to Sade’s Diamond Life, which is high praise.

2. Marillion, Misplaced Childhood

Prog rock nowadays gets a bad press, what with it being ambitious and having (oh lordy!) pretensions. I think this is more down to the insipid unimaginative dross that seems to go for mainstream rock (never mind the pop, which seems to be gormless twats off talent shows who actually ache to be puppets in the machine). Marillion, being second wave prog, don’t even have the excuse of being the first to do it all – no, they were inspired by Genesis, particularly Peter Gabriel (Fish’s voice is very similar, and both are guilty of double-tracking their voice when it sounds better unadorned). No matter. Misplaced Childhood is a lush confection of chiming guitars, overblown keyboards and Fish’s sometimes affecting and sometime absurd poetics. While the famous hits “Kayleigh” and “Lavender” should be well known, the focal point of the album are the suites “Heart of Lothian” and “Blind Curve” which dominate sides 1 and 2 respectively. Colourful, imaginative, technically superb, touching, occasionally a bit much (“drenched with napalm / this is no Vietnam” – oh come now, Fish!), Misplaced Childhood is an album from when bands weren’t afraid to make bold statements.

3. Poison, Flesh And Blood

Hair metal, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is a deregatory term for what was then just mainstream L.A. rock. Bands like Ratt, WASP, Motley Crue, Poison, Faster Pussycat, even Guns N’ Roses. While Motley Crue have made a bit of a comeback with a book retelling their anecdotes of depravity and debauchery, most of the rest languish in the bargain basement of nostaligia tours and reality TV. This is perhaps unfair: some of the music remains worth listening to, as with Poison’s third album. While Poison had really broken through with their second album Open Up And Say Aaargh!, for Flesh And Blood they made an attempt for credibility. The guitars are far more muscular than the predocessor , the lyrics less sex-and-party and more “the-trials-of-a-young-man”. “Valley Of Lost Souls” in many ways is their “Welcome To The Jungle”, a reflection of the dark side of LA life, whereas the similar “Fallen Angel” on the previous album had more of a sing-along chorus. CC Deville shows his guitar chops on the excellent (and somewhat bluesy) instrumental “Swampjuice (Soul-O)”, which leads into the hit single, the fun-but-adolescent “Unskinny Bop”.

It’s surprising how much successful rock band’s self-esteem depend on critical esteem. Poison never had any, and ended up chasing their tails in an attempt to seem real or authentic. But here, they combine strong musical talents, a sense of fun, and an awareness that often there’s a price to paid. A good album which has aged far better than others from the 1980s LA rock bubble.

4. Pet Shop Boys, Alternative

The Pet Shop Boys often don’t get the acclaim they deserve, or so it seems to me, being considered a bit of a gay electronica band. (Shane Macgowan, beaten to Xmas #1 with his immortal “Fairytale of New York” by their cover of “Always On My Mind”, called them “two queens and a drum machine”). Their understated irony (Allmusic actually calls “Opportunities”, their scathing indictment of 80s materialism, “crass” – talk about missing the point!), postmodern understanding of performance, packaging and pop itself, and their sharp intelligence and social observations make them a great pop band (In the Warholian sense, you might say). I don’t like all their stuff, but I do really like their B-sides collection, Alternative.

The PSBs always pay close attention to their album titles, and Alternative is an apt descriptor. It’s less a “pop” experience than their singles collection, Discography (note the word “disco” in there). If Discography is them scrubbing well and showing their best face to the world, then Alternative is them as they are, for good or for bad. Thus the lyrics, atmosphere and themes are highly personal. Some are straightforwardly autobiographical, as in “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend”, which has a nice send-up of the young Neil Tennant as “shy and dry and verging on ugly”, and “A Man Could Get Arrested”, about a scene of violence they witnessed. There’s a fascination with subcultures (appropriate for a former Smash Hits editor), signalled with “Paninaro” (an Italian equivalent of Mods), and the (gay) clubbing tracks “Music For Boys” and “Euroboy”. Relationships, especially the gay variety, also feature. These often have very dark sinister atmosphere, suited to soundtracking the downside to a hedonistic lifestyle – “Some Speculation” is a masterpiece of paranoia, whereas “Do I Have To?” is yearning and idealistic. The overall weakness of the album is inevitably that the quality is variable. Some tracks are strong enough to be excellent singles, especially “Do I Have To?” and “A Man Could Get Arrested”. But some are decidedly ropy, especially on disk 2 – “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” is dreadful, and I never really like their outre gay moments like “Shameless”. All the same, I find this a fascinating and highly revealing album – the PSBs without their pants on, as it were.

 

So never mind what anyone else says about what you listen to, just follow your ears! Unless, that is, you like Coldplay. In which case I will viciously bitchslap you.

 

(N.B. if you by some unlikely miracle experience a certain deja vu in some of these write-ups, let me confess that I have taken some of the text from my reviews of these albums on Amazon. If you can’t get to sleep, you can find the full series of reviews here).

Nirvana – 20 years on

It sometimes frightens me to find that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released 20 years ago. It also makes me feel both old – although I was only 12 at the time – and sad, as I don’t think there’s been a rock band to rival Nirvana since then. (I say rock band, to distinguish from heavy metal, which seems to be doing just fine as a genre). The passion, intensity, hookiness, honesty, and energy in their music were stupendous. The videos still attest to their power – “Lithium”, with Kurt running into and bouncing off a bank of speakers and Krist’s shaggy-dog leaping; Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, with that astonishing scene of Kurt lashing out at the meaty bouncer who punches him; the impossible anarchy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (surely the most exciting song since “Anarchy In The UK” or “White Riot”); the the sepulchral elegy of Unplugged. 20 years on, they’re all as potent as ever.

In many ways Kurt was the last great rock star. But this is to see him in the traditional sense, as part of the Classic Rock Canon, up there with Hendrix, Morrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Joe Strummer, Angus Young – all the acts venerated by tedious retrospectives like Classic Rock and Mojo. In a sense, this is true, of course – Nirvana were a great rock band. But there’s more to it than that. Unlike the others, Kurt despised rock music and actively destroyed it. Rock music’s hegemony as the main cultural force in Western youth died – not along with Kurt, but following his trashing, his ironising, sarcastic mocking and inverting, of the very fundamentals upon which rock was based. Once deconstructed, no one has ever been able to put them back together without irony. Straightforward rock has since then bifurcated into harmless, insipid craft (sometimes known as “mortgage rock” ) or metal; no-one has been able to pull of the masculine swagger necessary for rock music since.

What do I mean the fundamentals upon which rock was based? Rock music, while written and performed by outsiders and wannabes, is music which almost by definition seeks to convert others. It is expansive, unifying, all-embracing. Its basis on driving rhythm, riffs and energy, make it easily translatable across nations and cultures: everyone can join in. At its best, as seen in bands like like Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2 and AC/DC, it is utterly transcending, unifying audience, artist and music in an exchange of energy that goes beyond the individual. Think of Freddy Mercury holding 72,000 people in the palm of his hand at Live Aid, or of U2’s jaw-dropping “Zoo TV” spectacle (surely the greatest stage show ever), or of The Beatles performing “Hey Jude” on David Frost, being joined by all sorts during the magnificent singalong coda.

Rock music also has a perhaps inherently masculine ethos. This comes through in a ridiculous number of ways – from the gang of brothers concept of the band to the strutting sexuality of the music to the iconography of guns and violence to the music videos with women as objects (we’re talking about the 1070s and 1980s here). (While Spinal Tap deliciously satirised many of these elements, they did so within the context of rock, in straightfaced deadpan; it seemed to protest at excesses and stupidities, rather than undermine the foundations). The amplified, distorted electric guitar, rock’s essential musical ingredient, also is designed for masculine appeal, with its energy and transgressive distortion. It is the sound of boundaries being broken, of aggression, of violence, of primal spirits being unleashed. Pretty, it ain’t. This is not to suggest the rock music, or the sound of the electric guitar, does not appeal to women – obviously, that would be an absurdity. But clearly the preponderant obvious for rock music is male, often adolescent. Perhaps Bill Drummond expressed it best:

In our inner heaven, the old gods are all still there: Odin, Thor, Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, Buddha, Allah, and yes, of course, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary too. But these are just names and, if we burden them with too many facts and figures, whats and wheres, whens and whys, then we get no further than Albert Goldman did in his book Elvis: we will just be left looking at the bloated corpse of a Southern lad allowed to live a life of selfish excess, instead of recognizing the man who shared all out closed doors and inner hungers. The difference between us and him is that this man’s doors were flung open by the influence of of the untamed dark continent, and inside him was Dionysus in perfect working order, bursting to get out. And he did: Dionysus was made flesh.

The sleeping Dionysus in all us young tender white males understood the clarion call. This clarion call grew and grew, went out around the world. Echoes. Echoes of echoes answering back from continent to continent, from year to year, from generation to generation. Gangs of young men went out into the world armed only with the buzzing, howling and chiming of single-coil and Humbucker pick-ups and the clatter of drums, screaming their war cries and moaning their laments…

Fads and fashions fanned flames then flickered away. Intellectual snobberies muddied the water. Technical prowess tried to hold us – the hordes – at bay. But through all that, Dionysus staggered on, leering and lurching. He was on the loose for the first time in almost one thousand years. He had been banished since the last Viking raids, since the old gods, the Norse gods, the Olympian gods and the Celtic gods, banished but not killed, just locked deep in our souls.

So don’t look for him in Elvis’s quiff, or in his tough-but-tender looks, or John Lennon’s ache or Dylan’s rhymes, or Bolan’s boogie or Bowie’s masks or Johnny Rotten’s disdain, or in any other of the thousands who have heard the clarion call and made arseholes of themselves across the world’s stages. Generation after generation has grabbed this birthright – and yes, it is a birthright… Rock ‘n’ roll in all its ugly, debased, exploited forms, torn out of and built up from the black man’s basic twelve-bar blues, is the soundtrack to every Viking voyage. Once again the white boy can rape and pillage, lie and lick, lust and kick, swagger and swear across the known and unknown universe, the chains of Christian doctrine smashed on a pagan altar.

Similarly, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of journalists, liggers, A&R men, producers, and record execs were men. The culture which developed around rock – its commercial exploitation, the industry players, its marketing – was self-reinforcingly masculine, even macho. One can see this with female performers in the rock world – they  were either marketed as sexual fantasies (Lita Ford) or as one of the guys (Joan Jett): either way, according to a masculine perspective. (Acts which would not play along with this, such as Patti Smith or The Slits, never gained  a mass audience – or were never marketed to a mass audience, perhaps more accurately).

Finally, the imagery of rock, with its conflation of guns, guitars and penises, were clearly macho. If the 1980s were a decade of the heroic protagonist, this was as true in music as in films. There is surely a parallel between the heroic action heroes in Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, and Van Damme and the heroic front-men postures of 80s rock music. You can see this the heroic male figure in films like Top Gun and Young Guns (soundtracked by Bon Jovi), in Rocky III (the first where Rocky is a heroic, unreal figure – and the first with a rock soundtrack), and in bands like Dio, Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, and so on, even unto absurd groups like Manowar and Krocus. The emotion range is one of triumph, exaltation of the male desire and satisfaction, and unalloyed emotion signalled in vast gestures. The symbolism is of guns,  guitars and swords (i.e. penises),  castles, towers, dragons and monsters (life’s hardships and trials), motorbikes and “steeds” (empowerment), and women as objects (juvenile sexuality).

Nirvana turned all this on its head. Their early music was as angry and abrasive as any rock band – often more so – but from the start their lyrical preoccupations were completely antithetical to the prevailing rock ideology, and their approach to their audience and their music were just as oppositional, not only to the mainstream but to the prevailent rock culture, which by then by so ossified as to be barely countercultural at all. Their first album Bleach, for instance, explicitly mocks the macho figure in “Mr. Moustache”:

Easy in an easy chair
Poop as hard as rock
I don’t like you anyway
— Seal it in a box

Now You
Damn You

and mocks himself relentlessly – no braggidacio and heroics here:

I’m a negative creep (x3)
And I’m stoned!
I’m a negative creep (x3)
and I’m … (x2) (Negative Creep)

 

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, go to the office

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, what is it? (Big Cheese)

 

I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night, free
…I do

I’m standing in your line
I do, Hope you have the time
I do, Pick up number two
I do, Keep a date with you (About A Girl)

Barney ties me to the chair
I can’t see I’m really scared
Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip
Pee pee pressed against my lips

I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed (Floyd The Barber)

This sense of self-loathing, self-mockery and alienation goes directly back to punk. One is reminded of Ellen Willis’ great line about US punk “making up in alienated wise-assism what it lacks in [UK punk’s] shit-smearing belligerence”. There’s a touch of both in Bleach, but mostly the former, as Kurt refuses to posture as the macho frontman which rock then demanded, instead being the victim, the servant, the supplicant, the “negative creep”. But as the music tends towards (as Allmusic has it) “grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer”, there’s no real drama. It’s just aggression pointed at the self rather than others – which is of no great merit.

Nevermind advanced on Bleach in every way – in terms of songwriting craft, sonically, dynamically, in attitude, and in self-dramatisation. Nirvana no longer sound aimlessly angry; every song has a point and a perspective, as Kurt allies his songwriting to his beliefs and hobbyhorses. The power and freedom of punk, Women’s Lib, the freedom of the 60s, the intoxicating power of love, the stupidity of the macho figure (again), alienation, depression and low-esteem: these all wind their way through the songs, sometimes clearly (as in “Polly”), sometimes fragmented (as in “Come As You Are” and “Terrirorial Pissings”). Throughout, Kurt takes clear potshots at the macho posturings of rock, projects himself again as weak and alienated, and rejects the idea of rock as all-embracing:

He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means
when I say yeeeaaahhh (In Bloom)

And I swear that I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun (Come As You Are)

Never met a wise man
If so it’s a woman (Territorial Pissings)

I’m so happy. Cause today I found my friends.
They’re in my head. I’m so ugly. But that’s ok.
‘Cause so are you. We’ve broke our mirrors.
Sunday morning. Is everyday for all I care.
And I’m not scared. Light my candles. In a daze cause I’ve found god. (Lithium)

Underneath the bridge
My tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from my ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings (Something In The Way)

Nowadays, when artistic power relative to record labels seems lower than any time since the 1950s, it’s remarkable to hear a song dismissing its audience, as in “In Bloom”. But this is very much a punk rock concern: despite the rhetoric of “the kids” and being of the streets, punk was very much an elitist affair. It

(still to be finished)

don’t have gun

non-teleological?

attitudes – antisexist/homophobia etc