"The two record, forty-five song Double Nickles on the Dime stands as one of the greatest achievements of the indie era"”an inspired Whitman's sampler of left-wing politics, moving autobiographical vignettes, and twisted Beefheartian twang."-Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life
"Suede have had more hype than anybody since the Smiths, or possibly even the Sex Pistols. The reviews are florid, poetic, half-crazed; they express the almost lascivious delight of journalists hungry for something to pin their hopes on."-William Leith, The Independent
"Despite the fears of some alternative-music fans, Nirvana hasn't gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana."-Christopher John Farley of Time, on In Utero
Punk rock (which, as this feature goes on, is proving increasingly to be a Rosetta stone for the music of the modern era) is arguably the first musical genre to be driven primarily by anger. If we can say that every genre of music is driven primarily by a single emotion (quite the claim I know, but one I plan to back up and stick to for the sake of argument throughout this column), we can see that Big Band was driven by musical expertise, blues by depression, rock and roll (and R&B) by sex and the desire to be cool (which I know arguably drive all music, but especially these tow genres), pop music by love, experimental music by the search for true art and prog rock by, I don't know, J.R.R. Tolkien, then it seems clear that punk music was the first genre to be driven by anger. It would not, however, be the last.We've talked previously in this space about the reasons for punk rock's lack of longevity and about the segmenting of punk rock into New Wave, which I hold took the anger of punk and turned it inward into anguished introspection and hardcore, which took the anger of punk rock and doubled down on it, both in terms of speed and musical accomplishment. When Minutemen formed in 1980, they would likely have been considered a punk band by the mainstream music press, if they mainstream music press had bothered to recognize their existence. Yet while on the surface they may have looked like just another punk rock band, they were actually the beginning of something new. It has always been the conventional wisdom in punk scenes that if you couldn't play your instrument very well, you should just play it fast enough to cover up your lack of prowess. When Mike Watt first picked up the bass, he knew so little about the instrument that he was actually holding a regular guitar that had only four strings and was improperly tuned.
Eventually, though, the band figured out how to play their instruments. That didn't stop them from continuing to up the speed of their songs, though. When I tell someone that many Minutemen songs are around 40 seconds long, they generally scoff or wonder how that could be musically satisfying. Not until they hear the band can they possibly understand what these guys could fit into that timeframe in their prime. The Minutemen wrote short songs not because of a lack of ideas or a lack of prowess; they wrote short songs because they could get their point across quickly and succinctly. And, of course, because they played so fast they could fit three minutes worth of song into 40 seconds.
The band released their fourth EP (sixth overall release), and Tab's first pick this week, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat in 1983 and made it their cheapest release yet, shocking considering how cheaply they managed to piece together all of their prior releases. Buzz or Howl was mad for just $50, but even more impressively, it never sounds like it. This low price tag was achieved by recording all of the songs live to two track tape, which meant there were no overdubs (excepting the first three tracks, which had been recorded elsewhere. The EP boasts some seriously catchy hardcore rock songs, like Watt's "Cut," which displays the band's growing musical proficiency under the howled title word and "Dream Told By Moto," which opens with a 48 second guitar solo, something the band never would have even thought of doing when they first formed, considering it too commercial. D. Boon's "The Product" has a very rock sound in its melody, even if the vocals would keep anyone from thinking this was a classic rock song.
Continuing their incredibly prolific run, the band had recorded another album's worth of material by November of 1983 and were prepping it to be released when Husker Du rolled into town and recorded their masterful double album Zen Arcade in just three days. The Minutemen took this as a challenge and wrote and recorded almost two dozen more songs within a month. The band didn't have an ambitious concept like the Huskers, so they just unified their album around considerations of their cars (the album starts with the sound of an engine turning over and ends with "Three Car Jam" in which the band rev their engines for thirty seconds). They titled the album with a joke at the expense of Sammy Hagar, who had recently released "Can't Drive 55" as a rebellious rock anthem. As Watt puts it, with a laugh "You're such a wild guy, you'll break the speed limit. How about your tunes, though buddy? We were making fun of him." They named their album Double Nickles on the Dime, a reference to the band driving exactly fifty-five miles an hour. The result, by the way, is far more rebellious than anything Sammy Hagar could've dreamed of.
"Corona" uses an almost polka-like tempo and a country swing to tell the story of a trip the band took to Mexico, and D. Boon's sympathy for the country's poverty. The song is a great divergence from the band, and a damn fine song, but will probably always be mostly remembered for being the theme song to Jackass. "Take 5, D." is a funny little interlude about D. Boon showering in a tub that has not been properly caulked, playing under a surprisingly heartfelt melody.
heartfelt melody."History Lesson"”Part 2" is about the relationship between Mike Watt and D. Boon as they play music and grow together, and also opens with the iconic line (which I mentioned when opening our discussion of the band last week) "Our band could be your life," which sums up the group's philosophy and aesthetic, as well as characterizing the attitudes of much of the alternative scene in the "˜80s (hence Azerrad's use of the line as the title of his book on the subject). The song is incredibly heartfelt, a straightforward discussion of Watt and Boon's musical evolution and their friendship, including the admission that "punk rock changed our lives." While the song was penned by Mike Watt, it was sung by D. Boon, which forced him to change all references to "me and D. Boon" to "me and Mike Watt," a change not reflected in the album's liner notes. "History Lesson"”Part 2" might be the most important song the band ever recorded, which is strange considering how far it differs from the band's usual sound. While sonically, other songs represent the band much better, this one lays out their central philosophy, which dictated everything the band ever did. The band's musical experimentation, their political awareness, their frugality, and their avoidance of becoming too commercial were all metaphors for a way that people could (and in the band's view should) live their lives. To The Minutemen, punk rock (and its descendent hardcore) was more than just a musical style. It was an idea. An idea that could mean everything.
"This Ain't No Picnic" was written by Boon when he was working at an auto parts store and wanted to put a jazz and soul station on the radio. His boss prevented him from doing so, calling the station, "African-American excrement." Boon was disgusted by his boss' bigotry and wanted to quit immediately, but he literally needed the job to survive. So instead he wrote this glorious I-hate-my-job anthem about hating his boss, wanting to quit but having rent to pay and being unwilling to be homeless just to be free. "Untitled Song for Latin America" is another of Boon's unabashedly political songs, supporting the region and arguing for the world to assist those in need.
As if to drive home the Hagar joke that was their title, the band covered Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' "˜Bout Love," one of the few David Lee Roth songs Hagar was willing to sing once he joined the band. Their version removes the chorus, however, as if to show that even when covering a pretty-straightforward heavy metal band, The Minutemen could be just a bit more rebellious than the guy willing to break the speed limit.
The Minutemen were one of the most important bands of the "˜80s alternative movement, helping to pioneer a way to release records and tour the country with no help from a major label, making their own way every step of the way. They may have almost starved. They may have had to keep their day jobs. They may have toured as much as possible and recorded in the dead of night just to break even. But they made music their way, and they showed that a band could be more than just entertainment. A band could, if you let them, be your entire philosophy and show you the way to a better existence. A band truly could be your life.Suede came from a very different place, both geographically and musically. The London based band formed in 1989, when Brett Anderson and Justine Frischmann met and began dating. Together with Anderson's lifelong friend Matt Osman, they realized they had the core of a band and began practicing for hours every day. Punk rock hadn't changed their lives though. Rather, they were practicing covers of their favorite musicians, The Beatles and David Bowie. When Frischmann and Anderson conceded they lacked the skill to take on lead guitar, they placed an ad in NME, which was soon answered by Bernard Butler, who joined the band quickly after his first audition. When they released their debut album, and Ashley's pick this week, Suede in 1993, it quickly became the fastest selling debut album in British history, opening at the top of the charts. Suede is widely credited as the impetus for the Britpop movement of the "˜90s, and listening to their debut, it's no wonder every band in Britain wanted to do something similar after hearing it.
From the opening track, "So Young," it is clear that Suede is a band to be reckoned with, a confident band making ready-made classics from the get go. The song is about the overdose of Anderson's girlfriend (he and Frischmann had broken up since forming the band, and many of the songs on the album reflect his heartbreak in some way), and Anderson says it dealt with "the knife-edge of being young." The title of the song "Animal Nitrate" is a play on inhalant amyl nitrate, but is despite it's pun-based title actually a pretty dark song, in spite of its insanely catchy chorus. Chris Jones, music critic for BBC said of the song, "Despite its punning title it's a thrill-seeking slice of cynicism that perfectly summed up what it was like to be young and chemically imbalanced in the nation's capital at the time."
"The Drowners" was released as the group's first single, another downer disguised by some upbeat melodic backing and a catchy chorus. "Sleeping Pills" was though to be a superior single to "Animal Nitrate" by Anderson, though the band's label Nude Records overruled him. I can see why the peppy-sounding former song was seen as more commercial, but "Sleeping Pills" seems the greater musical achievement to me, taking hints from New Wave (especially The Smiths, a big influence on the band) and yet simultaneously creating a template for slow-tempo ballads over the next decade. Regardless, both are great songs that likely helped to catapult Suede to the top of the charts.
In the years since their debut, Suede have often been overlooked as a historical footnote, precursors to Britpop not worthy of discussion beyond that minor triumph. While Britpop would explode much more in the coming years (and we'll look at three examples of this explosion, Blur, Pulp, and Oasis in the coming weeks), Suede's achievement should not be underrated simply because subsequent bands soared higher. Suede is a fantastic album, managing to meld the group's glam rock influences with a completely new sound and paving the way for any Britpop triumphs that would follow.When we last discussed Nirvana and their second album Nevermind ] I called them the most important band of the last twenty years, a statement I stand by as we return to look at the band's final album, and Collin's pick this week, In Utero. As I said earlier in this column, punk rock may have been the first musical genre to be driven primarily by anger, but it was far from the last. Hardcore followed after, and in the early "˜90s the grunge explosion reminded teenagers everywhere that anger was a perfectly valid form of expression, even if grunge did mix in a healthy helping of New Wave's self-loathing introspection for good measure. Nirvana are likely the most important band of the last 20 years not because of their prodigious output (they released only three studio albums before Kurt Cobain's suicide), but because of their almost inconceivable influence. They were not the first grunge band, nor were they the only grunge band in existence before the genre became the most popular musical movement of the 1990's, but they were the grunge band that made the world love grunge, and everything that happened after, for better and for worse, rests solely on the shoulders of Nirvana.
The band, and especially frontman and songwriter Kurt Cobain, felt this immense pressure coming off of the unimaginable success of Nevermind, an album that was projected to sell 50,000 copies and instead sold well into the millions and dealt with it the way your standard grunge outfit might; they grew angry at their success, insecure about their abilities and decided to do something completely different for their next album. I am not sure that In Utero is successful in that vein; it still sounds very much like a Nirvana album, but it is more pared down, with sparser drums sounds and a rawer, less produced feel.
"Heart-Shaped Box" is according to Cobain about documentaries following children with cancer, which he thought was the saddest thing imaginable. Though, I'm not the first to say this, I don't buy that interpretation. The song is titled after a gift Cobain's wife Courtney Love had given him, and it has always sounded to me more like a very dark and convoluted love song. The line, "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black" sounds like about the most romantic sentiment Cobain could muster, and the recurrent referenced to Cobain being locked "in your heart shaped box for a week" certainly sounds like a long term relationship during a rough patch to me. The chorus, "Hey, wait, I got a new complaint, forever in debt to your priceless advice," could easily be an admonishment of Love during a fight, but it also can easily be read as Cobain's railing against the way the media treated him (the latter being his explanation). It isn't hard when listening to "Heart-Shaped Box" to see why so many people call Cobain a genius; there are easily five or six ways to read the song, and all of them are pretty fucking great.
The same can be said of "Rape Me," another grunge classic. Cobain claimed the song was conceived as a life-affirming anti-rape song, expressing from a women's viewpoint that even if she was raped, she could not be destroyed and would survive and move forward with her life. This is a completely valid reading of the song, but again, it's far from the only reading. Again, the song can be read as a condemnation of the media and the way Cobain perceived their treatment of him, which seems the most likely reading to me, considering Cobain's anger at the media and fears of failure at the time of the album's writing. The song can also be viewed as dealing with his struggles with drug addiction.
"Pennyroyal Tea," the title of which is a reference to an herbal abortive that Cobain constantly chided didn't work, but is actually about a severely depressed person, a person who is, in Cobain's words, "in their death bed, pretty much." That the song was personal for Cobain probably goes without saying. In a similar vein, Cobain dedicated the album's final track, "All Apologies" to his wife and daughter. At the time, he claimed that the lyrics had nothing to do with his family, but that the peaceful mood was intended for them. In hindsight, though, it seems like even the lyrics can be read as an ode to the wife and daughter he was about to leave behind.
Enough words have been written about the significance of the death of Kurt Cobain over the years, most of them by better men and better critics than I, so I won't spend time trying to put it into context. It was a major cultural event of the early "˜90s, to be sure, and it cut short the life of one of the best songwriters, and one of the best bands in music history. Nirvana changed the face of music permanently, and though Kurt Cobain couldn't handle the pressure of the future of music resting on his shoulders, Nirvana still held the musical world on its back for a few brief years before Cobain shrugged and went looking for a way to end the pressure and the pain.
Saying music is an emotional art form is completely redundant (any art form is emotional), but that doesn't make it any less true. And music, like all art, is an emotional two way street. The anger and political dissatisfaction expressed by The Minutemen was reflected in their angry, disaffected fan base. The depressive pop of Suede captured the feelings of an entire nation and catapulted the band, and their style, into prominence. The rage and pain that fueled Nirvana made a generation of teenagers feel understood, helped them to feel like they were a part of a movement lead by one man, who took in their rage and pain along with his own until he couldn't anymore and gave it up. Music can be the gateway to better understanding and expressing our emotions. Sometimes, though, those emotions get the better of us.
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Next Week on My Year in Lists:
Der Plan wants to Geri Reig a Normalette Surprise, Nine Inch Nails enter The Downward Spiral and Underworld has a Dubnobasswithmyheadman.