“Halfway though recording the biggest record of my life, Steve Van Zandt left the band. I’ve always felt a combination of personal frustration, internal politics and unhappiness with some of my decisions led to Steve’s departure…. the timing must’ve felt to him like now or never. Looking back today, I think Steve would agree it didn’t have to be that way. We could’ve done it all, but we weren’t the same people then that we are today.”
In the summer of 1982, following the decision to release Nebraska as it was, Steve Van Zandt had visited Bruce in a New York City hotel room to discuss his role their creative partnership. Bruce, though, didn’t feel they were in a “partnership” and steered his ship his way, it’s how it had to be to work the way it did. Van Zandt wanted a more collaborative deal and greater involvement. It couldn’t be. So he bid farewell to E Street. Though a formal announcement wouldn’t be made until May 1984 and he’d grace the linear notes of Born In The USA, Van Zandt’s input from this point forward would be minimal.
I think Springsteen is perhaps more sensitive to feedback than he’d let on. Look at the mixed response that Human Touch and Lucky Town garnered – it meant he ended up ditching a complete album’s worth of material in the 90’s in favour of getting the band back together for a Greatest Hits, as though to remind the public of what they loved about him in the first place. The reaction to Nebraska surprised Springsteen. This quiet set of songs, so far from the sound of The River, was oft-cited as one of the year’s best albums by critics and, while many Springsteen fans were surprised by it, the positive feedback to what was essentially a series of demos meant Bruce paused in his push to Born In The USA‘s thumping beats.
After the release of Nebraska and his ‘Jersey Shore Bar Tour’, and best man duties at Van Zandt’s wedding, Bruce took off west. In search of sun and escaping the Jersey Devil over winter? Maybe. But as ’83 arrived, Bruce was already busy. Through winter he’d worked at ‘Thrill Hill Recording’ – his home studio in his Hollywood Hills studio (though in ’83 this wasn’t the ‘bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills’ bought ‘with a trunkload of hundred thousand dollar bills’) – with yet another album’s worth of material emerging. Only these weren’t of the ‘Glory Days’ ilk, these songs were closer to Nebraska in theme and approach.
Sandwiched oddly appropriately between the recently released ‘classic’ concerts and 2019’s Western Stars in my iTunes is a Springsteen bootleg called Unsatisfied Heart. These dozen songs of surprisingly good quality for something so desperately unofficial, all come from those sessions at Thrill Hill Recording over the winter of 82-83. There’s a longer, better take of ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ with ‘County Fair’ making its earliest appearance, but the rest… remain the stuff of vaults and bootlegs (and, perhaps, a Tracks 2, now we know that such a project is in development) and I’m very glad to have these in any form. Why? Well, some of these are among his most compelling to date, even 40 years on.
Take ‘The Klansman’ as an example: never performed live and only one take circulating but while the music is richer than the material on Nebraska (drum beats and synths appearing) the lyrics are pretty heavy “I was ten years old when my Pa said, “Son, some day you will see, when you grow to wear the robes like your brother and me”:
Songs like the two above along with tracks like ‘Richfield Whistle’ – a real hefty story song in the vein of some of The River‘s ‘down on their luck’ character songs – or ‘Sugarland’ are both lost for now in terms of official releases but represented a different tact for Bruce. These are more fleshed out in sounds and found him leaning more toward drum beats and synth sounds that he’d later take further, albeit after Born In The USA had died down and the E Street Band had been parked. It’s a shame but, as is often the way, Bruce was exploring every possible avenue on the road to his next album and was still in the midst of a prolific song writing period.
‘Follow That Dream’, though, seemed to stick out for Bruce and would appear on a few tentative album track lists. Springsteen took Elvis’ 1962 song, changed up the lyrics and rearranged the pacing, slowing it right down:
Having decided that a follow up to Nebraska wasn’t in the works just yet, Springsteen instead returned to the East coast with the idea of combining the work previously recorded with the E Street Band and the best of his Thrill Hill sessions and releasing an album called Murder Incorporated:
Born In The USA
My Love Will Not Let You Down
This Hard Land
Johnny Bye Bye
I’m Going Down
Working On The Highway
I’m On Fire
It’s a stellar track list and he even went so far as to list ‘Sugarland’, ‘Follow That Dream’, ‘Don’t Back Down’, ‘One Love’ and ‘Little Girl (Like You)’ as probable b-sides. Whether or not tracks like the already pretty great ‘Don’t Back Down’ from the Thrill Hill sessions would’ve been re-recorded with the full band… we’ll never know but Murder Incorporated would’ve made one hell of an album. Let’s face it, ‘Born In The USA’ aside, any album with ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ on is gonna be a knockout.
Hell, for my money, it would’ve been a more consistent and less ‘grab bag’ album and I’d have rated it a lot higher than I do Born In The USA. Not feeling me? Try it:
See? It fucking kicks.
Instead, though, Bruce decided the timing wasn’t right and – despite the original plan behind getting a four-track to reduce studio time and cost – went for some more studio sessions instead, returning to New York’s Hit Factory in May 1983. Given that Steven Van Zandt – at that point known as ‘Miami Steve’ – was busy working on his second solo album – it would be the band’s first without him and their first sessions in nearly a year.
You’d think they were nearly there but a lot more songs, doubt and writer’s block lay ahead while a good couple of album’s worth of songs lay behind.
In January 1982, just a few months after the final show of The River Tour, recording sessions for Bruce Springsteen’s next album got under way.
These sessions fell right in the midst of Bruce’s most creative and prolific period. Just look at the sheer bounty of songs that were recorded and cut from Darkness… and The River. Each of those albums has received the lavish archival treatment with a load of previously unreleased gems seeing daylight for the first time – on top of those already released on Tracks!
Born In The U.S.A was no exception – according to Max Weinberg nearly 80 songs were recorded over the course of the entire. Springsteen and co-producer Chuck Plotkin have cited 70 but it’s likely that the Mighty Max Weinberg is counting those ten songs which made up Nebraska – as it’s almost impossible to separate the writing periods for the songs that made up the two albums’ sessions.
Yet while there’s a clamouring for it, it’s unlikely that Born In The USA will ever receive the same treatment as its predecessors. Springsteen has, with the distance of time, grown less effusive in his praise for it – “‘Born in the U.S.A’ more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence” – and Tunnel of Love was a determined move away from the sound and scope of Born In The USA with subsequent albums shying further away from it’s naked, world-conquering ambition.
Either way you look at it, there were several versions of ‘an album’ that were ready to go before we got the Born In The USA we know today. So let’s take a look at ’em.
The story of how Nebraska, Springsteen’s out-of-left-field lofi masterpiece came to be has, by now, been well told. But let’s recap. Tired of spending time and money working songs up on the studio, Bruce got his hands on a 4-track recorder. How much money? Well, in the promotion for Letter To You he pointed out that “learning how to record, we spent all the money we had. At the end of The River album I had $20,000 in the bank.” Well known dodgy deals with former managers aside, considering the success of Born To Run, The Darkness and its tours…. something needed to change. Avoiding studio costs, he laid down some tunes on 3rd January 1982 and then took them to the E Street Band to get loud / flesh out / give some soul. Yet something wasn’t right. The songs didn’t suit the band sound. As Bruce states in ‘Songs’: “I went into the studio, brought in the band, rerecorded, remixed, and succeeded in making the whole thing worse.”
So, after walking around with it in his back pocket (so the story goes), Steven Van Zandt gave The Boss the nudge he needed and those songs were released as they were, mastered from the cassette to vinyl, as Nebraska.
The decision to release ten songs from his January tape was made in May 1982. Nebraska features ten songs. The January tape had – depending on whose account you take as gospel – 15 or 17 songs on it. Not all of the ‘Electric Nebraska’ sessions made things ‘worse’. For of those initial January 1982 tape, songs including ‘Born In The USA’, ‘Working On The Highway’ ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Pink Cadillac’ and a song then called ‘Down, Down, Down’ (to become ‘I’m Goin’ Down’) came about.
It will come as little surprise to realise that between January and May of 1982, Bruce had managed to put together two albums worth of material. He toyed with putting them both out as a double album – the acoustic Nebraska songs would make up one half, with the other ‘electric’ side made up of both reworked songs from the January tape and newer songs written since:
BORN IN THE U.S.A.
WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (a.k.a. I’m Goin’ Down)
I’M ON FIRE
THIS HARD LAND
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN
Just look at that track list. As early as May 1982 Springsteen was ready to go with two albums. This first ‘what could have been’ Born In The USA already has seven of the twelve songs that would make the final album. But look at those others…. ‘This Hard Land’ is a stone-cold Springsteen classic, Max Wienberg’s favourite from the sessions and one that wouldn’t see the light until it was re-recorded 1995’s Greatest Hits. The original ’82 version is just as fine.
‘Murder Incorporated’ would have to wait with ‘This Hard Land’ until 1995’s Greatest Hits with ‘Frankie’ and ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ – both of which are absolute gems – a little longer for 1998’s Tracks for their day in the sun. Until then they were assigned to the vault as Springsteen continued working on the album, which wasn’t immediate.
Instead, the decision to release Nebraska ‘as is’ in 1982 effectively put a hold on recording sessions. Recording would have to wait as Springsteen oversaw the final preparations for Nebraska and would spend the summer on his ‘1982 Jersey Shore Bar Tour’ – making guest appearances throughout New Jersey. Given that Nebraska featured very little fanfare and wasn’t accompanied by a tour, the break in writing and recording may have been down to another factor: Steve Van Zandt was no longer a member of The E Street Band.
Springsteen would resume work on his next album in April 1983 but there would be a few more versions of Born In The U.S.A to go through before he was done.
“Early one morning
With time to kill
I borrowed Jebb’s rifle
And sat on a hill
I saw a lone rider
Crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him
To practice my aim”
The magnificent and multi-talented Jim of Music Enthusiast (if you don’t read it, you’re missing out) has kindly permitted me to half-inch his One Song / Three Versions format for a mo so I better make sure and do this as well as I can.
I Hung My Head was originally, and this surprised me greatly, a song by Mr Gordon Sumner – or Sting as he’s been called for more decades than not. It was featured on his fine 1996 album Mercury Falling and was written from both his fondness for Westerns and his interest in country music – which is also pretty notable on one of the album’s singles, ‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’.
A somewhat dark tune in narrative, it’s the story of a young man who, having borrowed his brother’s rifle, shoots a stranger while practicing his aim. Whether the shot is fired by accident / on purpose isn’t really clear but it’s about facing the consequences – “I orphaned his children, I widowed his wife” – as much as anything else. Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I’m gonna dig a song like that.
So, the original:
It’s a fine song in its writer’s hands but…. I don’t know. There’s something about the narrative vs Sting’s arrangement on record that clashes a little too much for me. The music is very much a… 90’s Hugh Padgham & Sting sound with too much bounce, synth and brass to work with the song as a western or story like this. It’s almost like Nick Cave doing a reggae version of Red Right Hand.
For a good western style song about murder and begging for God’s mercy there’s really only once voice that you think of… a voice that sounds like it was hewed from granite, gargled gravel for breakfast to wash away the pain of life itself and still carry a tune…. the Man in Black himself; Johnny Cash. American IV, the final album Johnny Cash released during his lifetime and features his own rendition of Sting’s song.
The production is minimal, the sound stripped to just an acoustic guitar, the odd sustained piano chord and Cash’s aged, world-weary voice taking the song into a different time signature and turning into a starker, more direct and hard-hitting tale.
There’s a change in lyrics here too as with some of Cash’s over readings – the rifle in Cash’s take is thrown “into the sheen” and the rider “kept on runnin’ into the south lands” rather than Sting’s “salt lands”. It so suits him that I thought this was a Cash original at first – his voice and approach means that it’s one of those rare times that a cover version feels to have more authenticity than the original. Here:
In a strange connect-the-dots way, American V, released after Cash’s death in 2003, featured his take on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Further On Up The Road’. It wasn’t the first time he’d covered Bruce – notable takes on ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’ were included on Cash’s 1983 album Johnny 99 and there’s a cracking version of ‘I’m On Fire’ on the Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album.
Springsteen and Sting are also pretty firm friends, with the two sharing a mic on many occasion and a drink on even more. So, in 2014 when Sting was made a Kennedy Center Honoree and the time came for the obligatory performance of one of his songs by another artist…. it was Bruce Springsteen that stepped up to provide a highlight and bring the house down with ‘I Hung My Head’, a song he’d already been playing (Sting’s songs were also performed by Lady Gaga, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars) with a song that seemed as perfectly suited to late-career Bruce as it did Johnny Cash.
Before I drop spill into Bruce’s version, here – for reference – is Sting’s reaction to hearing one of his songs played… perhaps not as favourably:
Thing is, I think it’s fair to say that when Bruce covers a song he kind of makes it his own and it’s certainly the case with ‘I Hung My Head’ – his reading is closer to Cash’s take and he seems to get caught up in the emotion of the narrative but then he also gives it the full band treatment and turns it into a Springsteen song much, it’s clear, to the delight of the song’s writer. Again, Bruce makes a few lyrical changes in his take – substituting “I beg their forgiveness” with “I ask no forgiveness” along with the ending “I pray for God’s mercy” giving way to “I ask for no mercy” because in Springsteen’s songs his characters own their crimes and face the consequences.
Personally I think Bruce – in his charged and committed performance – pretty much takes the prize. But that’s just my opinion…
Wow: 1995. It was like ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, and other things that weren’t actually ironic. Don’t you think?
It was the year that Bjork insisted ‘ It’s Oh, So Quiet’, that Oasis had everyone trying to figure out what the fuck a ‘Wonderwall’ was (everyone except George Harrison), Lenny Kravitz probably looked at Britpop before declaring that ‘Rock and Roll Is Dead’, Supergrass however decided that, actually, everything was ‘Alright’ and Bryan Adams asked us if we’d ever really, really ever loved a woman. But nobody could answer him because we were probably all too busy humming The Connells’ ’74-’75’.
It was the year of Batman Forever – a god awful film (which would only be surpassed in terms of ‘holy shit, Batman, what’s that smell’ when Joel Schumacher decided that Batman & Robin should also be made) with a killer soundtrack that somehow eschewed the expected and threw in great tunes from U2 (‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’), PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, The Offspring, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Sunny Day Real Estate! Oh and a song by Seal about getting hot and steamy in a florists.
It was the year Mel Gibson assured us, in a Scottish accent as good as Sean Connery’s Russian, that his freedom couldn’t be taken, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld sank to the murky depths from which it sprang, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino stalked each other in Heat and Woody met Buzz. Yup; Toy Story was released 25 years ago.
Back in music, Tommy Lee married Pamela Anderson and had a very secret and private honeymoon where they most likely stayed in and read Russian literature to each other.
Bruce Springsteen called the E Street Band for a somewhat awkward and brief reunion to record some new tracks for his Greatest Hits album – captured on the ‘Blood Brothers’ video. The group cut ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and re-recorded earlier tunes ‘This Hard Land’ and ‘Murder Incorporated’ along with ‘High Hopes’ (much better than the version later released) and ‘Without You’ which would appear on the Blood Brothers EP. This isn’t a Bruce post but I’ll also point out that if Bruce is in a studio with a band – not just any band, mind, the E Street Band – then you can bet your arse there’s gonna be more than that recorded. There was also ‘Back In Your Arms’ which would see the light of day on Tracks, ‘Missing’ which would appear on Sean Penn’s ‘The Crossing Guard’ soundtrack, and ‘Waiting on the End of the World’ which has been punting about on YouTube etc for a while. But… there was also an early take on ‘Dry Lightning’ and other tunes which he’d tried with a smaller band in 1994 such as ‘Nothing Man’, ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’, I’m Going Back’, ‘Angelina’ and more thrown in the vaults never to be heard from again… unless there’s a Tracks 2 coming.
Jerry Garcia crashed his car in January but was uninjured. However, having relapsed into drug addiction, he checked himself into rehab later in the year though died in his room in August after suffering a heart attack. He was 53. Also lost to the music world in 1995 was Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon. Hoon was found dead after a night of binging on drugs after what he felt was a disappointing show. He was 28 and left behind a daughter who was only months old. Addiction is a terrible fucking thing. I can’t tell you how angry I get when I see children losing parents to it.
Tired of the vast scale and drama that Dire Straits had become, Mark Knopfler called it a day for his band in 1995. I’m pretty sure that, as good as one last show would be (even if you don’t push it and ask for David Knopfler to take part too), a reunion won’t happen. Sunny Day Real Estate, Slowdive and Kyuss also called it a day in ’95. However, on the flip side of that coin, it was ‘hello’ to Alabama 3, Biffy Clyro, Blonde Redhead, Cursive, Eels, Elliott, Faithless, Idlewild, Mansun, Matchbox 20, Mogwai (fuck YEAH!), Mojave 3 (formed with former Slowdive members), Semisonic, Sleater-Kinney, Slipknot, … and er… Death Vomit, who all formed in 1995. Which kind of makes up for the fact that Nickelback also chose this year to start slowly murdering music.
R.E.M were having a pretty shit time of it on their Monster tour – Michael Stipe suffered a hiatal hernia, Mike Mills needed an appendectomy and Bill Berry left the stage during a concert in Switzerland after he suffered a brain aneurysm. Still, somehow during all these they’d be finding the time to put together the songs that would form their next, and finest, album. But that’ll have to wait until the 1996 post… so what dropped in 1995? Well, sticking in this blog’s wheelhouse, Van Halen released Balance their last album with Sammy Hagar and the last time they’d hit the top spot.
Slowdive also released their final album ahead of their breakup, Pygmalion was a real solid dose of the great stuff and, thankfully, the band would eventually reunite and drop another great new album some decades later. Sunny Day Real Estate’s aforementioned break-up took place during the recording of their second album, so by the time they handed it over to Subpop the label found themselves in the unpleasant situation of having a much-anticipated album but from a band that no longer existed and had no interest in it or promoting in. The lyrics weren’t finished and the “just make it pink” direction for the artwork was taken literally by the label who released it as LP2 in 1995 and yet, somehow, it’s a bloody brilliant album and one that gets a regular play on my turntable.
Sunny Day Real Estate’s tight rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith weren’t idle long, though – a chap called Dave Grohl needed a band and pronto. Grohl’s self-performed Foo Fighters album was released in mid-95 and he needed a group to take it out and play the arse off it. Goldsmith’s tenure would be… troubled at best but Mendel remains in Foo Fighters to this day as does Pat Smear (albeit having left then returned a few years later) and the first album has since shifted a few million units even if Grohl still insists it was never actually meant to be an album. While its composition and recording means it sounds very much unique within the Foo’s catalogue, it’s a great album and one of the year’s best:
No post-breakup blues from Kim Deal in ’95 – following the demise of the Pixies and sister Kelley’s drug bust putting The Breeders on hold, she formed another new band and The Amps released their only album Pacer the same year. She’d also pop up on Sonic Youth’s ‘Little Trouble Girl’ from their album Washing Machine – another corker from the band packed with great tunes like ‘Becuz’ and ‘Junkie’s Promise’ though not quite up to their promise.
Meanwhile, formed out of the ‘remains’ of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco released their debut A.M and Australian teens Silverchair released their debut Frogstomp which was, correctly in this instance, seen as their attempt to sound as identical to those bands they were enamoured by as they could (they’d get better) but was still pretty decent when you consider it’s an album by three 15 year olds.
Having recorded her debut at a similar age, Alanis Morissette released an altogether different album in 1995 to her two previous Canada-only albums; Jagged Little Pill was one of those albums that seemed to define the year with singles like ‘Ironic’, ‘You Oughta Know’, ‘One Hand In My Pocket’ playing from stereos everywhere as their videos seemed just as dominant on MTV (remember – it still played music back then) on their way to becoming part of pop-culture. Reviewed in retrospect it’s still a powerful album dominated both by Alanis’ vocals but by the ‘angst’ of it, Glenn Ballard’s production and the sheer consistency of it.
Ben Folds Five released their self-title debut in 1995 as did Garbage whose album contains some absolute belters like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. Blind Melon’s second album Soup was released just 8 weeks before singer Shannon Hoon’s death. It’s a real move forward from their debut and was received with a lot more positivity from critics – songs like ‘Galaxie’ and ‘2×4’ are always good to hear. Tindersticks released their second (and second self-titled) album in ’95 and I can never hear songs like ‘My Sister’ or ‘Tiny Tears’ enough.
Neil Young’s Mirror Ball was released in ’95 – recorded in just a couple of weeks toward the start of the year with Pearl Jam as his backing band minus Vedder who was dealing with a stalker issue though still appeared on a couple of tracks. The group – without Eddie – would tour Europe with Neil to promote the album. Bjork’s Post arrived in 1995 and, beyond the annoying ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ included the amazing ‘Hyperballad’ and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their only album with ex-Janes Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro with One Hot Minute and proved that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work. It’s not… terrible.. but the combination of Navarro and RHCP could’ve been a lot more potent than it was.
Jumping back across the Atlantic to make an abrupt change in sound and scene, one of the few positives about Britpop for me was that it – much like ‘grunge’ in the US – allowed over bands who were ‘kinda but not quite’ Britpop to get attention and success. Released at the height of it, Pulp’s Different Class remains – unlike many of that era – highly listenable with ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ absolute classics. Meanwhile, Radiohead were preparing the nails for Britpop’s coffin… The Bends was released in March 1995 and is a stone-cold fucking classic. The term ‘massive leap forward’ seems to have been invented just for the shift from Pablo Honey to The Bends. Yes it’s the shift in songwriting and approach that would reach perfection on OK Computer but The Bends is pretty damn perfect in its own right – ‘Just’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’… It’s just insanely good.
Popping back State-side for the last push…. Elliott Smith’s second solo album was released in 1995 too. The self-titled album, perhaps best-known for ‘Needle In The Hay’ is another favourite and is too oft-overlooked in his catalogue. Pavement released their third album, the great Wowee Zowee in April 1995 and, despite what the critics said at the time, it’s one of their best.
How do you follow-up an album as amazing as Siamese Dream? Well, if you’re Billy Corgan you go bigger, of course. Bigger and grander by far. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a monster of an album – a whopping 28 tracks covering seemingly every spectrum of the Pumpkins’ sonic sweep from tender, string-laden beauties like the perfect arrangement of ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and the gorgeous ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ to the fiercer, heads-down rippers like ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ via the all-time classic ‘1979’. It could so easily be at the ‘top’ of this list, it’s great album and a real favourite but… it’s just too fucking long, Billy; what the hell man? Talk about ‘cd bloat’…
Former poodle-haired rockers Bon Jovi have come in for a bit of slack on this blog but These Days was not like any other Bon Jovi album – shorn of over-wrought production (albeit far too temporarily) These Days struck a much more mature and cheese-free approach and deserved its surprising presence on many a ‘best of the year’ list at the end of 1995 with many suggesting that, were it recorded by anyone else, the album would’ve been ranked higher still. New Jersey’s more-famous son Bruce Springsteen had another album up his sleeve in the decade’s middle year. Having released Greatest Hits in February, complete with an E Street Band powered video for ‘Murder Incorporated’, Bruce threw a complete left at the end of the year with November’s released of The Ghost of Tom Joad. His second ‘solo’ and mainly acoustic album it’s great but… I’ve already featured The Ghost of Tom Joad so cannot sit it here at the top either…
There was another import self-titled release in 1995, the final album from the Layne Staley fronted version of Alice in Chains. Alice In Chains feels to me like a sonically different beast to AIC’s two previous albums, steering closer to the melodies of Jar of Flies than the heavy-riffing of Dirt and while the subject matter for lyrics is still pretty dark, it makes for an easier listen and is lighter in its sound with ‘Grind’, ‘Brush Away’ and ‘Heaven Beside You’ sitting amongst my favourite Alice In Chains songs.
Which, looking at my shelves, really only leaves…
Mad Season – Above
Sure there were undoubtedly bigger, more important and more well-received albums in this year and I’ve know doubt that any of those mentioned above would happily slot in here but when I think of 1995 in music now it’s Mad Season’s sole album Above that pops up almost instantly.
A ‘grunge supergroup’, Mad Season was formed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders. During early sessions for ’94’s Vitalogy, McCready had entered into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction and had met bass player John Baker Saunders there. The two returned to Seattle and began playing with Barrett Martin. It was McCready who bought in Layne Staley to sing in the hope that being around sober musicians and having a new project would help push Layne to get clean himself.
I remember the first time I heard Above will deep-diving into my then newly discovered love for ‘grunge’ and realising it was nothing like what I was expecting. I don’t know what I thought it would be – like Layne fronting Pearl Jam perhaps…. but it’s something somehow both distinctly different to the sound of those two most famous of its ingredients yet still familiar enough to let you know where its roots lie.
Instead of AIC’s heavy riffage, there’s more of a bluesy sway to a lot of Above thanks to Mike McCready’s awesome playing. Mark Lanegan stopped by to sing on a few songs including ‘Long Gone Day’ and ‘I’m Above’ incase more was needed to apply a ‘supergroup’ tag. It’s not a perfect album but it’s still a favourite. You get a sense that the members are using the opportunity away from their main gig to try a few things out and push in a different direction – always something worth going for – and I think, for the most part it works.
But it’s also important to remember that this is a first album, it wasn’t conceived as a one-off it’s just how fate took it. I can’t help but think that they would’ve gone on to better. I mean, the music for two songs were written before Staley was recruited, the rest within a week and Layne completing his lyrics in just a few more days. All at a time when AIC were preparing their next album, Pearl Jam were coming off the back of Vitalogy… had time allowed the group to get it together again after touring and feeling each other out more as players and the group’s capabilities the next album would’ve soared.
As it was they’d play a good few shows in early ’95 to promote the album but soon their ‘day jobs’ started to call their attention and so Mad Season took a break. By the time they tried to revive the group for another go in 1997, Staley’s addiction had taken such a toll on his health that he was no longer interested or, probably, capable. His last live performance was in July 1996. The remaining members began instead working with Mark Lanegan on some new songs and adopted a new name – Disinformation – to reflect the change in lineup. Conflicting schedules would make it difficult for work to progress and then, in 1999, John Baker Saunders died after a heroin overdose. McCready continued to work with Pearl Jam, Lanegan forged a successful solo career and Martin – after Screaming Trees ended – would tour as REM’s drummer having played on their album Up along with forming Tuatara with Peter Buck. In 2002 Layne Staley would also succumb to his drug addiction.
As such, Above is that single-shot blast of greatness from Mad Season and captures a brief, fleeting moment in time when these great players were able to make it work. It also sounds so very 1995, surely this was the only time when a side-project could get such major label support and promotion.
1993: John Hammond spared no expense on his dinosaur theme park, Bill Murray lived the same day over and over, Harrison Ford searched for a one-armed man, Robin Williams looked like a lady (dude) and Matthew McConaughey loved high-school girls, man – “I get older, they stay the same age.”
In music it was the year that Whitney Houston dominated the charts singing about her favourite form of coordination (hand – eyeeeeeeee), DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince shook the room, Lenny Kravitz needed to know which way we were going, Bruce Springsteen showed MTV who was Boss by taking his electric guitar to his Unplugged performance and Meat Loaf left us all wondering just what it was he wouldn’t do for love*.
It was the year that the BBC Radio 5 interviewed Frank Black and found out that Pixies were finished… ahead of the other band members knowing. Black would call guitarist Joey Santiago to break the news but let Kim Deal and David Lovering know via fax. New Order, Skin Yard (influential Seattle band featuring producer / engineer Jack Endino), Echo & The Bunnymen and, er, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch also called it a day in 1993. However – on the bands formed side; this was the year that gave birth to At The Drive-In, Ben Folds Five, Daft Punk, Embrace, Garbage, Jimmy Eat World, Modest Mouse, Reef, Spoon, Supergrass and Wilco.
It was also a bumper year for great albums, plenty of which still feature heavy on rotation here. Fairly new discovery for me, Band of Susans dropped their fourth album Veil which tour off into a more experimental direction just as contemporaries Sonic Youth were steering toward song-focused albums. It’s a tricky one to define – it’s like a glorious hybrid of the noise-rock school that SY emerged from with punches of alternative rock and shoegaze mixed into what one critic called an “epic swell of guitar and noise:”
Speaking of shoegaze; Slowdive released their second, possibly finest, album Souvlaki in 1993. Dinosaur Jr released their phenomenal Where You Been – a real scorcher probably aided by the fact that it was recorded with a full band though it would be drummer Murph’s last with the band until the original lineup reconvened over a decade later. However, Dinosaur Jr classics ‘What Else Is New’, ‘Start Choppin’ ‘Get Me’ and ‘Out There’ all feature on this album though I should probably state that I don’t think Dinosaur Jr have ever made a bad album.
Not an outright classic in itself, though one with at least four good songs on it, Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey arrived in 1993 and introduced the world to the band via the inescapable ‘Creep’ while Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? marked the arrival of The Cranberries.
Having already asked us once, Lenny Kravitz repeated the question by naming his third album Are You Gonna Go My Way? – while Mama Said edges it in my books, it’s still a blast of the good stuff, as was Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen also released in 1993. Picking up on the experimentation with electronic and dancier vibes of Achtung Baby and running with it, U2 released the oft-overlooked Zooropa in 1993. Very much a different trip to anything else in their catalogue, Zooropa began life as an EP to promote another leg of the Zoo TV tour, Bono figured he’d push for a full album instead… it would be easy to say it does feel like an over-stuffed EP but there’s plenty of great tunes on it that make it well worth adding to the shelves including the title track, The Wanderer which featured Johnny Cash before his American comeback and ‘Stay (Farwa, So Close!)’:
PJ Harvey released her brilliant second album, Rid of Me and Kate Bush chose 1993 as the year for The Red Shoes which was not only her first album for four years but would be her last for another 12.
With Pixies having broken up at the start of the year, Kim Deal’s the Breeders dropped their second and most well-known album Last Splash in August and the single ‘Cannonball’ becoming their biggest ‘hit’ and propelling the album to platinum status. Meanwhile, having recorded it in 1992, Frank Black released his self-titled debut in 1993 as well. Still close to the sound of Pixies in many ways (including additional guitar work from Joey Santiago), Frank Black is a great album packed with great tunes that build on the Pixies sound.
Speaking of solo albums following the dissolution of great bands – Paul Westerberg’s first solo album 14 Songs also arrived in 1993 – it’s another cracking collection of songs that I still play and have expanded upon on this very blog. Also making a solo debut, though I don’t think The Sugarcubes would be mentioned in the same breath as either The Replacements or Pixies, Bjork’s Debut also appeared this year, featuring the brilliant tunes ‘Human Behaviour’ and ‘Big Time Sensuality’. It was also debut time for Sheryl Crow who’s Tuesday Night Music Club was released in August 1993. I tuned in around this time and while I have more fondness for he next couple of albums there’s no denying that Ms Crow’s debut has both a great sound in terms of production – very much of its time – and is stacked with great tunes like ‘Run Baby Run’, ‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘Can’t Cry Anymore’ and ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ to name but four.
Now… here’s the thing. The above are undeniably strong albums and they’re all very much regulars on my stereo to this day. And yet there’s more and choosing between them is a tough one for me. See, 1993 heralded the arrival of Pearl Jam’s second album Vs. which is one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums – but I’ve covered that one at length as well so can’t feature it here too (rules are rules).
When it comes to staggeringly good debut albums, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After has got to be high on the list. AllMusic suitably claims this album “burst(s) at the seams with both dominant pop harmonies and rich, hearty ballads” – there’s just so much on this that – especially in the age of CD bloat – it’s all wrapped up within 11 tracks. It’s such a rich feast in terms of both the sound (thanks to T Bone Burnett’s production) but with beautiful melodies and lyrics that pack so much into them without becoming lost in a wash of words for the sake of it as some of Duritz’ later songs would. I must have spun this album more times than I could count and I still never skip a track, though perhaps ‘Omaha’ doesn’t get as much attention as, say, ‘Anna Begins’, it’s such a great album…
Then there’s the second album from Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream also one of my favourite albums. It was a massive leap forward for the band and really threw their hat into the ring as one of the foremost alternative bands of the nineties. Songs like ‘Today’, ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Disarm’ are amongst those that are appropriately considered hallmarks of the genre. Produced by Butch Vig, who was riding high following his production of Nevermind, Siamese Dream is not only the Smashing Pumpkins’ finest, one of the best albums of the 90’s but one that belongs on Greatest Album lists full stop.
However, also released in 1993…
Nirvana – In Utero
It would be virtually impossible for me to choose between some of the above – especially the last three – albums from 1993 were it not for the fact that Nirvana’s finest and, sadly, final album was also released in the same year as so many strong contenders for the crown. But, on September 21, 1993 – having been recorded by Steve Albini over two weeks in February.
Interesting side note and one fact that I always find interesting is that Steve Albini – known as a producer of independent releases and for his band Big Black – took a flat fee of $100,000 for his work recording and producing In Utero despite suggestions from Nirvana’s management company to take percentage points on record sales. I think, though my recollection may be fuzzy, when Dave Grohl mentioned how much he could’ve made from the album given that the album has shifted over 5 million, Albini said something along the lines of “you pay a plumber for the job when he does it, you don’t then send him a cheque every time your taps work”.
In Utero is a notably harder and rawer sounding album than Nevermind was. As sales for everything out of Seattle took off and media focused its attention on the city’s ‘scene’, the foremost proponents of ‘grunge’ were obviously getting pissed off with it – Pearl Jam’s Vs. is a far punchier and angrier beast than Ten – and Cobain himself was distancing himself from what he saw as the commercial sheen of his group’s second album. For a scene that grew out of the punk movement, it must have seen a necessary step to proving that you weren’t ‘corporate rock sellouts’. Either way, the albums the shift produced were outstanding.
With Albini’s mix seeming to cause concern at Geffen – Kurt would say “The grown-ups don’t like it” – the band themselves started to have doubts and asked Albini to remix it. He refused: “Kurt wanted to make a record that he could slam down on the table and say, ‘Listen, I know this is good, and I know your concerns about it are meaningless, so go with it.’ And I don’t think he felt he had that yet … My problem was that I feared a slippery slope.” With Albini nixing a remix, it would be Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M) that would remix and augment a number of the album’s tracks. For all the concern that Geffen’s initial feedback had raised, Litt only worked on two songs – the rest of the album was left as is, save for a little raising of the vocals and sharpening of the bass. They needn’t have fretted: preceded by the single ‘Heart Shaped Box’, In Utero topped the charts (not that this was the band’s chief concern) and received widespread acclaim from critics and their audience.
For me this album is as good as it gets in terms of Nirvana – it felt like they were at the peak of their game. Cobain’s continuing growth as a songwriter now matched with the passion and ‘punk’ leaning of their first record was the perfect combination. Tighter than a duck’s arse thanks to the touring and promotion of Nevermind with Dave Grohl now fully ensconced behind the drums and contributing the guitar riff for ‘Scentless Apprentice’, In Utero feels like fired up answer to any critics that doubted them as a flash in the pan.
Rolling Stone managed to get it right in their review: In Utero is “a lot of things – brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it’s a triumph of the will.”
Of course, it also manages to capture just how dark and nihilistic Cobain’s lyrics were getting. It’s front-loaded with the blazers – ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Dumb’ – but then there’s the harsher side of the album – songs like ‘Milk It’ and ‘Very Ape’ and, finally, ‘All Apologies’: “Everything’s my fault, I take all the blame.” Kurt was coming apart almost by the day and it’s all on here to hear.
Hindsight is though, of course, 20-20 and it’s easy now to listen to Nirvan’s final album and point to the signs. At the time, though, nobody could have known. It was, and still is, ‘just’ a massively engaging and powerful album not a cry for help or suicide note and that’s how it should be remembered.
I’d love to know where the band could have gone from here. The ‘You Know You’re Right’ song from the compilation Nirvana gives promise for an even better sound than In Utero but given Cobain’s state of mind toward the end it’s an unanswerable question – numerous times he talked of, and drafted letters to band members calling for, the dissolution of Nirvana. He was going to work with Michael Stipe on a strings-based sound for an album… he could have done so many things but… well, this isn’t that post. In Utero is the glorious sound of Nirvana doing everything right even if it isn’t the easiest of listens.
Schwing! Party on! Way! Excellent! Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt…. It’s 1992!
The year that Wayne and Garth hit cinema screens, that Aladdin showed Princess Jasmine a whole new world, that Whitney said she’d always love Kev, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W Bush in the US Presidential elections and Def Leppard asked a very, very important question:
1992 is the year Nirvana toppled Michael Jackson from the top of the chart and ‘grunge’ began its ascendancy in sales and popularity – Nevermind hit the top spot in the US on January 11th. A month and a half later Kurt Cobain would marry Courtney Love on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with just 8 guests, including Dave Grohl. Cobain wore his pyjamas for the ceremony.
1992 was the year the world was introduced to the be-mulleted turdburger Billy Ray Cyrus and his Achy Breaky Heart, the 9 million people that bought his debut album in its first year have got a lot to answer for.
In May, John Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Rolling Stone digitally removed him from the photo on their upcoming cover feature), having been overwhelmed by the band’s new level of success and becoming a little unhinged… as the band’s world tour got underway he began hearing voices in his head telling him “you won’t make it during the tour, you have to go now.” Already enjoying plenty of drugs, when he returned to California Frusciante’s depression lead to a deep dive into full-on drug addiction that would keep him in its grip until 1998 when, suffering with a lethal oral infection and arms ravaged with abscesses, he’d check into rehab and enter sobriety. However, in 92, that was a long, dark six years away.
Speaking of overindulgence – 1992, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ clocked into the record books as the longest single to enter the Top 20 at 8 minutes and 57 seconds and its video’s budget of $1.5 million became the most expensive of all time (at that point). Similar indulgence would be applied to the video for ‘Estranged’ (which added another 40 seconds in song length)a year later when a rumoured $4 million was spent on Rose and co – ah the day’s when MTV actually played music videos to the extent that labels were willing to spend that much dosh courting airtime.
They probably needed to placate some fans – at a concert in Montreal in August, opening act Metallica’s James Hetfield was burnt by a pyrotechnics blast, he suffered second and third degree burns to the left half of his body, both arms and left hand, causing them to cancel the second hour of their show. When Guns ‘N’ Roses took the stage Axl Rose (did he ever perform a full concert on time?) decided his voice wasn’t up to it’s usual sound of a cat having its testicles removed without anaesthetic and called it quits for the night. Instead of being relieved at not being asked to “give me some reggae“, the fans were a little pissed off. So they decided a riot was in order, which spilled to the streets with overturned cars, smashed windows, looting and setting fires.
At the end of August, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain was born after god knows how much drama and magazine reporting on the couples’ drug use during pregnancy… which, Love being Love, no doubt enjoyed stirring up for the sake of attention. It meant that child welfare services launched an investigation into their parenting abilities and Frances was removed from her parents’ custody for a short time when she was two weeks old. There’s a real ugly and grim side to the world of celebrity and sometimes the consequences aren’t considered by its actors while they court it… but hindsight is a wonderful thing full of ‘if only’s and ‘why didn’t somebody’s… and there were times when the Courtney Love show seemed of more interest to the press than the music Nirvana made. Perhaps to remind people of the fact that there was more to Cobain than headlines, Geffen kept the momentum going with the release of Incesticide in December – a collection of b-sides, outtakes and demos that’s still better than a lot of the studio albums released in 1992.
Speaking of controversy – presumably having had enough of singing about being ‘Like a Virgin’, Madonna went full on erotic with Erotica in ’92, a concept album about bumping uglies which was accompanied by a ‘book’ of soft porn photos – ‘Sex’. It was an edgy time.
Pearl Jam rounded off a very busy 1992 – which saw Ten find its way into homes across the world, the band touring Europe, demoing songs for their next album and putting on the free ‘Drop in the Park’ concert for 33,000 fans in Seattle – with Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready joining acts including Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash and Tracy Chapman to see Sinéad O’Connor get booed by an audience still angered by her ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL – who knew Dylan fans were such devoted Catholics. Oh, yeah – I mean they joined other acts at a tribute concert to mark 30 years of Bob Dylan’s recording career.
Speaking of Bob – in 1992 he released Good As I Been To You. A collection of traditional folk songs and covers that was so well received he’d follow it with another collection of covers the following year…. just wait until he’d release nothing but covers and Christmas songs for decade.
Meanwhile Bush, Built To Spill, The Cardigans, Everclear, Feeder, Silverchair, Stereophonics, Sunny Day Real Estate, Tindersticks and Weezer were all amongst those bands forming in 1992.
Making the most of studio time allocated to recording ‘Would?’ for Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’ (also released in 1992) the previous year, Alice in Chains also recorded ‘Rooster’ and all the songs that would end up on February’s acoustic EP – Sap – the songs for which were left mostly acoustic after drummer Sean Kinney dreamed about making just such an EP with that title. I’m not sure basing career decisions on the dreams of a drummer is always the best approach (I heard Ringo dreams of murdering kittens) but Sap is a great addition to anyone’s shelves:
It’s also a much lighter listening experience than their next release of 1992. Arriving in September following the singles ‘Would?’ and ‘Them Bones’, Alice In Chains’ second album Dirt is an undeniable classic of the genre and still gets many a play on my stereo – though it’s an intensely dark and heavy listen in both sound and subject matter as Layne and Cantrell made no bones about drug addiction along with depression, pain, anger, war and death forming the inspiration for lyrics. ‘Sickman’, ‘Junkhead’ and ‘God Smack’ are the obvious contenders, all referencing heroin use while ‘Rooster’
Layne Staley would later come to change his mind on having sung so openly about his drug use – “I wrote about drugs, and I didn’t think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them … I didn’t want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I’ve had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they’re high. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen.” Thankfully, all of these dark and potentially ‘I can’t listen to that’ lyrics were both well crafted and strapped to some fucking awesome music:
Afghan Whigs would released their third album Congregation in 1992, The Cure gave us Wish and provided DJs the world over with an easy gimmick by playing ‘Friday I’m In Love’ at the end of each working week – though the standout track for me is ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ – Manic Street Preachers dropped their debut, Generation Terrorists.
Pantera released one of the decade’s heaviest – Vulgar Display of Power and Rage Against The Machine declared that, fuck you; they won’t do as you tell ’em on their astounding, genre-bending powerhouse self-titled debut whose iconic cover art continues to find new homes and delight to this day thanks to its sheer force and unbridled passion in the delivery. Though they’d release another two studio albums in their career (not counting covers), nothing would match Rage Against The Machine in terms of immediacy and impact, not quite a breath of fresh air but a kick in the balls with a pair of heavy boots.
On a different end of the sonic spectrum – another 1992 debut came from Tori Amos whose Little Earthquakes was her first ‘solo’ album and featured the great tune ‘Precious Things’ along with eleven other cracking songs.
The Black Crowes got together with producer George Drakoulias to make what could be considered their finest album: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. A much bluesier, more maturing sounding album than their debut, their second album was powered to the top of the charts thanks to its four singes and stand out tracks – ‘Remedy’, ‘Sting Me’, ‘Thorn in My Pride’ and ‘Hotel Illness’.
Two other debuts in 1992 came from Stone Temple Pilots with Core and Blind Melon whose self-titled album probably gets more repeated plays than STP’s who never really did it for me to the same degree as others of that scene (though their fifth album Shangri-La Dee Da is an exception to that rule). In Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon had a great frontman and singer. ‘No Rain’ is one thing and may have done so well that Bee Girl graced the cover of the album, Blind Melon, but songs like ‘Tones of Home’ or ‘Change’ are real keepers. Both bands would lose their singers and try and keep going but I don’t think either will ever tap the same vein again in the way in which Alice In Chains have managed to do with William Duvall… but that’s a different blog.
Nearly five years after his last album and three since telling the E Street Band members he wouldn’t be needing their services for a while, Bruce Springsteen emerged with two new albums in 1992 – the first of which, Human Town having been sparked off by three instrumental tracks written by E Street Band member Roy Bittan… who would also produce the album. While needing another song to finish Human Touch, Springsteen wrote another album instead, the superior (of the two) Lucky Town. Released on the same day, the albums… well I’ve written on both Human Touch and Lucky Town already but while they’re not his worst (that still hangs on High Hopes) they’ve not been as well-received as his other albums. As Bruce would later acknowledge that, had it not been for his father he “would have written just happy songs – and I tried it in the early ‘90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.” Still, while in the recordings for, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town, The River and even Born In The USA there was enough material for a further three or four great albums – if you cull the dross from these two there’s enough for one great album there.
Having chosen not to tour behind Out Of Time REM had gotten straight to work on new songs, including the demos for ‘Drive’, ‘Try Not To Breath’ and ‘Nightswimming’ which had been recording during that album’s mixing at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. Automatic For The People is one of those albums that’s been written about so many times and for good reason: it’s a fucking classic. It is chock-a-block with great songs, I don’t think there’s a bad one on it and, given that I don’t think it’s their best, that’s insane. From opener ‘Drive’ through to the closing ‘Find The River’ via the lighter radio-staple ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ (nothing to do with Jamaica, the lyric is “Call me when you try to wake her”), the gorgeous ‘Nightswimming’ and the colossal hit ‘Everybody Hurts’, it’s all gold. While clearly the same band, it stands apart from the sounds of Out Of Time and here I’ll refer to the Rolling Stone review for the album which sums it up suitably: “”This is the members of R.E.M. delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty”
Which only leaves my choice for featured album of 1992…
Buffalo Tom – Let Me Come Over
Let’s hop in the DeLorean and set the time circuits for October 2000 – we were all able to go outdoors and meet people, Donald Trump was just a prick who’d tried to get the nomination of the Reform Party and I, still at uni was a regular regular reader of Uncut Magazine. An actual printed music monthly as the internet then was… different. I remember scouring their Unconditionally Guaranteed CD each month for the one or two tracks that will make me sit up and pay attention and inspire greater digging. As a side note I really should do this again as the last time I did I discovered Big Thief and a few more enjoyable tracks.
There’s only one track on the October 2000 CD though that grabbed me: Taillights Fade by Buffalo Tom, a band from Boston who were releasing a career-spanning Best Of just as they kicked off a seven year hiatus.
It meant I picked up Asides From as soon as I could and, having played it through repeatedly without skipping a song, set off rapidly exploring and collecting their back catalogue. Of the now 9 studio albums the band has put out since forming in 1986, their third album, released in 1992, Let Me Come Over is held up by many as their finest hour (well, 51 minutes) and while it’s probably their biggest seller, I doubt it’s all that known. Hell, if I asked you to name me five Boston bands I imagine the list would include Aerosmith, Pixies, Boston (real original name lads), The Cars, Dropkick Murphys or even the Lemonheads or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones before Buffalo Tom (the Buffalo is borrowed from Springfield). And I think that’s a crying shame.
On the back of their first two albums, released in ’88 and ’90, Buffalo Tom had been branded as Dinosaur Jr Jr. Given the use of fuzz in the guitar tones and the fact that the albums were produced by J Mascis himself, it was an easy tag to apply. It wasn’t entirely accurate though as their third album would show. It would also mean that the band – now supported by RCA Records as well Beggars Banquet, would get a second go around in their bid for breakthrough as ears were pricking up whenever alternative rock was played on radios around the world.
With J presumably far too busy now as Dinosaur Jr’s major label push took other and with the band’s songwriting needing a different production approach and less use of the overdrive pedal, Let Me ComeOver was helmed by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade. It was a massive leap forward. The sound on Let Me Come Over is painted with a much more layered approach and subtle brush – there’s a lot less shouting, acoustic guitar overdubs, more intricate compositions that feels like the band working as a piece rather than individual instruments with more mature and insightful lyrics.
Pitchfork have said of Buffalo Tom that they “wrote sharply observed conversational lyrics because it was too hard to be obscure.” Perhaps that’s why they were never able to break through – the songs are great; they’re well written, well played and the lyrics are clever and to the point at a time when alternative music was trying to be considerably more obtuse / mysterious in its song meanings and lyrics (hell, Ten didn’t even contain the song lyrics printed in anything resembling legible). It shouldn’t, though, detract from what’s a great set of songs and easily their strongest album.
Songs like ‘Mineral’ and ‘Taillights Fade’ (which it turns out is a favourite of Eddie Vedder who bought Bill Janovitz on stage with Pearl Jam on both nights they played Boston in 2018 much to the delight of fans and Bill to run through the song) are undoubted highlights that show off the band’s improved songwriting – drummer Tom Maginnis (the ‘Tom’ in the band name) points out in Asides From: “we were beginning to find our inspiration as songwriters and a sound of our own as a band”.
But the more straight-ahead rockers on the album like ‘Stymied’, ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘Velvet Roof’ also sound significantly sharper and more focused than on both the band’s previous direction – benefiting both from the less-cluttered production, and the band members’ improved playing after constant touring.
I read something suggesting that Buffalo Tom were ‘always the bridesmaids’ of the alternative rock movement, having never quite broken through in the way they deserved – Let Me Come Over was probably as close as they’d get but perhaps they just weren’t edgy enough for the musical climate that was brewing at the dawn of the 90s. Regardless, and perhaps even because of their underdog status, Buffalo Tom are one of my favourite bands to this day and Let Me Come Over gets a regular spin on my turntable.
Following a seven year hiatus, Buffalo Tom got back together in 2007 and put out Three Easy Pieces, followed in 2011 by Skins. Only playing select, occasional shows, it’s safe to say the band is semi-retired these days – though they put out their best album since Let Me Come Over in 2018 with Quiet and Peace. Bill Janovitz developed a side-career as a real-estate agent but has put out a couple of fine solo albums and has also written two books on The Rolling Stones. I, and I’m sure other fans, would love it if he were to chronicle his own band too.
This one started as a joke, a throwaway comment… but then, I like the idea of a ‘theme’ or ‘write about this’ approach so took a look at seeing what I could put together for the number 7.
Well… staying within this blog’s wheelhouse, there’s ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ according to Queen and Wonders of the World for Fleetwood Mac, both decent tunes. Perhaps most famously now it apparently takes more than a ‘Seven Nation Army’ to hold back Jack White:
Aside from being ridiculously catchy, ‘Seven Nation Army’ has probably made Jack White more money than anything else he’s done. While their label was initially reluctant to release it as a single in 2003, The White Stripes’ single was moderately successful in the charts (hitting and peaking at, fittingly enough, number 7 here), its usage in about a gazillion sporting events, broadcasts and adverts has netted its writer millions on its way to becoming what’s got to be the second-most recognisable guitar phrase ever (nobody’s gonna top ‘Satisfaction’).
There are also ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Seven Days’ on Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (now THAT is a great collection of Dylan tunes) but only ‘7 Seconds’ for Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry.
On a more recent note there’s also ‘Seven O’Clock’ one of the standout tracks on the new Pearl Jam Gigaton* and what kind of fan would I be if I didn’t take the opportunity to feature it and it’s glorious lyric ”Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse they forged the north and west, then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting President”:
On the subject of Pearl Jam, there’s also 7 Worlds Collide – a musical project of Neil Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz and a raft of great solo albums). Taking its title from a line in Crowded House’s ‘Distant Sun’, the project bought Finn together with a number of other musicians for a series of shows in support of charities. The group featured contributions from Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway, Tim Finn and many others – and a record , 7 Worlds Collide: Live at the St. James, was released in 2001 with tracks from a series of 5 shows at the venue and still gets taken off my shelves for a spin or three today. I’ve not checked out the studio album the project – with a pretty different ‘cast’ – put together a few years later but it still warrants checking out given that the set revolves around some of Finn’s strongest tunes along with a few written by his guests at the time:
Now, here’s a thing: I’ve often had a theory that the seventh track on album can often be one of the strongest. It’s not always the case, of course, and will depend on artist etc but my logic is that it’s the key point at which to drop a great tune and keep the listener’s ear into the second half of an album. With this in mind I took a rummage through my records then realised I could save myself a huge amount of time and use Spotify… duh.
With that in mind, there are loads of albums in which the seventh track is not only bloody strong but ranks among the best on that album. Take ‘Us and Them’! Or ‘Ramble On’… easily one of Led Zep’s greatest with that seamless switch in gears… or the actual title track on Highway 61 Revisited! There’s a wealth of great track sevens and, sticking to the ‘no more than 2 per artist’ rule I’ve oft imposed upon myself on this blog, I put together a playlist of great Track Sevens, enjoy:
*Moving away from Brendan O’Brien’s production sets it in with Binaural and Riot Act in terms of the band’s embrace of different sounds and vibe but I think it’s better than both of those, it’s easily their strongest set in some time, possibly since Yield.
Note: I was going to call this post “Is there anybody alive out there?” but that seemed a little… off given the times we find ourselves in.
Additional note: Yes, I’ve heard Gigaton – I think it’s awesome but I’ve nowhere near enough digested it to offer a cohesive review – it’s easily better than their last two albums at least.
Once upon a time (not so long ago), there were only a couple of live Bruce Springsteen albums out there: the comprehensive and benchmark-setting Live 1975-85 and the poorly mixed Live in NYC which mashed up the reunion tour’s final nights at New York’s Madison Sq Garden. Given that Springsteen had only toured with the E Street Band once prior since the release of 75-85 there was a slight whiff of cash-in about it, albeit the vital addition of new songs ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and the still-best release of ‘American Skin’.
But – just as Pearl Jam lead the way from their 2000 tour onwards by saying ‘enough’ to the bootleggers and making every show available at a professionally-recorded quality, Springsteen has joined the ever growing list of artists to do so via sites such as Nuggs (I’m still not sure what that is to be honest) and his own Live site. Not content with capturing new shows, Springsteen and his team continue to make choice ‘classic’ concerts available to us to either download or fork over a little too much cash considering and get it on CD.
Much like I have with Pearl Jam, I’ve got quite a few of these shows in my library – a couple paid for a fair few… acquired otherwise. So with concerts everywhere currently on hold – not that The Boss was gonna hit the road this year – and a little more time on my hands (cheers for the economy fuck, Covid-19) I thought I’d cherry pick a dozen or so of my favourite cuts from Springsteen’s concert archive to lift the spirits with what the man himself refers to as “the power and the glory of rock and roll!”
There’s no Spotify links for these as they’re not label releases but if you hit me up in the comments I can sort you out for sound. I’ve also steered away from going for too many tracks officially released on the aforementioned live albums.
Point Blank – September 19, 1978; Passaic, NJ
The River was still two years away but Point Blank was already in the set list from ’78 and this version is a ‘beaut.
Prove It All Night – September 20, 1978; Passaic, NJ
The omission of ‘Prove It All Night’ from ’75-’85 was a big ‘wtf?’ from fans because, live, the song had grown beyond its original structure to become an 11-minute epic with a new, screaming guitar over piano intro and organ / drum outro. The version that was released on NYC barrels along but wasn’t the beloved version featured here from the second night at Capitol Theatre.
Night – December 31, 1975: Upper Darby, PA
’75 was a pivotal year for Bruce, the year of Born To Run and he capped it off with a New Year’s Eve show in Philadelphia. How ‘Night’ – their set opener – was omitted from live releases is beyond me.
Fade Away – December 31, 1980: Nassau Coliseum, NY
Five years later… Not all of The River‘s cuts were made to match the energy of Springsteen’s live show and you’d be forgiven for thinking the longer tracks wouldn’t work but as this version of ‘Fade Away’ shows, that album and tour were a great showcase for the band’s musicianship – I love the swirling keys on this.
Rendezvous – December 31, 1980: Nassau Coliseum, NY
It would be years before some of those cuts written for The River were properly released but tracks like ‘Rendezvous’ would often pop up in the set and would later feature on Tracks, much like other rarities such as…
The Promise – February 7, 1977: Palace Theatre, Albany NY
Both ‘The USA / AKA The Lawsuit Tour’ and ‘The Lawsuit Drags On Tour’ in late ’76 and early ’77 were Bruce’s only outlet at the time as the legal battle with former manager Mike Appel kept him out of the studio, the shows would stretch to the three or four hour mark and new songs would appear (some never to reappear) and older songs would see themselves drastically reworked. It would be decades before this much-loved cut properly saw the light of day, let alone made it back into setlists but this early version is a great take. Darkness on the Edge of Town was still over year away – this was from the ‘The Lawsuit Drags On Tour’ – and you can understand why fans were baffled not to find it on the album when it did drop.
Something In The Night – February 7, 1977: Palace Theatre, Albany NY
Unlike this one which would make the cut but, despite its stateliness, never made the cut for a live album release. I can’t find a video of the version I have the audio for but this is nonetheless a great take.
Tunnel of Love, Roulette – March 28, 1988: Detroit, MI
One Step Up – April 23, 1988: Los Angeles, CA
Jumping forward a tour or two as much of the Born In The USA tour has been covered on 75-85. I’ve already featured one of these archival releases but it’s worth highlighting a few great cuts from it including another song written for The River – ‘Roulette’ and some of Tunnel of Love‘s greatest tunes that would very quickly disappear from regular rotation ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘One Step Up’.
Blood Brothers – July 1, 2000: New York, NY
Most expected it sooner in the Reunion Tour but Bruce saved ‘Blood Brothers’ for the last song of the night on the final night of the tour. It’s emotional and powerful as a set closure – he added a verse and you can see in the video that he and other members of the band are caught up in the emotion – Bruce’s voice breaks as the final song of their first full tour together since the tour behind Tunnel of Love plays out. It’s a vital addition to the Springsteen live cannon for it’s import in the band’s history and made all the more poignant since the passing of Clarence and Danny.
Gypsy Biker – April 22, 2008. Tampa Florida
Tampa ’08 is a strange show. It was the band’s first since the passing of Danny Federici five days earlier. The band feel more like they’re playing for themselves on this show – finding comfort in making music together and the healing therein. As with all shows on The Magic tour (and the album) ‘Gypsy Biker’ is an immense centrepiece.
Kitty’s Back – September 20, 1978; Passaic, NJ
What fucking numbskull thought it was ok to never put ‘Kitty’s Back’ on an official Springsteen live album?! Well, until they put out Hammersmith Odeon London ’75. Some people have got nothing between their ears…
1988…. a busy year with more memories making their way through the murk. Most of them, though, are more down to Thundercats and Manta Force toys than they are the music of ’88.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m pretty sure I heard Belinda Carlisle powering though the likes of ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and I’m sure Kylie Minogue would have eked into my years as this was the year that radio was rammed with ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ and everyone was doing the ‘Loco-Motion’. It was also a ‘Perfect’ year for Fairground Attraction and Billy Ocean told everyone to ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’. I remember them all but I doubt they were the focus of my attention as seven/eight year old. Then again, given my own son’s ability to reference a surprising number of songs and lyrics he’s heard on the radio and claim as ‘really good actually’ – who knows, maybe I was singing along to ‘Circle in the Sand’ in the car.
A couple of bits of music trivia from the year – while I sure as hell wouldn’t claim to remember it from the time – did make me chuckle. A Florida Man (a meme in itself these days) decided it was time to sue Motley Crue. This bloke – Matthew John Trippe, to give name hime, who already had a history of mental health issues and was known to the fuzz. Sued the band, claiming that he was secretly hired to pose as Nikki Sixx and went on to tour with the band and that he wrote and recorded with them during 1983 and 1984 . Now as claims go it’s pretty out there but the oddest thing about this was that it took until 1993 for Florida Man to drop his lawsuit.
The other is amusing more for the mental image it conjures up in my head. James Brown! The mad man that was James Brown… faced a tonne of charges in September 1988 after – presumably off his tits on PCP – he stormed into a seminar taking place in one of the office buildings he owned, waved a gun around and demanded to know who’d been using his toilets and then lead police on interstate chase. Convicted and sentenced six years, he was out for good behaviour in 1991… but the idea of James Brown storming into a meeting accusing people of using the shitter (presumably they left it looking like Baghdad) is a pretty weird one.
One of Seattle’s earliest ‘grunge’ bands, Green River – having called it a day in late ’87 – were officially done in 1988. Mark Arm and Steve Turner recruited Dan Peters and Matt Lukin and formed Mudhoney, quickly releasing their first single and EP by the end of the year and establishing themselves as one of the pioneers of the ‘Seattle Scene’. Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Bruce Fairweather meanwhile took their branch of the Seattle Music Tree off in a different direction, forming Lords of the Wasteland (which Mark Arm – ever the bitter cynic – and co would take the piss out of with a one-off ‘Wasted Landlords’ gig) with Andrew Wood before, also in ’88, forming Mother Love Bone.
In terms of albums dropped that fall within this blog’s wheelhouse… 1988 was a very good year. Van Halen dropped their second with Sammy Hagar on vocals, OU812 and saw it propelled to the top of the charts en route to shifting several million copies. not to be outdone (except he was in every way), Dickhead Dave released his second solo album Skyscraper which seemed like it was only titled as such so he could prattle on about what an amazing rock climber he was in interviews. Tracy Chapman released her self-titled debut in April of ’88 with songs like ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’ helping it shift over a million in its first two weeks alone…
Living Colour released Vivid which featured ‘Cult of Personality’ and Crowded House released their second album, the fantastic Temple of Low Men and Jane’s Addiction released the insanely good Nothing’s Shocking – ‘Mountain Song’, ‘Had A Dad’, ‘Ted, Just Admit It…’ all kick arse. Sonic Youth found time in a very busy year to set up a side-project Ciccone Youth and release The Whitey Album which featured Mike Watt and J Mascis whose own Dinosaur Jr released the faultless Bug in 1988 (though apparently it’s J’s least favourite Dino album). Speaking of faultless, 1988 also saw the release of Pixies’ debut full-length Surfer Rosa which is wall-to-wall perfect:
Soundgarden dropped their debut in 1988 too – Ultramega OK, a real over-looked item in their back catalogue. Also debuting in ’88 was an album by a group for whom the average member had already released a thousand albums: The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1. It’s a story well told as to how the band formed – recording a b-side for George Harrison leading to famous musicians calling their famous musician friends, breaking out the instruments and acting surprised that what they produced was solid gold, but the album is always worth a listen to, if only for Dylan’s fond piss-take of his mate Bruce’s songs:
But, if none of these make the cut as ‘featured’ for 1988, then what have I missed? Well, it’s not like I didn’t drop enough hints or the build up wasn’t kicked off a couple of years back:
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
Sonic Youth’s fifth album, released in October of 1988, is their masterpiece. It went on to massive acclaim from critics and continues to be cited as genre defining in every write up or re-release (I broke my no multiple-formats rule to get my hands on the 4lp expanded edition) since and is beloved by fans. Daydream Nation got the band their major label deal with Geffen (along with some creative accounting and rounding up of album sales to date) – which in turn allowed Kurt Cobain to think maybe it wouldn’t be selling out to have a chat to the same label – and has been referred to reverentially and held up as a massive influence from bands small (including my own last effort) to large in the alternative / indie rock genre. It’s fucking flawless.
I got into Sonic Youth via Goo (their major-label debut released in 1990) and the song ‘Tunic’. Having quickly picked up a couple of other albums, discovering Daydream Nation was like finding the moment everything clicked for their sound – it’s where all the improvisations and sonic experiments gelled with the drive toward writing ‘song’ structures and melodies without any sacrifice of either element.
This is one of the few albums that I listened to so frequently that the CD gave up the ghost and needed replacing. It’s one of those that I can just put on and lose myself in from start to finish – I even enjoy ‘Providence’. For me it’s akin to a concept album and ‘Providence’ provides the breather, the bridge between the album’s first ‘half’ and the likes of ‘Kissability’ and the 14-minute ‘Trilogy’.
There’s a real balance of Lee / Thurston / Kim songs – it would be a while before that came back as Goo and Dirty would feature just the one and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Starwould be devoid of Ranaldo’s vocals – anyone who’s hip to his solo work will agree that that’s a crying shame and I’m pretty sure it lead to a lot of tension in the band too.
However, on Daydream Nation all that – and the bands collapse – were way off in the future. This album is the sound of all the pieces locking into place and firing on full capacity – much like albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zep’s IV or Radiohead’s OK Computer, My Morning Jacket’s Z – a band playing at its strength and revelling in its abilities, almost as if they *know* they’re onto a real winner that will stand the test of time (and only time will tell if you pass that test….).
I also had the pleasure of seeing the band perform it in its entirety at London’s Roundhouse some years back – it was standing in front of Thurston’s speaker stack that cost me some of the hearing in my right ear.
The oddest thing about the entry for this year is that as 1987 was welcomed by the world I, having been born in October, was a few months past my sixth birthday so I’m sitting here knocking words into shape about the year in which I was the same age as my son is now.
Given how precious little I can now remember from that time, I’ll admit I’m a bit saddened at the prospect that all of these memories I hold dear with him, he may not. But it may just be that my own memory is shit – I can’t remember what was said in a meeting last week let alone what happened in 1987.
It also means that I know he’s absorbing music in much the same way I would have done but is probably exposed to a lot more variety as he enjoys listening to both music played in my car and on the radio in my wife’s – who listens to a much more contemporary station. Which would explain why he knows what ‘Bad Guy’ by Billie Eilish sounds like and can ask Alexa for something called Dance Monkey, amongst others…. when he’s not using it to set fart timers.
That he’s referenced the orange tub of turd in charge of America and the shaggy-headed fucktard* currently residing at 10 Downing Street makes me think that by ’87 I was probably paying attention to the news and the world beyond He-Man and Thundercats. Shit, just by typing those words I’ve opened a floodgate of memories which give me hope. Still, at the time, those big songs on the radio that might have been perverting my young brain included the future-meme that was Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. In fact I do have a distinct memory of being in the car with my Dad at one point this year as Ms Houston was being interviewed by Steve Wright on BBC Radio One (how’s that for a flasback) – I remember this as my Dad found it amusing and frustrating in equal measure how she would add ‘you know?’ to every other sentence.
1987 must have been a mega year for hairspray manufacturers. Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ topped the US charts and was the year’s biggest selling single, Def Leppard (what’s got nine arms and sucks?) released Hysteria – apparently the longest rock album ever on a single LP at just over an hour – and Axl Rose welcomed everyone to the jungle with a weird shimmy dance as Appetite for Destruction dropped in July ’87. It would go on to become the best selling debut of all time, having shifted something daft like 30 million copies. That’s a lot of Mr Brownstone. It’s a safe wager that all these poodle-perms and teased-dos were assisted in their rise by MTV – MTV Europe launched in ’87 too, the first video played was Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ the animation of which was probably already out of date.
Still there were a lot of great records released in 1987 too, many of which fall right into this blog’s arena and my collection. Not counting Bruce Willis’ The Return of Bruno for very obvious reasons.
Hüsker Dü released their final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories and broke up following the tour to support it, which I’m sure cheesed of Warner Bros. as it was only their second album for the label. Prince returned to form with Sign o’ the Times and Sonic Youth delivered the near-perfect Sister in June, weighing in at very healthy ten tracks that shifted their experimentation further from their no-wave origins and closer to traditional song-structures.
Sonic Youth’s SST label-mates, and another big name in my record shelves, Dinosaur Jr released their unimpeachable You’re Living All Over Me in 1987 and fellow Massachusettsians(?) and one of Boston’s finist, The Pixies released their first – the mini-lp Come On Pilgrim – which I always say in the style of John Wayne.
Meanwhile Boston’s Bad Boys decided ’87 was the time to kick-off their comeback proper. Fresh from rehab (though opener ‘Hearts Done Time’ was crafted by Perry and Desmond Child while Steven Tyler was still ‘in’) and feeling a lust for life and health, Aerosmith shifted direction a little – a glossier sound thanks to the production of Bruce Fairbairn and, at the suggestion of A&R man John Kalodner, written with outside songwriters such as Desmond Child, Jim Vallance and Holly Knight. All names that would be associated with the likes of Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, Tina Turner and a certain flavour of 80’s American ROCK. Still, with sales in the millions, a volley of hit singles and videos that reintroduced to the group to the charts and introduced them to a whole new audience, the formula clearly worked. For my money, though, it’s the lesser of their ‘comeback’ albums and the best songs are the least ‘buffed’:
The Go-Betweens released their fifth album, Tallulah, in ’87 and Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust arrived in August of the same year – often cited as the best Australian album and home to ‘Beds Are Burning’ which did Top Ten / Twenty business around the globe. R.E.M released Document in this year, it was their last for I.R.S and their first with producer Scott Litt – with whom they’d work with through to New Adventures In Hi-Fi. George Harrison released Cloud Nine in 1987 – while it followed a five year hiatus it would actually be the last of his studio albums released in his lifetime, we miss you George. Massively well-received it also give him a Number One single:
Having been declared a spent force creatively in 1985, Pink Floyd proved it was anything but having gotten rid of its “dog in the manger”. Having begun work on the next band album in November ’86, David Gilmour put together the musicians he wanted involved and wisely took the call from Richard Wright’s wife when it came to the keyboards. While both Nick Mason and Wright were a little too rusty following both an extensive lay-off and years of Waters’ bullying respectively to play much on the album, the presence of both on the album gave the now Gilmour-led project the stamp of credibility it needed as legal battling and bitching between the Floyd and Waters camp continued throughout – at one point the band relocated to L.A for recording both as part of the arrangement to allow producer Bob Ezrin time with his family (Ezrin chose working on a new Gilmour-led Pink Floyd album vs Waters’s solo record based on his memories of The Wall sessions with Roger) and so that the time delay would reduce calls from solicitors. While A Momentary Lapse of Reason is far from a great Pink Floyd album, it’s pretty fucking good and has plenty of songs on it that stand up to repeated listens and the recent remixes for The Later Years shows just that.
Meanwhile the tour to support it began before the album was released. Roger Waters threatened to sue promoters if they used the Pink Floyd name, which many decided to say ‘fuck you’ to – helping some shift 60,000 tickets within hours of release. Gilmour and Mason funded the start-up costs themselves and the tour became the year’s most successful – beating box office records everywhere it went. Which probably helped Mason buy back the Ferrari 250GTO he’d had to sell to raise funds. I seem to recall reading that it grossed more than the next two best-selling tours of the year combined.
But… it’s not my featured album of 1987. I mean Bruce Springsteen also released an album this year – one of his finest; Tunnel of Love. Yet I’ve already waxed lyrical on that and rules are rules. So, let’s talk about…
The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me
““How can the Replacements be the best band of the 80s when I’ve never even heard of them?” Jon Bon Jovi
That’s easy, Jon. Pull up a chair, tuck back your hair and open your ears a mo… The Replacements were the band that should have been, but never were. Their own worst enemies, they were a band that, across the course of the decade, punched out six albums that charted Westerberg’s development into a songwriter par-excellence, stuffed to gills with gems and killer hooks that saw them develop from their start in Minneapolis’ punk scene to making one-last gasp at the stardom that forever eluded them before falling apart as the nineties started.
Own worst enemies you say? That’s right, Jon Bongiovi – their history was no Bed of Roses. For all their great tunes, they couldn’t quite seem to let go of the punk / silly stuff. So for every ‘I Will Dare’ or ‘Unsatisfied’ there would be a ‘Gary’s Got A Boner’ or ‘Lay It Down Clown’ that, while delighting their already devoted fanbase when wheeled out live, wouldn’t give them the consistently ‘great / solid’ album that would transfer to mainstream sales. They’d also handicap their success with their on-and-off stage behaviour and ramshackle live performances that often ended with songs being abandoned half-way through after a flubbed line or riff. Whether they really didn’t care or wanted to look like they didn’t care…. “I don’t know”.
I came to The Replacements far too late – not that it’s ever too late to discover a band, but they’d long since ceased to be when I got into them and even Paul Westerberg had stopped releasing albums proper when I finally decided to check out the band that I’d read about and seen cited as important and influential seemingly everywhere.
Pleased to Meet Me was released in 1987. You probably didn’t hear it, JBJ, because you were giving love a bad name around the world. It’s the band’s fifth album – and their first and only album as a trio after founding member Bob Stinson left / was asked to gtfo in ’86. I’ve read somewhere that, in fact, his departure is a stain on Westerberg’s character: having completed court-mandated rehab less than a month earlier, a clean and sober Stinson was told to ‘either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage.’ Stinson died in 1995 of organ failure after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
This was also their second major-label album and, likely, one for which Sire were starting to wonder if they’d ever take it seriously enough to give them a product that would break the band in the way Westerberg’s songs deserved.
For my money Pleased To Meet Me is as close as they’d get to perfect. The songs on their next, Don’t Tell A Soul were still good albeit written looking for an ‘anthem’, but it was two years away – during which it would become clear it wasn’t really going to happen – and would be killed by poor production.
Pleased To Meet Me was produced by Jim Dickinson – I’ve no doubt chosen as he produced Big Star’s Thrid and it Paul Westerberg would “never travel far, without a little Big Star.”
It’s their best-sounding album thanks to the production choice. It’s big, punchy and strong where it needs to be but still remains rough enough round the edges to keep its charm and the band’s sense of humour and ethos intact. Rolling Stone called it “an album alive with the crackle of conflicting emotions and kamikaze rock & roll fire.”
It’s got great Replacements songs all over it, from ‘Alex Chilton’ to ‘The Ledge’ for which a video was made but quickly banned by MTV as it dealt with suicide. They didn’t really do videos in general so it wasn’t a shocker. No flying across the crowd in a harness or looking wistfully out of the windows of a jet liner for them, Jon. Their only real video to this point was a black-and-white video that didn’t even show the band, just a loudspeaker vibrating to the music. No wonder you hadn’t heard of em.
And while they weren’t quite ready to play it straight, the token ‘silly’ track ‘I Don’t Know’ comes across more as a bluesy, jam feeling workshop that’s more self-mocking than it is juvenile: ‘one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter’, ‘Do we give it up? (I don’t know)….. Can I borrow your hairspray?’ Yeah, I know, Jon, they used hairspray too, but when they sang ‘why don’t you get a haircut, sister?’ at Paul it didn’t make the news. Meanwhile the saxophone featured would also drip over into next track ‘Nightclub Jitters’ which continued Hootenanny‘s genre experiments with aplomb.
Oh, and speaking of horns, it’s also got the final recording run at ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, easily one of their best tunes – I love the one-liner “Jesus rides beside me, he never buys any smokes” – all nagging riff and catchy beat, albeit without the earlier version’s ’till it’s over’:
But I jumped ahead to the final track there, sorry. ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ is preceded by another Westerberg classic, one that he once called the first good song he’d written. It’s a simple love song about a couple who never got to meet (something which Westerberg’s solo songs would come back to a few times over the years to come) – a man keeps seeing a woman up in the skyway “wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street” only, when he finally sees her out in the street – where he usually catches his ride, he’s in the skyway: “there wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say.” It’s simple, yet perfect. Yes, Jon, it’s fucking streets away from ‘Never Say Goodbye’, ok? Don’t even try…
Allmusic’s summary of this one sums it up: it was the last time the band “could still shoot for the stars and seem like their scrappy selves and, in many ways, it was the last true Replacements album”. Pleased To Meet Me is my favourite Replacements album. As I worked my way back through their catalogue after getting Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was it’s the album that I’d play through the most, so it’s only fitting that it sits here as my choice of 1987’s releases.
On to 1988… and no, New Jersey isn’t there, Jon. No laying your hands on this list.