Albums of my years – 1999

We were livin’ la vida loca as there seemed to be an explosion of polished pop taking over once again – Christina Aguilera wanted us to rub her up the right way (at least it wasn’t as fucking awful a message to be sending out to kids as WAP) and Britney Spears told us we were driving her crazy. Dr Dre was still D.R.E – has anyone checked what his doctorate is in? – and Blink 182 wanted to check their age, again. Apparently we stole Len’s sunshine but it didn’t matter because everybody was free to wear sunscreen while finding it impossible to escape from Rob Thomas crooning about how ‘Smooth’ it all is over Santana’s guitar toss-offs  – that’s right: it’s 1999! Prepare to party as this series does what I’ve never managed to do: say goodbye to the 90s.

With the new Millennium (or Willenium – I see what you did there, Big Will) approaching, music was in a weeeiiiird place, man. It felt like there was a real rush to shrug off the sound that had been so prevalent in the decades early stages and embrace all things gloss and Y2K – I point the cannon of blame firmly at MTV’s TRL era. There’s only so much Backstreet Boys and Britney guff the world can take before it starts to seep out…

Mark Sandman – bass player and singer for the fantastic Morphine – collapsed on stage in Italy in July. He was pronounced dead shortly after – a heart attack likely due to heavy stress and the heat had killed him at age 46. Morphine disbanded.

Gary Cherone said farewell to the Van Halen brothers and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (as he was then going by) filed a lawsuit against 9 websites for copyright and trademark infringement starting a pattern of strict and total control over the presence of his songs anywhere that would continue until his passing. Oh, and the music world said ‘alright, how’s it goin?’ to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival when the first event was held on October 9th – Tool, Beck, The Chemical Brothers, The Racist Prick Formerly Known As Morrissey and Rage Against The Machine all featured on the lineup.

So – leaving aside the pop tarts of the era, was anything decent released in 1999? Well….  it’ wasn’t a huge year but The Black Crowes kicked things off with a pretty good stab at it with By Your Side, produced by Kevin Shirley and sounding much like the Crowes of old with plenty of biting riffs and soul. Blondie released their first album in 17 years – No Exit shifted pretty well on the back of their hit ‘Maria’ and everybody’s favourite Anal Cunt released that album that everyone owns at least two copies of –  It Just Keeps Getting Worse.

Sparklehorse’s second album Good Morning Spider was a real slice of the good stuff and Jimmy Eat World achieved a great album with Clarity – I hate the ’emo’ tag – with songs like ‘Lucky Denver Mint’, ‘Table for Glasses’, ‘Goodbye Sky Harbour’ and ‘Believe In What You Want’ it’s a real solid slab of alt-gold.

Silverchair released their third album Neon Ballroom which is one my wife wanted to add to the record shelves not too long ago and the first I’d really heard by them, it’s not shabby at all though still feeling more like a callback to those bands from a certain Pacific North West area of America that they loved.

Wilco dropped their third album Summerteeth and received praised from pretty much every critical outlet and The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin – featuring ‘Race for the Prize’ and ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ – met an equally ecstatic reaction. At some point I remember watching one of the music channels and catching a video for ‘The Dolphin’s Cry’ and was so taken with it that I went out and got hold of Live’s The Distance To Here, the band’s fourth album. It’s got a real strong and cool vibe that I dig a lot though it wasn’t as successful for them as previous efforts like Throwing Copper.

On the post-rock front there were another pair of stone-cold classics released in 1999 – three if you count Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Slow Riot For Kanada EP – Mogwai released their fucking amazing second studio album Come On Die Young which featured a deliberately sparser sound to Young Team and still gets thrown into my cd player on a regular basis. Oh and a band from Iceland released their second album too: Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun proved to be both their breakthrough and a benchmark for both the genre and the band – it’s just a thing of beauty:

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Echo their last with Rick Rubin and bass player Howie Epstein who was absent from both many a session and the cover photo shoot. A much more sombre collection of tunes, it’s Petty’s ‘divorce’ album and one the band didn’t touch much live but it’s very much worth a listen and songs like ‘Room At The Top’ and ‘Free Girl Now’ always a joy to hear.  Another Tom – Tom Waits released his thirteenth album, Mule Variations which was his first in six years.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, now featuring the return of John Frusciante, released the album that threw them into the megasphere: Californication. A massive success and loaded with singles like ‘Otherside’, ‘Scar Tissue’ and the title track, it gave the band another lease of life and success and its songs are still played on radio, it’s pretty good too.

There was a trio of great third albums too in 1999 – Rage Against The Machine’s third and final album Battle of Los Angeles was another slab of their fiery great stuff (to be honest, they had a pretty perfect run in the studio album department so it’s not surprising they don’t want to taint it by pushing for more) and Dave Grohl and his mates figured There Was Nothing Left To Lose which went bonkers thanks to hits like ‘Learn to Fly’ and ‘ Generator’. It’s got a real different vibe to most everything else in their catalogue – a bit softer, almost Police-like at times – and is a real highlight. Oh and Counting Crows’ This Desert Life arrived just two years after their second. It’s another fine effort from the band though not as strong as Recovering The Satellites with songs like ‘Mrs Potter’s Lullaby’, ‘I Wish I Was A Girl’ and ‘Colorblind’ standing out for me.

For me, the album of 1999 goes to:

Built to Spill – Keep It Like A Secret

Built to Spill often feel like a secret in themselves, I honestly don’t think they get the audience they deserver (or that their major label Warner Bros would like) but they remain one of the finest purveyors of guitar-driven ‘alt’ out there and have a massively strong back catalogue of albums which include Keep It Like A Secret and its predecessor Perfect From Now On both of which are oft-heralded by those list-compilers as essential.

Perfect From Now On is was the band’s first on a major label and  in a move that surprised everyone, and showed Warner’s faith in them, the shortest song on it was still over five minutes long – it’s a song of long, experimental tunes with philosophical lyrics all hinged on Doug Martsch’s guitar playing. No doubt knackered after crafting such an epic, Keep It Like A Secret is a deliberate direction, Martsch made a concerted effort to create shorter, more concise tunes – most of which were born during a week of jamming. Maybe they looked around, saw how quickly the majors could cast aside bands and decided to tighten things up.

Well – to an extent. What I love about this album is that, yes, it’s more concise and accessible but even here Built To Spill wouldn’t be constrained – the songs start out like streamlined, massively catchy indie tunes but then Martsch still manages to shake loose and throw in bundles of guitar histrionics, twists and turns while maintaining a tightness and directness that keep them rooted in tighter time frames – even with the glorious time signature changes.

The lyrics are more immediate and catchy too and I’ve got a real love for the humour on this album, perhaps most evident in the cliche-mocking ‘You Were Right’ which borrows lines from the ‘classic rock’ school that the indie-rock scene at the time was so keen to distances itself from and not even approach ironically: “You were right when you said all that glitters isn’t gold,  You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind, you were right when you said we are all just bricks in the wall.”

That’s the other thing I love about Built To Spill both in general and on this album – they manage to keep their music open and breathing as openly as bands like Pavement and other ‘indie rock’ bands that sites like Pitchfork used to fawn over. BUT they’re not afraid to simply fucking have it when it comes to amazing guitar solos and playing – classic rock elements and executions in an alt-rock sound. Doug Martsch clearly knows how to make people like me go “ooooohhhh BABY!” It’s the sort of stuff that I think Thurston Moore would love to do but doesn’t quite have Martsch’s guitar chops.

See: aside from how little an audience this band has compared to what they deserve – Doug Martsch is a massively underrated guitar player. Throughout Built To Spill’s career (I can no longer refer to them as BTS anymore as that throws up an all together different band on Google), which is still going and still on a major label, Martsch is not only the only mainstay of a band but the lineup and sound is built around his guitar playing in a way that makes me think of a less fuzz-buried J Mascis. Whereas it feels like J can just plug in and rip out a riff into a song and Martsch deliberates a lot more over structures (hence the increasing gap between studio albums), there’s plenty of similarities and I’d hold them both up as the genre’s greatest players.

I’d happily dig into any Built To Spill album and lose myself in it but Keep It Like A Secret is like the most perfect encapsulation of their sound and easily its classic lineup and manages to be what’s got to be the decade’s last great 90s album.

Unfortunately I guess Warner Bros. has a strange relationship with the streaming service beginning with an S and this is one of the band’s albums not available on it. However:

 

I Hung My Head – 3 Versions

“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…

Tracks: Camouflage

“And then a big marine, a giant with a pair of friendly eyes
Appeared there at my shoulder and said ‘Wait!’
When he came in close beside me he said ‘Don’t worry, son, I’m here’
‘If Charlie wants to tangle now they’ll have two to dodge'”

After a brief back and forth in a comment section with CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead and ahead of a post on war (what is it good for?) I felt the need to dust off my Tracks format  wherein I spotlight a particular song that stands out in my mental jukebox and sits amongst my favourites – I feel a Spotify playlist coming on…

Stan Ridgway’s ‘Camouflage’ was taken from his 1986 album The Big Heat. It was a hit over here in the UK (hitting number 4 in the chart – I’ve still got a cassette of the Top 40 from some point in the year and it’s on there alongside things like Robert Palmer’s ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On’ and Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’ as a slab of my childhood in the back seat of my parent’s car on family drives) but didn’t chart in Ridgway’s native US where he’d previously found success in Wall of Voodoo.

Sung from the pov of a young, inexperience Private First Class cut off from his patrol in ‘the jungle war of ’65’ and finding himself surrounded… until ‘that big marine named Camouflage’ saves him…  Sure, it’s over-the-top and not exactly realistic, but it’s a cracker in my book:

This song cuts on a personal level. When I was a kid growing up my Dad’s best friend Charlie was a regular presence in our lives. He’d been a ‘weekend soldier’ in the TA and, with my Dad, part of an RAF volunteer service called the ROC. This was one of his favourites, I guess the Vietnam story appealed to him, and so it became lodged in my mind and the connection between the song and him makes it a bit of an emotional one too: he was killed while riding his motorbike in 1992 when a lorry hit him.

Aside from that emotional connection – my father can’t listen to it anymore – I really dig the tune and can see why it was a favourite. The story is like something from Catch 22, the sound has that 80’s New Wave / Alternative vibe and Ridgway’s delivery, like some strange film noir narrative, is unique.

Spinning Some Newer Things

Stepping out of the mid-90s for a moment, I thought it high time to throw a few things up here to show what else – during this long-arse pause in the ‘norm’ – has been going through my ears lately.

Daughter – Youth

So… anyone else catch Ricky Gervais’ ‘Afterlife’ on Netflix? We powered through both seasons earlier this year. Not what I was expecting – gutting at times… jesus. Hell of a soundtrack though and sent me off exploring a lot of new artists and many I’d heard of but not heard. This particularly stood out and I’ve been enjoying Daughter’s catalogue since.

Eliot Sumner – Information 

Some time back I took a punt on Destroyer’s Kaputt having seen it on sale for £5.99 and found out I really dug it. The same thing happened with Eliot Sumner’s album Information: I saw it in a sale for £6.99 and thought ‘why is a double lp so cheap?’, checked reviews / information, not a lot them about so pinged it up on Spotify and… holy shit! The name didn’t click at first but the voice…. it’s like the same timbre of her father and she’s singing with such confidence and there’s a real power to it… really enjoying this album from Gordon’s daughter even if, or perhaps because, it’s not what would normally be in my wheelhouse.

School Is Cool – Close

Another new discovery – these guys hail from Belgium. Their new album Things That Don’t Go Right is a pretty good mix of the same sun-kissed guitar tones and vibes that The War On Drugs have perfected along with some cool vocal harmonies and those 80’s sci-fi synths that Stranger Things seems to have revived.

Turnover – Cutting My Fingers Off

I’d seen this album so many times on ‘the ‘gram’ and for some reason thought it was something entirely different – I thought it was one of those stone-metal albums like Sleep…. However; took the opportunity afforded by not having to get up for work (only as an acting teacher to my son at least) to listen in on headphones in the evenings and have been hooked on Turnover since.

Gary Clark Jr – This Land

Holy shit did I sleep on this one. I mean, I’ve always dug Gary Clark Jr’s playing – his Live album is a frequent spinner even if I haven’t found his studio albums as rewarding – but this is just something else and, right now, still, essential.

Philp Sayce – Burning Out

Again – new to me, this guy, but I’ve been digging what I’ve heard thus far and, much like Gary Clark Jr, this guy drew a lot of ears playing at one of Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festivals.

Pearl Jam – Quick Escape

March seems like a decade ago already doesn’t it? Without being able to tour and promote it’s easy to forget Pearl Jam had a new album out this year – which sucks especially when you consider how long we had to wait for it! Still, Gigaton is an absolute beast – one of their most ‘on’, diverse and consistently strong albums in a long time and I enjoy it more with every spin. ‘Quick Escape’ is a thumper! “Crossed the border to Morocco , Kashmir to Marrakesh . The lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet.”

 

Albums of my Years – 1993

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 NevermindSiamese 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.

*I sincerely doubt it’s that, pervert.

 

Albums of my Years – 1991

Here we are, 1991 – “the year punk broke.” This was the year in which grunge music broke through. Still in its infancy, though, the genre wasn’t the force in terms of sales it would become over the next couple of years. While Nirvana’s Nevermind (released in September) would be propelled by the surprise hit of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, metal was still a massive force and it would be Metallica’s ‘black’ album that became the year’s biggest seller along with the double wankfest of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 selling massive figures and Garth Brooks, still a good few years away from turning into Chris Gaines, was making money as fast as they could print it.

In February, James Brown was released from prison on parole after his bizarre ‘89 episode – presumably the wardens were fooled by his cape routine and feigned exhaustion. Years away from revelations of child abuse, Michael Jackson renewed his recording contract with Sony records for $65 million – that’s a lot of monkey food. The Rolling Stones also signed a new deal with Virgin Records and Aerosmith – riding high on the back of their comeback and the success of Pump, signed a $30 million deal with Colombia Records / Sony Music, though it wouldn’t be until 1997’s Nine Lives that they would release anything for the label.

On March 20th Eric Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor, died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of his mother’s friend’s New York City apartment. The loss of his young son, with whom he had only just realised his role as father took a heavy toll and inspired the song ‘Tears in Heaven’.

The film ‘Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’ was released in 1991 and, from it, Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ took the piss at number 1 in the UK for sixteen weeks. Also, in the world of soundtracks and infinitely more culturally and artistically more significant than Christian Slater’s English accent, ‘Baywatch’ returned in 1991 for a second season of slow motion running, drama and acting almost as convincing as the breasts on its female stars, kicking off with a new theme song:

On November 23rd, after years of speculation and insulting suggestions from the press, Freddie Mercury released a statement confirming that he had tested HIV positive and had AIDs. The statement didn’t say that Mercury was close to blind and could no longer leave his bed. Less than 24 hours later Mercury passed away from bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. He was just 45.

Devo called it a day in 1991 as did Galaxy 500, NWA, Talk Talk, Talking Heads and The Replacements who played their last show together (minus drummer Chris Mars who had quit in 1990 ) in July at Chicago’s Grant Park, with each member leaving during the set with their respective roadies taking their places. Meanwhile Belly, Cake, The Chemical Brothers, Counting Crows, Heatmiser (featuring Elliott Smith), Incubus, Oasis, Portishead, Rage Against The Machine, Refused and, er, The Wiggles all formed in 1991.

So what about album releases? Well… Dickhead Dave got the year off to a cloudy start with the release of his third solo album A Little Ain’t Enough (despite the fact that a little of him is way too much). Still doing well with Sammy Hagar, Van Halen would release the imaginatively For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge in June and while its title is a little Spinal Tap (Hagar wanted to call it ‘Fuck’ but was, in a pure ‘Really? And you believed him?!’ moment, was told by Ray Mancini that ‘Fuck’ was actually an acronym for what would become the album’s title), it’s a strong slab of good stuff that includes quite a few of my favourite VH riffs.

1991 also saw the final album from Dire Straits – On Every Street. As recently surmised by Jim over at Music Enthusiast: There was some good stuff on it but Brothers in Arms had come out in 1985 and six years in the pop world is an eternity. Knoplfer’s other production credits for the year came from a seminal release from Bob Dylan:The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. One of my go-to Dylan volumes, this is one of those sets (like Springsteen’s Tracks) which always makes you wonder how the fuck some of this stuff was left off, like this cut from the Knopfler-produced sessions for Infidels (a fine, fine album):

Tom Petty re-teamed with the Heartbreakers for 91’s Into The Great Wide Open which, following the success of Petty’s Full Moon Fever was produced by Jeff Lynne. A lovely album, it was stocked with singles like such as ‘Learning To Fly’ and the title track along with great cuts including one of my favourites – ‘Two Gungslingers’.

On the heavier side of the year’s releases, Metallica’s Metallica (the answer is none, none more black’) was 1991’s monster – it spawned the classics ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Sad But True’, ‘The Unforgiven’ … and would sell more than 16 million copies in the US alone.

One of my all-time favourite bands, Dinosaur Jr released their major-label debut in 1991. Green Mind is a great mix of J Mascis’ ferocious guitar playing, matching melody to walls of fuzz and power with a growing songwriting sensibility. It’s practically a J Mascis solo album as he not only produced by played most of the instruments too with original drummer Murph only playing on three of the album’s songs. Bass player Lou Barlow had been kicked out a year or two prior and would document this in ‘The Freed Pig’ on his new band Sebadoh’s album III, also released in 1991.

1991 is the year that the world was first introduced to Eddie Vedder. First via the Temple of the Dog album – discussed at length in 1990’s post. Released in April it was received well by those all-important critics but failed to chart… it would take a little more awareness of the key players for the momentum to build. Still it wouldn’t take long: preceded by the singles ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Alive’ Ten was released in August. A stunning debut, it would gradually build a following as the band hit the road hard to support it just as the grunge explosion began getting underway. I’d put it as a featured album or I wouldn’t be worth my salt as paid-up Ten Club member but I’ve already featured the album and rules are rules. Still, here’s a Stone-cold classic:

Another classic was dropped in 1991: Slint’s Spiderland. Their second and final album, Spiderland was a slow-burner and its popularity within the music world grew with time as it gradually found its audience and proved a massive influence on the post-rock genre.

Back over here, another genre-definer was released – My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic and gem of an album Loveless eventually arrived in November after two years of recording, 19 studios and contributing to the bankruptcy of its label. Hailed as a ‘virtual reinvention of the guitar’ Loveless left a long shadow on the scene and would find new ears and inspire lots more for years to come – just as well as it took 22 years for the band to follow up.

Another great of the genre, Slowdive, released their debut Just For A Day in ’91 but it was Massive Attack’s Blue Lines that rightly stole a lot of column inches over here that year:

As if the year wasn’t bursting enough with big albums, REM chose 1991 to release their Out Of Time and find themselves catapulted to the level of MASSIVE with singles like ‘Shiny Happy People’ (I still think it’s naff) and ‘Losing My Religion’ sitting alongside beautiful album tracks like ‘Low’ and ‘Half a World Away’.  It was major hit time too for Crowded House with the great Woodface arriving in July of ’91 and doing the business worldwide. It’s stuffed with great songs (though my favourite Crowded House album was a couple of years off) that would go on to become much-loved hits.

Another band to breakout in ’91 – Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik found the band taking a different musical tact than previous and seeing monster results and was one of those early albums that would be regarded as a mainstay of the ‘alternative’ boom that would jump all over the 90’s. A band that really really deserved to be part of the 90’s alternative explosion but would break up before the decade was halfway through – Pixies released their fourth and greatest album in 1991: Trompe le Monde.

As the Pixies released their final album, Smashing Pumpkins released their debut in ’91 with Gish. Corgan’s monstrous cockwomble status and ego aside, they’d prove one of the scene’s finest in years to come. As we’re getting back to the ‘grungier’ part of the alternative scene, one of the genre’s too oft-overlooked acts The Screaming Trees released their fifth album Uncle Anesthesia in January. It was their last with drummer Mark Pickeral  and their first for major-label Epic. While it didn’t have the impact the band or label hoped for – the musical world was still waking up to the genre, to be fair, it was produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Date also produced 1991’s Soundgarden album Badmotorfinger. Their first with bass player Ben Shepherd and released on September 24th 1991,  Badmotorfinger is an absolute stonker and features some of Soundgarden’s greatest songs.

Badmotorfinger is one of those classic albums that proved a breakthrough for Soundgarden. Already veterans of the Seattle music scene, Chris Cornell and co’s third album helped them reach the burgeoning alternative rock / grunge fanbase with singles like ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’. However, it would be another album released on the same day that busted everything wide open for the likes of Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam to storm through… Nirvana’s Nevermind.

There’s a great scene in the 1996 documentary Hype! (available to watch on Prime and well worth doing so) in which Sub Pop staff discuss how, toward the end of 1990 they felt the storm of the scene that was building in Seattle had passed and would soon wind down, the focus would shift and things would return to normal… and then a band with a relatively small following but plenty of buzz about them dropped a song called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

It’s overplayed and perhaps the most obvious choice to play but it’s a fucking classic for a reason. It did so phenomenally well for a reason – it’s a great tune that propelled the album Nevermind, the band and pretty much an entire scene into a new league. It’s one of those albums I play so often that I know every word. It’s not my favourite Nirvana album but it contains so many of my favourite Nirvana songs (and one of my all-time favourites in ‘Breed’) that I still get bemused – I’m too old to get bothered and riled up anymore – when people say “oh but it sounds too commercial” or “Kurt hated it”. No, he didn’t and no, id doesn’t. He loved it but needed to distance himself from it for fear of being seen as a sell-out. I fucking hate that aspect of the scene and music fans in general that mean artists are so worried about how it would be perceived as ‘not punk’ and blame that for the demise of it, and Kurt’s state of mind, and the rise of the absolute dog shit on the radio today….

However: that’s a boatload of great albums and yet these aren’t the ‘featured’ albums for the year. So, what’s it to be for 1991? Well, you may not have heard of this band, but:

U2 – Achtung Baby

“You who?” I hear you ask. “Is that the submarine that stole an enigma device?”

I give U2 an occasional jibe on this blog – like; what’s the difference between God and Bono? God doesn’t walk around Dublin thinking he’s Bono – but for good reason, as the years have gone by their recorded merit has deteriorated as Bono’s ego and the extravagance of being ‘the biggest band in the world’ grew in its place. The reason I do this is pretty simple really – U2 used to be great and they’ve made some absolute first class albums, the best of which (in my opinion) is Achtung Baby.

As the band’s popularity sky-rocketed in the 80’s and following the massive success of The Joshua Tree, U2 had started to get a little too caught up in trying to be serious and – as Bono said of Rattle and Hum: “We looked like a big, overblown rock band running amok.” That album and concert film summed it all up really: they’d gone from penning great tunes to paying too much attention to the look of it and were too self-serious. I mean; thank fuck for Bono taking a moment in ‘Silver and Gold’ to lecture us on apartheid before clumsily telling Edge to ‘play the blues’. It had stretched a little thin so when, at the end of that tour, Bono announced the band had “to go away and…and dream it all up again” it was probably welcome.

But I don’t think anyone was expecting Achtung Baby. It’s a total reinvention – while the band’s ethics and singing about the connections between people remained, everything else was a total reinvention. The way the band presented themselves changed – from Bono’s wrap around shades and black leather to the discovery of irony and dark humour in interviews with a bit of danger and the sound… the chiming sound of the 80s was seemingly buried now in distortion and lurching rhythms and textures not previously associated with the band as the emerged into the 90s with their first single ‘The Fly’:

I adore Achtung Baby – there’s not a song on it I’ll skip, even if I didn’t really want to listen to ‘One’ for a while as it became so omnipresent, it was always tracks like ‘Zoo Station’ and ‘Until The End of the World’ (in my favourite songs of all time list) that kept me coming back to it. I’m surprised my copy of it still plays it’s been slipped into so many different car CD players and stereos over the years, the case is pretty much battered and the booklet’s edges scuffed.

The album was gotten underway in Berlin, at Hansa Studios (where Bowie and Iggy Pop famously recorded four albums in 1977) in October 1990 as the band sought inspiration from the reunification of Germany. Instead it nearly broke the band as they argued over songs and the musical direction until they had a eureka moment with the writing of One which came in an improvised session as they worked on the arrangement of an early version of ‘Mysterious Ways’. As overplayed as it would become, it remains a great song (I really dig a lot of the vibe on this album including the artwork and the Trabants of the original video):

Just look at the list of singles released from the album alone: ‘The Fly’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘One’, ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ – if any one of these comes on the radio you’re not likely to be changing channel.

But then there’s the tracks that weren’t released – and they’re all just as good. Take ‘So Cruel’, ‘Acrobat’ or ‘Love Is Blindness’ as examples:

The lyrics aren’t millions of miles away from territory they’d wandered previously – “And you can dream, so dream out loud, you know that your time is coming ’round,
so don’t let the bastards grind you down” – but there’s a little more darkness and questioning here and, instead of being married to obvious ‘anthem’ sounds, there’s an edge (and Edge’s playing) to the songs on Achtung Baby with a metallic distorted bite, that borrows from industrial, electronic and the alternative rock scene that sits so sublimely with these songs and reveals more each time.

It shifted somewhere in excess of 18 million copies and ushered in U2’s Zoo TV Tour which was both so very 90s and completed their reinvention. It was the start of a new journey musically – from here to Zoorapa (also containing great tunes) to Pop which could’ve been another masterpiece if they’d been allowed time to finish it – and in terms of touring as the set grew from Zoo TV to Pop Mart and giant lemons. At no point, though, would it be as wholly and compellingly perfect again as it is on Achtung Baby*.

 

*After Pop‘s lacklustre reception, the band ducked away for a while before returning with a Best Of which captured 1980-1990, the reception to which buoyed their ‘back to basics’ All That You Can’t Leave Behind album in 2000. It’s a decent enough collection though a little sticky-sweet and twee, they’d lost the bite they found in the 90s. A second Best Of covering 1990-2000 must have reminded them of it again as at least half of 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was really good and buzzed as well as chimed. After that though, for me, it was lost. Especially when they told me to get on my boots…

Bruce Springsteen – Live Archive Cuts

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…

 

Spinning Some More New

I’m still here! You’re still there, I hope. Despite being busier than a contagious disease expert I have been listening to music new and old. The old as part of my now way-behind schedule Albums of my Years series and the new because, well, who doesn’t like hearing new music?

So, as I try and finish the 1988 post in another tab, here’s some of the new tunes I’ve been spinning and streaming and Alexa…ing of late:

 

The National- Never Tear Us Apart

It’s safe to say that I was underwhelmed by last year’s much-hyped album from The National. Nothing hooked me in the same manner as their previous work but after x albums that’s not too surprising. This however…. well I really dig it. A cover of INXS’ most 80s of ballads for a bushfire relief album and shows (along with their cracking cover of Bruce’s ‘Mansion on the Hill’ a few years back) the band have a way with a cover.

Biffy Clyro – Instant History

My wife digs this band more than me but I think that’s more down to the singer… I like em though and have caught em live at least once. I saw a tweet that summed up my response to their slightly-new direction that went something like “I’m not sure about this new Biffy Clyro song.. THIS IS THE SOUND THAT WE MAKE!!!” It’s a real earworm that even my son is hooked on.

Bush – Flowers On A Grave

Obvious euphemism aside, I used to really like a bit of Bush back in the day. Their first three albums had some great tunes on but Golden State, their fourth, felt like the end of a road. Turns out they got back together in 2010 and have released a few albums since that I’ll earmark for future listening. This is their latest from an upcoming 8th album.

Pearl Jam – Dance of the Clairvoyants AND Superblood Wolfmoon

It gives me so much pleasure to put Pearl Jam in a ‘spinning the new’ post once let alone a twofer and say that there’s a new Pearl Jam album out in just a couple of weeks now. It’s been so long and the waiting drove me mad… It took a minute or two for me to love this song, it didn’t hit immediately. My first reaction was “wow that’s.. different.” But each listen revealed more: that bass line, Vedder’s vocal the most committed he’s sounded in ages and it’s got a real groove to it. New producer, new vibe…  the other new song release from the album is a little closer to the band’s ‘expected’ sound but still has a pretty different vibe (and a killer solo):

I can’t wait for Gigaton. Thankfully I don’t have to wait for long.

Albums of my Years – 1987

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.

*definitely not his words

Albums of my years – 1984

Ah. Little behind here. Having just completed another rotation round the sun I realise I’ve now got approx 48 weeks to cover another 36 posts after this…. better get cracking then and crank these out with a little more regularity.

1984… I do have some memories; a walk to playgroup, some toys coming out of the murky mists of memory…. but I remember nothing of Once Upon A Time In America or The Terminator, Ghostbusters or even This is Spinal Tap. It would be many a year until I’d discover the year’s cinematic entries and how there is none, none more black.

While I’m pretty sure I would’ve seen or heard the news at some point that year, I can’t say I had any idea what it mean Elton John got married in February ’84… to a woman named Renate Blauel – though I’m sure it must’ve received plenty of press in the UK. Chrissie Hynde also got married in 1984, to Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr, they’d divorce in 1990, 2 years after Elton John.

Meanwhile in 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ topped the charts, despite it being banned on the BBC here, and began to infect American radio too and ‘The Power of Love’ would infest the charts before the year was out. Mick Fleetwood, presumably having snorted most of his money up his nose, declared bankruptcy in ’84. In October – just as I was gearing up to blow out a cake with four candles (one of the greatest comedy sketches ever) – a special report on Ethioipia’s famine was aired on the BBC. Bob Geldof was watching and was inspired to start up Band Aid and would put out “Do They Know It’s Christmas”,  within two months, it quickly became the fastest- selling single of all time in the UK despite it’s monstrous errors and condescension (it’s heart was in the right place). It would be respun three times over the coming decades and also be the basis for 1985’s Live Aid concerts.

In February of 1984 , Joe Perry and Brad Whitford attended an Aerosmith concert – oddly enough at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre. Perry had left the band in ’79 and Whitford in ’81. Their own solo careers having failed to ignite and Aerosmith itself in a downward spiral, the two would rejoin a few months later and the band would tentatively begin the process toward its comeback… though they’d have to stop a few bad habits first.

It wasn’t a good year for Rick Allen – well, it may have been a good year but New Year’s Eve was a bit shit: he lost control of his car, spun, hit a wall and was thrown from the vehicle, severing his left arm and giving rise to the joke ‘what’s got nine arms and sucks?’ The biggest bit of news, though, was likely the killing of Marvin Gaye at his father’s hand – with the unlicensed Smith & Wesson.38 special calibre pistol his son had given him for Christmas the previous year. It’s a really surreal and shocking story that’s worth reading up on.

Bands that called it a day included Jefferson Starship, Split Enz, King Crimson, Rainbow and Kansas. It was also fair well to Deep Wound, a hardcore band who’s members Lou Barlow and J Mascis would promptly form Dinosaur Jr – who joined Big Audio Dynamite, Bruce Hornsby & The Range, Live, Living Colour and one of the first ‘grunge’ bands Green River – which featured future Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney members-  in forming in 1984.

Van Halen kicked the year’s releases off in grand style with 1984 – easily the only time in which I can tolerate David Lee Roth for anything over 30 seconds. Bon Jovi released their self-titled debut with a cover photo which I’m sure still haunts all involved. David Gilmour dropped his second solo album About Face in 1984. I’ve heard it… it’s not going to be featured but if you’re curious what Mr Gilmour was up to after The Final Cut when he wasn’t shopping for snazzy blazers…

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s second album Couldn’t Stand The Weather is a cracking collection as is Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, also released this year. Metallica dropped their Ride The Lightning which featured the phenomenal ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ in 1984 and R.E.M dropped their stellar second album Reckoning:

Bryan Adams released Reckless in 1984 – it was the album that sent him into the massive sales category (for a while, at least). The album that contained ‘Summer of ’69’, ‘Run To You’, ‘Heaven’ and three further singles would go on to shift over 12 million  copies – one of which was the first CD I’d own some seven years later, given to me as either a birthday or Christmas present with a CD player in 1991 (I think it was ’91).

In researching this I also discovered that that little band from Ireland, U2, also released another album in 1984. Weird, I guess they must have saved up some money from their day jobs and booked some time in a little studio somewhere. They called it The Unforgettable Fire which I’d wager is a bit weird as I’d bet everyone has forgotten it. Nobody will have forgotten 1984’s big release – Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA arrived in June and has since sold more than 30 million copies. It spawned SEVEN top ten singles and heralded the start of Bossmania. It would be a strong contender for featured album but I’ve already written on it here and am currently working up a series of posts around it so it’s disqualified.

The Replacements’ Let It Be arrived in 1984 and I do love that album. I mean – ‘I Will Dare’, ‘Androgynous’, ‘Unsatisfied’ and ‘Answering Machine’ on one album?! But then I don’t really dig the daft stuff on here and anything with a Kiss cover on it isn’t going to sit at the top of my list…

So that really only leaves:

Prince and the Revolution – Purple Rain

Of those albums released in 1984 that aren’t Born In The USA, this is the one I’ve listened to most frequently and consistently. It’s impossible to remember the first time you’re aware of Purple Rain – the title song is one of those songs that’s seeming embedded in everyone’s memory from birth. You probably hear it a lot less than you think but because it’s so well known it seems one of the most played tunes ever, like certain Beatles and Stones songs… it’s a classic.

I am fairly certain that the first time that I sat and listened to Purple Rain front to back it was on wax; I distinctly remember a break between ‘Darling Nikki’ and ‘When Doves Cry’.

A soundtrack to a film I’ve still not seen, Purple Rain was Prince’s sixth album and was such a push forward in the makeup of tunes and production values and really put the little purple fella on the map – 1999 was big and went Top Ten but Purple Rain hit the top spot, cleared more than 25 million sales to date and still appears in Best Album lists the world over. With due cause – from the opening explosion and powerhouse performance of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ to the climax and ‘bring the house down’ final, and title, track ‘Purple Rain’ there’s not a duff moment on it…. well ‘Computer Blue’ ain’t great.

It was ages before I realised ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ is one of his preaching songs – the ‘de-elevator’ is the Devil and even the opening ‘the afterlife’ spiel just get washed away in the exuberance of the song and his performance and Princes two guitar solos… what a way to kick off an album:

Then pushing straight into ‘Take Me With You’… yes it sounds today very much 1984 with it’s synths and breathless urgency but it’s the good 1984. And what about ‘Darling Nikki’?! Come on… when did you hear a song this good about that?

Apparently even this song – with it’s ‘masturbating to a magazine’ – has some of Prince’s religious preaching in; there’s some reverse vocals in there at the end that, if played the right way point out the little guy was doing alright because he knew ‘that the Lord is coming soon’. I’ve heard – and seen – the Foo Fighters covering this and in anyone else’s hands (Grohl’s included) it doesn’t work. Nobody could perform like Prince.

Prince was a one-off. Sure there were some duff moments in his catalogue but it’s extremely hard (I’d say there’s not one example) to point out a great artist who hasn’t realised a turd of a song or five. His passing has left a big hole in the musical soundscape both in terms of his output and his enigma. Though it does mean I can now embed videos of this tracks here and find him on Spotify. Purple Rain remains, for me, his greatest album and it’s the one that shot him into the stratosphere. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of those essential albums for any collection. To quote Stereogum: … Purple Rain is “Prince’s grand pop exclamation, a near-perfect marriage of worldview and sonic construction….. No one has made a record like this, before or since.”