Albums of my Years – 1990

Ah 1990 – the start of the decade to which this blog returns so often in its internet-powered DeLorean.

At the start of 1990 a platform on which many of the decade’s biggest names would appear over the coming years kicked off in January; MTV Unplugged aired for the first time in January, featuring Squeeze.

Billy Idol took a spill on his motorbike in February, breaking a fair few of his bones. It meant that the major role Oliver Stone had in mind for him in ‘The Doors’ was reduced to a bit part and, in a very curious twist of fate, the role of T-1000 in the upcoming ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ had to be recast entirely having originally been written for him. That would have been a very different film.

On March 16th, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was found in a comatose state by his girlfriend Xana La Fuente. Having struggled with a drug addiction for some time previous, he’d overdosed on heroin. He was placed on life support in hospital, however the haemorrhage aneurysm he’d suffered meant that he’d lost all brain function. After friends and loved ones had said their farewells to one of the Seattle music scene’s beloved and promising figures, his life support was switched off and he passed on March 19th. Mother Love Bone’s debut album Apple would be released in July.

In April a promising band from Aberdeen, Washington got together with a producer called Butch Vig in between tour stops to record a few tracks for their second album. Nirvana were still signed to Sub Pop but were already looking to make changes. After recording a few tracks with Vig, Cobain and Noveselic weren’t thrilled with either their label or drummer. Very soon Chad Channing would leave Nirvana and demos from the session in Madison would be landing on the desks of keen major labels. Melvins front man (and general knob head) Buzz Osborne introduced Nirvana to Dave Grohl – probably because he wanted his own drummer back as Dale Crover had been sitting-in as the band toured with Sonic Youth. By the end of 1990 Nirvana had a new drummer in Dave Grohl and were signed to DGC Records following the advise of Kim Gordon and Soundgarden manager Susan Silver (hence; “forever in debt to your priceless advice”). They’d give Butch Vig a call again in 1991…

In August, the Alpine Valley Music Theatre welcomed all-star encore jam session with Stevie Ray Vaughan and members of Eric Clapton’s touring entourage. As there is only one road in and out of the venue, the band took a helicopter on to Midway International Airport. However, having taken off in foggy conditions with limited visibility, the helicopter crashed into a nearby ski hill. Pilot Jeff Brown, agent Bobby Brooks, SRV’s bodyguard Nigel Brown,tour manager Colin Smythe and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all killed. Vaughan was just 35.

Mother Love Bone guitarist Stone Gossard, devastated by the loss of Wood, had spent his time following Wood’s death writing significantly harder-edged songs. He got together with another guitarist for a couple of jams and it was Mike McCready who suggested Stone give his former band mate Jeff Ament a call to get involved with the music they were putting together. The then-trio put together a five-song tape to use in recruiting both a drummer and singer. They sent the tape to Jack Irons, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, to see if he’d be interested in getting behind the drums for the new band. Irons had just formed a new band called Eleven and passed but, at their request, said he’d share the tape with any singers he knew that might be suitable. He knew a dude called Eddie Vedder….  Vedder listened to the tape before heading out for a surf where inspiration struck: he  then recorded the vocals to three of the songs (“Alive”, “Once”, and “Footsteps”) as part of what became known as the Momma-Son trilogy. He sent the tape back and within a week Vedder was part of the band. Mookie Blaylock – as the band was then called – played their first gig at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22nd 1990.

Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, who had been roommates with Andrew Wood, started writing a few songs in tribute to his friend as he headed out on tour in Europe a few days after his passing. As the music was outside of Soundgarden’s wheelhouse, he approached Ament and Gossard with the idea of recording the two songs and putting out a single. Rounding out the lineup with Mike McCready and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, Temple of the Dog was formed and the idea of a single was put aside for an EP which became an album recorded in 15 days. It was the first album to which Eddie Vedder would contribute – during the recording of ‘Hunger Strike’, Cornell was having difficulty putting the vocal parts in place during a practice so Vedder (having just flown up from San Diego to ‘audition’ for Ament and Gossard) stepped up and, according to Cornell; “sang half of that song not even knowing that I’d wanted the part to be there and he sang it exactly the way I was thinking about doing it, just instinctively.”

Along with Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog, 7 Year Bitch, Blind Melon, Tool, Tortoise, Truly and The Verve all formed in 1990.

So what about album releases in 1990? Buffalo Tom’s second album Birdbrain, again with J Mascis assisting in production, dropped in ’90 as did Jane’s Addiction’s second album, Ritual de lo Habitual, both of which stocked with great tunes though only one contained a track about shoplifting that would be played to death despite it being one of the album’s weakest songs.

Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan also released his debut solo album in 1990 – The Winding Sheet marked a real move away from the sound of Screaming Tress and, while not his finest, is well worth a listen. There was also a debut from The Breeders – a band started by Pixies bass player Kim Deal as a response to her growing lack of fulfilment in that band. Pod was made for a tiny budget and recorded in something daft like ten days but went down a storm, with Kurt Cobain often citing it as amongst his favourite albums.

Meanwhile, in a genre that seemed a thousand miles away a band that would later come to curse the advent of the Seattle Sound*, The Black Crowes released their storming blues-rock, hard-southern-rock first album Shake Your Money Maker. Not gonna lie; I like this one a lot, it’s an unabashed blast of the good stuff from start to finish that always goes down well.

Speaking of that scene which would become so dominant in the next couple of years, Alice in Chains got a jump start and released Facelift, their first album, in 1990. I mean, just take a look at some of the tracks on it – ‘We Die Young’, ‘Man in the Box’, ‘Sea of Sorrow’… ‘Bleed the Freak’, ‘Love, Hate, Love’…… it’s an absolute benchmark of an album that should be included in all kinds of lists and still is. It was the first ‘grunge’ album to go reach Gold status (in September ’91) though its sales would soon be eclipsed by other bands of that scene, Facelift remains a great album.

Across the Atlantic, another debut was released in 1990; the first and only album from The La’s; The La’s. The recording, release and end of the band’s career is a hell of story that’s worth it’s own post alone one day but their sole album remains a classic some thirty years on and I still remember feeling gobsmacked standing in the crowd at Wembley Arena in 2000 as Eddie Vedder started pontificating on it from the stage before breaking into a cover of ‘Timeless Melody’:

Not just a year of great first albums, 1990 saw the final album from The Replacements, All Shook Down – a great group of tunes that Paul Westerberg had originally intended to be for a solo album before his management persuaded him otherwise – more on that can be found here.

Having completed work on The Breeders’ Pod in England- Kim Deal headed back to the US and joined the rest of the band in LA as Pixies recorded their third album – Bossanova, released in August of 1990.  An absolute classic, Bossanova is a great album and contains a wealth of great tunes like ‘Velouria’, ‘Dig for Fire’, ‘Allison’ and is a regular in my car to this day.

Again, it’s an all-time favourite of mine but it was released in a year that was already beginning to feature some of those albums I’d mark as such, especially…

Sonic Youth – Goo

At some point in my 20s I’d reconnected with a friend I’d worked with before who had then gotten a job in a record shop (well, cds). He was in a band and I gravitated toward the scene, we’d all hang out, get small and absorb music and go to band practice etc…

At some point I needed a new place to live and ended up moving into this guy’s flat for a while. It was above a bakery which meant that it was like an oven in the summer and, at night, often impossible to sleep because the threshing machine beneath my room would kick off and clatter into the early hours…. heady days. It was there I discovered Sonic Youth and Goo. I still distinctly remember sitting there as my friend queued up ‘Tunic (song for Karen)’ for the first time. I may have been a little… baked, I can’t recall for sure but what I do remember is being hypnotised by it and very quickly becoming obsessed with it.

Released in June 1990, Goo is Sonic Youth’s sixth album and their first for DGC. In an attempt to test the humour of their new label they gave the album the working title ‘Blowjob?’ – I doubt there’d be so many t-shirts featuring its iconic album art (created by Raymond Pettibon) if they’d pushed too hard on that.

Aside from my own love of the band, Goo is apparently responsible for Placebo. Brian Molko has said that ‘Kool Thing’ was the first Sonic Youth song he heard and, were it not for Sonic Youth, he wouldn’t have started his own band. ‘Kool Thing’ is a delicious piss-take of a song; Kim Gordon had interviewed LL Cool J the previous year for ‘Spin’ magazine, she was a big fan but found his lack of interest in anything other than himself and his grossly misogynistic views appalling. ‘Kool Thing’ is both a send up of his attitude (Chuck D providing the seemingly disinterested responses) and her left-wing politics.

The exposure of ‘Kool Thing’ and a lot of press helped Goo shift a massive amount of records for Sonic Youth – by December it had shifted 200,000 units, much more than their new label had hoped for – and, as their most accessible (even to date I think this still holds) garnered a huge amount of positive press. Rolling Stone’s review got it pretty spot on in, if a little daft in its phrasing, referring to it as a “brilliant, extended essay in refined primitivism that deftly reconciles rock’s structural conventions with the band’s twin passions for violent tonal elasticity and garage-punk holocaust”.

1990 was the perfect time for Goo – this thing called ‘grunge’ was started to arrive on the scene, people were getting fecked off with the likes of Guns ‘N’ Roses and big stadium ‘rawk’. Hairspray bands were dying – Jon Bon Jovi was a year away from a haircut – and while punk hadn’t ‘broke’ just yet, it was about to; Goo was released at a time when the audience for its music was ripening. They and contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr had put in the groundwork for years before building up their own audience through hard work and harder touring and would now be championed by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, granting their music an even greater level of exposure to an audience hungry for this new alternative (even if they were already five albums in to a stellar career).

For me, the discovery of Sonic Youth’s Goo came along at a time when I was wide open for music and, in my mid-20s, at my most receptive state for it. These were heady, carefree days and I could dive headlong into a love affair with a new-to-me band like Sonic Youth, which is what Goo made me do. This album helped me discover a band that ranks among my favourites and I couldn’t even put a conservative estimate on the number of times I may have listened to it. Daydream Nation is undoubtedly their finest but Goo is both a very close second and a personal favourite.

 

 

*In a recent interview, one of the brothers Robinson revealed that they hated everything out of this scene as they felt that the grunge and Seattle inspired alternative shift in music robbed them of greater success they felt due.

Soundtracks: Singles

The Film: 

Singles is a pretty decent little film. I say ‘little’ as it’s not one of those huge studio jobs involving comic book heros and arse-quaking explosions that are clogging up cinemas these days like so much backlogged faecal matter. No, it’s a charming film made for a modest budget ($9m), held in pretty strong regard amongst critics and fared pretty well at the box office ($19.5m) and has gone on to an even stronger after-life on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray etc.

An exploration of relationships in their bloom, chaos, flourish and collapse amongst a group of those young folks at the time called Gen X. It’s a solid and often funny film that was Cameron Crowe’s first step away from those teen-angst films such as Say Anything. It also happened to be set in Seattle, in 1992 with one of it’s characters, Cliff (Matt Dillon in a role that Crowe had tried to get Chris Cornell to play*), the singer of a grunge band – called Citizen Dick (which also featured Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Eddie Vedder) – and events play out against the backdrop of the then ascending Seattle music scene of which Crowe (formerly a writer for Rolling Stone) was a dedicated fan.

The Soundtrack:

So the soundtrack… it arrived a few months ahead of the film’s release and was a huge hit as these things go, going top ten and selling over two million copies. It featured new songs from Pearl Jam who were starting to break through, Alice in Chains’ ‘Would?’ made its debut on the album along with a song from Soundgarden and a Chris Cornell solo tune.

It served not just as an amazing primer to the city’s nascent music scene but features some great songs from non-Seattle bands such as Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and two absolute belters from Paul Westerberg only months after The Replacements had called it a day, ensuring, in its way, that these songs would not be shoe-boxed as ‘grunge’ but would be shown amongst the a much-wider alternative rock scene.

Noticeable by their absence among the other 3 of the Big 4 is Nirvana. Nevermind hadn’t dropped while Singles was in production and while musicians such as Ament and Cornell amongst others, were very involved in the film’s production (more to come), Kurt viewed ‘Hollywood’ as something to be steered very clear of. It’s also likely that Warner Bros – who would need to approve the soundtrack participants – didn’t see Nirvana at the time as a commercial viability. Oops. Still, they changed their mind on that front when, as studio politics and games meant the film suffered a delayed release by which time Nevermind had hit. So Warner Bros thought ‘let’s try and cash in’ and floated the idea of releasing the film under the name ‘Come As You Are’ instead. Even sending the band a copy of it to seek approval. Thankfully it never happened…

So, back to the soundtrack. It’s a killer selection of Seattle and Alt-Rock tunes, yes. But it’s not just a near-perfect mix-tape that I’ve damn-near worn out. The songs also fit the scenes they’re used in, too. As Campbell Scott’s Steve walks around Seattle it’s Cornells ‘Seasons’ that keeps him company and when he needs to let off steam he does so by going to Alice in Chains or Soundgarden shows and losing himself in the crowd.

Plus, according to Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge (a must-read), the royalties and monies received for being part of the soundtrack helped an awful lot of bands that never scaled those heights reached by Seattle’s Big Four, with some using the funds as mortgage down-payments. If I recall correctly, Mudhoney – who were late arriving to the soundtrack ‘party’ – recorded their song, ‘Overblown’, for a fraction of the pretty sizeable budget and kept the rest.

Touching back on that involvement for a second…. Three of Pearl Jam’s members featured as Matt Dillon’s Cliff’s band mates. At some point, however, they’ve ditched him and a deleted scene showed him giving it a go solo:

For a bit of authenticity Jeff Ament designed the Poncier tape. He added a handful of genuine-sounding song names to the label too*. Perhaps because he’d been unable to find time to play the role or simply because he was a nice bloke, Chris Cornell saw the list of songnames and took it upon himself to record a song for each of the titles. Of the Poncier Tape songs only ‘Seasons’** made the film and its soundtrack, initially.

Now though the Deluxe Reissue of the Singles soundtrack is with us. It collects those missing Poncier Tape songs (amongst which an early ‘Spoonman’ can be enjoyed) and couples them with a few other songs that didn’t make the cut the first time round to flesh out the included bands roster to bring in Truly and Blood Circus. For my money it’s not a bad set of additions but the single-disc will serve all brilliantly. That being said, Westerberg’s ‘missing’ songs are a welcome addition to my collection. Citizen Dick’s own ‘Touch Me I’m Dick’ isn’t what you’d call a highlight.

I’m running through a few Cameron Crowe films and their soundtracks in my head – Jerry Maguire (which made a hit of Springsteen’s ‘Secret Garden’), Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, even Elizabethtown which was itself a bit of a dud film had a stellar musical accompaniment – and it’s a safe bet to say that the man doesn’t make a bad one and really knows how to get just the right tune into the right place. Singles, his first attempt at a more serious film, is also a perfect example of that.

*All too often in ‘music’ films the song names or actors with musical instruments are as convincingly ‘real’ as a pair of tits on Baywatch.

**For those curious it’s FCFCCF

Fell On Black Days

Shocking news. Absolutely shocking news still coming in but; Chris Cornell, leading figure of the Seattle music scene, ‘grunge’ legend: July 20, 1964 – May 18, 2017.