March 1 – Germans Saw Grunge’s Last Hurrah

The funny thing about history is that more often than not, you don’t know when you see it being made. Such was in all probability the case for several thousand people in Germany on this night in 1994, crowded into an old abandoned airport building in Munich. They figured they were just at another rock show, but history shows it would turn out to be the final performance ever by Nirvana.

Hot on the outrageous success of Nevermind, the trio had released In Utero in September, 1993 to a confused fan base but largely good reviews and had spent the subsequent months promoting the hell out of it. Although two decades on, the album may not sound that out-of-place when compared to its predecessor, it seemed at the time that no matter what Nirvana did, it wasn’t going to satisfy its new, huge fan base. Returning to their punk roots was going to alienate the newbies who heard them played next to U2 and The Cure on radio; too radio-friendly a sound was sure to annoy the hardcore fans and earn them the title “sell-outs.” The pressure on Kurt Cobain was intense. As the NME noted in its review, In Utero was a “profoundly confused record” that veered between punk and pop, “like a great band staggering around looking for a direction.” They considered Cobain to be “scared of the contentment he’s slipped into.” Nevertheless, the British publication graded the album an 8 out of 10; Rolling Stone was even more enthusiastic, rating it a 4-and-a-half out of 5 stars. The album entered the U.S. charts at #1 and was at #3 in Canada within days and earned platinum status in both countries by the end of September.

While popular in Europe, they didn’t have quite the same level of super-stardom, which no doubt was something Geffen Records wanted to fix. So after wrapping up an initial American tour for the album on Jan. 8 in Seattle, the band departed for a lengthy and grueling tour of Europe, with shows almost every night in February in Germany, Spain, France and even Slovenia. To fill out their sound, they brought along a couple of female cellists and guitarist Pat Smear (who would later join Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters).

The demands of the tour, and of stardom in general, wore on Cobain. He was suffering from stomach problems that had plagued him for much of his life, and while apparently happy with his new wife Courtney Love, he presumably was stressed out by being apart from her so much of the time. All of that didn’t help him with his drug issues. Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2013 that In Utero could be seen either as a “remarkable achievement (but) you can also remember it as a really f**-up time.” He recalled his time together with Kurt recording the album and touring for it thusly: “Living with Kurt was funny. He isolated himself in a lot of ways, emotionally. But he had a genuine sweet nature.” The isolation and physical strain was noticeable during the tour. Fan site livenirvana.com considered their Valentine’s Day concert in Paris the best of the whole tour but by Feb.22, in Italy it remarked that “Cobain is conspicuous by his near total silence between songs.”

The original international airport in Munich had been replaced by a new one in 1992, and eventually was redeveloped as a convention and shopping center, but in the years between, the Flughafen-Munchen Riem had been used for rock concerts and raves. Nirvana had been booked in for the first two nights of March.

The band took the stage and surprised the crowd by opening with a grungy but decent cover of the Cars song, “My Best Friend’s Girl,” a rather reasonable tip of the hat given that the Cars themselves had originally been considered “punk” but were picked up on by the mainstream audiences when Cobain was a kid. (At another show on the tour, they’d opened with a cover of the Knack’s “My Sharona”.) The fans ate it up but the night seemed ill-fated. The power went out briefly a few songs in, causing them to have to stop and then kick back into “Come As You Are” when the power came back. Ironically, Krist Novoselic joked at that point “Grunge is dead. Nirvana’s over.” And while they did traditional songs from their setlist such as “Dumb”, “In Bloom” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, they somehow didn’t perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, their signature tune. They’d been performing the song right after “Come As You Are” on the tour, so whether they just forgot it or made a conscious decision to cut it that night is open for debate. Either way, Cobain’s voice was struggling. Even a healthy man would get worn out from screaming his way through nightly sets of their music He was suffering from bronchitis and his voice was fading through the concert. Laryngitis was setting in.

About 70 minutes after they kicked off with the Cars’ song, they set into “Heart-shaped Box”, the album’s biggest hit and the song they closed all the In Utero concerts with. It was the shortest concert of the tour. As they left the stage, they likely still expected to be on the same stage doing the same material the following night, but Kurt’s laryngitis soon put the kibosh on that. A number of March concerts were canceled, and Cobain headed to Rome to meet up with Courtney and enjoy a bit of R&R – rest and relaxation rather than rock’n’roll. On March 4, she found Kurt unconscious on their hotel floor in Rome, in a coma induced by an overdose of Rohypnol (a prescription insomnia drug) and champagne. Whether it was an accident or a suicide attempt, we’ll never know. We do know it caused the band to cancel 25 or so remaining European concerts scheduled for the spring.

They returned to Seattle. Grohl recalls the last time he saw Cobain, at their accountant’s office. “He smiled and said ‘hey, what’s up?’ and I said ‘I’ll give you a call’ and he said ‘Okay.’ Remarkably, Grohl doesn’t mention the final German show at all in his recent memoir and pays surprisingly little attention to the Nirvana era in general. 

Days later, Cobain was dead from a gunshot legally ascribed as a suicide but right up there with Sasquatch and Area 51 when it comes to conspiracy theories.

History is funny. Presumably Novoselic had no idea on March 1 that Nirvana was over, yet his joke hit the nail eerily on the head.

In Utero went on to sell about 15 million copies worldwide; Grohl went on to long-lasting success fronting the Foo Fighters and posthumous live releases kept Nirvana fans somewhat satisfied through the ’90s, but after this night, no one would ever see Kurt Cobain yelling out anthems for a generation again.

The Cars song as well as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Drain You” from the March1 concert were released as part of their Live and Loud DVD (most of which was recorded at a Seattle concert from the same tour.) And should you have been in attendance in Munich that night, know that not only did you witness a piece of music history but that you might be in possession of some valuable keepsakes. In recent years, tickets from the concert were fetching  upwards of $2500 on e-bay.

January 23 – Odd Little Studio Led To Odd, But Huge, Band

The future of popular music changed jarringly this day in 1988 in a nondescript little triangular building on Leary Way in Seattle. The wood-paneled former Triangle Foods store had since 1984 been a music studio known as Reciprocal Recording and in it on this day, Nirvana were recording for the first time. About six hours and $152 later, their first demo tape was ready.

In retrospect this seems like a big deal, but at the time it was nothing much. The Seattle scene was bubbling under, but the band with Kurt Cobain drew scant attention, although they had been playing shows in the Puget Sound area for a year or more, under a variety of names including Throat Oyster, windowpane and Skid Row (before Sebastian Bach’s band of that name from the east coast became well-known). It had been a unit since Cobain ran into Krist Novoselic, or “Chris” as he spelled his name at that point, at a Melvins show. Curiously, the two went to school together at Aberdeen High School a couple of hours outside of Seattle, but didn’t know each other then. Once they hooked up, and added a drummer – they ran through them in a Spinal Tap-like procession in the early years- and played loud, hard music. They were influenced by acts such as Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith that Cobain’s father had introduced him to, local bands like The Melvins, punk acts like the Sex Pistols and Husker Du and in Novoselic’s case, the Smithereens who he listened to repeatedly while going to and from shows.

They opted for the name Nirvana because as loud and brash as they were, Cobain didn’t want a “typical angry or stupid-sounding name for a punk band.” They went into the studio, that day manned by sound engineer Jack Endino, with Dale Crover, the drummer from The Melvins (a band whose name comes up time and time again in stories about the early grunge and ’80s American punk scenes) . The band had temporarily lost track of their “official” drummer, Aaron Burckhard when Kurt and Krist had moved from Aberdeen closer to the metro area. How do you think that guy feels now about not answering his phone or taking a busride into the big city? Continue reading “January 23 – Odd Little Studio Led To Odd, But Huge, Band”

January 11 – Alternative Was The ‘Alternative’ No Longer

Was it the day alternative rock became “regular” rock? Nirvana took over the #1 spot on the Billboard album chart this day in 1992, knocking Michael Jackson off the top. Fittingly they also ended up on national TV that night too, with a performance on Saturday Night Live

It clearly showed the public was ready for something new and edgy. While the previous year, R.E.M. and U2, as well as hard-rockers Metallica, did have #1 records in the U.S., the charts – and radio – were dominated by the likes of Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, Gloria Estefan and Roxette. Nirvana showed that the grunge movement was hardly a minor trend – and no one was more surprised than their label. The president of Geffen Records said “we didn’t do anything- it was just one of those ‘get out of the way and duck’ records.” Insiders say Geffen expected Nevermind to sell, optimistically, 250 000 copies. By this time it had already surpassed a million. It would go on to spend a second week on top before being displaced by Garth Brooks, and over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. Rolling Stone was equally surprised. Though they had given it a 4-star rating (appreciating the ‘dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and sonic restraint”) they noted that “postpunk stars from Husker Du to Soundgarden have joined the corporate world without debasing their music” which leads to “depths of commercial failure….Nirvana is the latest underground bonus baby to test the mainstream tolerance.”

While Nirvana itself would prove short-lived (obviously owing to the early death of main man Kurt Cobain less than two years later), the popularity of drummer Dave Grohl’s later band, the Foo Fighters, and of bands like Pearl Jam, Puddle of Mudd and Limp Bizkit showed that the trend of loud rock being mainstream was not such a flash in the pan.

December 8 – Creed ‘Weathered’ The Barbs

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times 20 years ago. For Creed that is. They hit #1 on the U.S. album charts this day in 2001 with Weathered, their third album, knocking Garth Brooks out of the way in doing so. That part was good, but the internal affairs of the Florida neo-grunge, pseudo-Christian rock band were not.

For one thing, bassist Brian Marshall was out of the band, after threatening guitarist Mark Tremonti (who took on the role as bassist as well as guitarist in the studio when they became a trio) and making unpopular statements about how his band was better than Pearl Jam. Marshall was suffering from alcohol and drug problems, and the band wanted him to go to rehab, which he didn’t, but he did leave Creed. Meanwhile, singer/lyricist Scott Stapp was dealing with his own drinking and drug problems (and had gotten into a bar fight around the time of the making of this record, when a customer asserted Pearl Jam was better than them… the band did not like Pearl Jam, nor the many suggestions that they merely ripped off that Seattle band’s sound.)

The criticisms were perhaps taken to heart by Stapp. He insisted neither he nor Tremonti listen to anyone else’s music between the release of 1999’s Human Clay and the making of this one, so as to be sure not to sub-consciously steal anyone’s sound. The pair wrote the 11 songs at Stapp’s home and on his boat quickly in fall of ’01; the Sep. 11 attacks took place during the time they were recording which their producer said resulted in “the mood quickly chang(ing) and intensified.” Song titles like “Who’s Got My Back?”, “My Sacrifice” and “Bullets” would suggest that, although apparently they were already written and mainly done before Sep. 11. “Bullets” in fact compares the insults hurled at their band to “bullets” being shot at the singer. The title track, according to Stapp “absolutely relate to” the pressures he felt being a celebrity. “That was me sharing my heart and soul.” Perhaps the most interesting of the songs was also the longest they ever did, “Who’s Got My Back?”, an eight-and-a-half minute tune opened with an authentic Cherokee prayer chanted by a Cherokee fan. The song loosely looks at the plight of the American Indian, with lines like “without what was sacred to us” and lamenting “the covenant has been broken.” Stapp said it was personal to him because he does have some Cherokee in his own family tree.

The band promoted Weathered heavily just prior to its release, with things like a Saturday Night Live appearance and a halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys football game. And doing interviews, like one where Stapp compared his band to Led Zeppelin. All of which helped sales but not the critical appraisal. Entertainment Weekly rated it “C-”, while Rolling Stone gave it 3.5-stars and Britain’s The Guardian, 3-stars. That paper thought it was “worth listening to” but their “lack of levity takes it toll” (something allmusic would later agree with in their 2-star rating, noting “even R.E.M. and U2 lightened up occasionally”) . Rolling Stone, surprisingly perhaps called it a “lucid powerhouse of a third album… rock of unusual force and arrest.” Allmusic would reference that Led Zep comparison and note “Zeppelin changed on each one of those first four albums, where Creed has stayed the same.”

Fans however, loved them for all their predictability. “My Sacrifice” hit #4 at home, their third top 10 hit, and was a #1 hit on rock radio charts. “One Last Breath” and “Bullets” followed it up high on the mainstream rock charts. The album sold an impressive 887 000 copies its first week on the shelves, and spent eight-straight weeks at #1, the longest run of consecutive weeks on top for any album since the Titanic soundtrack in 1998. It sold 6X platinum, a smash, although barely half the number the previous album, Human Clay, had sold. Elsewhere, it hit #3 in Canada and Australia, #4 in New Zealand, but only #44 in the grunge-weary UK.

Although sales were solid, things kept going downhill for Creed. Later in ’01, Stapp was completely out of it on a mix of booze and prescription pills, for a Chicago concert. They managed to do three songs before he passed out; he attempted to return and finish the show but couldn’t remember lyrics or pick up on what the others were playing; there was a class action lawsuit against them demanding refunds and retribution, but it was thrown out of court eventually. The band itself broke up in 2004 though, and received little notice when they briefly reunited in 2009.

November 25 – Grunge…And Staley’s…Last Stand?

Grunge is usually considered the defining “sound” of the 1990s, and in some ways it was. It certainly changed the sound of mainstream hit radio for instance, when songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were getting played. But in other ways, it really wasn’t. For one thing, it really was only exceptionally popular in North America. And for another, it really only lasted the first half of the decade, arguably before morphing into something lighter and more pop-flavored (ala the likes of Collective Soul and Goo Goo Dolls). However, grunge had one of its last hurrahs on this day in 1995. That was when Alice In Chains debuted at #1 on Billboard.

The self-titled album, sometimes nicknamed “Tripod” (for the picture of the three-legged dog on the cover) was third full-length album for the Seattle purveyors of gloomy, grimy music. Some would consider it their fourth, since the previous year they’d put out a 7-song “EP”, Jar of Flies, which had also topped the album chart at home. Either way, the album was much anticipated by rock fans and one of only a handful of albums to that point to actually enter the chart at #1.

They’d had a fair bit of time to get it done, but that “gift” was also their curse. Singer Layne Staley was heavily addicted to heroin, causing them to cancel a ’94 tour while sending him off to rehab. Which was only partly-successful. While Layne seemed a bit more coherent than before (he said of the making of this record “I will cherish it forever, because this one I can remember doing”) , he was still struggling and their manager Susan Silver called his condition, and habit of falling asleep suddenly was “gut-wrenching.” And not conducive to good band relations; guitarist Jerry Cantrell was already working on a solo record at the time and even began writing some lyrics to go with his compositions. Lyrics were more typically Staley’s territory. On this album, Cantrell was the chief composer of 11 out of 12 songs, and did the lyrics to three. Perhaps not surprisingly, those were three out of the four hits on the album : “Grind”, “Over Now” and “Heaven Beside You.” Of the songs which got airplay or sold as singles, only “Again” was a Staley product.

They recorded the record at Bad Animals studio in their hometown. At the time, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson owned the place. Their routine for the nine “Staley” songs was to record music then give the instrumental to Layne to fill in lyrics. “I just wrote down whatever was on my mind, so a lot of the lyrics are pretty loose,” he explained. Cantrell’s were perhaps a bit more focused. “Heaven Beside You” was for a girlfriend he was splitting up with, “a way to express things I could never express.” And “Over Now” sounded suspiciously like a goodbye note from the band…which it more or less was. “There’s a lot of sadness to that record,” Cantrell says. “It’s the sound of a band falling apart.”

Fans didn’t ate it up…but not quite as eagerly as the they had previously. Although getting to #1 for a week, and #5 in both Canada and Australia, Alice In Chains sold less than the previous EP and album by them had. That said, it was still double-platinum in the U.S., which is not too shabby. But both the movement, and the band, were winding down. AIC would never record any substantial new material with Staley; they tried to keep fans by releasing a string of live albums, best ofs, compilations of b-sides, even a box set, but they’d not do a real new album until 2009, seven years after Staley died of an overdose.

As for grunge, some might argue this was its last real stand. In 1996 Pearl Jam and Nirvana both had #1 albums, but Nirvana’s was a live record released posthumously (relative to Kurt Cobain’s life and death) and Pearl Jam by then had grown their sound so much as to not much resemble the muddy, loud, gloomy sound that so typified the Pacific northwest of five years earlier. After that, grunge was pretty much back in the shadows or consigned to the nostalgia files.

Wishing all of you a great day and my American readers a very happy Thanksgiving!

September 10 – A Banner Day For Alternative Rock…And Antiperspirants

I hate to say it, but Gen X is getting old! As evidence of that, consider that today their/our ergo “anthem” turns 30. Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as a single on this day in 1991, a couple of weeks ahead of their mammoth Nevermind album. Like it, love it or hate it, there’s no denying it was one of the most popular tunes of the decade and hugely influential on the whole music industry.

Nirvana had by then been around in the Seattle scene for three or four years and put out a couple of indie records. But in ’91, the wheels began to turn as they added drummer Dave Grohl and were signed to a major label – DGC, a branch of Geffen Records. The label had big expectations for the hard alternative rock effort. Maybe it would sell 100 000 copies and be in almost the same league as the Pixies or Jane’s Addiction! It eventually went on to sell about 300 times that.

By now the story behind the song has become something of modern folklore. Kurt Cobain had been out with friends, including members of another local punkish band, Bikini Kill, doing Kurt Cobainy-things – spraying graffiti on walls, drinking, doing a few drugs. They all went back to Kurt’s rental apartment. This was pre-Courtney Love, and Cobain had been seeing one of Bikini Kill (she may have just broken up with him, details seem a bit fuzzy from the people involved.) Another member of that band, Kathy Hanna, scrawled … depending on which story you read, she either spray-painted it or wrote it large in Sharpie market – “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall. Now, Teen Spirit was then a new and popular women’s deodorant made by Mennen, and his girlfriend liked it. Hanna wrote it as a sort of insult, suggesting Cobain smelled like her, and by extension was basically her property. Kurt however, thought it was a brilliant bit of praise, suggesting that he was full of teen spirit, the spirit of rebellion and all that. About six months later, he phoned Hanna and asked if he could use that for a song. “I thought, ‘how is he going to use ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in a lyric?” she remembered. She told him to go ahead.

The song was recorded, built on a four-chord riff that borrows, ahem lovingly, from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.” Krist Novoselic said it “captures Kurt’s hatred of the mass mentality of conformity.” Producer Butch Vig says “I don’t know what ‘teen spirit’ means, but you know it means something intense as hell.” Cobain himself admitted “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies…we used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet then loud and hard.” And he used his own catchphrase in it. “Here we are now, entertain us” was a line he often yelled upon arriving at a party.

Now, in the fall of 1991, North American radio was chock-full of Whitneys and Boys II Men, Michael Jacksons and Wilson Phillips. R.E.M. had surprised the industry by going from college rock heroes to multi-million sellers, but other than that, there wasn’t too much adventurous going across the airwaves. And Nirvana didn’t change that overnight. The song caught the ears of some alternative rock stations like L.A’s KROQ (where it was their #2 song of the year, behind R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) but it wasn’t quick to make an appearance on ordinary hit radio, nor on MTV except for a couple of late-night hard rock specialty programs. However, the buzz built, MTV eventually succumbed to requests and played it all day long and with other TV appearances the song eventually took off. Before long it was #1 on Billboard‘s Alternative Rock chart, and not long after that the single hit #6 in the land overall. All the while, the buzz about the band grew and sales of Nevermind grew exponentially, going platinum within months. The sound took off elsewhere too, with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hitting the top 10 in Canada and the UK and #1 in New Zealand and France. The album continued to sell, and demand for plaid lumberjack shirts took off. Grunge was here to stay (for about five years, that is.) Eventually the album went diamond (10X platinum) in both the U.S. and Canada, and the song itself is platinum in the States and UK.

Of course, this shook up radio and the floodgates were opened to other loud, alternative bands. Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Bush all soon found themselves media darlings and some suggested that the term “alternative rock” should be applied to acts like ZZ Top and Kiss by the mid-’90s, so dominant was the new grunge sound.

Many dubbed it the “Anthem of Generation X” and its appeal is undeniable. It recently topped one billion times streamed on Spotify, ranking it among the elite dozen or so songs to ever be played that much, including Toto’s “Africa”, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and one other ’90s song – “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Accolades piled up for the song, including the NME calling it the #2 best song of all-time, and Rolling Stone ranking it ninth-best, but best song since 1971. They suggest it “wiped the lingering jive of the ’80s off the pop map overnight.”

Not everyone was of that mindset though. Time suggested it was “maybe the album’s worst song.” And Dave Grohl, aka the song’s drummer, says “it did become the one song that personifies the band…do I think it’s the greatest single of all-time? Of course not. I don’t even think it’s the greatest Nirvana song.”

And what does Teen Spirit smell like? Apparently you can still find out. Although nowhere near as popular as in the ’90s, Colgate-Palmolive now make Teen Spirit deodorant, in two scents.

September 4 – Sugar Didn’t Sound Sweet Enough For American Tastes

What should’ve been one of the big albums of the decade came out this day in 1992 Copper Blue by Sugar. With the public getting excited about Nirvana and the rest of the Seattle scene, it would seem like this one was a can’t miss- Seattle-like grunge with sharp lyrics and an Athens, Georgia connection. Yet it missed. In the U.S. at least.

Sugar was a trio formed by ex-Husker Du frontman Bob Mould. He’d just been dropped by Virgin Records after two albums out of Husker Du, headed down to Athens and formed this band which rehearsed at R.E.M.’s studio and the famous 40 Watt Club (owned by none other than the wife of Peter Buck at the time.) . Mould was a named influence on the likes of Kurt Cobain and Soundgarden and for this record, he excelled in putting a melody to a wall of sound. It was popular with critics. Britain’s NME called it their Record of the Year and Entertainment Weekly graded it B+, saying it was “old school alternative rock- hooky tunes nearly hidden by a sandblast of punky guitars… the band does it better than anybody else.” Rolling Stone referenced the Beatles for comparison in their review and called it “savvy popcraft.” The Brits, slow to warm to grunge, liked it well enough for it to hit top 10 there and have a top 30 single with the almost giddy  “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” but it didn’t do much commercially in the States and Sugar was done by 1995.  To these ears though, Copper Blue was arguably just what Kurt Cobain was aspiring to just before he died – songs like “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”, “Hoover Dam” and “Changes” measured the intensity of Husker Du, the feedback of Nirvana and the craftmanship of middle-era R.E.M. More recently, The Quietus called it a “sonic leap forward” for Mould – “here was power, but too was grace….Copper Blue is not only an album that sounds as good now as it did twenty years ago, but also (is) one that will still blow cobwebs away two decades hence.” Mould told that publication that Nirvana had asked him to produce what would end up being Nevermind and he had played shows with them, as well as the Pixies both of whom challenged him to elevate his musical game. “The Copper Blue material is a little less frantic than Husker Du. It’s more power pop…it’s a finely crafted record,” adding that partly was the result of taking his time and not always accepting the first take of songs as he’d done in the past.

Mould has continued to put out solo works since, with styles ranging from electronic dance to nearly-acoustic surf music.

August 24 – Low Got Cracker High…On The Charts

Did they take the skinheads bowling to celebrate? Fresh off a #1 alternative rock single on their debut record, Cracker put out their second album, Kerosene Hat on this day in 1993.

The California-based band was, and still is, run by David Lowery, a guitarist/singer who formerly had been in humor-rockers Camper Van Beethoven. Their timing couldn’t have been better. He says of Cracker, “we’ve always been a country, roots-rock band. Fortunately, our music somehow fit into Modern Rock radio back when grunge had taken over the world.” Indeed it did. Their first single, “Teen Angst”, had been a #1 on alternative/modern rock charts when it came out in ’92, and anticipation was high for this record.

Befitting a “roots-rock” outfit, they found an old abandoned barn, on a California movie set (which Westerns had been filmed at) to record the lengthy, 72-minute album at. The majority of the 18 songs fans actually hear on it were written by Lowery and bandmates Davey Farragher (the bassist) and Johnny Hickman (the lead guitarist). Drummer Michael Urbano did little except keep time nicely, and would soon go on to join Smashmouth and become a reasonably successful studio musician. The one exception to that was their cover of a Jerry Garcia song, “Loser”, taken from his solo album. Note that we say songs fans “actually hear”, as even though Kerosene Hat is described by allmusic as “David Lowery’s least affected album”, some of that Camper Van Beethoven humor found its way through. Several tracks are “hidden”, not mentioned on the liner notes or packaging, and some of the tracks display out-of-sequence numbers when played on CD. For instance, the single “Euro-trash Girl” comes up as #69 on digital displays.

The grungy, rootsy sound did fit the modern rock sounds of the year. Critics were of mixed opinions about how good that was. The Village Voice, for instance, gave it a “bomb” icon, and Rolling Stone only graded it 2-stars. But Spectrum Culture thought it “achieves something close to greatness.” Allmusic later graded it a favorable 4-stars, saying it was “more country-based than their debut” and comparing it to Little Feat and early Rolling Stones. But the public loved it. Thanks to the single “Low” (which hit #3 on Modern Rock charts and was the 19th top song of the year on L.A.’s influential KROQ) and “Get Off That”, also a hit on alt rock stations, the album would be their most successful. Although it only reached #59 on Billboard, it would eventually sell enough to get them a platinum record.

Oh, and that title? Although Kerosene Hat sounds like some random, possibly druggie phrase, it actually was inspired by the band’s history. Lowery and Hickman once shared a house in the East which was run down and had only kerosene heaters for winter warmth. When Lowery went out to get a refill of kerosene, he pulled on a thick, wool cap… a “kerosene hat.”

Cracker are still officially together, but have done very little since 2015.

March 21 – Pixies Sound Was Hardly Delicate

Today we remind you again that Nirvana didn’t originate the sounds that so dominated the airwaves and movie soundtracks of the ’90s. Now, just who did is open for debate. Some say Husker Du, others look back, and north to Neil Young, but a band that many of the greats of the ’90s were weaned on had a big day today. On this day in 1988, The Pixies released their debut album, Surfa Rosa.

When one first thinks of Boston (the city and metro area) and music, one typically thinks about classic rock, stadium acts like Aerosmith and ,well, Boston, or of the giggling flock of teenage girls who were thankfully drowning out the music of the New Kids on the Block. However, like almost any other center with a number of higher learning facilities, there’s was a good underground music scene just below the surface. And that’s where Charles Thompson IV met Filipino-born Joey Santiago at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-’80s. The two loved music, but school- not so much. So while working on a job at a warehouse, they decided to form a band, completely undeterred by the fact that neither played guitar well.

Thompson put an ad in local papers looking for a bassist (who ideally would love both Peter,Paul and Mary as well as Husker Du) , and around the same time decided Charles Thompson didn’t sound very rock-starrish and picked the name Black Francis after watching a few old Westerns and talking to his dad. The newspaper ads drew only one response – from a gal named Kim Deal. She won the job, although her suggestion for a drummer – her sister Kelley (who didn’t play drums) wasn’t a go. Instead, the trio picked David Lovering, the only one who’d had experience working in bar bands before. All that was needed was a name, and ESL Santiago looked at his dictionary and picked “Pixies in Panolpy.” The others took the first word and dropped the rest, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Pixies began playing the college pub scene in coastal Mass, in 1986, frequenting clubs like The Rat and Green Street Station, often running into their contemporaries Throwing Muses. Gary Smith from Fort Apache Studios in the city was impressed and offered to record a demo for the band. Over three days in early 1987, they did just that, recording a 17-song demo tape that they flooded record company offices with. No American company had any interest. In fact, only one company responded – 4AD Records out of Britain, an Indie label which featured The The, Cocteau Twins and Modern English (and in later years brought forward Lush and stereolab.) By late ’87, the label had put out a 20-minute, 8-song EP for the Pixies, featuring six songs taken directly from the demo tape. Come On Pilgrim caught a few ears and was a minor college radio hit in the US but rose to #5 on the UK Indie chart, setting the template for the band’s career. (Curiously, besides England, the one place that seemed to like the Pixies at that point was Israel.)

Continue reading “March 21 – Pixies Sound Was Hardly Delicate”

March 19 – From Wood To Pearl In One Year

Another sad story, one all too common in the Pacific Northwest music scene. Seattle singer Andrew Wood died of an overdose on this day in 1990.

That happened to be one year to the day after his band, Mother Love Bone, released its 4-song debut EP, Shine (which featured their cover of Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up”) and only a few days before their first whole album, Apple, was due to come out. Neither album sold very much, but when fellow-Washingtonians Nirvana and Soundgarden had rocketed to the top, Mercury Records put out pretty much all the output they could find from Mother Love Bone in a compilation which made it to a not-unformidable #77 in the U.S. Mother Love Bone was among the premier grunge bands in Seattle early on and thanks to Wood’s humorous and energetic personality as singer, had become one of the area’s favorite live bands. Rolling Stone said of them they were “capturing the essence of what made Zep immortal – and giving it a unique nineties spin.”

His death ended the band, but the good bit of it was that Stone Gossard and Jeff Amend from it started a new band by the end of the year, with newcomer Eddie Vedder singing. Enter Pearl Jam!