The Bands Kurt Cobain Loved
“Our songs have the standard pop format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bad solo. All in all, we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” In that one pithy phrase, Kurt Cobain summarized not only the entire Nirvana aesthetic, but also his own wide-ranging, idiosyncratic tastes. Over the course of the last two decades, much attention has been given to Kurt Cobain the musician; but just as noteworthy — especially at the time — was Kurt Cobain the music fan. He was a tireless proselytizer, devoting more time in interviews to talking about his favorite bands than his own. It’s because of Kurt Cobain that many people first heard groups like Os Mutantes, the Raincoats and Beat Happening. His journals are full of tracklistings for mixtapes that he either made or thought about making. In honor of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s paradigm-shifting second record, take some time to explore the bands that inspired them to make it.
(Sources cited: Come As You Are by Michael Azerrad; Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R. Cross; Journals by Kurt Cobain)
The Punk Influencers
In an interview in 1980, John Lydon was asked to name his favorite new bands. His answer, polemic and angry, was to call rock "dismal," with the exception of just one band: The Raincoats, an all-girl post-punk group with a very unique sound.more »
The Raincoats were formed when Ana da Silva and Gina Birch, two art school students from London, picked up a few secondhand instruments, bonded over Patti Smith and formed... a band of their own. After a year of playing local spots, they recorded their 1979 debut for pioneering U.K. label Rough Trade. Since then, that album has gained something along the lines of cult status. Kurt Cobain famously wrote about his sheepish quest to acquire a new copy in the liner notes of Incestiside, and later used his influence to have all three of the group's records reissued by major label behemoth, Geffen.
All the praise is well-deserved: The Raincoats have been held in high regard for more than 30 years for their DIY attitude and the ability to develop a unique and radical voice out of — or, some would say, in spite of — their amateurism.
The sound on this album has no timestamp — it's punk, folk-punk or post-punk, sure, but it's also none of the above. The recording of this album included the group's four original members: Birch on vocals/bass, Da Silva on vocals/guitar, Vicky Aspinall on violin and Palmolive, former member of the Slits, on drums. Thanks largely to Palmolive, Raincoats is a very rhythmic affair, especially on "Fairytale in The Supermarket" and "Black and White," where each of Birch's and Da Silva's vocal howls is complimented by either a pound of the bass or a snare roll. Aspinall provides a violin sound way out of the comfort zone of her classical training, mixing it with Da Silva's clean guitar riffs. On "No Side to Fall In," the violin is more like a fiddle, playing somewhere between country and folk.
Although the whole album is a classic, standouts "In Love" and "Fairytale in The Supermarket" are practically required listening. Raincoats remains as it was when it was first released: effortlessly intimate and creative.
Despite the various members' attempts to tarnish its memory with everything from half-assed reunion tours, professions of love for American AOR bands and appearances in commercials for British butter companies, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols continues to conjure the heady days of a genre-defining zeitgeist that was sonically corrosive and improbably influential. While the Sex Pistols' role in the cultural landscape that was late '70s Britain under Prime Minister... Margaret Thatcher has been well documented (especially in director Julien Temple's documentary, The Filth and the Fury), the band's only true long-form musical document still remains resonant three decades after its release.more »
Remember how the Rolling Stones and the Beatles began their careers revamping American R&B and reselling it to the colonies over here? The Sex Pistols' aural synergy was derived from such American antecedents as '50s-styled gutter glam (cf. New York Dolls, the outfit that Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren represented for a brief time); the stripped-down musicianship of the New York scene (cf. the Ramones); and crass controversy (cf. Alice Cooper), all imbued with the subtlety of a caged wolverine being poked with a stick. Armed with limited singing ability and caustic lyrics, John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon articulated fearless contempt as the rest of the band — guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock (who would be replaced by John "Sid Vicious" Beverley) — shored him up with a rock noise that was cocky, rough-hewn, and at times shambolic.
By virtue of being uncompromising in its attack (sonically, lyrically), "God Save The Queen" might be the most effective protest song ever written about inefficient governments. "Bodies," the harrowing song centered around a girl who had an abortion is still chilling years later, with Rotten dropping such quaint bon mots as "bloody fucking mess" and "I'm not an animal," while the band churns urgently behind him. Equal parts timeless and time-lapsed, Never Mind The Bollocks remains a blueprint for disenfranchised rockers whose heart and souls identify more with Johnny Thunders and the protagonist character Howard Beale from the 1976 film Network ("I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!") than whoever is playing the Quaker Oats stage at this summer's Warped Tour.
Listeners over the age of 40 like to mewl about the dearth of "real punk rock," decades after the Pistols' heyday. Listen to Bollocks now, and you'll clearly witness how prescient (accidentally or otherwise) the band were when it came to their own demise. Consider "Seventeen" with its "I'm a lazy sod" refrain; the "we don't care" nihilist battle cry of "Pretty Vacant"; and the entirety of "No Feelings" ("For nobody else, except for myself"). Factor in how culture has turned on itself with the internet delivering everything at your fingertips — if you only knew what you actually wanted — and voila! Welcome to the entitlement generation! Of course, said gen's parents probably weren't hip to the Pistols' burn-the-village m.o., choosing to replace their mangled copies of Eagles Greatest Hits instead. (Bollocks was certified gold in America a decade after its release.) But you don't need a barge of unsold copies of Good Charlotte's last record dumped on your front porch to remind you that history belongs to those who dare.
After three lead singers, Black Flag leader Greg Ginn had finally found his ideal mouthpiece in Henry Rollins, a troubled D.C. teen who barked like Popeye's drill sergeant. The new lineup banged out Damaged, one of hardcore's first albums and an all-time punk classic. All exultant rage and self-lacerating angst, this savage, apopletic screed is so completely overwhelming that it's hard to imagine ever listening to anything else. The caustic bass... shreds the very air, the drums slap like a back-alley beat-down, and Ginn's guitar, a nasty, reckless roar of speed and distortion (check "Depression"), tests the limits of musicality; Rollins rampages through the chaos with a heart full of napalm. "Rise Above" is the definitive hardcore anthem, but most songs are first-person portraits of confused, desperate characters just about to explode; paradoxically, that's when Damaged is at its most triumphal. When Rollins howls "I want to live!/ I wish I was dead!" there's nothing more life-affirming.more »
The Northwest Peers
After three albums filled for the most part with quick song bursts and the occasional longer track, the eight-song long Bullhead found the Melvins stretching out a bit more at points, this time allowing the heavily stoned tempos plenty of time to really sprawl all over the place. There are fewer sudden shifts between fast and slow moments as well, and a lot more pure lava-flow beat-over-head feedback sludge and noise. It's... not all ten mph deliberation, though - "Zodiac" shows the trio at full speed and blasting aside anything that might be so foolish as to get in its way, not to mention one unhinged Osbourne vocal lead. If grunge was achieving breakthrough status in Seattle, it was being perfected in its rawest sense on this album. Opening cut "Boris" does all this in excelsis -- the band's longest recorded song at this point, nearly ten minutes long, it practically drips from the bongwater of eight million potheads, with Osbourne invoking his own brand of demons over the deep crawl of the music. Osbourne here really has got the dramatic, theatrical Ozzy Osbourne attitude down, with the occasional double-tracked vocals adding to the off-kilter intensity of the performances. Crover again shows his worth on the drums -- he plays things slow most of the time but, crucially, never once sloppily -- while Black keeps the bass going, however relatively unheard under Osbourne's guitar attack. "It's Shoved" is the not-so-secret highlight of Bullhead, Crover's brisker drum work and Black's sharp bass playing heralding a wild lead-guitar melody and a great ensemble performance. However, efforts like "Anaconda," with its slowly uncoiling power, and the intense "If I Had an Exorcism," which gets all the more wired and wound up as it goes (Black's bass here is some of her best), are no slouches.more »
The beat music that longs for the '60s before drugs, and love before wisdom, is nonetheless radical — for their amped-up second album, Beat Happening take the Replacements 'line about music having too many notes literally. The absence of bass ingeniously emphasizes a powerful floor tom while the guitar distortion clears the head for straight talk and suggestive nonsense. Calvin's voice looms like a rockabilly ghoul, while Heather's skips rope. His "Indian... Summer" became the oft-covered classic, but her "In Between" was the key song — a kind of bed-bouncing, punk rock house music for the subconscious. Only Public Enemy presented as great a challenge in 1988, or stands up so well.more »
The Indie Standard-Bearers
The short-lived, hormone-crazed Edinburgh indie-pop band the Vaselines are mostly famous by association: Kurt Cobain loved them so much that Nirvana covered three of their songs. Kurt had excellent taste. The first disc of this retrospective compiles their complete studio recordings — two hilariously catchy, horny EPs and the gnarlier (and probably even catchier) Dum-Dum album, all of them as casual as a drunken one-night stand. Francis McKee and Eugene Kelly sing... like they're trying to get through their repertoire as briskly as possible so they can get back to the bedroom (exception: their cover of Divine's "You Think You're a Man," where the joke is that it goes on five times as long as it has to); their songs are trivial, waiflike, only barely there, except for the fact that they're usually hilarious and impossible to forget. The second disc — demos and live material — is strictly for fanatics, but the first disc doesn't make it hard to become one of those.more »
Most North American fans were introduced to the ladies of Shonen Knife via the cryptically titled 712 (1991). They even toured the effort, opening up for a then-unknown Nirvana. Actually, the numeric insignia was derived by taking a contraction of seven (nana), one (ichi), and two (futatu) to create the "na-i-fu," the Japanese word for knife. The material immediately unleashes the band's tongue-in-cheek sincerity and prankster attitude on "Shonen Knife," which commences... with the herald "Good morning, Shonen Knife freaks..." and dives into a repetitive four-on-the-floor sample of E.L.O.'s "Don't Bring Me Down." The following off-kilter Dadaist rap hails the arrival of this, their latest record, before reeling off a litany of their favorite musicians: "Nick Lowe, Costello, Beatles/Redd Kross, Ramones, Buzzcocks," then proudly proclaiming "Shonen Knife is a cult band!" Couched within the Gen X anthem and garage façade of "Lazybone" is the band's understated penchant for catchy choruses and power pop melodies. They are perfectly matched to guest Atsushi Shibata's forceful guitar solo. Among the other social observations are an extolling of weight loss on "Diet Run," a surreal ballad to a breakfast cereal during "Fruit Loop Dreams," as well as paeans to White Flag and Redd Kross. The latter were enthusiasts of the band, giving them positive feedback in the press. The cover of the Beatles' "Rain" sticks pretty close to the original, with guest drummer Victor Indrizzo (drums) going so far as to replicating Ringo Starr's drum fills beat-for-beat. Even more striking is their take on John Lennon's "The Luck of the Irish" featuring Redd Kross's Jeff McDonald on lead vocals that nail Lennon's weary inflections. 712 is a recommended starting point for those wishing to indulge themselves in some whimsical and thoroughly unpretentious rock & roll.more »
The bulk of the best performances by Leadbelly -- whose influence on the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s cannot be overstated -- were recorded during the '40s for Folkways Records founder Moses Asch. Inferior copies and re-recordings of these tunes have appeared over the years, but the original masters have sat in the vaults of Folkways. The three-volume Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy collection shows what... we've been missing: the compilers dug out the best available versions of Leadbelly's finest songs and carefully transferred them from the original acetate masters. As the liner notes promise, "these recordings can again be heard the way they sounded in the early 1940s, for in the original masters you can still hear the ringing of the guitar and thumping of the bass." This 34-song first volume is a must for anyone interested in the roots of American folk. It opens with "Irene," which (as "Goodnight Irene") became a national hit for the Weavers less than a year after Leadbelly died on welfare; it includes many more of his most-famous tunes, among them "Rock Island Line," "Cotton Fields," and "Good Morning Blues."more »