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Nirvana – Nevermind – Classic Music Review

nevermind

No other artist and no other album dominated the 90’s in America like Nirvana and Nevermind. This was especially true after Kurt Cobain’s death, for Americans, along with all their other notable traits, are quite ghoulish creatures at heart.

To begin to understand how an under-publicized record stuffed with songs containing perfectly meaningless lyrics played by a band with little musical range could have achieved such a lofty position in musical history, you have to understand the differences between The Baby Boomers and Generation X.

Baby Boomers believed they were special; they thought of themselves as people on a mission. For many of them, the mission didn’t matter so much as the feeling of being on a mission, which is why they were able to morph from anti-capitalist peaceniks in the 60’s to greedy fucking bastards in the 80’s. Even if they were unable to articulate life’s purpose beyond a few slogans, they believed and generally still believe that life has a purpose.

Their children did not share their views. Hitting adolescence during America’s Dark Ages in the late 1970’s, then watching their parents lose their jobs in the mass layoffs of the 1980’s while the country’s leaders were telling everyone it was “Morning in America,” Generation X learned not to believe or trust in anything. They thought the whole system was bullshit. They didn’t think of themselves as special; they even failed to develop any sort of generational identity. Generation X became the anti-generation, the generation of bottled-up feelings, the generation of emptiness.

But every generation, even the unfortunate ones, has their spokesperson, and Generation X adopted Kurt Cobain as their poet laureate. Since Kurt Cobain recoiled at the very notion of being the voice of any generation, the pairing was perfect: the anti-generation crowns the reluctant hero who doesn’t want the fucking job.

It is precisely because Kurt Cobain’s lyrics make no apparent sense that they constituted the ideal message for a generation that viewed any coherent message with deep suspicion. Kurt Cobain expressed meaninglessness in the form of half-sentences, jarring word combinations, stutters and stops. He modeled the very inability to succinctly express emotion that characterized Generation X. More than anyone else, he also expressed the intense frustration that his generation felt about expressing anything tangible at all; the line, “Well, whatever, never mind” encapsulated the frustrating experience of trying to connect with other human beings better than any ode, sonnet or epic could have. Dave Grohl observed that Cobain would often dash out the lyrics to a song five minutes before recording, and that’s about all the time and energy that his co-generationists desired to put into the apparently hopeless quest for human understanding.

This is the key to grasping the significance, if not the meaning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song unwittingly named after a deodorant. The confused and meandering lyrics of the song reflect the confused and meandering soul, searching without aim for God knows what. Far more important than the lyrics is the timbre of Kurt Cobain’s voice, one of the greatest rock voices of all time, combining elements of shyness, angst and bottled-up fury. During the verses here his voice sounds like it’s drifting, like a compass needle unable to find the magnetic pole. But when he gets to the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he comes at you full force with that incredible growl, exploding with all the power of a broken dam:

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yeah

Even with the comparatively professional production of Nevermind (a classic tempest in a teapot debate), the power of that voice singes the soul. I can’t explain why in words; it just does.

More accessible to the literate listener, “In Bloom” describes the wannabes out of the scene descending on Nirvana concerts after their maiden release, Bleach:

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means

Ah, that voice again. I love the way Cobain extends the syllable on “he’s” at the start of each chorus, holding that sandpapery voice to the note an impossibly long time without losing a single watt of power. On the downside, the song reflects a formula that dominates much of Nevermind and gets boring after a while: quiet verses followed by loud choruses. Straight from Pixies.

“Come As You Are” is one of Nirvana’s more popular songs, and it does feature both a strong melodic line and musical intensity. It also features a consistent and unfortunate motif that runs through the first three tracks: all the songs mention guns. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” opens with “Load up on guns, and bring your friends.” The gun line from “In Bloom” is noted above; in “Come As You Are” it’s “And I swear I don’t have a gun,” repeated three times. Cobain was apparently obsessed with firearms, and this feature of Nirvana’s music caused me to feel less enthusiasm than my teenage schoolmates felt about them. I could read these lyrics and think, okay, maybe he’s using the gun as a symbol of human protectiveness against real friendship and intimacy. Still, it was hard to separate any perception of the song from the fact that the guy killed himself with a gun and the cops found four more firearms in his house. Whether the imagery represented the leavings from his drug-addled, gun-obsessed, anger-polluted brain or an unconscious precursor of his demise is something for a psychologist and a psychic to figure out. I find the constant reference to guns a disturbing distraction that detracts from the music in the same way that gratuitous violence dominates many Tarantino and Coen Brothers flicks.

More focused and to the point, “Breed” allows Dave Grohl to demonstrate his power as a drummer (though not his versatility—“unnecessary frills” were frowned upon in the band’s dogma). The song itself is nihilistic and neurotic, but at least Nirvana produces a pretty strong attack here. The overrated “Lithium” follows next, a song about a guy who finds religion. The arrangement and delivery sound rushed, busy and overly tense, and the song is about a minute and a half too long. “Polly” is a first-person narrative based on a true story about a rapist who has captured a 14-year old girl (but who eventually tricks him into escaping). Though it’s hardly a pleasant topic, Cobain does a decent job of expressing the muddle inside the rapist’s sick mind. “Polly” is also one of the two acoustic songs on the album, adding some blessed variety to the mix.

By far the worst song on the album, “Territorial Pissings” makes fun of the Baby Boomers by opening with Krist Novoselic singing (badly) the chorus from Dino Valenti’s “Get Together.” While the clichéd and sappy song deserves the jeers, there’s no insight here except “we think that song was dumb.” The rest of the song is repetitive and boring nonsense. “Drain You” involves vivid imagery to describe a manipulative relationship gone bad, but the images are so disturbing they say more about Cobain’s deterioration and insecurity than anything else:

One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection
Chew your meat for you, pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss from my mouth to yours
Sloppy lips to lips, you’re my vitamins
I like you

“Lounge Act” and “Stay Away” don’t provide much in the way of variation or interest. More insightful (in the ironic sense of the word) is the song, “On a Plain,” where Cobain’s difficulty with words is admitted and the deliberate use of obfuscation is embraced as a valid approach to poetry:

Somewhere I have heard this before
In a dream my memory has stored
As a defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say?

It is now time to make it unclear
To write off lines that don’t make sense
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?

Harmonies and background vocals make this song a tad more interesting than the previous two, but the self-absorption sours the mood.

The album closes with the funereal acoustic number, “Something in the Way,” remarkable for the stunning inclusion of cello in violation of punk-grunge dogma (Nirvana would use a cello again in “Dumb” and “All Apologies” on In Utero, those naughty boys). The lyrics in the verse describe a homeless guy living under a bridge (Cobain claimed it was his personal experience, a claim thrown into doubt by a biographer). Disconnectedly, the chorus simply repeats “something in the way” over and over again, but there’s a certain allure to the vocal and the background music that makes this piece unusually compelling. When I hear the song, I imagine Cobain looking at his life, and using his typical fragmentary form of expression, simply notes that there is “something in the way” of being who he wants to be or doing what he wants to do, but he lacks either the energy or the insight to move that obstacle out of the way. As such, it provides an appropriate epitaph to his short and painful existence.

Back in Seattle, my last stop in my U. S. existence, Kurt Cobain is still revered. I didn’t know much about Nirvana until after his death, as they hit the big-time in my pre-teens. So, both in terms of geography and generation, this San Francisco Gen Y girl is something of an outsider when it comes to Nirvana, which could contribute to my relative lack of enthusiasm. They were a phenomenon, to be sure, but I was somehow born with the gene that warns my brain to view all phenoms with skepticism. When I hear Nirvana, what I hear is a band that simply didn’t have a whole lot of room to maneuver beyond their basic sound and nihilistic philosophy, and even if Cobain had lived, Nirvana would not have lasted much longer. Dave Grohl’s talents and energy would have had to come out sooner or later, and a healthy Cobain might have explored his other artistic talents. Whatever the reason, the hourglass had already started to run out for Nirvana when Nevermind hit the stores.

They tried once more, rejecting the production values of Nevermind in an attempt to create a more raw sound for In Utero, with mixed results. Cobain’s screaming vocals would become annoying while his repressed melodic skills would provide the few highlights on the album. Novoselic’s bass certainly sounds better on In Utero, but the material itself is spotty. “Spotty” is also a good word to describe Nevermind: flashes of occasional brilliance and obvious talent are marred by confused, neurotic lyrics and the limitations of punk-grunge dogma. As a statement of rejection of the generally lifeless music people were listening to in the 1980’s, Nevermind is perfection; as a timeless work of art, it leaves much to be desired.

 

 

The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols – Classic Music Review

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Originally written in March 2013, completely revised in May 2016.

In going back through all the reviews I’d written over the three-year life of the blog (over 300!), I noticed that most of the reviews in my first year and a half were fucking awful. So, challenge number one in compiling my reviews into book form was to slog through the muck of those early efforts, scrap those that were unsalvageable and rewrite those that were worth the energy.

One of those early attempts at criticism was a review of Never Mind the Bollocks. I didn’t even remember writing it, and when I read it, I understood why: I probably didn’t want to remember it. It was appalling. I don’t know who wrote that review, but my guess is that it was a grumpy bitch on the rag suffering from food poisoning or the accumulated toxicity of a hundred bad days at the office. The review was more about my mood than what I thought and how I felt about the music, and whatever I was feeling, I took it all out on the Sex Pistols. It was absolute slapdash crapola.

I can now approach the seminal album of punkdom in a much better mood due to a consistent diet of great sex, good wine and cigarettes, and a powerful desire to complete the book so I can move on to whatever’s next. I also love challenges, and there are few records that present as many challenges as Never Mind the Bollocks. To this day it remains a provocative and highly controversial work, and I can’t think of a band more polarizing than The Sex Pistols. In the dozens of discussion groups I visited while researching this review, I always found intense disagreement about the value of their work: half thought The Sex Pistols were absolute shite, a racist, homophobic group with limited talent who had nothing to offer but shock value; the other half argued that they were highly influential pioneers, courageous artists who had the balls to call bullshit on bullshit.

The Sex Pistols can only be understood within their historical and cultural context, so let’s time-travel back to the mid-1970’s when the Western economies were going through a rough patch due to a combination of poor economic planning and the OPEC oil shock of 1973-4. The world’s leading economy was in the midst of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam malaise and saddled with a new phenomenon called stagflation. As bad as things seemed to be in the U. S. A. (and Americans do tend to exaggerate how bad things are), the scene in the U. K. was far, far worse. As John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) described it as follows:

Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down with trash on the streets, and total unemployment—just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point-blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks . . . then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all.

—-Robb, John, Punk Rock, p. 97.

Both societies faced what appeared to be a bleak and uncertain future and both eventually attempted to address the situation by making a sharp turn to the right that brought soul mates Thatcher and Reagan to power. However, while the American music scene remained comparatively placid—as reflected in the overwhelming popularity of disco music in the States—the British music scene experienced much greater turmoil. Both cultures sprouted punk movements in response to the excesses of progressive rock, but the similarities in American and British punk of the 1970’s were superficial at best, something that becomes quite obvious when you compare two iconic punk bands: The Ramones and The Sex Pistols.

The Ramones paid virtually no attention to politics or society. AllMusic’s review of “Blitzkrieg Bop” describes the song as “a nice encapsulation of the group’s aesthetic: simple, bouncy, pre-British Invasion rock & roll played at top volume and twice the speed. Blaring the same three chords for most of its duration, the song was rock at its most basic.” Later they identified themselves as conservatives, confirming their complete lack of interest in sparking social revolution.

Can you imagine the kind of song The Sex Pistols would have written with the title, “Blitzkrieg Bop?” The jackboots you hear in the intro to “Holidays in the Sun” would have been ten times as loud and the lyrics would have rallied listeners to engage in anarchist revolt against police brutality. British Punk of the 1970’s was a socio-political phenomenon that illuminated the utter desperation of young people who looked at the massive dysfunctionality of the system and saw no hope and no future.

Don’t get me wrong: I love The Ramones and gave Rocket to Russia a very positive review. My point here is that the situation facing British youth of the era was far more desperate and demanded a hold-nothing-back response. Never Mind the Bollocks expresses the justifiable outrage of human beings trapped in a no-win situation. The method of expressing that message was the message itself: shock sensibilities, fuck the niceties, fuck civilized discourse and tolerate no bullshit from anybody. Never Mind the Bollocks is often an uncomfortable listening experience—as it should be. The act of ripping away layers of bullshit is as painful as ripping off layers of skin, and The Sex Pistols offer the listener no first aid, no solace, no comfort. Never Mind the Bollocks is one of the most powerful records ever made, and one of the most challenging—in every sense of the word.

The Sex Pistols challenge convention and civilized sensibilities from the get-go with “A Holiday in the Sun.” The band came up with the song after a failed holiday in Jersey (failed because the Pistols got themselves thrown out) sent them on a detour to the then-divided city of Berlin, the symbolic flash point of the Cold War. There they experienced the essence of human absurdity as manifested in the Berlin Wall:

I didn’t ask for sunshine
And I got world war three
I’m looking over the wall
And they’re looking at me

Once the sound of jackboots has suitably disturbed the listener, a series of sustained chords are broken by Paul Cook’s fabulous roll that cues the high-speed descending chord pattern. The use of the Belsen concentration camp as a metaphor for post-war Berlin is certainly provocative, but for a citizen of the West to express the desire to go over The Berlin Wall to the Communist side would have been seen as an unthinkable act of madness. John Lydon can’t quite explain it himself, but he does give us a few hints:

Claustrophobia yeah, there’s too much paranoia
There’s too many closets
I went in before
And now I got a reason
It’s no real reason to be waiting
The Berlin wall

I gotta go over the wall,
I don’t understand this bit at all

In other words, it’s so fucking bad at home, what do I have to lose? It doesn’t make any sense, but when you’re living in a world where nothing makes sense, you have to question anything and everything, including Western dogma about freedom. The song itself fucking rocks and Lydon’s vocals—his “anti-singing”—possess an irresistible, compelling edge.

“Bodies” is the most graphically outrageous song on the album, but also one of the most important because it deals with the apparently unresolvable conflict surrounding abortion. The conservative rag National Review listed it as one of the greatest conservative rock songs in history, but I believe John Lydon’s claim that the song is neither pro-life nor pro-choice. For fuck’s sake, they were writing about a mentally disturbed woman who had made abortion a habit, a convenient way to avoid having to deal with the responsibility of becoming a parent. I consider myself pro-choice, but I don’t consider myself pro-stupid-choice or pro-immoral-choice. You don’t choose to have an abortion in the same manner you choose what to wear to the party tomorrow night. In unapologetic language, The Sex Pistols protest the denigration of human life and express profound disgust with women who take the decision lightly:

Throbbing squirm, gurgling bloody mess
I’m not a discharge
I’m not a loss in protein
I’m not a throbbing squirm

Ah! Fuck this and fuck that
Fuck it all tha fuck out of the fucking brat
She don’t wanna a baby that looks like that
I don’t wanna a baby that looks like that.

To have or not to have an abortion is a deeply personal decision, and I wish they would have added a message that the choice is none of the government’s business—but this is their song, not mine. Given my severe disdain for rug rats, you might assume that abortion would be almost a no-brainer for me, but the opposite is true: if I got pregnant, I’d probably have the kid. Why? Because I think I’m a decent human being who, if pressed into service, would probably do pretty well as a parent. I’m not a poor woman with a drug habit whose “boyfriend” beats the shit out of her and lacks the means or ability to give birth to and raise a child.

I love music that makes me face the big issues.

Punk artists make extensive use of the dramatic monologue, and “No Feelings” is a classic example. Had they chosen to write about this selfish, abusive loser in the third person, the song would have come across as preachy and judgmental. It’s much better to let the loser tell his pathetic story himself, an approach that allows us to reach our own conclusions, thus giving those conclusions much greater impact:

Hello and goodbye
And a run around Sue
You follow me around
Like a pretty pot of glue
I kick you in the head
You got nothing to say
Get out of the way
‘Cause I gotta get away
You never realize
I take the piss out of you
You come up and see me
And I’ll beat you black and blue okay
I’ll send you away

I got no feeling, no feeling, no feeling
For anybody else
Except for myself
My beautiful self-ish

“No Feelings” is a kick-ass rocker, and despite the despicable nature of the lead character, is one of my favorite songs on the album.

“Liar” is a straight, kick-ass number devoted to one of the overriding themes to British Punk: T-R-U-T-H. The rhythm section here is relentlessly powerful, and the Pistols keep the power on high in the complementary song “Problem,” where they turn the tables on the “normals” who judge punk rockers as “problem children” for failing to follow the rules—rules that don’t fucking work in the first place:

I ain’t equipment, I ain’t automatic
You won’t find me just staying static
Don’t you give me any orders
For people like me
There is no order

Bet you thought you had it all worked out
Bet you thought you knew what I was about
Bet you thought you’d solved all your problems
But you are the problem

For reasons unknown, the track order of “Problems” and “God Save the Queen” was flipped when the record arrived in the U. S. A., but it hardly matters. “God Save the Queen,” was one of the first masterpieces of socio-political punk, and one of the few iconic songs that has managed to retain its freshness and bite after decades of airplay. Steve Jones’ thrashing guitar and superb bass work (Sid Vicious’ bass track proved to be unusable) combine with Paul Cook’s manically driven drumming to give John Lydon the perfect backing track for one of the most memorable vocals in rock history. That vocal contains dozens of delightful nuances (the trilled “r” on “moron,” “there’s no . . . fyoo-char,” and “England’s . . . duh-reaming) that supply an incredibly rich subtext to the sharply-pointed lyrics. My favorite passage captures the core message, a rousing alarm about the consequences of creating and sustaining a world where there is no hope—consequences that everyone living in that world will have to face together:

When there’s no future
How can there be sin
We’re the flowers in the dustbin
We’re the poison in your human machine
We’re the future, your future

The repeated refrain of “No future, no future” at the end of the song is not a nihilist shout but an insistent reminder of the fate that awaits the populace if nothing is done to change things.

Tough piece to follow, and the placement of “Seventeen” reflects that: it’s probably the least substantial piece on the album. “Anarchy in the UK,” a call for system disruption in ways large and small, is much meatier fare. I’ve always found one line in the song particularly interesting: “I give a wrong time, stop a traffic line.” Highly integrated complex systems have an inherent weakness: they’re highly integrated and complex. One glitch can fuck up the whole works, so in one sense, that tiny line is an empowering message to those who feel hopelessly lost in the system and can’t come up with an answer to Joe Strummer’s question, “What are we going to do now?” Where anarchy always falls apart is its core belief in independent, uncoordinated action, so anarchists usually wind up making a mess of things, pissing everyone off and defeating the purposes they had hoped to achieve. Still, small actions can serve to equalize the power differential, and on that basis, I think “Anarchy in the UK” is one of the more optimistic songs on the album. John Lydon’s lead vocal is sneeringly brilliant, and of all the tracks on Never Mind the Bollocks, this is where I think the band is at their best.

“Submission” is a change of pace number, a punk variant of “All Day and All of the Night.” It’s followed by the anthemic “Pretty Vacant,” with its classic guitar riff inspiring another frantic effort from the band. The Kafka-esque experience of dealing with bureaucracies is captured here in a far more economical manner than you’ll find in The Castle:

There’s no point in asking
You’ll get no reply.
Oh just remember a don’t decide
I got no reason it’s all too much
You’ll always find me
Out to lunch, we’re outta lunch

“New York” is the only song on the album I actively loathe, for as a bisexual woman I get seriously fucking pissed when anyone uses the epithet “faggot.” Never Mind the Bollocks ends with a big “fuck you” to “E. M. I.,” the industry giant that canceled their contract over a combination of boorish behavior and political pressure. It’s one of the most intense songs on the album, combining twisted phrasing from John Lydon with relative discipline from the band.

Never Mind the Bollocks is a relentless experience, an assault on both the status quo and our own comfort-seeking tendencies. It’s a unique, once-in-a-generation record, and also the first and last studio album The Sex Pistols ever recorded. Frankly, I can’t imagine what they could have done to follow it. Listeners would have become immune to the shock value of their music, and the disturbances they liked to create would have become as tiresome as the Gallagher’s petty brotherly conflict.

I don’t consider the brevity of their existence a tragedy, however, for with one powerful mother fucker of an album they had more impact than most of the artists with catalogues that stretch out over decades. You may loathe it or love it, but the lasting influence of Never Mind the Bollocks is undeniable.

 

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