Discover more from This Week in The 90s
Nirvana's Heart-Shaped Box launches Grunge Phase 2 [September 5, 1993]
Plus: James, Bjork, 2 Unlimited, and The Breeders
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to September 5, 1993!
📰 A group of anti-EU cranks including Nigel Farage form a new political party: The United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP.
📽️ Leonardo DiCaprio (who, in 1993, was young enough to date Leonardo DiCaprio) stars opposite Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life.
📺 It is officially morphin’ time as Fox Kids airs the first episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, which is a blend of original footage plus clips recycled from Japanese show Super Sentai.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Mr, Vain’ by Culture Beat, but let’s turn our attention to this week’s Number 5…
Nirvana, ’Heart-Shaped Box’
Nevermind’s incredible success benefited a lot of people, including Nirvana’s former record label Sub Pop, which was on the verge of collapse until the reissued Bleach started bringing in much-needed cash.
Sub Pop’s co-founder Bruce Pavitt once spoke about his former proteges turned golden geese. He said, “Those guys are great, they are reaching the heartland.”
After a pause, he added, “There’s no excuse for that”.
Selling out was the great ethical dilemma of the grunge era. Kurt had sold out by accident, and he largely blamed Nevermind’s production, which sounded “closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is to a punk rock album.”
But this was his own fault. Producer Butch Vig recorded Nevermind as a dirty, aggressive album, but Geffen suggested a more commercial remix by Scott Litt, who had made unlikely hits of R.E.M.’s Green and Out Of Time. Insetad, Nirvana called in Andy Wallace, best-known for his work with Slayer. Audiences loved the Wallace mix, but Kurt slowly grew to hate it.
So, what next? How should they approach Nirvana’s third album, provisionally titled I Hate Myself and I Want To Die?
Kris Novoselic—Cobain’s high-school friend, but increasingly alienated from the singer—told Rolling Stone, “After Nevermind, we could do whatever we wanted. Kurt wanted to make a Pixies record.”
In a 1992 interview, Kurt named a few producers he’d like to work on this upcoming Pixies/Nirvana album. Top of the list was the man who produced Surfer Rosa: Steve Albini.
Angel hair and baby's breath
Steve Albini, a quick history:
Former guitarist in Big Black (one of Cobain’s favourite bands); current guitarist in Shellac; producer and engineer whose early credits include Urge Overkill and The Jesus Lizard. Albini engineered the best album of 1993 (PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me), one of the best albums of all time (Pixies’ Surfer Rosa), and is also a cool person to follow on social media.
Kurt’s comments about Albini started a wave of speculation, which grew so strong that Albini had to issue a denial, faxing Melody Maker to say, “If this is true, I don’t know about it.”
Behind the scenes, Nirvana were debating whether to approach Albini or to hire someone with a more commercial sensibility. Eventually, they decided to go for it—to bring in Steve and make a gritty, heavy record, commercial appeal be damned. A formal approach was made to Albini.
He responded with a four-page fax, and it is perhaps the greatest rock’n’roll document since Joy Division’s contract with Factory Records. It begins like this:
“I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you're talking about doing: bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal "production" and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved.
“If instead, you might find yourselves in the position of being temporarily indulged by the record company, only to have them yank the chain at some point (hassling you to rework songs/sequences/production, calling in hired guns to "sweeten" your record, turning the whole thing over to some remix jockey, whatever…) then you're in for a bummer and I want no part of it.”
Albini promises to “bust my ass” for the band on one condition: they have to be true to their vision of the band. Not the fans’, not David Geffen’s, not even Steve Albini’s.
“I consider the band the most important thing, as the creative entity that spawned both the band's personality and style and as the social entity that exists 24 hours out of each day. I do not consider it my place to tell you what to do or how to play.”
He goes on to explain his own flexibility, offering to record wherever they want in any method they want. One of his suggestions is Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota, which is home to the mixing desk used to make AC/DC’s Back In Black.
He asks them to promise not to remix the record, as this approach “never solved any problems that actually existed, only imaginary ones." Also: “Remixing is for talentless pussies who don't know how to tune a drum or point a microphone.”
Finally, money. The new Nirvana album would be a once-in-a-lifetime payday for any producer. Here’s what Albini wanted:
“I do not want and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I thinking paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music. It's the band's fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it's a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band.
“I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it's worth. The record company will expect me to ask for a point or a point and a half. If we assume three million sales, that works out to 400,000 dollars or so. There's no fucking way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn't be able to sleep.”
Finally, he signs off with a general piece of advice:
“If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody's fucking up.”
So I can climb right back
Nirvana arrived in Minnesota in February 1993. Nobody knew they were coming until their gear started arriving—Albini had booked them in as “The Simon Richie Band”, inspired by Sid Vicious’s real name.
The recording session was, by all accounts, the easiest time that Nirvana ever had in a studio. Their own previous albums served as inspiration, with Bleach and Butch Vig’s original Nevermind mix acting as templates for the new record’s brutal energy (which was now called In Utero, in case I Hate Myself and I Want To Die led to a Judas Priest-style lawsuit.)
The most complicated part of the recording process was Dave Grohl’s part on ‘Very Ape’, which involved setting up Grohl’s drums in the studio’s kitchen (good acoustics there, apparently) surrounded by 30 mics. Everything else was fast, lo-fi, unfussy, almost like a garage band making a demo.
Most of the songs were recorded in a couple of hours, if not less. Dave Grohl said that ‘Scentless Apprentice’ was recorded in one take: “Nobody said, ‘We should do it again’, because that was the fucking take.”
Mixing In Utero took another week, during which the gang amused themselves with shenanigans. Grohl set his pants on fire. Albini prank-called Eddie Vedder, pretending to be Tony Visconti and suggesting that he quit Pearl Jam. Everyone fought with Courtney. They watched nature documentaries and worked on the record.
Nevermind required four weeks of studio time, followed by months of tweaking. In Utero was ready to ship in under a fortnight. Everyone was feeling good and happy with the final product.
Hey, wait, I got a new complaint
In Utero is an astonishing album. Heavy and pitch-dark, but also melodic and surprising. In many ways, it is a much more fully realised creative vision than Nevermind. It is the real Nirvana.
The label hated it.
1993 saw a three-way dogfight between Geffen, Nirvana and Steve Albini. Geffen wanted to re-record it from scratch. Nirvana did not, but they were having doubts about the final mix. Albini refused to remix it and urged the band to stick to their original vision.
Things got so heated that it looked like In Utero might never see the light of day. Albini started telling the press that Geffen was trying to kill the record, to which Nirvana responded in the most un-punk way imaginable: a full-page ad in Billboard magazine supporting their record label against Albini’s allegations.
Someone from Nirvana’s management team said:
“Steve Albini takes the position that anything he thinks is good is good, that he’s David Koresh. He is God, and he knows what’s good. And if the artist doesn’t like it, then the artist is somehow selling out because they don’t agree with his personal vision.”
Eventually, they compromised. In Utero would be released with Albini’s original mix, but... the lead singles—‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’—would be reworked by Scott Litt (of R.E.M. fame).
Legend has it that Albini refused to hand over the In Utero masters for remixing. He denies this:
“[This] absolutely did not happen…I had just had the unpleasant experience of having a few songs remixed by the latest crush and hated the results, and wanted to avoid that if possible. When they decided to remix some songs, I listened to the masters and decided I couldn't do better, then gave them my blessing to do whatever they wanted.
”I'll reiterate what I've said a hundred times elsewhere. Whatever my concerns at the time, the record in the stores is the one the band wanted you to hear, and I'm totally fine with that. It's their record. It's not my place or anybody else's to say they were wrong about their own music.”
Forever in debt to your priceless advice
‘Heart-Shaped Box’ wasn’t released as a single in the US. Instead, Geffen sent it as a promo single to independent rock stations around the country. One of the PR team explained the strategy by saying, “Nirvana didn't sell nearly 5 million [records] because of a hit single. They sold that many albums because of who they are.”
It was released in Europe, where it was a chart hit, and it got an Anton Corbijn-directed video, which saw heavy rotation on MTV. A few weeks later, In Utero debuted at Number One.
Kurt Cobain was the biggest rock star in the world, and whoever was in second place wasn’t even close.
In November 1993, Melody Maker sent Simon Reynolds to New York to review Nirvana at the start of their In Utero world tour. Reynolds saw them perform shortly before their MTV Unplugged session, and he wrote:
“Cobain seems to have taken on all the false hopes raised by rock, all the betrayals as his own special burden, his accursed birthright. As Greil Marcus put it, ‘It’s as if the source of the depression is not that rock is dead but that it refuses to die’.
“In some ways, In Utero is his ‘Public Image’, a repudiation of his own iconhood. as he continues to squirm excruciatingly on all the jagged contradictions of turning-rebellion-into-$$$$.
“I’m sure there will be great songs to come. But Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes for all the pennyroyal tea in China.”
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 8 ↑] 2 Unlimited, ‘Faces’
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Although you could maybe slow it down and make it a bit trance-ey so it doesn’t sound like the last two singles.
[Number 18, New] James, ‘Sometimes’
James are living proof of the “get 1000 fans and you’ll be okay” ethos. They’ve never been critically acclaimed, they’ve never been a commercial smash, they’ll never headline Glastonbury (although they have opened it). Your average music fan knows roughly two James songs, one of which is ‘Sit Down’.
And yet... they’ve had a die-hard following that has passionately adored their work since the 80s. Can’t begrudge them that, as they can definitely write a good tune. This is one of them.
[Number 29 ↑] Bjork, ‘Venus As A Boy’
Cute song, although I feel increasingly uncomfortable about Bjork’s Debut era image, which can roughly be described as “Manic Pixie Waifu”. It’s gross to present women as sexy-but-childlike, and it’s weird when you do it to a 28-year-old mom with several hit records behind her.
“That’s just Bjork!” you might say, but I think we’ve learned over time that it’s not Bjork. This is perhaps the least authentic period of her career, and she doesn’t seem to look back on this era fondly.
That said, it is still a cute song.
[Number 34, New] Guru feat. N’Dea Davenport, ‘Trust Me’
N’Dea Davenport of Brand New Heavies lays down the infectious hook on this underappreciated classic. Guru is the former Gang Starr member who went on to make a series of smart, jazzy hip-hop albums in the 90s. Guru sadly died in 2010.
(Should I keep mentioning when people have died? The 90s pop charts have a surprisingly high body count and it’s starting to depress me. Let me know in the comments.)
[Number 40 ↓] Soul Asylum, ‘Somebody To Shove’
Video here directed by Zack Snyder, who was in the early days of his filmmaking career. He directed a bunch of Soul Asylum videos, although he did not work on ‘Runaway Train’.
Unless he did and there is a secret Zack Snyder cut hiding somewhere… #ReleaseTheSnyderCutOfRunawayTrain.
Album of the Week
The Breeders, Last Splash
It’s hard not to look for the shadow of Frank Black on Last Splash, the second record by The Breeders but the first after Pixies broke up. Kim says that she heard Frank was shutting down Pixies while she was in the middle of recording ‘Cannonball’! How could he not have influenced this record?
And some songs definitely seem to be about him. ‘Cannonball’ has some extra lyrics that weren’t in the original demo, like:
Spitting in a wishing well
Blown to hell, crash
I'm the last splash
Is this about breaking free of Frank? Is she celebrating not being “In the shade, in the shade”?
Is Frank the man described in ‘Invisible Man’? Or is he the person to whom Kim passive-aggressively says “I just want to get along” in the track of the same name, before asking, “If you’re so special, why aren’t you dead?”
The answer is… who knows? Kim’s lyrics are obtuse and often sparse, with instrumentals accounting for a substantial chunk of the album. Most of her lyrics deal in abstract images, like “You’re the divining rod, I’m the water” in ‘Divine Hammer’.
(Okay, that particular track also has the line “I'm just looking for one divine hammer/I'd bang it all day”, which probably makes it Kim Deal’s least ambiguous song.)
The truth is that Black Francis is not really here at all. Last Splash is all about Kim Deal, who finally emerges as a god-tier rock star; a fascinating, thrilling, endlessly charismatic frontperson.
She can play, she can write, and her vocals are untouchable. The way she injects rock’n’roll swagger into the line “Summer is ready when you are” in ‘Saints’ would put Jagger to shame.
Not to say that The Breeders aren’t a band. Kim and Kelley’s chemistry is the beating heart of Last Splash, while Jim McPherson and Josephine Wiggs get plenty of chances to shine. (Fun fact: Wiggs screwed up her first two attempts at the bassline on ‘Cannonball’, then got it right on the third. The others thought it sounded cool, so all three attempts are included in the intro.) It’s just thrilling to see Kim stepping all the way out of the shadows and shining by herself.
Frank Black. Who needs him?
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