Searching for what matters with Pearl Jam's 'Alive' [February 23, 1992]
Plus: Pantera, Inspiral Carpets, Sounds of Blackness, and Billy Bragg
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Welcome to the week of February 23, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister (=)
‘My Girl’ — The Temptations (↑)
‘I Love Your Smile’ — Shanice (↑)
‘I’m Doing Fine Now’ — The Temptations (=)
‘It’s A Fine Day’ — Opus III (↑)
We’ll be exploring some of the UK Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 16: ‘Alive’ — Pearl Jam
You know what’s the most powerful phrase in the English language?
“It doesn’t matter.”
Think about the awesome power of that phrase. Imagine, for instance, that you’ve just lost your job. You’re driving home, panicking about how you’re going to cope without your salary. What if they take your house away? What if they take your kids away?
You get home and you tell your partner. They smile, they put a comforting arm around you, and they say, “it doesn’t matter”. Suddenly, the weight falls from your shoulders, and you realise that everything is going to be okay.
What a powerful, cleansing phrase. No wonder Zen monks seem so happy.
But it can also be a destructive phrase. Your partner might be furious when they find out you’re a jobless bum. They might tell you that it’s time to pack your bags and get out. You plead with them. You tell them you’re willing to do anything to turn things around. And they say, “it doesn’t matter.”
Now, those words are as catastrophic as an H-bomb.
One of the most powerful things we do each day is to decide whether to care about something or not. Most adults are quite strident about their judgement of what’s important — which is why Twitter is full of people who’ll ask why you care about this when that is so much more important.
For teenagers, things aren’t so clear. Adolescence is mostly a process of figuring out how to care about things. When you’re a teenager, you start breaking the world up into little pieces, and you sort those pieces into two piles: things that matter, and things that don’t.
It’s hard. It’s especially hard when you’ve got people in their 40s telling you that the things you care about are stupid. Instead, they say, you should care about stuff that seems boring and regressive.
So, as a teenager, you go off in search of a voice who’ll tell you that you’re right to care about the things you care about.
Sometimes, you find that voice on a record.
All the above is to give some context about why grunge hit as hard as it did, and why bands like Pearl Jam mean so much to some people.
Pearl Jam arrived like an aftershock after the initial earthquake of Nevermind. Grunge culture spread like a virus. People willingly adopted it because it seemed to make so much sense.
The USP of grunge was its supposed authenticity, which seemed revolutionary after years of the Reagan-era neon plastic wasteland. Grunge was a rebellion against bullshit. No marketing, no hype, just real musicians talking honestly and dressing for the Seattle weather.
The late 80s had left a lot of people with a kind of cultural sea-sickness. It was the kind of nausea you get when you’ve only eating vending machine junk food all day. The thought of more sugar makes you want to puke; your soul craves vegetables. You want to feel nourished.
Of course, there was lots of amazing music being made in the late 80s, but it was all happening under the surface. That was no use to people like me a clueless teenager who hadn’t figured out how to explore anything beyond FM radio. I felt stranded in a desert of Vanilla Ice and the ashes of hair metal.
Eddie Vedder’s voice, when I first heard it, knocked me down in a way that nothing else had ever done before. It sounded like a mighty wind roaring down a mountain. It sounded like Moses returning with the tablets under his arm. It fucking rocked, but it rocked in a morally serious way that made 80s rock music feel frivolous.
This music mattered. It made you feel, well, alive.
And of course, this feeling made me obnoxious.
When you combine brawny rock music with a horny/angry, testosterone-addled mind, you get a young person who is very strident about their opinions. Someone who like to tell everyone that this matters and this does not matter.
I think this happens to most teenage boys. The lucky ones keep their mouths shut and avoid saying anything embarrassing. The unlucky ones get stuck in that phase, like the “Disco Sucks” guy, and spend their twilight years commenting “but they don’t even write their own songs!” on Guardian profiles of BTS.
Rock music can trick you into thinking that the world is black and white, that there are Things That Matter (Eddie Vedder’s relationship with his biological dad) and Things That Don’t Matter (any song in the Top 40 that’s not by Pearl Jam).
But if a song speaks to you, it is speaking to you. To your reality, your experience, your passions and beliefs.
A song like ‘I Love Your Smile’ by Shanice can be as profound to one person as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is to another. Ultimately, it’s not the song itself that matters. It’s how it hits you.
Because if it was something inherent in the song, then why would so many people connect with this song? The lyrics of ‘Alive’ are far more literal than perhaps any of us understood in 1992. It is very much about Vedder discovering that his father was not his biological father, and that his biological father was dead.
Hardly a universal experience. But lots of people still connect with it.
But you find your own meaning in it. I think, as a teenager, it was the mix of defiance and uncertainty in a song that one moment bellowed “I’m still alive” and then a moment later asked, “but do I deserve to be?” Something about that captures the feeling of wanting to have a place in the world, but not being sure where that place was.
That feeling is real. That feeling matters. But it’s not inherently more important than, say, the feeling of playful lust in ‘I Love Your Smile’.
It took me a long time to learn that.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 15 (New Entry): ‘Dragging Me Down’ — Inspiral Carpets
Weird how the charts work. Technically, this is Inspiral Carpets’ biggest hit, having peaked at Number 12. But it’s nowhere near their most popular song ( ‘This Is How It Feels’ ) or their best song (also ‘This Is How It Feels’, although I’m quite fond of ‘I Want You’.)
The Inspiral Carpets story ended in tragedy in 2016 when drummer Craig Gill died in a suspected suicide. His family say this was the result of stress and anxiety caused by severe tinnitus.
The Carpets permanently disbanded afterwards, which is actually a pretty classy response. There’s a lot of money on the nostalgia circuit, so it would have been easy to get a new drummer in and say some bullshit about carrying on in Craig’s memory.
Number 19 (New Entry): ‘Make It My Own’ — Alison Limerick
The early 90s were a great time for women with big voices, and few voices were as big as Alison Limerick’s. Alison (who is not from Limerick, but from London) spent much of her career as a session singer, eventually scoring a breakout dance hit when she teamed up with Frankie Knuckles on ‘Where Love Lives’.
‘Make It On My Own’ is the peak of Limerick’s solo career. A self-penned, old-fashioned soul anthem, it didn’t quite lead to the string of hits that she deserved. However, she went on to develop one of the most eclectic CVs in music, working with acts as diverse as James Taylor, X-Press 2 and This Mortal Coil.
Number 22 (↓ from 17): ‘Steel Bars’ — Michael Bolton
The @Twit90s Twitter account got a lovely QT from Curtis Stigers recently, so we’re now firmly taking a side in the Bolton vs Stigers chart war (30 years after it ended).
Fuck you, Michael Bolton. Your mullet is rubbish and you can’t play sax. #TeamStigers4Lyfe
Number 38 (↓ from 28): ‘Optimistic’ — Sounds of Blackness
Sounds of Blackness are, to my knowledge, the only college choir to score a Top 40 hit.
Macalester College in Minnesota is home to Sounds of Blackness, where mastermind Gary Hines has been leading a constantly changing roster of singers, musicians and artists since the late 60s.
During the 90s, the group started behaving more like a proper band and began crossing over into the mainstream. You can hear them on soundtracks for movies like Mo’ Money, or collabing with Daryl Hall on the official anthem of the 1994 World Cup.
‘Optimistic’ was a UK-only single that tickled the lower reaches of the Top 30 in 1992, but it found a new lease of life in 2016. Around the time everyone was crying into their cornflakes about the Trump election, people like Chance The Rapper got involved in the #OptimisticChallenge, which simply involved posting a video of you and your mates having a dance.
As social media trends go, this was one of the more wholesome ones. A celebration of people who keeps their heads up even in the bleakest times.
Number 40 (New Entry): ‘Accident Waiting To Happen’ — Billy Bragg
It’s probably unfair to say that Billy Bragg was selling out at this point in his career. But yeah — he had signed a lucrative deal in the early 90s and put a lot of effort into becoming a pop star. He was trying hard to sell out.
‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ is still very Bragg, with lyrics about flirting with girls while trying to defeat fascism. But the video kind of shows why the experiment was doomed to failure — it feels a bit like a musical number from a BBC sketch show that got cancelled after six episodes.
Bragg’s commercial phase didn’t last long. He broke things off with the label, paid back his advance, and just carried on being Billy Bragg. There’s an important lesson here: it’s better to have a small audience that loves you than a big audience that doesn’t give a shit.
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Album of the Week
Vulgar Display of Power — Pantera
Heavy metal can get a bit theatrical sometimes, and I’m never sure if we’re supposed to take it seriously.
The weird throat singing of death metal, the satanic imagery of black metal, the way they all have logos that look like the cracks in your windscreen after you’ve just hit a pedestrian – please tell me how we are to respond to this?
Absolutely none of that applies to Pantera, though, a band that simply does not fuck around. Vulgar Display of Power is music for drinking beer and getting in a fight in a car park, as demonstrated by the cover, which shows a guy getting punched in the face.
It does exactly what it says on the tin.
Pantera weren’t always this way. They started out in the early 80s as a hair metal band, looking a bit like this:
Nothing happened for Pantera for a long time, until the thrash scene emerged in the late 80s and something clicked. They rebooted their sound, got Phil Anselmo in on vocals, and guitarist Diamond Darrell changed his name to Dimebag. 1990’s Cowboys From Hell was their fifth album, but it was the first record by Pantera-as-we-know-them.
It's tempting to portray Vulgar Display of Power as a careful triangulation of the chaotic forces buffeting the world of loud guitar music in 1992. Hair metal is gone. Grunge is on the rise. Metallica’s attempt at selling out has been annoyingly successful. Pantera’s groove metal certainly seemed like it was tailor-made for the cultural moment. It’s old-fashioned thrash laced with stronger riffs and melodies, even daring to get a little funky at times.
But I think Pantera are probably a lot like the Red Hot Chili Peppers in some ways. A band that were just doing their regular thing on the scene for years, until suddenly their regular thing became The Next Big Thing.
Either way, Vulgar Display of Power is a supremely confident and competent record. It opens much deeper and heavier than Cowboys From Hell, with Anselmo vocals now a lot more hardcore. The multiple, memorable riffs on opener ‘Mouth of War’ show that these guys really know what they’re doing.
The vision comes together on ‘Walk’, a groove metal track that actually grooves. It’s a fine balancing act, keeping that loose rhythm going while also maintaining the toughness and intensity. Yet it feels effortless.
Much of the rest of the record is a showcase for how versatile they are. ‘This Love’ shows their more emotional side, and is immediately followed by ‘Rise’, which just shows how hard they can go (and features a Van Halen-esque Dimebag solo.)
I personally have a deep love for the fastest track on the record, ‘Fucking Hostile’. This lyric interpretation video is the first thing I ever watched on YouTube (NSFW):
(This was the height of comedy in 2006.)
The genius of Pantera is that they made the hard things look easy. Vulgar Display of Power, on first listen, sounds like a meat-and-potatoes rock record that you stick on when you want something loud.
And it absolutely is that. You can absolutely blast this and have an air guitar party, if you so choose.
But it’s also something melodic, intelligent, and surprisingly unconventional in places. No fucking around. But lots of clever experiments.
(Hey, if you want to read a metal newsletter by someone who actually knows the genre, check out The Aquanaut’s Diary)
More Pearl Jam as we look at the eleven songs on Ten, plus it’s time to trance out to Opus III. Don’t miss it — subscribe now! 👇