This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s highly influential final studio album In Utero, an album that has played a huge part in my life over those years – so I’m reblogging the review I wrote a few months back for the Top 50 Nineties Albums blog here…
Much as I love Nevermind (and it’s still a great record), it is this, Nirvana’s final studio album, which – in my view – proudly stands head and shoulders above everything else they ever released – and that’s despite my stated and probably irrational fondness for 1989’s Bleach. However, and even with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, it’s still very difficult to properly approach In Utero without everything that went alongside rearing its ugly head.
Indeed, you can still look at it as Kurt Cobain’s final, most tragic artistic statement, with all that implies (which it wasn’t, really – the version he originally wanted was eventually watered down a little for the record company) – or you can strip away all the bullshit and see it as one of the best albums to come out of the Seattle scene full stop; as one of the last great…
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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…
It’s one of the greatest album openers of all time – on what is arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all time. And, believe it or not, it’s twenty years old this month…
Released in September 1991, Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, had an immediate and dramatic impact on the music scene (even going so far as to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top spot in the US album charts). It has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide in the twenty years since its release, making it almost certainly the biggest selling alternative rock album of all time and placing ‘tragic singer’ Kurt Cobain straight into the canon of rock legends alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
In September 1991, I was a troubled, music-loving 15 year old; just the right impressionable age to be utterly blown away by Nevermind. And blow me away it did. I couldn’t stop listening to it – and I was not the only one. It became one of those albums that was glued to the stereo at every single drunken teenage house party I went to over the next few years. It was on all our personal stereos, it went everywhere with us.
Enough about the Beatles already! Yes, they were probably the most influential British band of all time, yes, they wrote some absolutely brilliant tunes (and yes, I nicked the name of my blog from one of their songs – nobody has figured out which one yet!), but am I the only one who is getting thoroughly fed up with the continued and unquestioning deification of a bunch of very ordinary Liverpudlian lads who just happened to capture the zeitgeist of forty-odd years ago?
If it wasn’t them, if Paul McCartney hadn’t gone to see the Quarrymen at Woolton church fete in July 1957, it could have so easily have been someone else. Seriously. In the late 1950s and 1960s, there were enough young men with an obsessive passion for American rhythm and blues music across Britain for some other, some equally popular and influential band to have emerged instead – the sheer number of British ‘beat groups’ who played the strip clubs of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn around the same time that the early Beatles did is clear testament to this. But we did get the Beatles, and – fine musicians and cultural innovators though they were – it’s about time that their musical legacy was left alone to speak for itself.
I am very aware that there are music fans out there in cyberspace who would happily lynch me for saying all that, or, at the very least, accuse me of knowing nothing about music. I could very easily be accused of being too young to really understand the cultural context of their genius, having not even been born when they split in 1970. But, like most of my generation, the Beatles have been a part of my musical education almost as long as I’ve been aware of the very existence of music – and I am definitely a fan, particularly of the later, weird, druggy, political stuff (in fact, I was discussing the notorious Helter Skelter with a friend on Facebook only last night).
Admittedly, some of my views on the Beatles aren’t exactly conventional; I prefer the quirky half-pop, half-druggy Revolver to the near-universally adored Sgt Pepper’s, considering the latter only half a good album and not to have dated at all well – and I think John Lennon was a massively talented songwriter and an interesting political activist but mainly a thoroughly unpleasant and very damaged man (please don’t throw stuff at me, Lennon worshippers…!). Oh, and I firmly believe that George Harrison is still an unjustly underrated guitarist and songwriter – it wasn’t all just Lennon and McCartney you know….
I also don’t get why the entire Beatles back catalogue has just been ‘remastered’ and re-released on CD (plus there’s the mono versions which have just come out too), it’s just not necessary. The initial CD releases make some kind of sense since the original albums were on vinyl, but once the CDs are out there in the first place why do they need to be released again, only in a very slightly different form? Those who wanted the albums anyway will already own them on CD (and possibly also vinyl), and the original CD issues are still in the shops for any new Beatles fans wanting to discover their classic albums for themselves. Digital remasters tend to sound pretty rubbish anyway, mainly because the original source material was recorded with analogue equipment; digitising such music detracts from the lovely, essential warmth and depth of analogue sound (see the Led Zeppelin remasters albums released in the early 1990s for an obvious example of this – awesome, awesome songs, but the sound absolutely stinks compared to the original analogue releases).
In some ways, the rationale behind these re-releases is really very obvious. It’s a greedy record company lusting after profits again, especially in this era of major label panics over torrent streaming and free downloads. This must be a particular concern for EMI/Capitol as the Beatles’ back catalogue is yet to appear on iTunes. The surviving Beatles don’t really need the money (although Paul McCartney might, having been taken to the cleaners in the divorce courts by Heather Mills, which may possibly explain why he agreed to the re-releases!), so, when it comes right down to it, this move really does smack of greed and desperation for profit from the music industry, because it is they who make the money from releasing music, not the artists. The profit motive is also the only possible explanation for the recent Beatles Rock Band* computer game, however much the band and their families say they’ve approved it – and it’s obvious that the album re-releases are a classic and cynical way of cashing in on the inevitable popularity of this game: however good the game is, it doesn’t justify what is essentially a lazy attempt to make even more money out of Beatles fans (the sensible fans will have already concluded that they don’t need to buy a complete set of the albums – again. Possibly for the third time, in some cases). And I honestly doubt I’m the only commentator to point this out.
As far as I’m concerned, all this just makes a mockery of the incredible musical legacy the Beatles left us. It speaks for itself, as evidenced by the fact that generation after generation of music lovers have discovered the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo in the four decades since the band split – but the constant stream of ‘special edition’ albums and books and movies and computer games related to the Beatles and released during that time really just detract from this legacy (as good as some of these cultural artefacts are). Please, please me, and get back to the music.
*As an aside, it is interesting to note that these new ‘musician’ games can cause controversy in other ways – there may be legal action taken against the makers of Guitar Hero by Courtney Love and the surviving members of Nirvana, who are all angry about the way that Kurt Cobain’s image is being used in the latest edition of the game, seemingly without the relevant permissions. I now have this indelible image in my head of Kurt wielding a Guitar Hero controller, attempting to get an Eddie Van Halen solo right while Courtney yells at him for beating her all-time high score….