Looking back at Achtung Baby, 20 years on

I’m of the age that’s supposed to like Nirvana more than U2. Or at least, when U2’s Achtung Baby came out, I was. (I suspect a lot of people my age would rather listen to U2 than Nirvana now, while my teenaged nephew would have the opposite opinion.)

I bought both Nevermind and Achtung Baby, at the same time in fact. I’ve written before about what Nevermind meant to me and the people around me. Being arguably my favorite record of all time, I think Achtung Baby, which is being re-released this week, deserves the same treatment.
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The best band I forgot about?

A couple of days ago I ran across a Material Issue CD at a secondhand store. It was priced at $1, so I couldn’t pass that up. They were a band that was always on my list of CDs to buy, but never moved high enough on the list that I ever got around to it. And of course, in 1995 they just dropped off the radar entirely.

Like most bands I like, it seems, they have a sad story.Material Issue was a Chicago band whose major-label debut sold 300,000 copies, which wasn’t bad for an alternative band in 1990-91. Their songs ranged from power pop ballads to the just plain weird, and I remember hearing their songs “Valerie Loves Me” and “What Girls Want” on Les Aaron’s “New Music Sunday” radio show on 97.1 FM in St. Louis in the early 1990s. That stuff was just too weird to get much play on the right-hand side of the FM dial in those days, and for that matter, I don’t know that even Les Aaron played them every week.

Alternative music became the new big thing (and ceased being alternative, in a lot of ways) in 1992-93, due in large part to Nirvana bursting onto the scene. I remember every station with alternative sympathies in St. Louis and Columbia, Mo. having them in rotation after that, and critics always thought highly of their work, but for some reason their stuff just didn’t catch on.

In 1995, their record label dropped them after their third record sold a mere 50,000 copies. (In 1975, Lou Reed proved that a recording of 60 minutes of guitar feedback could sell 100,000 copies.) A year later, their lead singer/guitarist Jim Ellison was dead, committing suicide about a month after his 32nd birthday.

Ellison and Material Issue really could have been a Cars for the 1990s. Like Cars leader Ric Ocasek, Ellison penned quirky, disturbed lyrics, and he even had a slightly odd look, like Ocasek.

The song I really remember Material Issue for was “Kim the Waitress,” which was pretty much their last hurrah. And it wasn’t even their song, originally. I was vaguely aware that it was a cover, and I dug up the original, by a Seattle band called Green Pajamas, on Youtube. Material Issue’s version is faithful to the original, but still sounds like Material Issue. The original is a bit quirkier still, featuring a sitar, but Ellison sang it with a bit more urgency than the Green Pajamas did. To the Green Pajamas, Kim the Waitress comes off as a crush, whereas Material Issue sounds like they’re head over heels in love with a girl they barely know.

In the early 2000s, Stereo Fuse scored a minor hit covering Material Issue’s ballad “Everything.” Stereo Fuse electrified it (the original was largely acoustic), and in a way Stereo Fuse’s version ended up sounding more like Material Issue than Material Issue did, but Stereo Fuse didn’t capture Jim Ellison’s urgency in the lyrics.

It’s really too bad I didn’t pay more attention to them in the early 1990s. They were the kind of band that any shy, slightly neurotic guy would really relate to.

I guess Material Issue came in with too much emo too soon, and sounded a little too psychedelic too late. If they’d come around 20 years earlier or later than they did, they might have done better. Or, maybe Jim Ellison was just a shade too honest in his songwriting, and people were afraid of what others might think if they admitted to liking his stuff.

Pale Divine: St. Louis’ biggest band

Pale Divine: St. Louis’ biggest band

“[Pale Divine singer Michael Schaerer’s] life didn’t turn out the way fans expected, but chances are neither did theirs.” Perhaps nothing sums up Pale Divine, St. Louis’ biggest band in 1991, better than that line from the December 21, 2008 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In the early 1990s, Michael Schaerer was the frontman for Pale Divine, the biggest band in St. Louis. They played sold-out shows on Laclede’s Landing, they had a record deal with Atlantic Records, and the radio stations even played some of their stuff sometimes. And then they broke up before they could finish a second album. For years, Schearer got gigs playing cover tunes, though he’s raised his profile in recent times. His bandmate, guitarist Richard Fortus, is in Guns ‘n Roses. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Was California Republican Tony Krvaric Strider of Fairlight?

A story today about the possibility that a prominent California Republican, Tony Krvaric, was once a co-founder of the Commodore 64 warez group Fairlight caused an uproar on Slashdot today. The claim said Krvaric went by the handle of Strider.

Reading it brought back some memories.

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This is another lame Johnny Ramone tribute

Johnny Ramone died today. That name might not mean anything to the majority of you. That’s OK.

Johnny Ramone was the guitarist for the Ramones, a punk rock band that got started in the ’70s. His bandmates Joey Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone have already passed, all way before their time.My only public Ramones experience was in 1996 or so. I was at Royals Stadium, and the Royals were playing another miserable game under the watch of manager Bob Boone. I don’t remember what the score was and I don’t remember who they were playing. All I remember was the other team brought in a left-hander and Bob Boone pinch-hit for Johnny Damon, and at that point, I was done.

And then the sound of the Ramones came on the PA system: the famous opening to Blitzkreig Bop. "’Ey! Oh! Let’s go! Ey! Oh! Let’s go!"

I responded by singing out another Ramones song, much to the dismay of those sitting around me:

"Bah bah bah bah, bah bah bha bah bah, I wanna be sedated!"

The Ramones recorded simple music. Their songs were really short, really fast, and for their time, really loud. And they never took themselves seriously.

They printed a story in the sleeve of their first retrospective compilation. I guess most would call it a greatest hits collection, except the Ramones didn’t really have any hits. The story was about their first gig. Joey, Tommy, Dee Dee, and Johnny Ramone walked into a bar, tall, lanky, long hair, wearing t-shirts and leather jackets. The bar owner didn’t know if they were a band or four thugs looking to steal sound equipment. They got up and played a few numbers, all of them really fast, really loud, none over two minutes. And at the end, the bar owner didn’t know if they were a band or four thugs looking to steal sound equipment.

I’m sure the pair of alternative stations in St. Louis in the late ’80s and early ’90s, far on the left side of the dial, played plenty of Ramones. The problem was you couldn’t hear either 89.7 or 89.5 FM if you were more than about two blocks from their dinky little towers. The first station with any kind of power that would play the Ramones was 105.7, which started playing alternative music in 1993. Back in the days before it turned into all Bush, all the time (which was just before it turned into all Korn, all the time), they mixed in some Ramones along with Nirvana and Matthew Sweet and Sugar and The Pretenders and the Gin Blossoms and the dozens of other bands the Ramones had influenced. But it was too little, too late. In 1996 they released an album titled "Adios, Amigos!" And they meant it. No more tours, no more new records, no nothing. And they vanished. I think I heard about Joey Ramone doing a few cameos on sitcoms or something. But the only time I heard the Ramones on radio again was on a retro station right after the DJ announced one of them had died. Which was fairly often, now that I think about it.

But now there’s no retro station in St. Louis to play the Ramones as a tribute to Johnny. And the record industry doesn’t have the patience these days for bands like the Ramones. The Ramones were like the Velvet Underground, in that they were the kind of band that would sell a few thousand records, but everyone who bought one of those records would go start a band.

I read today that Slash learned to play guitar by listening to Johnny Ramone. Slash! Of Guns ‘n’ Roses!

Ten years ago, they’d have let the Ramones record the first album. Some executive would have liked it. It wouldn’t have sold any better, and they’d have let them record a second album, but only because that first album showed some promise. When the sales figures for the second one came in, they’d tell them to hit the road.

Today, if that first Ramones record didn’t sell a million copies, there wouldn’t be a second Ramones record.

I don’t know that we’ll see another Johnny Ramone again. The world’s changed too much since his day. For the worse.

Thank you, Kurt

I really don’t want to write another this-is-where-I-was-when-I-first-heard-Teen-Spirit piece. It’s too obvious. Every blogger under the age of 40 must be doing that today.

If you must know, I was in my bedroom in my teenage home in Fenton, Missouri. I was listening to 89.7, which was a commercial-less indie station with an incredibly weak signal, run by a local YMCA or some other similar community organization. I could only get it in certain parts of St. Louis, and to get it at home, my boombox had to be in the right place in my room.
This would have been sometime in September 1991, long before the Top 40 stations got their grubby mitts on it. At the time, 89.7 was getting several requests for the song every hour.

Much has been said about how the album, and that song in particular, were a rampage against the overproduced, overly flambouyant pretty-boy pop metal that ruled Top 40 radio until late 1991. And certainly it was a shock there. But it was a bit of a shock in the alternative radio world too–to ears that were used to hearing Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Inspiral Carpets, and the immortal Elvis–Elvis Costello, of course–it was a bit of a shock. Ned’s was certainly odd enough, and Inspiral Carpets had their share of angst. But Nirvana was more raw, and, well, a lot more loud.

Of course, Kurt Cobain committed suicide 10 years ago today.

In college, I lived for a time with a bunch of farm boys, and I remember them ragging me about how I "liked bands whose lead singers killed hisself." (Yes, I bristled at the butchered English.) Cobain was of course the poster child.

Nirvana of course opened the door for a new form of mainstream music, helping alternative music move from the lower left end of the FM dial to the right-hand side occupied by classic rock and Top 40 stations. But the originality fizzled, and Cobain wasn’t dead two years before people were ready for the alternative to alternative.

I think that has more to do with record company execs than with Cobain, of course. Signing bands like Nirvana is risky business. You can sign every garage band that comes around and strike out 99,999 times, or you can sign a band that just imitates something that’s already proven to be popular, make a few million, and just sign another one with that band fizzles out. Certainly, it’s easier that way.

People got tired of bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, and soon we had highly polished bubblegum bands again–boy bands and girl bands who looked good on magazine covers and posters, and who maybe could sing, and if not, well, that’s what post-production is for.

It was once said that grunge is what happens when children of divorce get guitars. Does that mean boy bands are what happen when children of divorce get Prozac?

For a while, at least, it was OK for the music you listened to to reflect your problems and your inner demons.

Nirvana had a brief resurgence when the last song they ever recorded was finally released. "You Know You’re Right," it was called. More than a decade after "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it struck a chord with me again. Some people can’t be reasoned with, and that, to me, seemed to be what that song was about. I was dealing with one of those at the time.

The song was different and the message was different, but once again, I found myself cranking the radio whenever a particular song by Nirvana hit the airwaves. Or, if it was really bad, I’d carry a Nirvana CD with me and pop it in my CD player. And for a few minutes, I’d feel better. When the song ends, the problem is still there, but at least you know you’re not alone.

I really couldn’t care less if Nirvana changed the world or changed the music industry, or the direction the industry took in the wake of Cobain’s self destruction. Change doesn’t really seem to matter all that much, because it’s only a matter of time before some other unlikely–and probably unwilling–revolutionary comes along and changes it back.

As a stereotypical GenX male, what matters most to me was that Kurt Cobain came along, and in him I found someone I could relate to, three minutes at a time.

Thanks, Kurt.

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