Noise. Anger. Rage. Being a bit drunk. Big dollops of “fuck you” attitude. All this, and more, feature in this instalment of The Pitchfork 5001. Cue guitar intro.
The Replacements – Bastards of Young
Big Black – Kerosene
Scratch Acid – The Greatest Gift
We last saw The Replacements singing about trying to hook up with some poor, unsuspecting lady in “I Will Dare” (off an album that also featured the charmingly titled “Gary’s Got A Boner”). The Replacements ouevre generally centred around beer, drinking beer, trying to get more beer, trying to hook up whilst on beer, feeling terrible because of all that beer they were drinking, and the band themselves were clearly fans of, err, beer. However, the Reagan administration was clearly playing on Paul Westerberg’s mind, and “Bastards of Young” was their anthem to the lost generation – the proto Gen-X’ers – of the mid ’80’s. The lyrics are a resigned paean to youth that had little hope and even lesser chances of breaking out into the sunny world promised to them by Reagonomics:
The ones that love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest/And visit their graves on holidays at best/The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please
The band, normally mucking around drunk in the background, provide sterling backing to Westerberg’s heartfelt lyrics. The video was great too. I dimly recall seeing this on Beavis and Butthead (“Smash it! SMASH IT!”), but as all the copies I could find had embedding disabled, you’ll just have to look yourself. In the meantime, enjoy this live version:
The song became a minor hit, though in true Replacements style, even when they got onto “Saturday Night Live”, they still ballsed it up by turning up drunk and then compounded the issue by swearing on-air. This was to be their fate; a great, ramshackle band hampered by their own inability to knuckle down and stop using being in a band as an excuse to get drunk.
Big Black were another thing entirely. When I was a teenager, Big Black were the nasty, screwed-up band from the mid-West who hated you personally and wanted you to know it. Big Black were the one-stop shop for songs about all the unpleasant things in life. Mainman Steve Albini in particular had a particularly gnarly reputation; he deliberated set out to antagonise the liberal media and boy, did he succeed (to the extent that he went on to form the even more charmingly titled Rapeman). But, for one reason or another, I never really listened to any of their stuff.
So, during the opening bars of “Kerosene” I thought “Hey, what’s with the scratchy, funk-punk guitars? Maybe everyone was just getting their knickers in a twist and this lot were just a bunch of pussycats”. Then the churning drum machine kicked in, and the full horror of The World Of Big Black came into terrible view. Boy, is this one fucked up song. I’ve listened to Shellac, some of those hundreds of albums he’s produced, and even some Rapeman stuff, but nothing quite prepared me for how beautifully deranged this band were in their prime.
The lyrics start off with a fairly bog-standard moan about how life in a small town sucks, dude. But slowly the protagonist starts to unravel, starts going on about arson, and then goes downhill from there. As Albini said, there’s nothing much to do in small Mid-Western towns aside from sex and arson, so why not mix the two? The backing, a carefully calibrated and uncompromisingly nasty noise, thunders away quite unpleasantly, and much higher in the mix than on normal records. This is an Albini trademark, making you aurally squint to hear the words properly, sucking you into the dark world he’s created.
The guitars are all angular and scratchy, a sound made by using serrated metal picks for that fingernails-on-the-blackboard vibe. “Kerosene” is widely regarded as their finest moment; I’m not sure whether it’s going to make me explore more of their back catalogue or if I should just enjoy this track on its own and leave the rest of their material in the seething pit of hell it inhabits. Listening to this is like eating a very, very hot curry – a wonderful combination of pain, terror and a strange kind of pleasure.
Another point that’s worth making in these days of confusion is how Big Black ran themselves. No contracts, no managers, no rider on tour, not even a drumkit (their drummer “Roland” being a Roland TR-606 drum machine), so they could just drive round in a normal car to gigs. The idea behind all this was to make themselves as profitable as possible, and to not get involved in any kind of record label control:
We were committed to to a few basic principles: Treat everyone with as much respect as he deserves (and no more), Avoid people who appeal to our vanity or ambition (they always have an angle), Operate as much as possible apart from the “music scene” (which was never our stomping ground), and Take no shit from anyone in the process (Steve Albini)
Might be useful to keep that in mind. On the eve of releasing their second album (“Songs About Fucking”), the band started to break; mounting pressures within the band, partly caused by bassist Dave Riley’s heavy drinking, and with Albini deciding that he’d done all he could do with the music, he broke them up. Guitarist Santiago Durango went on to be a lawyer. As you do2. As for Albini himself, well, he’s gone onto become possibly the most idiosyncratic producer since Martin Hannett.
Now, Scratch Acid I’d never heard of before. When I first listened to “The Greatest Gift”, I thought that it sounded remarkably like Jesus Lizard and the likes of Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. The former is no shock; two of the band went on to form Jesus Lizard in 1989. As for the Blues Explosion, they dealt in the same kind of crazy, bluesy punk; lots of fun. At first I wondered why the hell this was here; after all, loads of other bands have dealt in the same kind of fucked-up noisy punk, and surely being one of Kurt Cobain’s wouldn’t be enough to include them. Then I realised – this lot were pioneers. Taking the psychobilly of The Cramps, mixing a good helping of Iggy and the Stooges and 13th Floor Elevators, their sound, ably demonstrated on “The Greatest Gift”, is one of delightedly screwed up noise.
Sometimes, even by being drunk and all messed up, you can be an original. The band split up, as bands do, and various members went on to form Rapeman with Steve Albini, Jesus Lizard, and all sorts of other bands, like some kind of mutating amoeba, spreading noise and weirdness wherever it went.
Next up, we’re back to the British Isles for a two-parter of some of the finest music on the whole list.
The rest of the Pitchfork articles are here.
1 For some reason, Pitchfork chose to chuck The Mekons in the middle of this sequence, followed by a bunch of British Indie Bands. To make for a more consistent set of articles, I’ve moved The Mekons to sit with JAMC, The Smiths etc in the next article.
2 Which is good, but still doesn’t beat James Williamson of The Stooges becoming a VP at Sony.