Chris Cornell – Feeling Minnesota

This isn’t a Chris Cornell obituary – just me trying to work out why, when I heard about his sad, sad death a couple of days ago it felt like such a kick in the teeth.

I’ve been listening to his music for more than 25 years. With Soundgarden he’s been responsible for some of my most listened-to songs of all time. Yet when I’ve been asked what sort of music I like and dutifully reeled off a list of band names, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned Soundgarden. They’ve been an ever-present, but never an obsession.

1990 was when it started. Someone lent me the Louder Than Love album with its iconic Charles Peterson photograph of a hair-flailing, bare-chested Chris Cornell on the cover. At that time my main jam was baggy, indie pop and Soundgarden just sounded like metal; which it pretty much was. Guitarist Kim Thayil described the sound they were aiming for as ‘Black Sabbath without the parts that suck’. Steady on there, Kim, that’s Sabbath you’re talking about!

Soundgarden Louder Than Love  Soundgarden_-_Badmotorfinger

The sound grew on me, as of course it did with a lot people at that time. Mudhoney’s garage fuzz was my main route into grunge, but 1991’s Badmotorfinger, and more specifically its three outstanding singles,  Jesus Christ Pose, Outshined and Rusty Cage, got me properly interested in Soundgarden for the first time.

Outshined included Cornell’s brilliant lyric, ‘I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota’. In interviews, the frontman with the Hollywood looks often alluded to the crippling agoraphobia and depression that he’d suffered as a teenager. Though music had been his saviour, this line showed that despite his growing success, he never felt that his problems were behind him.

TempleOfTheDog

I loved the Temple of the Dog album that came about after the death of Cornell’s close friend Andrew Wood. The Mother Love Bone singer ‘s overdose was an epochal event for Cornell and, despite it prompting a dive into serious drug and alcohol dependency, he formed the side-project band as a tribute. The album featured the grunge classics Say Hello 2 HeavenHunger Strike and Pushin Forward Back. It was about this time that I started to notice that Chris Cornell could really fucking sing. Strangely, it was his backing singing to Eddie Vedder’s lead on Hunger Strike that particularly brought this fact home for me.

As Soundgarden became more popular than ever in the mid ’90s – despite the demise of grunge following Kurt’s death – I’d tune in to them from time to time. They were the kind of band whose CDs I’d buy in the HMV sale. Black Hole Sun is now being put forward as their masterpiece, but I think they did better stuff in this period; The Day I Tried To LiveBurden In My Hand and Pretty Noose, the title of which has now taken on a tragic new context.

After Soundgarden, Chris Cornell seemed to become more active than ever with Audioslave, solo work and various collaborations. He married, had children and began a charitable foundation. He got himself clean and apparently remained so. When Soundgarden reformed in 2010 and started putting out new material it was heartwarming – a major band from the dominant and most exciting music scene of my teenage years was up and running again, and the singer barely looked a day older, despite the passing of two decades.

On Thursday, when Soundgarden were trending on Twitter and I clicked the hashtag, I was expecting to maybe see a UK tour announcement. ‘Chris Cornell dead aged 52’. Fucking what? Fucking WHAT? Another link to my youth, gone. And this was someone who’d negotiated addictions and a notoriously morbid music scene, apparently unscathed. He’d grown up, become a family man, gained huge respect as an artist, was clean, sober and busier than ever. Surely he was out of danger? People speculated that maybe it was a heart attack – a consequence of those years of addiction, maybe? Later came the suicide confirmation.

Tragically, 25 years on, Chris Cornell was looking California and still feeling Minnesota.

There can’t be many better illustrations of how devastating mental illness can be than this. If Chris Cornell, a lavishly talented, impossibly good-looking, artistically respected, incredibly successful rock superstar with a loving family can’t cope with life, what chance does anyone else have?

I’ve lost other friends to suicide. I know how senseless and devastating it is and how any apparent positives don’t seem to count for anything. It might be that that’s the aspect of Chris Cornell’s death that’s hit me so hard. It’s such a waste.

chris cornell

 

 

Millhouse – Indie Music Mentor

 

In many ways the early-nineties was a simpler time – when it came to finding new music, it was much more complicated. There was an abundance of ridiculously good material just waiting to be discovered, but pre-internet, navigating the musical underground was hard. To hear music that didn’t get played on the radio you had to be in the same room as the record or the band themselves. These days you can check out a Tokyo djent band on your fucking phone. Having a friend who knew stuff already helped a lot. Enter Millhouse* – indie music Sherpa; human Google; sonic oracle.

High Fidelity.png

Me and Millhouse were in the same school year but we moved in different circles. He was an academic high flyer with a serious appearance – he didn’t seem like a lot of fun. It was only in the last couple of years at school, when I started playing football with Sean, a kid from another school who’d known Millhouse for years, that we started talking. We had a mutual friend and our lunch breaks coincided so we started eating our sandwiches together.

Despite his studious appearance, he turned out to be alright – interesting, well-informed and pretty funny. This was in the heyday of the pre-YouTube home movie show You’ve Been Framed, when Jeremy Beadle hosted it in front of a studio audience, and we bonded over our shared enjoyment of that show. But Millhouse’s main thing was music – he could talk about it endlessly. I was vaguely interested in The Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, having seen them on Top Of The Pops, but he’d already delved well beyond that and he became a kind of indie music mentor.

Millhouse introduced me to a lot of bands that I still love. The first mix tape he gave me had The Wedding Present, Primal Scream, Spacemen 3 and the Pixies on it. I heard Nirvana for the first time at his house (the Sliver 12″) and Butthole Surfers (Hurdy Gurdy Man) and Sonic Youth (Kool Thing). He pointed me in the direction of John Peel and showed me where to find Birmingham’s independent record stores – Frank’s Wild Records, Tempest, Plastic Factory and Swordfish.

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all types of music, partly thanks to his parents’ vinyl collection, which spanned Neil Young, The Beatles, Stones, James Brown, Bowie and The Doors. My parents were much more sociable and fun than his, but their LP collection stretched to Barry Manilow, Nana Maskouri and the Grease soundtrack. It’s fair to say that Millhouse had a head start on me.

JOHN PEEL EADT 20 10 05

With a lot of effort, I got my knowledge up near his level. I’d listen to Peel nightly with a C90 cassette primed and ready to go, read Melody Maker from cover to cover every week and send away for fanzines – preferably ones with demo tapes included. Any earnings from my weekend job that I didn’t spend on booze I spent on vinyl. Millhouse, being too studious to have a weekend job, envied my disposable income and the boost it gave to my record collection.

It wasn’t just indie; this was a phenomenal time for many genres – electronic music was getting more diverse, sophisticated and interesting, hip-hop was in its golden age, and even metal was beginning to pull itself out of its eighties, poodle-haired nadir. We explored all of that and the psychedelia, punk, metal and funk of previous decades. The weirder and more obscure it was, the better.

charlie-brown

We went to dozens of gigs. We saw Nirvana, The Fall, Mudhoney, Carter USM, Iggy Pop, Spiritualized, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth, along with loads more great bands who were never quite destined to make it, like Bleach, Silverfish, Senseless Things and Jacob’s Mouse. We’d also check out local bands whose only realistic ambition was to release a demo tape. It didn’t matter that these bands were usually shit because we got to exploit the confusion that existed between the venue’s door staff and bar staff about who should be checking gig-goers’ ages before serving them alcoholic beverages. Sometimes other people would come along to these gigs with us – sometimes even girls! – but I would guess that it’s only recently that my wife has overtaken Millhouse as the person I’ve been to most gigs with.

We didn’t get on great all the time, Millhouse and me. He could be really irritating. When playing you something new from his record collection he would stare at you intently throughout and elicit a considered response the second the song finished.  He was mean too – I never saw him happier than when he came away from a bar with change for a £20 when he’d only handed over a fiver for his drink. He had a habit of bullshitting shamelessly, making up stories to make him appear more interesting, even if it made me look worse. But kids that age can be arseholes – like when Millhouse passed out drunk at a party and I tried to make him piss himself by putting his hand in a bowl of cold water. Didn’t work; he just woke up. Should’ve used warm water.

Me and Millhouse lost touch around the age of 20. After we went to university we’d meet up occasionally but we were heading down different paths. In the end he cut his hair short in anticipation of monetising his abilities, qualifications, personal motivation and ruthless bullshitting ability. Meanwhile I dropped out of my course in order to remain committed to a grunge/slacker aesthetic and following the path of least resistance. I think Millhouse ended up doing really well for himself and I don’t begrudge him that at all. I wouldn’t have discovered half as much great music or seen as many amazing bands without his guidance. We were always quite different characters but we had a blast discovering, no DEVOURING the music that I’ve enjoyed ever since. Cheers, Millhouse.

*Millhouse isn’t his real name. I doubt he’ll ever read this blog, but you know, I get a pseudonym so it’s only fair that he should too. This is despite the fact that his real name is perfect for him – slightly nerdy and comical without being ridiculous. It took a while to think of a suitable alternative. Millhouse suits him.

Pixies, Live 2016 – Still dealing in magic

The Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr & Blur – ‘Rollercoaster’ 1992

 

 

 

 

Product 2378 – The soundtrack to my paper round

Product 2378 was a 1990 indie compilation on the abysmal (and now defunct) Telstar label – home of Black Lace, Engelbert Humperdinck and Des O’Connor. All the songs on it were from the previous decade and its cover image is a photograph of a kettle. Altogether it’s an unpromising looking little package, but this cassette was one of my first indie music purchases and it meant a lot to me. And just take a look at the track listing;

Side One

  1. The Wonder Stuff – Who Wants To Be The Disco King?
  2. New Order – Vanishing Point
  3. The Jesus & Mary Chain – Head On
  4. The Wedding Present – Kennedy
  5. Pop Will Eat Itself – Can U Dig It?
  6. Happy Mondays – Mad Cyril
  7. New Model Army – Brave New World
  8. The Weather Prophets – Almost Prayed

Side Two

  1. Morrissey – The Last Of The Famous International Playboys
  2. Siouxsie & The Banshees – Peek-A-Boo
  3. Pixies – Monkey Gone To Heaven
  4. Inspiral Carpets – Joe
  5. Crazyhead – Baby Turpentine
  6. Throwing Muses – Dizzy
  7. All About Eve – December
  8. The Mission – Tower Of Strength

That’s a strong collection of songs, roughly covering a variety of contemporary UK scenes;

  • C86 – The Wedding Present and The Weather Prophets
  • Goth – Siouxsie & The Banshees, All About Eve, The Mission
  • Post-Punk – The Jesus & Mary Chain, New Model Army, Crazyhead
  • Manchester – Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, New Order
  • Stourbridge – The Wonder Stuff, Pop Will Eat Itself

It also featured a couple of excellent American contributions (Pixies, Throwing Muses) and one from Morrissey, who was really beyond any sort of scene by then.

Looking back now, it’s a pretty good summary of the state of indie music at that time. If you dropped two or three of the lesser lights from the line-up (no need to embarrass them by naming them, we all know who they are) and added a My Bloody Valentine track and something off Sub Pop, it would be perfect.

For me Product 2378 will forever be associated with the paper round I had between the ages of 13 and 16. It wasn’t a hard core, get-up-before-dawn-every-single-day paper round, it was an evening one, delivering a free newspaper once a week. This sounds pathetically easy, but it meant delivering to every single house on an estate near mine – about 200 papers in all.

Every Tuesday the papers would be dropped off at to my house in two bundles by a nervous looking middle-aged bloke with a moustache. It wasn’t possible to carry all 200 papers at once, so I’d put one bundle in my canvas bag and trudge off into the night. 100 papers are heavy – the strap seams would cut me like a knife. Once these were safely delivered an hour or so later I’d go home, fetch the rest and trudge back out.

Sometimes, as I hauled my heavy burden around, I would think about the kid in the arcade game Paperboy, gliding down Easy Street on his bike, lobbing papers into or near post-boxes and I’d laugh to myself bitterly. Even if I could have balanced on a bike with a bag that weighed nearly as much as me, I had to deliver to an estate full of semi-detached houses, so there was nowhere to make use of one. And my customers expected their papers to go in their letterboxes, not on their doorstep.

It was hard work. The main thing that kept me going – apart from the prospect of earning up to £5, plus an extra quid if there was an advertising leaflet to be delivered as well – was wearing my Walkman.

In the early days De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising was a favourite tape for the ordeal (that album’s also indelibly linked with my paper round), later it was mix tapes either made by mates or by me from listening to John Peel. You know how that would go – let the man introduce the track, hit record and decide 20 seconds in whether it was wonderful or unlistenable. Either that or find out it was played at the wrong speed. But Product 2378 got more plays on that round than anything else.

Each song on the tape is associated with a section of the route, from The Wonder Stuff – helpfully upbeat for the opening few houses when the bag was at its heaviest – to The Mission for the walk home after a job well done.

I was listening to Mad Cyril when I saw a woman in a pink, quilted dressing gown let my best mate’s dad into her house, lead him upstairs, put the bedroom light on and shut the curtains. Obviously I told my mate about this the second I saw him at school the next day. The explanation he got from his dad was that he went round to play snooker with the woman’s husband in their spare bedroom. Yeah, right! “But best not mention it to your mum, she hates me playing snooker”.

I was listening to Joe by Inspiral Carpets when some fat old bastard threatened to kick my juvenile arse for walking across his grass. Each week I’d have a little wrestle with the Jack Russell that would snatch the paper from the other side of the letterbox to the sound of Can U Dig It? by Pop Will Eat Itself.

In three years of doing that round I received one, solitary tip – 50p from a friend of my mum’s one Christmas. Possibly satisfied customers were constantly calling me post-delivery waving fivers and I just couldn’t hear because I was singing along to Monkey Gone To Heaven. Probably not.

The nervous looking bloke who dropped the papers off at my house was understandably crushed when I quit my round at the age of 16. He asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to take it over. When I told him I didn’t his moustache trembled fearfully. Maybe whichever media baron ultimately owned that shitty periodical oversaw a regime in which undelivered papers were punished with broken limbs. It wouldn’t surprise me.

I was moving on to take up a Saturday job which was less badly paid, less physically demanding and more likely to allow my spine to develop as God intended. It would also allow me to save up for a record player, and once I had it, almost all my money from this job went on vinyl. The only trouble was it was paid monthly, like I was a regular employee. So I’d always spend every penny in one joyous record shopping trip every four weeks and be skint for the rest of the month. It was great though.

So as my career blossomed, so did my listening choices and Product 2378 got fewer and fewer plays. But to this day, whenever I hear the ‘yeah, yeah, yeahs’ fading out at the end of Head On I still expect to hear the 100mph opening bars of Kennedy immediately after, and Peek-A-Boo after The Last Of The Famous International Playboys and so on – it’s one of those albums. I know all the words to every song on it. And I actually like the cover image too. Kudos, Telstar. You have a lot to be ashamed of but Product 2378 was pretty cool.

‘Head On’ by The Jesus & Mary Chain covered by Pixies – Magnificent Cover Version No.16

‘Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’ by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, covered by The Wedding Present – Magnificent Cover Version No.4

‘When Tomorrow Hits’ by Mudhoney, covered by Spacemen 3 – Magnificent Cover Version No.22

The Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr & Blur – ‘Rollercoaster’ 1992

 

 

 

‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath, covered by Alice Donut – Magnificent Cover Version No.13

OK, truth is Alice Donut’s rendition of War Pigs may not be an improvement on the original. It might not technically be a cover version at all; more a reimagining or a tribute – a bit like Butthole Surfers’ cover of another Black Sabbath classic, Sweet Leaf. It’s obscure, funny and endearingly daft though. Endearingly Daft Cover Version No.1.

The track is a highlight of their 1991 album Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent which I acquired on a record buying trip decades ago for three reasons:

  1. Melody Maker had described Alice Donut as a “paranoid, darkly psychedelic hardcore band”, which sounded good to me.
  2. It was released on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label.
  3. It was called Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent; a superb title.

I’d never heard anything by Alice Donut before buying this album, but sometimes in life, you just have to take a chance and speculate £8.99 of your Saturday job money on a record by a band you think you might like. Tellingly, I never bought anything else by Alice Donut. But, then again, this record survived the cull my record collection endured in the lean years when I first got my own place.

It seems like Revenge Fantasies… wasn’t the best place to start with Alice Donut. The Melody Maker article quoted above recommended 1992’s The Untidy Suicides Of Your Degenerate Children as Donut’s best album. Listening to some more of the band’s output now, they might have been right. Untidy Suicides from that album is particularly good, especially if you like to hear a cowbell used in a song, which I do. Their 1989 album Bucketfulls Of Sickness And Horror In An Otherwise Meaningless Life might also have been a better introduction to the band, judging by this excellent tune, My Life Is A Mediocre Piece Of Shit.

At this point we ought to pause and reflect on some of the outstanding song titles that Alice Donut have used. We’ve already had Untidy Suicides and My Life Is A Mediocre Piece Of Shit, but their repertoire also includes:

  • Testosterone Gone Wild
  • Cow’s Placenta To Armageddon
  • She Loves You She Wants You It’s Amazing How Much Head Wounds Bleed
  • My Best Friend’s Wife
  • The Son Of A Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects On His Life While Getting Stoned In The Parking Lot Of A Winn Dixie Listening To Metallica
  • Madonna’s Bombing Sarajevo

Clearly, this is a band with a tremendous talent for naming songs.

Alice Donut band shot

Anyway, the War Pigs cover itself is an abbreviated, slightly stilted rendition of Black Sabbath’s best song (some people prefer Paranoid; they’re wrong) with the main difference being that the vocals have been replaced with brass instruments. Lines like ‘Evil minds that plot destruction’ are given powerful new resonance when farted out on a trombone, as you can imagine. While the original clocks in at nearly eight minutes, this one is all over in under three.

It turns out that Alice Donut had used this same formula since, with a live cover of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter, and they’ve used it since to cover the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind. Somehow, the AD version of the Pixies song, with trombones replacing vocals, works really well. In fact it’s quite a bit better than their version of War Pigs.

Of course what should happen now is that I should replace Alice Donut’s version of War Pigs as a Magnificent Cover Version with Where Is My Mind and rewrite all the stuff above. However, this is a blog not an academic paper, so instead I’m going to make this unprecedented move:

‘Where Is My Mind’ by Pixies, covered by Alice Donut –

Magnificent Cover Version No.13, part b

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So, there you go – two cover versions for the price of one. Alice Donut’s War Pigs wasn’t as good as I remembered, but they’re a much better band than I thought, with a penchant for performing songs in a rare punk/brass fusion and a wide selection of evocative song titles.

Alice Donut’s website  is www.alicedonut.com. It’s still publicising a show in Paris in 2014 so it looks like they’re currently inactive. Their Twitter feed tells a similar story.

 

‘Kick Out The Jams’ by MC5 covered by Rage Against The Machine – Magnificent Cover Version No.25

‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk covered by Big Black – Magnificent Cover Version No.17

 

Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine covering ‘Rent’ by The Pet Shop Boys – Magnificent Cover Version No.7

Carter USM did a lot of cover versions – most 12″s they released came with at least one, and loads of them were really good too. Highlights include Everybody’s Happy Nowadays by The Buzzcocks, Bedsitter by Soft Cell, Down In The Tube Station At Midnight by The Jam and This Is How It Feels by Inspiral Carpets. Their version of Alternate Title by The Monkees was a personal favourite, but Rent, the B-side to the 1990 single Rubbish, is widely held to be Carter’s classic cover version.

Carter used to cite Pet Shop Boys as one of their key influences, along with The Clash. At one time Carter’s merchandise included a t-shirt featuring a photo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe with the words ‘But Harder’ underneath. Safe to say they had t-shirts that sold a lot better.

Pet Shop Boys’ original version of Rent is a nice enough tune – a lightweight, synth-pop affair with a drum machine sounds that seems dated, even for 1987 – but it’s not up with the best efforts of their heyday like West End Girls, Opportunities and It’s A Sin.

Carter’s cover speeds it up, piles on the guitars and samples and brings it roaring to life, releasing the song’s potential and ramping up the drama of the subject matter. They even play with the lyrics to suit their style; the ‘restaurant on Broadway’ becomes, the ‘restaurant on Fulham Broadway’ – altering the one aspect of the song that doesn’t seem like it’s written for them. It’s an absolutely inspired cover.

Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine were the first out-of-town band that I saw at my local music venue. I was 15 and had been going there for a few months, having initially been attracted by the opportunity to exploit the confusion that existed between door staff and bar staff as to whose responsibility it was to check the IDs of drinkers.

I’d never heard them before but their name rang a bell from the gig guide in Melody Maker. This wasn’t long after the release of 101 Damnations, so well before they were getting good coverage. Me and Millhouse took a chance, knowing that if the band were shit we’d be able to get a couple of pints of Skol anyway.

They were really fucking great. There were only two of them on the tiny stage and they were weird looking – one of them was tall and bony with a ponytail at the front of his head; the other wore a cap and shorts, like a Day-Glo Angus Young  – but they really went for it. There can’t have been more than 50 people at the gig but they played with total conviction from start to finish, coming to the front of the foot-high stage to sing, then surging backwards in unison, bent-double, slashing away at their sticker-covered guitars.

They had loads of great punk-pop songs, all beefed-up with drum machines and samples. They totally hooked me straight away – not just into their music, but into punk/indie/guitar/live music in general. Carter USM became my new favourite band and remained it for at least a couple of years.

I saw them a lot of times after that – at clubs around the country, high on the bill at festivals and at their spiritual home, The Brixton Academy. And whenever I saw them, these two weird looking guys with their backing track, they always gave a great show like they did from the start.

carter

‘Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’ by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, covered by The Wedding Present – Magnificent Cover Version No.4