Trashed! The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground & Nico is undoubtedly one of the most influential LPs of all time. Released in 1967 as the band’s debut album, it launched the long careers of Lou Reed, John Cale and Moe Tucker.

It has become an enduring icon and a phenomenon. It initially sold only 30,000 copies, but has been certified platinum in the UK since. Brian Eno famously said that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”.

The Velvet Underground & Nico is the 13th best album of all time, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, behind only artists like The Beatles, Stones, The Beach Boys, Elvis, Miles Davis and Dylan. Pitchfork rates it as the best album of the 60s. NME puts it third. The Observer rated it at number one in a list of albums that changed music and everyone, EVERYONE since has cited it as an influence.

But of course, not everyone likes it. And some of those who don’t have kindly spent some time providing considered and informed counter-arguments to all the glowing reviews on Amazon.

In fact there are A LOT of negative reviews. They can be roughly divided into three categories:

  1. Reviews by The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed fans who don’t rate this album
  2. Reviews by people who dislike the Velvet Underground.
  3. Reviews by people who hate The Velvet Underground and refuse to believe that anyone else really likes them either

Velvet Underground.jpg

So, let’s have a quick scoot through categories 1 and 2 before we get to the one that’s the most fun – category 3.

1. Reviews by VU/Lou Reed fans who don’t rate this album

PP considers Lou Reed’s Transformer to be a “masterpiece” while The Velvet Underground & Nico is mainly dreadful”, virtually tuneless rubbish and, in a meaningless reference to the album’s sleeve art, “definitely a banana skin”.

BBB5 also reckons Reed is a brilliant solo artist”, but just can’t see many people, in the 21st century, listening to this album and finding it a pleasurable experience”, because it’s “a pile of junk” and “nothing more than Andy Warhol’s joke, and he’s laughing at us all from beyond the grave!”.

Another, Anonymous reviewer reaches a similar conclusion. He/she grudgingly concedes that Lou Reed’s “talent developed gradually and is only slightly in evidence here” and that TVU&N is influential, but suggests that that’s the only reason people own it.

He/she then ponders:

“How much owners of this formerly obscure artifact from an excessive era really do listen to it? I mean even those owners who profess to be passionately devoted to it. I doubt very often.”

Any idea? Don’t worry, Anonymous isn’t going to leave that question hanging:

“I doubt very often. I imagine very seldom.”

So now you know.

2. Reviews by people who dislike The Velvet Underground

Typical for this category is this Anonymous reviewer:

“A good example of an album which is overrated to a degree that is surreal. One suspects that this has little to do with the music, and more to do with the mind set of the overrater [sic] on first hearing it.”

He/she doesn’t bother to explain what he/she meant by that second sentence before going on to criticise the singing, musicianship and compositions. But then, judging by the fact that the review is nonsensically titled “overrated overhyped overhere [sic]”, this reviewer just likes putting words together without worrying too much about what they mean.

JF describes it as “Tedious and limited” and ponders, “How this ever achieved cult status is a miracle”. For B, it’s “more about the cover than the music”.

WW is also unimpressed:

“After reading reviews in Amazon and references in Rolling Stone, I was sure I was going to love this album. I didn’t. It was poorly engineered, consisted mostly of disorganized sounds and didn’t seem to have any redeeming features.”

…but philosophical:

“On the bright side, it wasn’t very inexpensive, so my experience didn’t cost much.”

For AFABR, writing in 2005, it’s just too damn old:

“This was a classic in its day. Listning [sic] to this album in 2005 is truly painfull [sic]..it’s almost 40 years old. You do the rest of the math…..”

Meanwhile, PP doesn’t care about its age, just that it’s “virtually tuneless rubbish”. DB calls it “dated”, another Anonymous reviewer says “musically it is not up to scratch” and PM confesses to finding it “interesting but not my cup of tea”, which is fair and reasonable, but not as much fun as those in the next category…

3. Reviews by people who hate The Velvet Underground and refuse to believe that anyone else really likes them either

In his review of TVU&N, titled “The most over rated band/album of all time”, JC explains:

“This is the most self-indulgent of all albums.”

Before taking a deep breath and blurting out:

“It just has enough pretentiousness about it to be one of those things that people who want to appear cool and ‘with it’ will band about in conversations like they have this hidden knowledge of music and that these awful bunch of albums in some way define them as being more music obsessed more music knowledgeable and more ‘cool’ than you.”

Picture poor JC, constantly put down by pretentious Velvet Underground fans. He can’t take it anymore! He snaps:

“The only reason any C thinks it is a classic is because when your [sic] stoned off your Ts it probably does sound profane and remarkable but otherwise in the real world with a cup of tea maybe it just doesn’t have the same impact.”

No doubt he means profound rather than profane, but you’ll have to guess what he means by ‘C’ and ‘Ts’. He concludes his ranted review by saying “I’ve got proper music to be listening to”. Let’s hope he had that cup of tea and calmed himself down after writing this.

But there’s certainly no shortage of reviewers who agree with him. Like BD, who wrote this one-star review in 2007:

“VU remain amongst the darlings of the average bo-bo pseudo-intellectual, an acquired taste handed down from generation to generation.”

Not sure what he means by “bo-bo”? But BD obviously believes he’s seen through the hype. As does this Anonymous reviewer in 2001:

“This album is one of those records that is bought by sophomores in college who want to look cool. It is soooo avant-garde and so hip to buy an album all the other cool people say that you should have.”

Along the same lines is EF, ranting in 2006:

“I don’t understand why this band is so revered, and why it’s almost a necessity in certain social circles to pretend you like this band if you really don’t. This is not for listening to, this is for displaying on your shelf so you can look cool in front of your hipster doofus friends.”

SW, writing in 2004 is similarly nonplussed:

“For all of the hushed, awed appraisals of the 1967 VU release “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” I really doubt that anyone truly enjoys this album–those who claim to are simply falling victim to “Well-I-guess-I’m-supposed-to-like-this” syndrome.”

Finally, there’s SMR’s review, and subsequent debacle, which might shed some light on this whole ‘pretentiousness’ issue. In 2014, SMR wrote:

“There’s nothing in the world worse than people striving to be “avant-garde” It invariably leads to suffocating pretentiousness (like this junk). I truly believe that deep-down many of those who praise this album to the high-heavens are doing so to be “fashionable” and “more sophisticated”—it makes them somehow “superior” to us average bourgeois slobs with no “taste”—-YUCK…BARF!!”

This prompted RH to step in and take issue. He replied to SMR’s comment to point out:

“The Velvets practically created so many genres that it’s unbelievable. The Doors wouldn’t exist without them, nor would a good majority of the bands that have come out since.”

Predictably, SMR doesn’t like The Doors either. He replied that “the ‘mythologizing’ of Jim Morrison and The Doors has gone beyond the absurd”, but concedes that “they had a unique dramatic quality”.

Then comes a twist, with a third participant, G, coming out of nowhere to stick his oar in. He takes issue with both SMR’s dislike for The Velvet Underground and any tolerance for The Doors, replying to these comments with this pompous and ridiculously optimistic plea:

“But you do understand that the Doors suck, right? By all means like their music but at the same time wrap your mind around the fact that they are a pretty terrible group. I hope you do the opposite of that with VU. While understanding the music is not to your taste realize that they made great music and were one of the few truly watershed artists of the 1960s.”

Got that? So G will condescendingly allow you to enjoy The Doors, but insists that you must acknowledge that they’re shit. You must also concede that The Velvet Underground’s music was objectively great, whether you like it or not. G, who let’s remember, no one was talking to in the first place, has come blundering on to the scene to declare himself the unarguable arbiter of good musical taste.

Maybe it’s people like G that are the problem? Maybe all these negative reviewers are lashing out at the Velvet Underground because they’re sick of being lectured on them by dicks like G. If so, I can’t say I blame them.

Trashed! ‘Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine

Trashed! The Pixies

Trashed! ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’

Advertisements

Pixies, Live – still dealing in magic

pixies-academy

Pixies at the Academy, Birmingham, UK – 8th December 2016

Of all the bands I’d never seen, the Pixies were the one that meant the most to me. They were one of the first bands I fell in love with and Bossanova was the first album I bought on vinyl –  Pilgrim, Surfer and, Doolittle followed soon after. Other bands came and went over the years, but Pixies remained constant. They were special. They were one of those rare groups whose sound was so distinctive and uplifting that they seemed to be dealing in magic rather than music.

I was meant to see them on the Bossanova tour in 1990. Millhouse and a few other mates went and I would have been there too, but girl trouble intervened. If I’d know then that I wouldn’t get another chance to see them for 26 years, I might have been prepared to let that trouble get a little deeper. Finally, this year, I had the opportunity to witness the Pixies live, a quarter of a century later; that’s only three albums though, which doesn’t sound so bad.


pixies-bossanova

In the days of Bossanova I was a child. In the days of Head Carrier I’m technically an adult with children of my own. When the tickets came on sale I bought four, thinking that those children might want to come with me and Mrs NoiseCrumbs for their first gig – and if they didn’t, I knew plenty of people who would take the tickets off me.

“Hey, I’ve got Pixies tickets for December. You want to come with us?”

“What do the Pixies do?”

“Er, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Wave Of Mutilation, Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons. Loads of things.

Dunno, maybe.”

Snakes. You know Snakes?”

“Oh yeah, alright then.”

They’ve been properly indoctrinated, they know their whole catalogue, even if they don’t know the song names, but they love Snakes and its video.


 

It’s not the same seeing a band so long after their heyday (and yours) is it? Especially when the original line-up isn’t complete and you know they’ll probably not play all the songs that you love the most and even if they do they’ll resent it. So prior to the gig, I was extraordinarily excited, just not quite expecting to experience the unrestrained elation that was once a feature of seeing a favourite band.

But this is the Pixies – they’re different. They’re special. And when they took to the stage, spitting distance away, and smashed out the opening chords to River Euphrates – a song you’ve loved for a lifetime – played like you’ve never heard it before, to you, your children and 3000 people who love the Pixies like you do, well it was just joyous. My sons, 12 and 13 years-old were awed and thrilled by it too, like I hoped they would be, and later they were singing along to Monkey Gone to Heaven and Tame and Here Comes Your Man. It was emotional.

It seemed like, as a live band, they were still in their heyday. Charles was one minute screaming away as if trying to tear his lungs to ribbons, next minute crooning and la la-ing sweetly as they remorselessly ripped through their discography (with no hint of resentment). The band didn’t utter a single word to the crowd between songs, but we didn’t care because there was a lot get through and a limited time to get through it. Charles did have a little joke with David Lovering on La La Love You though, keeping on playing his guitar part at the end, over and over to keep the drummer singing.

They seemed like a happy, contented band, and that must be partly due to Paz. Paz isn’t Kim, but she doesn’t need to be. She’s a wonderful musician and vocalist with immense stage presence and the rest of the Pixies obviously love playing with her. Any band would miss Kim’s charisma, but Paz brings plenty of her own, and it never felt like a ‘Pixies-lite’.

pixies-logo

We didn’t get to hear Gigantic – presumably out of respect to Kim – but we did get most of the songs we loved, with tracks from Come On Pilgrim (Caribou, Nimrod’s Son), Surfer Rosa (Bone Machine, Where Is My Mind?), most of Doolittle some highlights from Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde (Ana, Rock Music, Planet of Sound, U-Mass) and most of Head Carrier. We also got a ferocious version of Head On and the UK Surf version of Wave of Mutilation, which I’ve always preferred to the original, so it nearly brought a tear my eye. There was nothing at all from Indie Cindy though; so no Snakes, sorry kids. I got them both a bootleg t-shirt to compensate.

After finishing with a rendition of Debaser that finally sent everyone fully delirious, Charles, Joey, David and Paz took the avid applause and encored with the brilliant Into the White, while pumping the Academy so full of dry ice that we couldn’t say whether they were playing it from the stage or the dressing room. It was a fantastic finale and a wonderful, wonderful gig.


Of all the bands I’ve seen, the Pixies are one of those that’s meant the most to me. They really aren’t like other bands – even now, they’re capable of eliciting unrestrained elation from their original fans and their new ones with their still distinctive and still scintillating sound. Twenty-six years after I fell for them, they’re still dealing in magic.


Epilogue: During the course of the evening my boys, for reasons even they probably wouldn’t be able to explain, rechristened the band members. From now on, they’re known in our house as, “Bobby Bee, Jimmy Gee, Flamingo Pete and Babyface Syd”. They didn’t say who was who, but I think it’s pretty obvious.

Below, the Pixies: Bobby Bee, Jimmy Gee, Flamingo Pete, Babyface Syd, a stuffed wolf.

pixies-2016-cropped

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

I had never seen this record sleeve before. Isn’t it horrible? It’s the mighty Big Black imitating Kraftwerk. Left to right, Steve Albini, Santiago Durango, Dave Riley.

In 1987 Big Black released their cover of The Model as a B-Side to another cover, He’s A Whore by Cheap Trick (they imitated Cheap Trick on the front cover). It was their last single. Both songs also appeared on the CD version of Big Black’s final album, Songs About Fucking, but only The Model made it onto the vinyl release, and that’s where I know this song from.

bb-hes-a

Big Black were an amazing band – powerful, shocking, thought-provoking and funny. They’d finished by the time I discovered them but I was a big fan before Steve Albini started really making his name by recording The Breeders and Nirvana. I bought Atomizer – the earlier, better album –  Millhouse bought Songs About Fucking and we each taped our copy for the other.

As a child, Albini was compelled to move from town to town by his father’s work – Albini senior was apparently a rocket scientist. Skinny, sarcastic and smart-arsed, the young Albini seldom made a good impression at new schools and he had few friends. He credits bands like the Ramones, Stooges, Suicide and Television for getting him through high school. While recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19 he taught himself to play the bass.

On enrolling at college in Chicago in 1980, Albini immersed himself in the city’s active punk scene, becoming a devoted fan of local heroes Naked Raygun and attending their gigs religiously. He began broadcasting on college radio and writing a monthly column entitled Tired of Ugly Fat? for a Chicago fanzine. Through these media he began to gain notoriety for the witty but venomous broadsides he’d aim at characters in the scene – this reputation would only build over the years. Here are some of his words of wisdom:

  • Albini on the Pixies – “a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.”
  • Albini on Mudhoney – “it’s silly how great they think they are. It’s almost offensive to me.”
  • Albini on Courtney Love – “psycho hose beast.”
  • Albini on Al Jourgensen – “I’ll cut your balls off and sew them shut in your mouth.”

His column and radio work split opinion and gave him a profile in the music scene, but what he really wanted was to make his own music. After unsuccessfully attempting to get the sound he wanted with a couple of short-lived groups, self-sufficient Albini bought himself a drum machine and a guitar and borrowed a four-track for a week.

the-hammer-party

The result of this endeavour would become Big Black’s debut EP Lungs. These days Albini apparently hates the Lungs EP – “It just makes my flesh crawl. I can’t listen to that record anymore” – but it sounds fucking good to me, particularly the opener Steelworker (“I’m a steelworker, I kill what I eat. Great big thing crawling all over me”). It lacks the ferocious power of Big Black’s later output, but it’s fantastically unsettling and possesses a video nasty-era sense of impending violence. It later formed the first side of The Hammer Party album, which you should definitely own.

In 1982, at the point that 1,500 copies of Lungs were released on Ruthless Records, Big Black still consisted of Albini and his drum machine – Roland. The release of Lungs helped Albini to entice guitarist Santiago Durango and bass player Jeff Pezzati of his beloved Naked Raygun to join him and Roland, turning Big Black into an actual band.

The new line-up’s first studio output was the Bulldozer EP, which took the template established in Lungs – exploring dark, sordid themes to an accompaniment of drum machine beats and jagged, unconventional guitar sounds – and turned it up several notches. Cables was about bored kids sneaking into a slaughterhouse to watch the action; Pigeon Kill was about a town-wide pigeon cull utilising poisoned corn, while the opening sample on Seth is an horrific rant from a white supremacist. Overall the sound, the ideas and the riffs on Bulldozer set it apart from its predecessor – Texas is a highlight – and it represents a big leap forward for Big Black. Bulldozer would become the second side of The Hammer Party.

The Racer X EP followed – featuring the excellent Deep Six – but it was after that, when Dave Riley replaced Jeff Pezzati on bass that Big Black really took shape. Riley had previously worked at a recording studio in Detroit that had been frequented by Sly Stone and George Clinton and he brought an element of funk to the group that complemented it, against all logic, and helped to define its later output, the high watermark of which was their 1986 debut album Atomizer.

big-black-atomizer

Atomizer sees Big Black trawling up pulp legends from the darkest depths of small town America and setting them to music that’s sometimes so abrasive it hurts. Bazooka Joe is an upbeat ditty about a desensitised Vietnam veteran putting his numbness to violence to profitable use, Bad Houses is about an individual’s compulsion to do “bad things…even when the thrill is seldom worth the degradation”. Jordan, Minnesota is a deeply unsettling tune about child abuse while Kerosene opens with a guitar riff reminiscent of grotesquely warped church bell chimes and famously references a small town resident who combines his twin loves of sex and arson.

Albini enjoys himself in the sleeve notes, enigmatically describing each little horror story masquerading as a song and crediting the band as “Dave Riley: bass, flyswatters”, Santiago Durango: “train guitar”, Steve Albini: “rocket guitar”, Roland: “Roland”. The combination of macabre subject matter, dark humour, relentlessness and sheer power tapped a vein in underground circles, sparking myriad bad imitations and elevating them to new levels of popularity.

big-black-songs

By the time Big Black recorded their next LP, Songs About Fucking in 1987, they’d already announced their intention to split. The stated reason was that they didn’t want to outstay their welcome, but Durango’s decision to start law school may have been a catalyst. Songs About Fucking – its ironic title derived from Albini’s often-stated bemusement at love and romance having become music’s default subject matter – sees Big Black treading similar territory to Atomizer, and it’s another fine album. Kasimir S. Pulaski Day and Bad Penny are among the best things that they ever recorded, but the cover of Kraftwerk’s The Model is the standout track for me. The band take the kitsch euro-pop of the original and explode every aspect of it. Dave Riley turns the bassline into a monster, backed in the rhythm section by the ever hard-thumping Roland. Santiago Durango’s guitar is shrill and piercing, like a dentist’s drill, while the lyrics, in Albini’s distorted voice, suddenly seem threatening – Kraftwerk singing ‘I’d like to take her home with me, it’s understood’ sounds sophisticated and sexually confident; Albini makes it sound downright sinister. Big Black make the song completely theirs and wipe the (blood-stained) floor with the original.

So in 1987, after their final show at The Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle, Big Black did indeed break up. Dave Riley and Santiago Durango pretty much retired from the music scene there and then, though one of Durango’s first cases as a lawyer saw him helping to recover Cynthia Plaster Caster’s bronze casts of rock star genitalia. Albini of course became a world renowned producer with Nirvana, The Breeders, The Wedding Present and many, many others. He also kept performing, first briefly with Rapeman, and then, to this day, with Shellac. Steve Albini remains a wildly unique musical talent, a punk rock trailblazer and a loud and uncompromising voice on the industry he loves but the work he did with his colleagues in his first band still stands out as his best.

‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ by Donovan covered by Butthole Surfers – Magnificent Cover Version No.8

big-black-final-show-august-11-1987-at-the-georgetown-steam-plant-in-seattle

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

 

 

 

 

‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails, covered by Johnny Cash – Magnificent Cover No.14

This is another of those obvious cover versions. Every internet wonk who’s ever done a list of the ‘best cover versions of all time’ has this at or near the top. With good reason.

The original was a melancholy, largely acoustic ending to Nine Inch Nails’ second album The Downward Spiral. Introspective and full of self-loathing, it comes across as a cry for help from that ‘very dark place’ of popular artistic cliché.

Trent Reznor was initially uncomfortable with the idea of Cash using the song, fearing that the idea was ‘gimmicky’, but eventually he approved its use. When he heard the cover he immediately knew that the song was no longer his. This was the definitive version.

Johnny Cash’s Hurt smooths out the (deliberate) atonality of Reznor’s composition, replaces the phrase ‘crown of shit’ with ‘crown of thorns’ and, most vitally, has Cash’s voice; diminished by the decades since his heyday, but all the more engaging for its audible frailty and still with its old authority.

Cash’s version of the song is simultaneously bleak and uplifting – perfectly suited to the contradictory Johnny Cash legend; the Christian rock and roll rebel, devoted husband, outlaw and sinner, forever mourning the death of his brother in childhood and anticipating a  reunion with him in heaven, while also fearing for his soul.

Lines like “If I could start again a million miles away” take on new gravitas when sung by a man – an icon – nearing the end of his life. It’s immensely touching and painfully raw. This song, and the powerful accompanying video, opened the music of Johnny Cash up to a new generation at the very tail end of his legendary career.

Cash’s cover only gained in poignancy when his beloved wife and collaborator, June died shortly after its release; “Everyone I know goes away, in the end”.

Of course The Man In Black himself died a couple of months after that. The song was a huge hit, and whether it was meant as a eulogy or not, there’s no denying it works perfectly in that capacity.

nin-hurt