Stop Messing With Every Dead Artist’s Legacy

Originally published on JUNKEE – May 9, 2014

This week, a new Michael Jackson album will be released. The fact this doesn’t seem at all surprising is a sad testament to how the catalogues of deceased artists are often treated. Xscape is ostensibly being marketed as a new Michael Jackson album. It contains eight songs, adding up-to-date production flourishes to various scattered recordings made and discarded over seventeen years, as if to finally fulfill the late artist’s childhood dream of jumping onto a Timbaland joint.

Make no mistake, the intention is most probably noble, the collaborators reverential to a fault. But in fifty years’ time, there will be a Michael Jackson album named Xscape and another named Thriller, and they will sit together on whatever cataloguing system we imbibe music from, with no authorial differentiation.

Somebody’s poisoned the waterhole

To any young, music-hungry kid in a pre-internet town, an artist like Jimi Hendrix must have appeared to be the most prolific musician in the world. His 1967 album Are You Experienced? is routinely regarded as one of the finest debut records ever released, and the perfect jumping-off point for anyone wishing to delve. Yet in numerous record stores, the album sits, bereft of context, alongside a staggering twelve posthumous ‘studio albums’, 20 live albums, 22 compilations, and 24 ‘official bootlegs’ (a contradiction in terms if ever one existed). At the time of his death, Hendrix was working on what was to be only his fourth studio album — a double record. He had six songs near completion, with another 20 or so sketches. As ‘Experience Hendrix’ (a company set up by Jimi’s father) took over the handling of his catalogue, any recording that featured Hendrix on guitar or vocals — no matter how embryonic, aimless, or lo-fi — made its way into the official canon of Jimi Hendrix releases.

Similarly, Jeff Buckley released only one studio album and a four-song live EP during his lifetime. Of the 12 songs he released, five were covers and four were co-writes. Buckley’s posthumous canonisation is about lost promise, a flame destined to flicker briefly, with his beautiful, slight catalogue only adding to the weight of this loss. He left behind a handful of four-track recordings, plus a number of earlier-abandoned studio sessions originally intended for a second album. These were lovingly compiled into a 20-song, two-disc collection, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, which provided an intriguing but ultimately incomplete picture of how his second album may have been.

Then the posthumous madness began. Five live albums plus a live EP followed, as did two separate best-of collections. Debut album Grace was expanded to include 13-bonus tracks, with all but two either covers not intended for release or alternative versions; nice but wholly unnecessary. His four-song EP, recorded live in an East Village coffee shop over two days, was expanded to 34 tracks (plus a four-track DVD), including between song mutterings such as the vital ‘Monologue – False Start, Apology, Miles Davis’ and the eight-second ‘Monologue – The Suckiest Water’. The fact that a random search of his digitalised catalogue is statistically more likely to throw up these tracks than the soaring Last Goodbye is a troubling by-product of such releases that perhaps couldn’t have been considered at the time of release.

But Jeff Buckley seems positively posthumously lazy compared to the recent output of Tupac Shakur. 2Pac was a fiercely ambitious artist, who blurred the line between thug myth-making and real life to the point where it literally saw him jailed, then killed. Shakur was not going to let anything as unceremonious as a bullet to the right lung halt his career, managing to pump out seven posthumous ‘studio albums’, two live albums, ten compilation albums, and two remix albums (posthumous Elvis got involved in the mid-2000s remixing fad, as well). He got the chance to collaborate with artists he never could have dreamed of working with during the 25 years he was on this earth: Eminem, Elton John, Ashanti, Ja Rule, T.I. and Nas, to name but a few. He even appeared at Coachella in hologram form, alongside such luminaries as 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa.

Parents just don’t understand

Notably, all these catalogues are controlled by the late artists’ parents. Parental love is boundless, but it is also blind. While it isn’t at all surprising these estate holders want as much of their children’s work to see the light of day, willing their flames to continue to burn brightly, often these artists were fiercely protective of what they put out into the world.

Jeff Buckley was deeply dissatisfied with the studio recordings that make up disc one of Sketches… which is why he later demoed the four-track versions compiled on disc two, so he could further work at capturing the sound inside his head. Michael Jackson would often record more than 80 tracks for each album, meticulously crafting and ruthlessly culling over many years, until the finished album was up to his standards. This is an artist who, when the world was spewing superlatives over the Motown 25 performance where he unveiled the ‘Moonwalk’ for the first time, saw the entire thing as a failure because he didn’t stay suspended on his toes during one inconsequential dance move. As a child, his father would strike him if he screwed up a vocal take or missed a cue. It is doubtful that he would have given his blessing for the writers and producers of ‘S Club Party’ to complete one of his demo recordings and officially release it under his name.

The impulse to keep these catalogues alive is an understandable one. The main problem with Xscape is that Jackson clearly has a wealth of worthwhile work that should legitimately — and tastefully — see the light of day. ‘Al Capone’, a prototype of ‘Smooth Criminal’ recorded in 1986 and included on the 2012 Bad 25 set, acts as both a stunning stand-alone track and a perfect example of Jackson’s creative process in flux. An exhaustive rarities collection would be a genuinely worthwhile addition to his catalogue, and provide the kind of closure catalogue completists crave. Neither Xscape, nor the hastily assembled 2010 set Michael, attempt to act as this, instead hoping to contemporise the music of an artist who was already light years ahead of the pack.

At worst, such releases show a complete disregard for the existing catalogue, and at best, the arrogance to assume the ability to add to it. Jackson does not need a Y2K14 re-spray, nor does his catalogue need propping up or remixing: it stands (then leans forward, then spins, and moonwalks) for itself. And while vault-diving exercises have often resulted in holy grail for fans and labels alike (see the tasteful handling of posthumous Elliott Smith and Nirvana releases for examples of how unreleased recordings can be rolled out respectfully), more often it’s just sitting 15 minutes of aimless, stoned shredding alongside ‘Purple Haze’ and calling them both Jimi Hendrix songs.

When the dust settles, history will hopefully separate an artist’s quality material from these barrel-scraping exercises. But the idea that a kid in 2050 may begin to explore Michael Jackson’s catalogue, only to enter via a digital duet with Akon, is a worrying one indeed.

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’90s News: Coolio fought Boyz II Men, M2M update, Hootie and the what now?

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Please note: This column can only be printed in Dot Matrix.

COOLIO FOUGHT A BOYz II MEN MEMBER, THINKS BJORK IS ‘CRAZY SEXY’, RECKONS HE WOULD HAVE COLLABORATED WITH COBAIN.

If I had a ’90s news headline generator [with half-peeled TV Hits stickers on the side] and it spat out the above effort, I would at once praise the breadth and depth of content offered up, while acknowledging that automatic headline generators have some way to go before creating truly believable copy. Instead here we are, tied to ancient technology, typing our own damn headlines which also need to be somewhat true – and yet we can still run the above one, all thanks to a batshit crazy Coolio interview conducted by Spin.

Ostensibly as part of their year-long ’94 retrospective, but mainly because of the following quotes, Spin played a bunch of old tracks and just transcribed what came out of Coolio’s mouth. Below is one of those Elle magazine-style teaser things that bundle all the good quotes from the interview. The whole thing is worth a read, but in case you’re so into this column you only access it via a dial-up modem and can’t handle Spin’s graphically-intensive site, the highlights are under this classic road documentary.

He tried to get a Bjork collab. going.

“She’s crazy sexy. I never got into her music, but I remember meeting her manager. I thought because me and her were so different, it’d be interesting to do a song together. He probably didn’t even tell her. Nah, he probably did and she was like, ‘No’.”

He thinks 2Pac is still alive

“I saw a very — I don’t want to say “disturbing” — a very informative post that implies he may have really pulled a Machiavelli and faked his death. Because if you go by the evidence on the Internet, there’s no way 2Pac died that night in Vegas.”

He fought a Boyz II Men boy

“We were in a hotel. He was trying to hit on some chicks, and the chicks were trying to hit on me. And he started hatin’: “Coolio, old spider head.” He gave me a look, but I gave him a gangster look. We went our separate ways, ended it very eloquently without any bloodshed.”

Old spider head. He also got angry at Cobain for killing himself before the Coolio/Kurt jam the world needed could eventuate.

“I was mad at Kurt, like, ‘Why you gotta do that before I do a song with you?’ I was mad at his people. They didn’t see that shit coming? C’mon! Put the motherfucker on Thorazine; dose him up so he can stay alive.”

When Cobain died, he was set to work with Michael Stipe in what would have been a logical and thrilling studio progression from In Utero, especially considering the possibilities their MTV Unplugged set tossed up. Still, a party jam with Coolio (with the flow back in ya ear) would have also been a good follow-up to the plaintive likes of ‘Pennyroyal Tea’.

B*Witched Have A New Single (AND FIGHT LIKE THEIR DADS, TOO)

Slightly naff beats over an earnest acoustic guitar was a stable in girl pop ballads of the ’90s. You know it worked, I know it worked, Jennifer Love Hewitt definitely knew it worked, and the lasses from B*Witched haven’t forgotten either, as evidenced in ‘We’ve Forgotten How’ from their recent EP Champagne Or Guinness, innit Edele. Two minutes in the girls suddenly realise this is meant to be a B*Witched song and a very Irish string part dances in briefly, before being swallowed back up by the lightweight melodrama. Now all we need is a new Pokemon soundtrack to slap this baby on.

Sidenote: Sinead O’Carroll’s Wikipedia page contains this face-slap of a phrase: “She is best known as the oldest member of the girl group B*Witched.”

BOTH M AND M FROM M2M HAVE NEW SOLO RECORDS OUT

By now it should be clear that the above mention of the Pokemon soundtrack led to the question “What are M2M – the delightful Norwegian best friend duo that sang ‘Don’t Say You Love Me‘, one of those few pop songs that is happiness incarnate despite being a ‘back the fuck off, dude’ anthem – up to these days?” I wrote to the PO box fan club address listed in the booklet to Shades Of Purple (missed a trick there, didn’t you Prince?), waited ten weeks for a reply, and was greeted by the happy fact that not only do both girls have solo records out this month, but they also appear to have aged backward Darius Rucker-style.

First Marion Raven (or Marion Ravn as she’s known in territories that aren’t offensive enough to just whack an ‘e’ in someone’s name for ease). Her album Songs From A Blackbird is out October 30 in Australia – it’s been out a year in Norway, only now getting an international release – and lead single ‘The Minute’ is a dramatic, upbeat pop song with a million hooks which really should be massive but almost certainly won’t be.

Meanwhile Marit Larsen also has an album due, When The Morning Comes, out October 20. Lead single ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ lives somewhere between Blasko and Catatonia – with The Cardigans and Bachelor Girl living up the road (Delta drops in from time to time, too). It’s a remarkably mature pop song – see what happens when you Google artists from the Pokemon soundtrack? – and while it’s nice to see both Ms doing well, I recommend taping one song on each side of a cassette, and imagining it’s a killer double A-sided M2M cassingle.

HOOTIE-SANS-BLOWFISH UPDATE

Darius Rucker is the guy from Hootie and the Blowfish that – up until this very point – you assumed was named Hootie. Since leaving behind the blowfish and their puffy FM fodder he’s become quite a successful country star, and at 48 years of age, looks barely out of his 20s – as evidenced in both this photo, and the video to his new single ‘Homegrown Honey’ (Here’s a fun game: imagine his Vedder-voice in your head, sing how you think the chorus to ‘Homegrown Honey’ goes, then click this link and see how close you were. Pretty close, right? Can also be played with any latter-day Dylan, Stones, McCartney, Madonna or Prince song ).

But all the above talk of youth serums and backyard beehive set-ups is just a ruse to lead into the most under-reported fact about Hootie and/or the Blowfish. He/they pulled one of the most blatant case of copy/paste plagiarism in the history of music (well, almost) when they decided if it’s lyrics you are stealing, why not steal the best ones that are being written – those of Bob Dylan.

And lest you think they hid this transgression on a B-side or a deep album cut (which don’t actually exist on records that sell 16 million copies), it was on their #1 single ‘Only Wanna Be With You’ – whose title they lifted from Dusty Springfield. The jaunty acoustic pop song carries along nicely for about ninety seconds or so, but when they hit the second verse Darius/Hootie suddenly runs out of lyrical steam and uses a nifty trick you may know from writing uni essays: whack in loads of quotes from those who do know what they’re saying. “Put on a little Dylan, sitting on the fence” he sings. “I say,’that line is great’, you ask me what I meant by:

“Said I shot a man named Gray,

took his wife to Italy

She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me

I can’t help it if I’m lucky”

Only wanna be with you

Ain’t Bobby so cool?

Only wanna be with you

Yeah, I’m tangled up in blue, only wanna be with you

The four lines in italics are directly lifted from Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks favourite ‘Idiot Wind’. Regardless of whether your characters announce they are quoting Dylan or not, you can’t just steal Dylan lyrics and put them in your song, especially not an entire verse’s worth, and especially not by capping this with another ‘Bobby’ name-check and a “tangled up in blue” lift from yet another Bob Dylan song.

Dylan sued, Hootie paid, and the whole thing was settled fairly quietly. The video clip still holds up, too – its message perhaps more relevant now than ever.

 

On the eve of his 49th birthday, semi-retired rocker Kurt Cobain reflects on what might have been

 

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“I’m happy with where I am,” Cobain says earnestly, as he moors a boat and leaps off to greet me at the boardwalk. It’s one of three vessels he operates with his charter tour business, Seattle Family Cruises. Cobain was – for a brief 18-month stint in the early ’90s – one of the most successful musicians in America, frontman of Northwestern hopefuls Nirvana, who scored an unlikely #1 album with 1991’s Nevermind, a hooky collection of rock songs that owed as much of a debt to groups like The Cars and The Knack as it did to the grunge sound that was all the rage back then. Interest from MTV during a prosperous time in the network’s history coupled with glossy videos that showcased Cobain’s flaxen, kicked-puppy-dog looks saw them quickly rocket to the top of the charts. From there it quickly collapsed.

The quick-fire release of Incesticide – a collection of earlier tracks – and record label pressure to push out a Nevermind follow-up as quickly as possible, saw critics turn on the band in spades. The release of an acoustic set, recorded at the studio of early champions MTV, saw Nirvana receive a savaging by the press. The session was meant to be electric, but as Cobain had accidentally left his guitar in Washington, the band quickly borrowed instruments from acoustic rockers 4 Non Blondes and improvised, dropping their newer, heavier tunes for a selection of covers and already-released songs. According to the press, this further compounded the sense Nirvana had little let to say, and with three failed albums in less than three years, the band quickly fell out of favor. “We knew we needed to release something great at that point”, Cobain recalls. “So, we went back through our old video tapes and compiled our most fierce-sounding live recordings to put on a CD – we were always a better live band, so we wanted to show that off. But I guess, by that point, we’d straight used up all our chances.” The resulting record, From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah didn’t trouble the charts, and the band was dropped by their record label, Geffen.

Nowadays, Cobain is still actively involved in music, touring with fellow ’90s rockers The Spin Doctors and Soul Asylum as part of the ‘Entertain Us’ summer tour, which hit twelve cities last year. But his true passion is building his booming tourism business, which Cobain and third wife Molly built from the ground up, with $150,000 worth of royalties Cobain had squirreled away. “Most bands you see hit the big time get caught up in the Hollywood side of things, and find themselves broke before they know it”, Cobain warns. “I was lucky enough to never let my head get too big, or to succumb to the temptation of that lifestyle.”

It’s 4:30pm on a picturesque, but windy Sunday afternoon, and Cobain is about to take out his third tour group of the day. He rises at 5am every morning, except on Sundays when he allows himself the luxury of a 7am rise. “I know it’s a little naughty”, Cobain tells me, eyes glinting, “but I’m getting older, and I need those few extra hours if I’m gonna keep up with the young groups we get on Sundays. I’m not getting any younger.” Today’s group is a mixed bag: seniors out for a harbor cruise, families visiting the popular port region, and various couples on romantic day-trips. Cobain is clearly energized by the group. “Young love everywhere”, he notes to nobody in particular. Despite his 48 years, Cobain looks great for his age. The once-famous mop of blonde hair is now neatly trimmed, with faint flickers of grey throughout. Molly walks down the boardwalk, wheeling what appears to be an industrial-sized cooler. “We offer a seafood platter and wine on Sunday”, she tells me. “The visitors love the local catch, and the wine is always a bit of a treat, a bit of luxury.” Cobain is straddling the boat and the pier, chatting to a group of students from Australia. “We played Australia in ’92”, he tells them. “I enjoyed it a lot, it reminded me of Seattle. Has it changed since then?”, he asks, before quickly noting, “What am I talking about? You kids would have been in diapers.”

After the cruise, I ask Cobain if he misses the days of rock and roll, and chart-topping albums. “I don’t at all”, he says firmly. “After a few years of living in tour buses, doing interviews, and eating junk food, it starts to get real old. It was a blast being on TV, but even that fades.” Does he feel the band blew it when they were at their peak? “We made a few silly decisions,” he admits. “But what young band hasn’t? I feel very grateful for the success we had, it allowed me to start this business, and I still get to play all the old songs to a whole new generation of kids that weren’t even born – that still blows me away. I’m like, ‘How do you kids even know Teen Spirit, let alone all of the words?!”

When not working, Cobain keeps busy with his Fantasy Football Leagues: he is in five different ones – “Molly hates it,” he confesses, “but it’s a passion of mine, so she puts up with it.” – and by raising his three children: Frances (from his first marriage to actress Courtney Love), Chester, and Angela. “It’s a great life,” he says, looking out at the harbour. “My office is a boat, my boss is my wife, and I still get to strap on the ol’ guitar and make a bit of noise with the boys a few times a year. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

 

Nirvana ‘Nevermind’: 20 Years Ago Today

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Originally published in The Music Network – September, 2011

Twenty years ago today, Nirvana’s second album Nevermind was released to an unsuspecting public, and the course of popular music was irreversibly altered. That’s how the history books tell it: the dynamo that was Nirvana burst onto a scene ripe with hair-metal bands and plastic pop stars and made music ‘real’ again.

In truth, Nevermind’s success was a slow climb; it debuted on the Billboard 200 at an albeit impressive #144, and took four months to reach the number one spot. An initial paltry shipping of just 46,251 copies to American record stores shows the modest hopes initially pinned on the album (in the subsequent days Geffen scrambled to produce and ship stock quickly enough) and the term ‘surprise success’ was quickly applied.

The band were dragged through the world of corporate rock, the pressure mounting until Kurt Cobain sought to end it all; a definitive statement that should have signalled the end of punk rock as a concept. How could this possibly be misinterpreted? Rather easily, it seems.

There’s this myth of lifelong depression that goes along with both the act of suicide and the story of Kurt Cobain. A consequence of Cobain’s violent and self-imposed end is that Nirvana’s music has been recast with that same depressed, no-hoper sheen. Nevermind is a pop record. There are scant examples of Cobain’s overriding depression (which was, according to all reliable sources, less all-encompassing than the myth suggests) – Polly, the album’s darkest and most harrowing tale ultimately ends in a victory.

The first three songs mention guns – an unfortunate and accidentally prescient fact – but elsewhere on the album, lyrics are opaque and masked with sarcasm.Something In The Way – the haunting, hushed tale of Cobain living underneath a bridge – was less factual than figurative, while On A Plain was nonsense pop.Lithium tackled religious indoctrination, Drain You was a twisted love song about co-dependence and In Bloom mocked the type of gun-toting rednecks that Cobain grew up around, and who would later make up a large, unwanted element of their fanbase. Nursery rhyme melodies and a soft/ loud dynamic pinched from The Pixies made this music palatable to the masses, while Cobain’s flaxen-haired, scruffy good looks made the band stand out in a sea of flannel. And of course, the album was undeniably excellent.

Kurt Cobain was not an indie hero thrust against his will into a corporate world of rock in which he wished to play no part. Nirvana willfully drove their own destiny. Cobain’s diary shows how savvy and commercially aware he was; letters to record companies, pages of release plans and various press releases penned by Cobain showed an artist in full control of his business interests. The band took the first possible chance to jump from indie label Sub Pop to a major. They knowingly signed with Gold Mountain management, one of the largest management companies in the country. They appeared on late night television, on MTV, they did the major label touring circuit willingly. The pressure became enormous, but at no point were the band acting under corporate duress.

There’s a charming story on the Nevermind Classic Albums documentary, which explains how quickly the band’s day-to-day situation shifted. Cobain and Grohl drove from Seattle to Wisconsin (where Butch Vig’s studio was located) to begin the Nevermind sessions. They were forced to play a show beforehand to pay for the petrol, and their car was so beaten-up it kept breaking down every few kilometres. The pair were so frustrated at the constant delays that they pulled to the side of the highway and spent half an hour stoning the vehicle into submission. Less than a year later the band was in Australia, their album was at number one in America (displacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous in the ultimate symbolic victory), and an almost certainly apocryphal tale has Cobain in an Australian bank withdrawing money – only to realise his first flood of royalties had come in. He went white as he counted the zeroes in his bank account.

Twenty years later, almost every aspect of Nirvana’s legacy has been spun into legend. Almost the only thing that hasn’t been twisted into clichéd simplicity is the music, which still sounds so vital, even as Smells Like Teen Spirit sits between Queen and Bryan Adams on heritage rock stations.

The most exciting thing to potentially come from this reissue is that, for all its ubiquity, most of Nevermind will be unfamiliar to a whole generation. The reductive revisionism that plagues the band and Cobain could well keep the record in public consciousness; as kids are drawn to the striking, iconic cover art and the alluring back-story, it will undoubtedly be the music on Nevermindthat keeps them interested. There are two other albums, a slew of B-sides and live concert recordings and an excellent MTV Unplugged session to explore from there, but Nevermind remains the ultimate entry point, and the band’s definitive statement.

Nirvana 20th Anniversary Remastered (Deluxe Edition) is out now as a 2CD pack and on 180g vinyl.