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Jan 13

STILTSKIN – “Inside”

Popular104 comments • 7,173 views

#707, 14th May 1994

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Pop’s triumph is when a private language turns out to have been public all along. When the way you express yourself – visual, lyrical, physical, vocal – becomes something hundreds of thousands understand, like a word that was somehow always waiting to be said. This was Nirvana’s triumph too, and part of Kurt Cobain’s doom. His scraping, negating, self-scouring howls and sneers turned out to be a Rosetta Stone, a way for his fans to start making sense of themselves.

But the language he’d helped discover was too powerful – it went too far for him, made him fans he hated, and then rippled out still further, beyond Nirvana and Seattle. “Grunge” mutated quickly, from music to catch-all generational tag – I bought a lumberjack shirt from a British chainstore sometime in 1992, not really understanding why. It was very comfortable. I would never have had the nerve to buy Levis, though. They were for the fashionable, not the misfits.

As grunge spread, and labels moved past their initial panicky gambles, the ideological booby-traps Cobain set in his music (for himself as much as anyone) were quickly cleared away. No more self-questioning, no more gender politics, no more playing rock like you hated rock. What emerged was a brute, very male sound: a glowering take on hard rock – more commercially burnished than grunge but just as sullen.

Utterly charmless to my ears, but here’s the thing about pop’s new-language moments: the people who come in their wake are copyists but also largely sincere. The legion of post-Elvis clones were fulfilling commercial imperatives but, I bet, their own urges too. Which makes the curious affair of Stiltskin – grunge’s great mocking cameo on Popular’s stage – all the more remarkable.

This record seems to be a case where the “manufactured” label – and all its tiresome baggage – is completely deserved. Writer Peter Lawlor put the track together specifically for the Levi’s ad “Creek” (old-timey, women, trousers, bathing hunk, twist ending – it’s a great commercial, I admit). He needed a singer and found Ray Wilson – later Phil Collins’ replacement in Genesis, closing some kind of circle of grudgeful blokiness. It’s Ray’s clench-arsed voice you hear being “broken minded” on “Inside”, but every other instrument is Lawlor.

The result is a spectacularly brazen jacking of grunge tropes, ribboned and bowed in a preposterous choral intro. Guitars thresh, drums thud, quiets loud, Ray’s butt flexes. Midway through there’s a tiny break where the bombast stops and a tres Novoselic bass lick pokes in – just a little memory trigger, a brand reminder: KIDS do you remember GRUNGE it made you buy CLOTHES. Cobain’s body was found in his garage a couple of weeks before “Inside” was released, the kind of sad coincidence that – if you were as serious as Ray Wilson, or grunge – might make you reframe song as insult.

And the lyrics – my God! Pick your favourite – “Seam in a fusion mine / Like a nursing rhyme / Fat man starts to fall” – nursing rhyme, not nursery rhyme, you’ll note, and perhaps feel unreasonably cross at. “Ring out in a bruised postcard / In a shooting yard”. Actually I think the best bit might be “strong words in a ganja sky”. It’s a cataract of nonsense – somewhere, Simon Le Bon sucks air through his teeth in awed admiration.

But look on songmeanings, YouTube, tumblr – you’ll see “Inside” quoted sincerely, cited for its “meaningful lyrics”. Act serious enough, and with enough intensity, and you become serious – no matter how debased your origins. And anyway, the advert teaches you how to appreciate “Inside” – ride the crescendo and grin – and for most of its buyers that’s all you needed.

I never liked grunge, I never even listened to Nevermind until twenty years later. What I remember was how it fitted into a world and an attitude I caught a flavour of, even in Britain. Angry, mistrustful, painstakingly suspicious of authority and commerce but reflexively against turning those feelings into a ‘movement’. “Generation X” was diagnosed with apathy – on the ground it felt more like paralysis: all stances and ideas riddled with their opposites. Nirvana’s records found a language for that. But this gross, shameless, blackly hilarious record is speaking that language too.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    xyzzzz__ on 15 Jan 2013 #

    swanstep – sure, its all part of the erm continuum. Wouldn’t say I was being harsh, as I said its a sound I like.

  2. 92
    Rory on 15 Jan 2013 #

    How great to see a flurry of entries on Popular again. Soon I might even be able to comment on a song I’ve heard before, or even one I genuinely love.

    This is neither, thanks to my being in Stiltskin-oblivious Australia in 1994. But as this is the grunge thread, I’ll add my two cents (the one with the frilled-neck lizard, which was withdrawn from circulation right after Nirvana broke). Not that there were many grunge number ones in Australia; in fact, there was only one, the home-grown “Tomorrow” by Silverchair in late 1994, a band of Aussie teenagers (aged 14 when the song won a TV competition) who absorbed the work of Kurt and Eddie et al. and fashioned their own faithful imitation. I wasn’t much of a fan of that either, but if you’re going to have a single grunge number one that isn’t “Teen Spirit” I’d take “Tomorrow” over “Inside”. In fact I’d take pretty much anything over “Inside” – I’ve tried to get through the video twice but bailed halfway through each time.

    It seems anomalous now, but I was a grunge fan, at least in part – those parts being Nevermind, a couple of Soundgarden tracks, and a lot of Pearl Jam (despite Rolling Stone‘s supposedly scandalous exposé of Eddie Vedder’s foray into funk rock in the late 1980s, Pearl Jam were my favourite). I had the whole Nirvana catalogue, but on checking iTunes find that only two albums have made it into my digital life, Nevermind and In Utero. The rest are mouldering away on cassette, unheard for years. But those two go pretty much unheard now, as well: I never took to In Utero, and know Nevermind so well from my initial year of listening that I never feel the need to return to it… I see the title, hear the tracks on fast-forward in my head, and lose any desire to press play.

    The same is true of a lot of other albums I own from the time. I listen to Pearl Jam more often than Nirvana (though nowadays rarely), but mostly their post-grunge stuff, like No Code. If I counted the Smashing Pumpkins as grunge, which I don’t really, Siamese Dream would be another stayer. And Adore, but that’s even further from grunge.

    Grunge just never really stuck with me. It could have: I wore flannelette shirts in the 1980s (like a lot of Tasmanian teenagers; they were warm), had long hair when it was definitely out but was about to come back in with grunge, was almost the same age as Cobain and got his Gen X vibe, liked hard rock but hadn’t found what I was looking for in hair metal or Guns ‘n’ Roses… it all could have worked.

    But it didn’t, and I think it was because I’d been inoculated by spending 1991-92 in Britain and listening to shoegaze. Not much of that has stuck with me long-term either (Ride’s Going Blank Again and Chapterhouse’s Blood Music being the main exceptions), but as I’d already found some noisy indie rock there was less room in my heart-shaped box for grunge, despite fervent efforts circa 1992-94 to cram it in there. And before long, some different indie rock came along, again from Britain… but that’s a comment for the song I’ve heard before, and the one I genuinely love.

  3. 93
    swanstep on 16 Jan 2013 #

    @Rory. I just checked and Silverchair were the most successful ‘grunge’ act on the singles chart in NZ too. Smells Like Teen Spirit did get to #1, but just for a single week, whereas Tomorrow spent 3 weeks at the top (and another 4 at #2) and Pure Massacre got achingly close, spending 3 weeks at #2. Nirv, AiC, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins all had #1 albums tho’, and Pearl Jam, the big winner, has had 6 albums reach the top so far.

    I resonate with your description of how Nirvana has largely fallen out of your personal rotation. Reflecting recently on why that might be so in my case, I’ve hit on the idea that it’s a combination of the band’s songs feeling very tightly wound around Kurt’s vocal and personality (the music very rarely stretches out beyond that to have an identity in its own right) and then that Kurt’s personality is somehow suffocating. It could just be that the self-laceration that exhausts, but for me, if I’m honest, his prickliness and wiseass-ness while clever did irritate me at the time and hasn’t worn well for me. I listened to the All Apologies B-sides for the first time in ages recently, and exactly *how* deliberately irritating Kurt could be came flooding back. There’s a genius involved in rarking people up like that, but it’s hard to willingly, regularly endure such provocations.

    @xyzzzz__. My apologies; it’s been ages since I’ve heard ‘Limp Bizkit’ used as anything other than a term of abuse!

  4. 94
    Rory on 16 Jan 2013 #

    @swanstep, your take on Kurt definitely strikes a chord for me. I just wasn’t as prickly and disaffected in 1992-94; maybe if I’d heard him at 16 he would have hit closer to home.

    This thread prompted me to listen to Nevermind last night for the first time in ages. A mix of fantastic moments (Teen Spirit, Come as You Are, On a Plain) and wearisome shouting…

  5. 95
    Erithian on 2 Jun 2013 #

    There’s a touch of the Lord Rockingham’s XI about this! Jobbing musician with no particular fondness for the genre being adopted, but happy to adopt it for the sake of a quick buck, and remarkably successful about doing so. Not sure how many Nirvana aficionados they hooked with this, but to anybody hearing the trademark stuff done for the first time on the advert – the bass lick, the drums, the highly-effective riff – it would probably work as something new and startling (and Ray Wilson sounding more convincing than at any time since the 1966 World Cup Final). Again, for how many people this was a gateway to yer Pearl Jams and Korns it’s intriguing to think, but as a one-off number one this sounds fine until you can track down the real thing.

  6. 96
    MichaelH on 26 Jun 2013 #

    If this were judged purely as a record – without the shadow of Cobain, without the context of it being manufactured, without people’s feelings about a genuine underground movement being so perfectly co-opted by the mainstream, and so on – it would be remembered a lot more fondly. It is a genuinely brilliant riff, if nothing else.

  7. 97
    fivelongdays on 26 Jun 2013 #

    @95 – Korn who we can talk about, tangentally, in about six/seven years time, Popularwise, are bugger-all to do with this record or to do with Grunge. Unless, of course, you think all loud American guitar music is The Same Thing.

    @96 Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Although, I as I wrote upthread, this is remembered very fondly by people of a certain age indeed.

  8. 98
    Ray Dawson on 9 Aug 2013 #

    Just a small point, the lyric is “strong words in a Ganges sky” not “ganja sky”.

  9. 99
    Izzy on 9 Aug 2013 #

    How would anybody know, unless … are you any relation to Ray Wilson?

  10. 100
    flahr on 9 Aug 2013 #

    Ray Wilson is the Charlemagne of the 1990s

  11. 101
    thefatgit on 27 Aug 2013 #

    Meanwhile, on the internet…

    http://www.behance.net/gallery/Grunge-Street-Fighters-Project-by-Butcher-Billy/10455943

  12. 102
    hectorthebat on 13 Apr 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 174
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 13

  13. 103
    Pink champale on 13 Apr 2015 #

    Wait, Q magazine declared this to be the 174th best song ever???? One way of shaking up the critical consensus I suppose.

  14. 104
    Izzy on 13 Apr 2015 #

    100: just to let you know, that Ray Wilson/Charlemagne line and link has been a massive perspective lens for me these past eighteen months. To give a rather unlighthearted example, how seriously can one possibly take the various ongoing Charlie Hebdo controversies when very likely all of us, on whatever side, could boast Mohammed as an ancestor if we only knew?

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