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.