Jan 13

STILTSKIN – “Inside”

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#707, 14th May 1994


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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  1. 1
    flahr on 10 Jan 2013 #

    It’s unusual for you to be quite as concerned with sincerity & authenticity as you seem to be in this review. Possibly* you feel it matters more for a ‘fake’ grunge record than it does for a ‘fake’ dance record – a dance record that’s shamelessly tooled for mass appeal and hits every genre convention still results in you dancing to it and is therefore on some level a success, whereas grunge is a genre more rooted in sentiment and personal feeling and not really going for mass appeal so a grunge record manufactured in that way feels like a bit of a con.

    I had just turned one when this came out, and while I’d describe myself as fond of grunge now (from what little I’m aware of and with history largely having filtered out the true dross) I of course had no conception of it at the time, either as music or as movement; the obviously ‘grubby’ origins of this song don’t (and can’t) really make a difference to me in that way. Perhaps if I felt there was any meaning it was attempting to convey I might find it more damaging, but as you point out yourself the lyrics are entirely devoid of meaning already. What “Inside” is – at least in the sense I like it for – is entirely obsessed with its own sound, the rock equivalent of a Mariah record where she might be singing sad lyrics with a big melismatic grin but it doesn’t matter because the words are entirely a vehicle for her style. So I like “Inside”, because it’s so layered, because that Nirvana-rip-off bassline sounds so great, because of the church organ in the verses, because of the “wucca wucca” distortion after the second line of the choruses, because of its incredibly basic solo… because even if this is an entirely cynical** record, and an entirely meaningless one, its confidence that it sounds good means that it sounds good, and that, I think, is enough for me. [7]

    Less importantly: isn’t it “Ganges sky”? Although debating the exact lyrics of this song seems more pointless than with most.

    *this ‘possibly’ is a bit of a sham really: I’m pretty sure the statement that follows it is merely a rephrasing of what you’re getting across in the review, but if I’ve read it wrong I think it would be a bit rude to say what you feel as if I know it better than you do

    **blah blah cynical is an entirely meaningless term when applied to a record blah blah

  2. 2
    Kay on 10 Jan 2013 #

    It’d be lovely to hear an analysis of grunge with a sincere effort at categorizing the movement beyond the overused comparison to Nirvana jag. Is the article about Nirvana? Were they the only big band? Neither of the above. People criticized, say, Pearl Jam as much as Nirvana. Alice in Chains got bad press. Hell, other people even died, all with their own share of MTV hits. The main point I have to make is: The ‘bigger picture’ is fine—just don’t be cliché. Referencing everything to Cobain has been…pardon the pun…done to death.

  3. 3
    Tom on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #1 – You’re right, I don’t care about sincerity except inasmuch as I care about the ground rules genres seem to set themselves (or their audience tend to set for them) – so as ‘danceability’ seems a good thing to think about for a dance record so ‘sincerity’ seems a good thing to think about here. But I’m not giving the record a 3 because it’s insincere – I’m giving it a 3 mostly because I hate the style: sincere bands like the ones Kay mentions would do as poorly or worse :)

    #2 – Point taken, it’s a tale told too often. But this isnt really about grunge, it’s about the circumstances in which grunge became the lingua franca of a part of 90s youth to the extent that an advertising agency might specially commission something like “Inside”. And like it or not Alice In Chains or Screaming Trees or whoever are not the motors of that story.

  4. 4
    flahr on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #3 – I imagine the sincerity but-it-doesn’t-matter! but-Cobain-says-it-matters! but-do-the-Cobain-copyists-say-it-does? thing is a lot more interesting to write/read a review about than ‘well, here’s a bag of grunge tropes’ :)

  5. 5
    Tim Byron on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I don’t ever recall hearing ‘Inside’ at the time – it apparently got to #40 in the charts in Australia, but I don’t think we got that particular Levi’s ad, and didn’t hear the song. But a couple of years later, as a big Smashing Pumpkins fan who discovered them circa Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness, I read a bunch of interviews where Billy Corgan was really angry indeed at ‘Inside’:

    “Bands who are basically making a simplified Smashing Pumpkins sound are now having hits in England and America. There’s the famous Stiltskin story where Levi’s approached us to do a commercial and when we turned it down, they hired a band to imitate ‘Today’ and it was a hit. What are you supposed to do? Imitate yourself. We just shrug our shoulders.” (from Juice Magazine, 1996)

    I don’t think I actually heard ‘Inside’ until 4-5 years ago, looking at it on YouTube. It wasn’t *quite* as much like ‘Today’ as I was expecting! (Musically the sound of the mix of instruments and the guitar distortion is very Smashing Pumpkins, rather than Nirvana-ish stuff, but the lead singer is all hurrrr instead of Corgan’s whine). 1990s pop-grunge is a nostalgic semi-guilty pleasure of mine; once I finally listened, I was sort of expecting I’d like ‘Inside’ much more than I actually liked it. The melody is particularly unmemorable, isn’t it?

  6. 6
    Sabina on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Haha, oh *this* song — I’d never heard it before you guys started going ballistic at the party. :P But then, I also never listened to Nevermind til 10 years after the fact.

  7. 7
    flahr on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #5 – Kutner & Leigh claims that Billy Corgan started some gigs in the weeks after this was released with “Hi, we’re Stiltskin…”, which seems the sort of authentically petty gesture that marks True Grunge.

  8. 8
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Jan 2013 #

    A masterful review of a only vaguely tolerable song by a group of substandard pub-rockers who momentarily (and yes, cynically) hit the big time.

    Not won over even by “authentic” grunge any more today than I was as a teenager, then. The in-your-face nihilism and posturing – and its sheer overwhelming base essence of intense self-pitying narcissism – that went with a lot of it….in retrospect…always lent itself to adoption by advertisers/those pushing a particular type of style, not universal in appeal but restricted by both age and class. Maybe they sometimes meant it, man, but it might have better if they didn’t.: which is almost a point in favour of this number with its clipped lyrics and gratuitous incidental flourishes.

    Robert Forster, in his (later,and really damn good) song about Patti Smith, “When She Sang About Angels” , noted archly

    “When she sang about a boy
    Kurt Cobain
    I thought what a shame it wasn’t about
    Tom Verlaine”


  9. 9
    punctum on 10 Jan 2013 #

    John Peel’s Friday night show had just ended; it was time for the Radio 1 midnight news bulletin; we were at home in Oxford, up and awake, when we heard what had happened. Verging on the thirtysomething border as we were, I cannot say that we were particularly surprised by the news – after all, it had only been a matter of weeks since he had attempted to OD in Rome – and rather we shook our heads in mutual sadness.

    Had we been ten or fifteen years younger our reaction would of course have been much more naked; we couldn’t forget the numbness we’d felt when we read about Ian Curtis and how that seemed to coat the entire summer of 1980 in sheets of grey. Had we still been of that age we would have wept openly, as millions did, against the backdrop of an elderly media which didn’t quite understand all the fuss, had in effect been caught out; that weekend the Guardian’s obituary column gave him substantially less space than Dan Hartman and Lee Brilleaux.

    And I think of the words of Ian McCulloch, not long afterwards, a man to whom rapture and awe are hard won, describing how he felt that he looked like Jesus, that he was the real thing, an unutterably beautiful creature, someone for whom the world wasn’t quite good enough. When considering the event now the words of that Guess Who song come back strongly: “I’d rather be in hell than be a wealthy man this morning.” He had money in the bank, a wife and a young daughter, and all of it was still not enough, could not begin to compensate for the fatal treachery he believed himself to have wreaked on the music he loved, breathed, worshipped, the music which he helped to mass popularity far more than anyone else, the music on which the major record companies promptly jumped and sanitised into the clean arena of bad impersonations. Why, he pondered in that last note, couldn’t he be like Freddie Mercury, a natural showman who could simply go out onto a stage, take total command of the arena and thoroughly enjoy himself and the love he radiated out into his audience and which they duly radiated back?

    He felt a traitor, he felt that he’d let everybody down, sold everyone else out. As with the near-concomitant passings of Bill Hicks and River Phoenix, his death seemed to fill the world with reservoirs of self-directed shame; the astonishment of those cynics who finally and too late realised that he really meant it. He was too hurt to see himself as any kind of a martyr.

    His death coloured most of the important American rock records of 1994; most obviously on the MTV Unplugged In New York album, routinely received as his last words to the world. There remains something of a suspicion that the Unplugged exercise was a means to clean him up, to explain him to nascent Fifty Quid Man, to make him somehow presentable, more secure in the umbilical cord of Rock History. But in the performance he is never at rest, either audibly or visually; the last will and testament analogy comes from the sense that he is quietly tidying up his desk drawers before leaving, revealing his history of “The Man Who Sold The World,” the Vaselines and the Meat Puppets (complete with the actual Meat Puppets themselves guesting) who made him want to do anything in the first place, before slamming down the shutters with that horrifyingly, wretched, ahuman scream on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” to signify that he will shiver no more. Then there was Hole’s Live Through This, recorded and named before his death but which could hardly be perceived as anything other than a post-post mortem wail of intangible loneliness; the explicit tributes paid by Neil Young on the title track of Sleeps With Angels and by would-have-been collaborator Michael Stipe on “Let Me In,” the only ray of paradoxical passion amidst the otherwise dark treads of R.E.M.’s Monster, and an aura of iron vulnerability which fed through indie (Sebadoh’s Bakesale) and mainstream (Vitalogy, Pearl Jam’s most concentrated and urgent-sounding album) rock alike. And there was Sinead, quietly singing “All Apologies” on her Universal Mother album as a gently wracked lullaby. Even Nick Hornby, who in that year’s High Fidelity drew a line in his musical sand at 1993, would go on in his later novel About A Boy to produce an untidy but brave attempt to understand why people young enough to be his son or daughter, out in the Home Counties golf suburbs of compliant nowhere, would love and mourn such a spirit so radiantly and ardently.

    Some people still feel that rock, full stop, has not yet recovered or really moved on; for tangible honesty and naked emotion, how could anyone hope to top what he ended up doing? I have placed an especial emphasis on his death here because “Inside” demonstrates one very clear reason why he felt that he might not have any further truck with this world. He looked around and saw the music he adored like a wife fall prey to cash-ins, cheap shots, ambulance chasers. One particularly pressing pursuer were the Levi’s Jeans Company, who had lately switched the emphasis in their advertisements from Classic Rock to specially-commissioned new tracks. Stiltskin were essentially manufactured by a couple of long-serving backroom boys; writer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Peter Lawlor and session singer Ray Wilson, though they did subsequently hire a rhythm section for TV and tours. Commissioned by Levi’s to come up with something “grunge-like,” they produced “Inside,” which, from its foreboding choral intro (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” clearly in mind) lumbers along artificially like a horrendous Frankenstein’s monster comprised of second-hand nuts and bolts; the slowly throbbing pace of “Heart Shaped Box” (from which Nickelback would subsequently prosper; I have been told that the popularity of this tempo arises from its coincidental timing with the optimal hip-to-thigh-to-inside rate of movement in the act of lovemaking), the two-note high guitar clarion from “Teen Spirit,” the unison basslines from Nevermind passim – it feels like an act of necrophilia, with all the original sentiments, emotions and feelings, amongst the most starkly real in all of rock, reduced to meaning-free soundbites of lyrical cliché (“And if you think that I’ve been losing my way/That’s because I’m slightly blinded,” “blue sports car,” “black slate time,” “falling along straight town as the ice comes down”) and a wearily leaden chorus of “Don’t keep it inside/If you believe IT!/Don’t keep it all inSIDE!” which Wilson attempts to sing in his style but barely disguises the time-serving pub-rocker within him.

    More offensive than any of this, however, is that while Nirvana never got beyond number five in our singles chart (with the aforementioned “Heart Shaped Box”), “Inside” leapt to number one in a fortnight, bought, no doubt, by people who felt guilt about living longer than Kurt and ignoring or dismissing him when he was alive and needed the opposite, who couldn’t actually face scaling the steep steppes of In Utero and went for the bargain basement Xerox instead; it may sound like him from a distance (to those who have long since opted to block up their ears) but close up it is a disgraceful insult. Perversely I am glad that he didn’t live to hear this wretched ransacking of a soul; realistically I wish he could have kept on, somehow, but then I wasn’t him and never will be; the fact that Wilson went on to join a shortlived post-Phil Collins Genesis proves that he knew and believed it, all inside.

  10. 10
    James BC on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Reading the verse lyrics for the first time, they remind me of Beck. I never know if Beck has a meaning for his lyrics, or if he’s just putting words together like this group (probably) were.

  11. 11
    Mark G on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Great post, Marcello. You don’t need me to say that, but I always feel bad about posting something that follows a great breakdown, as it then gets displaced on “New Messages” by me and mine. Nevermind..

    I thought the record alright, on the surface. Bringing it to mind it seems to murph into bits of “You know you’re right”..

    It’s a lot like punk 1: When the ‘common vocabulary’ becomes an established language for the bands that follow, it is up to the originators to change the language. That is why Sex Pistols 2 (i.e. PIL) made the album that made all the 2nd gen bands go “um, I don’t get it” (now, of course, we do)

    It’s a lot like punk 2: piqued by this ‘new’ metal style, I found a stall at the record fair that had tons of grunge singles. I picked 6 at semi-random, tried to persuade a discount, got none, ended up with “Touch me I’m sick”, “I need you” the Muffs, and “Here she comes now” Nirv. There was variety here. The central core had similarities but the branches were wide (and I think I played the Melvins’ “Venus in Furs” the most out of the tracks on those singles)

    3: Recently saw a documentary, all the original bands were hating on the current Seattle Grunge scene. It seemed churlish/charmless until one of them pointed out “have you actually heard them?” and it was true, they all had the same vocal style! Not Kurt, but the one that is represented by “whoah, ah-ha I’m stil alive”…

    So, Kurt could have been liberated by those copyists to doing exactly what he wanted, and he certainly was making plans for his future aaat the same time as wanting his exit. Marc says he couldn’t and isn’t Kurt, ne neither but I did have a debilitating stomach complaint and had the advantage of not being in a worldwide touring band to assist me in my recovery. So part of me can understand/empathise self-medicating in those circumstances.

    In conclusion, what ‘did’ for grunge? Heavier drugs? that seemed obligatory?

    Not Stiltskin. (nearly typed Nickelback there!)

  12. 12
    Kat but logged out innit on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I have no shame in admitting that I only became a Nirvana fan after Cobain’s death, and that I bought this single before borrowing Nevermind off my sister. I was INCREDIBLY ashamed of being a latecomer at the time though, even though the previous three years spent listening to Eurodance and rave instead was certainly not a waste of time (in retrospect).

    As it was, I quite happily bought both Stiltskin and The Grid’s Swamp Thing on cassingle in the same shopping trip to Our Price. Maybe I should write to HP Baxxter and suggest a double-sample whammy of the two? Anyway, summer 1994 was my peak cassingle-buying period – including the next #1, which was a far more dodgy purchase than Stiltskin ever could be. Today I’d give ‘Inside’ at least a [6] for its ridiculousness.

  13. 13
    Hazel on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I loved this song when I was tiny Mog (well, smaller Mog at least) and I continue to love it- I never thought it was grunge so much as in the same vein as, say, Rocket From The Crypt or other sort of quasi-classic rock revival around at roughly the same time.

    That bit where the first heavy riff kicks in is fantastic and anyone who denies this fundamental fact is wrong.

  14. 14
    Cumbrian on 10 Jan 2013 #

    There was a death in early 1994 which profoundly affected a large number of people, worldwide, and lead on to a funeral in the man’s hometown attended by multitudes with an outpouring of grief. It changed me too, albeit in minor ways. Before Ayrton Senna hit that wall on the Tamburello at Imola, I loved to watch Formula 1. That someone so talented, so daring and (to many people) so heroic, could die in this manner ended Formula 1 for me as a sport. I didn’t watch anything of the remainder of that season and I haven’t watched a full race ever since.

    I didn’t get Nirvana at the time and Kurt Cobain’s suicide was a blip on my radar as a result. I only really connected Senna and Cobain to each other years later, after seeing the (wonderful and, at least for me, tear jerking) Senna documentary and Sid Watkins’ quote that, when tending Senna on the track, he heard him sigh and he “felt his spirit depart at that moment”. At that point, I thought of the sigh just before the final sung lines of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from the Unplugged album – a sigh pregnant with the interpretations of millions after Cobain’s death. And this, I feel is where grunge disappeared – not because the figurehead departed the stage but because the whole scene was so desperate to “be real”, for things to have weight, for that pause to be more than just a need to be able to get some breath in to sing the final line, that the music itself and the participants left on the stage couldn’t bear the load, so the very thing that grunge was meant to be wound up being what the scene itself could so obviously not live up to.* Indeed, I wonder whether any scene as a whole could ever live up to this. Maybe some artists might merit close analysis of their work but, by its very nature, a scene is more diffuse and maybe not everyone in on it can live up to the standards of the leaders.

    Inside is probably recognised best then in Marcello’s post, in which (if I might be so bold) the song could be summed up as a facsimile of the arse end of the grunge genre. People have said cynical – but it was meant to sell jeans (something that the ad pulls off pretty well I think – and the music is a contributory factor) so I think cynical is, on some level, a given. It’s the superficial weight, masking emptiness that makes this a real turkey for me, and in that sense, I think it neatly encapsulates many of the grunge scene’s problems.

    Unrelated notes in response to others:

    Is the story about Smashing Pumpkins originally being approached by Levis actually true? It sounds like the type of self important bullshit that Billy Corgan has spent much of his career spouting – inserting himself into some story to inflate his own importance (“and of course we would never do something so brazenly commercial so we turned them down” – thus showing himself to be truly of the grunge movement).

    Marcello mentioned “Sleeps With Angels”. I quite like that album. One of the better latter day Neil Young albums. Mirror Ball, on the other hand, where Neil gets Pearl Jam in as his band…well, least said, soonest mended.

    *Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters, at least initially, were pretty smart here. Quite a lot of their early stuff, whilst some is heavy sounding, actually veered away from this seriousness – at least in their public presentation of videos like “Big Me” and on into their mid-career, and with some of their songs (“For All The Cows” is about how cows can actually talk but they try to keep it hidden from humans) – and carved their own niche. Unfortunately, they’ve gradually come back towards the need to be angsty the further they’ve gone into their career and not for the better.

  15. 15
    cis logged out on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #6 – man, if only you’d managed never to listen to Nevermind, that would be amazing.

    at school it was widely believed that Stiltskin “were Swedish” – this I presume to explain the garbled lyrics, not a sophisticated reference to some kind of swedish pop-music manufactory.

  16. 16
    Tom on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #5 I never liked the Pumpkins either, though my first published album review was of their B-Sides collection. I’m ashamed to say, critical objectivity fans, that I reviewed it favourably because I was trying to impress a girl who liked them. (Astonishingly, it failed.)

    #14 Yes, this is what my review is trying to get at – the problems w/this song are to some extent the problems w/grunge (or as Hazel says post-grunge hard rock), the problems with grunge are to some extent what made it so advertisable.

    Re. Kurt – at the time his death didn’t affect me – I’ve probably thought about it, and him, more in the last couple of years than I did at the time (part of general sifting through ones memories, trying to make sense of youth, etc.) I re-read Greil Marcus’ curates egg book Double Trouble at the end of last year, and his pieces across 1994 trying to get to grips with Cobain and his legacy seemed really good. The best post-death piece is still Chuck Eddy’s in The Accidental Evolution Of Rock’N’Roll, though.

    Grunge now feels like a hugely important part of a wider cultural moment – mainly an American moment – with things like Riot Grrrl, a zine revival, particular fashion trends, ‘identity politics’, and what felt like an indie comics explosion all benefiting from some of the energies it released. (The best grunge ‘thing’ is Peter Bagge’s HATE series) But of everything in that moment it’s the part I didn’t actually like.

  17. 17
    Nanaya on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I was probably about as into “grunge” or rather, much of the associated Western US alternative rock as it was feasible to be at the time as a British teenage goth in the Home Counties, so this is really interesting to me.

    I strongly agree with Kat that over-focus on Nirvana is perhaps a mistake; I for one cared a lot about Nirvana but they weren’t my gateway drug or anything, since I already liked some punk. Hole, Nymphs, Babes in Toyland & especially L7 meant far more to me, and I still cherish the memories of the 2004 L7 gig at the LA2 where I jumped the barrier to touch Suzy & got carried off by security while Donita sang “Henry Rollins brings out the monster in me…” …where was I? Oh yes. Rollins. NIN. Probably at least as important. NIN got die-hard American Guitar fans into electronic music (in a similar way to howUtah Saints touring with the Sisters Pf Mercy had a seismic impact on yer early ’90s goths, hence the mid-90s UK goth explosion). For all the concern with authenticity, it strikes me that for newer fans, it was far more about the structures & the systems (evil Ticketmaster & Pearl Jam’s vainglorious resistance) than the specifics of musical style. I for one was just as excited about Suede, MSP & PJ Harvey, although I’m probably a poor example. I *did* stomp about in para boots, floppy  Inge Lorre-style velvet hat, leggings & sprigged cotton dress though, the girl version of the lumberjack shirt. The musical snobbery came more from the traditional Kerrang!-reading rock fans (I should know, I was engaged to one!), complaining about how grunge bands “couldn’t play their instruments”. Implicitly, I’m sure, they found Cobain’s gender-bending far more threatening than, say, Sebastian Bach’s, lacking as it did the overt fuckability styling. It was all Too Political. 

    So by the time Stiltskin appeared, I’m not sure how many of us saw them as a specifically outrageous grunge rip-off. We thought they were manufactured rubbish, but they were a band doing a Levi’s ad, FFS, this was to be expected. I’m not surprised Billy Corgan was annoyed, but really,  I recall far more heated debates about Babylon Zoo’s “Spaceman”. It’s not that grunge lacked sacred cows or ideologies of authenticity, but it was also fighting other authenticity memes, especially from those who had less investment in the sacred buffalo of punk that the British music press of the time. For me, this whole phase of music was what got me thinking more critically about authenticity in music at all & thus it was no surprise to me that Taylor & Barker’s “Faking It” concentrated so heavily on Cobain & Nirvana; so much ambiguity! And we’d all changed so much.

    I’ve inevitably waffled a lot here, but what I’m getting at is while I don’t think Tom’s assessment is wrong here, there’s far more nuance to the grunge reception than this implies. I don’t doubt that wasn’t the case for a lot of fans (see the loathing of the “fake” Stone Temple Pilots, and the entire discomfort with MTV’s role, for more on that), but I think for a large part the different receptions were down to the very personal circumstances in which people encountered grunge. Facile & obvious, I grant you, but there it is. 1994 was also the year of my first Ramones gig. The endless cycle of rediscovery & reinvention continued…


  18. 18
    lockedintheattic on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Of course there’s a good chance many of the people who bought this would’nt have heard the worst bits of this – those plodding verses and awful lyrics.

    Because the ad doesn’t feature any of those – over its 90 seconds, the music only kicks in half way through, is entirely instrumental and focuses on the big guitar riff, which is catchy & powerful enough to appeal to many I suppose.


    I remember at the time people discussing how much of a letdown the record was once they’d actually heard it.

    This is of course a trick that Levi’s played again in 1996, where the single bore even less resemblance to the version of the ad, leading to similar disappointment. Although of course the bunny stops me discussing that one further.

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Such wonderful comments already in what appears to be the de facto Grunge Thread. For me, grunge was on the periphery of what I was listening to. I bought “Bleach” quite a while after Kurt’s death, and “Nevermind” quite a while after that, so I guess I’m with Kat. Needless to say, I felt a familiar pang when I heard that Kurt had found the exit door, as it is when any artist decides to take their own life, but I couldn’t say I was deeply affected. Sadly, though I was hip enough to recognise he was wearing Converse when he died. That’s all that stayed with me, when I think about it, the soles of a dead man’s shoes.

    The Stiltskin Levi’s advert was evidence if any were needed that the genre called “grunge” was a “then” thing rather than a “now” thing. MTV had played Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, but none of these bands really fitted into my preferences until long after Kurt’s death. Perhaps the constant re-runs of the Unplugged sessions and the visual barrage of the vid to “You Know You’re Right”, made me feel sad for the guy. I was perhaps too old; too familiar with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, too enamoured with Metallica and Anthrax, too intrigued with Nine Inch Nails to regard grunge as The Thing That Spoke To Me. What’s more, the dancier end of the music spectrum adorned with eye-watering day-glo and sharp primary colours drowned out the muted earthy browns and greens and greys of Grunge.

    Looking back on the thing, through the eyes of others, I could understand how it had become “their” Punk. And as I have mentioned before on the GSTQ thread, I was too young to “get” Punk. So there I was, late to Punk and late to Grunge. Visiting the museum, rather than dodging the actual bullets. For the life of me I can’t figure out if I’m missing out or not?

  20. 20
    mintness on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #17 Yes, yes, yes. All of that.

  21. 21
    Tom on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #17 – great comment, I wasn’t trying to downplay the richness of the scene – but obviously a tight focus on Nirvana has that effect. I think because I wasn’t that into a lot of the music you talk about I glide over it, so corrective memories from the actual fans are (as usual!) one of the great things about doing Popular.

  22. 22
    anto on 10 Jan 2013 #

    re:18 That’s how I remember it too. Once the piledriving gutiars had settled there was a sludgy dirge of a song to negotiate. I don’t remember much discussion about it either. If anything “Inside” vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
    There was a Stiltskin album which was panned. They printed adverts for the album with joke complaining quotations from made-up magazine reviews. Iain Banks had allowed real quotes from negative notices to be printed in the second edition of The Wasp Factory which seemed witty because it was mocking the way comments from reviews are hand-picked and spun out of context while also sticking two fingers up.
    In the case of Stiltskin though it just seemed unfunny and defensive.

  23. 23

    Grunge largely coincided with my editorship at The Wire, so I missed the scene detail and really only picked up a handful of much-discussed critical highlights — we had so many other fish to fry at the time, I guess. What I notice now, about the way the music is used in the ad, is that it zeroes in on something no one much has discussed here so far — there’s a zoom in (horny-girl POV) onto water droplets on the semi-naked guy’s skin, and the sound with this is less the BIG ROCK RIFF than the granular detail of amplified guitar sound that’s the body of said riff, its actual honeyed yet abrasive texture. I think I’d say (now) that a lot of the Big Rhetoric surrounding rock in the early/mid-90s was simultaneously a platform for the unspoken enjoyment of such elements (because you could find lots of it, on everything from Hole to GnR), and a distraction from it (because no one much discusses this aspect, at least before they’ve got all the punk/authenticity/alienation/commodification stuff out of the way). I always kind of took it that this was Albini’s beef — a lot of his shtick and his real-deal anti-PC outlier bullshit were actually also his version of the rhetorical teaser-platform, the on-its-head mere sugar-coating, but his actual deep love was/is the analog sound of layered amplified guitars, the thick rough sound of all that (which shifts in recording practice and sound fashion were sidelining). Which is hard to stay zeroed in on when you’re arguing.

    That’s the central hook in the ad — which for a few moments suspends itself round the small-scale and the sensual, with a genuine witty pull (OMG the LIGHT on his SKIN) — before it also slides off into mere cartoonish sexual politics (“politics”) and the manipulable silliness of the kinds of desire you can publicly discuss and giggle about (“cute boy with shirt off alert”)

  24. 24
    Tom on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #23 – Bravo, you’re completely right about the sound/texture of it.

    Just struck me – my first para:

    “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 is also exactly how some people feel advertising works – the ‘consumer insight’.

  25. 25
    lonepilgrim on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I enjoyed watching the advert again, for old times sake – and the music works efficiently in that context, if nothing else. Listening to the whole ‘song’ is a bit of a trial, although it does have a strong riff. It sounds to me like a cross between grunge and U2 and the singer looks like a cross between Bono and FIsh which is not a good combination.

  26. 26
    Tom on 10 Jan 2013 #

    He started his career on Fish’s own record label! DOLLY THE SHEEP TO THREAD.

  27. 27

    Re ‘consumer insight’: thing is, when much-repeated, the element yr drawn to as revelation can become repulsive (like a too-much -repeated joke). And when deep scholars of amplified guitar texture present us with the texture stripped of the “disposable” framing — Metal Machine Music to thread! — most people are baffled and/or turned off and angered.

  28. 28
    tm on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #22 – I didn’t know about the fake quotes in the ad, though I remember the album getting one star everywhere.

    Ricky Gervais did a similar thing twice, two and five years ago: Stewart Lee went through a wierd phase of saturating his PR with negative quotes about him which started with the odd diss from sources yr average SLee fans wouldn’t like anyway (The Sun etc) and reached a peak with him listing pages and pages of critique, some of it actually quite insightful about the shortcomings of his work, on his website. Anyway, shortly after that, Gervais put out a poster for a DVD of his MSG gig with a string of glowing quotes and, shock, horror, The Daily Mail calling him ‘unfunny and tasteless’ – which is probably as close to accurate reporting as you’ll get in The Mail.

    A few years earlier at the Ed Fringe, Tim Vine had bought a giant billboard just off the Royal Mile which said “TIM VINE” in giant letters and then much smaller ‘…is not performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year’. The following year, there was an even bigger banner, if I recall, draped from the Castle proclaiming “RICKY GERVAIS AT THE CASTLE HAS SOLD OUT. What a pointless advert”. It was around then I started thinking Ricky Gervais was a humourless prick.

    I quite enjoyed Inside, despite thinking it was pretty daft even at the time “We march in line as the ice comes down…etc”

  29. 29

    (Tho come to think of it MMM came supplied with a whole bunch of other framings: viz not just the sleevenotes, and the fuck-off-note-to-the-music-industry story. You had to recognise these were a disposable wrapping you were very much MEANT to dispose off, which is a big ask…)

  30. 30
    tm on 10 Jan 2013 #

    #27. Layered guitars can get really boring the more you listen: the shock of all that grainy saturated distortion fades into the background and becomes just another layer of production heft clagging to the song. One of Nirvana’s best tricks was never letting the loud bits of their slow songs go on long enough to be boring.

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