10
Jan 13

STILTSKIN – “Inside”

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#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. 61
    Tom on 11 Jan 2013 #

    #56 your description of “getting” but not loving Nirvana is pretty much how I feel – I absolutely see why they were good and why people adore them, but I’m not even into their best songs that much. I wrote a Guardian column in 2011 on listening to Nevermind for the first time, 20 years late, and a bunch of people thought it must be a put-on, but I’d honestly never been bothered.

  2. 62
    fivelongdays on 11 Jan 2013 #

    Since we’re talking about Nirvana, am I really the first person to post This? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8DP_MyPddo

  3. 63
    DietMondrian on 11 Jan 2013 #

    I have most of Nirvana’s recorded output but I find the only songs I really listen to these days are the covers on the MTV Unplugged album, most of which I prefer to their original versions (in particular the Meat Puppets’ tracks). Which makes me ponder an alternative universe in which Kurt lived and is now releasing albums of cover versions (would I like to imagine in the style and substance of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings rather than Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook series).

  4. 64
    hardtogethits on 11 Jan 2013 #

    #63. Based on the emotional impact Rod makes on his latest album, I’m anticipating he’ll release “The Great American Phonebook” in 2013.

  5. 65
    tm on 11 Jan 2013 #

    #63 My favourite Nirvana album these days is Muddy Banks..up there with The Rmaones’ It’s Alive as an unnoficial greatest hits!

  6. 66
    Cumbrian on 11 Jan 2013 #

    Another question whilst we’re discussing Nirvana. I heard a (possibly made up) tale that Pete Tong reckoned you could play Teen Spirit in the middle of any DJ set of any type of music and, it would not clear people off the dance floor and potentially add people to it. Did he actually do this in his DJ sets? And if so, and we have people who were there when he did it, was he right?

  7. 67
    Tom on 11 Jan 2013 #

    The intro would get people on alright (tho I never played it in a superclub) – who stayed rather depended on whether it was SLTS or “Call It What You Want”.

  8. 68
    Steve Mannion on 11 Jan 2013 #

    Cumbrian: Depending on when Tong’s tale dates from he may have been referring to this interview of Chicagoan record store owner Kevin Starke who confirms that House luminary Armando was at least one DJ known to drop SLTS in the middle of a set and get a hugely positive reaction.

    http://www.5chicago.com/armando/transcript-kevin-starke.html

  9. 69
    Cumbrian on 11 Jan 2013 #

    Cool – thanks for that. That story was always one that I thought might be a bit of a push but turns out it might actually be true.

  10. 70
    tm on 11 Jan 2013 #

    I saw James Lavelle do similar with Song2 at Fabric about 10 years ago to generally positive effect.

  11. 71
    tm on 11 Jan 2013 #

    #63: Unplugged is my 3rd fave Nirvana album after Muddy Banks and Reading ’92. Although it has the worst acoustic guitar sound I’ve every heard on record: like a student gig with a couple of cheap electroacoustics plugged into a little PA, but then I don’t like many of Kurt’s electric guitar sounds either except the gorgeous underwater chorus effect on Come As You Are.

  12. 72
    Cumbrian on 11 Jan 2013 #

    Tom: maybe it says more about my musical taste that when I hear the opening riff of SLTS, I don’t think of either Nirvana or Credit to the Nation but am waiting expectantly for Destiny’s Child to start cranking Bootylicious out. I have been known to hit the dance floor for that.

  13. 73
    Steve Mannion on 11 Jan 2013 #

    I’ve been known to roll my eyes and demand Tinman’s ’18 Strings’ instead.

  14. 74
    Tommy Mack on 11 Jan 2013 #

    I listened to this for the first time in (10? 15?) years today and to my embarassment I bloody loved it, silly lyrics, cheesy nods to Nirvana, streamlined driving-compilation rock sound and all. Others have said they thought the band were Norwegian, I remember enjoying how Scottish Ray Wilson sounds on the first verse!

    I’ve never been as viscerally repelled by any music as the first time I heard Nirvana (a copied tape of Nevermind from a cooler schoolmate appalled that I like Meatloaf…) I was a proper wuss back then and I can honestly say it genuinely made me feel physically sick: the raw anguish in Kurt’s voice, the queasy churn of his guitar FX pedals and the thunder of the walls of guitar and drums: it was probably the first time I’d heard properly loud rock music, I was scared and repelled and I turned it off and didn’t play the tape for a couple of years.

    This would have been autumn/winter ’92 and I still disliked most rock music for a couple of years after that: the kids I hated most at school were those who worked hard at being teenagery: dealing in affected posturing nihilism, smoking, drinking coffee to be more grown-up(!), Kurt Cobainish-ness for the middle class ones, don’t-give-a-fuck would-be hooligan shit for the council eastate kids. I found it pathetic and, well, teenage and I guess I associated grunge and alternative with that: going out of your way to have a bad time coz it’s cool.

    I can’t remember when or why I softened to Nirvana’s music. I’ve always remembered it that I had just started getting into them and then Kurt died, but it was probably more likely that all the hoo-ha around him dying convinced me that maybe I was wrong and Nirvana were worth another listen. Either way, I’m sure this silly and cynical record helped break down my suspicion of noisy guitars and shouty angst-blokes. Like I said, I wasn’t a cool kid…

  15. 75
    Another Pete on 11 Jan 2013 #

    #55 Of course around this time the music press were looking for a band to slap the label of the British Nirvana on (even though theoretically in terms of namesake such thing existed back in the 60s-70s). For all the many bassist/drummer want ads down the local guitar shop spouting the usual Sixth Former band listing of ‘must like Pearl Jam/Nirvana/Mudhoney etc’ Stiltskin aside, a British grunge act never broke through. Therapy? were probably the closest but probably count the same Glasgow indie scene of the late 80s (Vaselines,BMX Bandits,Pastels etc) that Cobain coveted, as near neighbour contemporaries.

  16. 76
    swanstep on 11 Jan 2013 #

    @73, steve mannion. Or maybe some atari teenage riot?

  17. 77
    wheedly on 11 Jan 2013 #

    #75 Bush surely count as the British grunge band that broke through, don’t they? They only had a hit or two in the UK, but they were absolutely enormous in the US. Their second album (Razorblade Suitcase – an album title that Stiltskin would’ve appreciated, I’m sure) got to no. 4 here, according to wiki.

  18. 78
    Steve Mannion on 12 Jan 2013 #

    #76 ha ha, that just makes me want to listen to Senser…

  19. 79
    Another Pete on 12 Jan 2013 #

    #77 Sound wise you are right Bush probably were. Though Bush for me appeared too late on the scene in 1995 and the title was no longer up for grabs. By 1995 the scene was very much on the wane thanks in part to Nirvana being no more and Pearl Jam having a few internal issues and working with Neil Young. Bush along with other bands such as Live and Stone Temple Pilots were only huge in the States as they provided them with their grunge fix whilst we in the UK had moved on to our own scene.

  20. 80
    nixon on 14 Jan 2013 #

    Two bits of trivia, and I’m not sure how pertinent either of them is.

    1. There was a whole Stiltskin album released in the wake of this, which – rather than crashing and burning as might be expected for a group with literally no following, history, or anything else to grab hold of – went top five. I’ve long had a pet theory re Stiltskin and the commoditisation of grunge, much in line with what Tom and others have said: this is not only an access point, a way in for the uninitiated or more accurately the sort-of-initiated-but-daunted, not just because of its accessibility but because there’s no baggage, nobody knew anything about the “band” and so they could be a blank canvas in the way Nirvana never could: perfect for teh n00bs. I wanted to say something about Julian Cope’s Scott Walker compilation there too.

    2. In a neat tie in with the next entry, about 3 years later, Sky Sports chose this as the soundtrack for their Scottish football coverage, with a bunch of kids running over the Forth Bridge lip synching to “Inside”. This years after Stiltskin were declared unhip again due to the manufacturing thing; once they were uncool, they were finished. But it retained its power as an advertising jingle, even with its baggage.

  21. 81
    hardtogethits on 14 Jan 2013 #

    #80. That’s a great point about “no baggage … blank canvas”. I’ve often thought that about new album releases by new artists, and most especially in January’s soft market when the market and the marketers are in equilibrium. Neither has much to lose in investing in someone who had no public profile at Christmas but who could, after all, have made The Album Of The Year So Far. Stiltskin’s album only got to 17 though, not top 5. (Bait? I bit!)

  22. 82
    Mark G on 14 Jan 2013 #

    I think it was one of those situations, like the “New wave of new wave”, in that people generally wanted it to succeed/happen. And gave it more chances than it/they deserved, maybe.

    But also, perhaps they took that album and enjoyed it enough to seek out the ‘real’ stuff, and never needed to go back.

  23. 83
    Izzy on 14 Jan 2013 #

    #80: Scottish football coverage … makes some kind of sense, on some level. It fits in my mind with the rock’n’roll produced by a certain kind of Scottishness – the dour kind. Characterised by fire and heart, and above all passion, it takes the corporeal form of gravel-voiced pub rock. Made by and for the kind of guy whose secret aim in life is still to own a Harley.

    The humorous, fey, shambling kind of Scottishness, or the double-breasted militant strain, don’t feature anywhere in this image. Nor in fairness does the place get marketed in general terms on its new towns or its winebars. So it’s not too surprising that Sky should’ve opted for the safe option of ‘Inside’, rather than say ‘Star Sign’ or ‘Sweet Dreams’, when deciding where to pitch their product.

  24. 84
    Cumbrian on 14 Jan 2013 #

    Coming from Carlisle, the local leisure centre that doubled as a gig venue would sometimes put on “big in Scotland” acts for the border population – so when I think of the type of rock ‘n’ roll Izzy is talking about, I invariably think (perhaps unfairly) of Runrig. Did they get used on Scottish football as well?

    Other thing Izzy is talking about – the different expressions of Scottishness – the one I think about is the “Local Hero” sort of Scottishness. A bit knowing and eccentric but ultimately good hearted, that you tend to see in the rural areas of the country (more experience myself of the Borders than the Isles or Highlands though). Might be the influence of my Scottish Granny that, mind.

  25. 85
    Chelovek na lune on 14 Jan 2013 #

    The Scottish act from this period who really remain in my mind (as unavoidable, almost, north of the border, and invisible, almost, south of it) were of an entirely differnet genre, being for kids all pepped up on Irn Bru and too much tablet: TTF aka The Time Frequency. Cumbernauld’s finest. Still better than Stiltskin, actually, perhaps.

  26. 86
    Brendan F on 14 Jan 2013 #

    Stiltskin begat Biffy Clyro

  27. 87
    Izzy on 14 Jan 2013 #

    I found a Time Frequency megamix on youtube and good lord, it’s nigh-physically painful. The overall arrangement, even genre, isn’t even that far from a much-loved 1995 rave no.1, minus a breakbeat and adding some blocky synths, but the feel of the TTF music is horrible – there’s no space in it at all, no shade; everything’s turned up to eleven at all times. I don’t think it’s been overcompressed, other than the bass drum perhaps, but it’s the same sore head I get from Oasis or Keane.

    I was sure I recalled hearing some indigenous Scottish hardcore from that era, and it did have the same sense of bludgeoning, but in my memory the arrangements were much less lush, even vocalless – this stuff was something akin to flute-band marching songs over an unyielding 130bpm 4/4. It may have been UKwide for all I know, or even never have existed, but somehow it seemed indigenous, traditional even, a beloved old genre given hideous extended life through technology.

  28. 88
    xyzzzz__ on 14 Jan 2013 #

    Don’t recall this at the time but I randomly caught Peter recounting (v proudly I might add) the story of how he made it and then had to assemble the his Monkees at short notice for their appearance on top of the pops. As they looked like bikers and not ‘clean cut’ grungey types it never took off. Might have been a Malcolm Mclaren dream if they did. There was a pop-grunge factory beginning, right there.

    Its this riff that sounds like it has been dis-assembled from the thing that made it — MMM is spot on, other things like Rallizes too except here its highly compressed, indutralized hammering motion almost — with added tone of scream (and this is where the relation to grunge really comes in not so much the guitar as the harshness of ‘Nevermind’ was blunted, much to Kurt’s displeasure blah blah)* and what you have is the beginnings of Limp Bizkit, which sounds to me where this all ended up. For me it works, my ears pick up on it whenever it comes up. I can see the complaints that if you want a song and actual people that say something to you behind it all it might fall short, but surely we can separate that from sound and the pleasure it might give.

    *…and yet after all this time and years later you still see kids with Nirvana t-shirts in the way you never see Oasis or Blur.

  29. 89
    swanstep on 14 Jan 2013 #

    what you have is the beginnings of Limp Bizkit
    Pretty harsh! The pompous intro to the Stiltskin reminded me of (the beginning of guilty pleasure) Vast’s Here from, I think, 1997.

  30. 90
    Steve Mannion on 14 Jan 2013 #

    #85 Some great house and techno coming out of Glasgow at this time tho – mostly from the Soma label (Slam, Otaku, Funk D’Void etc.), who also somehow put out the first Daft Punk tracks in ’94.

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