Saturday, August 03, 2013

Loud Music

Its the 20 years since "In Utero" by Nirvana topped the UK and US charts. I'm sure there have been some other loud albums to make that position, with fan bases propelling them there, but it did strike me - reading about the making of the album in "Mojo" - how rare it is that "loud music" makes it into the wider consciousness these days. For all our sense of an age where everything goes; of sensory overload, there's been a mainstreaming of culture since the millennium that the idea of a band like Nirvana becoming more than a cult band for teenagers but a phenomenon, seems increasingly unlikely. Even at the time - when Cobain died in 1994, the newspapers were full of articles about "legend to everyone under 30, unknown to everyone over." The generations that had kindly given us everything from Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to the Sex Pistols were disconcerted by Nirvana's loud music.

Listening back to Nirvana now its striking how raw they still sound. The "polish" of Nevermind is just that, it brings out these fabulous songs in all their subtlety. Important, because grunge was usually anything but subtle. Heavy metal riffs and punk attitude, you find it even on "Nevermind", where alongside the "hits" are uncompromising noise tracks that betrayed their roots in the US hardcore scene where the biggest crime was "selling out." Their live recordings show that this band were never aiming too much for the pop kids. The nature of the power trio's sound meant that it wasn't that easy to dilute it anyway. By "In Utero" they were coming up with songs like "Rape Me" and "I Hate Myself and I want to Die" which were deliberate two fingers to "selling out." Adolescent perhaps, but it also includes some of their best songs. What would a 4th album have sounded like? I imagine something like the Pearl Jam of "No Code", mixing styles, as they did successfully on the cover-heavy "MTV unplugged" - which is the album I always point out to people if they're not convinced by Cobain's greatness (then you hit them with "School" or "Serve the Servants.")

I've a long relationship with loud music - from Joy Division and the Cure at their bleakest, through industrial, American hardcore and the like - though the musicianship of heavy metal always seemed as contrived as their lyrics - which made Nirvana such a great band. Its hard to imagine a song as incendiary as "Smells like Teen Spirit" in the top ten these days - radio wouldn't play it. The irony of digital consumption of sound has been that it seems that there's a professional class of gatekeepers about what can get played on the radio these days. Anything "demo-y" isn't allowed. The best things I saw on television during Glastonbury were the very loud and uncompromising new band Savages, and the venerable sonic terrorists Public Enemy. Glastonbury's hippy vibe has never been that accomodating to anything loud, or that rocks however, so no surprise that Mumford and Sons seemed - more than a raggedy Rolling Stones - the perfect Glastonbury band. Inevitably their records sales soared. The much louder Arctic Monkeys of their last "Suck it and See" album were a rare sighting of a  loud band on primetime. I have a feeling that the people in charge are the ones who bought the Celine Dion and Phil Collins and Travis albums, rather than "In Utero."

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