Monthly Archives: September 2021

Nevermind is 30

No one reading this needs to be told how good this album is. No one needs to be told how important this album is. No one needs to be told how relevant this album still is.

It may not quite be true that Nevermind changed the sound of rock music overnight. Bon Jovi continued to have hits for years afterwards. Guns N’ Roses remained enormous, though they lost their outlaw cool. Thrash bands continued to do well commercially, and Nirvana never had any beef with them anyway (they were reportedly on good terms with the guys from Metallica, and hired Andy Wallace to mix Nevermind specifically because of his work on Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss).

But hair metal bands did mostly try to update their image and sound in response to the rawer, more unkempt noise coming out of Seattle, and it did change who got signed, and who got played on the radio, and in those terms Nevermind exerted a heavy influence on the sound of rock music for years to come. The critics Alfred Soto and Chris Molanphy have both drawn attention to what the modern rock chart looked like pre-Nirvana – its heterogeneity, its Britishness and its absence of heavy guitars, and how that changed after Nevermind‘s success. More than the Hot 100, college radio, the Modern Rock chart and in the rock press was where the album’s influence was felt most heavily. As Soto observes, “I.R.S. Records’ promo muscle wasn’t gonna get any Kirsty MacColl on a ’95 playlist.”

But while it’s interesting to look at Nevermind‘s impact on an industry-wide scale, that story has been told and retold, and a major landmark anniversary probably deserves a more personal response.

Mine goes like this. I was nine when Nevermind came out, and was too young to hear it or really appreciate it. I became properly aware of Nirvana – other than as a band whose name I knew and whose records I’d seen in HMV – when Kurt Cobain died. By that point, I was 12. I realised then that I actually did know fragmentary bits of their songs: I’d heard Teen Spirit, Come As You Are and In Bloom, and snippets of their melodies had wormed their way into my subconscious. My older brother Mark came home with Nevermind one day, and I insisted on having a cassette copy. And then my schoolfriend Jose showed me his electric guitar (an HSS Sunn Mustang in red) and his ability to play the main riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit.

And that was that. The path ahead was clear. There are albums I love more than Nevermind these days, and there are albums I’ve listened to more. But nothing comes close in terms of life-changing effects. Would I even be a musician today if I hadn’t have a) heard Nevermind and b) shortly after realised that people like my friend, and by extension people like me, could get a guitar and play music like this? I honestly don’t know. Before that moment, I’d wanted to be a writer of some kind, a novelist or a journalist, or perhaps both. Because of Nevermind, writing is something I enjoy and happen to earn a living from, while music is something more fundamental. The blood in my veins, the fluid in my cells. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world, probably millions, can tell exactly the same story.

Life update

Hi everyone. My apologies for not having posted in a while. Things have been happening.

Yep, Melanie and I got married! I proposed nearly two years ago and we set a date for last September (2020). Covid got in the way, of course, so we pushed everything a year down the road, as a late summer/early autumn wedding was still our first choice, not just as the time to have the ceremony but also as the best season for our honeymoon in northern Italy and the south of France. The latter didn’t really work out (we pushed it to next June and went on a UK mini-moon instead in the Peak District), but the wedding was able to go ahead as planned, and it was made all the more special that we were able to see so many friends and family members in one place, and in person, after the last 18 months.

Between planning the wedding, starting a new job back in June and rehearsing for the Watertown Carps album launch show this coming Wednesday, I’ve been super-busy all round, and haven’t really had the time or the mental bandwidth to blog very much for the last few months. That might begin to change now. In the meantime, I hope you and yours have all been well, and thank you for your patience.

Smiley’s People

I’ve been watching the 1982 adaptation of John le Carré’s Smiley’s People in the last week or so, and enjoying the soundtrack by the late Patrick Gowers.

It’s a wide-ranging beast. The main title theme (called Ostrakova), the recurring Smiley’s Solitude pieces, Tatiana and the three “Journey to” – of which Journey to Hamburg is the longest and most substantial – themes are scored for lonely trumpet and wintry strings, often built on rhythmic ostinatos and using dissonance to hint at the darkness surrounding Smiley. They feel like the end of something, a winding-down – even the restless Journey to Hamburg.

The series is six hours long, though, so the soundtrack takes as many trips as its main character. Mr J Lamb, Taxi Driver interfaces with reggae (in a later scene, Lamb the taxi driver is listening to UB40’s The Earth Dies Screaming – one of the few uses of diegetic music in the whole series, and it could hardly be more appropriate to the era or mood). The Turkish Cafe evocatively underscores the scene in which Smiley and Guillam wait anxiously for Karla, Smiley’s Russian counterpart and nemesis to cross the bridge.

The interlude in Germany, meanwhile, provides Gowers with the chance to depart furthest from the mood of his main themes. Frau Kretzschmar is an amalgam of parodic polka, elevator music and game show title theme; Kretzschmar’s Barbecue adds some jazz fusion soloing to the schlager; Schläfrig Küsst Du Mir Die Haare is a breathy Weimar torch ballad; while Der Blau Diamant is accidental Birthday Party – sleazy cabaret music built on distorted bass guitar, growl-moans that suggest sex but could hardly be called erotic, and some knowingly garish soloing by Judd Proctor (guitar) and Duncan Lamont (tenor saxophone).*

The soundtrack won Gowers a BAFTA in 1983, on the strength of its orchestral pieces, you suspect. And they are where the heart of the series resides; they are, too, where the music feels most like the book. Yet the whole thing works, and is worth hearing in its entirety.

*Unsurprisingly, it soundtracks a scene where Smiley goes to a Hamburg sex club to find out what its owner knows about the whereabouts of a German agent working for the Circus. “How did you like the show?” asks the owner, Kretzschmar. “It was very artistic,” replies Smiley, deadpan. The line is a cliche. It’s Alec Guinness’s delivery that makes it golden.

Smiley in Bern