NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I forgot to write a joke for this space.
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Have I got some trivia for ye this week? Of course I do. I’d like you to tell me what band picked up their name from the fact that they had to change their name on a regular basis in order to get performance gigs? This is a band—and I guess I can tell you that they rose to popularity in the 1980s—which changed names regularly depending on the venue where they played. I’ll have that answer, and an extra bonus answer, at the end of the show.
This time around I’m giving voice to a nonspecific listener request, and since I’ve heard from a couple of people who wanted to hear a little bit about the grunge era, I figured that Nirvana’s “In Bloom” would be a pretty good example to work with.
This is because Nirvana, like many groups that suddenly become popular, had some awareness that a lot of their new fans didn’t really have a good handle on what they were about. They wouldn’t notice that many of the songs had a bit of a dark tone to them, from a lyrics standpoint, and they were likely to just sing along blindly. So, Kurt Cobain capitalized on it in writing “In Bloom.” The song specifically addresses the people who were showing up at the underground clubs in their home town of Seattle shortly after the release of their first album, which was titled Bleach. And because the song itself is so catchy, those same people would be singing along with it, not realizing that they were being mocked.
[NIRVANA Sub Pop]
When Cobain first wrote the song, bass player Krist Novoselic said that it sounded like a song by the band Bad Brains, meaning it was very hard and very fast. Cobain took it home and reworked it into a pop song, partially by slowing it down on the verses, and played the new version over the phone to Novoselic. Cobain said in an interview that he was influenced by The Pixies when he did the re-work on “In Bloom,” but the album as a whole was meant to sound a little more accessible, or as he put it, “less Black Flag and more Iggy Pop/Aerosmith-type songwriting.” Novoselic said once in an interview that while the album was being written, the band was touring in a van and the cassette they kept listening to had Celtic Frost on one side and The Smithereens on the other. Celtic Frost is an extreme metal band, while The Smithereens, despite the hard-sounding name, have more of a power-pop sound to them. So in Novoselic’s eyes, this combination definitely had an effect on the band’s sound for Nevermind.
Much like other Nirvana songs, “In Bloom” does this thing where they’d alternate quiet verses with loud, powerful choruses. But while those choruses get loud, they’re never extra flashy with the guitar or drum work, because Nirvana’s members had an unspoken rule to keep it relatively simple: do only what you need to do to serve the song.
The band first recorded the song at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, with producer Butch Vig at the helm. At the time, Nirvana was still on the Sub Pop label, and they were putting together material for their second album. But Vig had a different idea in mind. The song was recorded on regular tape—I’m not 100% sure why, since digital recording was pretty common at that point, but anyway, the recording was on 16-track tape. Vig took the tape and, with a razor blade and probably a china marker, physically cut out the song’s bridge and tossed it in the trash. He then took that edited song, and a couple of others they’d laid down, and dubbed them over to a demo tape that was circulated around the music industry, in the hope that a major label would bite.
As it happens, DGC—the David Geffen Company—was interested, and they signed with that label. By May of 1991, the band had started sessions for their second album, Nevermind, at Sound City in Van Nuys, California. Because it was a new situation for the band, Vig decided to make the first few sessions easy for Cobain and company by having them re-record some of the songs that they’d cut in Madison, so they’d be comfortable with the songs, if not the studio. So it was, that “In Bloom” was one of the first songs recorded for Nevermind. By this time, Nirvana had replaced drummer Chad Channing with Dave Grohl, and his drumming for “In Bloom” was much the same as Channings, although he put a little more “oomph” into the drumming.
One of the things that complicated recording for Butch Vig was the fact that Kurt Cobain had this way of singing harder and harder each time they came around to the choruses. That made it tough for Vig to balance out the volume levels while recording, and he basically had to keep adjusting on the fly rather than taking a “set it and forget it” approach to recording Cobain’s vocals. The other thing he wanted to do which Cobain resisted was getting him to double-track his vocals. Cobain only gave in because Vig told him that John Lennon did it. What Vig didn’t tell him was that The Beatles double-tracked automatically, because one of their engineers at Abbey Road studios invented the process in 1966. In Cobain’s case, it meant doing it the old way.
[fade Nirvana if needed]
Here’s a quick side story about The Beatles and double-tracking. Studio engineer Ken Townsend says, (quote)
“One night we had been double-tracking Paul’s voice by sending a track down to the studio via cans (headphones) and him singing over his own voice. It was a time-consuming process, and a waste of a valuable track on the tape machine. Driving home in the early hours of the morning, I came up with an idea how this could be done.”
Townsend then described the process in some technical detail, which I’m skipping over. It basically involves taking the output of one tape deck and feeding it back into another deck in order to double the recording automatically. Townsend then said:
“I rushed back to work the following morning, tried my idea out and it worked. I demonstrated it to the Beatles the following evening and they utilized it frequently from then on. About six months later I was called up to the General Manager’s office, and told not to use it until it had been technically approved. The same evening the Beatles used it again!”
Now, this sort of thing happened a lot with The Beatles—they’d do something that the engineers considered off-limits, get yelled at for it, and then keep doing it anyway until someone gave in. Now, according to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, Lennon asked George Martin to explain how Automatic Double Tracking worked, and Martin answered with the nonsense explanation “Now listen, it’s very simple. We take the original image and we split it through a double vibrocated sploshing flange with double negative feedback”. Lennon thought Martin was joking. Martin replied, “Well, let’s flange it again and see”. From that point, when Lennon wanted ADT he would ask for his voice to be flanged, or call out for “Ken’s flanger”. And that’s why, over fifty years later, double-tracking is still called “Flanging.” For what it’s worth, the first Beatles song to feature flanging was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but nearly every song on the Revolver album has flanging on it.
Anyway, after Cobain double-tracked his vocals, Vig took Dave Grohl back into the studio to sing the harmonies on the chorus. This wasn’t really Grohl’s thing, so he had a little bit of trouble hitting the notes, but he did manage to give Vig what he was looking for. Grohl, in fact, did multiple tracks of the backing harmonies.
The band made several videos for the song. The first one uses the Sub Pop version of the song, and it features images of the band walking around the southern end of Manhattan in New York City, interspersed with shots of them playing the song. Most of those shots have been manipulated so that they’re out of focus, or look like their photographic negatives, or are just sideways or upside down. One extra thing of note is that Krist Novoselic felt that one of their New York City performances was rather poor, so he shaved his head as a kind of penance. So the New York shots have him both with, and without hair.
The second video was made to support the release of the song as the fourth single off of Nevermind. But what happened was that they ultimately made three similar, but different, videos. They went back to Kevin Kerslake, who had made their videos for “Come As You Are” and “Lithium”, to help them with the project. Cobain’s first idea involved a little girl born into a Ku Klux Klan family, who grows up and realizes how evil they are, but ultimately they decided that it was a little too ambitious for a short video.
The next idea is the one they went with. They decided to parody the musical performances that you can see in old variety shows, like The Ed Sullivan Show or The Texaco Star Theater .The idea behind the video was to show that the band did, indeed, have a sense of humor. Cobain asked Kerslake how they could get it to look like it was shot on the old Kinescope cameras, and Kerslake’s response was, hey: Hollywood doesn’t throw anything out. They’ll just get Kinescope cameras and shoot it on those. And that’s one of the reasons it looks so authentic. The next thing they did was to hire Doug Llewelyn, who at the time was the former host of the show The People’s Court. If you’re a fan of the show, you know that after a long break he’s back on that show. At any rate, Llewelyn is the unnamed host of this variety show, and he introduces the band to an audience of screaming teenagers:
The band appears on a cheap set, dressed in poorly-fitting matched suits that might remind you of old Beach Boys performances. Cobain is wearing Buddy Holly-style glasses, and if you look closely you can see they have real lenses in them, so Cobain’s vision had to be affected by them. Dave Grohl has a blond wig on, and Novoselic, whose hair had grown back since New York City, cut it short again for the video. In fact, he liked it so much that way that he kept it like that afterwards. The band plays it absolutely straight at first, with cheesy grins and some nods to the screaming teens, but then as the video progresses they start destroying the set and their instruments.
Nirvana (or, should I say, “Nir-vanna”?) shot a second version of the video which was meant to be shown specifically for the MTV alternative music show 120 Minutes. In that one, the video is exactly the same but they’re all wearing dresses. However, the band decided that it didn’t really convey the humor that the “pop idol” version did, and so it never aired in its entirety. Instead, a third version was made which contains shots of the band in both suits AND dresses. So it starts out very straightforward, and then at almost exactly the halfway mark, we start seeing the dresses and the set destruction. This is the video that won the award for Best Alternative Video for 1993 at the MTV Music Awards, and took the top spot in the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critic’s poll in the music video category for 1992. And no, I didn’t say that wrong: The Village Voice calls the poll “Pazz and Jop” in homage to a long-gone magazine named Jazz and Pop.
Now, while the lyrics in the chorus are kind of straightforward—someone out there who’s newly into the band and at the same time kind of missing the point—the verses are a little more dense. But here’s the thing about Nirvana lyrics: they’re more meant to convey a kind of attitude or atmosphere than a specific image. Some people have considered that the song also represents the box that a band can get locked into, conceptually, once they become popular. If you’re familiar with the current pop music scene, you know that Kanye West has released two albums so far which have a very Christian religious view to them, but he’s meeting with a lot of resistance to it. And more often than not, it’s both critics and fans who are trying to reconcile what they’ve seen from him previously with what they’re seeing now. Both Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley each released several Gospel albums, but so far as I know nobody questioned their faith. Likewise, when Bob Dylan released Christian-themed albums, people were like: “Huh. OK then” and appeared to review them solely on their merits. So, something’s changed in that respect since the mid 80s.
Anyway, that alienation from the fans is the thing that other musicians latch onto when they cover the song. Ezra Furman performs the song in a kind of Smokey Robinson-Meets-the-Temptations Motown style, as you can hear in this clip…
…Furman identifies as queer and bisexual, and as he’s become more visible in the music world, he’s finding himself more locked into a specific image. He’s said that he shows up to magazine photo shoots in men’s clothes only to be told he has to wear a dress, in order to match somebody’s vision of him.
Does he perform in makeup and a dress? Yeah, sometimes. But, like most performers, he doesn’t necessarily want himself cast into a specific role.
…Likewise, Country musician Sturgill Simpson included the track on his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and he views it much the same way. His second album was received as the return of the Outlaw Country sound, moving away from the “bros, beers and guns” sensibility and into a more traditional feel. And he very quickly went from being an outsider in the Nashville scene to being the center of attention, which made him quite uncomfortable. In addition to expressing that discomfort by recording the song, he made an interesting change to the chorus. It’s originally “He knows not what it means when I say, ahhh”, but Simpson changed it to “You don’t know what it means to love someone.”
Why did Simpson make this change? Well. In an interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1, he says he simply made a mistake, and nobody noticed until the album was finished. Do with that what you will.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.
Back on Page Two I asked you about the band that had to change names regularly based on the venues that they played in.
Let me give you the alternative answer first. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the band Starbuck hadn’t yet broken out with “Moonlight Feels Right,” so when they were still looking to make it big, they were still playing small venues in the south. But sometimes the places they played wanted a specific look and a specific sound for their entertainment. So leader Bruce Blackman would have the band members dress accordingly, and they’d perform under different names depending on the genre of music they were hired to play. So when they played Oldies, they dressed up like they were in the cast of Grease and became Louie and the Losers. When they played a jazz club, they dressed in orange tuxedo shirts—at the club owner’s insistence—and became Extravaganza. And so forth.
But the band I really had in mind became famous a few years after that. In the late 1970s, according to the band’s drummer Jim McDonnell, clubs in New York were a little bit jealous of the bands that played for them. They didn’t want a band to play in one club one week and then another club the next, and most of the clubs followed this protocol. Basically they each thought it would cannibalize the audiences from each other. So this band would call themselves the Tom Cats for one club, the Bob Cats for another, and the Dead Cats for still another. They basically kept changing the adjective but leaving the word “Cats” in order to allow their fans to kind of read between the lines. They kind of liked the word “cat” because it was a throwback kind of term for a groovy guy. They reasoned that Elvis was the “Hillbilly Cat,” so why couldn’t they be cool hipster cats, too? And one day, the band had gone over to England and were nearly out of money, when their bass player said that they felt like a bunch of stray cats. It suited the way they were feeling at the time, and they really needed a more permanent name, and so it stuck with them. And that’s how Brian Setzer and company became the Stray Cats.
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