By the time 1988 arrived (think hard, now: Poison, Def Leppard, Debbie Gibson and George Michael’s “Faith” comprised the day-glo pop soundtrack of the moment), the Beastie Boys had already experienced a full career by generally accepted hip-hop standards: a number-one album (1986’s Licensed To Ill, the first hip-hop release to go to the top of the Billboard charts), an accompanying bacchanalian world tour complete with cage-dancing girls and a giant inflatable penis borrowed directly the Rolling Stones’ playbook, the requisite MTV hit (“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)”). But then came the backlash: a Liverpool show that dissolved into riot and an assault arrest for vocalist Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, the litigious end of their Def Jam partnership with future Columbia Records CEO Rick Rubin and their subsequent self-imposed banishment to Los Angeles. It was a weird time for the Boys, and 1989’s Paul’s Boutique became the even weirder byproduct of that era: hip hop’s first “headphone album” and a masterpiece of massiveness that remains, to this day, the finest thing in the Beasties’ catalog and one of the greatest pop albums of all time, right up there with OK Computer, Revolver, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and Blonde On Blonde on the scale of universally recognized, full-length rock ‘n’ roll righteousness.
Dateline 1993: Lollapalooza moshed its way down Main Street while Billy Corgan, Eddie Vedder and Zack de la Rocha vented about spaceboys, elderly women in small towns and killing in the name of, respectively. Outside the rage cage, something genuinely alternative was taking shape: a sleazy brand of bottom-heavy rock trafficking in seduction-as-bloodsport. The Afghan Whigs gave Greg Dulli’s cartoon Satan a leering, soulful backdrop. Girls Against Boys, a New York City quartet formed from the wreckage of D.C. punks Soul Side, spliced frontman Scott McCloud’s stalker persona with the raspy delivery of the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, resulting in an altogether more disturbing character. Inspired by a Spanish soft-core TV show the band watched in its hotel room while on tour near Barcelona, GVSB’s sophomore disc plugs the group’s fast-and-louche style into a set of songs finally worthy of their creepy charisma. Within the heartbreak beats of “In Like Flynn,” the churning churlishness of “Go Be Delighted” and the time-suspended tension crackling across “Bughouse” pumps the pulse of a serial killer. There’s no fake anger here: The all-too-real scary monsters and super-creeps conjured by McCloud and GVSB’s twin-engine basses unleash a wave of fear and unsettling menace. The lyrics on Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby don’t spell anything out but still manage to emit a cloud of unmistakable stank. McCloud growls vague come-ons such as “all the good things are in season” (“Seven Seas”), “stop the machine if you see something you like” (“Bullet Proof Cupid”), “if I can only show you a good time, I’m already tired of waiting” (“Bughouse”), and somewhere the nagging suspicion begins to emerge that the profile you’re building in your head is entirely consistent with the Son of Sam. Then the bottom drops out, and the endless fall through space begins. Welcome to hell, motherfucker. [www.touchandgorecords.com]
If Echo & The Bunnymen were the template for early-’80s modern rock—from Ian McCulloch’s gravity-defying hairdo to the Liverpool band’s omnipresent trenchcoats and rainy-day outlook—then the Ocean Blue brought up the tail end of that decade in similarly iconic fashion. When it was signed by Sire Records boss Seymour Stein (the man who gave the world the Ramones and Blondie and introduced American ears to the Smiths), the Hershey, Pa., quartet was still months removed from high-school graduation, playing local gigs with neighbors such as the Innocence Mission and Live. With jingle-jangle guitars and lyrics that found inspiration at the feet of various poets, painters and paupers, the Ocean Blue’s 1989 debut convinced most listeners they were hearing a band of British upstarts rather than a group of teenagers from the relative hinterlands of Chocolatetown, USA. That The Ocean Blue was recorded in London with Smiths producer John Porter further blurred the quartet’s provenance. (The band members returned to the U.S. after canceling their tickets for Pan Am’s ill-fated Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.) The propulsive, Bunnymen-like “Between Something And Nothing” and sax-driven Haircut 100-alike “Drifting, Falling” made the Ocean Blue instant darlings of the college-radio and MTV 120 Minutes crowd, driving sales of more than 150,000 copies. Later records such as 1993’s Beneath The Rhythm And Sound may have perfected the formula introduced on this debut, but the Ocean Blue would never again hit on all creative cylinders. [www.theoceanblue.com]
Due to frequent championing by Kurt Cobain, the Melvins are regarded by many as the granddaddies of the late-’80s/early-’90s Seattle grunge scene. Predating Buzz Osborne and Co. by at least a year, however, were the true progenitors: Green River. Not only did Green River exemplify the collision of punk, metal and classic rock that became the early Seattle sound’s calling card, but it eventually spawned some of the most recognizable faces of the grunge era. It’s an oft-told story, but following Green River’s split in 1988, singer Mark Arm formed fuzz-rock titans Mudhoney with Steve Turner (an earlier member of Green River), while Jeff Ament, Bruce Fairweather and Stone Gossard teamed with singer Andrew Wood in the decidedly glammier Mother Love Bone. When Wood became a heroin casualty, Fairweather went on to Love Battery, while Ament and Gossard started a little band called Pearl Jam. Green River’s sophomore effort Dry As A Bone and swan song Rehab Doll hit the streets in 1986 and 1988, respectively, before Sub Pop combined the two for a seminal 1990 release. If you’re at all familiar with its legacy bands, the Green River sound is exactly what you would expect, with the tension of competing styles (Arm’s unhinged, punk-rock shriek vs. Gossard and Ament’s bluesy metal wanking) forming a singular, if combustible, mix. “Unwind” is typical, hearing Ament and Gossard opening with some textbook electric blues; Arm plays along for a while before delivering the line “I can … fuck your mind” in his high-volume sneer, effectively kicking the band headlong into a boozy, proto-grunge romp. The impact is something akin to a beer bottle to the head, and it still reverberates 20 years later. [www.subpop.com]
If the Monkees were an American-issue, made-for-TV Beatles, then Moby Grape was a tragically misconceived attempt to personify the San Francisco Sound. Initially imagined as a star vehicle for former Jefferson Airplane drummer/future acid casualty Skip Spence, the quintet was thrust into the spotlight by label executives at Columbia, who decided to release 10 of Moby Grape’s 13 songs as five simultaneous singles in 1967. But the kids smelled oil burning inside the hype machine, and all of them flopped. That said, 40 years beyond the so-called Summer of Love, Moby Grape is arguably the finest album from the Bay Area’s psychedelic scene. The surprise is that for a supposed artifact of the Haight-Ashbury era, there’s not a Dead-length jam to be found here, just track after track of short, sharp roots variants, from pleasantly bouncing boogie (“Come In The Morning,” “Changes”) to loping, stoned odes to carefree times (“Naked, If I Want To”) and Bakersfield twang that gives the Flying Burrito Brothers a run for their money (“Ain’t No Use”).
Moby Grape ultimately fell apart as quickly as it was assembled. Three of its members landed in the legal penalty box for consorting with underage females, Spence cooked his brain on LSD during the recording of the group’s sophomore record and attempted to murder his bandmates with an axe before being committed to an asylum. Perhaps Moby Grape’s most definitive statement can be found on its debut’s artwork: That’s drummer Don Stevenson flipping the bird to the camera on the cover, summarizing the band’s brief, frustrating experience with the music business in the most succinct manner possible. [www.sundazed.com]
Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was the Cure’s first album following 1986 breakthrough Standing On A Beach, a singles collection that made a solid case for Robert Smith as pop genius instead of squawking goth goof-off. Kiss Me was his blatant plea to be loved: “Kiss me, your tongue tastes like poison,” he warbles on opener “The Kiss,” as lurching wah-wah pedals churn out a monotonous anti-riff aimed at scaring away the preppy newcomers. Smith pens the prettiest pop (“Catch,” “Just Like Heaven”), unleashes seven minutes of sitar-driven stonerdom (“The Snakepit”), uses accordions to punctuate Parisian travelogues (“How Beautiful You Are”), plays with psychedelic Hendrixian guitar textures (“Like Cockatoos”) and—as always—lets bassist Simon Gallup have all the best riffs and melodies.
Nothing is fruitier, however, than “Why Can’t I Be You?” an R&B rave-up that sounds like every light-loafered boy’s first step out of the closet and into the salvation of soul music, where he sees his Diana Ross drag-queen fantasy come true. The flip side to Smith’s romantic idealist is his destructive killjoy; “Shiver And Shake” could well be a school shooter’s suicide note. “I like it when that lightning comes,” Smith sings on “Hot Hot Hot!!”; sadly, that lightning would only strike once more, on 1989’s Disintegration, before the Cure became a faded memory of its former self. Maybe that kiss did taste like poison after all.
Of all the enduring alt-rock templates to come out of New England’s Fort Apache Studios, 1992’s Let Me Come Over may have suffered the most undeserving fate. While the Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim, Dinosaur Jr’s Bug and the Blake Babies’ Earwig had no literal designs on mass appeal, Buffalo Tom’s third album was the sound of a band clamoring for the next level. Let Me Come Over marked the trio’s transition from the Dinosaur Jr lite of 1988’s Buffalo Tom and 1990’s Birdbrain to a far more imaginative reconciliation of layered psychedelia and Neanderthal noise. From its juiced-up acoustic-to-electric power ballads (“Taillights Fade,” “Mineral,” “Frozen Lake”) to its reliance on mesmerizing melodic repetition, Let Me Come Over is a beautiful, overachieving mess whose moving parts weren’t always well-oiled. Drummer Tom Maginnis’ herky-jerky timekeeping always seems to be trailing just behind the beat. Frontman Bill Janovitz’s lyrics are the convoluted spew of a cooter-crazed UMass dweeb with one ass-cheek on the psychoanalyst’s couch and the other on a barstool, his vocals a half-hollered marvel of overcompensation. On the frenzied “Darl,” bassist Chris Colbourn can be heard whining for his mommy. Which is fitting, because Let Me Come Over is defined by the contradictions between Buffalo Tom’s rock-star aspirations and its inability to stomach the posturing that comes along with it, choosing instead to lay waste to its imperfections with some of the most devastatingly beautiful guitar rock of the ’90s. [www.buffalotom.com]
Alternative rock was at a weird place in May 1993. Pearl Jam and Nirvana ruled the roost with angst and volume, but the rock charts sported a zeitgeisty mix of hits from New Order, Lenny Kravitz, Duran Duran, Primus, Living Colour and Midnight Oil. Smack dab in the middle was The The’s “Love Is Stronger Than Death,” a perfect slice of organ-drenched melancholia with an indelible acoustic-guitar riff. The track is the centerpiece of Dusk, a rewarding trip through the bruised psyche of vibrato-loving vocalist Matt Johnson. With Johnson as its only constant, London’s The The had been around for more than a decade prior to Dusk with middling success, but younger fans weaned on the Smiths came aboard in droves this time around, spurred on by “Death” and MTV favorite “Dogs Of Lust.” “Have you ever wanted something so badly that it possessed your body and your soul?” demands Johnson on opener “True Happiness This Way Lies,” Dusk‘s first of many I-crave-what-I-can’t-have laments. While Johnson’s outlook teeters from bleak to cautiously hopeful, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr conjures the perfect musical moods throughout, adding signature guitar and harmonica touches to the could’ve-been-a-Smiths-hit “Slow Emotion Replay” and a funky flash of wah-wah to “Sodium Light Baby.” Marr told me in 2002 he was as proud of Dusk as the Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come, and it’s clear why: Few albums from this period offer a message so in synch with the accompanying music. [www.thethe.com]