Back for good
Is it an admission of defeat for a musician to revisit former glories? Is it a nostalgic pay day or something more profound? Rachel Devine asks these question of four bands who blew up big in the early 90s: Slint, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr, all of whom pay us a visit this month
When you are young there is no such thing as nostalgia, there is only the seemingly limitless advance of new experiences. Music inevitably provides the backdrop – a drunken first kiss, the first gig you ever sneaked into underage, or maybe just that tedious Saturday shift in Burger King. And so everyone’s formative music comes back to haunt them in the end. A song or a band can become a trigger for memories of lost youth and life before mortgages and car pools.
It is the stuff of a nostalgia peddler’s dream, and the reason why so many bands reform or simply stay together for so long in the first place – reason dictates that a true fan is a fan for life.
But if there was one musical genre that seemed destined to side-swipe longevity – to burn out brightly at its peak – it was the post-rock/pre-grunge hinterland of alternative rock, which had its heyday in the late-1980s and early 1990s. It was hardly a cash cow the first time around, the DIY ethic was resolutely underground, and while some bands rose to the top and skimmed the greater share of the profits, most bands existed hand-to-mouth and record-to-record.
This month, four bands from that era with differing fortunes and impact – Sonic Youth, Slint, Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr – play gigs in Scotland within a week of each other, some 20 years after they formed. Perhaps the most interesting twist in this rock eventuality is the reformation of Slint, the quartet from Louisville, Kentucky whose second album Spiderland is arguably the most disproportionately influential in music history, at least since the first cave man opened his mouth and discovered he could sing. Mogwai are just one of the major bands who cite them as their reason for being.
Spiderland was the quiet/loud guitar blueprint of post-rock. It featured just six sparse, precisely crafted songs of melancholy that featured bleak jagged guitar sounds layered with McMahan’s surreal mumbled vocals, which occasionally broke into frenzied screams. It had a quality that was both terrifying and indescribably beautiful.
The group disbanded on the eve of the release of Spiderland for reasons that even the keenest indie sleuth has been unable to fully uncover. Rumours were rife that some band members had found the making of Spiderland so emotionally taxing they had to be institutionalised.
But they all had careers after Slint: Pajo in Tortoise and Papa M and even in Billy Corgan’s post-Smashing Pumpkins band, Zwan. McMahan formed the For Carnation, and all the members of Slint played with Will Oldham’s Palace. It was Oldham who took the famous photograph that was used on the front cover of Spiderland, of the four band members semi-immersed in a lake (pictured right).
Slint reunited in 2005 to curate the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival but insisted it was a one-off. However, they regrouped again this year to perform Spiderland in its entirety at Primavera Festival in Barcelona and the ABC this month.
Unlike Sonic Youth (pictured left, with Jim O’Rourke who has now left the band) and Dinosaur Jr, Slint’s role in the emergence of grunge was peripheral since they were relatively unknown at the time. It’s impossible to predict how they would have fared at grunge’s peak. Pajo said later: ‘I never think about what would have happened. We may have just existed like a normal band.’
Sonic Youth, meanwhile, have hung on for 27 years, but like Slint were at their most influential just before the breakout of grunge. In 1991 they toured with the then relatively unknown Nirvana, which was recorded in the film The Year Punk Broke.
Their evolving sound was grounded in guitar noise – Thurston Moore would hack at his fretboard with whatever came to hand from drumsticks to screwdrivers. Their cult status led to appearances on The Simpsons and despite signing to a major label, Geffen, on which they released their 16th album Rather Ripped last year, they have always been regarded as the torchbearers of alternative rock. Here they come to celebrate their 1988 magnum opus Daydream Nation which, like Spiderland, will be played in its entirety over a two night residency. While it remains their defining moment and even the most committed of SY obscurists could debate its value in their canon, it is the sound of a band who have never stood still, harking back to their most crowd pleasing moment.
Dinosaur Jr was the group that gave the world J Mascis and Lou Barlow, although Barlow was thrown out of the band in the late 1980s and went on to form the infinitely more genteel and ramshackle Sebadoh. They too were among the most influential of the pre-grunge groups – they pioneered the melodic-lead-line-over-distorted-guitar-riff sound that defined the genre – and Mascis had further success until Dinosaur Jr disbanded in 1997.
Smashing Pumpkins were an integral part of the grunge scene at its peak, however lead singer Billy Corgan always maintained they had nothing in common musically with the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They were the most commercially successful of the four (their 1995 double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness topped the Billboard Charts) but Corgan’s much publicised bouts of depression and band infighting culminated in their demise in 2000. He has tried reinvention – twice – but nothing has come close to the Smashing Pumpkins brand for appeal.
It is surely no more than a jolly coincidence that these four bands will descend on Scotland within days of each other or that three of the four have chosen now to reform. What’s certain is that they are more popular today than in their heyday, having picked up a whole new generation of fans who tapped into post-rock in its second cycle at the end of the 1990s and early noughties, but who never saw the post-rock pioneers first time around.
The original line-up of Dinosaur Jr have a new album to plug as well as the recent re-release of their first three albums, as do Smashing Pumpkins. Slint are only just beginning to savour the adulation and monetary profits of their legacy. The fans who grew up with these bands are now hitting 40 and can afford to indulge their musical tastes on CD and MP3 rather than in the obsessive tape-swapping, music sharing of the impoverished 80s student. That they are offering something new while revisiting familiar material suggests this is less about a creative dead end and more an opportunity to make the most of.
It is an unlikely revival, but for all those grown-up miserablists who still remember where they were the first time they heard Slint’s ‘Good Morning Captain’, it will surely remind them of feeling youthful and vital. It’s not just ABBA fans who want to feel young again.
Slint, ABC, Glasgow, Mon 20 Aug; Sonic Youth, ABC, Glasgow, Tue 21 & Wed 22 Aug; Smashing Pumpkins, Carling Academy, Glasgow, Wed 22 Aug; Dinosaur Jnr, Liquid Room, Edinburgh, Mon 27 Aug.