I lose what I love most/Did you know I was lost until you found me…
-‘A Stroke of Luck’
Band or Music Project: Authenticity in Inauthenticity
One of the most fraught topics when discussing music is the one of ‘authenticity.’ The term is loaded with so many conflicting definitions, ask it to any music lover, and they will provide a different explanation about why X is authentic, but Y is not. Garbage is a band that early in its inception was slammed as being ‘inauthentic’; a group of record producers and a foreign singer wanted to play rock star. Needless to say, the truth was a bit more complicated.
The band was initially a music project formed by producers Butch Vig (famous for his work with Nirvana), Steve Marker, and Duke Erikson. Marker and Vig had founded Smart Studios (now defunct) in Madison, Wisconsin, while Vig and Erikson had previous experience in bands like Fire Town and Spooner. The men worked together in remixing songs for bands like Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, and formed Garbage as a music side project in 1993 (the band’s name stemmed from a comment about one of their remixes ‘sounding like garbage’). Across the pond, Shirley Manson, a flame-haired singer hailing from Edinburgh, Scotland, had been singing vocals in the alt-rock band Goodbye Mr. MacKenzie throughout the 80s. In the early 90s, Angelfish, a side project was formed, with Manson on lead vocals, and the band consisted of fellow McKenzie musicians Fin Wilson, Martin Metcalfe, and Derek Kelly. The band had a couple sleeper hits, including ‘Suffocate Me.’ The music video for ‘Suffocate Me’ was seen on MTV’s 120 Minutes by Steve Marker. Garbage was looking for a female vocalist and Manson was invited to audition.
It was a turbulent beginning. Kurt Cobain’s suicide, along with Angelfish’s North America tour put the project temporarily on hold, and when Manson first started recording, if Behind the Music is to be believed, the early sessions where far from idyllic. Still, a quixotic blend of amiability and just a bit of mutual disdain led to more fruitful recording sessions, and Manson became the lead vocalist.
That’s the abridged history of the band, and it’s not surprising many would call them ‘inauthentic.’ To be frank: they were. It was a music project first and foremost, Manson had auditioned to be the lead singer (‘audition’: the supposed touch of death to coolness), and the band initially had no intention of touring or playing live (making the music video for their lead single, ‘Vow,’ changed their minds). And yet, but reveling in their own desire to just make music and have fun, they were tremendously authentic. They didn’t see their band as crusaders for truth or makers of world-changing music. They wanted to have fun, and their debut album, Garbage, had that in spades.
What Garbage: From Trash to Treasure
Revisiting Garbage almost 20 years after its release is an interesting experience. What must have sounded so ahead of its time back in 1995 has been absorbed in countless other rock and pop groups in the years since. Yet, Garbage did just that very thing back in the 90s. They were so remarkably of the moment and ahead of the crowd because they shamelessly sampled and borrowed from every genre they loved. Their principal genre was alt-rock, but this wasn’t the grungy variety associated with bands like Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains. Garbage took after the British band Curve and threw in a heavy dose of electronica to the mix, and then took it even further by sprinkling on a nice coating of trip hop and power pop. The end result were 12 brilliant pop song laced with jaded irony and anthemic sulkiness.
All of this could have collapsed and become a pile of pretentious slop had it not been for the sheer craftsmanship and savviness of Marker, Vig, and Erikson, and slinky, chameleonic vocals of Manson. Manson’s sex appeal was an area of particular focus throughout the 90s but she was than the band’s face; she was its soul, in all of its angry, seductive, humorous, depressed glory.
Few bands are lucky to have both a great opening track and a great lead single for any album, much less their debut, but Garbage succeeded with both ‘Supervixen’ and ‘Vow,’ respectively. ‘Supervixen,’ a tongue-in-cheek homage to Russ Meyers’ film, Supervixens, begins with a blast of crunchy guitars, followed by a moment of dead air. Once Manson enters the track, she brings the no-nonsense authority of a rock goddess years in the making. She croons, ‘And I’ll feed your obsession/The falling start which you cannot live without/I will be your religion/This thing you’ll never doubt,’ before ending the tune with a dominatrix-esque declaration, ‘Bow down to me!’ On ‘Vow,’ a song of sadomasochistic love and revenge, she hisses, ‘I can’t use what I can’t abuse/And I can’t stop when it comes to you.’ The overlapping of sex and pain could make for a dour or worse, desperately uncool, creepy hit, but between the slick pop coating and Manson’s sheer vocal energy, they turn it into a manic-depressive rock song, bleak and exhilarating in equal measure.
The fusion of sulky, jaded, yet vibrant and humorous is found in the majority of the album’s tracks, but it’s never more apparent on the dual Grammy-nominated (Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group) hit single, ‘Stupid Girl.’ Manson once said it was intended to be the band’s equivalent to the Madonna song, ‘Express Yourself,’ except just a tiny bit more cynical.
Only Happy When It Rains: Garbage in Five Words
I’m only happy when it rains
I’m only happy when it’s complicated
And though I know you can’t appreciate it
I’m only happy when it rains
If Garbage had any signature tune, it was this one. A litany of darkness and depression given a bubblegum pop makeover and sung with a blast of enthusiasm, ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ took every facet of angsty 90s music and gave it the ironic, satirical kiss-off it deserved. Garbage wasn’t interested in making earnest, heartfelt ‘change-the-world’ music. They just wanted to have fun, and as evidenced here, who can blame them. The sheer gleefulness when Manson sings, ‘Pour Your Misery Down On Me’ is infectious.
‘Cool as the Deep Blue Ocean’
The majority of Garbage is spent fusion darkness with a playful, knowing humor. But, when the band went dark and depressing, they fully committed. ‘A Stroke of Luck,’ a sample-laden song is so loaded with sadness, it feels like a welcoming kiss from the Angel of Death. Manson intones, ‘Here comes the cold again/I feel it closing in/It’s all around me/Falling…’ On ‘Milk,’ the album’s closing track and final single, a tale of aching love is filtered through an fog of melancholic depression.
Back to the Beginning:
Revisiting Garbage is both delightful and peculiar experience. Delightful in that the band’s production and Manson’s wonderful vocals have aged remarkably well; peculiar in that it’s unique 90s-ness still sounds fresh and exciting in the years since. But, a good rock album is hard to find, and Garbage is a great find indeed! Now, if only they had won Best New Artist at the 1997 Grammys…
Next Week: We move on to the bands follow-up, Version 2.0, which was bigger, brasher, and dare I say, even better?