On approximately 5 April 1994, Nirvana’s vocalist and primary songwriter, Kurt Cobain, ended his own life. What I remember most clearly about it – apart from my mum phoning me with the news, apart from hanging up the phone to cry – is a photograph. It was taken with a long lens, the camera peering in through an open door to the greenhouse where Cobain had died. Visible through the door frame was one leg, clad in blue jeans, one foot inside a black-and-white Converse sneaker, and one arm, resting on the floor, the fist clenched. This photograph, widely published, was the closest I’d come at the time to seeing a dead body, and it felt then, and now, like an intrusion upon a terribly private fact.
Other photographs, taken by the Seattle police, were published just before the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s suicide this April, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them. The moment of Cobain’s death was private, but its significance was public, and the tragedy of it, as his suicide note made clear, was that it answered a question he thought his fans were asking: Are you the real thing? I can’t look at Cobain’s death scene because I still feel complicit in it.
1994 was a year in music marked by despair: the posthumous release of Nirvana’s ragged, haunting MTV Unplugged in New York, Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral, Soundgarden’s Superunknown. The Notorious BIG released Ready To Die, an album that defined gangsta legitimacy in the 1990s. “I don’t wanna live no more,” Biggie rapped on ‘Everyday Struggle’, “sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door / I’m living every day like a hustle / Another drug to juggle / Another day, another struggle.”
Yet amid the malaise was an extraordinary creative flowering – enough to make me wonder whether 1994 was one of the best years that popular music has ever had. It was the year of Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, TLC’s CrazySexyCool, Jeff Buckley’s Grace and OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Albums were released that set the contemporary template for rock, dance, R&B and hip-hop.
In 1994, Paul Keating was the prime minister of Australia. Bill Clinton delivered his first State of the Union address as president of the United States. Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. The first version of a web browser called Netscape Navigator launched. I was 12 years old, going on 13, and like every teenager, I believed that I was a member of the first and last generation ever to be young – misunderstood, alone, at odds with the universe.
“I got nobody on my side / And surely that ain’t right.” The voice singing these words belonged to Beth Gibbons from the Bristol-based band Portishead. She is one of the most extraordinary vocalists in the history of pop music, and one of the shyest — two decades on from Portishead’s debut album, Dummy, we know almost nothing about her. “How can it feel this wrong?” she asks on ‘Roads’, the album’s eighth track. Her voice sounds like it has arrived inside the song after a long journey through absolute darkness. Pulsing around her are chords played on a Rhodes piano, saturated in tremolo, and pushed at extreme low frequency through a Fender Twin amplifier. The song trembles upon itself.
How music that sounds this bereft ever became a commercial success is still a mystery to me, and possibly to Portishead, who have only made two more albums – each brilliant in its own way. Dummy was a victim of its own popularity, which threatened to strip the music of its essential strangeness. Yet it remains strange: an icy but sensual universe of theremin, electric piano, strings and crackling vinyl samples, with a dub pressure straight from Bristol’s reggae sound systems.
This was the year that John Major’s Conservative government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, in part to crack down on enormous rave parties being held across Britain. The Act made illegal gatherings of more than 100 people listening to music, specifically mentioning “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. The reference was to dance music – particularly jungle, a genre characterised by breakneck tempos and sense-altering rhythmic syncopation. 1994 brought jungle classics like UK Apachi and Shy FX’s ‘Original Nuttah’, and was the year that breakout jungle star Goldie founded the hugely influential Metalheadz label. Portishead’s Bristol rivals Massive Attack released their second album, Protection, and one of the group’s founding members, MC Adrian “Tricky Kid” Thaws, served notice of his imminent solo career with ‘Aftermath’.
These records, taken together, sounded like the pop future of Britain in the 1990s: multiracial, cross-genre, with allegiances to soul, hip-hop and reggae. But the media story in 1994 was all about Britpop, a genre defined by nostalgia and, more troublingly, by a resurgent nationalism. Union Jacks fluttered for Blur, who formed at Goldsmiths College, London, and their northern rivals Oasis, from Manchester.
Blur’s Parklife is still, to my ears, a charmless album, marred especially by Damon Albarn’s strained ‘Mockney’ accent; Oasis had more heart, if less musical imagination. Much has been written about Oasis’ retrograde Beatles-worship and its deadening effect on British rock, though Oasis didn’t sound much like The Beatles. Definitely Maybe, their 1994 debut, sounds like Slade, and the riff from ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ is a direct steal from T Rex’s 1971 song ‘Get It On’. Oasis were a glam band in sound, if not in spirit – which is a shame, because glam’s mischievous, gender-bending spirit is its greatest legacy.
The real treasures of Britpop were the outliers: bands who troubled the triumphalist atmosphere that surrounded Blur and Oasis. There were glam’s true spiritual heirs, Suede, whose second album, Dog Man Star, was a ’90s update of David Bowie’s 1974 dystopian concept album Diamond Dogs. Suede were madly, almost comically, ambitious; their music forever threatened to topple over into bathos, but the melodrama is what I fell in love with – it was so different from Blur’s snickering irony. Pulp, who had toiled for years in indie obscurity, released His ’N’ Hers, an album indebted to the razzamatazz of Roxy Music but made pungent by Jarvis Cocker’s defeatist narratives of small-town tedium and bad sex.
And then there was The Holy Bible, a record at grave odds not only with Britpop but also with the world at large. This, the third album from Welsh band Manic Street Preachers, remains one of the bleakest and most politically astute of rock albums – a record that indicts even its own listeners. “Who’s responsible? / You fucking are,” barks the band’s vocalist, James Dean Bradfield, on a track called ‘Of Walking Abortion’. The album’s main lyricist, Richey Edwards, was hospitalised for psychiatric treatment in 1994 – the following year he went missing, never to be seen again. The Holy Bible is one of my life’s most important records, but I recommend it to no one, it is so wretched.
Things weren’t much cheerier across the Atlantic, although Green Day managed to turn the subject of panic attacks into catchy pop-punk with ‘Basket Case’, from their breakthrough album Dookie, which topped the ARIA album chart. Green Day’s commercial success had everything to do with the legacy of Nirvana: “alternative rock” was marketing gold. Live’s Throwing Copper eventually went eight times platinum in the United States, Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy sold just under a million copies within a week of its release, and Beck’s major label debut, Mellow Gold, was headed up by ‘Loser’, a sardonic and accidental anthem, part folk music, part rap. The verses were nonsensical, but the chorus was clear enough. “I’m a loser, baby,” Beck sang, “so why don’t you kill me?”
Meanwhile, out of New York came Nas, born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones. His debut album, Illmatic, is among the most lauded records in hip-hop history. Alongside The Notorious BIG, Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, Nas breathed life into the sub-genre known as East Coast hardcore – but it was a grim, difficult life that he wrote of, scarred by gang warfare, police violence and crack cocaine. “It’s like the game ain’t the same,” he rapped on ‘NY State of Mind’. “Got younger niggas pulling the triggers bringing fame to their name and claim some corners / Crews without guns are goners.” East Coast hardcore has often been described as lacking melody – unlike the gloriously smooth sounds of West Coast ‘G-funk’, or gangsta-funk, exemplified in 1994 by Warren G and Nate Dogg’s classic ‘Regulate’. Nas sounds dour by comparison, but a song like ‘NY State of Mind’ is economical with melody, rather than missing it altogether. Nas winds his novelistically detailed lyric around a four-note piano sample from jazz pianist Joe Chambers’ 1978 track ‘Mind Rain’, and the effect is of a tightly coiled musical spring. For atmospheric dread Nas was only rivalled in 1994 by Mobb Deep’s disquieting ‘Shook Ones (Part II)’. “Scared to death, scared to look,” rapped the Queensbridge duo. “They shook.”
That photograph of Kurt Cobain’s dead body is etched into my mind, but I remember something else from the immediate aftermath: his wife Courtney Love’s ravaged, angry reading of his suicide note, complete with her own interjections, for a public broadcast that was heard around the world. Four days after Cobain’s body was found, Love’s band Hole released their second album, Live Through This. It wasn’t an album that was meant to be about death, but it became so; from the title onwards, it was interpreted as eerily prescient. Live Through This is about many things: girlhood, motherhood, beauty queens, rape. It is a feminist rock album in a world still sorely lacking in those, and it changed my life. “If you live through this with me, I swear that I will die for you,” Love sang on ‘Asking for It’, and her voice, as always, was both wounded and defiant. But Courtney Love didn’t die, and at a distance of 20 years from the marriage that still defines her public image, Love’s decision seems to me much more profound than her husband’s – in 1994, she decided to live.
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