ROCKthusiast Gilles LeBlanc revists Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Nevermind, 25 years after their initial release.
I’m usually not one for “This Day in History”-type triviata, but I have had September 24th circled on my 2016 calendar for some time now.
It is the silver jubilee of arguably the two most significant rock albums released in the past 25 years. Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Nevermind weren’t just Red Hot Chili Peppers’ and Nirvana’s best recorded efforts respectively. They helped an aimless generation identify itself via music, not to mention establish the modern rock radio format that continues unabated to this very day.
Back in 1991, “alternative” was THE buzzword echoing through my high school’s hallways. Yes, I know I’m old, shut up. As my OAC or Grade 13 year got underway (something you youngins no longer have to deal with), I fondly recall bootlegged cassettes of Blood Sugar Sex Magik permeating pretty much all the cool kids’ Sony Walkmans so as to sneak in listens of profanity-peppered songs such as “The Power of Equality” and “Suck My Kiss” between classes. Forget N.W.A and gangsta rap of the era – I dare say RHCP freaked out wayyy more prude parents, what with all the rumours of wild naked performances as well as drug-indulging, blasphemous takes on Stevie Wonder classics.
Actually, the Chilis were more counterculture in an “against the grain” sense of the term than almost any other thrust-into-the-spotlight band at the moment, Nirvana included. Blood Sugar Sex Magik walks a clichéd razor-thin line better than any circus performer across a tightrope without a harness. Anthony Kiedis’ from the heart crooning is precariously balanced with hot fire rap lyric-spitting that predates Eminem and a whole whack of boastful MCs. Pioneering producer Rick Rubin is to thank for that. It is equal parts raunchiness and musical franticness; slam-dance-worthy riffs are juxtaposed with an acoustic sensitivity that just when you think you know what’s coming next, the Chilly Willies playfully stick their tongues out at your expectations. Well, better those organs than something else!
If there is one regret from my carefree, budding ROCKthusiast adolescence, it was missing Red Hot Chili Peppers in late-October 1991 at Toronto’s now-defunct Concert Hall with a band I continue to count among my all-time faves, The Smashing Pumpkins. I kind of made up for it by going to Lollapalooza the subsequent summer, but the Chilis just aren’t the same without John Frusciante, who had departed as their improv-jam virtuoso. Sorry Josh Klinghoffer, it’s the truth.
All of this was done, mind you, in a supposedly haunted mansion while trying to keep each member’s assorted addictions in check. No pressure or anything. It may not be a concept album per se, but the tracks on Blood Sugar Sex Magik seem to flow one into the other seamlessly, creating the kind of continuous grooves that make you want to dance up a storm…or soundtrack a down and dirty night in the bedroom. Vulgarity aside, the concept of “funk” was also introduced to millions of suburban-living, rhythm-impaired youths. With RHCP at our sides and coming out of cheap foam-covered headphones, how could we not be more confident? Never in my lifetime did I ever think the group who told a fictional “lady cop” to “suck my dick” would last another quarter century, let alone be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and lip-sync along with Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl. Nirvana may have set the blueprint on how to spectacularly crash and burn, although the Chilis tried their darnedest to implode before righting the ship with Californication in 1999. It really does speak to the staying power of this outstanding, 10 out of 10 album. They’re still using “Give It Away” to close the majority of their concerts, something that’s sure to continue into 2017.
Now if only I knew what the heck is making that twangy sound…
Unlike Blood Sugar Sex Magik which was strong straight out of the chute, Nevermind was the textbook classification of a slow build. Let’s just say the Opera House in Toronto wasn’t bursting at its seams when the album tour kicked off proper on September 20th, 1991. It admittedly took a little longer to worm into the ears of alienated don’t-want-to-growups that were apparently running amok everywhere in the early-’90s. That is when we weren’t laughing hysterically to early episodes of The Simpsons or playing Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo. Once it did, there was no turning back as they say. Grunge – as specifically expressed by Nirvana on Nevermind – became the de facto flavour du jour. Christmas saw a lot of checkered lumberjack shirts under trees all over North America, plus a few Nevermind CDs. Nirvana joined Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam for a handful of December California dates, forming an alt-rock Holy Trinity in the process. When January rolled around, those gifts added up to the Seattle trio implausibly dethroning Michael Jackson atop the Billboard albums chart. The underground had seized music authority.
In hindsight, these two juggernauts completely overshadowed another disc that came out September 23rd throughout Europe, prior to the industry deciding on Friday as its universal release day. Despite their wide-reaching influence, the Pixies were on a collision course of their own, breaking up for more than a decade in the aftermath of Trompe le Monde’s cycle. Punks everywhere didn’t even have the time to be sad, there was so much great alternative to be had. Terrible pun I know, shut up.
Whether you want to hear it or not, here are my two cents on the flannel phenomenon Nirvana carried proverbial torches for as a result of their miracle breakthrough. No matter how many times you go back to it, whatever the format, Nevermind sounds $#@%ing incredible. At the core of its true brilliance, however, is how it is pure punk angst repackaged for mass consumption with a glossy pop sheen, a formula audio scientists have desperately been trying to replicate for oh…the last 25 or so years. There is a good reason why The Beatles caused so much emotion among girls in the ’60s. Vocal and instrumental talent were important, sure, albeit they finish a distant second to likeability. Saccharine, not sex, is what ultimately sells records. Applying a similar template to males, Nirvana made rebellion marketable, with Kurt Cobain the face of the ad campaign. And oh boy did we ever lap it up. We all know how it unfortunately ended a scant year and a half later, but the fact remains that Cobain together with producer Butch Vig caught lightning in a bottle of how decibel-defying rock could be accepted and embraced by the mainstream.
There, debate away.
The thing that will forever stick with me is how we were robbed of the opportunity to see Cobain mature and grow as an artist. It’s not as if Kurt would have had to wait for eventual admiration; he literally had it all at his fingertips. All without resorting to swearing, I might add – go put on Nevermind yourself for proof. Kiedis is no slouch in terms of composing radio hits, but I’d put “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Come as You Are”, “Lithium” and “In Bloom” up against anything from any one single album. Cobain’s writing is in the same company as Lennon-McCartney, Jagger/Richards, or any luminary from pop rock’s rich canon in my opinion. I could totally envision him putting Nirvana on hiatus following In Utero, only to already have a plan to reunite at something like Coachella before it became popular…and profitable. Nothing against Dave Grohl, who everyone loves of course (rightly so). C’mon though, he’s never really veered too far off the straightforward rock path since. Truth be told, the baby-faced Grohl was the ace in the pocket that propelled Nevermind to an entirely different level. You don’t need the bloated super deluxe edition or a repressed copy with “Endless, Nameless” tacked onto the end. The 12 originals are everything you require to appreciate Nirvana’s music enlightenment.
Is it fair or even necessary to rank one of these masterpieces above the other? Nah, I didn’t think so either.