Saturday 23 May 2015

BON JOVI: New Jersey

(#372: 1 October 1988, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Lay Your Hands On Me/Bad Medicine/Born To Be My Baby/Living In Sin/Blood On Blood/Homebound Train/Wild Is The Wind/Ride Cowboy Ride/Stick To Your Guns/I’ll Be There For You/99 In The Shade/Love For Sale

If you were closely reading the British music press in 1988 then you’ll remember that the buzz was all about “The Return Of Rock.” Actually this had been building up since 1986 (Raising Hell, Licensed To Ill) and those observers who warmly welcomed the unbuttoning of the tense punk fly remained wary of actual present-tense mainstream rock as it was happening; Appetite For Destruction, which took fully two years for British audiences to assimilate, might have been the elephant in this room, for it was rarely, if ever, spoken of. It may well have been that Slippery When Wet, happening without the permission of the music press (except, it should be noted, for Sounds, who had been raving about them since 1984), also set some of this off. But what else in 1988 was being passed as representing The Return Of Rock, and how much of it is still spoken about today?


Terrible cover and title, and I played side one to death and side two maybe twice. Objectively – oh for heaven’s sake, we’re talking about the Butthole Surfers here – it was no Locust Abortion Technician, which still terrifies. Yet “Jimi,” which took up most of side one, was both draining and liberating at the time. Unburden yourself of punk-induced year zero chastity, let those ghosts come flooding back into your speakers; the grandiloquent Hendrix guitar, the gruff Ginger Baker drum shuffle, and what were those speeded-up or slowed-down voices except old dreams reasserting themselves? Moving into noise, and then the heavens clear and we are left with a patient acoustic pastoral with background sounds which are not quite natural. It was like saying; yes, everything before 1976, come back, mean what you meant then but mean it more and now.

MEGADETH: So Far, So Good...So What!

Solemnly conceptual lyrics, masterful control of heavy metal dynamics and a vividly misheard “Anarchy In The U.K.”; if this had come out on SST (like, for instance, the moderately entertaining Sabbath tribute act of Saint Vitus) it would be venerated, although objectively – oh for heaven’s sake, we’re talking about Megadeth here – it isn’t quite Peace Sells...But Who’s Buying? For noise that’s less wary of being funny at the same time, see Anthrax’s State Of Euphoria.

METALLICA: ...And Justice For All

The New Jersey to Master Of PuppetsSlippery When Wet, except they persuaded Vertigo – the label, let it not be forgotten, which released Hot City Nights – to let it stand as a double, and it was one more key step to the reformulation of metal attained in this record’s 1991 sequel. “Harvester Of Sorrow”’s mixture of blood and ennui puts it in the same street as Michael Gira, while “One” – good morning, Vietnam? – delineates a musicians-following-the-flow-of-the-melody template very similar to that of Throwing Muses, although its eventual extremities owe more to Big Black (over the group Steve Albini fronted between Big Black and Shellac and which released an album in 1988, I shall place a discreet veil of silence).


Dismissed by some at the time as "Freak Scene" plus support acts - well, it is one of its decade's greatest singles - Bug is quite an agreeable stylistic bridge between Metallica and the Pixies. "Yeah We Know" slows rock down to a leisurely but still determined Generation X crawl before Gen X, strictly speaking, happened, while the closing "Don't" - everything that both Elvis and Ed Sheeran implied in their own similarly-named songs - features not J Mascis screaming "Why don't you like me?" (you may choose to hear a different verb in that line) but Lou Barlow, indicating not only the bleak road half a decade in rock ahead but also that a split was imminent. Green Mind or Sebadoh III? You take your pick. 

PIXIES: Surfer Rosa

Everything that most other alleged pop albums of 1988 tried (not) to be, an old-fashioned bang! bang! hit after hit rock ‘n’ roll record which I can still sing from start to finish unprompted. “Broken Fist” took the Wedding Present to Jupiter, “Where Is My Mind?” was the best Bowie song of the eighties (from the evidence of Tin Machine, Bowie would appear to have been in agreement with this) and “Gigantic” was a feminist love song for ever. And yet in 1988 4AD terms they were still playing a cautious second to...


One staggering debut (which I saw them perform on stage in late 1986, at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town, third on the bill behind the Cocteau Twins and Dif Juz) and an enthralling mini-LP later, the Bostonians’ second album proper was very much stocktaking time, its bookkeeping made immortal by the closing “Walking In The Dark” – who could forget Hersh’s stark “I can’t forget you DIE!”? – where we wait and wait, and yet the performance predicates the future; the patient, piano-led, midtempo harmonic wanderings at the song’s core foreshadow nineties R.E.M., but Hersh’s unstable vocal gurgles now remind me, in retrospect, of someone else entirely, someone who in 1988 was not yet born. “I can’t say it ‘til you grow a face.” Of course...she’s preparing the world for Taylor Swift.

SONIC YOUTH: Daydream Nation

Objectively – oh for heaven’s sake, we’re talking about Sonic Youth here – Sister is the dividing line and pound for pound probably the better record. Then Geffen wanted them to have hits and afterwards they were left to develop what they’d implied at the end of Evol but only really begin to investigate in Daydream Nation and that’s a feminisation of rock tropes; “Teen Age Riot” and “Silver Rocket” run by like bubblegum waterfalls but there’s an absence of bottom, an emphasis on the treble, the indistinct, the need for a different way of thinking and performing to come through. It may be that Kim Gordon’s time studying art in Toronto imbued the band’s music with Canadian factors but comparisons with “Death Valley ’69” etc. are like comparing early AACM work to the average ESP-Disk rave-up – there’s more space to think and act, and it’s not just because of the heartfelt Joni Mitchell tribute (how many Daydream Nation fans bothered with the same year’s Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm? I refer you specifically to “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)” and “The Reoccurring Dream”; with its array of celebrity singers and shifting concerns about “Number One” the record plays like an Escalator to the daydreamed nation).* “Total Trash” goes somewhere you didn’t expect it to go but the group no longer feel the need to rush into “difference.” Side three embraces the AMM/1983 merman within the group while the long fourth side sums everything up and leaves the future open.
* I could also cite Neil Young’s Eldorado five-track EP with its furiously slow crunch of attack; three of the five songs, remixed and edited, appear on 1989’s Freedom. But “Cocaine Eyes,” which didn’t end up released anywhere else, sounds and plays like the elephant in Daydream Nation’s waiting room. Then again, Daydream Nation's co-producer Nick Sansano also worked on "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos."


Appearing right at year’s end and bought by me from the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop, almost as northwest as North America can be without turning into Canada, the compilation contains work by the band who began building the new daydream nation (Beat Happening’s “Pajama Party In A Haunted Hive”) and those who completed it. At the time the smart money was on Tad – big, photogenic frontman, agreeably reverence-free attitude to Rock – and the not-so-smart money on Mudhoney (whose cover of “The Rose” is barely recognisable as such, and that’s not necessarily a good thing; they do better as Green River, mainly because the latter’s guitarist ended up in Pearl Jam). Soundgarden (with the label’s anthem) and the earnest Screaming Trees  (who get through Hendrix’s “Love Or Confusion” better than the Butthole Surfers would have done) were barely noticed, Steven J Bernstein’s phlegmatic ramblings can be passed over...and nobody said a word about the group responsible for “Spank Thru.”

The song begins quietly, guitar and rhythm staking out their places. The vocalist begins to talk quietly, although the “soft pretentious mountains” continue to sound more like “soft relentless mountains” to me. Then he begins to sing, and slowly everything increases in intensity, and there is a sense of architecture possibly unique on this record. But because it didn’t wave the flag of sensationalism it wasn’t regarded. Wasn’t there already a sixties psychedelic group called Nirvana?
New Jersey was originally going to be a double album, entitled Sons Of Beaches, but their record company (Mercury in the USA;  here it came out on Vertigo) persuaded them otherwise. Perhaps they felt the band didn’t have enough strong material to sustain a double, although at nearly fifty-seven minutes long the album as we have it is sizeable enough. Moreover, the hour of listening goes by surprisingly quickly. Recorded at Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver with experienced Canadian producers to hand (Bruce Fairbairn was the principal producer, Bob Rock engineered and mixed), New Jersey succeeds in capturing a characteristically Canadian “big” sound. The record essentially plays like a stadium concert, complete with entry-of-the-gladiators extended intro (“Lay Your Hands On Me”), and throughout plays as you’d expect; big, meaty, non-specific anthems-in-waiting about love, life and the world, like a Ladybird Books (or Commando comics) edition of Springsteen. Even with exercises in sustained self-doubt (“Living In Sin”), the music hits the blue collar heart with a directness which I suspect a lot of other bands at the time envied (suppose the Four Seasons had been a generation younger and grown up on Zeppelin).

To me it’s all much of a muchness, to the extent that one scarcely notices when one song ends and another begins. But it’s not unlistenable or unpleasant, even though some fans of Slippery When Wet might have felt slightly let down. “Bad Medicine” is a rocker conceived with such astuteness that Elvis Costello subsequently covered it, and both “Born To Be My Baby” and “I’ll Be There For You” invite hands in air and lighters aflame (Desmond Child contributed some direct inject anti-rock ray gun into four of these twelve songs, one of which also involved Diane Warren).

It should also be noted that side two follows a slightly unexpected country path.  “Homebound Train” is the antithesis to Tom Waits’ “Train Song,” full of unresolved Catholic guilt (“You can’t dance if you take  a chance on your rosary”) and nudge-nudge rocker winks (“Don’t take no ‘plane/Better take a train/’Cause I like it real SLOW”) but overall acknowledging that what’s done is done, and like Tony Orlando and his yellow ribbon he is coming back home. Most of this side is engaging country-metal (there’s even a fake field recording in “Ride Cowboy Ride”) which resolves satisfactorily with the aforementioned “I’ll Be There For You” before we get an old-school NJ party-down anthem in “99 In The Shade” (“I’m gonna see those sons of beaches”) and a nice acoustic blues workout to close – “Love For Sale,” complete with giggling studio chatter and Jon Bon Jovi proving he’s a far better harmonica player than certain other frontmen on other 1988 number one albums. I found New Jersey in its stripped-down-in-all-bar-sonics Hysteria manner to be a lot more listenable than it would have been a quarter of a century ago – but in terms of 1988 rock, nobody spoke of it, one way or the other, at the time, probably because it had, and has, no subtext other than providing straight-ahead but imaginative rock-pop music to the working classes. The Return of Rock, yes – but with the most elemental, yet most efficient, purpose, namely, to rock.