Way back around the time Endtroducing appeared on Mookbarks’ 52 Albums in 52 Weeks project, I remarked that it would almost certainly have been one of the three records I would pick as my favourites were I ever to be asked to do a piece for Ruth and Martin’s album club. And at that point, I said I’d at some point get around to writing a couple of ‘bonus’ pieces about the other two. I thought I’d start with the one least likely to crop up in the remaining 6 weeks…
In 1994, when R.E.M. had briefly, and somewhat improbably, become one of the biggest bands in the world, I heard a song – and I can’t remember where – in which their singer, Michael Stipe, provided the haunting backing vocals while someone else, a woman whose voice I did not recognise at all, sung about, what, an ex-lover?, a dead friend? a dead ex-lover? Calling them in the middle of the night, or possibly only in a dream, seeking to wake a ghost. It stayed with me.
Some months later, I mentioned this to a friend who told me “Oh, that’s Kristin Hersh, the song’s called Your Ghost. I could make you a copy of that. But what you really want to hear is her band, Throwing Muses’ debut album.” So she bunged a recording of it onto a cassette, along with Your Ghost, and so it was that for much of my late teens, a slightly poor C90 recording of the band’s by-then deleted first record was a fairly constant soundtrack to my life. When I was in 6th form, and most of us couldn’t afford to buy many records (we are talking about a time well before Spotify or Youtube, or even Napster and torrenting…) and C90s were like Samizdat copies of forbidden, or rather, very difficult-to-obtain, records. And this was about as obscure and difficult to get hold of as anything I had…
At the age of 16, it sounded not quite like anything else I had ever heard before. It begins with Call Me: For a few seconds, there’s tension building duel between the band’s two guitarists, – so far, so indie – and then the banshee wail of Hersh’s vocals kick in. “Read the stop signs!” she implores, at the beginning of what can best be described as a four part song. If it were classical music, you might say it has four ‘movements’. It’s a shade under 4 minutes long, and yet fits in several changes, not only of mood and melody, but of time-signature with the band’s other guitarist, Tanya Donelly providing ethereal backing vocals. At a time when Radio 1’s take on alternative music was to play the singles from the first Oasis album on heavy rotation, this was music you could lose yourself in.
The second song, Green is perhaps the closest thing to a conventional pop song on the record, and the only one written by Donelly (who in contrast to Hersh, would go on to produce at least one million-selling record later) and perhaps a good route into the band’s sound for someone who is initially ill at ease with Hersh’s vocal pyrotechnics. But it’s still recognisably a Muses song in a way that her later work, untethered from her step-sister, never quite was.
I Hate My Way could so easily be parody miserablism in the vein of latter-day Morrissey, and yet it isn’t. There seems to be kind of awareness of the ridiculousness of it all in lines like “I could be in a holocaust/ And hate Hitler/ My god I’m a child/ And hate school” – although last year I saw her performing at the Dissection room at Summerhall and she told a story about how the song was basically just a straight transcription of a conversation she had overheard on the college campus where her father worked. And it’s just a really great song, whatever you make of the lyrical content.
There’s nothing resembling conventional story-telling on the record though. Much of what Hersh is singing I can hardly discern at all, and what I can make out is aimed more at creating images, at evoking a mood, than telling a story. On America (She can’t say no), a percussion track that sounds like a steadily cantering horse that speeds up as the song goes on provides a backing while Hersh appears to recount an especially bad dream “Oh/ It was a funeral/ Mine” And can anyone make a line like “A kitchen is a place where you prepare. And clean up” sound quite so ominous, so threatening as she does on Vicky’s Box. She makes it sound like she’s describing a scene from a horror film, where it is more likely a body that is being dismembered than a meal being cooked.
Delicate Cutters was a song about self-harm that meant that an awful lot of people assumed all the songs were essentially Hersh’s account of mental illness, though in the liner notes for the 1997 re-issue (that C90 wore out in the end…) she comments “I swear to god, we thought we were a party band… It has been suggested that I was insane during the Muses early days, something I have vehemently denied in my effort to prove that this stuff could come out of our girlfriends, our sisters, our mothers. Listening now, I wonder if I was all there. But maybe that was the point. Our girlfriends, sisters and mothers have been known to go elsewhere at times, too.”
It’s a record that is influenced not by goth, but by the gothic. And specifically, the American gothic. Where European vampires are well-dressed upper-class sorts, American vampires, at least, southern state American vampires, are dusty and down on their luck. They would have spent their living years hopping rides on box-cars. And there’s something really rather unique about David Narcizo’s drumming. Apparently he had been the drummer in the marching band at Hersh and Donelly’s school, and he learned to play on a kit that didn’t have any cymbals. I’m sure that by the time they made this record, he had got hold of some, but listening to it, I’m not sure I can hear any. I do wonder if this rather unusual background goes a long way to explaining the record’s sound. Although it is only a part: more significant is that Kristin Hersh had either never been told that songs usually were in a single time signature, and consisted of verses, a chorus and maybe a middle 8 and a bridge, or else she found such restrictions boring.
The band are still going, over 30 years later. To my ears, they never quite topped this moment. The follow-up House Tornado sounded forced, like they were trying to maintain a reputation for weirdness they had picked up on that first record. The Real Ramona is worth a listen, and includes perhaps their finest moment, Two Step, the sound of the calm after the storm. University is a record that could have made them huge during the grunge/alt-rock explosion of the mid-1990s, but for whatever reason, didn’t. Hersh’s solo stuff is mixed, though a good way in is her 2010 album, Crooked. The band’s other guitarist, Tanya Donnelly, went off to be in The Breeders for a while, before forming Belly who were kind of a Throwing Muses-lite, re-tooled for commercial success.
Why did this record connect with me at the age of 16? Perhaps because where so much pop and rock music is made by twenty-somethings already reminiscing about their teenage years, the band were all still in their teens themselves when they wrote this record. I had a much more mundane, settled adolescence than Kristin Hersh, who at the age of 18, had been (mis)diagnosed with schizophrenia, was pregnant with her first child, and was having record companies making apparently outrageous offers to sign her band (at least as recounted in her memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, which is worth a read). But it’s still a record that speaks to a time that even those of us with the most settled upbringings could find difficult. On its own, I doubt that would be enough. It’s
On its own, I doubt that would be enough. There are lots of things that I loved at the age of 16 whose appeal now slightly mystifies me. And I can’t guarantee that hearing this record for the first time at 40 or 60 or whatever wouldn’t be a very different, and less pleasant experience. The line between genius and failed art-school experiment is both a thin one and in the eye of the beholder. But I know which side of that line it falls on for me…
A word, finally, about where you can find this record: To the best of my knowledge, it never received an official release in Throwing Muses’ home country of the US. British indie label 4AD released it here in the UK in the mid 1980s, though it was subsequently deleted from their catalogue, and so, for a long time, was very hard to get hold of. Thankfully, 4AD re-released it in the late 1990s as part of a compilation of the band’s early work, called In A Doghouse. The album is the first 10 of the 26 tracks spread across 2 CDs, and may now possibly not be the easiest thing in the world to find either, but it is on Spotify. If you’re curious it also includes the early demo versions the band recorded between 1981 and 1985, although personally I thought the highlight of that record was a rather surreal hoe-down called Sinkhole which didn’t make it onto the finished album.