Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Marilyn Manson

Sound Familiar?
“The Beautiful People,” “The Dope Show,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

Who Are They?
Controversial anti-Christ superstars who shocked suburban families everywhere.

Mild-mannered Brian Warner was born in Canton, Ohio to semi-religious parents. But once Brian discovered his grandfather’s bizarre sexual fetishes (bestiality and sadomasochism), he was scarred for life. Scarred enough to start a rock band called Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids in 1989.

Brian came up with the stage name Marilyn Manson by combining the first name of universal sex symbol Marilyn Monroe with the last name of infamous serial killer Charles Manson. The name (along with the similar stage names of other band members) was representative of a central concept: the dichotomy of good and evil, and the existence of both, together, in every whole.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Before Brian became Marilyn Manson, he wrote music articles for South Florida lifestyle magazine 25th Parallel. (Fun fact: Brian actually went to college for journalism.) After meeting guitarist Scott Putesky (stage name: Daisy Berkowitz) and bassist Brian Tutunick (stage name: Olivia Newton Bundy), the three decided to start a band.

Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids released a demo tape and started touring. The band’s highly visual live shows generated significant buzz and sparked the attention of this guy named Trent Reznor. Trent (mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails and all-around rad dude) had just founded his own record label, Nothing Records, in 1992. Once he saw Marilyn Manson and friends, he immediately offered the band a contract with his label and a supporting slot on NIN’s headlining tour.

Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids was shortened to Marilyn Manson by the time the group released its debut, 1993’s Portrait of an American Family. The recording process was disastrous, resulting in drummer Gidget Gein being kicked out of the band for a pretty severe heroin problem.

Once the tour started, so did the controversy. During a show in Jacksonville, Florida in 1993, Marilyn was accused by the town’s Christian Coalition of violating adult entertainment codes. During the same tour, Marilyn met with Church of Satan founder Dr. Anton LaVey, who honored the singer with the title of “Reverend” (this refers to a person who is revered by the church, not one who dedicates his life to preaching the gospel of Satan).

After losing yet another drummer (Marilyn actually torched the guy’s drum set onstage as a farewell gesture), the band released an hour-long EP of covers, remixes and overall weird stuff called Smells Like Children in 1995. Marilyn Manson’s first real hit was a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” (which is a great cover, by the way).

But the real success came with 1996’s Antichrist Superstar. The album was considered a rock opera/concept album and spawned the highly lucrative single/disturbing video “The Beautiful People.”

Though Marilyn Manson was receiving plenty of attention in 1996, not all of it was positive. The band was a target of congressional hearings in the US to determine the effects of violent lyrics on young listeners. Additionally, religious organizations protested nearly every performance on the Dead to the World Tour.

After the Dead to the World Tour, the band turned to David Bowie and glam rock for inspiration. The result was 1998’s Mechanical Animals.

The tour, however, was cut short after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. During a media frenzy shortly after the massacre, the band’s music was targeted as the shooters’ motivation. In a Rolling Stone article, Marilyn chastised America’s habit of putting the blame on scapegoats to escape responsibility. (In the 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, director Michael Moore asked Marilyn what he would have said to the shooters, to which he replied, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they had to say and that’s what no one did.”)

Much of Marilyn Manson’s third studio album, Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death), was written in response to the Columbine shootings and marked a return to the abrasive sound on Antichrist Superstar. (Fun fact: Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood are a trilogy of albums connected by the overarching theme of the relationship between death and fame in American culture.)

Where Are They Now?
Still churning out albums, though not nearly as shocking.

After completing the Antichrist/Mechanical/Holy Wood trilogy, Marilyn Manson was free to try out a brand new sound. The Golden Age of Grotesque was released in 2003 and sounded a little different (it was influenced both by swing music of the 1920s and the heavy industrial beats of KMFDM).

After Trent Reznor’s Nothing Studios closed in 2004, Marilyn Manson signed to Interscope Records and released Eat Me, Drink Me in 2007. By this time, Marilyn was the only original member.

(Fun fact: Marilyn supposedly wrote the song “Mutilation is the Most Sincere Form of Flattery” as an attack on My Chemical Romance. He later denied it, but stated that “I’m embarrassed to be me because these people are doing a really sad, pitiful, shallow version of what I’ve done.” So basically, it was about MCR.)

The High End of Low followed Eat Me, Drink Me and ended up selling less than all the previous Marilyn Manson albums (apparently no one was shocked anymore).

But Why Marilyn Manson?
What better way to celebrate Halloween than with Marilyn Manson? Also, Born Villain was released earlier this year, in case you weren’t aware.

What Does Sam Think?
Marilyn Manson is closely related to the industrial metal scene, and if you know anything about me, you know that I love industrial metal.

Now, this band is no Nine Inch Nails or Ministry, but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. Musically, Marilyn Manson hasn’t really done anything groundbreaking; the real appeal lies in the aesthetics.

If you’ve never seen this band live, you need to reevaluate your life. Okay, not really. But this live show is seriously a spectacle. This band (and the man himself) is all about the gorgeously grotesque and the importance of having an image. If you have a spectacular live show, your music doesn’t necessarily have to be the best (but it helps).

I’m not saying that Marilyn Manson doesn’t have any talent. Antichrist Superstar is a fantastic album. I’d probably even name it one of the best of the ‘90s. It’s aggressive and dark and a little insane (perfect Halloween music).

But what Marilyn Manson really does best is music videos. Because this band is all about the image, the videos have to reflect that mindset. And boy, do they ever. You can watch the video for “The Beautiful People” below, but also check out “The Dope Show,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and the drastically obscene “Born Villain.” There’s plenty of sacrilegious Christ imagery, nudity and gore to go around!

As far as controversy goes, Marilyn the man and his music have mellowed out quite a bit. After basically getting blamed for the Columbine massacre, I think Marilyn made an unconscious decision to tone things down a bit. If you listen to the albums following Holy Wood, they don’t seem as frightening. Born Villain is decent, but it’s definitely nowhere near mid-‘90s Manson.

So if you’re in the Halloween spirit tonight (or anytime, for that matter), crank up some Marilyn Manson and scare your neighbors. (“Rebel, rebel, party, party / sex, sex, sex, and don’t forget the violence!”)

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rage Against the Machine

Sound Familiar?
“Guerilla Radio,” “Killing in the Name,” “Bulls On Parade”

Who Are They?
A political powerhouse of a hard rock band.

Once upon a time, a pretty skilled guitarist named Tom Morello met a pretty rad dude named Zack de la Rocha while the latter was freestyle rapping in an LA club. Tom asked Zack to be a rapper in his band, and the two of them drafted drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford to form Rage Against the Machine.

(Fun fact: The name Rage Against the Machine stems from a song Zack had written for his previous hardcore punk band Inside Out. The term “rage against the machine” was coined in a 1989 article in a zine called No Answers.)

After giving their first public performance in Orange County in 1991, the guys signed to major label Epic Records and their self-titled debut was released a year later. Rage Against the Machine went triple platinum thanks to the heavy radio play of “Killing in the Name.” (Fun fact: BBC Radio 1 accidentally played the “Fuck You” version of the song on the Top 40 singles show. What’s so bad about that? Well, Zack screams “fuck” 17 times in the repeated phrase, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”)

The debut is also known for its album cover, which features the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk who burned himself to death in protest of Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime during the Vietnam War (just wanted to give you guys a mini history lesson since this band’s history is chock full of political references).

RATM didn’t release a follow-up until 1996’s Evil Empire (this blogger’s favorite Rage album). It was during the Evil Empire era that the band started getting vocal about their political views. During a performance on Saturday Night Live in April 1996, Zack de la Rocha and company attempted to hang inverted US flags from their amps (which symbolizes distress or great danger) in protest against having Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as guest host. (The act was cut out of the program.)

The band began 1997 by supporting U2 on their PopMart Tour, allowing all their profits to be donated to various social organizations (aw, how nice). After successfully showing their humanitarian sides, the boys decided to end the year by going on a controversial tour with Wu-Tang Clan, of all groups. Needless to say, cops in several jurisdictions got a little nervous about this pairing and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get some of the shows cancelled, citing the bands’ “violent and anti-law enforcement philosophies” as viable cause. (The Roots later replaced Wu-Tang Clan.)

Two years later, RATM supported the release of its third studio album, The Battle of Los Angeles, by playing at the disastrous Woodstock ’99 concert. (Here’s the full set for your viewing pleasure.)

Where Are They Now?
Still sticking it to the man in various ways, both as a band and individually.

On October 18, 2000 Zack announced his departure from the band, saying, “Our decision-making process has completely failed. It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal.” So basically, artistic differences.

RATM’s final studio album, 2000’s Renegades, was a collection of covers of artists such as Devo, Cypress Hill, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (“Renegades of Funk,” an Afrika Bambaataa cover, is arguably one of the best on the album).

The band dissolved after Zack left, releasing a slew of live DVDs as an apology. But the controversy continued with Clear Channel’s 2001 memorandum, which contained a list of what was termed “lyrically questionable” songs for radio (this was shortly after 9/11). Rage Against the Machine was the only band to have all of its songs deemed “lyrically questionable.” (This list also included Sugar Ray’s “Fly” and Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” neither of which are even remotely offensive. Come on now, Clear Channel.)

In the wake of RATM’s breakup, Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford teamed up with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell to form Audioslave. The supergroup released three albums before Chris left in 2007.

Tom began a solo career in 2003, playing open-mic nights and various clubs under the alias The Nightwatchman (a superhero name fit for a superhuman guitarist).

Meanwhile, Zack started collaborating with DJ Shadow, Company Flow and Questlove for a solo album, but dropped the project to work with Trent Reznor (who wouldn’t?).

Rage Against the Machine finally reunited at Coachella in 2007, a reunion which Tom described as a vehicle to voice the band’s opposition to the “right-wing purgatory” of George W. Bush’s America (though Green Day kind of beat them to that with 2004’s American Idiot).

A proper reunion tour followed the Coachella appearance, but hopes for a new album were continuously dashed. Tom cited his work as The Nightwatchman his principal focus, Zack admitted that a new album was a “genuine possibility.”

But Why Rage Against the Machine?
A new album is totally possible at this point. Also, the band recently released a 20th anniversary box set for their debut album.

What Does Sam Think?
I’m not a very political person, but something about this band spurs me into believing that I can start a revolution. This is pure, unadulterated anger with a message clearer than most Dead Kennedys songs. And RATM isn’t a band that just talks shit. These guys take action.

But I won’t get into politics here (there's an entirely separate article on Wikipedia dedicated to RATM's political views). That’s not really what this blog is about. So let’s concentrate on the music, shall we?

First of all, Tom Morello is hands-down my favorite guitarist of all time (if you couldn’t tell by the number of times I’ve mentioned this in the sections above). He’s not technically the greatest, but his creativity is impressive. He’s a big fan of effects pedals (much like Muse’s Matt Bellamy) and I love that. Guitars can do so much more than play a few chords. I’m not gonna pretend that I know everything there is to know about guitars, but I know what I like and I like Tom Morello. BAM.

Second, Zack de la Rocha is a kick-ass frontman (like literally, he could probably kick my ass). He has this intensity in his voice that never seems to waver. That could also be because there is no such thing as a slow RATM song (with the exception of the band’s cover of Devo’s “Beautiful World”).

With the addition of Tim Commerford’s boss bass skills and Brad Wilk’s funky drumbeats, this band hits you with the force of a brick wall. Rage Against the Machine is not a band for the faint-hearted. You don’t have to be into politics to appreciate these guys, but if you’re into kick-ass jams that punch you in the gut, this is the band for you.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Wu-Tang Clan

Sound Familiar?
“Protect Ya Neck,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Triumph”

Who Are They?
One of the most critically-acclaimed and respected rap groups of all time (and the best one of the ‘90s).

Wu-Tang Clan assembled in 1992 with RZA serving as the group’s de facto leader and producer. So what the hell’s a “wu-tang,” you ask? Well, since RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were such huge fans of old kung fu movies, they took the name from the 1983 martial arts film Shaolin and Wu Tang (sound bites from the English dub of the film appear in Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers).

Though plenty of rappers have collaborated with RZA and friends over the years, the official members of Wu-Tang Clan are RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa and the late great Ol’ Dirty Bastard. (Longtime contributor Cappadonna’s status as an official member is unclear even though RZA supposedly added him to the group years ago.)

But I have neither the time nor the space to get into all the separate entities of the group (and there are a lot, I know. I’m pretty sure I was in Wu-Tang Clan for like a minute at one point). So for now, let’s get back to the history.

In 1993, Wu-Tang released its first independent single “Protect Ya Neck,” which immediately gave the group a huge underground following. After some difficulty finding a label that would sign the group while still allowing each member to venture to other labels for solo albums, Wu-Tang signed to RCA and released Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers later that year.

The success of 36 Chambers allowed each member to negotiate solo contracts. Without delving too deep into each solo career, I’ll just say that almost every member found success on his own. Method Man even picked up a Grammy for his track “All I Need.”

After proving themselves as solo artists, the members of Wu-Tang Clan reassembled to record the follow-up to 36 Chambers, 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts, achieved multi-platinum status and earned a Grammy nod for Best Rap Album. Wu-Tang Forever’s was more similar to the solo albums than 36 Chambers and featured verses written in dense stream of consciousness form (“Triumph” in particular was considered an odd choice for a first single since it featured nine verses with no chorus or hook).

A second round of solo albums followed Wu-Tang Forever, but they weren’t nearly as well-received as the first round. Wu-Tang Fever began decline by 1998 as a result of oversaturation. Keep in mind that these guys were everywhere in the mid-‘90s. They had albums under Wu-Tang Clan, solo albums, a clothing line and even video games. Yes, video games.

Where Are They Now?
Enjoying solo careers and possibly putting out a sixth Wu-Tang studio album in the near future.

Wu-Tang Clan reconvened in 2000 to release The W, the first album without Ol’ Dirty Bastard (he was too busy being incarcerated for violating his probation, but he did manage to record a verse for “Conditioner” via telephone).

ODB began having issues shortly before the release of The W, but kind of threw caution to the wind later that year. He escaped custody while in transit to rehab, became a fugitive and was finally caught signing autographs at a McDonald’s in North Philadelphia.

But back to Wu-Tang. Iron Flag followed The W, but didn’t sit well with fans due to its light crossover vibe. Around this time, Method Man began his acting career, starring in the stoner comedy How High alongside Redman. (Fun fact: The film currently holds a dismal 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but a 420% rating among stoners.)

By 2004, Wu-Tang Clan was wearing thin as a rap collective. U-God left the group claiming that RZA had hindered his success as a solo artist. The two ended up reconciling later on and Wu-Tang embarked on an unexpected European tour. Later that year, Ol’ Dirty Bastard collapsed in the recording studio and was pronounced dead just two days shy of his 36th birthday.

Following ODB’s death, the remaining members of Wu-Tang Clan released another round of solo albums, but have yet to release another collective studio album.

But Why Wu-Tang Clan?
They may or may not be celebrating their 20th anniversary next year with a sixth studio album. According to an interview with Ghostface Killah last year, the album was slated for release by May of this year. That didn’t happen. So then GZA told us that the album would probably never happen. But then RZA said the album would probably drop next year. I don’t even know what to believe anymore. Let’s just go with next year or never.

What Does Sam Think?
I really dig ‘90s rap and hip-hop, but I am in no way an expert. So why do I like Wu-Tang Clan?

I really can’t give you a coherent answer to this question. I always feel a need to explain myself when I admit to liking a rap group/artist, which is kind of ridiculous. Yeah, I’m really into rock music in general, but that doesn’t mean it’s all I listen to. But I digress. Rap artists of the late ‘80s and early to mid-‘90s definitely had something to say. That time period is usually referred to as “The Golden Age of Hip-Hop” for a reason. Acts like Wu-Tang Clan weren’t afraid to be political or aggressive. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s hip-hop; this is the real shit.

There’s something about the grittiness of this group that really appeals to me. I can probably trace that interest back to my punk rock roots. Punk is all about channeling this rage you feel into an aggressive statement. It’s a slap in the face, and that’s kind of what rap groups like Wu-Tang Clan, or even N.W.A., were all about. Yeah, you can find the odd song about “bitches and hoes” in their discographies, but the majority of the songs deal with subjects like racism, classism and the occasional drug war.

I’m not going to pretend that I can relate to Wu-Tang songs. I’m a white girl going to college in the Midwest. I’m definitely not in this group’s key demographic. But in recent years, white college kids have become a key demographic in rap music. Think about Odd Future (arguably the modern day equivalent of Wu-Tang). That group is successful because it has such a diverse fanbase. It’s kind of baffling when you really think about it.

So let me end this entry by asking you, the reader, why you like rap music and why you think Wu-Tang Clan “ain’t nuthin’ ta fuck wit.”

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Goo Goo Dolls

Sound Familiar?
“Name,” “Iris,” “Black Balloon”

Who Are They?
Top 40 giants responsible for one of the greatest ballads of the ‘90s.

In the beginning, there were two friends from Buffalo and a singer who was too shy to actually sing. The alternative trio settled on the name Goo Goo Dolls, taken from a toy ad in True Detective magazine. Since John Rzeznik couldn’t find his voice, bassist Robby Takac took over lead vocals for the band’s self-titled first album, released in 1987. It wasn’t until the third album, 1990’s Hold Me Up, that John finally found his courage.

Despite initially being labeled as The Replacements wannabes, the Goo Goo Dolls began to win audiences over with Hold Me Up. One album later, they achieved success with the critics and even made it to college radio and MTV’s 120 Minutes.

Shortly after recording wrapped on 1995’s A Boy Named Goo, drummer George Tutuska was kicked out of the band. Mike Malinin took his place just in time to enjoy the success of the album. “Name” cemented the band’s commercial success and A Boy Named Goo went double platinum.

In 1998, John was approached to write a song for the heart-wrenching film City of Angels (it’s an “ugly cry” kind of movie, trust me). John’s contribution was the equally heart-wrenching tune “Iris.” The song was a smash hit and propelled the Goo Goo Dolls to superstardom. (Fun fact: John was experiencing some serious writer’s block when he was asked to write “Iris,” and was actually considering leaving the band.)

“Iris” made it on to 1998’s Dizzy Up the Girl, which produced four other Top 10 hits: “Slide,” “Black Balloon,” “Broadway,” and “Dizzy.” Because the Goo Goo Dolls had gained quite a few new fans with their shiny new commercial sound, they rarely played any of their older songs in concert. The mutual decision must have been something like, “So let’s just forget those first three albums ever happened.”

Where Are They Now?
Settling into Adult Top 40 radio with the rest of those radio-friendly ‘90s alternative bands (and still reaping the benefits of “Iris”).

Once the “Iris” hysteria died down (okay, that’s a lie; the hysteria never died down), the Goos released Gutterflower in 2002. With most of the songs inspired by John’s divorce, Gutterflower was chock full of dark lyrical content (which usually makes for a fantastic album).

Following the release of Gutterflower, John wrote two songs for the 2002 Disney film, Treasure Planet. “I’m Still Here” and “Always Know Where You Are” were released as singles independently from the Goo Goo Dolls. (Sam-related fun fact: “I’m Still Here” was my favorite song for a good two years back in the day.)

The band celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2006 with the release of Let Love In, which gave birth to even more Top 10 singles. These guys actually broke an Adult Top 40 record with 12 Top 10 singles (Matchbox Twenty recently caught up with them and now both bands are tied with 13 singles).

(Unrelated fun “fact”: Apparently April 13, 1996 and July 4, 2004 are both considered “Goo Goo Dolls Day” in Buffalo. I put fact in quotations because I couldn’t find actual evidence of this. Pretty sure the Internet is lying to me.)

In 2008, John was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Goo Goo Dolls released their ninth studio album, Something for the Rest of Us, in 2010.

But Why Goo Goo Dolls?
The band is currently recording its tenth studio album, which we could possibly see by the end of this year or early next year.

What Does Sam Think?
As much as I enjoy Dizzy Up the Girl and Gutterflower, I’ll admit that there’s really nothing revolutionary about the Goo Goo Dolls. They’re a very average band that produces great radio-friendly hits. I’m not going to try to build them up for you because you’ve probably already made up your mind about them.

Like most people my age, my first taste of the Goo Goo Dolls was “Iris.” You don’t have to like the band, but you have to admit that “Iris” is a pretty rad tune. (The John Rzeznik/Avril Lavigne version of it, however, isn’t as good. And yes, that actually happened.)

But once that song got big, people forgot that the Goo Goo Dolls had four other albums. A Boy Named Goo is fairly underrated. The shift between that album and Dizzy Up the Girl is almost staggering. The band didn’t become 100% commercialized until 1998, and the earlier albums definitely represent pre-“Iris” Goos well. Hold Me Up and Superstar Car Wash are more college rock-oriented than you’d think. John and company didn’t get catchy until “Name.”

Post-“Iris” Goo Goo Dolls (isn’t it convenient to have two versions of the same band separated by one hit song?) are pretty safe, as are most other “adult alternative” bands (see Matchbox Twenty, Counting Crows, Gin Blossoms, etc.). That doesn’t make them a terrible band, though. If anything, it just makes them a little dull at times.

Bottom line: the Goo Goo Dolls are a great band for your dad to listen to. Every once in a while, they’ll produce a fantastic single (“Iris,” “Name,” “Here Is Gone”), but most of their albums sound way too similar. But hey, at least they’re consistent.

Okay, consistency isn’t really a good thing in the music industry. But you’ll always have a handful of acoustic ballads from these guys that get you all misty-eyed. I know you have those nights where you just want to eat a pint of ice cream and sing, “And I don’t want the world to see me / ‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand” in between sobs. It’s okay, I don’t judge.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.