When I was a kid I had this image of "Swingin' London" -- the London where
the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Twiggy (the model) and all the other
cool people were, decked out in their Mod gear.
Sitting in a suburban house on the side of a hill -- across the tracks from
Mill Valley, Calif., with a freeway view from the front window -- I was
desperate to leave behind my mundane, middle-class life, and to enter the
Swingin' London of my imagination.
It was pretty much always evening in my fantasy. And if you weren't hangin'
out in a recording studio while Brian Jones laid down a part with some
exotic instrument, or cruising in a Bentley or Rolls with a flowered
psychedelic paint-job, you were walking into the coolest club in the world,
an in-crowd nightspot populated by "birds" with bangs wearing miniskirts
and white Go-Go boots.
Garbage make the kind of music that plays in the modern-day equivalent of
those imagined London clubs, the kind of music that fills dreams, fantasies
and sometimes nightmares.
Of course, Garbage are not from London. The band, three veteran studio rats
-- hip producer Butch Vig and musicians/producers Steve Marker and Duke
Erikson -- and singer/lyricist Shirley Manson (who came to the United
States by way of Scotland, and who had stints in a few unsuccessful bands),
are based in the college town of Madison, Wis.
Holed up in Vig's Smart Studios, they construct their pop music piece by
piece, sample by sample. But like the work of legendary record producers
such as Phil Spector (Ronettes, Crystals, etc.) and Shadow Morton
(Shangri-las), the machinations are kept hidden behind the curtain.
The results -- as heard on the group's extraordinary new album, Version
2.0, and on its equally-brilliant debut, Garbage -- are
fully-realized, epic pop masterpieces. While they might present a world as
fabricated as my childhood fantasies, these songs are so seamless that you
make the leap of faith into them without being aware that you're being
taken for a ride.
And what a trip. This is the ride of your life, and the fact that it's an
artful fabrication matters not at all. Pop records are, of course, never
"real." The emotion conveyed might be honest (although that doesn't really
matter as long as it feels real to the listener), but the recording
itself is, in most cases, the work of a team of audio experts -- some
making the music, one or more singing, one or more writing, along with
engineers and people to mix and master -- who are all paid to deliver a
product that, if all goes as planned, a million or so people will buy.
Despite all the jive about "keepin' it real," "indie cred" and all that, as
one successful producer who has delivered albums to indie and major labels
noted to me recently, "If someone is recording rock albums in America
today, they want to sell albums and be successful."
Butch Vig is one of the best of the modern-day auteur record producers.
He's an old hand at producing million-selling smashes, including Nirvana's
Nevermind and two Smashing Pumpkins albums, Gish and
With his associates/friends/bandmates, including the actress Shirley
Manson, Vig has made what will certainly be one of the top 10 albums of
1998. Smart, streetwise and a huge music fan, Vig has devoted his life to
the art of the pop recording. With Version 2.0, he truly comes into
For the moment, Vig is able to deliver recordings that find art and
commerce intersecting. Garbage make music that is art, pure and simple, but
art that millions of people can dig.
At least two recordings on this album -- "Push It" and "Special" -- are
"Push It," the first single, finds musical hook layered upon musical hook.
It's the album's orgasmic centerpiece. Built around the Brian
Wilson-inspired "Don't Worry Baby" chorus, "Push It" takes all the
now-trademark elements that characterized songs on the debut -- programmed
rhythms and samples, fucked-up guitars, ethereal vocals and abrupt dynamic
shifts -- but gives 'em a serious makeover for '98. "Don't worry baby/Don't
be uptight," Manson sings in a voice that sounds like she's describing an
X-rated act. "Don't worry baby/We'll stay up all night."
But while I can single out specific songs, this is an album.
Version 2.0 is the story of a young woman, as portrayed by Shirley
Manson. Her character is -- like so many young women in the late '90s --
unpredictable and enigmatic. Vulnerable; tough; hurt; paranoid;
double-dealing; reassuring; angry; loving; unstable; confident. She loves
to look groovy, but she wants to be taken seriously for her brains. She's a
ball of confusion.
In Manson's world, men and women are often either prey, or being preyed on.
"I knew you were mine for the taking ... when I walked in the room," she
sings, over the insistent sex-disco, hyped-up techno trash tracks of
"Hammering In My Head."
Men are either "special" or dogs. It's no wonder that Manson screams in
"Push It": "My head explodes and my body aches."
And she's learned that betrayal is the norm. "I say, never trust anyone,"
she notes in the unearthly ballad, "The Trick Is To Keep Breathing."
In song after song one strains to make out all the lyrics -- they're that
good. The only thing better is the sound. From the Byrdsian guitars
that open "Special" to the Chrissie Hynde sample from the Pretenders' hit
"Talk of the Town," this is one of those sonic experiences that you get
lost in. While it plays, it feels like there's no exit, and even if there
was one, you wouldn't want to find it. "Special" is a dead-on kiss-off. "I
thought you were special," Manson repeats, but of course, she has already
discovered that her man of choice is anything but. "I've run out of
patience/I couldn't care less." And the clincher: "There's no way in hell
I'd take you back."
In "Sleep Together" -- Manson's update of Romeo Void's '80s hit, "Never Say
Never," with the chorus, "If we sleep together/Will you like me
better?.../If we sleep together/Will I like you better?" -- she sings
coolly, "I've got you twisted 'round my finger/Crawling 'round my legs."
Manson's the kind of girl who kicks sand in your eyes. No matter. If you're
a guy, you'll be back for more -- probably with a smile on your face.