by / November 8th, 2015 /

Opinion: Garbage: 20 Years Queer

Twenty years ago, a debut album by a band called Garbage exploded onto the music scene and skewed the face of alternative rock. Put simply, the sound was unlike anything else out there. That sounds like hyperbole in 2015 but it’s the truth. Or perhaps, it sounded like everything out there, just all together, a melange of influences, something we take for granted now but that was unusual for the time.

Against a background of US alternative rock slowly transforming from grunge and relatively straightforward Britpop in the UK, Garbage really was something different – aurally, visually and aesthetically.

Pristine, polished lo-fi, the album took rock and riffs as a starting point but layered each track in endless loops, hooks and quirky samples, blending elements of electronica and trip hop into the mix. Lyrically progressive yet still accessible, the songs told stories of hedonism and desire, obsession and self-destruction. Dark subject matters wrapped in a pop sheen.

Remastered and re-released for the anniversary, Garbage’s eponymous debut still offers much to be excited about, though over time it’s lost some of the shock value that made it so challenging and unique as bands and artists can now push the boundaries more easily.

Album opener ‘Supervixen’ sets the tone, abrasive and subverted, a woman revelling in her power over the opposite sex. The Super Deluxe Edition released this year includes an early demo version of the song with a much softer chorus, a sweeter coating lacking the bite that gave singer Shirley Manson the fiery persona that eventually became an integral part of Garbage’s USP.

Table turning women was a theme. In ‘Not My Idea’, she was burning down a lover’s house – metaphorically we assume – while ‘Vow’, with its disorientating stereo pan intro, was a lesson in revenge and retribution that was often mistakenly said to be influenced by Lorena Bobbitt who hit the headlines in the early ’90s for cutting off her husband’s member.

But it wasn’t all vengeance and dominance. The ambiguous ‘Queer’ offered numerous interpretations, heavily sexualised, seductive, speaking of the normality of difference, while ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ twisted the rhetoric of the miserable rock band. Tongue-in-cheek, the ‘pour your misery down on me’ refrain was surprisingly upbeat and anthemic, showcasing a band that didn’t take itself too seriously.

‘Stupid Girl’, arguably the most well-known track from the album, lamented the idiocy of the vapid, happily selling themselves out for attention and popularity, a view Manson has continued to espouse. The song’s chiming hook influenced by The Clash’s ‘Train in Vain’, its loop a key part of what makes the song so captivating. So captivating indeed that the Super Deluxe remaster features not one but ten remixes, most of which have it at the core.

So who were the people behind such noise? Behind the kohl-eyed, red-haired Scot, three men in black, one of whom was Butch Vig, producer of some classic albums of the early ’90s – Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Siamese Dream and Nirvana’s little-known Nevermind. He was known – well more than the others anyway – and initially it was seen by some as his band, his project. 

In reality, it was truly the product of four people. Vig and two producer friends, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker, had been dabbling in remixes for bands such as U2 and Nine Inch Nails when they decided to turn this experiment with their own music again. They knew they needed a singer and late at night, when Marker caught the sole TV broadcast of a video by a Scottish band called Angelfish, he knew he’d found their woman. Following some awkward meetings and auditions, Shirley Manson came from Edinburgh to Madison in the US to join the band and work with them on the album.

Garbage felt like an outsider’s album. But if it appeals to those who felt on the periphery, then that feeling came from the situation in which it was created. Manson has often spoken of feeling isolated in her new home in the wilds of Wisconsin, working closely and intensely with three people she barely knew. Coupled with her feelings of self-doubt, the unfamiliarity of the surroundings and the pressure to perform imbued the album with the tension and uneasiness that connected with many around the world.

Now, 20 years later, the connections formed are still strong. The band has just started the European leg of its anniversary tour, playing the debut in its entirety along with a smattering of b-sides. Manson has described it as a celebration, of 20 years queer.