In the annals of rock and roll history there have been numerous groundbreaking and important albums released, way too many to mention in a short list here. “Game changers” from Sgt. Peppers to Enter the 36 Chambers are discussed, disputed, diluted and written about ad nauseam. From talking heads on VH1 (and bloggers such as us) to the employees of record and music stores worldwide, there are oft agreed upon standards of excellence that these records have established. You will be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least appreciate the significance of OK Computer or the influence of London Calling.
In the past thirty years or so you can probably list quite a few records that are “instant classics” in various genres (again, won’t even try to start naming them). But over time I am starting to get the feeling that the wrong album is being championed to the forefront of “alternative” rock classics: Nirvana’s Nevermind. Now before I go on let me please state that I am a fan of the band and the album and in no way, shape, or form am I trying to devalue the record’s greatness. Like many other classic albums, it’s pretty much agreed upon that Nevermind was a game changer. The issue is, I think people are forgetting that perhaps an even greater and more influential album was released a few years earlier than Nevermind. An album that in hindsight seems almost more groundbreaking than it did when it was first released. An album that, unlike the claim by many that Nevermind was the “death of hair metal” actually was the beginning of the end of it. The album I am referring to is Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking.
Let’s go back to the mid-to-late-80’s when anyone on the wrong side of U2 and REM were pretty much reaching the end of their runs in the musical spotlight. Hair metal had taken over “real” metal as the most popular form of hard rock entertainment. While the salad days of hip hop were beginning, the end was near for bands like Poison, Ratt, and Motley Crue. Metallica was the lone wolf in the hard rock realm still holding on to the glory years of 70’s British New Wave of Metal while forging new ground (and a genre) with thrash. But girls didn’t really listen to Metallica. You still made out to power ballads by Warrant and if you were lucky, some slower Van Halen songs.
Then on August 23, 1988, a mesh-of-genres band from LA named Jane’s Addiction released their first proper studio album Nothing’s Shocking. I remember a friend watching a quick two-minute interview of the band on MTV and immediately running out to the mall to purchase the album (along with their excellent first live album) and coming home in a frenzy all fired up about his new discovery. He did this because he said, “they seemed kinda weird and different.” And different they were. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers had already been around for some time, as had the Butthole Surfers and Flaming Lips. But none of those bands had the unique gift of blending multiple genres of music without it sounding forced and none had broken into the mainstream yet. The Peppers were west coast punk funk, the Surfers were, well, a sound that can only be described as the Butthole Surfers, and The Lips were still a relatively unknown underground band of weird hippies playing Syd Barrett influenced noise rock.
Nothing’s Shocking hit the world like a musical meteor. The album had songs that any music listener could get into. The topics were edgy (for the time) and Perry Farrell’s vocal styling’s and voice effects were fascinating and unprecedented. The drumming was tribal and progressive, the bass playing was punkish, and the guitar style mixed the best of glam, hard rock, and psychedelic soundscapes. “What do they sound like?” was a very hard question to answer about Jane’s Addiction. They sounded like…Jane’s Addiction. If you saw them in concert at the time you witnessed a pre-Lollapalooza gathering of all types of music fans: goths, punks, metalheads, hippies, rockers, skaters, indie kids, alt kids, any kind of kids were present at a Jane’s show. They were a “cross over act” while receiving very little radio or MTV play outside of 120 Minutes and/or Headbangers Ball (Jane’s being one of the few bands at the time that could be played on either show legitimately). Songs like “Jane Says” were catchy enough to attract the ballad-loving listeners from the softer side of the hard rock landscape while “Pigs In Zen,” Had A Dad,” and “Ted, Just Admit It…” were aggressive and deep enough for the Black Flag crowd and “Standing In The Shower…Thinking” and “Idiot’s Rule” were danceable and upbeat so the Grateful Dead twirlers could join the party. Metalheads could get into “Mountain Song” and “Up The Beach” without loosing their “heavy” credentials and the stoners could most definitely zone out to “Summertime Rolls” on repeat for hours. It’s a masterful blend of rhythms, tones, and textures that seldom come together more perfectly and creatively than when a great band is at it’s peak.
Looking back now we have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight and sales figures. Sure, Nevermind sold a gazillion copies, influenced everything from dorm parties to fashionistas, broke punk, is on every critics top albums list, and contained one of the biggest songs of the past 25 years. Nothing’s Shocking ushered in the beginning of alternative music long before it’s early 90’s heyday. Before Gun’s n Roses put the final nail in hair metal’s coffin and Nirvana shoveled the dirt over the casket. The record contains sing-along folk, trippy epics, funky metal, and just enough production to create a well concerted effort that doesn’t sound contrived or dated. The songs are all over the musical spectrum but the album is able to maintain the cohesiveness of a great mix tape.
A funny story: one of my older brothers friends was very into music, mostly classic rock of the 70’s and 80’s. When Nothing’s Shocking came out I remember saying to him, “look out for this new band Jane’s Addiction. In three years they are going to be one of the biggest bands in the world.” His response was, “never heard of ’em, whatever.” A few years later, after the release of Ritual de lo Habitual, the rise of “Jane Says” and “Been Caught Stealing” and a little event called Lollapalooza, I saw my brother’s friend. I said, “so…how about that Jane’s Addiction?” He just smiled in pleasurable agreement.
As much as i love Jane’s Addiction, i certainly can’t agree with you on Nothing’s Shocking being greater, nor of it being more influential than Nevermind. Nevermind changed everything musically, its impact cannot be overstated. Nor can i agree that Jane’s Addiction marked the beginning of hte end of hair bands and their ilk. Firstly, shitty hair bands killed the shitty hair bands. Whether a great band would have come along or not, they were fads whose time were done. Mediocrity will wipe itself out in the end as that is the nature of mediocrity. Yet if we do adhere to the idea that one form of music will wipe out another, i certainly don;t think it was Jane’s Addiction who got the alternative music ball rolling. What about R.E.M? They had released six albums by 1988. Husker Du had formed, released six studio albums, influenced generations of indie song writers to come (the Pixies and Nirvana amongst them) and SPLIT UP before Nothing SHocking was ever released! What about the Pixies who released Surfer Rosa in the same year? I would say that is a far further reaching, better and more influential album that Nothing’s Shocking. The Smiths had released four albums and split before Jane’s appeared and are still far more lauded. My Bloody Valentine released ISN’T ANYTHING the same year, the Cocteau Twins five albums…. the list could go on.
Besides that, let’s face it, Nothing’s Shocking wasn’t that great an album to begin with. It was not a game changer when it was released, and Jane’s were only a cult band and known only to those in the know until BEEN CAUGHT STEALING got picked up by MTV for heavy rotation about two years later. It had moments of brilliance that would later be realised on Ritual De Lo Habitual but all in all it felt like it was a bit all over the place; a band fighting to get through their influences and find their sound.
Having said that, and even though i think your claim that “Nothing’s Shocking ushered in the beginning of alternative music long before it’s early 90′s heyday” is waaaaay off the mark, i really enjoyed your article, respect your opinion and hope to talk music with you in the future.
thanks for posting a great response. i couldnt agree more with you on most everything you say. i suppose i should have leaned the post more towards the personal influence vs. the mass influence.
bands like rem, husker du, the replacements, the smiths, the pixies, the cure (we can go on and on here) were certainly pre-Jane’s and hugely influential in bringing “alternative” music to the forefront. all amazing bands with great albums. i think janes uniqueness at the time was that they had appeal in the “hard rock/metal” crowd as well as college/indie/alt music scenes. again, probably should have made that more clear in the post.
i know that in the town i grew up in (was in high school when nothings shocking came out) was a big hard rock/metal kinda place. so janes was one of those bands that even that metalheads rocked out to. their influence in that time and area was huge. perhaps it wasn’t as big worldwide as i originally thought.
im glad you posted your comments and please continue to do so. discussing music is why we got into this blogging in the first place!
I listened to Jane’s Addiction (Live) last night and now after reading your article, I will be listening all day. Great read. Thanks.
Radio….suckas never play me….