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A uniquely slick and sonic combination of American producers, Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker, and vocalist of choice, sultry Scots lass, Shirley Manson (ex-GOODBYE MR MACKENZIE), glam-grunge group GARBAGE, had all the credentials to become international megastars.
Based in Madison, Wisconsin, and prior to forming GARBAGE in 1994, drummer Bryan “Butch” Vig and guitarist Erikson had cut their teeth in both SPOONER and FIRE TOWN. Tracing the roots of Vig, he’d worked with Eclipse before joining the aforementioned power-pop act, SPOONER, in 1975; Duke (then known as Doug) had been an original member, while their first recording was the “Cruel School” EP, in 1979. Other releases followed, but none of them (namely albums “Every Corner Dance” in ‘82 and “Wildest Dreams” in ’84), fitted in to a post-new wave curriculum. Butch duly set up his own studio and produced local noise-rockers, KILLDOZER.
In an attempt to find another niche in the overcrowded market, Doug/Doug and Butch instigated FIRE TOWN (alongside co-singer/guitarist Phil Davis and bassist Tom LaVarda); Butch’s old buddy Steve Marker was their sound engineer. “In The Heart Of The Heart Country” (1987) and “The Good Life” (1989) found their way on to the roster of the mighty Atlantic conglomerate and, although the garage rockers were popular locally, Vig and Erikson decided to reactivate SPOONER. Recruiting Dave Benton, Joel Tappero and Jeff Walker, the quintet made one last dig for gold on comeback third set, “The Fugitive Dance” (1990), but with lack of promotion from the dying Dali-Chameleon imprint and commitments to produce outsider outfits, they subsequently folded.
Butch Vig was already planting his production seed for grunge greats such as SMASHING PUMPKINS (“Gish” and “Siamese Dream”), NIRVANA (“Nevermind”), SONIC YOUTH (“Dirty” and “Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star”) plus several others, before he, Marker and Erikson began searching out Edinburgh-born vixen Shirley Manson, who’d impressed via her work with GOODBYE MR MACKENZIE side-project, ANGELFISH.
The freshly-formed GARBAGE contributed the electro-goth of `Vow’ to a various artists compilation (“Volume”), and this track ended up as their limited edition debut 45, in 1995. By that summer, they’d signed to David Geffen’s Almo Sounds (Mushroom Records in Britain), a deed which helped them break into the UK Top 50 with `Subhuman’.
Proper success finally came with the `Only Happy When It Rains’ single, a grungy, more tuneful affair that retained their goth-like overtones; Manson weaving her lippy vocals around the melody like a spider’s web. She was an obvious focal point for the group; on their Top Of The Pops debut, the singer made like a brooding, 90s incarnation of PRETENDERS chanteuse Chrissie Hynde, while the rest of the band remained comfortably anonymous in uniform black. The eponymous transatlantic Top 20 debut album, GARBAGE (1995) {*8}, was a mixed bag of styles that worked fairly effectively. Subsequent UK hit single, `Queer’, kind of summed up the GARBAGE ethos, a deceptively poppy number featuring a Manson vocal positively dripping with loathing – self or otherwise. Balancing on a precipice of post-grunge, techno-trickery and dare one say it… honorary Brit-pop, the CURVE-like `Stupid Girl’ single became a global hit, while the soft and silkier, `Milk’, was JOHN BARRY-esque in its sweeping delivery.
GARBAGE continued their rise to the top of the pile with a UK chart-topping (US Top 20) sophomore set, VERSION 2.0 (1998) {*7}, a record masterfully treading the finest of lines between alternative credibility and outright mainstream success; the hits kept on coming with `Push It’ (catchy with its “Don’t Worry Baby” lines and wispy overtones), `I Think I’m Paranoid’, `Special’, `When I Grow Up’ and `You Look So Fine’, also reaching the UK Top 20. After the phenomenal success of their previous albums (and monster James Bond-themed hit, `The World Is Not Enough’), the group reconvened to record their third album, the strange and often confused BEAUTIFUL GARBAGE (2001) {*6}. A slice of every popular genre imaginable, the set offered the listener a wide range of pop-lite tracks, shot through with Manson’s sexual imagery and Vig and his team’s scorching production techniques. The sassy `Silence Is Golden’ saw Shirley taking some hints from feminine hero PJ HARVEY, while `Shut Your Mouth’ and hit single `Androgyny’ were classic GARBAGE, and would’ve fitted anywhere on the group’s debut album. `Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)’ was the surprise track out of them all: a funky, sexy slice of retro-new wave, which proved that GARBAGE still had a few tricks up their sleeves.
Usurped by the younger generation of garage whippersnappers, Shirley and Co returned in 2005 to fight their increasingly predictable case with Top 10 ultimatum, `Why Do You Love Me’. Referencing the same influences and production as ever, right down to the PJ HARVEY-esque title, BLEED LIKE ME (2005) {*5} found Manson brooding over typically introspective subject matter against typically heavyweight choruses. Still, if one wanted GARBAGE sounding like The PRETENDERS sharing a hall of studio mirrors with TEXAS, then “Greatest Hits” exclusive Top 50 squeeze, `Tell Me Where It Hurts’, was delicious enough for Manson to think in solo terms.
After a year or two flirting with pop ideas that ill-suited her edgy appeal (she also acted in the final season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), Manson handed in samples of her work to the people at Geffen. Sadly, there were no takers from her bosses, and both mutually agreed to part company, with a near album shelved for ever, and Shirley contemplating retirement.
Thankfully for her legion of fans, Manson and GARBAGE dredged up enough songs to remove their 7-year itch. Whether Messrs Vig and Co had taken inspiration from the pop market, their dirty dirges had been cleaned up somewhat on NOT YOUR KIND OF PEOPLE (2012) {*5}. Safe back in their Top 20 environs, there were no immediate hits, just catchy, hook-line rock-pop as exampled on the glistening “Sgt. Pepper”-esque title track, the familiar `Automatic Systematic Habit’, `Battle In Me’ and `Beloved Freak’.
After much tinkering in Butch’s basement, a shorter 4-year hiatus was brushed aside with the consolidation of the band’s transatlantic Top 20 status in bucket-list album STRANGE LITTLE BIRDS (2016) {*7}. The Garbo-esque Garbage-girl once more stoking their fiery brand of detached alt-rock, the sultry Shirley excelled on the BLONDIE-blended `Magnetized’ (very `Maria’) and `We Never Tell’. And somehow it worked. Adjusting the pop dials to MBV on a CURVE overload, the riff-tastic `So We Can Stay Alive’ and `Empty’ stood out among the devil-ish pack of Tarot cards on display, while the opening industrial `Sometimes’ pounded all the senses. Ditto `Blackout’ and the paranoid-pop white noise of `If I Lost You’. If `Teaching Little Fingers To Play’ came across like a backdrop to LAURIE ANDERSON’s `O Superman’, the track’s thankfully sedated with some 10CC-esque harmonies.
© MC Strong 1996-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Sep2013-Jun2016

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