When You Were Young: Bush and Razorblade Suitcase

On April 11, 2016

by J.R. Moores


When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers Bush, and their album Razorblade Suitcase

In my first year of university, I went to a house party wearing a Bush hoodie. It wasn’t a costume party, with the theme being something like, “come dressed in the band merch that will most offend the sensibilities of your cooler peers.” That’s just what I wore, in normal life. Most guests were polite enough not to mention my post-grunge indiscretion.

There was one bloke, however, who felt it his moral duty to really take me to task for my tastes. Without even being introduced, he laughed and pointed his finger in my face to inform me how shit Bush were and that Gavin Rossdale was nothing more than a Kurt Cobain rip-off.

I wouldn’t have minded so much if my persecutor hadn’t been wearing an Iron Maiden Hawaiian shirt. It was covered in little charmingly-patterned figures of the band’s Eddie mascot character. Now, I’m not saying that Bush were ever better than Iron Maiden but this was the very early 2000s, by which time all that wavy-haired, showboat soloing, Spinal Tap nonsense was meant to have been swept away for good. What’s more, Iron Maiden had spent their last two albums muddling along with Blaze Bayley as their lead singer; not the band’s finest moment by anyone’s standards.

Blessed with having not attended private school, I was still learning how to speak in public, debate eloquently and nurture some small kernel of personal confidence. I mumbled something about how, yeah, well, but, um, Nirvana were just a Mudhoney-meets-Melvins rip-off in the first place and that Bush’s second album had been produced by Steve Albini. “Yeah, Albini’s cool,” replied the Maiden man, “but Bush are still shit.”

To be fair, this exchange did take place after the release of Bush’s electronically-tinged misstep The Science Of Things (1999), which even a fan such as I struggled to enjoy, but I doubt that Mr Maiden, with his ‘Man On The Edge’ multi-format singles collection, recognized any identifiable decline between that album and its superior predecessor, 1996’s Razorblade Suitcase.

I didn’t get into music - really, obsessively, adolescently, abnormally into music- until very shortly after the death of Kurt Cobain. I remember being thrilled by seeing clips of Hole and Foo Fighters on Top Of The Pops and feverishly collecting all of Nirvana’s output, posthumously. When I stumbled across Bush’s ‘Machinehead’ video when flicking through some late-night Channel 4 music show, I was equally thrilled. I didn’t know any better.

If you thought that Bush didn’t come over as particularly cool in the United States, imagine what their reputation was like here in the UK. They specialized in American-influenced alternative rock at a time when British audiences were zealously smitten with the media-manipulated, home-grown, 60s-fetishizing Britpop scene. It certainly didn’t help that Bush found huge success in America first. (My copy of Razorblade Suitcase, by the way, has a small black sticker on the front that reads, “No. 1 In America” in the optimistic and largely mistaken belief that such an accolade might actually have been an attractive selling point to the average British consumer at that time.) The snide British press thus mocked or ignored Bush but I was kind of proud of them. We had our own “grunge” band. It was difficult, in the late 90s, if you craved music that was heavier than Britpop or pop-punk but not as guttural as metal (or its bastard frat-boy offspring, nu-metal), and if you thought Iron Maiden looked a bit old and silly. It was especially hard to discover UK-based bands of that hard-rock variety, in the days before broadband, outside of a major city. The Wildhearts had split in a blaze of drug-fuelled non-glory. Therapy? had become exhausted and disillusioned. The Manic Street Preachers now wore smart shirts in front of orchestras. Terrorvision and Gun got haircuts and softened their sounds. There weren’t many new contenders either, not that you could find in the obvious places anyway. Seeing the Creation-signed Britrock quartet 3 Colours Red supporting Bush on their 1997 UK tour was literally one of the highlights of my youth. I still have the ticket stub.

There was, incidentally, an ace alt-rock trio from Doncaster called Groop Dogdrill who managed to swim against this tough cultural tide for just two albums, before splitting in 2001 when they couldn’t get re-signed. See if you can track down a copy of their 1997 CD single “Lovely Skin”. Its second b-side is a gleefully spiteful satire on Bush, which they titled “Shrub...”. Over hilariously formulaic quiet-LOUD-quiet Nirvana-aping music, Pete Spiby sings about pretty fakes who sell millions of units in the U.S. of A. “Shouting the chorus / God, he sounds like Kurt,” yells Spiby, “Singing the verse / Now the loud bit...”

I loved both Bush and Groop Dogdrill, and “Shrub...” sure is funny, but I never really thought that Bush sounded that much like Nirvana, despite dabbling in the same genre with a gravelly-voiced lead singer. And especially not on Razorblade Suitcase, even if it was overseen, quite brilliantly, by In Utero producer Steve Albini (who, as far as I can tell, has never said a bad word about Bush).

Bush’s songs are not as blatantly inspired by punk rock as Nirvana’s and the latter’s track lengths, on average, are shorter. Razorblade Suitcase’s compositions are slower, more lumbering and, because Bush have an extra guitar player, kind of burlier. Their structures are more complicated than the soft-HEAVY-soft accusation thrown at them by ’Dogdrill. The scratchy, high-pitched strings on “Straight No Chaser” and “Bonedriven” have little in common with the cello-dominated arrangements of Nirvana’s ballads. Sure, the tunelessly shouty “Insect Kin” is perhaps a little close to the likes of “Scentless Apprentice” but it also swerves into different, almost post-rock territory on the outro. It’s essentially a break-up album and Rossdale’s pained lyrics, though still clumsy at times, were the best they’d ever be on Razorblade Suitcase.

Some reviewers criticized the album’s lack of “hooks” which is actually a feature that appeals to the matured palate I possess these days. I’m not into hooks. Songs with big, obvious hooks are so needy it’s off-putting. Getting into music that lacks hooks requires more effort on the part of the listener but is ultimately more rewarding. Without hooks, the overall wall of sound, the music’s depth and details become its most important and intriguing aspects, instead of just some dumb catchy chorus. This might be why I’m so fond of largely maligned records like Deftones’ self-titled album, Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde and countless latter-day Neil Young concept albums about electric automobiles. Like that Deftones record, Razorblade Suitcase had a poppy single, three tracks in, which didn’t remotely suit the somewhat artier and darker tone of the rest of the album. To his credit, Albini tried to persuade Bush to dispose of “Swallowed” but they stuck with it, a wise move in business terms because it topped Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart and finally earned Bush recognition at home, reaching No. 7 in the UK singles chart. It’s by far the album’s weakest moment, paling in comparison to the brooding “Cold Contagious”, the spikiness of “A Tendency To Start Fires” and the less commercial second single “Greedy Fly”. “We are servants to our formulaic ways,” Rossdale groans on that track. This awkward, hook-shunning album was an admirable attempt to escape such servitude.

My ongoing perverse penchant for hooklessness, which has kindled my interest in punishing noise-rock, avant-garde and experimental noise music and prolonged, coagulated psych jams, may even have begun with Razorblade Suitcase, as strange as that sounds. I hadn’t spun my copy for a long, long time before writing this piece. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it still sounds all right to my jaded ears, not too hooky or formulaic, and you certainly can’t knock that earthy Albini production. Maybe I’m not too ashamed I wore that hoodie after all.
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