The 17th of July 1998 was a Friday like any other, so with my evening meal eaten and school pushed as far back into my mind as I could muster, I sat down as always to watch Top of the Pops, completely unaware of how much a single performance of a single song would impact my life.
If the Internet Movie Database is correct, the lineup on the show that night was an interesting mix to say the least: Celine Dion, The Bee Gees, Billie Piper, and (wait for it) Another Level, but those weren’t the performances I would remember – what I would remember is seeing Garbage. I would remember the eloquent thrash of ‘I Think I’m Paranoid’. I would remember seeing Shirley Manson looking confident and tough in her short polka dot dress and boots, obstinate and completely unashamed of it.
In hindsight, it wasn’t actually a great performance because – as was the case of the majority of acts on Top of the Pops at the time – the band were forced to mime, but it affected me nonetheless. What Manson represented wasn’t the faux “girl power” of the Spice Girls that so many of my peers were into at the time; this was someone charting their own path, someone who saw things for what they were, and someone I could feel a connection to. I realise I may sound overly dramatic, but for a depressed teenager struggling during a time when no one talked about mental health, it truly meant everything.
My next chance exposure post-Top of the Pops would come in the form of ‘Special’ (their previous single release) on cassette in the cheap bin at Woolworths. I listened to those two songs – ‘Special’ and the b-side ‘13 x Forever’ – so much the quality of the tape began to deteriorate. It was only at Christmas that year when I finally got the latest Garbage album – ‘Version 2.0’ – on CD that I could expand and continue my listening without fear of wearing the media out.
While Garbage had found mainstream success with ‘Stupid Girl’ in 1996, I was just a bit too young at that point, and ruefully passed me by. Still, when I finally delved further into the Garbage back catalogue – saving up money and buying their older CD singles for their coveted b-sides at £4.99 a pop from the hallowed grounds of HMV, Virgin Megastores, and most excitingly, Tower Records on a trip to London – I came to find their music was just as unique as their image. When the band was formed, Vig made a conscious decision to distance them from the grunge sound he had become so known for producing, so the sound they ended up with was a noisy electronic pop-rock that drew inspiration from all genres, filled with samples and drum loops galore.
The story of Garbage’s formation is an unusual one. Duke Erickson and Butch Vig had worked together in a couple of unsuccessful bands, during which time they’d used Steve Marker as a sound engineer. It was Vig and Marker that went on to found Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin in 1984, a place where Vig would produce some of the most influential albums of the early 90s, including ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana and ‘Siamese Dream’ by the Smashing Pumpkins. During this period, Vig, alongside Marker and Erikson, also went on to produce remixes for big names like U2 and Depeche Mode. It was this experience of the three men working together that inspired them to form what would become Garbage.
The long running piece of fan folklore regarding the band name was that when Vig was producing some remixes for Nine Inch Nails in 1992 that frontman Trent Reznor had commented that what he played him sounded like “garbage”. While it’s a fun story, Vig has more recently clarified that the name actually came from a comment he wrote in a 1993 studio journal upon being frustrated that he wasn’t coming up with anything inspiring: “I hope that all this garbage will become something beautiful!”
The men wanted a female vocalist for the group, and it was through a chance late night viewing of a music video during its single showing on MTV that they found her. Edinburgh born Shirley Manson had previously found some success as a keyboardist and backing vocalist for Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, but Angelfish would be her first time fronting a band, and it was the music video for their first single that drew the attention of Marker. He alerted his bandmates and in turn, their manager who managed to track Manson – who, initially clueless to who Vig was, was urged to check out the credits on ‘Nevermind’ – down.
On the 8th April 1994, the three men met up with Manson for the first time in London; it was, by all accounts, an awkward first encounter that was cut short when Vig was informed of the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Manson returned to Edinburgh to hear about Cobain’s death on the evening news, doubtful about a future as a member of Garbage. Despite this, Vig, Erikson and Marker were impressed enough that they put Garbage on hold until Angelfish finished a stint across the US supporting the band Live. They even meet up with Manson at a Chicago date on the aforementioned tour where they held something of a musically unsuccessful audition, although they all found they got on well socially. When Angelfish disbanded at the end of that tour, Manson took a chance and called the manager who had initially contacted her on the band’s behalf and asked for another audition opportunity. While this still wasn’t exactly a runaway success, it was enough to convince all parties to give it a go, with the rest being, as they say, history. Aside from the slight blip of an almost breakup after the release of ‘Bleed Like Me’ in 2005 (they went on to reunite again in 2007), the band remains together to this day in its original form, seven albums and almost 30 years later.
When the band formed, Manson was nearing 30 and considered ‘old’ by entertainment industry standards, while the male band members’ ages ranged from late-30s and early-40s. I don’t need to point out that even now it’s pretty unusual to see a band who have not long formed be out of their early 20s, nevermind in the 90s. Now of course, Manson is mid-50s and the other band members are 60 and 70 plus, but with the wonderful kind of defiance they’ve always represented, they aren’t content to rest on their laurels and coast on past glories. They have kept pushing the boundaries and producing work that feels vibrant, fresh and utterly current, with last year’s ‘No Gods No Masters’ being as vital and strong as anything else they’ve made in their career.
The fuzzy alt-pop rock of Garbage may seem a long way away from the americana I usually write about now, but I can clearly trace my path from them to here. Vig’s involvement with Nirvana made me want to check out ‘Nevermind’, which led to to grunge, which in turn took me to Soundgarden, and then Chris Cornell’s first solo album, and that it turn led me to Jeff Buckley (Cornell’s ‘Wave Goodbye’ is about his death). So it’s not really a stretch to say I probably wouldn’t be here, writing this, had I not gone down that rabbit hole and realised that, “Hey, I actually kind of like some of this folk and country sounding stuff”.
If I had to choose one song to sum up Garbage, I think it would have to be ‘Beloved Freak’ (the last track from 2012’s ‘Not Your Kind of People’). “You’re not certain when you feel / Hurt yet violent when you deal / With how the world drags you along / You’re not alone,” Manson assures the listener. “And nothing good was ever free / No one gets it, no one sees / So here you stand, beloved freak / You’re not alone.” And when Manson sings those words, you believe her complicity because she gets it. The band gets it. They’ve had mainstream success (even recording a great Bond theme for a terrible Bond film in 1999’s ‘The World Is Not Enough’), but ultimately, they’re outsiders to the core.
As a vocal feminist, Manson helped shaped by own views in that area when I was a teen, and even today she continues to loudly advocate for all races, genders and creeds, practising intersectional feminism fearlessly and loudly bearing witness to the terrible injustices that exist in the world.
It feels like in life, that some people go through a misfit phase, but then there are those who feel like misfits for life; but maybe like me, in Garbage, they can find a home, a place where it’s OK to be who they are. Extraordinary as that may be, that’s just what a song can do.
I love Garbage and, like Helen, they played a significant part in my journey towards Americana.
One night in the late 90’s I was fast forwarding through a video of that week’s “Later…” specifically to see Garbage when I was intrigued by an acoustic group singing around one mic, moving in and out to take solos. I slowed the tape down to watch them – it was Steve Earle and the Del McCroury Band promoting The Mountain album. I loved the harmonies and the combination of great teamwork and individual instrumental brilliance. From there, that album and “Oh Brother” lured me into the weird and wonderful world of bluegrass, adding another piece to my jigsaw of musical tastes that I eventually recognised as Americana.