Day: July 22, 2022

Music Industry Issues (Part 2) Muzzling Kurt Cobain

The section of the article which I’d titled Chris Newman and the northwest fuzz-wah continuum states that the fuzz/wah combination was later associated with Mudhoney, and the chorus/distortion sound with Nirvana. The thing about this is, the fuzz/wah effect was used by Hendrix and other blues artists of the 60s and 70s, but I don’t know of any other musicians who were combining fuzz and chorus like Chris was. And as I noted, Chris started using the fuzz sound early on, and he added an Electro Harmonix Small Clone in 1980 which is about when that pedal was invented.

When I first published the article, this part of it included a footnote, in which I stated “Kurt Cobain’s signature effects were a Small Clone chorus and a Boss distortion pedal (DS-1) that sounds a lot like the (Dunlop) MXR distortion pedal which was an early Wipers sound.” That is basically true, but it’s not the entire story, and in fact in a sense, what I realized shortly after publishing the article there is some misdirection going on with that as well.

By way of background, by the time I’d met Chris Newman in 2009 I’d spent quite a bit of time studying the music of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s techniques of songwriting and improvisation. Some of this was from listening to albums and live recordings, some from watching videos, and some from reading books and articles. I was particularly interested in how Cobain put songs together, but I also really liked how he created improvisational soundscapes with feedback and effects not unlike Jimi Hendrix.

Once I began to work with Chris musically, early 2009, I became aware pretty quickly, that Chris was an originator of the “grunge” sound as elucidated by bands like Mudhoney and post-grunge acts like PJ Harvey, Scout Niblett, etc. It took longer for me to see the connection between Chris and Nirvana. That had a lot to do with the way Chris’ recorded music had been sabotaged.

Lots of books have been written about Nirvana, and since 2013, they continue to be written. The difference is, I’ve stopped reading them. So I don’t know what, if any, new information has come out. What I did realize is that with regards to artists like Kurt Cobain (and others), there appears to be what amounts to a scripted narrative, and what essentially amounts to anointed gatekeepers of the narrative. And the narratives contain lies. Even two conflicting stories, when told, may both be lies (or contain enough omissions to effectively be lies). There are a few reasons for the scripting, and it seems one of the reasons is to direct attention away from anything having to do with Chris. And it’s not just because Chris was emulated while paradoxically also being ignored; it’s because Chris was being used in a number ways.

I say this, because in all the reading I’d done about Cobain as a musician, and in the live performances, you see him pretty consistently using just two effects pedals – the Electro Harmonix Small Clone chorus pedal and the Boss DS-1 or DS-2 distortion pedal. And everything that is written about Cobain says that’s what he used. But – and I’m sorry I don’t have sources to cite right now, but we can get to it later as this is all stuff that was published in books prior to 2009 – my recollection is that on the Nevermind album, the recording of Lithium was said to use a Big Muff, and that engineer Butch Vig claimed it was his idea to use that effect. My recollection is that, again, at least prior to 2009, no other Nirvana recording was said to use the Big Muff. However, bizarrely – and this was not anything I was aware of at the time – it turns out I’d published that Napalm Beach article within days of the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s final album, In Utero. And with that, some new information was coming forward, for example, the director’s cut of the Heart Shaped Box video was published for the first time in August 2013.

Possibly because of this anniversary, I found myself listening back to In Utero and realizing that there was Big Muff – and small clone – used on several songs. Two that stand out to me are Heart Shaped Box and Pennyroyal Tea.

So why was it, I wondered, that I’d read all these books about Cobain as a songwriter, and they all mentioned the use of Big Muff on Lithium, but none of them mentioned that Big Muff was used throughout In Utero?

And having read all of those books and articles, I saw Cobain was credited – including by the Electro Harmonix company – as an innovator of this sound – and by now I know that everyone who did this had to know better. They had to know who the real innovator was – that it was Chris Newman. So a reasonable person would have to wonder why this would be kept covered up. And it gets even weirder when you get into pattern-based evidence, and by pattern based evidence I mean how Cobain generally was with regards to other musicians in his community. He was always giving shout outs. And because of his fame, a shout out from Cobain was like fairy dust – immediately the band he name checked would get increased attention, notoriety, maybe even a record deal.

By now it’s pretty clear to me that some of the answers to this are found in the songs themselves – Heart Shaped Box, which expresses the desire to “kill your cancer when you turn black” (Chris died of cancer last year) – Very Ape which as I’ve noted in the past lyrically evokes both a poem I wrote in the late 1980s called Atrophy and a song of Chris’ from the early 1980s called Into The Sky (which also used Big Muff and Small Clone and while never formally recorded, was apparently bootlegged from a Seattle performance) – and Pennyroyal Tea, in which Cobain laments “I’m a liar and a thief.”

Cobain seems to have been a warm, generous-hearted human being. It’s not that he didn’t want to explicitly recognize Chris’ contributions, but it’s that he felt he couldn’t.

Napalm Beach – Into The Sky – Golden Crown, Seattle 1982

What Did I Know And When Did I Know It – Part 2

To give an alternate timeline to what I knew and when I knew it — it was while I was writing the article on Napalm Beach that I knew something strange was going on with regards to Chris’ history and the development of Sub Pop as a label, in that it appeared that Sub Pop was essentially following in Chris’ footsteps in a number of ways. For example, Chris recorded Napalm Beach’s self-titled album (commonly known as Teen Dream) at Triangle Studios in 1985. In 1986 Triangle became Reciprocal Recording, and Sub Pop began to record all their records there. Similarly, Chris had played regularly at a Seattle club called the Wrex which then became the Vogue. Again, beginning around 1986, Sub Pop basically auditioned its potential signings at the Vogue. In 1989 I saw that as Chris was touring Europe with Napalm Beach, Nirvana and Tad were touring the same circuit, two weeks behind. At this point, Chris and Sam were seasoned musicians with a significant musical catalog while Nirvana were still quite green. This is the period of time when the Berlin Wall was coming down, an event witnessed by both Napalm Beach and Nirvana.

Two years later, in 1991, Napalm Beach toured two weeks behind Nirvana – while back in the states Nirvana’s breakout album, Nevermind, was rocketing to the top of the charts. I just knew there was something more than a coincidence at work, but I couldn’t figure out what. Mostly what was bothering me back in 2013, is the fact that when I sent inquiries to people at Sub Pop and K Records, including those who certainly knew who Chris was, had interacted with him, had played shows with him, had recently had pleasant personal and/or email exchanges with him – when I asked about certain aspects of this story – they all went silent.

Meanwhile, as I was composing the article “Introducing Napalm Beach,” originally on a WordPress-based platform run by music critic Everett True, it became clear that someone else was in my account. My edits were being sabotaged, reverted, etc. I’d been writing for this blog for about two years by that point and this was the first I’d noticed that type of thing going on. Another thing that was happening at that time is the screen of my iMac would suddenly go dark for a second or two, and then come back again. I thought at the time the system was glitching in some way, but it later became clear that was also a type of remote interference going on.

So that’s what I mean when I said I knew something was “fishy.”

As a background to this, at least since 1996 Napalm Beach was always being excluded from any kind of books or narratives about Pacific Northwest music, and even at times about Portland music. I always knew the exclusion was unjustified, and felt that it was odd – but after researching the story of Napalm Beach and their links to Wipers and Courtney Love among others, it seemed even more so. So I felt that publishing this story on a blog like Everett True’s would garner some kind of serious response and/or discussion. Yet it seemed to land with a yawn and a thud. And at that point I pushed a bit harder, asserting that the band had been deliberately buried by the industry, and the responses I got were along the lines of “no, they were just overlooked. It happens.” Sorry, but there was simply no way this was true. I knew it then, and it’s even clearer now.

Music Industry Issues (Part 1)Tear The Pedals Off Of You

The following is an excerpt from an article the article I originally published in 2013 entitled “Introducing Napalm Beach.” I originally – rather carefully – titled this section of the article “Chris Newman and the northwest fuzz-wah continuum.” This was because I was trying to keep everyone’s feelings in mind – Chris, and others who were influenced by Chris’ music. I was trying to avoid making the claim that Chris’ ideas had been stolen by other artists who became far more successful and who avoided sharing their success or crediting their inspirational source.

However, 2013 was a very different time for me. When I published the article, I was not aware of the bigger picture of what was going on around us. I just knew something was fishy. It was shortly after publishing the article that I realized that more than any other band, it was Kurt Cobain and Nirvana who had adopted Chris’ innovations. And Nirvana was, at one time – a time before the web and YouTube, when celebrities were fewer, and larger – the biggest band in the world. This probably deserves a follow up article. The only reason I never published a follow up earlier is because many others in the industry already knew the things I was just figuring out, and had actually been waiting for years for this day to come, and were busy finalizing plans for the hailstorm of chaos that would ultimately lead to Chris’ death, and because after the initial blast of music industry/FBI blowback, Chris didn’t want me to pursue that line of inquiry anymore. It’s not because the line of inquiry was wrong or would be unfruitful; it’s because Chris was, and had always been, mightily controlled.

Because the original article was intended to be a fairly comprehensive history of Chris’ career as a musician, it’s possible this section could be lost in the din. But considering it all now years later, I realize it was probably the most consequential and controversial part of the article. So I’m republishing it here as an excerpt, and as a foundation for other information which I’ve gleaned since the publication of the article.

LPB1 precursor to Big Muff

Chris Newman and the northwest fuzz-wah continuum

One of the things that is sometimes exasperating is watching people try to figure out where, when, and how northwest punks began to incorporate elements of 60s and 70s psychedelic rock. Most writers credit Mudhoney (and their generation) for these innovations. That’s because Chris has been left out of the story.

If you look at west coast underground rock as a continuum, as I do, Jimi Hendrix had a tremendous impact. The power trio, the bass and drums holding down a solid groove while the guitar goes crazy with feedback and noise – Jimi was the innovator. Jimi’s main effects were fuzz and wah. However, fuzz tone had fallen out of fashion in rock music by the 70s. The Cramps, and Chris Newman, brought it back.

Here are some things I know about Chris as a musician. He has a sharp memory, an ear for melody, and a natural ability to arrange instruments. In addition, he has a driving need to express himself verbally, and through his guitar, and to embody all that is REAL, and all that is rock’n’roll. Simply put: it is his calling.

He grew up in a tight-knight evangelical Christian family. When he began to play, they told him he was playing the “devil’s music”. And he literally believed he could burn in hell for playing it. And he deliberately, consciously, decided that he loved rock’n’roll music so much that he was willing to burn in hell for it.

And then he did burn in hell for it. When he came out of hell, he was still playing, better than ever.

That’s how seriously he takes his music.

He is foremost a guitarist and songwriter, but he also plays bass, drums, keys, whatever. He got his first acoustic guitar at age 13 and his first electric at 14. He was also 14 when acquired his first effect pedal: a Fender Fuzz-Wah. Because, Jimi Hendrix.

At 17 Chris mowed lawns to save up money for an Electro-Harmonix LPB1 distortion pedal which he purchased from the classifieds in Rolling Stone (Issue #2). That was his introduction to Electro-Harmonix. In 1969, Electro-Harmonix developed the Big Muff π. Supposedly Jimi Hendrix was the first musician to buy a (work in progress) Big Muff – but Chris must not have been far behind, because ever since the early 70s, the Big Muff fuzz and Crybaby wah have been his main – and usually his only – effects.

In the 80s – especially the early 80s – Chris also used an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus pedal. The chorus effect was invented in the late 70s. Chris bought a Small Clone in 1980 (likely about the time it first came out), incorporating it into his sound immediately. (You can hear it, for example, on these albums: Trap SamplerRock & Roll Hell, and Pugsley.)

Years later, these combinations of effects would become associated with Mudhoney (fuzz/wah) and Nirvana (distortion/chorus).

As for guitar and amp, in Napalm Beach, Chris started out playing his pink fender Strat (that matched his pink converse high-tops) through a Marshall stack. Later, and for many years, his main ax was an old Gibson Flying-V bought from Fred and Toody’s Tombstone Music store.

After seeing the Cramps in 1982, and their original two guitar, Fender Twin reverb-and-fuzz attack, Chris added a Twin Reverb amplifier to his setup. He refashioned a headlight dimmer switch to an amp switcher. For his Napalm Beach shows he could now use the switch to select either the Marshall, or the Twin, or both amps together.