Favorite Bands: Garbage

Garbage in concert

Photo: Stig Nygaard, used under Creative Commons

Back in 1995, I was up late watching MTV one night. Remember when they showed videos? It was Friday night after Beavis & Butthead, but before Comedy Central showed that week’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. They played a video by a band called Garbage called “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.” The lead singer, this pale red head in a tight blue dress, a sort of sad-but-sensuous look on her face. I loved her voice. I loved her. I was in love.

Her name was Shirley Manson, and she had a dark side and a naughty side, both of which she loved to show off in her lyrics. This was post-grunge, and she had a long history with Britain’s post-punk movement.

Garbage was started by three record producers, Butch Vig (best known for Nirvana’s Nevermind), Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker. They had been in several bands together in various combinations, but were getting attention as sound engineers and, especially after Vig’s Nirvana gig, producers. Vig and Marker owned Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. It was during this time that the three of them formed Garbage. However, they were not to most photogenic of bands. They needed a charismatic lead singer and cast about for one.

Enter Manson, the former lead singer for Angelfish and keyboard player/guitarist for Goodbye, Mr. Mackenzie. She had an interesting voice, a feel for music that wasn’t steeped in grunge the way the others were. They hired her immediately, and she set about reworking the lyrics for their self-titled debut album. So when they debuted, their music oozed with raw sexuality coupled with dark introspection. Yes, I was happy for Shirley when it rained.

They followed it up with “Vow,” which gives Manson an almost vampire-like persona. “I can’t use what I can’t abuse…” and followed up by a diatribe against the shallowness of chasing trends, “Stupid Girl.” “Don’t believe in fear/Don’t believe in faith/Don’t believe in anything/That you can’t break.” The album cemented Garbage’s at the beginning of the post-grunge era.

They followed up with 1997’s Version 2.0, which they worked on for two years. Garbage is meticulous about their albums, composed of three veteran producers and a fourth who came into the trade after joining the band. Manson produced the band’s contribution to the James Bond series, the theme to The World Is Not Enough. If Manson’s sexuality smoldered on Garbage, she flaunted it on this album. (“Sleep Together,” “Wicked Ways”) Manson also dealt with chronic depression in her lyrics. She wasn’t self-pitying or preachy on the subject. She simply wrung whatever creative gold she could out of a bad situation. It was on Version 2.0 that Manson started playing guitar in the studio. However, as the face of the band, she wanted to move about the stage freely. The band tours with an extra guitar player, leaving Manson able to move back and forth.

I’ve always preferred lead singers who can do more than just sing. Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, and Marillion’s Steve Hogarth are all instrumentalists. So Manson was a welcome discovery. That, and I fell in love with her when I really got into the band in 2005.

That was the year when they released what I consider to be their best album, Bleed Like Me, which kicked off with “Bad Boyfriend.” This one is Garbage in its original form, which “Sex Is Not the Enemy,” “Why Do You Love Me?,” and “The Boys Want to Fight.” Maybe that wasn’t such a good album to make the band one of my favorites. I played the album heavily during the disintegration of my first marriage, and like an idiot, I didn’t bother to skip “It’s All Over But the Crying” (which was about Manson’s own divorce.)

Still, I’ve always loved their work. The playing is tight. Manson is a beautiful and compelling lead singer. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re four musicians and producers. I was really happy when they ended a five-year hiatus with last year’s Not Your Kind of People.

So, yeah, Shirley’s my girl. But then my wife says only the Foo Fighters’ David Grohl threatens our marriage. She has good taste. Butch Vig produced Nirvana and the Foos while Grohl played drums on a couple of Bleed Like Me tracks.