Some music critics…well, most…point to Nirvana’s Nevermind as the album that announced the arrival of the “alternative” nation to the world. That’s understandable, since it took the world by storm and things were never the same afterwards. But, after doing some investigating, it would seem to me that the album that truly trumpeted the coming of a new rock alternative to mainstream music was none other than Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction, released in the summer of 1988. This was freaky, weird, and uncompromising music hatched by a pack of eccentric L.A. musos – namely: Perry Farrell (vocals), Stephen Perkins (drums), Eric Avery (bass), and Dave Navarro (guitar).
Nothing’s Shocking was also the first record that, as far as I know, was the result of major labels courting a hot indie band and offering them a large sum of money based on a previous release that had a lot of underground hype around it. In this case, I’m referring to the debut self-titled album by Jane’s Addiction that came out on Triple X Records in 1987. Oh, and then Jane’s was also the first band to take said lump of cash and buy drugs with it (ba-dum-bum).
The Triple X record was a highly influential album in the underground L.A. music scene, melding punk with funk, heavy metal, trippin’ balls rock, and some prog thrown in as well. The buzz around the Jane’s debut lead to Warner Bros. signing the band for a bundle of cash, at which point Perry and the boys selected noted producer Dave Jerden to produce Nothing’s Shocking, which then ended up being sold in brown paper bags because many stores were freaked out by the album cover. Maybe some of them felt that the cow hide was just too damn tacky…ya think??!
Musically, Nothing’s Shocking was and still is an artistic tour de force by one of the greatest bands of all time. Jane’s Addiction set themselves up nicely with their debut, and then delivered the goods on this album in a big way. Anyone that knew the debut was probably rightfully wowed when they heard this for the first time, but not me, because I was only 10 and for some reason I only liked 2 Live Crew.
On Nothing’s Shocking, everyone in the band is firing on all cylinders like never before, and it’s a solid album front to back with some of the most mammoth rock tracks you’re ever liable to hear coming out of a pair of speakers. But being the American surfer shaman version of Led Zeppelin isn’t the band’s greatest achievement. This album has a lot more things going for it, and we’re here to break it down for you in case you haven’t noticed in the past 19 years since the album was released to the public.
Yeah, So Roses Are Red, I Made Up The Rest…
For one thing, there’s the writing. People have certainly talked about this, but I don’t think enough can really be said about it. There’s really no getting around that Perry was feeling his muse bigtime when he was working on lyrics and vocal parts for this album. If you don’t pay attention to lyrics normally, maybe you don’t know this or care, but for us folks who actually like reading the lyrics in the liner notes and read into their meaning, the lyrics on this album are uniformly excellent.
Perry has an amazing ability to give a song that might otherwise be simply a cool instrumental an indelible character that no one else would think of. Take a song like “Jane Says” – the band’s first big hit. This song would sound cool without the lyrics, sure, but the lyrics give this song such a strong personality and basically bring it to life in way that most rock lyrics seldom do. Without the thoughtful and detailed narrative behind the lyrics to this song, this song might never have become such a drug anthem.
The reason, I think, that Jane’s Addiction’s lyrics are so inspired is because Perry isn’t just a rock lyricist, but he’s also a poet. Poets (if they aren’t horrible) do make the best lyricists, I think, but they usually get a lot of flack from “real” poets, who like to look down on lyricists as if they’re no good. Jim Morrison wrote a lot of cool poetry (hey, I liked An American Prayer, ok?), but he was generally panned by a lot of people in the poetry world, who thought it was stupid that a rocker would even attempt to be poetic with his lyrics or – heaven forbid – write actual poetry. For me, I think that view is really narrow minded, but whatever, haters gonna hate!
My point being that Perry’s writing is awesome on this album in particular, and each song has a strong set of lyrics that brings the music to life. Songs like…well, pick any of them…they each have a strong character that makes the song so much more than whatever genre the music points to. Whether Perry is pissing on himself in the shower, or trying to communicate with serial killer Ted Bundy through song, his words are often funny, witty, critical, thoughtful, romantic, weird, and the list could go on and on.
Eric Avery & The Heavy Melodic Bass Playing
Because this album is essentially the band in their creative prime, what you have here are some of the most awesome basslines laying down a rock solid foundation for each song thanks to Eric Avery. Without these basslines, many of these songs would simply not exist. In a band full of “secret weapons”, Eric Avery is truly an asset to this band, because he produced the genesis for a lot of these songs, both lyrically (“Had A Dad” was about his dad, to begin with) and in terms of bringing the main bass riff to the table (he also wrote the “Jane Says” guitar riff).
Fans and critics alike have mentioned that some of his basslines are relatively simple, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing, because they are. Also, not all of them are simple. Idiots Rule, for example, is very busy, bouncy, and funky. Mountain Song stands out as being one of the simpler ones, but even that one is so huge in the context of the song, so you can’t knock it. In terms of groove, in terms of melody, and in terms of sheer propulsion, Eric has created these basslines that transcend time and space and allow everyone else to paint wonderful visions overtop of them, while the bass lurks beneath. Actually, sometimes the bass has elements of being the lead instrument in the song, allowing for the guitar to simply to go into full ambient mode as it often does here.
As musicians know, bass is the lynchpin anchoring both the rhythmic and melodic cores of a song, and yet, to the common listener, it can go unnoticed. Shit, if your sound system sucks, you might not even hear the bass, which is a particular shame in this case. Eric’s basslines are a big part of the draw on this album for sure.
Stephen Perkins & The Bubbling Hot Beats
When discussing recipes for what makes truly a great band, one thing that is perhaps the truest of all things is that if your drummer sucks, your band sucks. As anyone who knows Jane’s Addiction will tell you, they have the absolute perfect drummer to be in this band in the person of Stephen Perkins.
What makes him the right man for the job of holding all the chaos together? Well, this is for several reasons. One is that Stephen provides something that a lot of bands could use but many don’t have and that is… fun! Yeah, fucking fun, how about that?! Basically everything he plays on the drums, you can tell Stephen at least is having a good time. The clouds can gather, and the songs can get really dark, or they can be slow, or they can be crazy fast and busy, or have some weird off-kilter beat that would confuse your typical rock drummer, but Stephen eats weird, off kilter slow/fast/mid-tempo prog beats for breakfast and then goes back for more. Nothing stops Stephen from busting out some cool beats. NOTHING.
On Nothing’s Shocking, Stephen Perkins definitely doesn’t hold back when it comes to unbridled enthusiasm on every track (except for “Thank You, Boys”, but of course that’s dinner music), but as much as he likes to beat the living shit out of his drums, he’s also a sonic architect when it comes to catchy drum grooves.
On songs that aren’t your typical rock beat, which is most of the songs on this album, Stephen always plays something interesting and cool for fellow drummers to listen to and try to figure out, with that tribal feel often rearing its head, giving me the vibe that I should be surfing in Hawaii at night to some of this music while a volcano erupts somewhere in the distance. Whoa, dude! Except for that I don’t surf. I can barely stand on one foot…
Dave Navarro & His Bag O’ Tricks
It always helps to have a guitar wizard in your group. Someone who can not only rock a mega heavy riff, but someone who can also bust out a seering solo when the time is right, or make some crazy noises just to confuse you, or whip out a twelve-string guitar and gently strum and lull you into a false sense of complacency. Dave Navarro is one of those guys, and it would seem he’s always been one of those guys, going back to when he showed up on the scene in L.A. and started playing with bands. He was always the guy, and he’s still the guy.
One of the coolest rockers on the planet, Dave tears it up on stage with flying fingers, often while chain smoking. On Nothing’s Shocking, his performances betray just how much emotion is in this guy (if you prick him, doth he not bleed?). Dave manages to combine a bunch of different styles into his playing so that the listener just isn’t quite sure what they’re hearing with half the time, genre-wise. What kind of rock god are we dealing with here, anyway?
I’ve heard people say, after Dave Navarro joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that John Frusciante is ultimately the “funkier” of the two guitar players, when you compare them. I think that’s a bunch of shit, as Dave’s riffs have always been funky, at least when he wants them to be. Plus, John practically worshipped Jane’s when he was coming up with the Peppers. Heck, Dave can make a song sound like the soundtrack to porn faster than you can blink an eye. It’s just that he often uses that slightly crunchy metal tone, which isn’t what you normally hear when you hear funk guitar. Rather, Dave’s tone is more of a shredder’s tone, which he does quite well by the way. But, the odd thing is…he’s not just a shredder. He also can coax all manner of space-y sounds out of his instrument, and he seems to enjoy making unusual sounds, eg. “Ted, Just Admit It” when he’s basically layering on a bunch of sonic abstract expressionism at certain key points throughout the song.
Perry’s Voice on Nothing’s Shocking
That voice. Perry has got a voice that is kind of Robert Plant-like in terms of having a huge range, but one thing that I think Perry has that Plant doesn’t really have is a certain sense of street-level realness. I think it’s because he has spent a lot of time listening to Lou Reed, and somehow developed the same type of earthy yeah-I’m-talking-to-YOU intimacy. Somehow, the guy just sounds more authentic than your average singer, probably because there’s so much of his personality in his voice that the two are tightly linked, but Perry has a wider range of notes to choose from than Lou had. Perry definitely has a message to promote in his lyrics, and there’s something about the way he sings that makes him quite hard to ignore.
The “Shocking” Conclusion To This Review
What I find shocking is how this album still gets overlooked in general by the musical masses, but, then again, it’s not really for everyone. It draws some people in, pushes others away. However, if you like outside-the-box unhinged creativity, I can’t see how you’d hate this album. You know what, if you’re new to this album, I’d say just get it.