Nineteen Ninety-Six was a year where I was slowly starting to form myself through music and art. Before that, music was something I listened to for enjoyment, something in the charts I bought because it was popular and catchy. The bands I’d inherited from my dad (The Smiths, The Cure, The Slits, Siouxsie And The Banshees) were pop groups I loved and still love, but they weren’t in the charts. Sometimes I wondered if there was anything for me, right then and there. Nirvana were gone. Huggy Bear weren’t there. What was there for Kirky, The Teenage Weirdo? The charts were Blur and Oasis, who were loved by everyone, which meant I couldn’t love them. The Lightning Seeds? You Told Me is an anthem, but everything else wasn’t for me. God, Ian Broudie appeared in a football shirt alongside Baddiel and Skinner. Football was for my brothers, especially my eldest brother (who’d once played in front of a scout for Rangers FC but gave it all up for drugs). My identity, still forming, knew that football wasn’t part of me. If I could play it, perhaps things might have been different, but I was rubbish at kicking a ball, even on the Atari. My identity was ‘weirdo’ by default. Musically, I had Shampoo and I loved them. Then there were the alternative American bands who filled my soul, specifically The Pumpkins, who’d been given to me by my best friend who went to New York, which seemed so startlingly amazing to me. Imagine it! A trip to America. But I couldn’t. It seemed like a trip to space, quite frankly. And so I was left to make myself out of the books I read and music I loved. the themes of music, the imagery and iconography, that deep stare into the very fabric of the songs I loved…was still to come. Music wasn’t quite an obsession, just a love that you could listen to. That year, nineteen ninety-six, I remember my life was settled in every way except the one place that truly mattered: home. My parents were readying for another split. My brother was in prison for another bungled robbery (we told my gran every Christmas he was working ‘down south’). My sister left us to go work down South for real. Things felt fractured. Home is where the hate is. In times of stress, I coped the same way as every other teen ever invented. I escaped into my headphones, of course. Specifically, a new band I’d discovered thanks to The Box, the music channel where YOU choose the videos. And they had a lot for viewers to choose from, because this was the ’90s heyday where new bands were signed for having a guitar, and dropped for not having a guitar.
Nineteen Ninety-Six belonged to two bands and I belonged to them too. Dubstar, whose debut album of strange kitchen sink sci-fi lullabies protected me from evil, and a new band whose video started off with an electric crackle, the sound that a microphone jack being forced into a light switch might make before an explosion. The first time I saw them, they appeared onscreen in bleached out colour, a glimpse of them together on ruined tape, footage that looked like it had been dropped into acid. Visually abrasive, it was in fact a very carefully considered pop music promo heralding the arrival (for many new fans) of a brilliant force in the charts. Transfixed by the clapperboard being snapped shut and the woman standing behind it, I watched – but more importantly…I listened. Yes, I’d discovered Stupid Girl, still one of the best singles of the ’90s. *Technically, both Disgraceful and Garbage are from nineteen ninety-five, but I didn’t get to them until the following year*
The next day I went into Glasgow to Virgin Megastore and bought Garbage. It was easy to find amongst the other releases. Bubblegum pink feathers and a branded G for Garbage, I grabbed it and literally ran to the counter. Over the next few days I listened again and again. Not just me. My friends wanted to listen too. It was a moment. Garbage hop, skipped, and jumped around different sounds with an ease that many others might struggle to emulate. They were alternative rock, just like the American bands I loved. But they were in the charts amongst the Britpop bands, an honorary addition of sorts. Then there was the trip hop vibes they gave off in certain songs, specifically Milk, the single of which came with a remix by Tricky. From Milk, I jumped onto Maxinquaye and Morcheeba. All those sounds together with the slick videos made Garbage a force to be reckoned with, but they had two other elements that put them above their rivals. First, they had Butch Vig. Oh, I knew him. He’d already produced Nevermind. Butch was famous and respected by anyone who listened to alternative rock. Anyone associated with Kurt was cool, or my version of cool at least. Then there was the second part of the band that made them an irresistible, iconic option. They had the best frontwoman in music. They had Shirley Manson.
Shirley Manson looked and breathed punk. A superstar from Scotland, I felt an immediate connection. Her voice, a snarl that could soar into something beautiful, was both commanding and perfect for the music. She sang songs I could almost feel. Everything about her seemed contrary, yet it all made sense to me. Songs of alienation, bad relationships, stupid girls, and queer people weren’t the sort of songs you often heard in the charts. While some of my friends had tuned their psychic antennae to lyrics like the queerest of the queer, I was attuned to the lamest of the lame, because that was me in nineteen ninety-six. It still is, sometimes. But the way Shirley sings that song makes being queer or lame (or both) an empowering statement. I had no idea the content was so sexual. Only Happy When It Rains became another often repeated track, which especially felt apt when I walked to three mile journey to school under hissing sheets of rain. This happened often. Somehow, the sentiment of the song feels deeply Scottish. We can be very dour, but there’s always a sense of humour there too and this song combines that with the irony of the ’90s. The video was another staple on The Box. I might have added an extra fifty quid to our bill and blamed someone else, probably my cat.
Years later, I’d trot out the ‘Garbage are calculated Curve copyists’ line that musos always use whenever they want to show off our maaaaassive knowledge of music (and bore everyone in the process). Oh yes, I’ve heard of Curve too and I love them. Truthfully, however, they were both very different propositions. Garbage and Curve often made strange dense soundscapes, grunge mixed with beats, guitars and synths. That sort of thing. But Garbage were able to do something better than Curve and most other bands of the time. They made amazing pop music. Those songs, the ones they made for their debut album, are still on my iPod. Their debut has been on my CD pile since the day I ran over to the desk at Virgin Megastore with my Visa Solo card. If a year can be a t-shirt, then nineteen ninety-six would have pink feathers and a giant branded G on the front.