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The Addiction made history

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Viewed from a distance, the gap that separates the rock of the '80s from that of the '90s can seem immense. It's usually portrayed that way, with skinny-tied new-wave British synth-poppers, spandex-clad metalheads, and legions of lingerie-wearing Madonna teens on one side, and a great nation of pierced and tattoo'd alterna-kids flying their flannel flags on the other. But on closer inspection, the breach between the Big Bad '80s and the decade ushered in by Lollapalooza begins to narrow, until you can almost make out the strand of a rope bridge, wide enough for a noisy guitar band or two to make a quick trip across. If you could get right up there and sift through the refuse left in the wake of the thousands of club shows it took before the '80s underground built enough momentum to break through to the '90s mainstream, you might even find the Birkenstock that somebody threw on stage before "Up the Beach" at the 1990 Jane's Addiction show at the Hollywood Palladium, a gig that yielded four of the tracks on the new Kettle Whistle (Warner Bros.).

You can hear Perry Farrell berating the Birkenstock tosser's choice of footwear on Kettle Whistle -- "The guy's a real moron: he doesn't even understand fashion." More important, you can hear the sound of a band, in the right place at the right time, forging a new pop aesthetic from pieces of the old -- one that synthesized the glam flash of '80s megastars like Duran Duran and Guns N' Roses, the dark arty atmospheres of British brooders like Bauhaus and the Psychedelic Furs, and just a touch of American post-punk's energetic kick-in-the-grungy-pants, all into a commercially viable "alternative." Kettle Whistle covers the whole Jane's history with live tracks, demos, outtakes from all three original Jane's discs (including their homonymous debut on Triple X), and three new recordings done with Chili Pepper Flea replacing original bassist Eric Avery.

Actually, the Jane's mix wasn't quite so simple: there was some Zeppelin muscle in drummer Stephen Perkins's dexterous beats, maybe a little Steve Vai-style chops flexing in guitarist Dave Navarro's whammy-bar leads, a hint of hippie tribalism in the psychedelic jams the band favored, a general tendency toward sleazy shock rock in their appearance -- remember Farrell's bleach-blond dreads, fishnet stockings, and white face paint? So in a lot of ways, back in the late '80s, Jane's Addiction didn't have that much in common with the heroes of the American underground, from unkempt popsmiths like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü to art-damaged noisemakers like Sonic Youth, Big Black, and the Pixies. (I vaguely remember walking out of an early Jane's Addiction show in San Francisco circa late '87/early '88 because the friend I was with thought they were just another LA metal band; and in her memoir Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, Gina Arnold recalls being "appalled" by the sound and sight of the group when they opened for Big Black in '88.)

Legend has it that Jane's Addiction's signing to Warner Bros. was precipitated by the commercial explosion of LA metal that Guns N' Roses set off. They certainly had the chops to go that route: one of the tracks on Kettle Whistle, a 1987 outtake of "Had a Dad," was even rejected by Warner Bros. because it was too slick. (With its layered guitar textures and church-bell embellishments, it actually brings to mind the direction Farrell headed post-Jane's with Porno for Pyros, which is the same sonic terrain the new Jane's line-up settles into on Kettle Whistle's meandering title track.) And listening to the 1986 demo of the monstrous metal overture "Mountain Song" on Kettle Whistle, you can easily imagine the tune gleaming like "Welcome to the Jungle" in the right producer's hands.

But Farrell and the younger band he'd recruited from the LA scene following the break-up of his goth outfit Psi Com in '86 took Nothing's Shocking, their Warner debut, in an artier direction. They insisted on co-producing the disc (the '88 demo of "Ocean Size" on Kettle Whistle was used to convince Warners they were up to the task), and they went on to align themselves with underground bands like Big Black. It was a path that eventually led to Lollapalooza, just before the band called it quits.

The history they made along the way ultimately overshadowed the music -- in their day the Replacements meant more, Sonic Youth did more, and the Pixies and Melvins were the ones who provided Nirvana with the blueprints for Nevermind. And as interesting as it may be to hear alternate takes of the signature tune "Jane Says" or the big hit "Been Caught Stealing," Kettle Whistle does nothing to dispel that notion. But, unlike the kid who threw the Birkenstock, Farrell understood fashion -- that and a few crucial radio singles were enough to give Jane's Addiction a higher profile than the others. And Kettle Whistle is a reminder of how he used that knowledge to build a crucial bridge into a new decade -- and to be the first one to cross it.

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