Where You Been? Dinosaur Jr’s Major Label Exploits Re-Examined

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A look at the newly re-released LPs by the alternative heroes.

There will be rabid fans who no doubt decry Dinosaur Jr’s exploits on a major label as sell-out behaviour of the worst kind and the material as comfortably the worst they ever recorded. You could, of course, replace the band name with anyone from Nirvana to Meat Puppets to Sonic Youth and the response would be the same; there’s a natural instinct to revolt against the underground peeking out from its mole hill – who do they think they are? Sire Records were a good fit, on the surface at least – they already had acts such as Ministry, The Replacements and My Bloody Valentine on their books and had done little to dilute their essence. What irked many fans was that by the band’s first major release, the love crush of many an kid –  bassist Lou Barlow – had quit to concentrate on Sebadoh and drummer, Murph, was reduced to a bit-part, given that singer and guitarist J picked up the sticks and played the drums on most of the tracks himself. This was essentially a Mascis solo project.

J Mascis was and still is, something of an enigma. At any given moment he could be a soppy, drippy, teetotal skateboard-riding alt-rock equivalent of a hippy; at another, wielder of the loudest guitar in music, his volume and technical ability often causing actual pain to audience members too near his shuddering amp stacks. Green Mind, released in 1991, was a somewhat timid effort compared to the band’s SST releases (SST being Black Flag guitarist, Greg Ginn’s hugely influential indie label). With no Lou and little involvement from Murph, J was able to indulge himself, overlapping instruments at his leisure and creating a collection of songs which tended to veer towards The Cure more than ferocious hardcore, though that’s not to suggest that his guitar riffs had diminished – The Wagon goes at such a pace the beginning barely exists, whilst I Live for that Look is almost bestial. The quieter moments – like the mellotron-riddled Thumb – still feel like the drawling winsome Mascis is strumming with a nuclear hurricane blowing outside. Despite everything, Green Mind was a huge success, cuddly enough for the indie crowd and barbed enough for the critics.

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The trimmed version of the studio band was necessarily bulked up for live performances, seeing Screaming Trees‘ bassist Van Conner and Team Dresch’s Donna Dresch (also briefly in The Trees) join up. When it came to recording Green Mind‘s follow-up in winter 1992, a newish line-up was required – a forgiving and forgiven Murph returned on drums whilst ex-Snakepit frontman Mike Johnson, fresh from his debut stint as Mark Lanegan’s side-man for his solo work, took up the bass. Their secret weapon was John Agnello, a studio engineer of the old school who kept the band grounded and the raw edge to their sound that others may have by this stage resorted to smoothing out. The timing was almost outrageously fortuitous – despite Mascis’ perceived lethargy, he had conspired to release his fifth album under the Dinosaur umbrella off the back of tours with Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Hole, slap back in the middle of what would confusingly labelled grunge.

Reaching the top 50 in the US (quite an achievement given the nation’s slow take-up of the latest music phenomenon), Where You Been cracked the top ten in the UK. It’s an album which has more than stood the ravages of time. Opener Out There shakes your teeth before the slacker-than-thou Start Choppin allows the band’s new rhythm section to roll and tumble beneath J’s falsetto and frothing guitar. The material is all top-tier, with Get Me twisting glam rock chords into an anguished teen’s bedsit whilst album closer I Ain’t Saying has one of the most outrageous guitar intros you could imagine – a hair metal band would be chastened for such bravado but with J, it remained a gloriously insurrectionist move; this perma-dozing, long-haired, skateboarding forever teenager was Generation X personified. Spin declared J Mascis “God”. Mascis had a sit down. The new two-disc set is stuffed with all the expected B-sides and Peel Sessions. You’ve probably all ready got them but meh.

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1994 and grunge isn’t dead but it’s figurehead, Kurt Cobain, is and the record labels are restless. Across America, senior executives are awaking to the stark realisation that they’ve signed Butthole Surfers, Jesus Lizard and L7 and spent this year’s marketing budget last year. Without a Sound, as Keith Cameron’s superb sleeve-notes detail, was greeted by both critics and fans with a slow hand clap. Dinosaur Jr had once again shifted personnel with Murph once again making way and J Mascis covering both drums and guitars. He too felt underwhelmed, signed, essentially, to a major by accident and with a collection of songs which veered closer to Gram Parsons than Thurston Moore.

Still best remembered for its opening track, Feel the Pain with its Spike Jonez golf-themed video, it’s an album which doesn’t hold back in the slightest in terms of musical proficiency but feels more deliberately structured than much of their previous output. Nothing to do with studio intervention, this is simply J taking a pause for breath and surveying the carnage around him. The album is best defined by the two closing tracks – Seemed Like the Thing to Do is almost distressingly mournful and is devoid of any tendencies towards ear-bleeding; Over Your Shoulder speaks of waking up to a lover who has packed up their bags – it would be easy to see it as far more of an all-encompassing metaphor for disappearing opportunities. Again, fans will be appalled that the extras are all familiar instrumental versions and the ’94 London live show but that’s showbiz, folks.

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Alongside Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, his ‘fuck off’ album to his ex-wife, Dinosaur Jr’s Hand it Over is appositely titled to within an inch of its life. Warner Bros. were so disinterested in the band that they they expressed incredulity that there wasn’t an obvious single and that the album didn’t sound overly commercial. Only a handful of years since they were selling over 260,000, their label sneaked out the album with zero fanfare and didn’t bat an eyelid when it sold a dismal 34,000 copies. Mascis and Johnson meanwhile had crafted an album which matched their earliest work of ferocity and their major label peak for melodic deftness. It is, in some ways, the most interesting of Dinosaur Jr’s major label output, comfortable in its own skin and ignorant of any outside trends. If, as the label suggested, it lacked an obvious break-out single, it’s reflected by an album which plays beautifully from first track to last.

Kicked into touch by Warner Bros. as soon as they possibly could, the band went their separate ways and didn’t play again for a decade – with Lou and Murph back in the fold. Their re-released legacy from their foray into the big league is a reminder that the alternative music scene, at its best, did fuck all to compromise when faced with suits, huge budgets and infinite studio time. In 2017, Warner Music quietly shed some of the trickier artists they worked with – Dinosaur Jr arrived at Cherry Red, obviously; artists as diverse as Kim Wilde, The Groundhogs, Tom Waits and King Diamond were snapped up by smaller independents. It’s as if the label was ashamed of artists who had become to difficult to introduce to mass audiences. J Mascis continues to record, still utterly determined not to conform.

DAZ LAWRENCE

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