The top 25 songs of 1987 featured massively popular performers (George Michael, Bon Jovi) and even more acts that subsequently disappeared (Robbie Nevil, Gregory Abbott, Billy Vera and the Beaters). In the summer of that year, Heart (“Alone”), Bob Seger (“Shakedown”), and a Los Lobos cover of a Ritchie Valens song all held the #1 spot. Whitney Houston released her second album in June. Def Leppard released Hysteria on August 3, and Michael Jackson released Bad on August 31. Madonna was in the midst of a music tour to support her movie (?) Who’s That Girl.
But those headlines do not begin to tell the story of 1987. It was a year that saw that saw hugely influential bands like Husker Du and The Smiths break up in spectacularly public fashion. Conversely, here in Washington DC, a guy from Minor Threat and a couple of guys from Rites of Spring formed a new band called Fugazi. And U2 were catapulted from mid-level fame to super-stardom with the release of The Joshua Tree, which would cause many people listening to their local top 40 stations to wonder what else they might be missing on college radio.
For this trip back to 1987 we’re going to focus on three albums. Three albums by then-unknown bands that would have a massive imprint on both popular and alternative music for years, and went largely unnoticed by most listeners only to be rediscovered later.
Just to get it out of the way, YES, this really happened in 1987
"I'm not a musician, really. I know all the major chords and I know how to turn them into minors. And that's all.” Black Francis, Toronto Star, March 18, 1988
Joey Santiago and Charles Thompson IV lived in the same suite in the Sylvan residential area at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They began playing music together in the suite’s lounge, which had a mural of Che Guevara on the wall that, at the time, Thompson mistook for Jimmy Hendrix. But college didn’t take, and Thompson and Santiago eventually dropped out and moved to Boston to form a band. “We knew we weren't good, but we weren't stupid,” Thompson recalled later in a Washington Post interview. “We were going out and watching all these bands and thinking, we could do this.”
They took out an ad calling for a rhythm section, and the only bass player that answered, Kim Deal, not only didn’t play bass, she didn’t even own one. She would later say the majority of her musical knowledge came from singing disco music in an Ohio bar with her sister. Luckily, the drummer they chose, David Lovering, came with a little more experience.
Thompson adopted the stage name “Black Francis,” a suggestion from his father, who was also helping to foot the bills of his musical son’s rehearsal space and instruments. They dubbed themselves Pixies in Panoply, later shortened to just Pixies, a word chosen because Santiago – not a native English speaker – thought it sounded funny.
The band began playing shows around Boston and one night opened for Newport, Rhode Island’s Throwing Muses, whose debut album had recently been released on 4AD Records. The Muses’ producer, Gary Smith, invited The Pixies to record with him, and the sessions at Roxbury’s legendary Fort Apache studios yielded 17 songs. Smith then got the songs – which have come to be known as “The Purple Tape” - to Muses’ manager Ken Goes, who got them to 4AD.
Eight of those songs would become The Pixies debut album, Come On Pilgrim, which was released in the UK on September 28, 1987. 4AD graphic designer Vaughn Oliver created the album artwork, which featured a gentleman with an alarmingly hairy back (actually a friend of Oliver’s) on the cover. Francis recently said that upon receiving the artwork he gave notice at his job, and from then on was a full time musician.
But the music was infinitely more important than the artwork. Black Francis frequently downplayed his band’s abilities in those early days but it was clear that The Pixies were doing something no one had ever heard. Acoustic and electric guitars scream off each other only to calm down like the end of a violent storm. Moments of pop brilliance – the opening riff to “The Holiday Song,” the verses of “Caribou,” the chorus of “Levitate Me” – are encased in schizophrenic, pounding guitars and seemingly disconnected song structures.
And through it all there are Francis’ vocals – alternating soft coo and bloodcurdling scream, and predominantly indecipherable. The words that are clear – “You are the son of a motherfucker,” “losing my penis to a whore with disease,” etc. – can’t help but shock. “Actually, I don’t even know the words to a lot of the songs,” admitted Kim Deal in 1989 – which might have been a half-truth as her hoarse voice and deadpan delivery would become a staple of The Pixies’ music.
Despite the album’s popularity in the UK, no U.S. distribution could be found for Come On Pilgrim, and as a result the album wouldn’t be heard by American listeners until its follow-up, Surfer Rosa, was distributed by Rough Trade records the following year. In 1989, they released Doolittle, a masterpiece which yielded them as much fame in the U.S. as they’d enjoyed in the UK. That year a Washington Post writer said “The Pixies are playing the 9:30 Club, and you can't get a ticket for love or money.”
The band’s influence on modern music since then has been incalculable. Thom Yorke has said “The Pixies changed my life.” Bono has called them “one of the greatest American bands ever.” But perhaps their best-known acolyte is Kurt Cobain, who freely admitted to trying to write a “Pixies song” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit;” somewhat ironic, as The Pixies last record, Trompe le Monde, was released the same day as Nevermind.
“In the end, when it's over, we just want to have a stack of cool records that people will always be interested in buying, instead of hitting the $ 2.99 bins.” – Black Francis, 1989
“…it's understandable that some people aren't really taking Jane's Addiction too seriously at this stage.” – Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1987
While The Pixies were enjoying success overseas in 1987, here in the states all the attention was on Los Angeles. Clubs like Scream, the Troubadour, and the Country Club were fielding dozens of young up-and-coming bands all eager to get their moment in the sun.
Or, failing that, a big paycheck. Two years previously a massive bidding war between record companies had ensued over a roots rock band called The Unforgiven; one New York label offered to sign them despite having never seen them or even heard their music. Elektra won the battle, gave the band a $500,000 advance and released their first album, which failed so spectacularly the label dumped them almost immediately after its release.
You’d think that would put the kibosh on finding the next big L.A. band, but then, this was 1987, and record companies still had money to burn. Warner Bros. Records, still smarting from their inability to sign The Unforgiven, began aggressively pursuing another hot L.A. prospect, Jane’s Addiction.
Jane’s Addiction played a unique fusion of metal, punk, and psychedelic music that greatly appealed to the L.A. underground set. Several Los Angeles publications touted them as the best band in the city, and Rolling Stone went one better and labeled them the best band on the West Coast, saying their music was "dark, abrasive . . . passionately committed to making a statement."
Like Black Francis, Jane’s Addiction’s enigmatic lead singer also took on a stage name; Peretz Bernstein adopted the name Perry Farrell, a play on the word “peripheral.” Unlike Francis, however, Farrell was not at all shy about touting his band’s abilities. “We're going to do things no one else has ever done,” Farrell told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “Musically, we're already light-years ahead." Not content to simply hype his own band, in the same Times interview he shot down other icons of the era:
Farrell was once quoted comparing the band's prospects of shaking things up to the impact of the Sex Pistols. Now he thinks his group surpasses that punk icon, writing off the Pistols ("They were just a fashion band") as easily as he does Madonna ("She's got nothing to say") and the Beastie Boys ("They make me sick, but because everybody was bored, they got into them").
Eager to get something to the dozens of label A&R representatives that were now frequenting their shows, the band opted to release a live album; a show they had recorded at Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre in January, 1987. Well, mostly. During the mixing process the band recorded overdubs at Edge Studios in Los Angeles, and, since the crowd at the Roxy was reportedly less than enthused, added crowd noise that was actually recorded at a Los Lobos show.
The self-titled album, which die-hard fans now call Triple-X or XXX since it was released on Los Angeles-based Triple-X Records, was released on vinyl and cassette on May 15, 1987, then on CD (still a relatively new medium) on September 20, 1987.
In contrast to their subsequent albums, Jane’s Addiction is half electric, half acoustic, with side A thrash songs such as “Trip Away” balanced with quieter side B songs such as the band’s signature tune, “Jane Says.” There were also two acoustic covers; the first was a faithful rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll;” the second a toned down version of “Sympathy for the Devil.” The Stones cover proved to be problematic, as Jane’s guitarist Dave Navarro said the track was recorded as a joke; the first of many issues (drugs and money especially) that would lead to the band’s implosion just a few years later.
But that was the future. While no one would argue that Jane’s Addiction is as powerful a statement as the band’s next two records, Nothing’s Shocking and Ritual de lo Habitual – the latter of which would propel the band to global superstardom – it marked the beginning of a band that trafficked in image and hype just as well as they made music. Farrell’s brash attitude and seeming indifference to “industry types” proved to be something of a ruse; he was one of the greatest self-marketers of the era.
"I'd like to tell people not to worry if, say, their favorite singer gets killed. Big deal! Something weird will always come along to keep you interested." Perry Farrell, Toronto Star, December 2, 1988
“Guns and Roses, a Los Angeles glam band (like Poison, it shies away from the epithet) recently signed with Geffen Records and enjoys a strong local following in such clubs as the Scream.” Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1986
Another band was frequently playing the Roxy Theatre in 1987. Like Jane’s Addiction, they garnered the attention of many major labels and were given a surprisingly large advance upon being signed. Also like Jane’s Addiction, they released a “live” EP prior to their major label debut – unlike Jane’s, however, none if it was actually live; all four songs were recorded at L.A.’s Pasha Studios, with crowd noise (reportedly from a 1970’s rock festival) dubbed in. They also didn’t have Jane’s Addiction’s interest in self-promotion. To them, rock and roll was a lifestyle, not a form of music, and they lived the part as well as anyone.
Guns N’ Roses formed from the detritus of several other L.A. bands and went through several incarnations prior to recording their debut EP. The band was named after vocalist Axl Rose (another stage name, of course; he was born William Bruce Bailey) and original guitarist Tracii Guns, but kept the name even after their lineup was solidified in June of 1985. Their first West Coast tour began almost immediately and almost ended just as quickly; their car broke down in Fresno, and the band hitchhiked roughly 40 hours to a gig which paid them $50.
Local newspaper reports from those early days talk almost as much about their alcoholism and stage antics as their musical abilities, yet they were almost universally praised. They were soon one of the hottest acts in Los Angeles, playing at the same clubs (and often to the same crowds) as Jane’s Addiction. They drew frequent comparisons to Aerosmith, AC/DC, fellow L.A. band Motley Crue, and KISS. (KISS’ Paul Stanley was an early fan of the band and attempted to offer some constructive criticism, but it didn’t sit well with Guns N’ Roses’ then 20 year-old guitarist, Slash. “He's a nice guy,” Slash told the Los Angeles Times, “but he didn't have a clue as to what we were doing.”)
Another band they were frequently – and incorrectly – tied to was Poison, also an up-and-coming L.A. band that played a decidedly different kind of rock and roll. Whereas Poison wore heavy makeup and sang about having “nothing but a good time,” Guns N’ Roses’ music was decidedly more bleak; songs about prostitutes, broken homes, and drug addiction were more common than songs about partying. Thematically, Guns N’ Roses was much more aligned with Jane’s Addiction than the other L.A. “glam” bands.
A furious bidding war ensued to sign them, which was not dampened in the least by rape charges filed (and later dismissed) against Rose and Slash. In fact, their raucous image seemed to work in their favor as more fans scrambled to see what might happen next. "It's 75 percent music and 75 percent image," a math-challenged Slash told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "No matter what the music is, the kids need to have something visual to relate to.” Less than one year after they formed, Geffen Records signed the band, and advanced them $75,000 to begin work on a “proper” studio album.
The original plan was to send the band to Britain to record their debut album; those plans were later scrapped. Instead they were kept stateside so they could continue playing and building their fan base. Recording sessions finally began in California in August 1986. The band was so new that several songs were leftovers from the members’ previous gigs. And of course the debauchery the band was already famous for spilled over into the studio; the orgasmic sounds heard in the track “Rocket Queen” came from Steven Adler’s girlfriend having sex with Axl Rose in the middle of the studio (unbeknownst, of course, to Adler). They also recorded actual instruments occasionally, and completed work on the album in December of 1986. Appetite For Destruction was released on July 21, 1987.
For five months, very little happened. Through word of mouth and positive reviews, the record sold 200,000 copies, but was getting little radio airplay. Most of the attention on the album focused on the cover art – a strange robot standing over the body of a woman who has clearly been sexually assaulted, while a hideous, fang-toothed creature hangs in the air above them. Eventually Geffen bowed to pressure and altered the artwork to a picture of each of the band members (depicted as skulls) over a cross. (Coincidentally, three years later, Jane’s Addiction would bow to similar pressure to create alternate artwork for their third album, Ritual de lo Habitual.)
Geffen Records executives urged the band’s management to get them back into the studio ASAP to record a follow-up and build on the minor level of attention they were getting. The band turned around and pressed company founder David Geffen to get the video for the leadoff single, “Welcome to the Jungle,” played on MTV. Geffen was successful – sort of. MTV acquiesced and played the video at 4 a.m. on a Sunday.
And then things blew up. MTV’s phones began ringing off the hook. The video shot to #1 on Dial MTV, a call-in viewer request show. On February 26, 1988, the L.A. Times noted that Appetite for Destruction was “now No. 21, it may even sneak into the Top 10.” In June, the New York Times would write “music insiders are also predicting that Appetite for Destruction, the million-selling album by Guns and Roses which is now No. 9, has only begun to realize its commercial potential.” Appetite For Destruction’s second single, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was even bigger, becoming Guns N’ Roses only #1 song, and pushing the album to #1 as well.
Appetite For Destruction went on to sell 30 million copies, easily the highest-selling debut for any band in history. Many critics would call it the best album of 1988, despite it having been released in mid-1987. The album bridged the gap between hair bands like Poison and the influx of grunge four year later. It’s hard to separate the Guns N’ Roses of 1987 from the enigmatic diva that Axl Rose would later become (news reports as early as 1986 suggested Rose was bipolar, if not suffering from multiple personality disorder) but for an extended period, they were the biggest band in the world.
“I have something I want to do with Guns N’ Roses and this is part of me that I want to get out and take as far as I can. That can be a long career or it can be a short explosive career - as long as it gets out and it gets out in a big way.” Axl Rose, Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1986
A QUARTER CENTURY LATER:
After numerous solo albums and side projects, The Pixies reformed in 2004 and since then have embarked on several tours, but have only released two new songs since 1991 (one of those is a cover). Rumors are circulating that the band is currently working on new material.
In addition to several other projects (including the creation of Lollapalooza) Perry Farrell would attempt to recreate Jane’s Addiction in various incarnations for years. For five months in 2011, the band’s bass player Duff McKagan, an original member of Guns N’ Roses. Farrell finally reconvened the original lineup for last year’s largely panned Great Escape Artist. On that album, he happily sings “We’ve become a big business,” which, conceivably, was the goal back in 1987.
Guns N’ Roses, on the other hand, may be the least likely band to reunite in the history of music. Even induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame couldn’t bring them together.