Second in an irregular feature on nuggets of pop culture that have been largely buried by time, but deserve to be digged up again.
Courtney Love – singer, actress, controversy magnet, online provocateur and, yes, famous widow – may not be forgotten, but she’s rarely remembered for the right reasons. Love has spent much of the last two decades being demonised in the foulest and most misogynistic terms, her many successes dismissed as dependent on her status as wife of the late Kurt Cobain. She’s also been a victim of her own excess, both in terms of her notorious struggles with drugs and her angry, self-defeating efforts to set the record straight. Her detractors have long claimed that her biggest hit – 1994’s aching, desperate “Live Through This” – must have been written by Cobain, and that the fame she enjoyed through their brief, tragic marriage is the only reason we’ve heard of Love at all.
This vicious witch hunt only works if you ignore “Pretty On The Inside”, Hole’s debut album. Released almost exactly 21 years ago – before Love and Cobain became an item – “Pretty On The Inside” landed into the alternative music world like a meteor, generating a small earthquake of critical acclaim and sales that outpaced another debut album released a couple of years earlier, Nirvana’s underwhelming “Bleach”. In fact, it could be argued that if anyone in the famous Cobain/Love partnership was chasing the other’s fame and acclaim when they met, it was Cobain (Christ, he even name dropped her as “the best fuck in the world” on The Word).
The problem is that “Pretty On The Inside” has been ignored, and often forgotten. Even Love herself has since described the album as “unlistenable”. You can see (or rather hear) what she means. To call Hole’s debut album rough would be an understatement. Everything about it is ragged and raucous, from Love’s sandpaper roar to Eric Erlandson’s brutal, basic guitars. In terms of subject matter, it’s equally raw: drugs, abortion, suicide, sex, gynaecology, warped psychology, self harm, loathing and sheer toxic fury are the main ingredients in a cocktail that must have been as difficult to brew as it is to swallow.
But here’s the other thing: it is quite, quite brilliant. Difficult, violent, extreme, harrowing and brilliant.
Recorded in one week, and sounding like it, “Pretty On The Inside” is the musical equivalent of that adrenaline shot which brings Uma Thurman screaming into life in “Pulp Fiction”. From the moment “Teenage Whore” lunges from the speakers to the moment “Clouds” shudders and twitches to its drug OD of an end, the album is a hurricane of impact and intensity. The band were in thrall to the DIY ethos of LA hardcore and punk at the time, so the most that can be heard of Love’s more pop influences is a brief snatch of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” floating ghostlike through one song, or the insidiously pretty melody that underpins “Garbadge Man”, the album’s most conventional and – taken alone – best song (video included at end of blog).
For the most part, Love doesn’t so much sing as howl and babble her way through her diaries and notebooks. For a noise record, there are a lot of words in “Pretty On The Inside”: Love has always had a lot to say. “Mrs Jones” sounds like a stream of terrifying consciousness directed at a therapist – “Look in the bloodrot you suicide bitch/ It takes an hour with you to make me want to live” – taking in cancer, abortion, drug abuse, disease and acute body dysmorphia. There’s an incoherence which sounds utterly intentional, as well as deeply unsettling, wrapped up in starkly memorable imagery: “my virus is raging/ It’s breaking my bones”.
Elsewhere, Love repeatedly proves how well she can turn a phrase: see Teenage Whore’s “I’ve seen your repulsion and it looks real good on you.” It’s worth noting that Love’s vivid lyrical technique – mashing medical dictionaries, drug terminology and feminist rage – was adopted wholesale by Cobain on “In Utero”, which means that if Cobain did add some pop gloss to Hole’s subsequent “Live To This”, this creative exchange was definitely two way.
All of this lyrical fury is matched by the lacerating, pummelling guitars Eric Erlandson provides. Only “Garbadge Man” boasts a guitar line with enough sophistication to be called a riff, but it’s a brilliant one which coils around the listener like a python and then crushes. Elsewhere his guitars lurch, thrash and howl with all the flailing rage of a dying animal. To what extent this was intentional and to what extent a result of scant recording time or technique can be debated, but its a dynamic which provides the perfect vehicle for Love’s lurid confessionals. On the title track, Love intones and the guitars scratch before both let loose an almighty shuddering roar. It’s a song which hits like a brick in the face, and the only one which Love still plays live with any regularity.
In retrospect, “Pretty On The Inside” was the first and last unmarred triumph of Love’s career, a record forged in the white heat of her anger, powerful intelligence and intense charisma. It is very much her record. Hole released two more superb albums – “Live Through This” and “Celebrity Skin” – but they were sneered at for the probable involvement of Cobain and the definite involvement of Billy Corgan, her own talent demeaned. It’s a bit like dismissing Morrissey’s first two solo records because Stephen Street wrote the music – as if any of these records would be special without the lyrics, melodies and personality provided by their singer.
Of course, the ultimate revenge is said to be living well. But who can truly blame Love if she’s been unable to take this path, given the horrific abuse levelled at her for the last twenty years, not to mention the traumas she has had to endure in her personal life, some self inflicted, others clearly not? Well, nearly everyone it seems. But Love wouldn’t want your pity. She does deserve your respect, however, and “Pretty On The Inside” is one of the main reasons you owe it to her. Pay up.