The Clash’s “Train In Vain” is a great song, and I still feel a mild rush of disappointment every time I hear it. That disappointment has nothing to do with “Train In Vain” itself. Instead, it has everything to do with Garbage’s “Stupid Girl,” an absolutely perfect song that unrepentantly swipes the “Train In Vain” intro. It’s a hijacking job so complete that Garbage felt compelled to give the Clash’s Joe Strummer and Mick Jones songwriting credits on “Stupid Girl” — this, even though this was long before the day when artists felt compelled to hand out songwriting credits if anything sounded even kind of like anything else, and even though Garbage only really took a few bars of a drum beat. For a few seconds, the two songs sound absolutely identical. And Garbage did something only they and M.I.A. can claim; they used a little piece of a Clash song better than the Clash did. Given that “Train In Vain” was still in pretty heavy modern-rock-radio rotation in the mid-’90s, that instinctive reaction — “Oh shit, here it comes! Oh, damn, the Clash again” — was weirdly common. But it’s endured. Context doesn’t matter. To this day, I can listen to London Calling all the way through, know “Train In Vain” is coming, hear those opening drum beats, and still get a weird and slight sinking feeling when I don’t hear that incandescent “Stupid Girl” guitar line. That reaction goes beyond thought. At this point, it’s practically written into my DNA.
Of the songs on Garbage’s self-titled debut album, which turns 20 tomorrow, “Stupid Girl” has aged the best, in part because it’s perhaps the song least concerned with traditional rock values like volume or transgression or not ripping off classic songs. It’s a miracle of sleek pop-music concision, a shimmering nugget of melody that lit up the 1995 alt-rock sadscape like a glowing Christmas tree. 1995 was a weird time for rock music. The world was still reeling from Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and nobody quite knew what was next. Grunge records were still selling in piles, but it was pretty clear to everyone that that boom was in its dying days. Southern-California skatepunk was on an upswing, thanks to Green Day and the Offspring, but it wasn’t the dominant force it would become. (The first Warped Tour was in the summer of 1995, and I’m pretty sure Quicksand headlined.) Nu-metal and the we-must-conquer-America version of electronica were still distant blinking lights on the horizon. That year’s touring Lollapalooza lineup was heavy on underground-rock heroes like Sonic Youth and Pavement and the Jesus Lizard; someone apparently thought that was the next thing. So there was some odd logic to a group of old Midwestern noise-rockers finding themselves a charismatic female singer and doing their best to become the new Blondie. It didn’t exactly make sense, but it didn’t have to make sense. Nothing else made sense.
If you were even a casual rock fan in 1995, you probably had a decent idea who Butch Vig was. Vig, of course, had produced Nevermind. And when Nirvana ditched him for Steve Albini on In Utero, it was pretty clear that they were rejecting the burnished, friendly, immediate version of their sound that Vig had helped concoct. Vig wasn’t exactly a studio pro; he’d gotten his start producing records for seething Midwestern scrape-rock bands like Killdozer and the Laughing Hyenas. After Nevermind, though, he became a sort of underground-rock horse whisperer, coaxing bands like Sonic Youth and L7 into making the most commercial work of their careers. And he’d also taken up remixing as a hobby. And with a bunch of his old University Of Wisconsin friends, guys who’d played in the bands Spooner and Fire Town with him, he tried putting together a band that would reflect some of his remix aesthetic. He’d still mess around with guitars, but he also liked smoothed-out lounge textures and chirpy electronic beats — things that were, at that time, in vogue with people who read rock magazines. He and his bandmates decided to find themselves a singer, and they saw Shirley Manson in a video for her old band Angelfish on 120 Minutes. They went to meet her in Chicago, where her band was, of all possible indignities, opening for Live. She had to audition, which must’ve seemed terribly uncool in the cred-conscious mid-’90s.
So that’s how Garbage happened. Despite the underground-music pedigree of just about everyone involved, they were a studio creation. They wanted to make commercial music, which would seem completely innocuous in just about any other era but which made them seem like mercenary barbarians then. This was the sort of band where all the dudes dressed in black and consciously faded into the background, where the focus was obviously supposed to be entirely directed at the singer. And it worked, largely because Manson was perfect for the role. She had slither and menace in her voice and explosive levels of personality that came across clearly in interviews and even in stage patter. (I’ve seen Garbage at least three times over the years, and my clearest memory is of Mason cackling at something someone yelled from the audience once. She has an amazing cackle.) She wasn’t afraid of showmanship, and she would dress up in situations when all of her contemporaries preferred to look like they’d just rolled out of bed. (The same was true of the other band members. They might’ve dressed in inconspicuous black clothes, but they looked like expensive inconspicuous black clothes.) And that larger-than-life presence translated to the band’s records, too. On a single like “Only Happy When It Rains,” she found ways to combine darkness and heaviness, selling a fuck-the-world sentiment that would’ve been laughable coming from almost any other singer. She didn’t just keep a straight face while singing a perfectly ridiculous line like “pour your misery down on me.” She sounded like she meant it. Manson is the main reason Garbage could make commercial music with keyboards and guitars in a 1995 alt-rock context. She bought them goodwill. Nobody wanted to sneer about Shirley Manson.
“Stupid Girl” aside, that first Garbage album hasn’t aged terribly well, partly because it’s not shiny enough. This seems like a ridiculous complaint to make about what was, at its base, a rock album, but Garbage is too much of a rock album. Its riffs are ferociously compressed and processed, but there’s still too much emphasis put on them. Later synth-rock bands would learn the art of making their guitars sound like synths and their synths sound like guitars so that you couldn’t tell which was which. On that first album, though, Garbage gave off the impression that they were trying to be severe and edgy, and it just didn’t work. The moments that hold up best are the ones where they give themselves over completely to slick textures — like album closer “Milk,” which didn’t really reach its full potential until Tricky remixed it. The singles all veer between good and great, but the album tracks are full of turgid middle-of-the-road studio-rock plodders; it’s like the guys in the band hadn’t quite gotten all the grunge out of their systems yet. They’d figure the balance out later.
The next year, Björk/Soul II Soul producer Nellee Hooper would remix their B-side “#1 Crush,” and it would turn into a hit when it landed on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet movie. That remix stands as their best non-“Stupid Girl” single, and it also signals the perfect way forward for them, swapping out all those guitars for evocative synthetic churn. By the time they released their 1998 sophomore album Version 2.0, they’d found their sweet spot. They weren’t making music formulaically yet, but they’d refined their approach. They were making snarly, attitudinal Pretenders songs, but they were using every state-of-the-art electronic doohickey to lend zip and vigor. The guitars were still there, but they were just accents, and they never stole the spotlight from Manson. They served the songs. And Manson wasn’t just brooding anymore; she’d let sunlight into her voice. That album holds up all the way through in ways that Garbage doesn’t. But it’s a less important album, and less a time capsule of the moment it was made. Garbage represented a moment when nobody knew what the hell alternative rock would become, and some enterprising professionals decided that they might as well turn it into straight-up pop music. It was a good idea. And if commercial alt-rock had turned into a different breed of studio-pop — rather than the tortured yarly post-grunge soup that it quickly became — it would almost certainly be in a better place now. But at least we’ll always have “Stupid Girl.” Now let’s watch some videos.