Swervedriver
Mezcal Head
Creation/A&M Records

Swervederiver were amongst the top flight of the shoegazer bands that exploded out of England in the late 80s/early 90s.  They, along with My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush, and Slowdive, represented the finest of the genre.  I never did like Lush, I have to admit.  But the remainder, plus the likes of Chapterhouse, the Catherine Wheel, the Boo Radleys, and a few others, were in heavy rotation in my world in the early 90s.  Ride were the greatest of these bands, as far as I’m concerned.  But, for me, Swervedriver were a close second.  They were the heaviest, hardest hitting of these bands, all charging guitars and stoned out, cocksure vocals from frontman Adam Franklin.

They exploded into my world with their début album, Raisein 1991.  That was my first year of undergrad, and I worked in a kitchen in Ottawa, and was going to school at Carleton University.  Jon Shaughnessy was one of my co-workers in that kitchen, and we had similar music tastes.  One of the shitty Ottawa radio stations, sometime in the spring of 1992, realized that alternative music was about to take over the world, and began a programme to that effect.  Me and Jon listened to that as often as we could in that kitchen.  And then, at some point in the late spring or early summer of 1992, or maybe some entirely different time, who knows?, me and Jon and a bunch of his buddies piled into a car and headed to Montréal, where we saw Swervedriver open for Soundgarden at the late, lamented Spectrum.  It was a crazy night, and I only remember it in fragments, though I do remember 1) Chris Cornell recalling the first time Soundgarden had played Montréal, opening for local heroes, Voivod and the crowd chanting Voivod’s name through Soundgarden’s entire set, and 2) Swervedriver were louder, faster, and better than Soundgarden that night.  Hearing my favourite track from Raise, ‘Rave Down,’ live was a highlight of a year I saw about a kajillion concerts, including the ill fated Guns’n’Roses/Metallica show at the Big O in Montréal, as well as Disposible Heroes of Hipoprisy opening for U2.

By 1993, I was back in Vancouver, I transferred to the University of British Columbia, and the first time I went to the campus, once classes had started that September, I got off the #9 bus at UBC, and the very first person I saw on the campus was Jon Shaughnessy, who had also moved to VanCity to go to UBC.  Years later, I relocated back home to Montréal to start my PhD and one of the very first people I ran into in that city was, yup, Jon Shaugnessy, who took me to a warehouse party in Chinatown in September 2000, where an early incarnation of Stars opened for The Dears.  And then Jon headed back home to Ottawa, and now he’s an Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Ottawa.  Yeah, I’m kinda proud of him, to be honest.

Anyway.  1993.  Vancouver.  Mezcal Head was unleashed on an unsuspecting public that September, towards the end of the month.  It was amazing that there was a second album from the band, frankly.  See, bad things had happened since Raise.  In February 1992, crossing the border into Canada from the USA, drummer Graham Bonner just up and left the band.  Then, later in 1992, their manager quit on them.  And then, following a gig at a festival in Sweden, bassist Adi Vines quit to form some shitty metal band.  The loss of Vines, the NME and Melody Maker, assured readers, meant the end of the Swervies, as they were called.  See, Vines was regarded as the face of the band.

However, not for the first, nor the last time, the British music press was wrong.  Adam Franklin (vocals/guitar) and Jimmy Hartridge (guitars) regrouped, with Steve George on bass and Jez Hindmarsh on drums.  And the result was Mezcal Head, perhaps one of the greatest hard rock albums ever cut.  Gone was the dreamy, shoegazer sound and in was the heavy guitar assault.  Mezcal Head is a hard rock album, served up with a lot of distortion and Franklin’s trademark stoner vocals, but it is heavy.  Did I mention it’s heavy? Produced by Alan Moulder, Swervedriver found this new sound, one that could be seen in the heavier moments of Raise, particularly in ‘Rave Down,’ it was hailed by the music press as a sort of melding of shoegazer and grunge.  Whatevs, man.  It’s just a killer album.

I bought the album on a run to Zulu Records on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver.  I had bought my first Discman that fall, hooked up to my stereo with a wire to the aux jack.  I lived in the Motordome, a nasty little place at the corner of East 8th and Clark Drive.  The Motordome is long gone; replaced by ugly condos.  Man, we didn’t even have a phone, we had to go across Clark to the Petro Canada to use the payphone.  I got home, my room was in the basement, below the living room, and next to Steve Perry’s room.  Yeah, Steve Perry, but not the guy from Journey.  This Steve Perry was a bassist and hard as fuck.  I don’t know what happened to him.  Last I saw him, in 1994, he had hooked up with my friend, Tanya.  Anyway.  He wasn’t home, and I pressed play and turned it up, lit some incense, and rocked out, whilst reading about the American Revolution.

Raise was full of songs that seemed obsessed with the American open road, and that seemed to continue with Mezcal Head‘s opener, ‘For Seeking Heat.’  It begins softly, as if it’s picking up feed, and then barrels into being, as if it’s taking off, Hartridge’s lead guitar building into the squeal of the tires on the asphalt, and Franklin sings:

You seem to circle miles above me
Never hearing any word that I say
Eyes reeling from deadly pleasure
The last second don’t count anyway
Without the safety net you’re freed
To find serene pleasure of speed
A blur of beauty, intoxicating
Existence outstripped, outshined
Head clear cold chassis shaking
Encounter of body and mind
Erupting violent machine
Precise exultance so serene
Poised between risk and calculation
In a kind of wide-awake alert daze
Pretty pirouette accelerating
Beyond living in so many ways
Without the safety net you’re freed
To find serene pleasure of speed
Erupting violent machine
Precise exultance so serene.
But this is heavier than Raise.  This is hard rocked, dressed up as shoegazer.  Now, shoegazer bands were heavy, they had to be with that volume behind their guitars, but they never rocked like this.  ‘For Seeking Heat’ segues into ‘Duel,’ which sees Fanklin and Hartridge created this unholy riff with George’s bass, though Hartridge soon leads this trio and begins to squeal his guitar amidst and over the noise of the band.  And Franklin sings about you having been away so long, but also noting ‘you can’t ask why,’ over the squall of Hartridge’s lead.

We’re ten minutes into the album after the first two tracks, and I was hooked.  Perry always gently mocked me for loving melody, which was true.  I liked some melody in the chaos of my music and for that reason, this spoke to me.  All that bottom-end noise, and duelling, charging and squalling guitars, this was the kind of music I was born for.  ‘Blowin’ Cool’ begins with George’s bass riff, which he continues to play throughout the track, before the guitars and drums kick in, and Franklin is talking about the summer heat and the feeling of it all slipping away.
‘MM Abduction’ is the closest approximation of a quiet song, though when it explodes into the chaotic noise that you just know is coming, Swervedriver here nod to Ride’s brilliant Nowhere for the way they structure the bass and guitars over the drums.  Hindmarsh is clubbing the drums to death, George is picking at his bass, and the two guitars are in this glorious mix of fuzz and squall.  This is a love song:
The day I drove you to the fair
Undying love was born down there
This ultra-love is what I feel
Those darker forces just ain’t real.
You’re safe alone in here with me
You’re safe in here alone with me
You’re safe alone in here with me
Alone in here with me you’re safe.

And then we kick into one of the best songs Swervedriver ever recorded, ‘Last Train to Satansville.’ This song really spoke to me at the turn of the millennium in the midst of a horrible breakup.  As a friend noted to me then, it was good that my ex- and I had not been married, because lawyers would’ve made this even worse.  I thought that maybe it’d have made it easier.  Anyway.  My state of mind was not helped by the fact I was reading Malcolm Lowry’s magnum opusUnder the Volcano.  Over a chugging beat and guitars, Franklin tells a stranger on the train about the two nightmares plaguing him, both involving her, and it all going wrong, and he’s contemplating suicide.  I wasn’t quite that melodramatic, mind.  But, it was still a shitty time, and this is still a killer song.

The story of ‘Harry and Maggie,’ which is the first track on what should’ve been Side 2, had CDs not done away with that kind of thing was one I always found fascinating, as Franklin delivers his lyrics deep in the mix, with Hartridge’s lead guitar squalling and squawking in the left speaker, his vocals in both over the Swervedriver sound off chugging bass and rhythm guitar and pounding drums.  This was not music for hangovers:
I was born on a close street down a hill
The trees that line the street
Could sense the winter change
They felt the chill
They ducked and dived
And so we knew that they were alive
Until the year the silver rain came down
The trees turned mauve
And so did my hands
Oh, and the sound .
There was no sound and I’m freezing in the sun
Nobody cares to hide the dopeheads and the suicides
‘Cause everyone freezes in the sun
And it’s fallin’ away.I kicked around with Harry
Who lived near Salisbury Plain
He worked on the cathedral there every now and again
He worked with stone, carved with stone
Odd jobs on the telephone
One sunny day he was sent to the Houses of Parliament
Chipping’ away at the gargoyles
Under the blistering sun
He carved out “Maggie Sucks” on the backs of every one
And so in five-hundred years
There’s gonna be some history here
After it all subsides in the sun.

And it’s fallin’ awayAnd I don’t wanna knowI’m glad I don’t knowWhat’s draggin’ it underAnother day, another loon
A new pied piper calls the tune
So blow it up, watch it explode
Noah’s ark on overload
Wrestle with the results and throw ’em round the ring
Everybody knows there ain’t no rules in wrestling
(everybody knows there ain’t no rules)
The referee’s a dupe
Who only old ladies and children believe
I’m getting up now to leave
I’ll go back to that street someday
The air’s better there anyway
Though the trees are still gonna freeze in the sun

And it’s fallin’ away
And I don’t wanna know
I’m glad I don’t know
What’s draggin’ it under.

By 1993, back at the University of British Columbia, I had finally settled on a major, having tried just about everyone I could in the Social Sciences and Humanities at Carleton in Ottawa.  I was taking history, and so the idea of some graffiti that Harry scrawled at the Houses of Parliament could still be there 500 years later was intriguing, though I felt back for Maggy.

‘Girl on a Motorbike’ kind of sets up the colossal finish of this album.  It’s a more laidback track, chugging bass over heavy drums and the guitars squawking and squalling, and Franklin is in Berlin, dropping whatever he could find in terms of drugs, and hanging around on the Potsdamer Platz, the East Berlin side of which had been a gathering point for punks in the late 70s and 80s.

But this segues into the brilliant, ‘Duress,’ which is a song that has a title that describes the feeling of the track.  Over a thudding backbeat, the guitars squall, and Franklin’s got the mescal head.  I didn’t know exactly what mescal head was when I was 20, though I figured it was the aftermath of drinking mescal.  And I knew mescal was the evil cousin of tequila, which itself is proof positive that alcohol is a drug.  Now my roomie, Jay, he loved this album.  Me and him used to listen the hell outta it on the big stereo in the grotty livingroom of the Motordome.  It spoke to us.  And one night, he came home with a bottle of mescal.  It was just me and my Main Man Mike in the ‘dome that night, no idea where Skip and Perry were.  So we drank. And drank.  And we learned all about mescal head.  And the thing is, Franklin’s lyrics in this track perfectly describe mescal head which is made worse, Jay, Mike, and I learned, from eating the worm at the bottom of the bottle.  Musically, this song is also the perfect abstraction of that next morning feeling:

And when the dawn begins to creep
Sunlight finds you in a heap
And how you wish that you could sleep.
Forget the lies that you’ve been told
You think you’re settin’ free your soul
But you’re really gettin’ old.
You’ve dreamt of divin’ in the sea
Your outstretched arms in front of me
And how you wished that you could breathe.
In the grip of ecstasy
When the shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free.
You wish someone could love you less
Longing for that one caress
I see you sink under Duress
And when you wanna kill it dead
You let it throttle you instead.
I have not touched mescal since that night sometime in the late fall of 1993.

The album officially ends with what I always considered the throwaway track of ‘You Find It Everywhere,’ though I don’t think I’ve ever really been all that fair to this song.   But whatever.
Because the CD version of the album included ‘Never Lose That Feeling,’ which had been a non-album single between Raise and Mezcal Head.  But, as far as I was concerned, it belongs on this album.  On the album, it’s made into a medley with ‘Never Learn,’ so we get a twelve minute movement of ‘Never Lose That Feeling/Never Learn.’  And this song is a moment in time for me.  It is not a perfect moment, but it is an instructive moment.  I was on that #9 bus on Broadway going to UBC, I had been downtown, and this was one of three busses that went from there out to Point Grey.  The Motordome was no more, I can’t remember what happened, though I know that Mike and I had decided to move into The Pad, a basement suite on West 20th Avenue, just off Oak Street.  Perry had moved in with a friend of mine, Tanya, so I still saw him a fair bit.  I don’t know what happened to Jay or Skip.  I have no clue.  I’ve not heard word one of either of them since February 1994.

But anyway, it was the spring of 1994, it was warm, at least for Vancouver it was warm. -ish, the winter chill was still there.  That was the winter I wore shorts all year round.  I was wearing shorts and a big, thick sweater.  I was listening to this album, and as the #9 Broadway bus passed Granville Street, there was this kind of open vista, I was sitting by an open window, so the chilly air was coming in.  I can’t remember why that vista was open then, but it is not any longer. But in those days, you could see all the way across False Creek to downtown and then, looming over downtown was the North Shore mountains.  It was sunny, it was glorious.  And whilst life was not all that great by some metrics, it was by others.  It was sunny, late afternoon sun, shining across the Terminal City.  This was not a common experience in Vancouver.  And everything was beautiful and glorious.
And then a couple of weeks later, I met Her.  The She who was the reason for the shitty feelings manifested through Under the Volcano and ‘Last Train to Satansville’ six years later in the first summer of the new millennium.  Funny how life works.
As for Swervedriver, this was kind of their moment in the sun.  Their followup album, Ejector Seat Reservation, kind of feel flat on its face, and due to a dispute with Creation Records head honcho, Alan McGee, the wrong single was released and, well, meh.  This was the end of their deal with Creation and they moved onto DGC Records, but then got caught up in a downsizing there, when their A&R person was fired, and, despite their new album, 99th Dream had a release date, they got dumped and the album was put out independently.  It did not get the attention it deserved, it was no Mezcal Head, but it was a mighty return to form.  And that was kind of it for Swervedriver.
Around 2008, they reformed to tour, and then, a new album, I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, appeared in 2015 and the Swervies had rediscovered their mojo, but in a more refined, mature way, gone were the 8-minute songs, along with Franklin’s long dreadlocks.  The late career masterpiece, Future Ruins, came out just last year and is one of my favourites.