x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The Vaselines: a touch of greatness greases the wheels

A nod from an established star can give a struggling artist the nudge needed to make it into the big time.

Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines on stage in London last year.
Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines on stage in London last year.

As creative hiatuses go, it takes some beating. Twenty-one years after they released their debut album and split up in the same week, the feted Scottish indie band The Vaselines have released a follow-up. But this is not the usual tale of a group getting together one last time for a nostalgic, money-spinning tour. In a strange way, this story is bound up with the patronage of a man who has been dead for 16 years.

Nirvana will always be associated with the grungy angst of its second album, Nevermind, which spawned Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are and In Bloom. But one of the most memorable moments in the tragically short musical career of their frontman Kurt Cobain came when he strapped on an acoustic guitar and played Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam for MTV Unplugged. Many people might assume that this intensely unsettling song was a new or obscure B-side. But it was a track by a hitherto unknown Scottish indie band called, yes, The Vaselines.

Dedicated Nirvana watchers would already have known Cobain was a huge fan: the Seattle grungers had already covered two other Vaselines songs, and some even speculated that his daughter Frances Bean was named after the band member Frances McKee. His support could have made real stars of The Vaselines at the time - if they hadn't already split up, of course. But this fact made little difference to Cobain. He simply asked them to reform for one night so they could be the support act when Nirvana played in Edinburgh - which they did. And when frontman Eugene Kelly formed a new band, Captain America, Cobain was rarely seen in public without one of its T-shirts.

The passing of time - and the fact The Vaselines never tarnished their legend by releasing any more records - has only heightened the sense that they unfairly missed the fame boat the first time around. So after being encouraged by a new wave of bands also in thrall to The Vaselines' work, and ecstatic fan reaction to recent live shows, McKee and Kelly returned to the studio. In September, the new album Sex With An X - aptly released on Nirvana's original record label Sub Pop - will be the culmination of a story that began two decades ago with those Cobain-endorsed songs. And if it weren't for that endorsement, it's almost certain none of this would have happened to two musicians now in their mid-40s.

The Vaselines aren't the only band to benefit from the blessing of more famous acts. When Bruce Springsteen's public love of the New Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem provoked Vaselines-style increases in interest levels (he took to the stage with them at Glastonbury last year and sales of their album The '59 Sound rocketed by 200 per cent) it was heartening, but hardly surprising. The Gaslight Anthem are completely indebted to the Boss's sound and sing about blue-collar America. No musical genre has so many regular leg-ups from more successful musicians as hip-hop. Essentially, the entire machine works via established favourites lending their support (and guest vocals) to stars in the making. 50 Cent was just another rapper before catching the eye of Eminem, who coaxed him across America and into a studio with Dr Dre. They recorded In Da Club, and 12 million album sales later, Eminem could be pretty satisfied he had backed the right horse.

More bizarrely, Kanye West discovered a smidgen of something he liked in the English singer-songwriter Mr Hudson. And despite his first album containing a cover from My Fair Lady, West told everyone via the world's media that Mr Hudson had "the potential to be one of the most important artists of a generation", releasing the follow-up on his own label. It wasn't particularly good, but it sold rather well.

Elsewhere, David Bowie is very complimentary about Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio, and Paul McCartney expresses love for Radiohead. But they're hardly championing unknown acts. Perhaps Cobain's love of The Vaselines - and what that led to - was the product of a different time, when new, exciting music wasn't just a mouse click away. Searching for it required dedication and the recommendation of trusted figures made all the difference.

And if you still haven't heard The Vaselines, they haven't changed. Twelve songs were speedily and punchily recorded in just 13 days earlier this year - which is just how Cobain would have liked it. * Ben East