CSFTD #11: Hole – Northern Star

What is Courtney Love’s band doing in such exalted company as the 10 previous CSFTDs, you may well ask? Well actually I think this is probably her/their best song and demonstrates that she does have some ‘star’ quality when she chooses to.  Or does it? (See later).

Opinion is split on Courtney Love, many regard her as being responsible for Kurt Cobain’s demise one way or another and on the title track of the album that Northern Star comes from, Celebrity Skin, she does refer to herself as ‘a walking study in demonology.’ Her supporters see her as being more influential in rock music generally than she is given credit for, for example as a leading light in the early days of the Riot Grrrl movement. I wonder how many female rock musicians have been inspired by her words, “I want every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming. I strap on that m*****f***ing guitar and you cannot f*** with me. That’s my feeling.”

Love’s band, Hole, was predominately female with the exception of guitarist Eric Erlandson. The band, which was to have been called Sweet Baby Crystal Powered by God, was formed out of Erlandson’s response to an advert placed by Love who said she was influenced by, amongst others, Fleetwood Mac. But the original direction they took was No Wave, Noise and Punk Rock, releasing the singles Retard Girl (allegedly about an attempted gang rape on Love, who worked as a stripper while the first album was in production) and ‘Dicknail,’ which has themes of child molestation, rape and even incest. The album, Pretty on the Inside, when released in 1991, was equally uncompromising throughout.  The first single was Teenage Whore, which is how Love, who wrote the lyrics, perceived herself.  Nice.

But at the same time Hole was gaining a reputation for sophisticated melodies usually following the same F-C-G chord sequence, and arrangements and, for different reasons, they accrued a cult following.

The second album, the first on a major label and released only days after Cobain’s suicide – Live Through This – was less abrasive in style displaying what Love called ‘a softer edge’ while reminding people ‘that we haven’t lost our very, very hard edge.’

With Celebrity Skin, the original group’s last album before their disbandment in 2002, the sound changed again, became more influenced by power pop and, yes, Fleetwood Mac (at last). The album is notable for the layering of harsh riffs over more sophisticated arrangements.

Celebrity Skin was more of a team effort, with contributions from other musicians apart from Love and Erlandson, including Jordan Zadorozny, a fomer band mate of Hole’s new bassist, Melissa Auf Der Mauer, and, more significantly, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, who later claimed he should have been given credit for writing the entire album. But the lyrics are Love’s (she is credited on every track) and the other prominent thing about the album is the numerous references to Cobain in those lyrics. For example the track Reasons to be Beautiful almost quotes verbatim a line from his suicide note.

The album generally received favourable reviews (there was no Metacritic at the time), along with four Grammy nominations in 1999/2000 including best rock album and best rock song (Celebrity Skin). It was a commercial success, selling over a million copies, going platinum and charting in 13 countries (highest #3 in Canada and #11 in UK).

The lyrics of Northern Star are a little vague and rambling but they are probably about Cobain although Love only ever credited her inspiration for it as being the City Of Seattle. It may even have been written shortly after his demise, referencing the security that the Northern (Pole) Star provides to travellers, to him. There are suggestions it was part of an album Love wrote on her own at that time but which she scrapped as it was too self-pitying.

My favourite part of the song is the violin bridge and the force with which Love comes back in after it. As far as I know the violin part was not usually performed live and Love replaced it with a chant sometimes including the lines “I will see you, I will see you on the other side.” No prizes for guessing who ‘you’ is.

Here’s Northern Star performed at Glastonbury in 1999, looking like a war zone before it got all Islington upper middle class and became the alternative place to go for kids who would otherwise be at ballet and violin lessons or watching a puppet show.  A rough and ready performance from a Courtney not looking her best, and who appears to have been sponsored by an intern at the State of Georgia. Unfortunately the chant doesn’t contain the words I mentioned above and in fact the entire performance doesn’t indicate any particular connection to – or respect for – Cobain.

There was only one more album from Hole after this, Nobody’s Daughter, with different band members (2010), and with a more acoustic feel. Love was in Manchester in May last year at the Academy on a solo tour and said late in 2014 that Hole would probably reform some time in 2015, with the line up that recorded Celebrity Skin. We’re still waiting.

©D J Bentley, 2015