Janice Headley dives into Dying for It by Scottish indie-pop duo The Vaselines (listed as Pink EP).
Janice Headley dives into Dying for It by The Vaselines (listed as Pink EP). By the time Nirvana began covering their songs, The Vaselines had broken up. It was Kurt’s love for the Scottish indie-pop duo that reunited the pair and lifted them out of obscurity.
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We might never have heard of The Vaselines if not for Kurt Cobain.
Throughout their career, Nirvana paid tribute to the band several times. They cover The Vaselines' songs "Son of a Gun" and "Molly's Lips" on their 1990 compilation album Incesticide.
And then in 1993, they performed their rendition of The Vaselines song “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” on MTV Unplugged, renaming their version “Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam”...
But, by the time Nirvana began covering their songs, the Vaselines had broken up. It was Kurt’s love for the Scottish indie-pop duo that helped reunite the pair and lift them out of obscurity.
The Vaselines formed in Glasgow in 1986 by then-sweethearts Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee. Both were active in the underground music scene. Frances briefly sang in a band featuring future members of Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits, and the Soup Dragons. Eugene had been in the band The Famous Monsters.
At first, the couple were going to write a fanzine together, but then decided to write songs instead. True to the DIY spirit of the Scottish indie-pop scene at the time, they didn’t let their lack of musicianship stop them. Frances had never even played guitar ‘til then, but their simplistic songwriting gave their music a distinctive charm, and allowed for their vocal interplay to truly shine, as you can hear in this early demo of their song “Son of a Gun.”
It makes a lot of sense that Kurt was such a fan of the Vaselines, as the Scottish pop scene held a lot of parallels with the Olympia, Washington music scene. While Olympia had K Records, launched by Calvin Johnson, frontman for Beat Happening, Scotland had the indie label 53rd & 3rd Records, launched by Stephen Pastel, frontman for The Pastels. During a 2017 panel at the University of Glasgow, Eugene explains how the simpatico scenes and the power of radio led to Kurt discovering The Vaselines:
The weather is kind of like Glasgow, because it's rainy and green. Some of our music got there through Stephen Pastel, and then Calvin Johnson had a radio show and K Records and Kurt heard it and then, that was it. It's just our music had traveled around these different people to that area.
Stephen Pastel released and produced The Vaselines first two EPs: their 1987 debut Son of a Gun, followed in 1988 by the EP Dying for It, written on Kurt’s Top 50 Albums list as the “Pink EP” based on the color of the album artwork.
Of the four songs on the release, Nirvana covered two of them. “Molly’s Lips” was an ode to Scottish actress Molly Weir, one of the presenters on the ‘70s childrens TV series Teatime Tales.
The EP’s closing track “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” is a cheeky reference to a Christian children's song titled "I'll Be a Sunbeam"...
with Eugene flipping the script on the lyrics.
Jesus don't want me for a sunbeam
'Cause sunbeams are not made like me
And don't expect me to cry
For all the reasons you had to die
Don't ever ask your love of me
Sadly, by the time The Vaselines released their debut full-length album, Dum-Dum, in June 1989, Eugene and Frances decided to end their romantic relationship, thus ending the band as well.
Time passed. Eugene had gone back to school to study graphic design, and was working part-time as a bartender. And then in 1990, he got a phone call asking if The Vaselines would reunite and open for Nirvana when they played a show in Edinburgh, Scotland. They were vaguely aware that an American band had been covering their songs. Earlier that year, Nirvana covered two Vaselines tracks during a BBC Radio 1 live in-studio session. And Eugene had read an interview with Nirvana in the New Musical Express where Kurt said he was a fan. They jumped at the opportunity.
Reunited, the pair scrambled to remember their songs, as Frances recalls in the 2017 Scottish indie-pop scene documentary Teenage Superstars:
I'd grabbed Eugene. I was like, You need to go over these songs with me because I haven't a clue how to play them. And so we're sitting, trying to play, I can't remember what song, and Kurt came by and I thought, "Oh, he's going to think we're idiots. We can't play our music. This is terrible." So, getting really embarrassed about it all, but little known to me at the time, that he was kind of in awe of us.
In the same film, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub remembers the first time Kurt met Eugene:
I was there the night that Eugene met Kurt Cobain for the first time, and I remember Kurt coming in, and saying, "Oh, wow! Eugene Kelly! I can't believe I'm meeting Eugene Kelly! I'm such a big fan!" And he really was. You could tell he was blown away by meeting Eugene.
Aside from the Edinburgh show, Nirvana even pulled Eugene to the stage when they played the Reading Festival in 1991. At an estimated attendance of 35,000 people, not only was it the largest crowd Nirvana had played for at the time, it was definitely the largest crowd Eugene had encountered during his time with The Vaselines.
Kurt never stopped championing the Vaselines. He got Sub Pop to release the 1992 compilation The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History, making the band’s music available in the US for the first time. When Eugene formed a new band called Captain America, Kurt was photographed wearing the band’s t-shirt. Sure, it led to Marvel Comics suing Eugene for using the name, but under their new band name, Eugenius, they went on to open for Nirvana on their 1991 European Tour.
It’s even been said that Kurt named his daughter after Frances, but in a 2010 interview with The Guardian, she says that while she’s heard that story, she’s also heard she could be named for Frances Farmer. Farmer was a Seattle-born actress active in the 1930s and 40s, who publicly dealt with depression and mental health struggles. Nirvana immortalized her in the song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," released on their 1993 album In Utero.
The band wholeheartedly credits Nirvana with giving their music career a second wind. Sixteen years later, after reuniting to open for Nirvana, the Vaselines reunited again for some live shows, which snowballed into the 2009 Sub Pop release Enter the Vaselines, a deluxe-edition reissue of their 1992 compilation, as well as two new albums: Sex With an X in 2010 and V for Vaselines in 2014. None of this would’ve happened if not for Kurt Cobain.
Frances talks about Kurt’s legacy in the Women of Rock Oral History Project Podcast:
One of the great things about Kurt Cobain and his legacy is that he was always promoting other bands. And up until then, there was always this tension between other bands, you know, vying to get that top spot. And I think Kurt Cobain had this really community, communal thing like, Yeah, you've heard us, but you haven't heard The Vaselines. Or you haven't heard this band, or the Butthole Surfers, or whatever band he really loved. So he was a really good promoter of music that I think would have just gone underground and never materialized actually.
It’s a sentiment I’m sure we’ll hear echoed by more bands as The Cobain 50 series continues.