Shirley Manson – circa 1995
“I came to cut you up / I came to knock you down / I came around to tear your / Little world apart” – ‘Vow’ (Garbage)
“We always felt like the oddballs who never fit in with the cool school and I think a lot of people identified with the outsider status,” claims Shirley Manson, the Scottish-born singer in U.S. rock band Garbage. The contradiction: An outsider is a minority, yet ‘a lot of people’ identify with Garbage. Is this a majority of a minority? Maybe it says something about the plague-like spread of low self-esteem in the late twentieth century / early twenty-first century. The band chooses the name of Garbage due to an early comment that their work sounds ‘like Garbage.’
The origins of Garbage are split between two distinct strands – (i) Shirley Manson and (ii) the rest of the group.
Butch Vig (born Bryan David Vig, 2 August 1955) is the band’s drummer. His father is a doctor and his mother is a music teacher. He is raised in Viroqua, Wisconsin, U.S.A. and obtains a film degree at the University of Wisconsin for composing electronic soundtracks for movies.
Duke Erickson (born Douglas Elwin Erickson, 15 January 1951) plays guitar, keyboards and bass. He is born in Nebraska. Attending college in that state, he teaches drawing for a couple of semesters before moving to Wisconsin, attracted by the art scene in that area.
Steve Marker (born 16 March 1959) plays guitar and keyboards. His family moves around a lot but, for the majority of his youth, his home is Mamaroneck, New York. He moves to Wisconsin and majors in communication / arts.
In the early 1980s, Butch Vig, Duke Erickson and Steve Marker are all at the University of Wisconsin. During this time, Butch and Duke play in a local outfit called Spooner, with Duke as vocalist as well as guitarist. Steve Marker is employed as a sound engineer for Spooner.
In 1983 Butch Vig and Steve Marker start a recording studio in Madison, Wisconsin. Smart Studios soon begins to build a reputation for their work.
Meantime, the ‘soft pop group’ Spooner breaks up in 1987 ‘after three unsuccessful albums’: ‘Every Corner Dance’ (1982), ‘Wildest Dreams’ (1984) and ‘The Fugitive Dance’ [which is unissued until] (1990).
Butch Vig and Duke Erickson form a new band, Fire Town, where they collaborate on the songwriting. This ‘modestly successful guitar outfit’ makes ‘two well-regarded LPs’, ‘In The Heart Of The Country’ (1987) and ‘The Good Life’ (1989), for Atlantic Records.
While Spooner and Fire Town struggle to find an audience, Smart Studios proves more prosperous. Butch Vig produces grunge rock albums ‘Nevermind’ (1991) (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 1) by Nirvana, ‘Dirty’ (1992) (US no. 23, UK no. 6, AUS no. 22) by Sonic Youth and ‘Siamese Dream’ (1993) (US no. 10, UK no. 4, AUS no. 17) by Smashing Pumpkins. Feeling “kind of burned out on doing really long records,” Butch Vig gets together with Duke Erickson and Steve Marker to remix singles by acts like U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. In a remix, the production artists basically reinvent a song, changing instrumental emphasis, adding new rhythm patterns, elongating the running time, throwing a minor lyric into a refrain, or whatever other touches they care to impart. The trio decide to form a new group where they will use “that remix sensibility and somehow translate it into all of the possibilities of a band setup.” The first attempts have Butch Vig on vocals but they soon decide to have a female vocalist instead. Steve Marker wants a singer “who doesn’t have a high, chirpy, girly quality to her voice.” He also wants to avoid one of “these alterna-rock singers [that] have a tendency to scream.” The plan is to invite several different singers to appear on only a track or two each. Butch Vig contacts Sonic Youth’s secondary vocalist, Kim Gordon. Steve Marker then sees a video of ‘Suffocate Me’ by a band called Angelfish that screens on the MTV network program ‘120 Minutes’. He contacts his confreres and all three agree to abandon the multi-vocalist concept and try to get the vocalist from Angelfish to join the project. Her name is Shirley Manson.
Shirley Manson (born 26 August 1966) is fated to become the singer for Garbage. She is born in Edinburgh, Scotland and is the daughter of John Mitchell, a geneticist and university lecturer, and Muriel Flora Manson (nee MacKay), a former big band singer. Shirley is the middle child of three sisters. Her older sister is Lindy-Jayne and her younger sister is Sarah.
While attending the City of Edinburgh Music School, the music department of Broughton High, Shirley Manson is bullied in her first year. As a result, she suffers ‘from depression and engages in self-injury.’ The youngster carries a sharp object in her boot-laces and cuts herself when she feels ‘low self-esteem, stress or anxiety.’ The bullying stops when Shirley joins ‘a rebel crowd’ which involves her in drinking, shoplifting and low-grade drug use. Her early jobs include volunteering at a hospital cafeteria, being a breakfast waitress at a hotel, working on the make-up counter at Miss Selfridge, and modelling clothing for ‘Jackie’ magazine.
In 1984 Shirley Manson starts her music career as a backing vocalist for Edinburgh band The Wild Indians. From there, she is recruited to Martin Metcalfe’s band Goodbye Mr McKenzie. Shirley plays keyboards as well as singing back-up vocals. She is also romantically involved with Martin Metcalfe, but this relationship is short-lived and she remains with the band after the couple split. Goodbye Mr McKenzie release ‘Good Deeds And Dirty Rags’ (1987) (UK no. 26) which includes ‘a minor UK hit’, ‘The Rattler’ (UK no. 37). After their second album, ‘Hammer And Tongs’ (1991) (UK no. 61), their record company has no interest in a third album. It was intended for Shirley Manson to sing lead vocals on some tracks for the projected third disc and the option of a solo album for her seems more viable. To get around the legalities of their record contract, most of the band move into Angelfish, with Shirley Manson as frontperson. The single Steve Marker spots on MTV, ‘Suffocate Me’, comes from the debut album ‘Angelfish’ (1994).
The first meetings between the three guys from Wisconsin and the lass from Scotland are ‘excruciatingly awkward for all involved.’ The rest of the group has ‘trouble understanding Shirley’s thick Scottish accent.’ Manson describes her first sessions with Garbage as “a disaster.” Still, they persevere. Part of the lure for Shirley Manson is she is treated as an equal partner in the enterprise, the whole quartet composing the songs, although she ‘had never written a song prior to this session.’
Garbage’s mission statement is to make ‘a noisy, dark’ sound. Steve Marker claims they want to “take pop music and make it as horrible sounding as we can.” Shirley Manson says they make “sci-fi pop” with a “futuristic approach.” There are moments of crushing force and moments of unbearable tenderness. Neither exists in isolation. Garbage are ‘like members of some CIA-funded black ops unit engaged in MK Ultra mind control experiments…They’d leave your body without a scratch, but your mind would be reduced to mulch.’
The debut album, ‘Garbage’ (1995) (US no. 20, UK no. 6, AUS no. 4), is recorded at Smart Studios. Their first four albums are all crafted at this venue. The first single, ‘Vow’ (US no. 97, UK no. 138, AUS no. 32), finds the music morphing around Shirley Manson’s voice as she sings, “You burned me out but / I’m back at your door / Like Joan of Arc / Coming back for more.” The sound distorts as though it is being subjected to g-forces in a wind tunnel while the singer insists she will “break your soul apart.” ‘Vow’ is the first track completed by the nascent band, but they had not, at first, thought of including it on the album or releasing it as a single. It is quite different from ‘Queer’ (US no. 57, UK no. 13, AUS no. 55). This slinky, weird cabaret number appears to be about oddity rather than homosexuality. “The queerest of the queer / The strangest of the strange / The coldest of the cool / The lamest of the lame / The numbest of the dumb.” This track samples ‘Man Of Straw’ by Single Game Theory. Garbage employ such samples from time to time, scrupulously noting and crediting the original sources, even though they are usually such tiny samples and so heavily processed that it would be almost impossible to recognise them if Garbage did not draw attention to them. ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ (US no. 53, UK no. 29, AUS no. 80) pits a joyful melody that rolls like an incoming wave against a contrary lyric that bids “Pour your misery down” on a subject who claims “I’m riding high upon / A deep depression.” ‘Stupid Girl’ (US no. 24, UK no. 4, AUS no. 47) samples a drum loop from The Clash’s ‘Train In Vain’. The solid beat is matched with a bell-like guitar as Shirley lets fly at “You stupid girl / All you had you wasted.” Given her history of low self-esteem could the ‘Stupid Girl’ be Shirley Manson herself and the song a form of self-abuse? The album also includes the cryptic ‘Milk’ (US no. 106, UK no. 10, AUS no. 44): “I am milk / I am red hot kitchen / And I am cool / Cool as the deep blue ocean.” Apparently backwards sounds and synthetic strings add to the mystery. The songs on ‘Garbage’ are ‘dank and rainy, saturated with deep browns and lurid reds and queasy greens.’
In September 1996 Shirley Manson marries Scottish artist Eddie Farrell.
‘Version 2.0’ (1998) (US no. 13, UK no. 1, AUS no. 5) is the appropriate title of the second album by Garbage. ‘Push It’ (US no. 52, UK no. 9, AUS no. 31) is a rushing locomotive that cries “This is the noise that / Keeps me awake / My head explodes and / My body aches / Push it, make the beats / Go harder.” For the record, this track contains ‘interpolations’ of The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and the Herbie Azor penned Salt N’ Pepa hit, ‘Push It.’ ‘I Think I’m Paranoid’ (US no. 70, UK no. 9, AUS no. 57) is the best song by Garbage. “I think I’m paranoid / And complicated / I think I’m paranoid / Manipulate it,” sings Shirley Manson to the accompaniment of a riff like a crushing piston…that bizarrely gives way to a sugary keyboard sound and the “Bend me, break me” refrain. This is a classic illustration of Garbage’s approach, melding brawny rock to sweet pop through unexpected side-steps. The rest of ‘Version 2.0’ buffets the listener with the jittery ‘When I Grow Up’ (US no. 4, UK no. 9, AUS no. 22), entices with ‘Special’ (US no. 52, UK no. 15, AUS no. 54) and soothes with the lush ‘You Look So Fine.’ It is the sound of ‘a flesh and blood rock band wearing a metal exo-skeleton.’
Garbage provides the theme song for ‘The World Is Not Enough’ (UK no. 11), the 1999 entry in the series of James Bond 007 spy films. They only perform the song though; it is written by David Arnold and Don Black. It’s an interesting experiment, but the compromise involved between being a Garbage song and a Bond theme short changes both parties.
Shirley Manson splits from her husband Eddie Farrell in 2001. The divorce is finalised in 2003.
‘Beautiful Garbage’ (2001) (US no. 13, UK no. 6, AUS no. 1) is the band’s third and finest album. It stands out as their most cohesive work. By this time, the Garbage formula – if such an inventive act can be said to have a formula – is bedded down and the conceptual pieces of the whole fit together, rather than jostle one another. “Welcome we love you / We hate you, we love you” is the conflicted introduction on the album’s opening track which is perversely titled ‘Shut Your Mouth’ (UK no. 20, AUS no. 74). A processed guitar slouches after the vocals until Shirley Manson is given an artificial technological stammer as her voice is cut up to say “Sh-sh-sh-shut your mouth / Try not to panic.” The first single from the album is the stunning ‘Androgyny’ (UK no. 24, AUS no. 21). An acoustic guitar tickles a synthesiser before an electric guitar cranks up for the chorus “Boys in the girl’s room / Girls in the men’s room / You free your mind in your androgyny.” [Androgyny is a word meaning showing characteristics of both genders.] Equally slippery on a thematic level is ‘Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)’ (UK no. 22, AUS no. 7). This is a hymn of praise to an underage truck-stop hooker: “But she was young and dumb / She just turned 21…With your cherry lips / And golden curls / You could make grown men gasp / When you’d go walking past them / In your hot pants and high heels / They could not believe that such a body was for real.” The salacious and subversive subject matter is often overlooked because the song also boasts such a catchy melody that lyrical analysis seems easily deferred for another day. A squelchy synthesiser in the verses flowers into thick slabs of guitar for the chorus. The propulsive ‘’Til The Day I Die’ (“Holy Jesus / Holy rock ‘n’ roll”) represents the group’s heavier side while the bruised break-up song ‘Cup Of Coffee’ and the feathery ‘So Like A Rose’ offer more plaintive, though still dark, alternatives. ‘Beautiful Garbage’ is ‘an audacious piece of work, characterised by chiaroscuro light and shadow, hot colours and dark corners.’
During the latter stages of the tour promoting ‘Beautiful Garbage’, the band struggles with health problems. Butch Vig is sidelined with, first, hepatitis A, then, Bell’s palsy. Matthew Chamberlain substitutes for him on drums in the first instance and Matt Walker does the same during the second bout of incapacitation. Shirley Manson develops throat problems, so some shows are cancelled. Eventually, she has to undergo surgery on her vocal cords.
Perhaps due to these trials, there is a sense of fatigue hanging over ‘Bleed Like Me’ (2003) (US no. 4, UK no. 4, AUS no. 4). The first single, ‘Why Do You Love Me’ (US no. 44, UK no. 7, AUS no. 19), bursts out of the blocks with buffeting guitars. Shirley Manson’s vocal warns “I’m no Barbie doll / I’m not your baby girl / So I’ve done ugly things / And I have made mistakes / And I am not as pretty as those girls in magazines.” This ignores that she has been one of those ‘girls in magazines’, not only as frontwoman for Garbage, but dating back to her days modelling for ‘Jackie’ magazine. Dave Grohl, from Nirvana and Foo Fighters, guests on drums for the swaggering ‘Bad Boyfriend.’ The title track, ‘Bleed Like Me’, is a parade of ‘outsiders’. One of the stories in the song seems very familiar from Shirley Manson’s teenage shelf-harming phase: “Doodle takes Dad’s scissors to her skin / And when she does, relief comes setting in.” It is matched to a slow, mournful tune. It is ‘a record made on the ropes.’
After ‘Bleed Like Me’, Garbage announce they are going on ‘indefinite hiatus’. There is some talk about a solo album for Shirley Manson. However, in an eerie replay of her days with Goodbye Mr McKenzie, nothing eventuates. A new Garbage song, ‘Tell Me Where It Hurts’ (UK no. 50), is added to the compilation album ‘Absolute Garbage’ (2007) (US no. 68, UK no. 11, AUS no. 18).
In May 2010 Shirley Manson marries again. Her second husband is Billy Bush, a sound engineer employed by Garbage since at least 1998.
In 2010 Smart Studios closes its doors permanently. When Garbage reconvenes, they record at various studios in Los Angeles, California, the city in which both Shirley Manson and Butch Vig now reside. ‘Not Your Kind Of People’ (2012) (US no. 13, UK no. 10, AUS no. 8) is released on the band’s own Stunvolume record label. The album grapples with current events and the external environment more than their previous works. This can be seen in tracks like ‘Big Bright World’ and ‘Blood For Poppies’. Shirley Manson states, “I don’t think music should be measured by charts now. We want to change the way we look at ourselves because we got drained and battered and bruised by how much our record label obsessed over that s***.”
‘Definitely cinematic,’ is how the now pink-haired Shirley Manson describes ‘Strange Little Birds’ (2016) (US no. 14, UK no. 17, AUS no. 9). The disc is co-produced by Garbage, Billy Bush and Steve Marker. The churning ‘Empty’ is a fairly typical Garbage rock song exemplifying the familiar ‘comfort of discomfort’ that is the band’s trademark. The ‘darkly catchy’ ‘Magnetized’ is more sinister and more electronic, though the buzzing verses open up into an explosive chorus. ‘Empty’ and ‘Magnetized’ are the singles from ‘Strange Little Birds’, but neither of them makes the charts.
Was it possible to be both a band for ‘outsiders’ and appeal to ‘a lot of people’? It sounded like the latter part of that equation was of diminishing interest for Garbage. Yet as older, more mature individuals they were also part of society in a way that, as youngsters, was not possible. They were not so much ‘outsiders’ in later years as perhaps they liked to think. Yet through both their interest in the edgy possibilities of recording technology and Shirley Manson’s hard-won personal experience, Garbage spoke to the disenfranchised feelings festering within our impersonal modern lifestyle. They connected with the disconnected. ‘Garbage used the…studio as an instrument, drawing sounds from the most unusual sources.’ Garbage ‘still didn’t fit, and their music spoke to others who didn’t fit. But they evolved. They shape-shifted. They mutated and survived.’
- ‘Hit’ lift-out, ‘The Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) (28 August 2012) p. 39
- wikipedia.org as at 4 February 2013, 4 January 2017
- ‘Absolute Garbage’ – Sleeve notes by Peter S. Murphy (A & E Records Ltd / Warner Brothers 2007) p. 4, 5, 6, 7
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 189, 190
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Rock ‘n’ Trolls’ – Shirley Manson interview conducted by Kathy McCabe (9 June 2016) p. 35
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – review of ‘Strange Little Birds’ by Cameron Adams (19 June 2016) p. 38
Song lyrics copyright Deadarm Music / Almo Music Corp (ASCAP) and Vibecrusher Music / Irving Music, Inc. (BMI) with the exceptions of ‘Vow’, ‘Queer’ and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ (all Vibecrusher Music / Irving Music Inc BMI Deadarm Music (ASCAP))
Last revised 12 January 2017