One of the most fantastic things about Courtney Love is the reactions she evokes in people. Those who consider themselves liberal, enlightened, gender-equalised types are suddenly prodded into spasms of blind knee-jerk sexism at one sight of her scarlet- smeared mouth. She killed Kurt Cobain! She doesn’t even write any of her songs! She’s a harpy, a madwoman, a charlatan…
And every seething bit of hatred that’s thrown her way only serves to strengthen Hole fans’ memories of an explicity feminist iconography that clawed against the unspoken edict that women, in conventional rock tropes, should not be obnoxious, messy, or real.
In her prime, she was a baby-dolled whirlwind of outrage, with a primal bellow of rage that blew rockist criticism aside like dry, dead dust. The condensed, over-the-top ire of Hole’s early albums ‘Pretty On The Inside’ and ‘Live Through This’, powered by Eric Erlandson’s blunt, sludgy guitars and Courtney's incomparable roar were inspiration to a generation of young women (and men!), their glorious power-pop turn on ‘Celebrity Skin’ no less so.
And yet, of late, she’s been frustrating her faithful as much as those who see her as a grunge gargoyle. Allegations about her ravenous personal desire for fame in Nick Broomfield’s controversial documentary Kurt And Courtney were one thing – everyone always knew she was relentless.
What really rankled was the change from the days when she was a genuine feminist icon, and issued angry rants against the music industry, to running around dressed as Donald Duck, sad stories of drugs, lip implants, hanging out with Donatella Versace, ‘losing’ $360,000 and parading on the cover of Vogue, to increasingly unhinged MySpace and Twitter rants (seemingly typed with clenched fists, such is their typo-laden mania) against Ryan Adams, fashion designers, anyone who has the temerity to question her.
Yep, it’s become an ever-more confusing ride to be a Lover rather than a hater these days. The songs, though, you can’t argue with…
Hole’s first single, released on Sympathy For The Record Industry, is a perfect intro to their slow, tarry, Mudhoney-ish early sound. Starting off with ominous bass notes before a wall of sick noise hits, it circles round Courtney’s tradition obsessions of abject social outcasts and angry disgust.
A choice cut from Hole’s powerful debut ‘Pretty On The Inside’, with Courtney’s snarl never more evil. This was also used on the soundtrack to surprisingly-good Stephen Dorff teen-rebellion film SFW. Courtney’s troubled relationship with her parents may be reflected in lyrics such as “When I was a teenage whore/My mother asked me, she said 'Baby, what for'?”
The B-side to the single of ‘Teenage Whore’, co-produced, as was all of ‘Pretty On The Inside’ by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Don Fleming, this is a definite cult favourite. You can definitely hear the influence of the band’s schooling in ’80s post-punk and goth, with stark, tribal drums and spooky slide guitar. They never sounded more terrifying.
Probably the quintessential Hole track, this titanic temper tantrum, a exhilarating rush of inconsolable rage at full vent. “Go on, take everything, take everything I want you to”, she bellows, turning powerlessness into power over riffs that swing from sweet and melancholy to boiling and volcanic on a dime.
Probably Hole’s greatest ballad, although it’s not really a ballad. It tricks you into thinking it is, then winds the tension to almost unbearable levels, as Courtney promises “someday you will ache like I ache”, before blowing your bloody ears off.
Courtney always kept her distance from the riot grrl scene centred around Olympia, Washington, and this song is her deliciously bitchy skewering of it: “I went to school in Olympia/And everyone’s the same… whaddya do with a revolution?”. Mind you, you don’t see Kathleen Hanna tottering around with a face like a slapped haddock pretending to be mates with Noel Fielding, do you.
‘Gold Dust Woman’
Always vocal about her unabashed love for Fleetwood Mac, Courtney gets her fangirl kicks on this cover of Stevie Nicks' witchy classic, done for the soundtrack of The Crow: City Of Angels, is velvet-cloaked, glossy, gothy goodness, sweetened by backing vocals from then-new bassist Melissa auf der Maur. Avoid like the plague, however, their covers of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’: horrific.
The title-track comeback single for Hole’s third album is an indie-club dancefloor staple to this day, Courtney’s up-yours-I-love-you tribute to the lust for fame that she’d now experienced both sides of to the fullest extent. A chopping riff that grabs your attention like a slap to the face, that fairytale red dress in the video… by far their most successful song, and you can tell they’re loving it in every moment.
‘Best Sunday Dress’
Written as far back Courtney’s days in Pagan Babies with Kat Bjelland, this track remained unreleased until 1998, when it became the B-side to ‘Celebrity Skin’ the single. A strange contrast to their often upbeat, radio-friendly rock of the new material, it’s mournful murder-ballad verses and the vengeful, bellowed refrain of “watching you burn” made it just as attention-grabbing as the A-side.
One of the most exuberant pop moments on ‘Celebrity Skin’, this perfectly exemplified Hole’s new, shiny, poppy, radio-friendly sound. Lyrically, she's still skewering the marketing of female artists ("And they royalty rate all the girls like you/And they sell it out to the girls like you/To incorporate little girls"), while proving that she could simultaneously sell records and keep her integrity. Well, for a bit, anyway.
For more on Hole, see the new issue of NME, on sale from Wednesday July 29