SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992)

LIVE – THROWING COPPER (1994)

April 26th, 1994, LIVE released Throwing Copper, their third album (second under the name Live), on MCA Records, a subsidiary of Radioactive Records. Had you cast your net into the sea of alt-rock circa 1991 to 1994, you would have been hard-pressed to find many bands cut from the same cloth. The explosion of alternative rock was a melting pot of styles. Rock music fans were open to diversity, with bands of different persuasions and influences sitting happily in most record collections.

Live were an unlikely success story. They were formed in York, Pennsylvania in 1984 by guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer, drummer Chad Gracey and vocalist Ed Kowalczyk. The band went through various names, including Action Front, Paisley Blues, and Club Fungus, before settling on Public Affection in January 1987. After the members graduated from high school, they recorded their first self-released album, The Death of a Dictionary, on cassette in 1989.

In 1990, they released an EP of demos produced by Jay Healy titled “Divided Mind, Divided Planet.” Venturing outside the confines of Pennsylvania, the band began playing regular concerts at CBGB in New York City, which helped earn them a contract with Radioactive Records in 1991. In June of that year, they changed their name to Live and released the album Mental Jewellery. While that album expanded the band’s fanbase, they were far from the dizzying highs they would achieve with the follow-up Throwing Copper.

In July of 1993, the band and producer, Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame, made their way to rural Minnesota to begin recording. Pachyderm Studio had become a go-to recording hideout for the alt-rock crowd of the mid-’90s. Nirvana cut In Utero there in 1993, Soul Asylum laid down Grave Dancers Union in 1992, and PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me was birthed there, also in 1993. Buried deep within a secluded old-growth forest in rural Minnesota, the environment helped quell outside distractions.

If Live’s modus operandi for Throwing Copper was to strive for a more ambitious sound than Mental Jewellery, they succeeded. Opening with the atmospheric, tension-filled “The Dam at Otter Creek”, it’s immediately apparent the band is in no rush to hit the listener with a “hook” and reel them in quickly. The song is a masterclass in tension building, exploding in frenzied chaos at about two-thirds of the way through, providing a euphoric release. A song of this intensity may have alienated the casual listener who first tossed it in a CD deck, but its masterful tension and release perfectly set up the next song.

In tone, “Selling The Drama” is the opposite of “The Dam At Otter Creek”. It’s optimistic and packed with enough jangle to rival REM. The song became a massive hit for the band. It’s clear and direct, filled with hooks pouring from Taylor’s electric guitar, Gracey’s always-powerful drum beats, and Kowalczyk’s melodic and insistent vocals. However, Dahlheimer’s incredibly inventive bass lines give the song an edge. “Selling the Drama” was the first of three singles from this album to reach #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart.

Throwing Copper coughed up five stellar singles, with three going to number 1. One song that didn’t hit the top spot commercially as a single but certainly hit a high water mark as far as quality goes is “I Alone.” Its arrangement, on paper, is a tried and true trope of 90’s alternative rock writing. By 1994, the Quiet Verse/Loud Chorus shtick was becoming old hat. Yet somehow, with “I Alone”, Live manages to wrangle searing emotional weight out of this dynamic and deliver a thrilling classic.

Opening the song “Iris,” Ed Kowalczyk is backed by a single electric guitar chord, he implores, “I liked the way my hand looked on your head. In the presence of my knuckles. But the beauty of this vision alone, just like yesterday’s sunset. Has been perverted by the sentimental and mistaken for love.” Patrick Dahlheimer’s creeping bass embellishes the song’s eerie atmosphere before Chad Gracey cracks a whip-like snare, introducing the band’s tight, punctuated roar. In the blink of an eye, they return to the spacious atmospherics. This perfectly weighted yin-yang gives way to a cinematic, big-sky chorus that soars.

“Lightning Crashes” became an instant classic. Taylor’s flange-drenched guitar chords complement Kowalczyk’s expressive vocals. It’s a story of life and death in a hospital setting. Musically, the band shows impeccable restraint and is careful not to intrude on Kowalczyk’s vocal delivery and storytelling. The band wrote the song in memory of Barbara Lewis, a classmate who was killed by a drunk driver in 1993.

“Top” opens with a succession of single-strummed guitar chords and heavy, exclamation point downbeats over which Kowalczyk does his best, Michael Stipe wails. Soon, the song’s verse locks into a gripping dark funk followed by a gorgeously vast chorus. “All Over You” is a sparkling barnburner packed with rollercoaster dynamics. A live favourite, the band tear through the songs fluctuating crescendos.

Songwriters have long written about dead-end towns and their interpersonal dynamics. “Shite Towne” is a worthy addition to that canon. Kowalczyk poetically lays out, in beautifully descriptive passages, the mundane psychodrama of ordinary life. “The Weavers live up the street from me. The crackheads, they live down the street from me. The tall grass makes it hard to see beyond my property. Hey man, this is criminal; it’s hardline symmetry of people and pets.”

“T.B.D.”, which stands for Tibetan Book of the Dead, is based on Aldous Huxley’s slow descent into death, aided by heroin. Kowalczyk was never one to shy away from the deeper side of things. On the band’s previous album, Mental Jewerley, the writings of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti became a powerful inspiration, so too; on Throwing Copper, he delves deep into philosophy, spirituality and the harrowing beauty of everyday life. 

Another standout is the Kurt Cobain/Courtney Love-inspired “Stage.” It’s a caustic ripper. Kowalczyk wails, “We are, by and large, the same. But words are too feeble; they cannot contain. He was a rock and roll messiah; she was known for her childcare.” “Waitress,” like many songs on Throwing Copper, offers far more depth than a cursory glance might provide. In this case, the humble art of tipping a waitress opens a dialogue around the hopes and dreams of everyone despite their social standing. “The girl’s got family. She needs cash to buy aspirin for her pain; everybody’s good enough for some change, some fucking change.” One suspects the “change” Kowalczyk is referring to isn’t monetary. 

The mournful bass of Patrick Dahlheimer opens “Pillar Of Davidson.” The song was written about the plight of poorly compensated factory workers who were treated like machines. Their life purpose slowly eroded to make money for others. Growing up in York, Pennsylvania, a working-class town home to the Harley Davidson motorcycle factory and other industrial plants inspired the song. Kowalczyk credits the band with helping him escape a similar fate.

“Most of the kids in our situation don’t get fair shots because of the sheltered quality of life in a small town like York,” he said in 1995. “Thank God for this band; it was our ticket to see the world.”

The apocalyptic “White, Discussion” is a scathing and cynical look at political correctness. The line, “All of this discussion, though politically correct. Is dead beyond destruction, though it leaves me quite erect.” Kowalczyk’s weariness over “disenchanting discourse” found a new layer of meaning in the age of social media – a fact that wasn’t lost on the singer as he performed the song ahead of the album’s 25th anniversary. 

“I was thinking that the other night onstage. We were playing it, and lyrically, it could have come out yesterday and made a lot of sense to people,” he said in 2019. “Twenty-five years ago, I was singing about these things, and twenty-five years later, they still have these themes. They’re perennial. They don’t change that much.”

Throwing Copper is a beautifully constructed, written and performed masterpiece. In 1994, nobody knew it yet, but this album marked a tipping point for alternative rock. Many attribute Live with the beginnings of the dreaded “post-grunge” era. But Throwing Copper doesn’t bear any of the hallmarks of that movement. This is an album of genuine passion, depth, and gilt-edged songwriting.

Live were alt-rock titans for a very short time in the mid-90s. The album sold over eight million copies. Fans from all corners of the alternative rock spectrum loved it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t match the honest immediacy of Throwing Copper on subsequent releases (although the follow-up certainly had its moments). 

Anyone keeping abreast of the current state of the band’s interpersonal dramas and dysfunction (which would make even Fleetwood Mac blush) knows an album of this quality is probably not on the cards any time soon. Throwing Copper was a perfect companion piece for that time—a palate cleanser after the brooding, dark brilliance of the early part of the decade.

Essential…!