One of my favorite hallmarks of 96X was what I’ll call “hit resurrection.” Say a song was a hit in 1994 (e.g. Green Day’s “Longview”). As a hit, it received steady rotation; as the single faded, so did its spins. But, if a song was big enough (or a favorite of the DJ), it would be resurrected years later for a few weeks of constant airplay. Basically, the DJ was saying, “hey, remember this?” And we’d collectively bang our head until the song disappeared for good.
The only song I ever heard come back from the dead twice was “Far Behind” by Candlebox. The single itself came early in the alt-rock boon, but 96X simply would not let it die. As late as 1998, sandwiched between Matchbox 20 and (you guessed it) The Verve, there was “Far Behind” by Candlebox, steadily gluing non-stop rock sets together.
Song of the Week: Candlebox, “Far Behind“
Say you’re a record executive in 1993. Your name is Bert Harb. Your job is to find the next Nirvana. But you’re 48, you live in Brentwood, you wear a suit, and you kind of dig the Eagles. You don’t have a frame of reference for “grunge.” How to know? Where to begin? Mostly, you will look at non-musical traits to gauge a band’s potential success.
This is paint-by-numbers A&R. It’s been around as long as hit records and people-who-work-in-music-who-don’t-know-music. And perhaps no band from the 90’s exemplifies it more than Candlebox.
Back to Bert in 1993. What’s he’s looking for? What are the numbers he’s painting by?
In no particular order*:
1) (Kind of) dumb names. After Soundgarden, every band name needed to be two words–ideally pushed together–that sound cool but meant little. Bonus points if these words describe inanimate objects.
96X Example: Superdrag. Lemonheads. Silverchair. Radiohead. Etc.
In 2013: Band names that include punctuation, missing letters, foreign characters, a bad joke, or the word “deer.” The perfect band will be called “DeërJHN!”
2) Sad white guys. Bonus points if they all have long hair and look practically identical.
Example: Every band on 96X except Rage Against the Machine.
In 2013: Same. Maybe less sad. Maybe more white.
3) Vocal ticks. The singer should have a good voice, but should also have a weird voice. Something memorable and gritty, but not too threatening. Bonus points if it resembles Eddie Vedder.
Example: Can you pronounce “didn’t,” like “didahn’t,” and make “maybe” a nine-syllable word? Yes, yes I can.
In 2013: Singing voice just can’t sound like speaking voice. Sing with accent that isn’t yours, sing with affect, or sing with effect/autotune. Fake human or real robot.
4) Vague song titles. Most songs are named after the words repeated in the chorus. Cool–most of mine are, too. Bonus points if those words are short, vague, and suggest alienation.
Example: “I Alone.” “Cumbersome.” Every song from Pearl Jam’s Ten.
Candlebox, “Far Behind”? Check.
In 2013: Wildly specific song titles. Ideally a place nobody goes, or an object nobody uses. A meditation on a non-thing.
5) Muddy, heavy guitars. Heavy, distorted guitars were a grunge staple. Typically, they’re quiet during verses and loud during choruses (a Pixies trademark Nirvana mastered and popularized). Bonus points if they sound like they’re underwater.
Example: “Come As You Are.” “Lightning Crashes.”
In 2013: Handclaps. One banjo player who “just picked it up, man.” Two drummers or zero drummers.
6) GenX cynicism and ambiguity. An extension of #4. Only in the 90’s would the word “maybe” be a chorus. “Let’s build up into a climactic moment, then let’s scream the most anti-climactic word we can.” Bonus points if a male singer sings from a female perspective.
Example: Nevermind. Bush.
Candlebox? Check. May-ay-aybe.
In 2013: GenY optimism and spirited half-sense.
7) Overlong hits. The five-minute single became standard in the mid-90’s. Bonus points if it takes two minutes to reach a chorus.
Example: How is “Banditos” by the Refreshments 5 minutes long?
Candlebox, “Far Behind”? Kind of. (Clocks in at a brief 4:54)
In 2013: What is a hit?
This factor, more than any other, illustrates the difference in paint-by-numbers A&R from 1993 to 2013 (bypassing the fact that A&R doesn’t really exist in 2013). Hits–and hit potential–aren’t part of the selection process.
Here’s why Candlebox was perfect: in 1993, if you’re Bert Harb looking for the next Nirvana, you’re 1) too late and 2) missing the point. There’s only one Nirvana. Instead, you’re grabbing several bands that 1) meet your grunge criteria, and (crucially) 2) have at least one pop-leaning potential hit. Build a stable, find the hits, and milk the cow til it can’t stand anymore.
You have to work in a model that values hit singles (radio play >> record sales >> profit). THEN, you have to be able to recognize a hit when it’s in front of you.
The difference is obvious: in 2013, record sales are a fraction of an artist’s income. So, most bands aren’t trying to make hits. While the Candlebox Model (1993) used hit potential as an essential method of selection, the Candlebox Model (2013) contains everything but that. Pop songs got cut out. Where the 96X bands were mimicking Nirvana and other hugely lucrative juggernauts, current bands mimic an proven commodity. They look the part of indie, but don’t sound the part of mainstream.
And because Candlebox were an A&R man’s dream, they were prototypical set-glue for 96X. There’s a reason half my middle school friends thought “Far Behind” was by Seven Mary Three, and “Tomorrow” was by Candlebox, and “Cumbersome” was by Silverchair. Execs in skyscrapers and kids in minivans understood the same thing: Candlebox didn’t matter. Nirvana did, but Candlebox didn’t. What mattered was that, between “In Bloom” and “Heart-Shaped Box,” we had “Far Behind” to keep us listening. You didn’t have to like Candlebox to understand why they were being played on that station.
Candlebox was often resurrected by 96X because of how un-great they were. If the best bands create their own checklist, the Candleboxes of the world succeed by simply checking off a ton of boxes on Bert Harb’s list.
The difference is whether you’re a poor-man’s Pearl Jam or an original DeërJHN!. Twenty years from now, a few music geeks (of which I’m one) will remember DeërJHN!. But everyone remembers “Far Behind.” Many still love it. Bands come and go, but songs last.
(*I hope this list doesn’t come off as seriously critical or negative. Please remember the reason I’m writing about Candlebox is because I genuinely enjoy this song, and think it tells us something important about music then and music now. And one of the reasons I’m continually inspired as an artist is because there’s so much great music being made in 2013. I’m just making some gross generalizations in the interest of fun. Remember fun?)