The Vaselines don’t go away and here’s the rub… each return delivers something new and fresh to the contemporary music scene, says Paul Whitelaw
The story of The Vaselines reads almost like a punk-rock fairytale. Formed in Glasgow in 1986 by young lovers Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, they released just two EPs and one album of cheeky, charming, tuneful punk minimalism before splitting up, both as a couple and a band, shortly afterwards. Then along came Nirvana.
Famously one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands, this obscure, defunct duo were suddenly receiving massive royalty cheques thanks to the Vaselines covers included on Nirvana compilation Incesticide and MTV Unplugged in New York (another pleasing side-effect was that, with Molly’s Lips, the world’s biggest rock band recorded a song named in tribute to Scottish actress Molly Weir).
Though they briefly reformed to support Nirvana in Edinburgh in 1990, Kelly and McKee went on to pursue separate music careers. However, in another surprising twist to the tale, they reformed in 2006 to play various well-received live dates.
In 2010, 21 years after the release of their début album, they released the winningly titled Sex With an X. One of the most belated sequels in rock history, it’s followed this month by the release of V For Vaselines. Cheeringly, they’ve barely altered their signature sound in all that time.
Having influenced contemporary acts such as The Pain of Being Pure at Heart and Dum Dum Girls, are they consciously aware these days of writing in accordance to a Vaselines aesthetic?
“There’s a template,” agrees McKee. “I’ve done my own solo things and there are certain songs that just wouldn’t be Vaselines songs at all, and Eugene is the same. So there’s definitely a sound, a Vaselines sound.”
Adds Kelly: “I think that’s what happened to me before we got back together. I’d write something and it would sound like The Vaselines, so I’d put it away to concentrate more on my depressing, self-pitying, whining solo stuff.
“I’ve got a file full of unfinished songs, so when we decided to get back together I could say, what about this one or that one?”
Influenced as much by 1960s bubblegum and girl groups as The Velvet Underground and the Ramones, The Vaselines are the fuzzed-up definition of uncluttered rock ‘n’ roll.
“That’s our style, if you like,” says McKee. “We’ve complicated things a bit more than the original things we did, and I understand the craft of writing songs a bit more. But I don’t think you should think too much about that. It feels spontaneous, which is what music should be.
“If we got to the point where we felt we had to ‘work’ a record, I think there’s something missing there.”
Kelly concurs. “It’s got to be instant, it’s got to be fun. I was looking at the track-listing for the new U2 album, and all their songs are four minutes, five minutes. And that’s not what we wanted to do, we didn’t want to have a pile of songs that were five minutes long. If you’re not careful you can over-egg it a bit.”
There’s not much chance of that ever happening with The Vaselines. Although partly intended as a joke, their leather biker image on the cover of V for Vaselines – which was recorded and mixed in just under a month – tells you where they’re at, even after all this time. “It was an experiment in patent leather,” laughs Kelly.
“Rather than standing around looking uncomfortable as ourselves, let’s dress up as characters. It’s also making a comment about how we’re in our late forties and we’re still in a rock band, and how ridiculous that might be.”
Fortunately, V for Vaselines isn’t the bathetic sound of middle-aged musicians trying to recapture their youth. On the contrary, it sounds entirely natural and fresh.
It’s true, however, that neither Kelly nor McKee thought that, 25 years after they formed, they’d still be operating as The Vaselines.
“Once we broke up we thought that was it, we never thought we’d get back together,” says Kelly. “Plus I feel that if we’d stayed together and kept on making music, we’d have run out of steam after a while.”
“I think musically we both went off in different directions at that point,” adds McKee. “When The Vaselines split up there was this whole new sound coming, in terms of house music and the whole rave scene.
“I really got into all that kind of music, I even sold my guitar. I didn’t contemplate playing a guitar for a long, long time.”
“It wouldn’t have been the time for The Vaselines,” says Kelly. “That Mary Chain and Pastels sound was being taken over by The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. So we broke up just at the right time.”
“Actually, it was all part of the plan,” jokes McKee. “Let’s play the long game. Now one of us has to die, but that’s another story.”
“Frances is always saying that,” Kelly deadpans.
Speaking of which, did Cobain’s approbation prove useful in the long run?
“I think undoubtedly,” says McKee, adding: “It would be really churlish to be pissed off about Kurt Cobain endorsing our band.”
“We wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for him,” says Kelly. “We’d just be another band who released a record and nobody was interested.”
“I think that’s Kurt’s legacy,” says McKee, “he was a real music lover who wanted other people to hear the music he loved. And I think that’s to his credit, I don’t think anyone else before him did that. Can you imagine Led Zeppelin talking about other bands in an interview?”
Kelly: “He did, what, five covers in the Unplugged set? He gave David Bowie all that attention he needed. Mind you, he could’ve played another one of our songs instead...”
“I know!” laughs McKee. “But I think it’s interesting,” says Kelly, “how this music you’ve created, you don’t realise how far it’s travelled. Some people in America were appreciating it, and I like that idea of it travelling further than we’d ever actually been as a band. The music got out there and had a better time than us.” • V For Vaselines is released today. The Vaselines play The Caves, Edinburgh tonight. http://www.thevaselines.co.uk/