Steve Albini Remembered

“One, two… one, two, fuck you!” a love letter to the dynamite legacy of Steve Albini...

This one really hurt. The thing about Steve Albini, a man befitting a place on the Mount Rushmore of underground and alternative rock, is that he was a master of many trades. Ingenious producer, demonic rockstar, poker impresario, ran a wonderful cookery blog, and a principled and iconoclastic voice in a world losing its principles and iconoclasts. His name is on the back of over 1,000 albums, and his brazen voice and mechanical guitar tones are all over dozens; Albini is one of the greatest of all time. 

Perhaps his work as a producer is what touched the most people. A titan, no one in his field could carve out a more instantaneous sense of place and time – often, the first klang, krang or skronk of one of his records is all that is needed to set a vivid scene. 

Behind the desk, he chiselled out Nirvana’s grisliest record, ‘In Utero’ one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest ever “fuck yous”, and helped craft suitably grotty, gristly soundworlds for the likes of PIXIES, The Jesus Lizard, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, PJ Harvey and Fugazi. Indeed, his essence as a producer can be summed up thus; no one else made a rock band sound so good damn good.

He was by no means limited to just making heavy and evil music sound better than anyone else. With Jason Molina, Low and Joanna Newsom, he recorded delicate and raw emotional music in a way that captured everything. On ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’, Jason Molina’s career defining masterpiece, Steve captured the epochal ‘Farewell Transmission’ in just one take, all seven glorious minutes of it.

It must be mentioned, though, that Albini insisted that he was an ‘engineer’ – he thought that ‘producers’ were a bunch of chancers – and as such never took a royalty payment (“I would like to be paid like a plumber”). He charged comparatively cheap rates for all bands, and supplemented his income at the poker table; a real one off. 

Behind the desk, he was unparalleled, but I like to remember Albini best as a musician, an uncompromising purveyor of bastard music across several decades. For a little while, he burned brighter than anyone as singer and guitarist of Big Black, a Chicago band far more intense than any other, and for me that’s how I will always remember Steve. 

The 1980s saw a real renaissance for American guitar music. Some of the most whacky and evil sounds ever created were created by yanks during the Reagan years – the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Swans, Flipper, Teenage Jesus, etc, etc, etc – but still, to this very day, nothing hits harder than the industrial-rock skronk of Big Black.

A band he formed with Roland (drum machine) in mid-80s Illinois, Big Black rocked harder and uglier than any of their contemporaries. Albini was the skeletal frontman, toting his guitar on a leather belt and slinging it from the hip like a guerilla fighter. His guitar sounded like lightning striking power cables, and the band’s monstrous sound evoked a meeting between Tetsuo the Iron Man and the bleak landscapes of American heavy industry.

His lyrics were horrible vignettes of the very grimmest American life, he painted a picture of a country where everyone is evil, and everything keeps exploding. From the adolescent boredom of the Midwest (‘Kerosene’, surely his greatest work), town-wide pedophile rings (‘Jordan, Minnesota’), infanticide (‘My Disco’) and senseless mass destruction (‘Kasmir S. Pulaski Day’). 

Big Black released a fistful of EPs, two perfect albums, and then dipped so that second guitarist Santiago Durango could go to law school. But that little discography is more whirlwind, heat and flash, than most great groups achieve in their whole careers. Still, watching Albini and co. hurtle through sets of premium pigfuck on YouTube – hearing the great man yelling the purile “one-two, one-two fuck you!” before every song – is about the best high that music can grant you. 

A quick mention also, for Shellac, the band he helmed irregularly for the last 25 years of his life. A power trio, nay, the most powerful trio, they were the perfect sounding rock band, their music a bastard child of math-rock, noise and pigfuck. An unreal group who were still at the absolute top of their game, new album ‘To All Trains’ testament to this, you can’t help but feel artistically Albini still had so much to give.

There are, inescapably edgelord qualities to Big Black, and to his later bands R*peman and Shellac, a kind of insolence that only comes with great privilege. Probably more so than any other comparable figure, later life saw Albini own his past misgivings, address his privileges, and grow as a human. He’d use social media to challenge “anti-woke” numbskulls, and very few people ever spoke as well on the decaying corpse of the music industry than Steve Albini. 

Today, like hundreds of thousands worldwide, I’m blasting ‘Atomizer’, ‘Songs About Fucking’, ‘In Utero’, ‘Surfer Rosa’, ‘1000 Hurts’, ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’, ‘Ys’, ‘At Action Park’ and ‘Tweez’, and you should too. What a legacy, what a geezer, we’ve lost a real one-off – that Steve Albini, he’s in collusion with Virgin Trains against me.

Words: Cal Cashin // @calcashin666

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