After nearly 20 years away, the Vaselines are back. This makes it as good a time as any to find out what their records meant in their original context, before they belatedly reached the hands of filthy Pacific Northwesterners and fueled the early-'90s grunge scene.
To find out, you only have to go back a few more years, to the UK in 1986 and a cassette compilation of post-Smiths jangly guitar bands issued by New Musical Express called C86. From the twee pop twisting around that legendary tape's spools to the smiley-faced benevolence of Madchester, UK indie in the late-'80s is notable for a pair of things: bowl haircuts and strained sexlessness. It was an affront, then, that the Vaselines—perhaps the sexiest band ever to plug into any scene—appeared from Glasgow. They had the songs ("You Think You're a Man") and look (Warhol hanger-on, circa 1969). But most importantly, they had that lurid name.
"At the time, the C86 thing was lots of grownups pretending they were five years old," the Vaselines' Eugene Kelly says of the scene. "We were in our early 20s and spent our whole lives being young. It just seemed time to grow up. Not adult, necessarily, just different from twee."
Kelly and then-girlfriend Frances McKee arrived fully hatched on their first EP, Son of a Gun, which began their streak of catchy songs with giggly lyrics about sex and gender roles. Releasing Son of a Gun at the height of C86's popularity not only distanced the Vaselines from the prevailing trend at home, it laid the groundwork for their improbable success in the States.
"We were really popular on Olympia radio in the late '80s, and Kurt Cobain heard us while he was living there," Kelly says. "Soon after, Nirvana started covering 'Son of a Gun' and 'Molly's Lips,' and later recorded them."
By then, the Vaselines had split up with little acrimony, but also with no real following in the UK. The '90s were awash with linkages to bigger bands—from the Pooh Sticks to Mudhoney to Nirvana—who plundered the Vaselines' fertile catalog with revelatory results.
"That's what gave it a second life," Kelly says. "If it weren't for Sub Pop, who reissued our back catalog, the records would have disappeared."