The Vaselines probably shouldn't be famous. Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee couldn't really sing on-key, and they weren't very accomplished guitar players. Their songs were silly — full of references to uncomfortable bike seats and monster pussycats — and their idea of a good cover was "You Think You're a Man" by John Waters' muse, Divine.
And yet, 23 years after their first EP, the Scottish musicians are bigger than ever, thanks in part to a new Sub Pop release, Enter the Vaselines; a new generation of musicians enamored of sloppy, euphoric noise-pop (see Vivian Girls, My Teenage Stride, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart); and a reunion tour that sets down locally this week.
Back in 1989, however, when the Vaselines broke up just as they released their one and only long-player, Dum Dum, it seemed the Glaswegians were destined to be filed next to other quickly-forgotten U.K. outfits like the Chesterfields and the Rosehips. Then Kurt Cobain came along. Nirvana played Vaselines songs live, and ended up recording three covers ("Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," "Molly's Lips," and "Son of a Gun"). Cobain cited the Scots as influences in numerous interviews, and even persuaded them to reunite in 1990 to play with Nirvana in London. He eventually persuaded Sub Pop to reissue all of their recorded material as 1992's The Way of the Vaselines. (The new release adds a second disc of demos and live tracks.)
So the Vaselines owe Cobain a great debt. But if Kelly and McKee — the songwriting team behind the band, and initially a couple — didn't have such a unique style, the band wouldn't be so beloved to this day. Songs like "Teenage Superstars" and "No Hope" perfectly encapsulate the thrill and the agony of adolescence: equal parts naughty and naive, as kooky as they are raucous, flooded in anarchic feedback and acid trips and bike horn honks. Imagine the sprawling feedback of early My Bloody Valentine mixed with the lighthearted lyrics of BMX Bandits and the sexy-silly vocals of the Pastels.
So how exactly did Kelly and McKee get back together? They had long since parted ways personally. And while each continued to release music — Kelly with Eugenius and solo, McKee with Suckle and under her own name — they'd moved onto other things, like raising children and teaching yoga. But then last year, McKee's sister was putting together a charity event in Glasgow for a Malawi orphanage, and, McKee explains, "Eugene and I were asked to do something as the Vaselines."
Augmented by guitarist Stevie Jackson, bassist Bob Kildea, and drummer Richard Colburn of Belle & Sebastian, the pair had such fun at the April charity event that they agreed to play Sub Pop's 20th anniversary concert last July, stopping off in New York along the way. (For the current tour, Colburn has been replaced by Michael McGaughrin from 1990s.)
The response to the Vaselines' first-ever U.S. shows was effusive. "It's just been so warm and welcoming," McKee says. "It's like we're comfort songs. People don't have to try to hard to like it." But how is it playing such "juvenile" material 20 years later? "To be honest, it's fun," she says. "It's not serious. And I've written a lot of serious songs in the past, so it's really nice to do something so frivolous."
Such as getting onstage with your ex. "We air our grievances onstage," McKee says. "I never know what Eugene's going to say, and he never knows what I'm going to say."
So these Vaselines shows will be like a family reunion: There'll be old friends, new relations, a few messy breakups, and a lot of good-natured joshing. Maybe even a monsterpussy.