Hole – Pretty On The Inside
Released September 17th, 1991 on Caroline Records (U.S.) and City Slang Records (Europe)
Produced by Kim Gordon and Don Fleming
Peaked at #73 U.S., #59 U.K.
“Teenage Whore” (#1 U.K. Indie)
You will get your back up and tell me that Courtney Love is a fake, a mid-level alt singer who attached herself to Kurt Cobain and rode his coattails to her strange half-life as a C-list Hollywood celebrity. I am here to tell you that she is a punk rock icon. You will scoff and ask me if I’m smoking drugs.
Listen: Shut the fuck up.
Courtney Love spent her formative years doing questionable drugs in the company of questionable people, living in trailer parks with burned-out hippies. Her biography – written by splatterpunk icon Poppy Z Brite – is a real eye-opener. She sold drugs, slept around, and stripped to support herself and the various attempts she made at forming bands (a period that included a brief stint as the singer for Faith No More). Finally, in 1989, she formed one that stuck with guitarist Eric Erlandson. This was Hole. Erlandson first agreed to meet her in a coffee shop to discuss music and had immediate misgivings. His exact thoughts were “Oh God, oh no, what have I gotten myself into?” That’s the Courtney Love magic. She couldn’t have made that bad of an impression; they were keeping company for the first year the band was active, after all.
Pretty On The Inside came about because Courtney Love loved Sonic Youth (she immediately gravitated toward Erlandson because he had a ‘Thurston Moore quality’ about him). After recording two No Wave influenced singles (“Retard Girl” and “Dicknail”) she packaged them up along with a Hello Kitty barrette and a letter and sent them off to Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, hoping to get her to produce the band’s first album. She agreed, as long as her friend Don Fleming could tag along. That’s the Courtney Love magic.
The album is abrasive and explosive, even by modern standards. Most casual listeners know the band for “Doll Parts”, from 1994’s Live Through This. Even those people who developed a love for all of Live Through This find Pretty On The Inside to be a bit much. The album is grunge, in the purest sense: it is equal parts Black Sabbath and Black Flag. The stomping lead-off track “Teenage Whore” roars to life on some of the heaviest contemporary guitar you can find. It snarls, it pounces, and it somehow found its way to the very top of Britain’s indie song chart. Much of the rest of the album follows in that vein. The guitars are violently ill, sliding here and there throughout songs and settling on pounding, throbbing power chords when they finally find a solid place to land. Courtney’s vocals rip at the edges of screams, and her lyrics are both much more abstract than her later work, and by virtue of this even more unsettling. These are, upon repeated listens, songs by someone who has Seen Things. These are songs about rape, abortion, abandonment, alienation, and suicide. Jonathan Gold of the L.A. Times called it “as pretty as a flayed wound” (this was a positive review) and that’s about the sum of it: Courtney Love ripping herself and her experiences wide open to shove the face of the world into it. The last song is the perfect capstone: ostensibly a Joni Mitchell cover, it sounds as though it was recorded on the day the world ended. It is, to cop a phrase, punk as fuck.
It would chart, inexplicably. Such were the times. In those days, according to those who worked with her, Courtney Love was constantly moving, outpacing everyone around her as she worked for it. Between Pretty On The Inside and its follow-up she would develop a worsening heroin habit, meet and marry Kurt Cobain, give birth to a daughter, and have to clean up the aftermath of her husband’s suicide. It was a busy three years. Regardless of your tabloid-level thoughts on it, Pretty On The Inside remains one of the most visceral punk records ever made.