Kurt Cobain made plenty of mistakes in his life, but loving the Vaselines was not among them. Nirvana covered three of their songs, and as Kurt might tell you if he were alive today, from 1986 to 1989 the Vaselines were the best pop band around. Sub Pop was smart enough to cash in on the Nirvana connection, and in 1992 released the career retrospective The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History. From the stomping, singalong opener "Son of a Gun" to the distorted and nasty "Let's Get Ugly" 17 tracks later, this collection was the Holy Grail of indie pop. In 2009, hot off of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee's reunion (and appearance at Sub Pop's 20th anniversary bash), the label remastered the studio recordings, added a second disc of demos and live performances, and retitled the whole thing Enter the Vaselines.
The Vaselines' music is unfailingly amateurish, almost completely silly, occasionally quite perverted, and always about sex. It has the simplicity and ear-grabbing melodies of the best bubblegum, the loud and semi-competent guitars of punk, and some of the attitude and lo-fi sound of their noise rock contemporaries like the Jesus and Mary Chain. They also had a charmingly unschooled vocal approach (Kelly sounding cool and tough, McKee sweet as pie) with a fleeting acquaintance to pitch but tons of humor, attitude, and style. Throw in a bunch of religion and add brilliantly simple choruses that will have you singing along the first time you hear the songs (as well as the thousandth), and you've got genius. This brilliance shines brightest on the band's first two EPs, which were recorded by Stephen Pastel and contain the songs the group was best known for, like "Molly's Lips," "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," and "Son of a Gun." The full-length album Dum-Dum, recorded without Pastel's guidance and with a bulked-up, rockier sound, is still quite amazing and features some timelessly cool songs like "Sex Sux (Amen)," which includes the immortal line "Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost/I'm the Sacred Host with the most," the rip-roaring "Monsterpussy," and the hilarious "The Day I Was a Horse." Taken together, the band's official output is brainy, funny, sexy, catchy pop music at its best.
So if the first disc of Enter the Vaselines is absolutely essential, the bonus disc is for fanatics only. The demos for "Son of a Gun" and unrecorded songs "Rosary Job" and "Red Poppy" are interesting from a historical perspective but not very listenable, as the duo hadn't really put its sound together yet. The live set from December of 1986 (three months before the first EP was recorded) is a sloppy, stiff performance with Kelly and McKee backed by a drum machine and fighting to be heard above the din of the unimpressed crowd. Much better is the live set from 1988 with a full band playing songs from the EPs and Dum-Dum (and a cover of Gary Glitter's "I Didn't Know I Loved You ['Til I Saw You Rock 'n' Roll]") in front of a semi-enthusiastic crowd. They still sound raw and amateurish but also like they are having much more fun. Kelly, McKee, and Pastel also seem to have had fun when they sat down for the chat about the history of the band that is a part of the set's beautiful packaging. Credit Sub Pop for putting tons of effort into the release of Enter the Vaselines and treating the band and the music with the respect they deserve. For a short period of time, there was nothing like them on Earth.