The 1990s was a great time for female fronted bands. Although we tend to think of the past couple of decades as being more progressive in terms of gender equality in music, the 90s scene – especially in the UK – had the current one beaten hands down. There was Republica, Sleeper, Catatonia, Elastica, Lush, and, of course, Garbage. The Scottish-American electro-rock band seemed years ahead of their time when they first hit the scene in the mid-1990s, and it seemed every teenager into rock music had a poster of lead singer Shirley Manson on their wall. She was so notoriously an object of lust that satire websites still joke about it.
Nowadays, the scene isn’t as alive with female-fronted rock bands as we all imagined it would be. Chvrches, War Paint, and Hands off Gretel are all trying as hard as they can, but people just don’t seem to care about rock music in general as much as they once did. You can see the problem every time headliners are announced for major music festivals – it’s the same old bands, playing the same old sets with ever-diminishing intensity. Despite how stale it is at the top, some of the old favorites are still ticking along on smaller stages. Garbage is one of them.
When the band undertook a twentieth-anniversary tour of their critically-acclaimed album ‘Version 2.0’ last year, many people feared that it would be the last we ever heard of them. Shirley had just turned 50, and their most recent album, 2016’s ‘Strange Little Birds,’ had been a commercial disappointment. Touring their best-known album, which contained the majority of their biggest hits, felt like a way of saying goodbye. How wrong we were. There’s plenty of life in this one-of-a-kind electro-rock band yet.
Garbage kicked off their 2019 tour at the Junction in Cambridge on June 14th, to a crowd of around 800 people. The audience was mostly over 30 – some far beyond that – and far more familiar with their older material than anything from the past three albums. Just getting to the start of the tour was an ideal for the band – a planned date in Iceland for the following week had been canceled because of issues with the promoter, and Butch Vig had torn his rotator cuff. On the night, none of that mattered. Session musician Matt Walker stepped in on the drums. If you weren’t aware that he wasn’t a full-time member of the band, you’d never have been aware there was an issue. They were flawless.
After a solid set from Du Blonde – who could be a name to keep an eye on – Garbage took to the stage at 9 pm. The venue closed at eleven. The crowd in the venue were accustomed to gigs finishing after around an hour and a half. Garbage had no intention of running so short. With an eclectic set that took in almost all of their biggest hits, they were still playing right up to the point where the venue’s owners must have been starting to sweat about the curfew. They came out strong with ‘Control.’ They closed with ‘When I Grow Up.’ Somewhere in the middle, they threw in a partial cover of the Depeche Mode classic ‘Personal Jesus.’ By the end of the set, the casual fans in attendance had realized that Garbage is one of those bands who you’re far more familiar with than you previously imagined.
There are some bands who have a habit of being able to make you familiar with their songs without you necessarily realizing it. The Foo Fighters are a classic example. Ask people to name Foo Fighters songs, and they’ll likely only be able to name four or five off the top of their head unless they’re a big fan. Start making suggestions, though, and they’ll quickly find that they know far more tracks than immediately spring to mind. Garbage is the same. Most people associate them with ‘Stupid Girl’ or ‘I Think I’m Paranoid,’ but there’s also ‘Special,’ ‘I’m Only Happy When It Rains,’ ‘Cherry Lips,’ ‘Why Do You Love Me,’ and ‘Queer.’ There’s also ‘Supervixen’ and ‘Push It.’ We could go on. All of them got an airing as almost two hours seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye.
Sitting above all of this was Shirley herself, decked out in a polka dot dress and smeared in eyeliner. If it really has been twenty-five years since Garbage first hit the scene, someone forgot to tell her – time doesn’t appear to have laid a glove on the Scottish force of nature. Between songs, she made salient points about the world we live in, the state of the environment, and the current political climate. She also took the time to drink copious amounts of whiskey, and tell the band off for trying to continue playing a song after her microphone failed. Of all the things she said on stage – and she’d have been entertaining to watch and listen to as a one-woman show without any music – one point stood out the most.