The Best Album Never Made
If you know your mid-to-late '90s rock music, then you know the story. Following the stellar success of debut album Weezer (also known as The Blue Album) and its singles "Undone : The Sweater Song", "Say It Ain't So" and - especially - "Buddy Holly", Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo went a little bit odd and reclusive, and decided to write - and self-produce - a deeply personal, extremely raw album called Pinkerton. It was a complete flop both commercially and critically, but in the latter handful of years of the decade suddenly got jumped upon and held up as a genre-defining masterpiece, being saddled at the same time with the accusation of having kickstarted all that "emo" rubbish. In those few years, Weezer had all but disintegrated, but returned triumphantly in 2001 with a poppier sound, a new bass player and a new smash hit album. Since then, they've ploughed on producing progressively less interesting music, and now occupy the unfortunate position of being one of "those" bands that everyone's heard of but are never really described as geniuses save by those who remember their first two albums.
But it all could have been different. So very different. If Cuomo had had the conviction to follow through with an idea he had in late 1994/early 1995, Weezer's second album could have been even more of a masterpiece than Pinkerton is generally held to be. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the story of the 1990s' version of the legendary SMiLE. Welcome to Songs From The Black Hole.
Cuomo had been writing and demoing some of the songs that would go on to become integral parts of SFTBH and Pinkerton even before the release of The Blue Album. It was after the debut album's release, however, that he really began to turn ideas over in his head. After a busy summer and autumn touring and promoting the record, the band took a well-earned break over Christmas 1994. The band's official website's "recording history" takes up the story :
Over Christmas break, Rivers worked feverishly on writing, and recording 8-track demos at home in Connecticut, and emerged with a "mock-up" demo of what he was starting to envision as weezer's next album. Influenced by musicals, operas, and "rock-opera", Songs From The Black Hole was an ambitious concept album idea.
Throughout the first half of 1995, Rivers continued to write songs, developing the concept, and at various stages began recording demos. On some occasions, this was simply him on his own with a guitar; at other times, he worked with Weezer's drummer Pat, playing all the instruments but the drums and singing the various vocal parts that would go into the songs. By the middle of the year, he had a rough tracklist of around 16 songs in mind (although the finished album would undoubtedly have contained more songs than this, and some of the songs would have been no longer than a minute or so), and was developing the album's story. In the autumn of that year, he continued to tinker with the album after enrolling at Harvard, and came up with a second, altered tracklist which included some new songs and dropped others. But his focus on the project, and on his songwriting, was already beginning to change. Throughout 1995, discussions with the band had seen them wondering if the project could actually be pulled off. By the end of the year, Rivers had pretty much lost faith in the idea (nobody really knows why, although an increasing lack of confidence would surely have been a factor, and he has since claimed that the concept was ditched because of bassist Matt Sharp's side project The Return Of The Rentals), and furthermore his songwriting had taken on a new direction. He brought a new crop of songs to the band in early '96, and these songs - along with a selection of SFTBH tracks that had already been recorded (independently of one-another and without any of the coherency and theatrics that SFTBH had intended) in '95 - would ultimately make up Pinkerton.
It's here that the Songs From The Black Hole story takes a lengthy break; and indeed might have died altogether were it not for that eternal factor of fan curiosity. Many Weezer fans weren't even aware of SFTBH's existence, apart from whispered rumours, until a number of old Weezer demos were made available on the band's official website in 2002. Among these were a handful of the demos that Rivers had recorded for SFTBH. These tracks caused a massive stir among the older fans who, around this time, were beginning to despair that the Weezer who had recorded the bland, lacklustre Maladroit might ever recapture their world-beating form. Of particular note was "Blast Off!", which was immediately held up as an example of the classic, edgy pop songwriting that Rivers was capable of back then. Of course, everyone clamoured for more info. Weezer's longtime confidante, roadie, photographer and webmaster Karl Koch was extremely helpful in filling in the story, providing fans with a guide to the two tracklistings that Rivers had come up with. However, the flow of actual material had dried up - the exceptions being a frustratingly incomplete segment of the song "Superfriend" (recorded on video camera in the studio) on 2004's Video Capture Device DVD, and the release of the magnificent "You Won't Get With Me Tonight" on a compilation album in October 2003.
Indeed, it was the sleeve notes on YWGWMT's compilation release - written by Koch - that really began to get fans talking about the story behind the album, because apart from vague mentions of being a "rock opera", and speculation based on the often inaudible lyrics on the demos, no-one really knew much about the album's intended concept. Koch's explanation, though, opened the floodgates a little :
This track was written and recorded by Rivers as a home demo in early 1995, and was intended for the second weezer album. At the time, the second album was to be called Songs From The Black Hole and was intended to be a â€˜space opera,â€™ along the lines of Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar. The song lyrics may seem confusing, but what must be understood is that there are 2 different characters here, one male and one female, and that on this demo, Rivers is singing both parts. The song is really a conversation between two characters.
Even with this information, it wasn't until an online Q&A session with Karl Koch in July 2005 that more information about the project's story began to come out - and this information served only to increase fans' frustration about how brilliant the album might have been. It seems that the story would have followed at least five characters (we hear three of them in "Blast Off!", and two of them in "You Won't Get With Me Tonight"), all youngish space cadets on a mission to some planet far away. As well as documenting their mission itself, the album was to have focused on the relationships between the characters - indeed, most of what Rivers had written was on this side of the story, with little of the actual mission story developed by the time the project was scrapped. The five characters were to have been Jonas (the "lead" character, played by Rivers, and the main vocal on most of the songs), Maria (Joan Wasserman), Lisa (that dog.'s Rachel Haden), and two more characters to have been played by Brian Bell and Matt Sharp, whose names remained a mystery for some time but have now been deduced/remembered to have been "Wuan" (pronounced like Juan) and "Dono" or "Donno" (as in the lines "Oh, Wuan and Dono" in "Blast Off!" and "Especially that Dono" in YWGWMT). There is also a robot called M1 in "Blast Off!" (sung through a vocoder by Rivers on the demo) who would have been played by Koch.
So what would the album have been like? With the amount of legend and speculation that surrounds it, it's perhaps easy to lapse into hyperbole. But if you consider the prospect of a band who were as at the top of their form as Weezer were in the mid-90s (The Blue Album stands up as one of the finest rock records of the past couple of decades, and even with all the problems that surrounded its inception Pinkerton is still something of a masterpiece), crafting an ambitious, epic, story-driven rock opera album... it's hard not to be excited. The whole thing might well have been overblown, tacky and bloated - but it might also have been absolutely magnificent. The idea that five different singers (only Rivers was ever a "main" singer for Weezer) might have played different parts is mouthwatering, and while the "love story" side of the plot is perhaps cliched, there's something extremely charming about the futuristic-yet-retro feel of the setting - it comes across as a 1950s interpretation of the future rather than a 1990s one. Furthermore, while it may seem strange to think of a "conventional" rock band doing a story-led concept album (I mean, isn't it just so '60s?), the concept certainly didn't harm Green Day, who took on a similar approach nearly ten years later, and in the process turned in one of the best albums of 2004 in American Idiot.
Musically, meanwhile, there's no doubt that SFTBH could have been something special. Nearly all of the demos that we've been lucky enough to hear are top-notch songs, particularly YWGWMT and "Longtime Sunshine", and that impression is only enhanced by looking at the eventually-recorded songs that would have been a part of it, such as "Tired Of Sex", "Why Bother?", "No Other One" and "Devotion". But it's actually the b-side "I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams" that offers the best impression of what a completed SFTBH might have sounded like, as it features Rachel Haden singing lead vocals and is drenched in the keyboards and production that would surely have been a feature of the album. And for many years it's been held by fans as one of the best Weezer songs in existence.
Aside from merely ruminating on what a great album it may or may not have been, there's a further consequence of the revelations about SFTBH. Among the songs that were intended to be on the album were four that ended up on Pinkerton - "Tired Of Sex", "Getchoo", "No Other One" and "Why Bother?". It's worth noting that they ended up on the album as the first four tracks - the six that follow were all songs that Rivers had written after scrapping the project - or, at least, while he was on the process of abandoning it. Pinkerton is an extremely overanalysed album, due to the highly personal nature of most of its lyrics and its position as a forefather of modern "emo" music. All of a sudden, though, learning that those songs were intended to be part of a narrative, and therefore are written by Rivers in the third person rather than being about himself, adds a whole new complexion to them. This is particularly notable in the case of "Tired Of Sex". As the opening track on Pinkerton, it's a raw and harsh abandonment of the poppy sound of The Blue Album, and furthermore its lyrics seem to detail Rivers' dissatisfaction with the rockstar lifestyle; how he's fed up of sleeping with groupies every night and yearns for something more meaningful ("Monday night I'm makin' Jen / Tuesday night I'm makin' Gwen / Wednesday night I'm makin' Catherine / Oh why can't I be making love come true?"). Learning, then, that it is in fact supposed to detail the dissatisfaction of a fictional character (probably Jonas, although possibly "Donno") - and furthermore that it wasn't originally intended as an opening track, seems to tear away a lot of preconceived wisdom about the song. Of course, it could still remain the case that Rivers was drawing from his own experiences and placing them onto his fictional creation, but still. The long-held perception that Pinkerton was a cathartic, in-one-go explosion of Rivers' feelings in the post-Blue Album years suddenly has a significant rethink demanded of it. Instead, it seems like "Across The Sea" onwards represents the "true" Pinkerton, and the opening four tracks are merely the legacy of the album it could - and perhaps should - have been.
It's unlikely that the band would ever go back to those songs, write some more, and record the whole thing properly - not least because so many of the songs did get a proper release in some form or another (in addition to the four Pinkerton tracks, we had IJTOTLOMD and "Devotion" as full-on, studio-recorded B-sides to the singles "El Scorcho" and "The Good Life"). But could we ever see either of the demo tapes released, online or otherwise? Weezer fans can but hope, as SFTBH harks back to an era when Rivers and Weezer were creatively at the top of their game. Even in demo form, it would certainly piss over anything they've done in the past five years. Which, on reflection, is probably the main thing that would stop them from doing it...
What we're left with, then, is a handful of great (although raw and choppy) songs, and a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Every Weezer fan who knows the SFTBH has their own version of the album, because you can work from different tracklistings and you can use different versions to fill in the gaps (some people prefer to use Pinkerton versions of the songs that were properly recorded - others prefer to use earlier demos in order to retain a more consistent, unpolished feel to the record). In this sense, Songs From The Black Hole really is a SMiLE for the 21st Century. And hey, it only took thirty-odd years to get that released. It's now been ten years since the SFTBH sessions - should we pencil in a release for 2025...?
Addendum : February 2008
Well, it's been three-and-a-bit years since I first published this article, and quite a lot has changed in that time. Since we're putting the article back on the NTS front page as a "From the Archives" piece, I thought it high time I revisited it and updated the story with everything that's come out in the past eighteen months or so. I've left the original text intact above, but we pick up its chronology almost exactly two years after we left it...
In October 2007, fan interest in Songs From The Black Hole was sparked once more when Rivers announced that he was to release a compilation album of home recordings and demos. Sensors were immediately on alert - surely this was going to include some SFTBH material? Sure enough, when the tracklisting was unveiled a month or so later, it didn't disappoint - "Blast Off!", "Who You Callin' Bitch?", "Dude, We're Finally Landing!" and "Superfriend" were all to be included. Excitement over the latter track in particular was palpable - hadn't Karl Koch described this as his "favourite Weezer song ever", and hadn't we all rather liked the snippet of chorus that we heard on the DVD all that time ago?
Released on 18th December 2007, Alone : The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo came complete with comprehensive sleeve notes on every song, and the notes for the Songs From The Black Hole tracks begin to peel away some of the layers surrounding the mythical record. For starters, Rivers made explicit the suggestion that yes, the lyrics he was putting into the mouths of his characters were a reflection of his own feelings :
The success of Weezer's first album stirred up a lot of mixed feelings in me - "Yay, I'm happy" as well as "I'm not sure this is the life I want to lead." I set about exploring and expressing those feelings in a rock musical called Songs From The Black Hole.
Of course, this point of view squares directly with the voice of Jonas (Rivers' character) in "Blast Off!" - presented on Alone in a slightly re-edited version that restores the word "Blast" (previously missing) to the opening line and also fudges over a previous, tape-cut-enforced skip. The song then segues directly into "Who You Callin' Bitch?", which is an excellent, angry little interstitial piece (even if the lyrics are a bit off in places - "he acts like he knows that he has a big dick", indeed) that you can imagine having sounded absolutely huge if the album had ever been properly recorded.
"Dude, We're Finally Landing" is probably one of the real surprises of Alone. Following up on the above thoughts, Rivers confirms - while also giving Matt and Brian's characters their real names for the first time - that :
Wuan and Dondo are excited because they are about to achieve their mission's objective after a long, excruciating haul through space [they represented the part of me that was excited about becoming a rock star] and Jonas is disillusioned as usual [he represented the part of me that wasn't satisfied with my life even as I was achieving such a momentous goal].
Even with the "nonsense, placeholder lyrics" that Rivers apologises for, though, "Dude..." - which we presume would have been the opening to act two - is a lovely minute of music, an elegantly-constructed set of harmonies. It's followed on Alone, meanwhile, by a track that would actually have preceded it on SFTBH - the infamous "Superfriend". Some fans have expressed surprise that Karl enthused over this song so much, given that it's perhaps a little wishy-washy - although it's worth bearing in mind that he'll have been likely to have heard a full-band (and possibly longer) version in rehearsals and recording sessions. As it is, it's a cracking (if fairly derivative) little tune, and although there are some more bad lyrics in the first verse ("What the hell am I doing / Thinking with my willy" - enough with the childish genitalia slang, Rivers!), I love it to bits. I really wish we'd got to hear it with Rachel Haden doing the female parts.
Another quick point, by the way, is that the oft-discussed name of that "other" female character (the one that Jonas falls in love with, as opposed to the slightly stalkerish "bad girl" Maria) is said here by Rivers to be "Laurel". So that's Jonas, Wuan, Dondo, Maria and Laurel - and the lyrics that we get on the Alone songs help to cement the idea that the basic story (at least, what existed of it) unfolded as follows : The five cadets are heading out on their deep space mission, when Wuan and Dondo point out that one of the girls assigned with them is Jonas' ex-girlfriend - his "favourite bitch in the Academy" ("Blast Off!"). Maria takes umbrage at their language, and complains to Jonas ("Who You Callin' Bitch?") - something which, it quickly transpires, is part of a ploy to try and rekindle his affections ("Oh Jonas"). After initially rebuffing her advances ("Please Remember"), he gives in ("Come To My Pod"), and the two get it awwn (to use the parlance of our time). Immediately regretful ("This Is Not For Me"), Jonas confides in his friend Laurel, realising at the same time that he's been in love with her all along - but she shoots him down ("Superfriend"). Before Jonas can proceed any further, though, we jump nine months ahead in time to where the ship has reached its destination ("Dude, We're Finally Landing") - and where Maria's had a baby girl ("She's Had A Girl"). Meanwhile, Laurel starts to wonder if she's made the right decision in knocking back Jonas ("I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams"), but Jonas is busy realising that although he doesn't much like Maria, she's all he's got ("No Other One" and/or "Devotion"). And that's basically all we've got, with no real indication of where it would go from there, save that the second half of the album would appear to consist largely of the various characters whinging about their respective situations.
Okay, it's hardly Dickensian, but at least it's a fairly straightforward and follow-able structure upon which Rivers could hang his ideas about his own life. Indeed, fast forward almost exactly year, and following the success of the first volume, a second collection - the imaginatively-titled Alone II (reviewed right here on NTS) - was released, containing rather more detailed sleeve notes (following the development of the songs chronologically rather than the order they appear on the album, and coming off as far more cohesive and readable for it - and fuelling my desire for Rivers to sit down and write a whole book about his career one day), and more on SFTBH :
In '94, on the road with Weezer, I listened to Les Miserables, Verdi's Aida and Puccini's Toscaand Madame Butterfly. I loved how these works married music and drama, how the different characters would sing to each other instead of talk and how the story unfolded through song. I realized that musical-drama could be the larger scale composition I wanted to write for Weezer's second record: a new-wave influenced rock musical in which I could explore my feelings about relationships, stardom, and my life in Weezer.
When writing the original article, I surmised that songs like "Tired of Sex", now that we knew they were originally intended to be sung by Rivers' characters, may not have been true reflections of his feelings. This is clearly not the case - he most likely would have been speaking through the characters in a lot of cases (which is, in fact, a pretty logical assumption to make anyway - I was just being dumb). The problem is, with what exists of SFTBH, we're only really getting half of the story - the loose plot framework - rather than the real character (and internal) investigation that might have come along had he got round to fully fleshing out the second half of the record. Indeed, when it came to digging out SFTBH songs for Alone II, the selection was altogether more thinly-spread - all we got was a three-track suite, of 30, 40 and 90 seconds respectively - and the latter piece, "Come to my Pod", was already widely available online and "enjoyed" the distinction of being probably the weakest-sounding track heard so far. "Oh Jonas" and "Please Remember" are nice additions to the canon, though - the former a lament by Maria, followed by (and seguing beautifully into) a punchy, keyboard-driven companion that more concisely addresses the subject matter of "You Won't Get With Me Tonight" (sadly, in the process, rendering that song kind of irrelevant to the whole affair).
With these two albums, it would appear that we've got an almost-complete picture of SFTBH in as much as it ever existed. If there's ever an Alone III then it's to be hoped that the remaining few tracks - "Now I Finally See", "What Is This I Find?", "She's Had A Girl" and the "Superfriend" reprise - might see their way onto it; but as with the tracks from Alone II, it's clear that all that's really left are "filler" tracks. While he may have sketched out the story, Rivers wasn't far enough along the songwriting process for us to get that clear a sense of how the album would really have turned out: even when you put together everything that's now out there, it only gives about 30 minutes of music, which was the usual length of a regular '90s-era Weezer album, but clearly not adequate for an ambitious "rock opera". Nevertheless, I believe that what I wrote back in 2005 still stands - that what we do have of SFTBH shows hints that it could have been something truly special, and piecing together what we do have makes for an enjoyable, if slightly frustrating listening experience.
And for the record, here's my own SFTBH tracklist :
1. Blast Off! (Alone)
2. Who You Callin' Bitch? (Alone)
3. You Won't Get With Me Tonight (Buddyhead compilation) - I love this song too much not to include it, so let's just assume that in true musicals fashion, the first half of the song is reiterating what the previous track said, and the subsequent tracks reiterate this song's second half
4. Oh Jonas (Alone II)
5. Please Remember (Alone II)
6. Come To My Pod (Alone II)
7. This Is Not For Me (demo, from sftbh.com)
8. Tired of Sex (demo, from sftbh.com)
9. Superfriend (Alone)
10. Dude, We're Finally Landing! (Alone)
11. She's Had A Girl (fan cover) - downloaded from a forum, this was one of many covers made possible by Rivers releasing lyrics and sheet music for unreleased tracks online
12. Superfriend (reprise) - I pieced this together from another fan cover, and the DVD footage, as it includes a much rockier chorus that could be taken as an all-out reprise of the earlier song
13. Getchoo (Ft Apache demos) - I use these demo versions of the Pinkerton songs in order to fit in a bit better with the recording quality of the rest of the record
14. I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams ("The Good Life" b-side)
15. No Other One (Ft Apache demos)
16. Devotion ("El Scorcho" b-side)
17. Longtime Sunshine (Alone) - this doesn't quite seem to fit with the rest of the album, but I think some other, never-written tracks towards the end and/or after it might have put it in better context
Much of the information in this article comes from the extremely helpful sftbh.com (where you can also download the raw versions of the tracks that were originally released via weezer.com), and from the fantastic article here, which also contains the full Q&A session with Karl Koch in which he explains a good deal of previously unknown information about the album's story.