July 19 marks the 20th anniversary of Marilyn Manson’s ‘Portrait Of An American Family‘. It was the major label début of a band perfectly designed to fill the rock star void of the mid-90’s.
After several years of musicians who avoided flashy images and downplayed rock stardom, Manson was the complete opposite. He was ready to take the world by storm, and with some help from Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor he succeeded.
Inspired by the moral-majority 90’s talk show/televangelist diatribes, ‘Portrait’ was perfectly designed to piss off authority figures and appeal to misanthropic youth.
His backing group (originally dubbed the Spooky Kids) stirred up a dark din that mixed industrial grind, goth gloom and 70’s glam into a sugar rush that appealed to as many as it also annoyed. This was something the band fully embraced. They perfectly blended the perverse side of fame, with every band member’s moniker a fusion of a famous Hollywood starlet and notorious serial killer.
The band originally recorded the album with record producer (and former Swans member) Roli Mossiman, but Manson noted he was disappointed in the results in his 1998 autobiography; Roli had done the opposite of what I’d expected. I thought he was going to bring out some sort of darker element. But he was trying to polish all the rough edges and make us more of a rock band, a pop band…I thought the record we did with him came out bland and lifeless. Trent thought the same thing so he volunteered to help us repair what had been damaged.
For such a young band, the lineup was already perilously fractured; bassist Gidget Gein was kicked out post-recording due to a drug habit (replaced by Twiggy Ramirez aka Jeordie White), and drummer Sara Lee Lucas’s tracks were mostly jettisoned in favor of electronic programming.
It was that mix of the synthetic with the group’s sloppy-rock racket that proved a winning formula. And Madonna Wayne Gacy’s horror-keyboards and guitarist Daisy Berkowitz’s herky-jerky riffing provided ample soundscapes for Manson’s undead croak to crawl over.
Through the recording process Reznor and Manson became fast friends, and ironically/serendipitously recorded the album at the former mansion of Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate. He signed the group to his Interscope imprint label Nothing Recordings, and took them on his ‘Downward Spiral’ tour, which helped fuel them to superstardom.
All the songs on ‘Portrait’ are political/societal lightning rods; ‘Cake and Sodomy’ was Manson’s reaction to seeing a mixture of late night religious shows and sex ads on New York public access TV. ‘Get Your Gunn’ was about the hypocrisy of a pro-life advocate killing a doctor who performed abortions.
The group also expertly mined the darker side of children’s entertainment, referring to Willy Wonka (on’Prelude: The Family Trip’) and Scooby Doo among others. The biggest single of the album, ‘Lunchbox’, proved a rallying cry for bullied outcasts everywhere; I wanna grow up/I wanna be a big rock and roll star/I wanna grow up/I wanna be/So no one f***s with me!
These references, along with samples of dialogue from John Waters films and other cult ephemera, illustrate what the band’s critics failed to realize; Manson has a great sense of humor, and his horror show schtick was never meant to be taken too seriously. ‘Portrait’ acts like a funhouse mirror to mock societal conventions.
‘Portrait’ received mixed reviews upon it’s release, with many seeing the band as a pale imitation of shock rockers like Alice Cooper, but disaffected youth soaked it up like a sponge, freaking out schools and parents with the band’s T-shirts, who were concerned by their garish image and loaded lyrics.
The band would of course go on to capitalize on their fame with the Reznor-produced sophomore album ‘Anti-Christ Superstar’. But afterwards Manson mixed up the formula; sacking Berkowitz (currently battling cancer) and then pissing off Reznor. The two fell out with Manson leaving Nothing Records, and using producer Michael Beinhorn on follow-up ‘Mechanical Albums.’ Reznor was so infuriated by the perceived betrayal he wrote the track ‘Starfuckers, Inc’ in retaliation. They eventually reconciled, and Manson appeared in the subsequent video.
While that album was a commercial success, it lacked Reznor’s sonic punch and Berkowitz’s quirky riffing. Each successive album has been more middling in its impact.
But shock rockers have a short life expectancy in the mainstream limelight (Alice Cooper, again) and while he maintains a very loyal cult following, nothing beats ‘Portrait Of An American Family’s’ opening Middle-America scalping salvo. It’s an acidic 90’s mall-rat manifesto, that’s almost quaint and comforting in an era where people find fake-outrage in the bland-by-comparison antics of Miley Cyrus and her ilk . Stop the boat, indeed.
Want to own ‘Portrait Of An American Family’ on Amazon or iTunes? You can order them via the appropriate links below:
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