Only Happy When It Rains, Garbage’s wry celebration of the darker sides of life, which introduced some much-needed electronic sparkle to the post-grunge rock landscape, predates the arrival of the band’s peerless frontwoman Shirley Manson, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else embodying the song so perfectly.
It’s also difficult to believe it’s been almost 30 years since its release – even now it sounds thrillingly futuristic. Its bones had been built by guitarists/ bassists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker and drummer Butch Vig, the latter still surfing the critical and commercial success of his production work on Nirvana’s era-defining Nevermind album.
Radio at the time was still stuffed with earnest young men riding those coattails and airing their emotional pain in a bid for stardom. But Garbage wanted to create something poppier, more fun, more interesting and less wedded to the confines of analogue authenticity.
Enter Shirley Manson. The no-nonsense Scot was about to be out of work, as her band, Angelfish, were in the middle of imploding, and she was looking for something to do for the summer rather than bum around on the dole. The other members of Garbage were searching for a female singer to appear on a couple of tracks.
Recommendations were made, and the four met up for the first time in a London hotel on April 8, 1994. After a couple of false starts at the audition stage, Manson ended up heading out to Wisconsin to work with the band in their home studio, where they presented her with the sketched outlines of Stupid Girl, Vow, Queer and Only Happy When It Rains. The latter’s similarity to a song by some of her countrymen initially jarred.
“I was a bit shocked because it was reminiscent lyrically of the Jesus And Mary Chain,” she remembers. “Being a Scot, the likeness was glaringly apparent. So I was a wee bit uncomfortable, like I feel like my country might have done this before. At the same time I also understood that everybody in Garbage had a similar psyche to me, we all grew up in the northern hemisphere and we all really do love depressing music and the rain, so I felt it was like a clever nursery rhyme. I love that it was talking about stuff in a tongue-in-cheek, ironic manner.”
While it quickly became apparent that Manson was the perfect person to front the band – striking, fiery, fearless, forthright and charismatic, she was a rock star waiting to happen – those first recording sessions are something she looks back on as a very fraught and lonely time. The rest of the band were older than her, from a similar background, and had been friends for years, whereas she was a young woman, straight over from Edinburgh, who knew no one.
“It’s hard to be creatively brave with people you don’t know, and who are all a lot older than you, who have been accorded a kind of respect that white men enjoy that women rarely do,” she explains. “I’ve always been the outsider in Garbage. I always will be. That’s been something that I’ve had to carry my entire career. But it’s also been a spectacularly successful creative endeavour that we’ve enjoyed together. So I have to assume that some of the difficulties and awkwardness have been good for us in a way.
"They were just what I needed, and I was absolutely what they needed. But anybody can relate to being the outsider in the room. It’s not the nicest of feelings. And I was economically strapped. I didn’t have any money. I had nothing. I was in the Midwest of America pretty much by myself with no money, no car, no friends. It was fucking miserable.”
None of this is to say she didn’t hold her own in the studio. A famously forthright character, she brought her ideas to the table in order to shape Garbage’s self-titled debut album which, released in 1995, went platinum in the States and the UK. A lot of that success is down to Only Happy When It Rains and its accompanying video, which became a staple on MTV.
“None of us were prepared for the way it took off,” Manson says. “I had been taken into Geffen Records shortly before we released our album, and I was told it’s going to be very hard to get anyone to interview you because people are only going to care about Butch and his production career. I’m quaking in my shoes, because I’ve already been told before we start that we’ve failed. But we grew exponentially overnight.
“Of course I enjoyed it, it was really exciting. But it was also stressful because the press were always telling us that we weren’t real, that these are three producers and a girl. It was still a very sexist, patriarchal, misogynistic tone to music journalism back then. It took a lot of the joy out of this explosion of success away from all of us when people are saying that the men in the band are old and look like they smell of piss, and I look like a prostitute. It takes its toll.”
Fortunately Manson is made of strong stuff, and 30 years on, Only Happy When It Rains remains an essential moment in the band’s set-list.
“I think the reason that first Garbage record really connected was because it was a breath of fresh air at a time when white male rock was really dominating, and had gotten quite serious,” she offers. “Every night, the audience goes mad for that song, and they sing along. The song has more depth to me now than it did at the time that we recorded it. Into each life, some rain must fall, right? Because you have to be able to roll with the shit that comes in every life. Everyone can relate to that.
"So when I hear people sing along to it, I’m touched by the thought that everybody in this audience has had their heart broken, and it’s being turned into gold as we sing. That feels really amazing.”
Garbage Anthology is out now via BMG.