Sugar's Copper Blue at 30: How alt. rock godhead Bob Mould finally struck gold

Bob Mould and Sugar's Copper Blue
(Image credit: Bob Mould - Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Even before the post-Nevermind goldrush of the early '90s, Bob Mould was a legend in the alternative rock world.

As frontman of Minesota punk trio Hüsker Dü, whose classic albums such as Zen Arcade and Candy Apple Grey had brought a profound sense of melody and songwriting nous to the US hardcore underground, he was massively influential in inspiring young musicians from Seattle and beyond to pick up instruments and express themselves.

Drug problems, personal issues and exhaustion ended Hüsker Dü prematurely in 1988, whereupon Mould decided to pursue a solo career, opening his account with two excellent albums, 1989’s Workbook and 1990’s Black Sheets of Rain. Both feature his innate talent for a tune - the former leaning in to more acoustic and folk influences, the latter being a more careering rock record - but neither really captured the imagination of the record-buying public, and Mould was subsequently released from his Virgin Records contract. To add insult to injury, Mould later learned that his manager had signed away the publishing rights to his songs without his prior knowledge. 

Broke and with nothing to lose, in 1991, Mould went out on a solo tour that he described as “lonely and inspiring”. It was at a festival in Germany where the singer/songwriter witnessed the cultural tide beginning to turn right in front of his eyes, when he was booked to play immediately after Nirvana. Kurt Cobain's band trashed the stage and got a rousing reaction: Mould had to follow them armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar. 

Following the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the punk rock-inspired music Mould had been delivering since his teens was no longer just an underground concern for college rock kids, it was everywhere. 

"The success of Nevermind re-tempered the ears of the listeners throughout the world," Mould said to NPR. "It was a heavy, punky record, but there was something about it that was so accessible that it opened up all these pathways for other musicians — myself included — to have our music heard."

The date with Nirvana in Germany would prove to be an epiphany for Mould, who  now decided that the songs that were due to feature on his third solo album needed a band to play them: and so, after finding drummer Malcolm Travis and bassist Dave Barbe, Sugar were born. 

Mould had written over 30 songs for his next project, but only 10 would make it onto what would become Sugar's debut album. Sugar were, in Mould’s words, “a pop band”, and, therefore, only the poppiest, most instantaneous, punchiest material was to make it onto Copper Blue.

Sugar signed to Rykodisc in the US, but were still searching for a deal Europe when Alan McGee, head of Creation Records, entered the picture. The maverick label boss had signed and championed the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream, and when he was informed that Mould’s new project was available, he jumped at the chance to connect.

“Bob Mould had put out two solo albums on Virgin, which hadn’t sold,” he told Long Live Vinyl. “but I was a fan of Hüsker Dü. [My Bloody Valentine's] Loveless had happened and he loved that album, so he came to my office.”

According to McGee, the £10,000 advance that Creation offered was initially sniffed at by Mould, but he eventually came round and signed with, what was at that time, one of the coolest indie labels on the planet.

“I’m so glad we did it, but why we got the deal was because I didn’t really care whether we got it or not!” McGee added. “we were killing it at the time with the Fanclub, Ride, Boo Radleys…”

Though McGee was blasé about it, with the right climate and the best possible label, Copper Blue, released on September 4, 1992, took Bob Mould into places that he had never been before, namely the higher reaches of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. It peaked at number 8 on the US Heatseekers chart and, even more impressively, became a Top 10 entry on the UK album chart. It was a success that no one had really seen coming.

“It’s a fantastic record, but that was a shocker," McGee admitted to Long Live Vinyl. "I don’t think Bob had ever been in the British charts."

Suddenly it was more than just the punks and the clued-in kids that were enthusing about the work of Bob Mould; Copper Blue would be named the NME’s album of 1992, up against some seriously stiff competition, and was later included in Colin Larkin’s book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Thirty years on, it may not be the most spoken about or influential album from that era, but Copper Blue has aged far better than many of its more high-profile peers. There’s no magic formula at work here, this is an album full of simple but glorious pop-rock songs, that actually feature some quite dark subject matter if you’re prepared to dig deep enough into it.

Like cyanide rolled in sherbet, A Good Idea, which seems to be about a suicide pact, is both bleak and uplifting all at the same time. Every track manages to conjure similar feelings of both fizzy pop rush with the threat of something ominous lurking beneath the surface; Changes, Helpless, the gritted teeth of lost love that is If I Can’t Change Your Mind, the glorious double middle fingered euphoria of Hoover Dam... how these songs are not still alt-rock household name royalty is simply baffling. 

It’s easy to say, Why don’t people make records like this anymore?. The truth is, if you’re heard Mould’s recent output like 2019’s Sunshine Rock or 2020’s Blue Hearts, they still do. Or rather, he still does. 

Copper Blue, however, remains the high watermark of Bob Mould's career: the perfect artist, in the perfect moment, on the perfect label, making the perfect album. It's the alchemy of his troubling personal life, his joy of making music and his god given gift for songwriting coalescing at exactly the right time to deliver one of the most essential albums of the '90s.

And, 30 years on, it still hits like it was released last week. 

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.