Let It Bleed: The Oral History of PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid of Me’
The unblinking story of how inter-band tension spawned a rubbed-raw masterpiece and influenced Nirvana
PJ Harvey has a walloping, 50-foot-tall legacy — musicially and emotionally raw when stadium angst was a boys club; opening the door for everyone from Alanis to Karen O. But in 1993, PJ Harvey was the name of a band: bassist Steve Vaughan, drummer Rob Ellis, and frontwoman Polly Jean Harvey, who would soon after come to be known as “PJ Harvey” regardless of whom she played with. Rid of Me was their second album, coming on the heels of their stark, remarkable 1992 debut, Dry, which had launched the trio from their modest beginnings playing forgettable gigs around England’s West Country (including one where they were famously paid to stop playing) into a major-label bidding war (won by Island Records) and on to an international stage.
A howling smash-up of blues, punk, and Beefheartian avant-garde stomp, Rid of Me felt like an expression of pure, unadulterated id — albeit an id with defiant post-feminist ideals and a sneaky sense of humor. Many heard the embittered snarl of the title track or the unhinged and anarchic “Legs” as autobiographical soundtracks to the nervous breakdown Harvey supposedly had during the album’s conception, but that sold her short as a writer. Rid of Me spawned no breakaway radio hits and garnered minimal MTV play, but tracks like the frenetic, thrashing “50 Ft. Queenie” and the harrowing howler, “Man-Size,” made quite an impact nonetheless — SPIN named it the fourth best album of 1993 and put her on the cover two years later.
In the album’s wake, Courtney Love said, “The one rock star that makes me know I’m shit is Polly Harvey. I’m nothing next to the purity that she experiences.” Similar accolades poured in from everyone from Kurt Cobain and Elvis Costello to Madonna and Jon Bon Jovi. Despite the widespread critical acclaim, Steve Albini, who recorded most of the album with the band at Pachyderm Studios outside Minneapolis, came in for his fair share of criticism for, among other things, the album’s rawer-than-raw sound and the walls of noise that sometimes obscured Harvey’s vocals. The controversy only seemed to gild the album’s legend, though, and with time it has become a definitive document of the 1990s.
SPIN spoke to Rid of Me‘s primary architects to get the fraught story behind the album’s creation, and chronicle its messy aftermath.
Polly Jean Harvey, vocals/guitar: I’d done a foundation course in art school and was going to do a degree in sculpture, but instead of doing that, I’d signed a record deal and deferred my place. After making Dry, I thought, “I’ll make one more record.” Then I thought people will probably get bored of me. So I deferred my college course again to write Rid of Me.
Rob Ellis, drums: It was a funny time for all of us. We’d gone from playing gigs in local pubs just before the first album to suddenly John Peel promoting us, having an album in the Top 10 of the charts, and playing big festival crowds. We were from this tiny little country county in the west of England and were very innocent. So each of us were dealing with the fact that we’d been thrust into this situation. Polly had gone up to London, she had an offer to go to college. I was thinking of going to music college. It was still floating around that this thing was not permanent and potentially this wasn’t going to be a career. So Polly was up in London and she was very unhappy.
Harvey: I remember starting to write in a flat I was living in, a horrible, horrible little flat that I was sharing in Tottenham. Tottenham is quite a rough area in London. We were living in a very damp flat with gas heaters, and I had a poky little room at the front of the house. In order to access any of the rest of the house you had to walk through my room. We were on the lower floor, so the people up above us would make noise. I remember starting to write the song “Rid of Me,” sitting on my bed in my damp front room by the gas heater. When I’m writing towards a record, there’s often one song that emerges as the lynchpin. At that time, I very much wanted to write songs that shocked. When I was at art college, all I wanted to do was shock with my artwork. When I wrote “Rid of Me,” I shocked myself. I thought, ‘Well, if I’m shocked, other people might be shocked.” The sound of the words was powerful, and the rhythm felt clean and simple to roll off the tongue. I knew that this was the type of song I was trying to write.
Ellis: Polly was writing pretty quickly. Some of the songs for Rid of Me were there when we were recording Dry.
Harvey: I can never get back to what that first album was like because then you’re writing purely because you need to. You’re bursting with energy. Inevitably, if you’ve had any degree of interest, you know that people are going to be waiting for that next piece of work. I was very aware of that. But I can’t say it really hindered my writing. I found writing Rid of Me very free-flowing. Ideas came quickly.
Ellis: When we’d done a bunch of gigs supporting Dry, we went into the studio quite quickly to start recording a follow-up. We went to the Manor in Oxfordshire, which is where “Tubular Bells” was recorded.
Head, producer: We went to the Manor for about five days and started tracking some songs. We only finished one — a version of “Man-Size” with the sextet.
Ellis: It was going to be quite a laborious process. We were trying to make a second record which was different to the first, and spend a bit more time on it, do some interesting stuff with arrangements, instrumentation and so on. But it was fairly clear that Polly — probably because of the frame of mind she was in because she was so unsettled and pretty unhappy with her personal life and where she was living — just didn’t want to go through the process of making a record like that.
Head: To say there was some tension would be accurate. I’d known them for a long time and I actually wasn’t that comfortable making a record with them under those circumstances. It was very difficult to be the middleman. That was maybe one of the reasons why Polly went to do it with Steve Albini. We had a talk about it — it was as much my decision as hers.
Harvey: That whole period of my life was such a huge change. Success came to me very quickly and I was very young. I did reach a point where everything was just too much for me to cope with. That’s when I sort of put the brakes on for a bit and said, “Hang on, I’m going to stop touring. I want to go to the country.” I ended up in this fishing village to just write songs, and sort of regroup myself and have a bit of down time. It was in Dorset on the Jurassic Coast.
Ellis: Our lives had been overturned. We were playing all the time. We were away all the time.
Harvey: I moved to a flat that was right by the sea, the English Channel. It had a wonderful view. It was above a restaurant. I knew the restaurant owner and he was letting me rent this flat at a good price. In return, they could use my spare room for wine bottles. It worked out well. I’d help myself to the food bar, and then they’d get the wine bottles as they needed them. It was a wonderful space to write in. If I listen to the demos of Rid of Me now, I hear that room so clearly. I remember everything about the room: The way it smelled, the way it looked, and the view from the windows.
I think the view from your window when you’re writing really does inform what you’re writing about quite a lot. I need to stare out of a window whilst I’m writing. That helps me find where I’m going. I was by the harbor, so I could see people coming and going in boats, and I could look out at the sea. There was a fun fair that would pitch up in a field to the right of the restaurant every June, so for a while, I had a fun fair outside my window. I’m sure that contributed in some way to Rid of Me. There was a wonderful collection of furniture and also Russian vinyl 78s. The restaurant owner’s mother had lived there previously — she was Russian — and it was all her furniture and things. Not so long ago, I borrowed the Russian 78s back off the restaurateur so I could record them, because they’d been so much in my memory. I used a sample of one of them on the 4-Track Demos [on “Hook”]. At the time I was listening almost exclusively to those Russian 78s, along with Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits, and the Pixies. I’d also been reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. I might’ve also been reading [Friedrich Nietzsche’s] Thus Spake Zarathustra. Some light reading. [Laughs] It was a wonderful period of time because I did suddenly have my life back again. That was the period when I was really writing the record.
Ellis: The songs would come to us pretty much full-formed. In rehearsals, we never questioned what the song was about or asked Polly about, “What are we trying to aim for here considering the lyric is this?” It was purely instinctive. And we very rarely ever had to change much. It was pretty much instantly there. As soon as the song was rehearsed, whatever anyone was playing was the right thing immediately.
Harvey: I’d have a little notebook of odd phrases, maybe a couple of lines here and there that I liked, and then I would really improvise. I would play my instrument — I was largely working on guitar and keyboards at that time, although I’d also just bought a cello, so I was playing a bit of cello — and I would almost scat-sing the words that I jotted down. The different stories within the songs, that was more just interests, as I was reading books and letting my imagination run wild, looking out the windows.
Ellis: I just assumed she was writing from some personal experience, but also with a poetic eye, a writer’s imagination, which isn’t necessarily autobiographical. Obviously, some of the words were pretty strong, visceral, so the music had to be something that matched that. It had to be quite aggressive in places because the lyrical tone was very aggressive. “Rid of Me” is a classic example of that. It needed to be as aggressive as the words were.
Harvey: I knew I wanted to work with Steve Albini from listening to Pixies records, and hearing the sounds he was getting, which were unlike any other sounds that I’d heard on vinyl. I really wanted that very bare, very real sound. I knew that it would suit the songs. It’s like touching real objects or feeling the grain of wood. That’s what his sound is like to me. It’s very tangible. You can almost feel the room.
Steve Albini, engineer: There’s a common perception that going into the studio is a completely different experience for a band than a gig or a rehearsal or something like that. There’s an expectation that you’re just going to take everything apart and start from scratch. I don’t like to do that. My engineering aesthetic, coming out of a background of being in bands myself, was to try to set the band up completely and let them perform normally, then record it as it happened.
Ellis: Polly suggested that we record it with Steve Albini because she was aware that the way he recorded was pretty much recording a band live, no-nonsense, and it’s done. You’re not going through the mill, tearing your hair out creatively.
Albini: Almost immediately after our first conversation, I was sent demos. I thought the music on the demos was really great. I got the impression that the first album was pretty close to what the band’s live sound was. They just wanted a slightly more dramatic presentation. Because a lot of the music this time had big dynamic shifts in it where it would go from quiet and moody into the bombastic — “bombastic” is the wrong way to put it — the bigger dynamic sections. They wanted to capitalize on that.
Ellis: It was the three of us, Steve, and his girlfriend at the time, who was doing the cooking for us. Just the five of us in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota, in this big old house, in the winter, in a snowbound wood. It was freezing. The studio was right next to the house. There was nothing around. We didn’t leave. Everything we wanted or needed was in the house. It was a nice place. It had this Frank Lloyd Wright feel about it, with really thick pile carpets and amazing 1950s furniture. There was even a swimming pool inside the house. So at minus-20-something outside, we could have a swim in the evening or when we weren’t doing something during the day.
Albini: I like the residential aspect of that studio for extended sessions. It’s a way of concentrating everybody’s attention. If you’re in the middle of a city, there’s a bunch of distractions. If you’re going to be working on a record for a week or more, it can be kind of taxing to have to get up every morning, find a cab, and get to the studio. You end up blowing an awful lot of time just getting under way. Whereas, if it’s a residential environment, if somebody comes up with a good idea at midnight, you just walk over to the studio part and do it. When everyone is on-campus then the entire experience can be a lot more relaxed.
Ellis: I remember turning up at the studio feeling pretty knackered, actually. We’d been touring so much. We were all going through a bit of a hard time. It extended domestically to Polly. Definitely to me. My marriage was completely on the ropes at that point. My personal life was messed up. I remember walking on my own around the studio, in the snow, in complete silence. There was just no sound from birds or anything. The snow soaked up the sound of your footsteps. That was quite an eerie feeling. We did feel completely isolated. It’s difficult to say how that atmosphere came across in the studio, but we were all very individualistic in our own way. We were starting to get quite feisty, and hiding in our own corners in terms of what we were doing as a three-piece. We were all locked into our own little worlds. The house and the isolation brought that out even more.
Albini: I was an outsider to their internal band dynamic, so to me, it seemed like they were getting along fine. I don’t know what things were brewing.
Ellis: We weren’t particularly communicative, one to another. We were really three individuals. We never went out together and bonded as a band, we weren’t mates for years and years beforehand at school or any of that stuff. We were just there to make the music. Steve [Vaughan] barely talked anyway. He never voiced any particular opinions about things. Occasionally, he would take a refusenik kind of approach. If there was something he didn’t like, he would put his foot down and say, “I don’t like that, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to play that.” But very rarely.
Albini: The band was playing really well. Everybody’s mood was pretty high. There wasn’t a lot of time for socializing and flim-flam.
Ellis: I remember doing takes and me saying, “I’m really not happy with that take, can we do it again?” And he’d say, “What are you talking about? That’s absolutely fine.” We were done in three days. We were there for ten days in total. I remember feeling completely shattered, and then by the time I’d recovered, we’d recorded the whole record.
Albini: We had a short recording schedule because I have found that records don’t get better if you work on them longer. They get better if you work on them with more attention, but not necessarily over a longer period. Having extra time at your disposal is kind of an inducement to worrying the record and making it weaker.
Harvey: “Rub Til It Bleeds” was quite a difficult song for me because it took me a long time to get the timing of the pauses right. There are a lot of pauses and it keeps building to a crescendo at the end of each verse. Then when it hits the chorus, it has to explode. That was very hard to get that feel right.
Albini: For “Yuri-G,” we mixed it once as a kind of straight thing and then we mixed it again with some ridiculous rockabilly affectations on it. I remember listening to a playback and nobody was happy with that. I think that was an attempt to add variety by force and it just seemed unnecessary once we heard everything in context. We didn’t need to artificially make something seem weird. So I said we should just do this again, real straight, and it ended up coming out great.
Ellis: Steve’s an incredible engineer. The sounds are remarkable. I could really bring out my inner Bonham with that drum sound. Polly’s playing is incredible but the sound is amazing. Jimmy Page would be jealous. I believe it was the case that he played some of the mixes that we did on that session to Nirvana actually in the weeks after our session, before recording In Utero.
Albini: Part of the initial conversations with Nirvana was, when you have a junkie in the band, having a studio out in the woods rather than in the middle of a city is probably a good thing if you’re trying to make it less likely that there’s a relapse. They all thought that was a good idea, but they weren’t familiar with records that had been made there. So I sent them a copy of Rid of Me. Kurt told me very specifically that he thought Polly’s voice was great on those recordings. He really liked the way her singing came across. He was a fan.
Ellis: If people were happy with what we were doing, that is definitely gratifying. We were naïve and idealistic, but I was also getting a bit arrogant because of it as well.
Andy Gill (reviewing the album in 1993 in The Independent): Rid of Me is one long clumsy galumph, an extended tantrum of foot-stomping and frowns…Producer and ‘grunge godfather’ Steve Albini has compounded the album’s generally user-unfriendly aspect with a deliberately rough production that acknowledges few of the usual niceties: When someone coughs over the strummed intro to ‘Rub ‘Til It Bleeds,’ he doesn’t bother to stop them and start again, or even mix it out. Doubtless it was considered appropriate to Harvey’s “warts and all” aesthetic, though in truth, there’s precious little here but the warts.
Albini: Minor music-business functionaries having an opinion about how a singer should sing or how her band should sound — all those people can go fuck themselves. I reject the notion that I have very much responsibility for the ultimate success or failure of a record. I’ve worked on a lot of great records and I’ve worked on a lot of shitty records, and from my perspective, the work is equally demanding and equally satisfying on a terrible record as it is on a great record. The difference is the people making the music had a great record in them when they were doing the great record. And PJ Harvey had a great record in them when they did Rid of Me. I haven’t done any sort of Pepsi Challenge with other records of the era, but it’s hard for me to think of a better record that came out during that period.
Ellis: We must have done a year of touring. Polly, at that point, was developing her stage persona, this “PJ Harvey” person. She started wearing feather boas and sunglasses onstage. It was a survival mechanism for her, a way of protecting her personal self from what was going on all around her. For me, at the time, I was all about the honesty. I remember that causing tension in the band.
Maria Mochnacz, photographer/art director/videographer: I flew out to do some European dates and then we went to America. There were fights. But touring is a weird thing. I remember Rob saying, at one point, “Everyone just breaks down and cries.” Because you’re just like, “Where am I? What’s happening today?” It’s just a strange thing to be traveling in that small bubble of people. I remember they were on tour with Gallon Drunk and they played a show in New York that Radiohead was supporting them.
Ellis: We had Radiohead support us on a gig in New York and we were really, really unhappy about that. Because the support band that we had chosen to come on tour with us had been knocked off the bill in favor of these young blond boys. Screaming girl fans would fill the venue and then as soon as they finished playing, all the screaming girl fans left. After that tour, the trio split up. We were three pretty uncommunicative individuals and got more so after Rid of Me. It was very fragile. Tensions rose gradually and the business side of things just got really intense. Polly and I drifted back into working together again, but the last time I saw Steve Vaughan was over ten years ago. No one hears from him at all or knows what he’s doing. I think he lives a sort of hermetic existence these days.
Head: That record is an absolutely fantastic recording of the tension within that band. That’s why Rid of Me sounds like it does. It was kind of difficult to listen to at first, because that was an intense time. But I thought it was an astonishing record.
Ellis: It’s ugly music, but ugly in a good way. It makes me squirm in places but the reason it makes me squirm is because it is quite close to the bone. Some of the vocals are literally hysterical, mad, crazy. It’s a difficult listen because you’re not sure whether it’s embarrassing or funny or scary or what. But you can’t ignore it. It’s a pretty un-ignorable record. I’m proud of that.
Harvey: I had just come out of my teens and at that time you really want to make your mark on the world. So I just wanted to say something that hadn’t been said in that way before. I was trying to cause a riot in one way or another.