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 Mespawned 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. [ . . . ]
Read full interview at SPIN: Let It Bleed: The Oral History of PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid of Me’ | SPIN