Dave Navarro, Perry Farrell, Stephen Perkins and Eric Avery of Jane's Addiction photographed in Chicago on Nov. 27, 1988. 
Dave Navarro, Perry Farrell, Stephen Perkins and Eric Avery of Jane's Addiction photographed in Chicago on Nov. 27, 1988. 
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Jane's Addiction's 'Nothing's Shocking': The Oral History of the Album That Made Them Stars (But Almost Broke Them Up First)

The story of Jane's Addiction begins as many great stories humbly do: Somebody -- frontman Perry Farrell -- knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody. Overlapping social circles brought four musicians together during the twilight years of the Sunset Strip’s metal scene, but their distinct styles of playing and writing music collided in ways that would change rock and roll history when the band's debut album, Nothing's Shocking, arrived 30 years ago today (Aug. 23).   

Featuring the caterwauling voice of Farrell, the swirling guitar work of Dave Navarro, the propulsive bass of Eric Avery and the thundering drums of Stephen Perkins, the album challenged expectations about what a major-label rock album should sound like. Nothing's Shocking featured songs that ran for six or seven minutes and covered topics like the exploitation of sex and violence on TV and domestic abuse as it pulled from punk, funk, metal and other musical traditions. It also included two of the band's signature songs: The anthemic “Mountain Song” and the intimate “Jane Says,” which become the band's first Billboard hit when it peaked at No. 6 on what is now the Alternative Songs chart in late 1988.   

For the 30th anniversary of the album's release, Billboard spoke to all four band members, along with producer Dave Jerden, about the history of the band leading to their major-label debut, the dispute that almost broke them up before they could even get into the studio and what the album – cited by '90s alternative stalwarts like Dave Grohl and Tom Morello as a major influence – did to shake up the music industry in the late ‘80s.   

“YOU’RE JUST SWIRLING AN ECHO, JUST LIKE ME”   

Jane's Addiction began taking shape when Perry Farrell, an L.A. transplant from Queens by way of Miami, and Eric Avery got together, living and jamming in a house that Farrell rented in hopes of creating a community where bands could live and make music.   

Perry Farrell (vocals): I had a band prior to Eric working with me called Psi Com. We were just an underground group out of L.A., probably [starting in] 1982. We'd gotten to the point where we actually put our own record out, and I got to learn about the music industry via the independent distribution routes. I would drop records around town — I pressed like 500 records. And it was fun. It was a cool time in L.A., because it was deep with punk rock, against the establishment. Psi Com was very dark. We listened to a lot of goth music, specifically Joy Division. 

The band started to dissolve, specifically because they were into the Bhagavad Gita, and everybody was studying the Bhagavad Gita. I even studied it, but I was studying everything. I was studying Aleister Crowley. I was studying The Book of Mormon. I was just basically doing a comparative religious study. But those guys were taking Hinduism very seriously, which is fine, but they were starting to not be into girls and not be into the partying. Before Psi Com broke up, I met Eric and just said, “Man, try out for Psi Com.” I brought in Eric, and I was having a good time just playing shows with Eric.

Eric Avery (bass): I was never technically really in Psi Com, but Perry was restless in that band and wanted to start a new band. He and I started playing around, just he and I. Sometimes I was banging on a drum and he would be singing into a mic with effects and stuff like that. Sometimes I was just playing bass. We had a couple of guitar players. Eventually we started playing with a drummer named Matt Chaikin. He was also playing in a local band that was successful called Kommunity FK. If I recall correctly, he focused more on that and saw us as sort of a mess professionally. So I reached out to my little sister’s boyfriend at the time, Stephen Perkins.

Dave Navarro (lead guitar): Stephen Perkins and I were in a heavy metal band at the time. At one point Eric reached out because they were looking for a drummer, and Stephen went and auditioned and took the gig. They had hired a different guitar player, but the guitar player wasn't showing up and was being kind of unreliable. Eric said to Stephen, “Well, why don't you give Dave a call?” Stephen called me, I went down and played with the band for an evening and learned a couple of songs they'd already written. The night went really good, we had a lot of fun, and then the following day Eric Avery called to ask me to join the band, which I did. 

We ended up getting together out of convenience, out of just having similar connections and getting along, so we just moved forward. What I brought is a musical direction the band didn’t have, which was based more in progressive rock, heavy metal — a lead-guitar-player style of playing, rather than atmospheric playing. I think I brought that element to the band, but I think that the band influenced me to become more atmospheric. 

Stephen Perkins (drums): Me and Navarro were 17 to 18, still fascinated with the possibility of the Sunset Strip. Motley [Crue], Ratt — all the bands that came from the Strip were coming to an end already, but we were able to see them [when] we were just 14 or 15. Our chops came from Zeppelin, Sabbath, then a little heavier stuff like Metallica, Slayer, and more thrashing.

Navarro: Back in the day, there was a piece of gear called the Ibanez DM1000. It was a rack-mounted piece of gear and it was delay effect. I had been experimenting with that at home. When I came to the first rehearsal, Perry was singing through the exact same effect — and in fact, does to this day.  We both looked at each other like, “Wow, you're just swirling an echo, just like me.” 

Farrell: Man, I thought, “This kid's so cool.” In those days, the new digital units were just starting to be made. I was playing around with different sound effects, messing around with delay. That's how I developed that echo sound. Dave had one of those units too. If you listen in, on the recordings, it's almost like we are a new version of Lynyrd Skynyrd — they have those dual guitars going. There's actually two solos going on. There's the guitar solo, and then there's a vocal solo. We play off each other a little bit.

Navarro: That unit, the DM1000, is a massive component to the early sound of Jane's Addiction and how we ended up becoming this chaotic soundscape that nobody else was doing.

Avery: We were pretty consistent with going into the rehearsal studio and playing, jamming, and writing, Monday through Friday — like a regular job. It all revolved around the Wilton House, which is the house where Perry and I lived. There were other closets, nooks and crannies that were rented out to different folks and other bands. There was another band called Lions & Ghosts that were kind of a T-Rex-mimicking band back then. They had a couple of guys staying in that house at different times. It was the garage of that house that we did a lot of the early work writing.

Navarro: Reflecting back upon it, I would liken it to a miniature musical Warhol Factory kind of environment. Any time you'd walk in the front door, you had no idea who you were going to run into, who you were gonna see. There were a lot of drugs happening. There was a lot of darkness. There was a lot of laughter. I've spent some of my best nights in that house — and some of my worst nights in that house.

The garage in the back had been converted into a rehearsal room, which we shared with another band called Lions & Ghosts, who also lived in the house, and we didn't like each other. It got physical at times, and it certainly got argumentative — a lot of clashing of egos and personalities. But there was a visceral energy in the house that was purely creative and somewhat self-destructive and beautiful at the same time.

“SHE WAS A BEAUTIFUL SOUL, AND SHE WAS A DAMAGED HEART”

One of the people who lived in the house was Jane Bainter, whom the band considered a creative muse – her heroin addiction inspired the band’s name, and her relationship with her abusive boyfriend Sergio became the basis of the ballad “Jane Says.”

Farrell: We were starting to practice and put together Jane's Addiction. Eric moved back in with his parents, probably because it was just too much going on. But he said, “I've got a friend, Jane [Bainter], she can take my place.” So people were moving out all the time. People were getting kicked out. People didn't have money. People were getting into fights. People were just moving on. Jane comes in, and we had a good time with Jane back in those days. I found her to be very strange and special.

Navarro: She was certainly a source of drama and certainly a source of energy. She was a beautiful soul, and she was a damaged heart, much like I was. She was definitely a component of all of that, and certainly the name of the band came from some of the interactions between her and Eric and Perry. The band was named [Jane's Addiction] when I joined it.

Perkins: Jane had an attitude. If you can take that attitude and put it into rock and roll, that's what we sound like. If you can take that attitude and put it into art, maybe it's Jackson Pollack. Why the fuck did Jackson Pollack start throwing? We don't know. He painted with brushes at one time and then threw. That's what Jane did to us.

“OUT OF THE DARKNESS COMES THE MOST MEANINGFUL LIGHT”

Instead of playing Sunset Strip clubs, Farrell would organize shows for Jane's and fellow underground acts in downtown ballrooms and clubs. In 1987, they recorded a live album at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood.

Dave Jerden, Nothing’s Shocking co-producer: I was working with a band, and they played at the University of San Diego, and I drove down there to see them play. And then coming back, I had a note from my manager saying that, “By the way, Jane's Addiction is playing tonight at Scream.” It's this hotel in downtown L.A. It's a big old hotel with a ballroom. So, at three o'clock in the morning from driving back from San Diego, I stop by to see what's going on. There was a line of like 3,000 kids around the block at three in the morning. Just to see this band. 

So I go into this big strange old hotel, like something out of Sunset Boulevard, and Jane's Addiction came on. I went and saw them backstage first and said, “Hi, I'm in the audience.” I sat in the back with the sound guy, and they came on and blew me away. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. There was one [other concert] in my whole life that did that, and that was Jimi Hendrix at the Hollywood Bowl, 1968.

Navarro: We had transvestite dancers and a motorcycle display — more of an art installation rather than a rock concert. There was all kinds of different things going on, and it was very late at night. Then we started playing clubs like the Scream and The Club with No Name. We always had momentum in L.A. because we were doing these events that were interesting to go to regardless of who was playing. They would be full, but I didn't have any sense of why it was full.

Farrell: The way I learned how to put on a show was [from being] a punk rock kid. I learned from the underground youth in L.A. that were disillusioned, disenfranchised. They didn't want to do the pay-to-play. I hate to say this, but at that time Sunset Strip was getting very stale. It was getting, honestly, corrupt. [Venues] would make the kids pay them $500 bucks for the right to play in their establishment. All the kids that were really good that I knew didn't have $500 bucks to spare, unfortunately.

They didn't know what to do, and so they were trying to coordinate. And out of that darkness comes the most meaningful light, I would say to you. That's the best wisdom I can impart to you. We all coordinated and we rationalized. We came up with ways to distribute and expose our art.

Avery: I remember that night that we recorded at the Roxy. At the time there was still a curtain. I remember being back there with Dave, looking out and being sort of shocked and excited by the fact that the club was packed. It wasn't like I was sitting there going, “Oh my God, there's so much buzz about my band, that's great.” I was just stoked that the club was full. I was feeling that sense of excitement, and then us recording ourselves was just [about], “Let's just get it done ourselves, without thrashing about with the majors and all that stuff.” I remember it being in reaction to what was going on with the negotiation of labels and all that stuff, but I'm not certain. I also think it was just organic: We and our management were going to make a record label, and they were going to put out the record. That's what it was, you know? [The label] was Triple X. I think it was just really more in the spirit of doing it yourself.

Farrell: It was almost like me putting out a beautiful statue to commemorate what we sounded like, but not as a [studio] recording. I knew that we would never sound that way again. We were completely free and wild and had no ties to any kind of corporations. I was [talking about labels like], “All the dudes out there with the big bellies, that think they're gonna get Jane's Addiction, they can fuck off.” But I knew that we were actually going to be going to Warner Brothers.

Avery: Part of the reason why we went with Warner Brothers was getting that sense that no one was going to be asking us to dress differently or packaging us up in some way that was not true to what the band was. I don't know how much of that was just us not knowing how realistic that danger was, but I know that we were just confident that we were going to do it our way.

When you went there, there was music pouring out of everybody's office. One person could criticize it as nepotistic, but really, there was a family vibe. They were all from the same neighborhood. A lot of the executives were literally all friends. It didn't feel like it was going to be a battle. Like, you went to Geffen and felt like you were going to a mid-80s corporate office.

Navarro: I just thought, well, if someone's signing us, then they're signing us, they're not signing a version of us. We did have creative control. We did. I think that's what they wanted, and I remember not even considering for a moment whether there would be input from A&R. We worked with someone named Heidi Robinson, who [understood] the band. She saw the magic.

“YOU CAN HEAR US FIGHTING AGAINST EACH OTHER IN THE MUSIC”

Before the band even stepped into the studio, they had 18 songs already written. The band and Jerden picked the songs that would appear on Nothing's Shocking. The rest of the songs would appear on the band's hit 1990 follow-up, Ritual de lo Habitual.

Navarro: There was no typical [songwriting] approach, which is I think why we were able to have such an eclectic catalog of music. Song ideas would come from all of us in different ways, and we became very aware of mistakes and very aware of listening for things that didn't sound right. Every time there was a mistake, somebody would go, “Wait, wait, wait, do that again,” and then a song would come out of it.

Eric would sometimes have a bass line, and we'd write off that. Perry would sometimes have a weird guitar part, and we'd write off that. Sometimes Perry would just have lyrics and we'd have to come up with something based on that. There were times when Stephen was setting up his drums and would be playing something and we'd go, “Wow, what is that?” And he's like, “I don't know,” and they're like, “Keep playing it.” And there were times when I was tuning up and just kind of playing random chords and somebody in the room would say, “What are those chords?” And I would say, “I don't really know,” and I'd have to spend a half an hour trying to remember what they were. That's how we wrote songs.

Farrell: I learned how to play guitar [during this time], and sometimes I would go home and write some chords, some arrangements. Immediately Eric went into grooves, and I would write to the grooves. But most of the time I would write away from any sound, any rhythm, because they will coerce you. They will corrupt you too. I find it nicer that I don't know exactly what the stem or the trunk looks like. Also, I had things that I wanted to say, and so I thought they would be pure just coming from deep inside parts of my heart. Then they can go to my mind. Then from my mind we will work together.

Navarro: You can hear us fighting against each other in the music. You can hear different sensibilities clashing at times, and I feel like you can hear the almost disconnectedness becoming connected because of all that tension. Typically, we'd be writing a song and somebody didn't like what we were working on. One of us didn't like it, and we had to go with it. It was that kind of a philosophy: “This is what we're doing, this is the song, and not everybody was onboard, but we just soldiered through.” There would be songs that, by the time they were done and [had been] tooled over for months, we would love them again.

Farrell: There's not an exact way to write a song. If you think that you're gonna write a song without people's help and cooperation, you are setting yourself up for failure and redundancy. The nice thing about working with people, artists, great artists, is they're going to make whatever you think you've got there [better]. I guarantee you it's going to be better [than if] you just put it into the ether.

“IT LEFT SOME RESENTMENT, FOR SURE”

Right before stepping into the studio with Jerden, Farrell sought a larger percentage of the publishing rights than other members of the band, arguing that he was the band's primary songwriter. The dispute was eventually settled via third-party mediation, but for a time it threatened the group’s future. The rift also required Jerden — who knows a thing or two about navigating intraband conflict after engineering the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work LP — to play therapist in some ways.

Farrell: I remember speaking with my lawyer, Owen Sloan, who was supposedly the best lawyer to do this. He had been getting people huge deals, and he got us a huge deal. We were talking about publishing, and he said, “Do you know how the splits work?” “No I don't.” He showed me how the splits generally work, and how you change the split anyway you want. Different bands do it differently. Some bands — you'd be surprised — their members get no publishing. 

After learning about this, I said in my mind, “Well, okay, I'm writing lyrics, melody, and music, but I don't want to be one of those bands where the other guys get no publishing.” Some of the members do write songs, contribute to the songs. And the other members are great, so I want everybody to have some as well, even if they didn't write anything. But then it gets very funny, because the idea of them not writing anything, that's not real. Let’s just say I wrote all of a song. Once I get into rehearsal, they're writing, they're being creative, so they should get some too. 

So that's how I factored the songs. I said, “By the way, if anybody wants to write an entire song, we'll sit down and we'll all listen to it. If we all decide it's great, we'll record that one.” I was not telling anybody they couldn't write songs, but this was my band.

Avery: I don't know that I could say that things were ever the same really after that. That was definitely a dispute. It was mediated by [former Warner Bros. president] Lenny Waronker, and we were brought into the halls of power to have them adjudicate the dispute because Perry wanted a large percentage. I was saying, “I think we should all have the same.” Then we wound up at sort of a compromise, but we did technically break up. I think for a day or two we were not a band. We were not going to be a band anymore, and [then the record] company brought us in.

Jerden: I was pulling in to the studio one day, and they were in a car pulling out. There were tears in their eyes. And I said, “What's up?” And they said the band broke up. I was the right guy for this job, believe me, because I've been to war and was battle-hardened. The reason those guys got together as a band in the first place is going to keep them together. They understand each other. They wanted to do the music. They wanted to do the album.

Avery: To be fair, I could see how he wanted more than an equal split, certainly. And where we wound up was, we gave him twice as much as any other member, and then we split what was left amongst the rest of us. That was consistent with Perry always going forward to this day. When it comes to money and stuff like that, he's pretty aggressively self-interested.

I remember famously Dave played one of our shows after that and put on a t-shirt that said “12%” or something, because that was the amount that was going to be left for him in Perry's system. So it left some resentment, for sure.

Navarro: It definitely drove a wedge between [Perry] and the three of us. If one guy is saying that he is more important than the others, that's going to drive a wedge. The three of us felt insulted, but it ultimately got worked out. That wedge that happened really came across in a really great way live. As much as what was going on wasn't fun, I believe that it made our shows much more exciting. You're watching four guys with the same goal and the same passion and in the same organization doing the same thing at the same time, loving what they're doing and at the same time hating what they're doing. That kind of energy on stage really came across. We were just in completely different head spaces that weren't attuned to one another, and I think that our live shows were some of the best.

Farrell: I felt the workload of those songs [was not even], from me sitting up nights working on those songs by myself while other people did not. They were not around and wouldn't show up for rehearsals even. I’m starting to fight against myself here, trying to make these songs great, and these guys are falling apart and not around. This is a sore spot, but I can tell you the good news is that after a while, I just said, “Everybody just gets free publishing. Doesn't matter if they come and sit down and play drums or write the whole fucking thing. Because most of us have families, and we're just men now.”

Navarro: Dave Jerden really had to juggle our personalities and our dysfunctions and say, much like a patriarchal figure, “Okay, well Perry, you should come in on such and such a night and do your vocals.” And “Dave, you should come in on this other night and do your guitars,” because these two guys in the room together are getting in each other's way.

“THIS IS JANE’S ADDICTION RAW, AND THIS IS WHO THEY ARE”

Jerden tried to replicate Jane's soaring live sound as closely as possible on Nothing's Shocking. But he did make one significant modification: He asked Perkins to play steel drums on “Jane Says.”

Avery: It was hippie-dippy. I remember just being like, “This song doesn't sound anything like us. It's not representative of the band.” Thankfully, no one listened to me, because if they had listened to me, for a number of reasons, probably no one would have ever heard of Jane's Addiction. 

Navarro: I always preferred the Roxy version. I didn't love the album version. It wasn't as raw. It wasn't as spontaneous. I don't know, that song to me is a performance song, and the Roxy version, that's just one vocal take — what you get is what you get. I don't remember loving the studio version, and I personally prefer it with guitar, voice and bass. Nothing against the steel drum, I'm just not a fan of the sound of steel drum, period. It's got nothing to do with Stephen's performance. It's just not a sound that I enjoy, and we didn't have that at the Roxy. 

Jerden: They're not a band from the Caribbean, and Steve Perkins isn't a guy that plays steel drums all the time. But the way he played it, I loved it. I thought it was really sweet. And the thing is, the way Perry sang over the top of it with that playing and everything, that emotes a certain emotion for me. It's like, “This is Jane's Addiction raw, and this is who they are.” And I know it's not supposed to be presented as a live recording, but on the other hand, it's supposed to be presented as an honest recording.

“IT TOLD THE RECORD INDUSTRY, ‘THERE’S A CHANGE COMING’”

Due in part to a lack of radio airplay, Nothing's Shocking sold a then-modest 200,000 copies in its first year. Some major chains also at first refused to stock it because of its cover image — a sculpture by Farrell of naked female conjoined twins with their hair on fire — until the record was wrapped in a paper sleeve as a compromise. Yet the success of Ritual de lo Habitual and the subsequent Lollapalooza tour led audiences to rediscover the album. Nothing’s Shocking eventually sold more than a million copies and influenced acts ranging from Nirvana to Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine.

Navarro: So the record was inside of some kind of a sleeve that protected people’s eyes from being damaged by something that everybody in the world has, which is their naked body. It's just weird. We were frustrated and angry because that was something that was... Perry fucking made that sculpture, you know what I mean? By his hands! And we didn't understand why you can go see the Venus De Milo but you can't buy our record. What the fuck is the difference? It didn't seem silly at the time. We were pissed.

Avery: Upsetting people, that was just par for the course. That's how things were always going, so I don't remember it being surprising or anticipated. It was just all part of the constant dialogue we were having with culture.

Perkins: It was kind of a gas for me to see that the reviews were actually really good everywhere. But we didn't really pay much attention to what was going on with the record. It was really about getting back into the RV or the van and doing another gig and going and going. The shows were really great shows. We had our little relationship with our fans — we had them, they wanted us, and it was intimate.

When we got to London and we started doing England, that's when it started to seep in that maybe the wave was starting to grow. I think our first show in England was at Brixton Academy, which is a big place. We opened up for a band called Fields of the Nephilim. We showed up and did “Up the Beach,” “Ocean,” “Had a Dad” — we did Nothing's Shocking, basically. And it was just never the same over there again. We started to spread across England. And from that moment on, that felt like something had changed.

Navarro: It really is a documentation of me finding my own voice as a musician, as an artist, and trusting that my decision-making is the right direction. It also put me in a place where I had been heard by other people that I ended up working with. I probably wouldn't have ended up in the Chili Peppers, and if I hadn't ended up in them, then Flea wouldn't have joined Jane's Addiction, and then if we didn't do the '97 tour, we probably wouldn't have done the 2003 tour.

Perkins: With Nothing's Shocking, the relationship [with the band], to me, was “Let's get Indian food together and have a show tonight. Let's go record shopping.” That was a great time. And that's why Ritual sounds so progressive and tight, because that's where our relationship was going. What you hear on Nothing's Shocking is where we were [at that time]. We were kids, we were punks, and we were playing good music. And when we got to Ritual, we had toured eight months on Nothing's Shocking and had Ritual songs already in the set. [Ritual] was closer to this progressive rock band than what you get in Nothing's Shocking.

Jerden: It told the record industry, “There's a change coming.”

Perkins: It's just a postcard from Los Angeles. It's a postcard from Los Angeles to rest of the world in 1988.

Navarro: That's what's beautiful about music: It's a historical documentation. It's a film. It's a documentary on vinyl, and when you listen to music that way, it is what it is. For me, Velvet Underground is just as fresh to me now as when I discovered it years ago, and hopefully that same is true for people regarding our band.

Avery: Those early Jane's Addiction days around Nothing's Shocking meant so much to the people that were there. I just really feel like I got to be part of something really special. That's how I see it, looking back 30 years later, because now I can see it without feeling any of the conflict of a young man's ego, the resentment that we've been talking about — all that seems so silly to me in retrospect. I just see it as a pure expression of wild youth that was just magical.