While tongue-in-chic Britpop still holds sway in Blighty, underground supergroup Garbage are busy showing the US that old folks know a trick or two when it comes to rocking out. Are they really the ultimate post-punk pop/rock crossover--or just the grunge Travelling Wilburys?

San Francisco: Tim Butron's The Nightmare Before Christmas is being projected onto the fire curtain while the stage is being prepared for Garbage. The soundless gonky-goth imagery--all spindly spider fingers, twisted pipe-cleaner limbs and mock-grotesque grinning pumpkin skull faces--peels back to reveal a mic stand wrapped in a shocking pink day-glo feather boa.

A man in a strange hamster mask clutches a guitar, a Norman Tebbit doppelganger grapples with another, and The Lord Satan himself sits behind the drumkit. Behind the mic is a thin figure in funereal black, its pale face whispering sinister somethings. The audience gasp in horror. This is Garbage. You are allowed to like them because they're not goth and they sound absolutely nothing like Shakespear's Sister. Honest.

It was the second Garbage single, "Queer", the rammed the band onto the A-list of every hip sentient being on the planet. A blatantly heterosexual love song--savagely sexual lyrics shotgun-married to music that suggests the perverse image of a moist, drooling sex goddess licking every inch of naked, geek-spectacled sen-stone nerdy body. It's a celebration of twattishness as sexuality. Lyrically, it nods towards Pulp's pro-nerd anthme "Mis-shapes" and Radiohead's Accion Mutante-style tribute to the emotionally and physically crippled, "Creep". Musically, it sounds like early-1978 Peel-Session Banshees fingering up Portishead while being filmed on garish Super-8 by "White Album"-era George Martin. It's one of those singles--like "Teenage Kicks" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit". It's the best single EVER and will remain so for weeks. To admit to not sharing this view is the pop music equivalent of wearing a placard around your neck bearing the crudely crayoned legend "I AM ARSE".

The gibbering bandwagon kick-starters and hypewriters of the knee-jerkingly bulimic British music press have gone spare. At last, here's an American band that have not only dared to understand and explore the sexy pop/rock interface (ie, not another bunch of unsexorganstiffening, ne-jeanedm goatee-bearded male scruff popophobic grunge monkeysyawnyawnbloodyyawn) but have also taken on board the rock possibilities of dirtying up the trip-hop phenomenon. I mean, Garbage--the only folk in Buttfuck, Wisconsin, who've even heard of Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack, never mind been influenced by them.

We meet Garbage in the middle of all the sweat, sleeplessness, arse-licking and sheer tedium of an American promotional tour. Mariah Fucking Carey and Boyz II fucking Men are at Number One in the national charts. Gonzo US rock critic Joe Carducci has just had Rock And The Pop Narcotic published by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 imprint. It Beavis & butt-headishly argues that the only question a rock critic ever needs to ask is "Does it rock?" and demands that if you don't listen to UFO, Grand Funk Railroad or ZZ Top, you should "get your damn faggot hands off my book".

It is because of this huge gulf that the tongue-in-cheek, twisting ironies of "Britpop" will probably never be appreciated in the USA by more than a few thousand clued-up college radio kids. Garbage exist in that gulf. And not only do they rock, they rock with a pop panache, a cross-cultural breadth and a cut-throat razor-sharp lyrical intelligence that would make Joe Carducci shit in his leather trousers. And serve him right.

In the audience is an achingly beautiful Courtney-haired pale and interesting type with writhing snake tatoos on her long arms. She sneers to a friend: "Yeah, but they're so manufactured!" Uh, yeah, I think. Just like The Monkees, The Sex Pistols, Tamla Motown, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and that hair dye you use once a fortnight.

Perversely, it's the inclusion of Nirvana producer Butch Vig (the man who stumbled upon the solid gold of "Smells Like Teen Spirit") in the Garbage line-up that not only made the Brits first start drooling but also has the Yank "authenticity" addicts sniffing snootily (and they perform with tapes--remember, this is the country which projectile-vomited in amazement when it learnt that lightweight plastic pop band Milli Vanilli didn't actually sing on their own records! SHOCKING BLOODY HORROR!). After the show a tourist will approach the use of drum loops: "You'd never get away with that in Australia!" I mean, excuse me, but do you have the right time? Like, to the nearest decade, you rock-bashing, mammoth-hunting, door-shagging, neanderthal twat?

So, three years ago, Butch and his fellow producer friends Steve Marker and Duke Erikson got bored of sitting down and twiddling their knobs and decided to do it for themselves. Now, I don't want to be cruel, but these three chaps have all the onstage sexual charisma of a colostomy clinic in Grimsby on a damp Wednesday afternoon.

So it was just as well that, while watching MTV, Steve saw Scottish rock foxtress Shirley Manson rubbing her thighs and looking like sex on a stick without the stick while lip-synchinhg like Tina Turner on rhino tranquilisers in the video for Angelfish's "Suffocate Me". It was also a good thing that Shirley was willing to fly to American to audition, and that everybody decided they could not only make spiffing pop records together but there was the distinct possibility that they could all become terrific chums.

The result is Garbage, and Garbage, as they more than willingly admit, are fucking WEEEEEIRD-uh. Think about it. A spanking new(ish) rock band with an average age of 37 (Shirley is 29 and Duke is 44) in an era where the genre is dominated by sad, old, won't-get-out-of-the-bastard-way-and-DIE! geriatric baby-boomer walking corpses at one end and a seemingly endless stream of fresh-faced teenage twats eager to go over the top and get machine-gunned to death at the other. Plus--do we have to spell it out for you?--three producers in one band? Uh?

Despite Butch's sky-high cred rating, this isn't "cool". Maybe the twat-hatted dancebores are stupid enough to make heroes out of the dull bastards who sit behind Star Trek-style desks and fiddle about with other people's music, but us rockers, well, we're way too smart. Producers are like A&R men and stylists--corporate cock-sucking agents of The Man whose sole mission is to hamper, pervert and dilute the raw artistic outpourings of the REAL talent, ie, the spotty herberts with the silly clothes, puerile lyrics and badly tuned guitars over in the corner.

Add to this the not insubstantial fact that they "got in" a FEMALE (as in not a REAL person) who they'd never ever MET before (and who used to be in Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie--AAARRGH!!!) as a singer instead of some talentless and equally ugly fat bloke they were at school with, and how can we not point the trembling finger of outrage and scream: "CULTURE, CRIMINALS!" "NON-ORGANIC FAKES!" and "GET THEE HENCE, THOU FOUL, WRINKLED SVENGALIS!"

But pop doesn't work like that. It is because this is such an odd combination of talents that it works. It's Ginger Rogers and three Fred Astaires (they give her class, she gives them sex appeal). Three Phil Spectors and a Lulu. Three lumbering, bovine brontosauruses and a ginger Scottie dog with a flea up its bum.

In the dressing room, the Garbage blokes are all lying around clutching their heads, sniffling, creaking, gobbling painkillers and thinking: "I'm too old for this shit!" for the 200th time this tour, while Shirley holds forth eloquently on the subject of relative knob size: "I have big cocks. What's the point of having something that bruises your cervix, hangs half out of you and takes about ten minutes to get stiff?" That's weird. That's wonderful. That's pop. Ahem.

And the music. Did i mention the music? The band's next single, the re-released "I'm Only Happy When It Rains", is, as you should know by now, a lush production (torn through with needle-sharp hooks) which not only muscularly rips the stinking yellow piss out of melancholid pity-poor-me Morrisseyesque sadwankery ("Pour your misery down..."), but does so with such bitterness, savagery and conviction that, if you listen closely enough, you can hear a frightened, lonely voice whispering behind the thick bullwark of blustering, emotional scar tissue.

This is irony that bites fast, hard and deep in both directions. The eponymous first album seethes and bubbles with pop so dark and twisted that it wears a permanent strychnine grin. Every track is a lyrical minefield; you think you have a song nailed, then suddenly you trip over a what-the-fuck!? line of such utterly pretentious and totally convincing power that it removes your legs at the knee and dips the stumps in tar.

Garbage are Goshpop. Dark Goshpop. With huge knobs on.

We did an interview. It was crap. I knew it was going to be crap when Shirley wolfed down some extra-strong painkillers shortly after the second question. It didn't help that she also rolled her eyes, tutted and muttered "wanker" under her breath all the time either. Greatm now I'm talking to four middle-aged invalids.

I told them I thought they were only the third proper goth band ever (the first being the early Siouxsie And The Banshees and the magnificent Sisters Of Mercy circa "anaconda"--all the rest being utter shite). The yanks went: "Goff? What's Goff?" and the Scots woman said: "You don't want to know". No. You're totally wrong there.

Despite being so heavily repulsed, I nonetheless resolved attack once again. I dropped the bombshell. I pointed out that, despite the fact that Garbage are just about the coolest rock combo in Christendom, and despite the fact that anti-brained twats keep banging on about how much they sound like Nirvana, the undeniable, absolute and shocking truth is that Garbage more than anybody else, sound, with their chiming, slick, ironic hum-along-a-cod-gothic (think single-malt whiskey, olivesm anchovies and rich, dark, expensive hocolate) pop sensibilities, sound uncannily like, um, Shakespear's Sister.

The Yanks look at me with wrinkled brows an mutter: "Who?"

The Scottie dog just curls her upper lip into a perfect Billy-Idol-circa-"Rebel Yell" sneer and says: "No!"

"That was some bombshell," says Butch. "Three of us have never heard of Shakespear's Sister, and Shirley thinks they're shit."

At the meet'n'greet after the next night's radio show (where Garbage share a stage with Radiohead, The Rentals, Oasis and King Billy Idol), a queue of deeply unattracitve yank adolescents eagerly clutch posters and album sleeves. They tret Butch, Duke and Steve with respect, but it's obvious from the lovelight that shines in their eyes that they see Shirley as some kind of Sex Goddess.

YANKYOUTH: "Are you English?"

SHIRLEY: "No, I'm Scottish."

YANKYOUTH: "Oh. So were you like, born in, uh, Scotland?"

SHIRLEY: "Yeah, that's right."

But you can see in the kid's face that what she really tos to say is: "Shirley, you're so cool and confident and talented and effortlessly sexy and alternative and I'm so awkward and ugly and scared and I would give and everything to be like you for a day..."

As a child, Shirley hated herself and considered herself so ugly that she mutilated her own body. To see her on stage today, writhing and stroking, vibrating her hips and giving the audience cheeky yet smouldering come-hither-and-die-spotty-boy looks, is to witness a somewhat camp but nonetheless totally seductive performance sexuality that is sustained offstage by an utterly fuck-you brassy charm. She has ginger hair, a boyish figure and an alignment of facial characterists more akin to ET's than Elle Macpherson's, yet she possesses in a single flex of her left nostril more sexuality, more "it", than all the plastic princesses of supermodelry combined. If you were an adolscent girl, you'd be in love with her, too.

In the hotel lobby a Rolling Stone journalist awaits an audience. He's quite a good-looking chap, but he wears a tennis sweatband with a Nike logo, tastefully ripped jeans and socks with sandals. He sees Shirley and he shouts: "Hey! Kate Moss!"

Shirley says: "Fuck off, arsehole!" and the chap smiles back in a state of obvious confusion.

The hapless Yank then goes into a diatribe about how he finds it impossible to believe that anybody could ever find Kate Moss even remotely sexy. Shirley is stunned. If she had a loaded AK47 right now, the Yank would be dog food.

In answer to the question "Are ugly people better in bed?" she replies decisevely: "Yes! I speak from experience. Absolutely. Because they're not obsessed sith how the look while they're doing it. They develop skills to attract people that beautiful people don't."

Are we ugly around this table?


Really? I think that Butch is quite pretty...

"But I'm shite in bed," confirms Butch. And Duke has a confession to make: "I've never been to bed with an ugly person," he admits.

Garbage are a confection, fizzing with E numbers, artificial additivies and colouring. Maybe you'd prefer something earthier, folkier, more organic, more (yuk) authentic. If so, I'm sure a quick rummage through your local indie shop bargain bin will supply you with all the Ned's Atomic Dustbin records your stunted hippy nervous system can handle. But you might still have the impression that this is a hobby band, that Garbage don't have to try too hard, because, presumably, Duke, Butch and Steve could go back to their day jobs tomorrow (and presumably earn a damn sight more money).

But they couldn't. Because Shirley would kill them.

"I've had so many shit jobs," she says, and here she starts to speak in capital letters: "I DON't WANT TO GO BACK! I don't have ahouse, financially I'm in as much of a weird, fragile state as I was when I was 16. I have no savings, I have no husband, I have no kids. My friends have all got homes and a secure lifestyle and I've got nothing. I never have had. I want to make music till I drop.

"I don't want to have to go back and try again. If I have to put up with shitty hotel rooms or work from right in the morning till 12 at night, that's OK. Having failed in bands before has been the most profound learning experience in my life."

Garbage is, more or less, the boys' first band and thus, like all first bands, has become the instrument for saying and playing everything they've ever wanted to say or play. But unlike most first bands, Butch, Steve and Duke are dragging over 75 collective years' worth of worth of frustration out of the closet. It's one of the reasons Garbage sound so awesome so soon.

But Garbage is also Shirley Manson's LAST band. It would break her heart if Garbage failed. You might have gained the impression that Garbage are three dull-boy introverts and a perpetually peppy female extrovert. But the lads are apparently, capable of moments of wildness (when free of the flu and pissed out of their planet-sized brains) and Shirley claims to spend most of her life "at the lowest end of low". The second shemeets a fan or her DM'ed feet het the stage, however, she crackles with an irresistible energy. To say she was hungry would be like saying Michael Portillo is a bit of a bastard.

The boys bring to Garbage a pent-up and condensed reservoir of eclectic musical and lyrical skills that is simply awesome. Shirley adds a keen-eyed and rampant energy and a boned, charismatic sensuality. Naivete is not a factor. Failure is not an option. The combination is irresistible.

No, Garbage are definitely NOT the grunge Travelling Wilburys. You ARE definitely allowed to like them. There may be fitter, lither, younger and prettier bands around, but as you should know by now, if you want a really good shagging, go for the ugly, old folks every time. Because they fuck like they're never gonna get fucked again.

By Steven Wells