Three minutes and fifty-six seconds: After I posted Crush’s “Jellyhead” somebody asked me, was there much more of that kind of lyrical dance-pop around? Well, the answer is, not a great deal, at least not between the Pet Shop Boys getting serious and Xenomania coming along. A few people tried but there wasn’t really a public for it: Belvedere Kane’s fruity “Never Felt As Good”, one of the best Popjustice-style pop songs of the 90s, has around 700 plays on Last.FM. It was never a hit of any kind - I only know it because Duncan The Manics Fan who worked in the record shop when I worked in the bookshop knew I liked pop and turned up one lunch break with a 50p copy of the cassette single insisting I buy it. Thanks Duncan!
Three minutes and fifty-seven seconds: A hands-in-the-air version of "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" was pretty much inevitable, and Almighty Records provided one, courtesy of their collective pseudonym Belle Lawrence. I really love this, more than any actual Arctic Monkeys track - he’s a decent lyricist but he often sounds like he’s lecturing me, whereas this version is just big boshing hedonism, except that Almighty have taken a little more care with the structure and backing than they sometimes do, so it’s not JUST 100% poppers-o-clock euphoria, there’s some build and release in there too.
Three minutes and fifty-eight seconds: What I like about Annette Snell’s “You Oughta Be Here With Me” is the shift in mood from dejection to triumph, like halfway through the song she gets a call from the guy saying, actually, YOU’RE RIGHT, my new girlfriend IS a loser and I’m coming back to you, and so the rest of the song is air-punching. Air-punching the seventies Southern soul way so it sounds absolutely tremendous of course.
Three minutes and fifty-nine seconds: Crossing the four minute line and into the storied uplands of popcraft - a procession of hits leading us towards the “three minute pop song” peak. No room for sprawl now! So The Slits' version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" comes out taut and furious, starts off too angry even to get the first line out and then spits and bounces for three minutes before somehow getting talked down.
Four minutes: A few years ago I was chatting to a then-colleague about Watchmen, and how the last issue had been really delayed and when it came out people were all “OK, this series is a masterpiece” at exactly the same time as they were saying “OK, this issue in itself is kind of… er….” - and she stopped me and said in geek awe "You read Watchmen in FLOPPIES?"
And I thought, well of course I did, it’s a comic about superheroes, how else would I have read it? A really GOOD comic about superheroes, which came out at a time I was incredibly excited by superhero comics, to be sure. I hadn’t realised until that moment the extent to which it had become separated from “being a comic” and become its own monolithic thing, The Good Graphic Novel (That Isn’t About The Holocaust).
On realising that I felt pretty lucky. Not in the LCD Soundsystem “I was there” way, but because reading Watchmen like that meant I experienced it not just as a monthly comic* but as part of a wider swirl of pop culture rather than a sealed-off classic. A really pivotal part, more so than I knew at the time - this was the era of “Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” and EVERYONE was playing catch-up with Alan Moore and the ‘new comics’ he’d helped unleash. The NME and Face ran features on his stuff. The new script editor of Doctor Who, Andrew Cartmel, was trying desperately to refashion that show along Moore-styled lines (and ending up with something far odder). A new UK comic, CRISIS, came out - to newstands, not the “direct market”, so it was intended to SELL - and it mixed up muddled post-Watchmen superhero pretension with stories about corporations drafting anarcho-punks to fight in South America, soundtracked by the Dead Kennedys.
And pop reacted. It had nothing to do with Watchmen but the smiley face was suddenly all over the place thanks to acid house. The DJs were reading this stuff though - Tim Simenon’s Bomb The Bass put the Watchmen blooded-smiley on a single sleeve. And then this - "Def Con One" by Pop Will Eat Itself, a single springing out of the series, making a breakneck, sample-soaked stab at hip-hop** out of its nuclear brinkmanship subplot***. It sounds like reading a really good comic felt. Like reading Watchmen in floppies, in fact.
*this is a really good way to read Watchmen for the first time. You miss out on the clockwork superstructure but the pulpy impact of the individual chapters is so much greater - especially the Rorschach origin, the prison break, and the Mars stories.
**Britain was awash with bands at this point who really really liked the idea of hip-hop and thought they might have a go. Compared to most of it “Def Con One” is technically superb.
Four minutes and one second: MEMO TO SELF: Next time you’re doing one of those ‘meme’ things and it asks for ‘a lyric that sums you up’ or something similarly awful then DO NOT PANIC, just write down "I wormed my way into the heart of the crowd / I was shocked to find out what was allowed" from Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides”. That is all.
Four minutes and two seconds: Jonny L is probably better known now for his drum’n’bass records (which he still pumps out for all I know) but in the early 90s he made rave records like "Ooh I Like It". As the title suggests this is the faux-childish, tingly, shimmery end of rave - full of acid squiggles and super-tactile drum sounds, topped off with a loved up kinder-robot voice which will bewitch you, if it doesn’t annoy the living shit out of you that is.
Four minutes and three seconds: Chaka Demus and Pliers - “Boom” - a hit of theirs from the glory days of 90s pop ragga, with one of those dancehall beats which sounds kind of hand-cranked somehow. Nothing else more to say about it except I love how they do the bridge between the Chaka Demus bits and the Pliers bits.
Four minutes and four seconds: As I said in the Candy Flip entry, the early 90s were a moment in music where categories like ‘novelty’, ‘pop’, etc. started to pretty much dissolve, largely because the primary use-case for a lot of singles was in a context where ideas like that made no sense: E’d off your tits in a warehouse somewhere. The structure of the music business - Top Of The Pops, “The Charts”, the radio as was - simply weren’t set up to accomodate or process this stuff. So we had at least two years through which Radio 1 DJs, TV presenters, et al - the people whose jobs in the culture were to mediate pop - were basically wandering through a fug of bafflement.
One of the things that happened to pop during this odd time was “Toytown Techno”. The idea was that not only could anyone make a hardcore techno track in their bedrooms but that anything could become one - any bit of half-recalled pop-cultural flotsam could be turned into a record. Kids’ TV programmes, mostly: this was just before the Internet came along and made sitting around trying to remember shit you saw on TV age 8 even more pointless.
In the old system of pop toytown techno tracks were novelty records, simple as that: but there were so many of them, and they did so well. There was a very good reason of course - an unexpected, once-familiar sound could trip dancers’ surprise switches and set off a chemical domino topple in the brain.
Anyhow, "Pacman" by Power Pill is absolutely typical of the format except that the person doing it is a very famous electronic producer rather than a vanishing bedroom no-hoper. (He wasn’t the only one who slummed it.)
Four minutes and five seconds: So what’s going on in "Paris 1919"? A Pitchfork review of the 2006 reissue suggested the whole John Cale album is a loose concept record about the post-World War I settlement. This idea doesn’t quite sit right with me, even though an inter-war Weimar vibe tickled many 70s European songwriters (and Cabaret had come out on film the year before, to enormous acclaim.) Certainly though this title track must relate to the 1919 peace conferences - if it relates to anything - or at least be set in amongst them.
You can hear it as a song by someone - a diplomat, a functionary, a secretary - caught up in these events. Which must have been honestly extraordinary - we naturally view the activities of 1919 with bitter hindsight because the attempt to come together and end war forever was a hideous failure. But to have been part of a delegation making that attempt, without the knowledge or suspicion of what was to come! To be occupied with affairs of high politics, global politics for the first time, in a city less than a day from the annihilated mudscapes of the former Western Front, while all around delegates from Japan, America, Arabia, British and French colonies mingled, argued and flirted…
Cale’s prissy, jittery, thrillingly hopeful music catches all this, both the excitement of the time and the mockery of history’s judgement on it. And he wraps it all up inside what’s surely a love song (that surge of chorus feels like a love song), though perhaps a love song to a ghost.
Four minutes and six seconds: Hip-hop didn’t get playlisted a lot in Britain in the early 90s, and while it was covered in the music press it wasn’t often covered with much depth or knowledge - I think before Neil Kulkarni came along for Melody Maker there was basically nobody willing to even use the term “flow” or talk about what rappers actually did. One upshot is that collectives like Hieroglyphics or even Native Tongues, who might have got a positive reception among NME/Maker readers, got very little space. Obviously if I’d made more effort personally I could have found out plenty, but I was more interested in electronic stuff (assuming I was in any way typical, this is probably why hip-hop coverage in the UK was so woeful).
Once I got myself online, and once MP3s came along, things changed quickly and I could make some attempt at catching up.* Back in 2000 a Freaky Trigger contributor - Greg Scarth, who I’ve totally lost touch with - send me a CD-R of his hip-hop favourites and rarities, and on it was "Cab Fare" by Souls Of Mischief. I knew them from “93 Til Infinity” but I loved this even more - the way the familiar sample makes the track so welcoming, and the way it’s just four guys swapping stories about cabs from a range of perspectives (my favourite verse is the final one, from a driver’s point of view). Of course that sample is why I didn’t know the track already - it couldn’t get clearance and has circulated ever since on mixtapes and bootlegs. If by any chance you haven’t already heard it, you’re in for a treat.
*anyone who read my “Top 100 Singles Of The 90s” back in 1999 will have seen this process in embarassing action: the hip-hop selections, total perennials aside, are all stuff I’d only just discovered and the choices and ordering were close to random. Of course I didn’t let on to that in the write-ups: I still believed critics had to be authoritative.
Four minutes and seven seconds: This one isn’t honestly very good - it’s a version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" by young Manchester duo Candy Flip. It’s exactly the same length as the original, which is actually quite unusual for covers. It dates from summer 1990, the height of “indie-dance” or “baggy” or “Madchester” or whatever you want to call it (see here for me talking about this scene in more depth) and it was a respectably-sized hit.
But for me it’s an interesting record because it manages to be basely cynical and winningly naive at the same time. On the cynical side, yes, this is a brazen cash in. Perpetually-fucked singing and a beat lazily gesturing in the rough direction of hip-hop were the currency of hip British pop in 1990 and Candy Flip were well aware of it. At the time I assumed that THE MAN was behind them but whether they were “manufactured” or not there’s no need for them to have been. The boundaries between a novelty single, an underground sensation and a pop smash have never been thinner than at this point in time, and it was a good time for people who had an idea for a record to actually go through with it.
This is also the utopian charm of the thing. At the heart of “indie dance” was an ideal of musical subcultures coming together. Which in turn was part of a greater mythologising of club culture (and Ecstasy) as a dissolver of difference - even a kid like me with no interest in sports was aware that hooligans were hugging on the terraces under the influence of the “Love Drug”. And that tied in with all kinds of wider stuff in the culture - “positivity” as a philosophy, Benetton, the idea that the 90s would be a decade of Aquarian goodwill after the ‘decade of greed’. And then tunnel up high enough and you get to the ultimate dissolution of differences, the end of the Cold War.
So from this angle two kids doing a limply dancey version of a Beatles track wasn’t the act of hubris it would have seemed like even five years later: “pop history” was less routinely glorified and more liquid, and for a season or two it seemed like the happy destiny of every old sound was to be improved by the addition of house piano and/or the ‘Funky Drummer’ sample. Candy Flip aren’t trying to stake a claim to membership of a pantheon (which was behind all of Oasis’ Beatle obsession), they’re simply inviting the Beatles to a different, better party. The turn of the 90s were the last time for a while that British pop stars didn’t reflexively believe things were better in the 60s.