Posts from August 1999

Aug 99

88. SUEDE – “The Drowners”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

So on the one hand you have the most boiling, advanced, raw-edged, up-for-grabs, funny music of my lifetime, and on the other you have Suede. Guess which I was listening to? Guess which everyone else I knew was too? You see my problem, O reader. And for a few years afterwards Suede were a bit embarassing to me, the extent to which I fell for their hype a slightly shameful memory – shouldn’t I have been a bit more sophisticated? Which was sillier than liking them in the first place, of course.

Suede were the start of something big for indie pop and the end of something big for me. Though there’d been stellar hypes before there were two massive differences with Suede – all the other big bangs had been predicated on there being something new on offer; even the Roses were pushed as having some sort of nebulous link with club culture, though you’d never have known it to hear them. But Suede were blatantly, openly reactionary and at the time that was the new thing. And secondly, thanks to the Roses, there was the sure knowledge that the indie press could get a band top five, probably higher, if it put its shoulder to the wheel.

And so the pattern was set for the nineties, bands making records which sounded like glossier versions of other records, bands whose taste was as important as their ideas…no, bands whose taste was their one idea. At worst it was desperate and stupid, a massive game of temporal let’s pretend. At best it was a gleeful reconstruction of eras and styles whose only crime was to have gone out of fashion too quickly. But all in all it did something very big to pop. For all Brett Anderson’s talk of a return to Stardom, at least part of Stardom – the part that pro-pop fops like me tend to powder over – is that the Star is impossibly glamorous because they’re doing things you’d never have thought of. But anyone with a few Mott the Hoople records and a blouse could have thought of the things Brett did, no matter how much better and sexier he did them.

Suede were the end of something big for me not because of all this – how was I to know? – but because they were the last time I believed the hype, unselfconsciously and completely. My local friends and I all laughed over Steve Sutherland’s hysterical live reviews in Melody Maker, but when “The Drowners” came out we all thought it was amazing, massive, a dazzling romper-stomper of a tune that we loved even though we were easily pop-literate enough at that stage to second-guess everything Suede were doing. It was Summer, I was falling in love, making friends, getting out, and all to these big crunchy riffs and teasy lyrics. And after Suede it was all a bit too obvious – you could see the journalists trying to repeat their success, you could see that the band weren’t going to be able to startle in the same way again. And besides, I was going off to University and had a cynical-critical reputation to build which was hardly going to include overhyped indie nonsense like Suede. Does it still stand up today? I sold my copy ages ago, wish I hadn’t. In my head it once again sounds fantastic.

Aug 99

89. SPRING HEEL JACK – “Where Do You Fit In?”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The first jungle 12″ I ever bought. I called it ‘jungle’ though it barely was – most SHJ tracks were soft-soled ambient washes with politely bustling breakbeats, or else they were far too busy and never quite worked. If there was any injustice in their never making it massive (as they would occasionally claim) it wasn’t that they were sealed out by the London drum’n’bass mafia, more that as the crew who hit this icy territory first, they deserved more respect for their pioneer spirit than they ever got for their music.

They certainly never again made a record as great as “Where Do You Fit In”/”Life In The Freezer”, though. Five years on, it sounds as lonely and strange as the day I first put a needle to it. “Where Do You Fit In?” – its worried grooves beg the answer ‘nowhere’ – is drum and bass with hardly any bass, and with the drums a stark, slow clatter.The rhythms are taut, true ninja tunes: your senses heighten, your body becomes stealthy. Behind the tiny fragments of spaceman-talk and these eternally poised beats hang huge, numbing keyboard figures. This was released before the rulebook on how to make ‘artistic’ drum and bass was fully written, and sounded as fresh as it did eerie: the quality comes not from the record being a smoothly aesthetic fusion of tasteful elements, but from the slight dissonance between rhythm and sound – the way each bit sounds like it comes from a record just sideways from the others. “Where Do You Fit In?” sounds as discomfited as the title suggests, an elegant wallflower at the hardcore party.

Aug 99

90. EC8OR – “Spex Is A Fat Bitch!”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Riot Grrrl had jack-shit UK impact outside London and Glasgow, and Bis went from being a bad joke to just boringly being, and so here’s the best, crassest, funniest splenetic shriek-pop of the decade, and also the best single Digital Hardcore Recordings have put out. Every album I’ve heard by EC8OR has had the same apparently mandatory crap-recording and dull doomstompf quota as all other DHR long-players, but taken a hit at a time they blow things up nicely.

Fast distorto-breakbeats and shouting about fascists are the DHR partyline, and if you think that grows old quick you wouldn’t be wrong. EC8OR get really excited, though , when they start having a go at Spex, apparently a kind of Teutonic ‘Q’ magazine which seeks to mislead and pervert the German youth through a variety of garbled means (at a guess: featuring boring music, featuring boring ravers, featuring boring rock bands, not featuring EC8OR much). The music rattles along at boneshaker speed, pugnaciously defying any attempt to dance to or even keep track of it, then stops for EC8OR to yell “Spex is a faaaaaat….BITCH!” and then does exactly the same except louder and more distorted, and then does it even louder, and so on. The really amazing thing about DHR’s good records is that they’re so fun and vital even when you should by rights be bored sick of the schtick. EC8OR, for these four minutes, have nothing to do with post-industrial posturing or even politics, and everything to do with having a skull-scouring bloodyminded yell, and anyone who’d deny that as a part of good pop probably deserves to work for Spex.

Aug 99

91. MARY J BLIGE – “Be Happy”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

Urban Debussy beat: Mary J’s aqueous introductory bubblings convinced me that swingbeat was worth it, that its hard and glamourous stare masked multiple sonic joys, that the mutterings of crits about melisma and materialism and monotony were mostly point-missing flummery.

Why do I like swingbeat? Because of all the things that make it so untrustworthy and odd-feeling. Swingbeat is upmarket, plush and distanced – the beats are poised and smooth but still just a backdrop for the bejewelled music. Once you’ve broken through swingbeat’s luxury barrier and adjusted to the passionless, sumptuous surroundings, you notice how gorgeously sculpted and weighted every bass throb, keyboard pulse, or stringed ripple is, and you start to care less about the showboating singing. When swing gets to loving it’s the beat and the gloss that’s sexy, not the voice (and in any case swing singers often seem to have an acute, sexy sense of their own absurdity).

On “Be Happy”, though, the voice counts: Blige’s singing is stranded across the eddying music, sounding so bereft it’s like she’s talking mostly to herself, trying to keep warm. Nothing resolves – the verse drifts into a keening sing-song chorus, Mary sounds no happier, and the music just keeps flowing beautifully along. A perfect studio construction, “Be Happy” is sonically as ahuman as its throwback critics would suggest, but it touches me effortlessly.

Aug 99

92. SPEARMINT – “Sweeping The Nation”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

Readers, creeping deadlines have caught Freaky Trigger unawares and without its master list, and so a single which I bought two days ago vaults its way into the countdown. But what’s the point of pop without ephemerality and infatuation? And anyway, “Sweeping The Nation” earns its place by right as much as whim.

I’m both a sucker for and a bit repulsed by pop records which are acts of pop criticism themselves – they always feel very insular (or maybe it’s just that my toes are getting trodden on!). Spearmint’s four-minute warning not to lose your dreams doesn’t quite escape the trap, but it’s hard to care too much when confronted with what’s probably the most fun indie record this country’s produced for ages. The most indie record, come to think of it – indie like it used to be, all Wedding Present thrashy toy guitars, all bouncing keyboards, all pledges and leaps of fanzine faith. Though sentimentally – and damn, it’s sentimental – “Sweeping”’s a second cousin of Denim’s breathless Summer Smash, it’s hardly a record with an eye on the charts. The national takeover it proposes isn’t going to be achieved through anything as vulgar as sales, more through a stealthy coup on the hearts of the people who care.

What I like best about this record, though, isn’t the feeling (I’m too cynical) or the tune (though you could hum it) or the lyrics (promising though they are). It’s Shirley Lee’s voice and phrasing, urgent, warm and clear. He’s got everything I look for in a pop singer – he’s dramatic, theatrical even, without ever being pretentious or affected. “Sweeping The Nation” kicks and flounces like ABC or Pulp or Orange Juuice or the World of Twist: a speedy, fiercely alive Northern beat. It sounds like it could have been made in ’82 or ’86 or ’90, but this kind of urgency, wit and desire doesn’t date.

Aug 99

93. PANASONIC – Osasto

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

When I was 14 I went to hospital and had two micro-thin metal filaments inserted into my thigh and shoulder, which were allowed to spool through my major blood vessels until they reached my heart. Electricity was then passed through them, jacking my heart into artificially inspired activity. The resultant sense of becoming android, of having one’s bodily processes infected and taken over by machines, returns keenly to me every time I put on Panasonic’s extraordinary records.

Touted as Panasonic’s engagement with Dutch speed-apocalypse-techno variant, gabba, Osasto is in fact just more of the usual, though the unceasing sine-tone interludes you sometimes find on the band’s albums are to be fair excluded in favour of particularly hammering, unvarying beat structures. But on the other hand because it’s relatively compact, Osasto concentrates the mind wonderfully on Panasonic’s virtues. Which are as follows: the band’s mastery of texture, and their mastery of structure. You could, I suppose, say much the same about any ‘intelligent dance’ auteur – Autechre, or Aphex, or even Orbital – but Panasonic stand out through their brutalist economy of means, the way they ruthlessly strip anything even remotely psychedelic or contemplative from their music in favour of relentless repetition and purism. (Not to mention the fact that you can dance to Panasonic even less than you can to the aforementioned.) Osasto unfolds with the impervious grace of an architectural blueprint. First it pummells you, then rewires your concentration, sense of time, and sense of internal rhythm in its own stark image. The record and the listening environment are fused, and gradually you become accustomed to every tiny shift and subtlety of pattern. The next record you pay will seem colourful to the point of crassness, but also curiously blurry and unreal.

Aug 99

94. WORLD OF TWIST – “Sweets”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

“To the sound of the World of Twist, you leaned over and gave me a kiss….”. They coulda been contenders? Well, possibly, though there’s something a bit playful and wilful about WOT, something which prevents you seeing them as chart heavyweights, no matter how ticklish that idea is. On the other hand, you’d have said much the same of Pulp, back then. And if any band has to stand here as a representative of indie flash-in-the-pandom, there are few more likeable candidates than the World Of Twist.

As the Saint Etienne lyric above implies, World Of Twist were scenesters of a kind, fitting into that referential, reverential skein of English pop which combines the standard retro indulgences with a richer seam of metropolitan eccentricity and ennui. In the 60s, they’d have ended up Joe Meek proteges. In the 80s, they’d have fitted perfectly on to Tot Taylor’s Compact Records. Which is to say that beneath their odd costumes and biographical games beat devoted pop hearts. That’s not necessarily enough, as the foppishly tedious career of late-90s equivalent David Devant has oh-so-amply proved. But with WOT – ghastly acronym – there’s a synthed-out motorik sweat to take the ironic edge of things, courtesy of the band’s baggy-era Northern Soul revivalism. On the CD Single of “Sweets” , for example, you find the urgent, dippily sinister “The Storm” , a floorfiller for a phantom Casino.

“Sweets” itself is gorgeous, one of the great lost Britpop singalongs, bouncing along on a then-modish, now-quaint beat, sung in a preposterously breathy fashion: terrific fun. It’s dead clumsy, a grinny, enthusiastic rush of bongos and echoes and tacksome keyboard strings. It’s like the Happy Mondays made out of balsa wood and sticky-backed plastic, and it works a charm. The whole song is corny, and the corniest and very best bit is the half-beat gap as we swing into the last chorus – “When I look at you, I get – ba-bom – such a feeling”: when Saint Etienne’s hipster lovers kissed, that’s what they were listening to.

No Revolution

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“Where’s Your Child” is a 12″ record by Chicago House act Bam Bam, long out of print but available on compilations occasionally, including one called Acid Flashback, where I heard it. It’s a clammy, tauntingly hostile dance record, where a grotesquely distorted baritone moans warnings to parents who don’t know where their children are. Screams echo behind the gibbous acid bassline; the beat is repeatedly overtaken by sounds of shattering glass. “Curfew! Curfew!…..Where’s your child?” oozes the voice, viscous and repulsive. It dates from 1988, part of the last great ‘pop revolution’ currently being celebrated in a Sunday supplement near you. It’s lost none of its darkly comic appeal or its power to disturb.

What music criticism loses in its giddy pursuit of the Now and the Next is a sense of the way records like this accrete meaning over time. Just as a house, once lived in, can’t ever be seen as simply a set of rooms, so favourite records change their character in fundamental ways with the experiences they soundtrack. This is such a basic part of the way we listen to music that talking about it feels like stating the obvious, but it’s surprisingly difficult to incorporate this subjectivity into writing about pop. Without it, though, pop writing becomes something like plotting a graph: fixing new bands, records and movements in history, sternly calibrating the significance of the present and the influence of the past. That, or popcrit turns into just a chilly parade of rehearsed critical truisms and glib parrotting of fashionable attitudes.

Pick up a copy of the NME and you’ll see what I mean – lots of unseemly squabbling over what pop music is or is ‘about’. The music is ‘about’ youth, or ‘about’ rebellion, or ‘about’ innovation or ‘about’ attitude or ‘about’ sex, and it’s all complete nonsense: you could say the same of any product, of anyTHING in fact and it would still sound vaguely hollow, like a piece of ad copy rather than something felt. What pop is, is an eighty-year old system of parting people from their money, a system with a nose for what’s happening that any marketeer would sell their liver for. Ideas of youth and rebellion and innovation are part of what makes being a pop fan fun for most people, though: for those people, the HISTORY OF ROCK is a history of intense mass peaks, carnivals of volcanic creativity, 55-66-77-88, and inbetween we enjoy the fallout and play seismologist, waiting for the next shock.

There’s an immense romantic appeal to this, and a certain truth also – the most cynical revisionist couldn’t write Elvis or Shoom out of history entirely. Part of its appeal is that right now almost everyone in the business of rock criticism seems to think something big is on the way. There’s no earthly reason to think this, just superstition (the absurd notion of an eleven year “cycle” in pop) and hope, and the fact that revolutions are addictive. If you “were there” when acid house or jungle exploded, you want something like that to come down the pipe again, badly. And if you weren’t, you want a riot of your own. In the general rush to proclaim pop dead (again) so that something fiery and terrible can rise from its corpse, nobody’s mentioning that there’s almost no room for a revolution, so intense is the scrutiny almost every corner of music-making is under. I’m not convinced the gestation time exists for another pop revolution to explode – the key factor in pop’s mytho-historical Big Bangs isn’t that they won over the kids, but that they baffled the biz, and the biz isn’t being run by amateurs any more.

But then I’m not convinced it matters. What counts isn’t pop’s increasingly cast-iron chronology, but everyone’s personal pop timeline. The punk and acid house revolutions seem very clear-cut to armchair historians now, but to a consumer, even a committed one, things are never that straight. I was 16 and living on the M25 in 1989, and I hated Acid House. So did everyone I knew. So that’s why I heard Bam Bam’s “Where’s Your Child?” for the first time a few years ago, not in 1988, which is where it slots into pop history. I heard it again recently, a week or so after being attacked and beaten up by a young gang on a train, the drug-scare context of the record dovetailing with my own bad experience to create an urban-paranoia statement of extreme personal intensity.

The only pop history worth the name is the one you write yourself. If there was to be another ‘revolution’ in pop, one of the things it would have to contend with is being the first real post-CD music explosion. The arrival of the CD as medium of choice meant the aggressive remarketing of the majors’ back catalogues, but it also meant an archeological boom in obscure reissues of old krautrock, soul, punk, avant-garde, you-name-it records. We live in a blissful perpetual present of pop, where what’s actually contemporary seems never to have mattered less: how else to account for the perverse mass-appeal of swing records (and that’s the Glenn Miller “swing”, not the Jodeci one) among American teenagers?

As the Oasis phenomenon showed, ‘youth movements’ in the CD Age are as likely to be reactionary as progressive, so the traditional role of the pop critic as prophet seems to be over. No revolution after all. What do we do instead? Leaping into subjectivity, randomly and joyfully detailing the ups and downs of your own pop life, regardless of contexts or ‘movements’, seems like one way to go. It’s why Chuck Eddy, the great flaneur of rock lit, is so good, after all, weighing up the detritus and drawing the connections Rock History would insist aren’t even there: lazily finding Damascus on a daily basis just by turning a dial.

Aug 99

95. SPIRITUALIZED – “Medication”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

This single version is a botch job. Its scatty honkings and weeping free-jazz vapour trails work as music but detract from the icily simple logic of the song: you need, you obtain, you wait to need again. You need, you obtain, you wait. The Pure Phase LP version obeys this Pavlovian structure much better, with its endless numb keyboard washes. The drive of the song, though, comes with the chorus – a desperate breakout attempt which anticipates failure in its very passivity: “I’m waiting for the time….”

I’ll go so far as to say that “Medication” is the best pop song about addiction I’ve ever heard, with none of the cheap punk see-if-I-care nihilism of “Waiting For The Man”, none of the bad rococo poetry of the interminable “Heroin” and twice their plain-spokenness. Does it matter, saying this, whether I’m a hard drug addict? No, and that’s the beauty of “Medication”. A lot of the songs on this list recast the drug experience as a love experience. Spiritualized go the other way, their dead simple monkeyback blues as relevant to infatuation junkies as to the Trainspotting sort, a link Jason Pierce’s follow-on masterpiece was to make abundantly clear.

Aug 99

96. PRIMAL SCREAM – “Rocks”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

Like dance writer Simon Reynolds says, Primal Scream are a critic’s band, because all their records, sleeves, haircuts are acts of criticism themselves, statements about how music should be. “Rocks” for-realisms are a sight posier than any New Romantic record ever made, in other words. Nothing wrong with that in one sense – a lot of really fertile, inspirational music has been made on little but imitation and a strong sense of style – but it sometimes goes badly wrong. Give Out But Don’t Give Up, the record “Rocks” heralded, was met with absolute incredulity. For every powder-fuelled trendy who reckoned they could see what Primal Scream were getting at with this loose, louche trawl through stereotypical rock’n’roll and dodgy Confederacy chic, several more were absolutely heartbroken. I can remember the reactions to “Rocks” among my friends, from mild disappointment through outright mockery to an aghast sense of betrayal. Primal Scream, after all, were the band who had shown the way, who’d seen the error of their indie rock ways and taken plenty of us along with them. Nobody in 1994 much listened to Screamadelica any more, but we all of us owned it. “Bitches keep bitchin’/ Clap keeps an-itchin'” – how could they do this to us?

And then I heard “Rocks” again a few years later and it sounded brilliant – cheap, cheeky, propelled by a tinnily primitive backbeat, wickedly unfashionable good-time music. Context, as usual, was important – Primal Scream had in some senses been proved right, as their disasterous career move was just the first squirts of a torrent of history-worship, nearly all of it more grim and pompous and musicianly than Give Out…. And at the same time the only fun to be had from dance music was the Skint records and Chemical Brothers stuff, which everybody was calling rock anyway. Very little of any of it sounded as good as “Rocks”, which slid right into the boozy big-beat ethos.

It turned out, then, that the whole indie-dancey-baggy thing hadn’t been about abandoning just the holed hull of rock, but abandoning ideas of taste and genre completely, chucking in utopian notions of musical originality in favour of a big end-of-the-century party where tastemakers winked knowingly at each other across the sweaty, cheering crowds. Give Out But Don’t Give Up? In the end we settled for both.