Posts from September 1999

23
Sep 99

65. MADONNA – “Bad Girl”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

Madonna’s trajectory through the 90s has been a confused one, and who can blame her? She’d always been the object of critical interest – she was tough and canny and massively popular at a time when those things seemed deeply glamourous, and she’d helped the critics out by doing kitchen-sink Catholic ballads like “Live To Tell” and “Papa Don’t Preach” as well as her electrifying pop raunch. Those gutsy numbers offered up the tantalising possiblility that Maddy might just be for real – you know, an artist or something. And then with the Like A Prayer album she went all the way into something close to singer-songwriter disco, a tumbling pop confession session which completely took the tops off critics’ heads and left her in a very sticky situation.

It’s not that Like A Prayer was unfollowable – fans can and do make convincing arguments for any of her 90s records being its superior – but that once the cat was out of the bag, and Madonna was suddenly someone who wrote serious, autobiographical songs, her return this decade to the kind of persona-play and image-shifting that characterises all great pop stars has left her cruelly misunderstood. Madonna’s 90s records have been praised to the exact degree that they resemble Like A Prayer, to the degree that Madonna is seen as singing ‘about herself’. Hence the refried techno and cosy spiritualist bubblings of Ray Of Light gets the hosannas, while the colder, wittier, way less ‘personal’ Erotica, which reinvented Madonna as a haughty teledildonic diva, was either sniggered at or shunned.

But Madonna is often best when she’s striking a pose and there’s nothing to it. While Erotica contains some of the worst tracks she ever put to tape, it also has the wonderful, overlooked “Bad Girl”, a forties femme fatale epic that’s the most blissfully melodramatic song of her career and has the added advantage of showing more of the ‘real’ Madonna (or the Madonna I want to be real, same thing in pop) than anything on her supposedly deeper records. She’s singing the part of someone trapped by her own personality, a good-time girl who keeps throwing over the nice guy she’s got at home for darker, seedier thrills. Of course it’s corny, Hollywood stuff, but like all the great girl-group pop there’s such theatre and conviction that you’re swept along without reservations. And even if what Madonna’s singing isn’t reality for her, it might be for you, which is what counts.

22
Sep 99

66. SINEAD O CONNOR – “Nothing Compares 2 U”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

“Nothing Compares 2 U” stakes its claim and sinks its hooks with its first pinpoint line. “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days” – the inescapable specifics of a split, the way loss messes with your calendar and with time. Time stops at the moment someone leaves you, then starts again, a distended shadow of itself, stretched beyond its limits, as elongated and useless as dead elastic. So from that first line we know we’re listening to somebody who understands what she’s singing.

After that, the main quality of Nothing Compares 2 U is its restraint, as anyone who’s encountered Prince’s own monstrous, histrionic version will agree. While Sinead O’Connor hardly holds back – this is still pretty straightforward, emotional rock singing – the stately held notes backing her up, and the way her wail sounds android and treated in places, give the track something of the apartness of grief, a chilly dignity belying its radio-friendliness. Sinead isn’t a performer I care for at all, and even as a vocalist she’s easier to appreciate than like, but with “Nothing Compares 2 U” the voice and the delivery and the material lock perfectly, and it’s a record I felt worse pretending not to love than I feel for loving it. Which is as good an argument for the singles medium as I know.

21
Sep 99

67. MANIC STREET PREACHERS – “Faster”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The wounded mind draws into itself, narrowing perception down to a hard, unarguable line, sacrificing perspective and judgement for an awful, logical clarity. The poles of this line are absolute and do not vary: strength and weakness, control and its opposite, caving in or not compromising. And gradually, every action seems entropic, seems to leave behind a silty, weakening residue of this compromise. The angle of descent steepens – from now, thankfully, I’m only projecting from experience, not writing from it – the line itself contracts to a point, a single undeniable action.

The best metaphor I have for the state of depression – partly because it’s so distanced and unromantic – is the Doppler Effect: everything looks and feels different to the depressive because the world is going past at another speed to them. For me, either I would wake up with my brain treacle and my words and actions seemingly having to pass through thick, slow glass, or I would feel superconducted, sharp and alien, afflicted with a terrible neural velocity under which I couldn’t hope to communicate: faster.

I’m writing about this not because I feel any great conscious identification with Richey Edwards (I’m plumper, squarer, less sensitive and luckier), but because through the Spring of 1997 I used “Faster”‘s parent album, The Holy Bible, like armour, and in order to write properly about the song I have to remember how I listened to that record, why it seemed to fit so well and hasn’t really since.

Of course, first coming to The Holy Bible three years after release I had the disbenefit of hindsight to deal with. It’s always difficult to discuss an album when someone who made it isn’t around any more, particularly this record, which comes on like that somebody relentlessly dismantling whatever defences they had left. An artist’s disappearance or suicide firms up their legacy but also corrupts it, sets up a black hole at the centre of their work which sucks all interpretation towards it. Writing about The Holy Bible without somehow addressing the vanishing of Richey Edwards would be pointless: you would only be tracing his outline as you gradually and gingerly tiptoed around it.

So that’s how I can say that I like(d) The Holy Bible, and particularly the wild-eyed spasmings of “Faster”, because I heard the mental contraction and tautening I felt in those bad times reflected in the metallic compression of a generally expansive band’s sound, in the jagged, seized-up guitar lines, and especially in the singing. The band built a reputation on tongue-tangling lyrics, ranting as their name suggested with a syntax-stripping urgency, but “Faster” goes further still, reducing James Dean Bradfield’s voice to a thick-throated bark, a machine gun rattling out harsh, undecipherable phonemes. The separation of lyricist and singer works frighteningly well here – the whole record stinks of alienation. Bradfield sounds like he can’t understand the words he’s singing, and that he doesn’t very much want to, but he screams them out anyway. What you can make out cocktails teenage-diary intensity with the brutalist, densely cryptic imagery the band’s lyrics had shifted towards: “I am an architect / They call me a butcher” rants Bradfield after the song has blasted itself into being. No explanation is given, or asked.

Jon Savage recently suggested of The Clash that they weren’t reflecting punk-era London so much as dramatising it. The Manic Street Preachers’debt to The Clash is oft-stated, and so “Faster” finds them doing something similar, but turned inwards. Internalised its savagery may be, but “Faster” is still dramatic, still an epic of some sort. Long after I’ve stopped needing it, I can listen to it and let the music excite me again. “Faster”‘s greatest strength, almost, is that it’s a failure: the lyrics – the message if message it is – are dissolved in the slash and surge of the guitars. So while The Holy Bible is a record I’ll always remember, it’s “Faster” that I take out and play, because it renews me and because, in its harsh and stilted way, it rocks. And while pop music may seem compromised and pathetic and meaningless, like it or not it’s still sometimes good for that.

20
Sep 99

Spacemen Two

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The Human League – Reproduction and Travelogue

One thing we know about men who go into space: they come back changed. Quatermass’ astronauts return carrying a cold-war plague; Philip K Dick’s Palmer Eldritch comes back a hallucinopathic God; Alan Moore’s cosmonaut “Spaceman” falls to earth with telepathic powers, to find his ideologies and beliefs a bad joke. And in the All Seeing I’s 1st Man In Space, Phil Oakey plays himself, far-out voyager touched down as seventies throwback, lonely and bewildered, literally alienated by a wired-up,wised-up world. It’s poignant because, of course, Phil really was the first man in space on his street: the original Human League line-up picked up on something, some hard technological buzz, in the air in ’78 and let it carry them into pop’s orbit. And now their first two records, the ones that soundtrack their journey, are bargain bin obscurities. How come no-one wants to know what they saw?

Reproduction and Travelogue are true sci-fi records: any time but the present, any scale but the human. The League were synthesiser evangelist/terrorists, and their songs are shock disassociation tactics designed to break traditional form (instrumentation) by annihilating traditional context. So you get crypto-Burroughsian vignettes like “Circus Of Death”, you get the staccato brutality of “Almost Medieval”, you get a first single which starts “Listen to the voice of Buddha / Saying stop your sericulture” (uh, OK then), and a second one which is a terrace glitter-stomp about growing to planetary size. You get the uber-catchy call-to-android-arms of “Blind Youth”, the complete nonsense of “Crow And A Baby” and a version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” which would make novelty records blush. And, oh God, the brilliant titles! “Zero As A Limit”; “Being Boiled”; “The Black Hit Of Space”, these punched into your quivering forebrain and said more about what the band was about, what it was trying to achieve, than a hundred manifestos or crappy interviews would have.

It’s hard to deny that these albums can be tough listening – the sounds involved are primitive, the songwriting occasionally unformed, But play them next to Cabaret Voltaire or even Throbbing Gristle and if they lack those bands’ uncompromising conceptualism, they sound much more fun and fertile now. That’s because, even in 1978, the Human League were trying to make pop music: a raw, unrock kind of pop music, but nevertheless their object was to chart. That’s why the rhythms fizz so much, why even the most jagged melodies are still recognisably melodies. Like the sci-fi writers of the 1950s, the passionate pop-punk-funk futurists of ’78 were doggedly exploratory and desperately naive, to be pushing outwards so hard and still trying to shape what they were doing into something you’d want to hear down the disco.

If you’ve never heard any pre-fame Human League, the one track you need to own is “The Black Hit Of Space”, the song which kicks off Travelogue. It starts with ear-scouring brake-pad synths and lunges into a drum machine hammerbeat while Oakey tells his phantasmagoric tale of how the hole in the centre of his record is a black hole, how his single turns into a singularity. It’s the craziest, freshest song, and Oakey sings-recites it with such absolute conviction that what starts out goofy ends up almost chilling, especially as the snythesised drones are laid on so heavy and treacle-thick you can believe the League know what they’re talking about. And it’s still pop.

The Human League did indeed come back from commercial outer space changed – two of them left leaving the singer and the projectionist (this was an era when bands were unafraid to list the bloke who did the slideshow as a member, and rightly so), who bumped into two girls dancing in a club, and the rest is history. Like a lot of the very best pop stars, the band that made Dare could play cutting-edge commercial music with absolute conviction because they’d tried it the other way. “No guitars” announced the sleeve of Dare, and that record, with Oakey’s non-voice and the remorselessly effective, sleek, exciting music, still feels like a beautiful slap in the face to rock-as-she-was. For me it’s a rare example of a band fulfilling and filling in its early promise completely – but Reproduction and Travelogue are where the story starts, and are as intriguing a pair of records as British pop has ever produced..

68. COOLIO ft LV – “Gangsta’s Paradise”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Lyrically this seems negligible, even laughable: the first big gangsta piety hit, wherein Coolio delivers a stern message to the youth, to mend their ways and not follow his path of violence and bloodshed. He does this by going on about what a hard bastard he used to be, obviously. This kind of O-Lord-I-have-sinned-but-hey-check-out-the-sins-dude repentance-rap ended up with the multiplatinum sobfest of “I’ll Be Missing You”, a continent-straddling tower of limply-rapped schlock, one of the few big 90s hits as bad as the hip kids claimed it was, and redeemable only for unwittingly exposing how mealy-mouthed Sting’s original was.

But that’s the other thing Puffy’s monsterpiece shares with “Gangsta’s Paradise”, the wholesale kidnap and dusting-up of a hallowed tune. Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” found him at his most easygoing and homilitic, but it also found him in possession of an absolutely spine-shuddering string arrangement that Coolio and cohorts are happy to seize on, burnish and darken. So even though it’s weapons-grade hokum, when you hear Coolio rap “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” with those great keening strings at his heels, you sit up and pay attention. It’s an opening in a thousand, 24-carat melodramatic cool, and the song goes on to deliver on it, playing you as slickly as the sampled crescendoes. By the finale, when digital-lunged fallen angels are left to bathe the beat in a swirling, inhuman, lament, you stand humbled in the presence of calculated, complete pop greatness.

18
Sep 99

69. FLOWERED UP – “Weekender”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

The sharp London boy dialogue which bookends Weekender‘s 12 minutes sounds like Billy Liar or some other bolshy, aspirational 60s youth fable. It’s that link as much as the length which tips you off that Weekender is big stuff, a grimy and inchoate attempt to tell you What It’s Like, to cram the whole stupid mess of the 90s into one sprawling record, before it’s all happened and been cut up and bagged and tagged and historified. Weekender is an aggressive, unique record, a record that doesn’t want to be made sense of, a surly epic existing to tell you just that no matter what you’ll read about 1992 in some future pop textbook, it wasn’t like that, wasn’t nearly so neat.

That’s not to say this song’s got any kind of truth to tell. The record’s too addled and phantasmagoric for that, its invisible protagonist led by his nose through a hedonistic wonderland London by the singer, who then turns on him in disgust: “Weekender, fuck off, fuck off and die.” And that’s when the big dirty groove drops out of the song to leave a lurching bad-dream jazz meander. The hapless weekender needs the singer’s guidance but can’t ever truly enter his world, and in this sense Weekender is more political than it seems, a dramatisation not only of post-Rave London but of the classic clubland division between the people for whom it really is a lifestyle and the vast bulk of us, the weekend ravers who drop in and out of the scene at will – “tell at work your weekend tale / Still need the pressure of the daily sale”. And in the end the singer, reconciled, even sympathetic, sends the weekender on his way.

Weekender is a record about drugs and dancing which doesn’t mention drugs and can’t easily be danced to. That doesn’t stop it being as much a classic dance record as anything on this list, though – it was the culmination of a fertile, nervous period when British alternative music struggled to come to terms with the explosion in clubbing and the things it was doing to pop and to life. And Flowered Up (hyped up, loved up, tooled up scam merchants turned seers) were as perfect a faceless, fast-moving, unrecoupable pop package as any one-hit techno kids, it just so happened they were working with guitars and freewheeling, slack-arsed funk as well as the odd sample. Listening back from a non-historical perspective, though, what makes Weekender for you now is the extraordinary voice of Liam Maher, his lunatical Cockney scat coming on like John Lydon playing in Oliver!, a gibbering sound-portrait of a city, a scene, a psyche on the brink of either losing it entirely or sinking back into the doldrums it came from.

17
Sep 99

70. BASS D AND KING MATTHEW – “Like A Dream”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Being as contrary as you possibly can is an excellent ground rule for a pop critic. An example: judging solely by the smug, pot-addled, nervelessly shuffling trip-hop being made mid-decade by Mo’Wax and Ninja Tune and pushed by critics, record shops and London drinkeries, dance music in Britain was completely fucked. This stuff was and is music whose deep-rooted tedious tastefulness was in no way camouflaged by exclusionary marketing and its pathetic surface claim to be the sound of a (quite literally blunted) edge. So it made sense for this listener to hunt out that scene’s direct opposite; artless, euphoric, deeply populist rush-music.

I’m not going to deny that a lot of Happy Hardcore’s appeal lies in its absolutist, anonymous simplicity, and in the appalled looks of tastemakers when you play them the stuff. When I worked in the books section of the Record And Tape Exchange, a banging Force & Styles mixtape was probably the only weapon that would piss off the goateed slackwit boho stereotypes in the ‘cult’ books section as much as it did the old boys browsing in ‘military history’. This may seem like a crass and misanthropic reason to like a music, and, well, it is, but then one definition of the shift from classic rock to alternative rock is that it’s what happened when we started to hate our peers a lot more than our parents. As well as being the best way to prevent the complete ossification of the most vital creative work of our lifetimes, contrarianism is as important to what pop music is as sex, drugs, chords or trousers. Which might mean ‘not important at all’, but that’s half the fun of it.

And anyway, “Like A Dream” is a complete blast. One of the funnier things about happy hardcore was certain of its better-known DJs announcing that they wanted the music to be known as ‘fourbeat’, a spectacularly misguided piece of rebranding because it focussed the mind precisely on the relentless four-four frenzy of the music, which is one of the two things about happy hardcore most guaranteed to put weak-livered beat connoisseurs of the stuff. The other being, of course, hardcore’s addiction to the most direct, obvious melodies imaginable. A really simple two-or-three chord melody – especially repeated – has as much devastating, instant, and physical impact as a heavy bassline or irresistible beat, which is a bitter pill to swallow for those critics who want to claim that ‘rock’ is more real and primal than ‘pop’. “Like A Dream” has a crude, fast-moving breakbeat laced with a Public Enemy sample to get you going, and then builds and bursts into its melody, which is a snatch of Madonna’s peerless “Like A Prayer”.

That’s the other thing that I loved about Happy Hardcore. While the likes of DJ Shadow preened themselves in the reflected black surfaces of ultra-obscure records, piratical one-shot chancers like Bass D and King Matthew were taking the original, beautiful rationale of HipHop – you play the best bits of your records again and again – switching the focus from beats to melodies and turning the most rapturous, blatant, moments in pop into perpetual heavenly climaxes. “It’s like a dream / No end and no beginning” sings a sped-up Madonna (or her clone), again and again, stripping out everything from her song and leaving only an obsessional call to bliss. The best happy hardcore tracks – and this is one of the best – do this as surely as minimalist or drone music does, using repetition and supercharged melodies to break on through into an ecstatic white-out state. The only difference, here, is that your body can join the fun.

16
Sep 99

71. PIANO MAGIC – “I Am The Sub-Librarian”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

It is the fourth track on a four-track EP. There is no chorus, and barely any melody. The voice is flat and preoccupied, the lyrics muted to the point of being muttered, the whole song gives an air of terminal introspection. But for the three or so minutes that “I Am The Sub-Librarian” lasts, it creates a world with enchantment and absolute conviction, as self-sufficient and fragile as a snowstorm paperweight glass.

I first heard the track late at night, over the radio: I stopped what I was doing, stopped thinking, and let myself sink right into the song. The soft, insistent piano phrase, the breathing-as-rhythm, the half-heard referencing on North London and of Brautigan, all this seduced me through its intensity and its economy. What Piano Magic were doing, I thought, was taking the sad measure of a little, local life. But “Sub-Librarian” is far more tribute than condescension – what I read as introspection is really a low-key strength, and every note is brimful of quiet pride.

It’s often the delicate songs which affect you most – and when Piano Magic’s tiny masterpiece is playing, it’s like a cough would shatter it. (In that sense it’s not like any of the librarians I’ve actually met, who are rumbunctious and hearty types. But we bookish sorts need our myths.) I’ve not done it justice, I’ve not even described it very well. It’s too modest for writing, perhaps, the kind of song you best meet by chance, and not after all by browsing.

15
Sep 99

72. PREFAB SPROUT – “A Prisoner Of The Past”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The beat is preposterous, sheer melodrama, Spector meets Lloyd Webber uptown. The song tops it. “Prisoner Of The Past” is mock-epic of Broadway proportions, dwarfing everything on its puny parent album Andromeda Heights: it should be the showstopping finale to Act Two of some impossible rococo musical. Part of its appeal, in fact, is the way its chorus seems directly to refer to some glorious imaginary narrative – “This ghost is here to stay / I survived the blast”. Come on, Paddy, what blast? What’s going on? He doesn’t say, the tease, but he doesn’t have to.

“Prisoner of the Past” is pure Diva pop, a song to yell out as you stagger and swagger back home, your sorrows drowned and your resolve steeled. I will survive? Screw that – I did survive! It’s a song which never loses its cool, though, switching with a gymnast’s poise between flint-eyed stalker menace and an open-souled tenderness, between revenge and desire, between knowing you’ve won and knowing that the only reason you did is to make that same mistake again. It’s a love song, naturally. The music is as crafted and tasteful as we might expect from Prefab Sprout, but it sacrifices the usual coyness and guile for some orchestral fire in the belly, and for that we love it. And finally, the triumphant way Paddy MacAloon phrases “Get ready, get ready” would swell my chest every time even if the rest of the record wasn’t so grand.

14
Sep 99

73. PULP – “Razzmatazz”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

One thing about breakthrough-era Pulp is how vicious it all is: “Razzmatazz”‘s absurdist soap opera shenanigans are a couple of shades blacker and a couple of shaves sharper than most of Jarvis Cocker’s early 90s output, but it’s still the same old song. You’re fucked up, so’s your new boyfriend, so’s your family, so am I, but so what – and by the way, your bum does look big in that. And all in pitilessly observed detail: Cocker’s vengeful-loner concerns at this point were hardly new, but the withering accuracy of his wordplay was. The dynamite opening couplet of “Razzmatazz” got them the press they needed but also left Jarvis open to gangly pervert stereotyping. “The trouble with your brother,” deadpanned this half-spoken, world-weary, Northern voice after some keyboard chords have swooped the song in, “He’s always sleeping with your mother”. And it wouldn’t have had half the impact if the rest of the words hadn’t followed through, turning that opening from shock-value tease to matter-of-fact.

“Razzmatazz” was the track that got me loving Pulp, but in truth I barely noticed the lyrics, all I cared about was the charged, low-rent music and delivery, the way Jarvis would slow-burn the verses and then explode into a neurotic cabaret of gasps, sighs and verbal tics, a stick-insect cross between James Brown and Frank Spencer. The music was cheap, frantic, immensely stylish pop: at the time I’d never heard Roxy Music so I’d no idea of even what planet this feverish arty pulsing was coming from, but I was fascinated and amazed.

What’s really amazing, listening back, is how the Jarvis Cocker persona gets defined so quickly, forming perfectly and fully in the space of maybe two singles, this and “Babies“. The indie boy outsider had defined 80s alternative pop, but Cocker brought to the mix not only his unique physical presence, not only an obsessive talent for social and sexual voyeurism, but also a steely confidence born from ten years of knockbacks and scrapping around in the arse-end of the indie charts. The result, seven years after “Razzmatazz” and four years after he really made it, is a thankfully healthy career as the best British songwriter of the decade and the unnerving knowledge that lads in every trendy East London bar are still trying to look like him.