Posts from October 1999

28
Oct 99

41. MEGA CITY TWO – “Darker Side Of Evil”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

In the original Predator film, one of a rash of ‘Nam-purging guns’n’grit stompers, Arnie defeats a lethally camouflaged, unknowable jungle assailant with good old-fashioned American brawn. It’s a bore, whereas its sequel has an impact way above its modest artistic ambitions. Predator II moves the action to the urban jungle, a head-beatingly obvious concept which nonetheless struck a very big chord with a lot of drum’n’bass producers, Mega City 2 included. You can see why: it’s a wicked film, fast and paranoid, depicting a city convulsed with violence where everyone’s at everyone else’s throat, one which is being invaded by something new, something technical and brutal, stealthy and infinitely dark.

I imagine Mega City 2 (whoever they were) in a weed-wreathed suburban bedroom studio, flicking between the brittle drumloops on their cheap Amigas and the videos in the corner, rewinding and snipping the heavy, spooky dialogue: “You can’t see the eyes of the demon until him come callin’…fuckin’ voodoo magic, man!”. That was the world darkside junglists wanted to create, where technology and the street mixed with black magic – how else could you explain the sounds (too fast, too evil) coming out of the speakers? Maybe if you heard it for the first time now “Darker Side Of Evil” would sound corny or silly, its beats a bit slow and its horror flick samples absurd. It’ll never sound that way to me. Mega City 2’s track is generic in the best way – a superb example of a superlative style. But still you could substitute it for any of a number of outstanding tracks. Boogie Times Tribe’s “Dark Stranger” perhaps, or Uncle 22’s swaggering “6 Million Ways To Die”, or Sub Nation’s “Scottie” (which manages to turn Star Trek, of all things, into jittery hyperspeed fear-funk). I finally picked Mega City 2, mostly because Predator II is my favourite action film, but also because it was on the first jungle tape I heard, and so the first time I came face-to-face with the 90s’ greatest musical unknown. That counts for a lot.

42. KLF – “Last Train To Transcentral”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

MU MU! MU MU! MU MU! KLF!“. No band understood the possibilities for mass lunacy contained in the new music as well as did the KLF. Their ‘Stadium House’ trilogy of singles – “What Time Is Love”, “3AM Eternal” and “Last Train…” are as ridiculous as the most reviled Aqua or Cartoons outing, and at the same time are awe-inpsiring, colossal, unprecedented dancefloor bulldozers. Read a copy of The Manual, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s pricelessly cynical dissection of the process needed to have a No.1 hit, and the depth of their understanding begins to show through. For novelty scam-mongers and pranksters, they knew the public well, particularly that strain in British pop listening which likes an occasional brush with the gigantic. The KLF did to house what Jim Steinman did to rock – they turned it into a thing of tottering grand opera absurdity, pushed the excitement in the music to hysteria, traded content for ever-huger gesture. The difference being that the KLF never lost track of what made the music special in the first place. Maybe because there’s less inherent ‘meaning’ in the KLF’s music, or maybe just because the ‘meaning’ in house music is less fragile, I don’t know, but no matter how vast “Last Train To Trancentral” sounds, it never loses its happy grip on your feet and heart.

“Last Train…” is the least bombastic of the ‘Stadium House’ triad, in truth, but it has the best moment of the three, maybe the best single moment of the 90s. The wonderfully named Ricardo Da Force drops his duff Euro-rapping and comes on like a music hall MC to introduce the KLF, “also known as the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu / Furthermore known as the JAMMS…” and the beat stops, and instead of a fanfare there comes this arpeggiated melody, deeply corny (but so what?) and infinitely pure, building up and up like the whole history of dance music has been leading up to this heavenly snatch of music. There have been build-ups before and there will be build-ups to come, but for me, nothing touches this. And then it fades away and the chanting begins – “MU MU! MU MU! MU MU! KLF!”. And you move from the sublime to ridiculous, and you find that they were the same place anyway.

27
Oct 99

43. PRIMAL SCREAM – “Kowalski”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The main reason Bobby Gillespie ended up a rock star after all, and the main reason there’s something slightly offputting about that, is that he tried so damn hard. Primal Scream’s take on rock cool is so textbook it’s painful: the bewildering thing is that anyone acted surprised when Screamadelica‘s rivers of modernist beauty turned into Vanishing Point‘s fear-clogged, brackish dub workouts. In the world of B.Gillespie, the comedown follows the high with a Calvinist inevitability, which is probably why his paranoid invocations of insects under the skin and dead friends sound so bloody smug sometimes.

So if Vanishing Point the film, about a lone speed-freak hurtling across America’s highways with only a strung-out DJ and the police for company, had turned out to be some fiction of a cackling Gillespie’s, nobody would have been too surprised – it fits too well, is so instantly high-concept iconic that the quality hardly matters. That goes double after you hear “Kowalski”, which dovetails the film’s hook and Gillespie’s addled rockstar faith into five minutes of gorgeous noise. Each time I listen to “Kowalski” it has me forgiving its makers’ every stupid fuckup pose, in part because of Mani’s offhandedly monstrous bassline, a black-sheep cousin of the one Tim Simenon found for “Bug Powder Dust” but even tenser and scuzzier. With that in place, there’s little for the rest of the Scream to do but have their fun with radio buzz, test-tone bleeping, factory-issue echo beats and burning-tyre guitar screes, all subjected to riotous overuse. And even Bobby sinks to the occasion, dropping his usual weak croon for a spooked carcinogen whisper. The result is intoxicating, and never mind the mythmaking bollocks Primal Scream like to surround themselves with. You see, if you study cool as hard as Bobby G does, the one thing you’re bound to pick up is a sense of timing, and in early 1997, with the administration crumbling and the Britpop champagne gone decidedly flat, “Kowalski”s unforgiving blare in the Top Ten sounded absolutely perfect.

26
Oct 99

44. ACEN – “Close Your Eyes (Optikonfusion!)”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

If you asked me to pick just one figure to stand as the most underrated act of the decade, Acen Ravzi would be it. His series of 12″ singles, tossed out into the seething dance marketplace of ’92-’93, are without exception stunning. Acen is the lushest, and most lyrical, of the great hardcore producers, and if his gleeful inventiveness and wicked way with a sample are more typical of the time, that just goes to show what an unbelievable time it was. More than anyone else making records, Acen for me encompasses the beauty, velocity and freedom of hardcore. His “Window In The Sky”, a dizzying breakbeat-handbag fusion which nearly made this list, is just plain rapturous: no other contemporary producer would have ever made something so unashamedly joyful.

But “Close Your Eyes” is Acen on a trip to the darkside for once, territory he maps with the same hyperkinetic vivacity he brings to his more optimistic tunes. “Close Your Eyes” is heavy-handed, but idea-rich: a medical music-box keyboard line dances around the choppy breakbeat thunk, Beltram stabs sluice down a plughole of quease, a sample splices LL Cool J with 4 Hero (“I’m ready – we’re ready – I think I’m gonna…overdose.”), and through it all this helium nursery voice coos to you: “Just close your eyes…forget your name…just go insane…”. Right at the end, as the “overdose” sample slows to a horrid crawl, the voice is reduced to just a tic, a tiny “eh” before the dark falls: chill, and out.

24
Oct 99

45. THE BETA BAND – Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Like a lot of teenage guys, I wanted to form a band. I didn’t have much idea about the instruments the band would play, but I thought maybe there should be a lot of them. I knew my band ought to play any kind of thing it liked, and mix it all up too, but that everything it ever played should be pop. I knew that the band should write good lyrics when they had to, but that good lyrics should never be what they were about. I never formed that band, of course not. But I’m glad that someone did.

I’m picking Los Amigos… over the stoner glory of “Dry The Rain”, say, because it was more than any other the record that switched me on to not only the Beta Band, but to the idea that British groups were out there making brilliant, intriguing indie pop again. And besides, it still works best as a summary of every special thing they did (what they do now is another matter entirely). “Push It Out” has them at the top of their enchanting game, a soft and soily mantric expanse of brushing, droning and chanting from which groove and melody gradually ripen. “Push It Out” is organic and exotic, a long lazy spell cast over British music. There’s something wonderful about the Beta Band’s unforced wackiness at a time when the island’s style was so much to do with poise and attitude, something lovable about a band who’s idea of fun wasn’t at anyone else’s expense.

For Los Amigos they mostly keep the smiles in check, mind you. The cover of their album – night-time in Albion, starlight bringing out the unreal in the rural – would have worked better for the rest of this mysterious EP. Steve Mason’s clotted, mumbly voice turns his songs into incantations and dream-diaries, where the rhythms of the words overake their meaning. So “Dr.Baker” is spooky ritual, and “It’s Over” a folksy fried strum about strange encounters and imaginary friends, and then “Needles In My Eyes” pulls it together with a lovely song that’s as near to conventional as the Beta Band have so far got. For me it worked like a wake-up call from what’s becoming, in every sense, the band of my dreams.

23
Oct 99

It Was Like This

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Almost the first issue of the NME I bought had a Stuart Maconie album review in it which ended something like this: “There are only two possible marks for this record. One is zero and the other is (10)“, and I think that cheap move was the exact point when I became reluctantly addicted to the weekly rock press; its all-or-nothing lunacy, its ego-tripping and personality and pretensions and hopeless causes, and its flushes of writing so brilliant you could love it almost as much as the music it pretended to cover. The fact that ten years on I remember who wrote the piece speaks for itself, really.

The music weeklies hate people like me, of course: an ageing, nostalgic readership with heads full of glories past. I think as long as I’ve been reading the damn things there have been the occasional letters asking what happened to “the Maker of ’88” or certain fondly recalled NME hacks. These invariably draw the kind of pop-eyed response (from the Letters Ed if not the readership) that’s usually reserved for the odd far-right bonehead who writes in to complain when a black face makes a rare cover appearance. And I can sympathise, especially because there have been times when you look at old issues of the weeklies and shake your head in amazement that anybody at all was reading them. That first NME of mine was from 1989, a pretty stale period in the paper’s history when all it was doing was giving neurotic boy readers like me what they wanted (i.e. Morrissey, and plenty of him). Wind back three years and you find a desperation to put anything, anything at all on the cover except for pop music – William Leith on computer games? Neil Spencer on shopping? Fresh! Def! And four years before that is the notorious era of Morley and Penman, French critical theory and pop stars wearing curtains, and Chris Bohn trawling Berlin for any chalk-faced pot-bangers he could drag out of their squats long enough to give an interview.

All of which must have haemorrhaged readers, but they gave the weeklies character and inspiration. A lot of what Paul Morley wrote was arrant nonsense: to a reader who wanted rock writing to push forward, push harder like the music does, though, it must have been heady stuff. And similarly, there’s no way I’d be writing anything now if it hadn’t been for the weeklies teaching me to pay as much attention to style and bylines as I did to labels and tracklistings.

I’ll talk in Part 2 of this piece about the particular journalists who shook things up for me, but I want to say something general about why the weeklies mattered (and still do, sometimes). The key thing to bear in mind here is how grey and awful, how sewn-up and distanced, a magazine like Q is, and then to realise that Q was calmly designed to represent the antithesis of everything the NME stood for. Q was and is a magazine for people who know what they like: it’s not that Q’s readers don’t care about music, it’s just that their taste is fixed, and has been so for their whole listening lifetime. Proper songwriting, a bit of second-hand emotion, and the coffee-table version of last year’s innovation, mixed in with a nasty dose of derision for any music too pop or unpopular to fit that bill. The weeklies can be a bit like this too, proportional to how closed-minded the UK indie scene is at the time, but in general they’re read by people for whom taste is still a faultline. The most common criticisms of the weekly press – of its hypes and obsessions, of its vengeful rages and blind alleys, of the way it insists on treating music as public display as well as private pleasure – are just examples of how well it reflects its ideal readership.

The NME and Melody Maker were eclectic before that particular pose was a necessity, partly as a forced reaction to a weekly schedule where you have to fill 48 pages minimum. The NME, for example, had to have a banner album review with commissioned illo week-in week-out, and on slow weeks where the alt-pop heroes of the time were lying doggo that tended to mean hip-hop, or dance or pop or some crazy avant-garde shit. As a teenage reader keen to get his 70 penceworth each Wednesday, I would always read the lead review, and the good it did me just in terms of raising my awareness (of De La Soul, 808 State and Spacemen 3, for example) vindicated the paper’s catch-all policies. The numberless and dreadful bands-get-taken-bowling non-features that weekly publication compels were more than balanced by the massive amount of opinionated editorial coverage the NME and Melody Maker would allow. A splenetic, under-researched rant about the evils of “Trousers In Rock” or “Golf In Rock”, or one of the Maker’s magnificently pompous ‘Debates’ (“The Techno Debate”, the cover would thunder, and inside three spindly Goth readers would moan about how nobody took the Nephilim seriously anymore, and where have all the tunes gone anyway?) were not only cheaper than ten interviews, they tended to be more interesting too. They also – and this was crucial – kept the weeklies closer to the rambling fanzine world than to their professional glossy rivals, and served as an excellent way of getting to know which journalists were on your side, so to speak.

The journalistic personality cult is maybe the hoariest, hairiest bugbear for those folk who anathematise the UK press. The story I always heard is that when Q started up, writers were forbidden to use the word ‘I’, because it was the music that mattered, not the writer’s experience of it. Fair enough, there’s little worse than old warhorses playing at being Nick Kent or Lester Bangs and filing endless “How I got high with Iggy” stories, but this cutting-off of music from lived experience turned it into a commodity more surely than any marketing man or drum machine could have. The ‘self-indulgence’ which the ever-so-professional glossies hated is simply a reflection of the fact that listening to music and loving music is a desperately self-indulgent thing. You simply can’t be distanced from a great song, even an amber-set classic like “I Say A Little Prayer”, because the way those songs take you over is the very root of their greatness. Leaving the subjective out of music criticism either renders the experience inert or grossly universalises it, creating a ‘natural’ reaction to the Beatles (worship) or Napalm Death (amused metropolitan smirking) which is of course nothing of the sort.

That’s why the weekly rock press has been so vital to the way pop in this country is. Ten years ago I bought an NME, and read a review of an album called Freaky Trigger, and it helped set my life in a different direction. But while I started off reading the NME, its rival Melody Maker – vainglorious, intellectual, passionate, unpopulist and often splendidly wrong – is the music weekly I’ll always remember, the paper this website truly wouldn’t exist without. The end of October saw the publication of the first issue of Melody Maker in a magazine format, with Stereophonics and Catatonia on the cover to usher in the new era. Stereophonics, for goodness’ sake, the dullest band on Earth. What happened to the weeklies in the past five years? Let’s see, shall we?

To Be Continued…

46. JX – “There’s Nothing I Won’t Do”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Kids, I swear, it was a grass-roots musical revolution out there! While the NME nobs sipped Chardonnay in their Wapping skyscrapers and cossetted their chinless audience with flaccid guitar nostalgia, the working class youth of Britain were havin’ it all night in squats’n’warehouses’n’fields’n’car parks, getting loved-up and raving, raving, raving all weekend to an avant-ardkore frenzy, before going back to their tower blocks and sink estates to kill another worthless week listening to the pirates. Such rough glamour, my dears, such a contrast! Luvvit!

If this becomes the accepted version of 90s British pop, as it yet might, then we’ll still only be getting half the story. Pop out of London, into the big Northern clubbing centres on a Friday night, for instance, and you’d have encountered crowds of your authentic working-class Chemical Generation hedonists. Shivering in queues against brick walls with gelled-down short-cut hair or spangled eyelashes or market-bought Hilfiger tops or short silver dresses, these people and the music and nightlife they loved stand fit to be written out of pop history. Their culture wasn’t fast moving or ‘surprisingly’ intelligent or lumpen-experimental enough to matter, I suppose, though they were people out for escape and kicks as plainly as anyone else this decade.

If you’d followed the queue into one of their clubs, the music you’d have heard was ‘handbag house’. In Energy Flash, his near-definitive history of dance music, Simon Reynolds dismisses handbag, the staple clubland fodder of the mid-decade, as “mere disco”. And the very name of this least-loved of genres tells you where many of its critics were coming from. A handbag is functional and feminine, and handbag house was girls’ music, as dismissable and distrusted as anything that ever got called teenybop, but without even the voyeuristic screamy starlust stuff that generally attracts pop-ologists to the female fan.

Handbag was girly, but was it any good? Well, like most pop, it worked a formula, and like most formulae, it won’t win the glow of nostalgic respect until we’re well away from it. But at its best, handbag was a glorious, unaffected, swoon, and JX was its best. Like happy hardcore, this music worked with simple beats and even simpler, easily euphoric melodies, but rather than go all out for rapture-through-speed, it took disco’s sass and yearning, and simply looped the most strident bits. JX’s first hit was “Son Of A Gun”, an anthemically repetitive tune lifted from an old Barbara Roy shouter – by the time of the dreamy “There’s Nothing I Won’t Do” he’d refined and extended his craft. “There’s Nothing…” is handbag house perfected, chiming synth sequences building and looping and breaking around the singer’s breathy devotions. The singing is as plainly effective as the music, with no soul or sophistication to get in the way of the delight. ‘Pure pop’ may be the most overused and smug phrase in the critical dictionary, but for once I can use it without shame: this joy fails all description, and is pure.

22
Oct 99

Carbootechnodiscoroadshow

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Hook Road Car Park, Epsom – 24th October 1999

The cars drag themselves through the 7am rain like a parade of slugs, into the multi-storey. It’s cold, everybody’s wearing cheap waterproofs or knackered jumpers, most people have an expression halfway between habitual wiliness and gutted defeat. Fair enough: either you do this for a living, in which case even the slightest spark of life is a minor miracle, or you’re like me and are realising how professional and hardened every other seller seems to be. Suddenly, asking fifty pence for a Dalek I Love You cassette seems an act somewhere well to the left of folly. All through the day, I wince when people look through the records I’ve brought, half-expecting a growled “You’re taking the piss, mate”. As it happens, nobody talks to me about the music I’m selling at all, apart from one guy buying a Quad City D.J.s 12″. “Is it disco, this?” “Um, no, well kind of,”. He contemplates the proposed 20p outlay, his red face millimetres from the record sleeve. He looks like a veteran of the Fun Wars, of a hundred weddings and a thousand office parties, the kind of guy who might ‘spell’ rap ‘c-r-a-p’ and then laugh at his own joke. A discussion on the topic of Booty and its shaking would leave us both the poorer. “Yes,” I say weedily, “Yes, it’s disco.” He buys it.

There comes a time when every record collection outgrows its home, and if its old home was your parents’ detached Surrey house and its new home is your more… compact Southgate flat, that time comes suddenly and without mercy. I have about ten boxes of records and tapes which there is, essentially, no room for, and in a strange fit of wanting to Do Something about this, I suggested a Car Boot Sale. I’m probably wrong, but I think of the Car Boot as a basically British phenomenon, maybe because of the apologetic crappiness that hangs over it. (Nobody actually tries to pitch their shoddy goods to anyone, they merely stand and nod in silent, glum agreement over each rejection. In America, the people next to us selling their awful rubied-glass salad bowls would have been slicing fresh pomegranates into them and crawling like howling beggars after anyone who so much as tipped the garish things a wink.)

In its pure form, it involves loading up all your junk into the back of your car and then pitching your car somewhere in order to sell said junk. Most records are indisputably junk, but even so flogging them is a painful act, only to be undertaken in times of vicious spatial need. The Car Boot is a more efficient way of getting rid of your records than taking them to a record shop, not because the punters are any more discerning or generous than the scowling trendies behind the counter, but because the one absolute inevitability of the Car Boot Sale is that you will come to hate your stock. At the record shop, spasms of remorse and guilt may rack you as you hand over your collection, and so the phantom piles of quality gear you see yourself offering in your head inevitably dwindles to two old Paul Young tapes and a Debbie Harry solo 12″ with an odd stain on the sleeve. But in a Car Boot there is always the chance that nobody will buy your precious babies, and so fate will decree that they remain yours, and so you can afford to be a lot harsher during the intial wares-selection. By the end of the day, though, misery has taken its toll on you and you start a frenzy of price-cutting – everything 20p! everything 10p! A fiver the lot? Anything, anything, to avoid bringing them home again.

Most of the action at a Car Boot takes place within ten minutes of getting there, as the spyglass-eyed dealers cluster round you and fillet your stall. I’m here with my mother, who is selling some semi-antiques she’s inherited in a roundabout way. The good stuff – a hip flask, a silver object of indeterminate use, a rather cool old lighter – vanishes before I’ve even finished arranging my CDs. The only good things remaining are those which she’s actually priced at anything near what they’re worth, two bits of china and a neat antique camera. Everytime somebody pokes at the china she says “They’re Wedgwood.”, and the person says “I know,” and doesn’t spend any money. Once the dealers have gone, it’s still before eight in the morning (when the sale officially opens) and the ill-lit multi-storey feels damp and horrible and demeaning and a little creepy, like a Morlock market.

The other thing you learn at a Car Boot sale is that the value of things warps in curious ways this far down the economic ladder. My mother says after a quick look at the other stalls that Car Boot sales are the black economy in action, but I always hoped the black economy would be a bit more vibrant, a bit more exciting or dangerous, than this. This is more like the Grey Economy, and the only thing trickling down to the people here is the rainwater from the deserted rooftop parking level. Down here money stretches in two directions at once – the smallest coin becomes something to be fiercely guarded (a fifty pence sale turns into a big deal) but at the same time the value of things distorts. The British public, subdivision Car Boot Sale goers, has an infinite appetite for tat, not just ceramic dogs or bad hippy art or novelty tit and bum gags (though all those are well in evidence), but cracked lampshades and mildewed toys and jigsaws with the bits spilling gutlike onto the concrete floor. The lampshades were to our right, the toys to our left, both did much better business than middle-class me with my collection of quite-good-really indie records. Opposite us sat an unimaginably horrible painting of the Virgin Mary cradling a puppy-eyed macrocephalic Jesus: to our amazement and relief, it sold by nine o’clock.

This floored my pricing strategy completely. I had naively believed that after working in book and record shops I would be able to cannily price my unwanteds to ensure a quick, but fair, sale. But nobody coming to a Car Boot, at least not this Car Boot, has been near a record shop, or even a new record, in years. I’d put a generous £2 tag on last year’s Nick Cave album, The Boatman’s Call – a fair price for the many vain efforts I’d made to like the wretched thing, I thought. Not a sniff. My two hours of careful vinyl pricing, writing “Coldcut Remix” or “Rare Ex-Wire Member” neatly on tiny stickers, was exposed as absolute futility: by ten, everything in the record box was 20p and still nobody was biting. A thin, nervy man bought a Mekons CD for a £1 and I could quite easily have hugged him.

The fault wasn’t theirs – standing in front of your car, getting colder and colder, you start to hate yourself for buying into ‘alternative music’ in the first place. The music we listened to all our teenage years was sold to us as a music that could speak for the outsiders and the excluded, the fearful and the angry. It’s built on the idea of ‘the masses’, and you still get people justifying their shitty complacent tastes by casually sneering at ‘the masses’. Well, where are these ‘masses’, anyway? You wander along to the Hook Road Car Park on a Sunday and there are plenty of people who’d probably fit the bill, but the thing is that what’s happened these last twenty years is that ‘the masses’ are the ones who’ve ended up the most excluded of all. Overweight and ugly and badly dressed, their votes and opinions courted by nobody, the demographic equivalent of some idiot sister you keep out the way of guests, these people have found their culture played back to them as freakshow by an ironised, contempt-fuelled media that reserves its praises for marketable disaffection and design-heavy rebellion. The dark skeleton in the cupboard of the alternative is its secret conviction that this world is a natural state of affairs, that there will always be ‘the masses’ and hence there will also always be the cool people too. It’s no use complaining about how alternative culture is always being co-opted by the establishment, kids, when it’s halfway there already.

By the end, my mother is feeling it too, her pricey Wedgwood an unwanted anachronism here. We made about £35 all told, and left half an hour early, following out the man with the toys and his tiny, enthusiastic kid, dragging a box of unsold records with us. “It’s all part of Life’s Rich something,” she said. I didn’t reply because I was planning this article, trying to work out how I could get the absurdity and awfulness and amusement and pointlessness of the Car Boot Sale into one piece without it coming out disjointed, and wondering whether maybe it ought to end up that way anyhow. And then she said, “We could do a book fair next time…”

21
Oct 99

47. PUBLIC ENEMY – “By The Time I Get To Arizona”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

White pop critics who dig certain kinds of hip-hop get hit time and again with the accusation that the reason they’re into it is some secret Stagger Lee fantasy of the badass black male. As good liberals must, they strive to disavow this slur and this leads them down some nasty cul-de-sacs, since the best way to show that they’re not just culture tourists is to prove that they Understand, and the best way to do that is to get right behind what are (hip-hoppers being only marginally cleverer than your average rock stars) some rather dodgy personal and political viewpoints. Rather than bend over backwards to bone up on the Farrakhan, in other words, it’s a shame more critics didn’t admit that what made Public Enemy cool was indeed the heady aura of aggro and danger they carted around, an aura given a spin by their political stance but nonetheless mostly visual, and as central to their appeal as the Bomb Squad’s titanic end-times productions. Coming clean over this would be no more compromising than saying that Elvis or The Stooges were sexy.

This all springs to mind because “By The Time I Get To Arizona”, the last-to-date truly awesome PE track, is also one of the only times the group talk it as good as they walk it. Mostly, what makes PE fun (well, one of a million things) is the tension between the military-unit image, all aggression, and the actual songs, which are nearly always reactive: PE are reporters more often than they are soldiers, in other words. On “By The Time…”, though, the team are presented with an honest-to-God mission, celebrated on the album by the amazing fake-bulletin Sister Souljah intro, which describes how Public Enemy (“…and all aligned forces…“!!) are moving in on the hapless state, ready to bust some skulls. I honestly don’t think a pop song’s had a more gripping spoken intro since “Leader Of The Pack”: it is, every time, fearsomely exciting. Chuck D takes the thrill and amps it up throughout the song, culminating in the astonishing midsection, where he gives himself a time limit and then strains against it, while behind him churned fairground squeals and a blurry, half-drowned beat struggle against the same exhausting tide.

Musically, that’s the most out-there bit, but the kick of the track comes from the main sample, a ground-up guitar/drum hook of exceptional sleaze-funk heavitude, complete with louche soul backing singers. For PE, it’s unusually catchy, even glossy, and it focusses Chuck’s fury beautifully, driving him along and at the same time standing for the rotten, overheated culture he’s raging against. Total melodrama: I’m sure that if you knew the issues and agreed with them it probably sounded even better, but I certainly didn’t and “By The Time I Get To Arizona” still sounds like a stadium hip-hop judgement day to me, so I punch along whatever. Had Public Enemy never come back from Arizona, this would have stood as one unbelievable final ride.

20
Oct 99

48. ORLANDO – “Just For A Second”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Why did they bother? If ever a project was born to fail, Orlando was it. Campy vocal flounce and shameless pop bounce, and lyrics which made the Manics (say) sound like the straight-talking bluff-artists they wound up becoming. Look back across the decade and Orlando were the Pooh Sticks to Belle & Sebastian’s Def Leppard; they were so precious Gollum would have blushed; they were, oddly, one of the decade’s more extreme bands. “Pariah Pop”, ex-member Dickon Edwards called it on his homepage, more elegantly than I could – but then, he lived it. Orlando were a band who invited contempt, thrived on it in a sickly way. But this wasn’t some bunker mentality feedback-loop a la Jaz bloody Coleman, Orlando didn’t want the critics to hate them because that would somehow prove anything, they simply could not have understood any possible alternate response. The first time I heard the superb “Just For A Second” I pegged them as something exciting: a neurotic response to the clean-limbed formation vigour of the boy bands, maybe. On the inner sleeve they capitalised lyrics on a whim, just like Morrissey used to. But Orlando, as a play of their near-unbearable swingbeat track “Fatal” quickly reveals, were the very opposite of Smithsian robustness – what did not kill them made them weaker. I’ll say it again, because it wasn’t a criticism: if ever a project was born to fail, Orlando was it.

So why on Earth should you, the self-sorted, choice-happy pop-literate consumer, want to actually listen to this fey splurge as you wryly click through your Freaky Trigger? Because while I’d say that Orlando’s preposterous single can hardly be counted as great pop music (it has the ambition, but it’s too flimsy), it’s still a masterpiece of wimpy petulance. The pathetic, nothing-to-lose defiance of “Just For A Second” is cut from similar cloth to Marc Almond’s untouchable kiss-off “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” – and for all the cheap beatbox drums and casiotone strings, for all the gasping and sighing and lisping, songs like that don’t come along often enough to ignore. You’ll either like it or laugh at it: for Orlando, that was a win-win situation.