Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles OF The 90s
Between 1992 and 1994, Disco Inferno put out probably the most remarkable and innovative string of singles since Pere Ubu’s initial 1975 releases, singles which in ten or fifteen years’ time will seem as precious and unprecedented as Ubu’s first few do now. This was the best of them.
Like a lot of the finest ideas, Disco Inferno’s was quite simple. Sampler technology had changed the game-plan of pop utterly: every possible sound, from a symphony orchestra to the crunch of feet in snow, could now be claimed, used, treated and twisted in any way you could dream of, cheaply and quickly. But most pop musicians, as if scared by the immensity of this newly possible sound-world, were tinkering away at its edges, confining themselves just to sampling and playing with other people’s records. At the same time, the songwriting revolution set in motion in the 1960s was far from played out: a band set-up still offered unlimited opportunities for direct, lyrical self-expression. If you were like Disco Inferno’s Ian Crause, alive to the potential and need for innovation but also itching to say things, then the never-ending prophecies of the song’s death-by-sampler weren’t exactly helpful.
Disco Inferno had a solution. They kept writing stark, sinewy and sad guitar pop with intelligent, severe lyrics, but to play it they wired their instruments to samplers, which in their case meant wiring them to the world. A sweep down Crause’s guitar might trigger footfalls, clocks, bells, the crunch of gravel, the crash of cars, the rush of water – anything at all the song demanded, played in real time like notes. The sound of the samples and the sound of the guitar were inseparable, so sometimes Disco Inferno’s songs seemed breached by the sounds they used, stuck in a death-struggle with the everyday: a perfect sonic expression of the compromise and alienation Crause seemed to sing about. Other times the music drowned in its own cacophony. But sometimes the songs and the sound locked together and DI explored a beautiful New World for pop, riding forward on the intoxicating sharpness of their own noise into what should have been an amazing future.
You can get some idea of where they were going on the two albums they made for Rough Trade: DI Go Pop (which is, ironically, the least pop thing they ever did, the sound of a band trying to harness a technological hurricane) and Technicolour (recorded after their samplers were stolen, and so far from the record it could have been, but still a superb, committed collection of songs). By the time Technicolour came out, frustration and internal differences had ended the experiment, with Crause by all accounts disillusioned and unwilling even to accept that his band had created anything worthwhile at all, let alone had been the most forward-looking of the decade. Anyone who saw the band’s 1994 live shows knows how wrong he was – Disco Inferno were uncannily good, miles ahead of anybody else I’ve (even now) heard, an unbelievable flood of bejewelled, alien sound. Ian Crause is the only musician I’ve ever bought a drink for – though he seemed glum, keener to talk about his new-found love of the Byrds than the era his band were surely ushering in for pop.
That left their string of singles as the best evidence that something wonderful had happened. “The Last Dance” is the least formally groundbreaking of DI’s records (though the moment I heard it I was floored by its originality and sense of purpose), with the sample-barrage kept to a minimum. A constant ticking of clocks and in the distance a crowd chanting, that’s all. But “The Last Dance” is also their wisest, most moving song, a meditation on history, on the impossibility of making something new in art and on the need to try and do so anyhow. It’s also their most musically endearing, a tune as taut and poignant as anything Wire ever recorded, with delicate guitar lines meshing and weaving, always pretty but always understated. Ian Crause’s singing was barely singing at all, but he made it a virtue, his slightly breathless voice sounding urgent, desperate to communicate, but at the same time faltering. On “The Last Dance”, he sighs “Was there ever a time / Like this?”, just before the guitars skid all over the track, and it’s as inspiring as it is heartbreaking.
“No oceans left to cross, no mountains left to climb / Least that’s what I’ve been told” : Disco Inferno should have mattered more than anyone, but their curse was to turn up at a time when exploring the frontiers of pop – especially using songs – simply wasn’t fashionable any more. They could have settled for the marginal, dessicated existence granted to those unhappy bands stuck halfway between indie-pop and the avant-garde, but what kind of living is that to scratch out? In 1993, making the most radical guitar music in the world, Ian Crause probably didn’t think he was singing about the years ahead and what they would do to pop, but in a way he was: “The noise of the past builds up into a crescendo / And the waves of rubbish…are amplified a million times or more” Too right: no matter how many lists you list or polls you poll, now matter how often you talk up reheated mediocrities or chuck superlatives around, you won’t convince me that an era where bands as dull as Oasis became multi-millionaires and a band as special as Disco Inferno collapsed un-noticed was anything other than an era where things went catastrophically wrong. “In the end it’s not the future, but the past that’ll get us.” – single of the 90s? This single looked the 90s in the face, and shuddered.