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Oct 11

TASMIN ARCHER – “Sleeping Satellite”

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#681, 17th October 1992

One-hit wonders can catch time in a bottle like no other records, since there’s barely any career context to distract you from your memories. “Sleeping Satellite” feels achingly 90s, but its mix of busker’s strum, baggy backbeat, and surprise-attack solos isn’t itself typical of any trend – except maybe a vague cosmopolitanism that encouraged such mild genre-blending in the first place. Its one-off cousins are 4 Non Blondes, Lisa Loeb, Natalie Imbruglia even – awkward sincerity throwing cool pop shapes.

But Tasmin Archer’s track has a heartfelt push to it even the best of those songs lack. Listening to “Sleeping Satellite”, for a long time I couldn’t work out why Archer was singing such palpable gibberish as if it meant something intensely important. She’s really trying to sell this thing – her enthusiasm and commitment is what keeps the track from gumming up, and what makes the sudden Hammond freakout work too. The fault was mine, though. “Satellite” comes draped in riddles and convolution but I’d never gone much further in than “I blame you…” and assumed this was a break-up metaphor. And not, say, a record about a generation’s post-1969 existentialist crisis. As Jarvis Cocker put it, later and more sardonic: “We were brought up on the space race / Now they want us to clean toilets.”

This, it seems to me, is part of what “Sleeping Satellite”‘s articulating: a sense of disappointment bordering on betrayal that having dreamed of the Moon – or indeed, because it got there – humanity now seems confined to a slowly boiling Earth. This is potent, raw stuff and very difficult indeed to cover effectively in a pop song. And in truth Archer doesn’t cover it effectively – the song’s ambiguous and flowery, its emotional kick comes from Archer’s self-belief more than anything you can read into it. But I have to say I like the idea that she tried.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Ricardo on 3 Oct 2011 #

    Funny how this song’s lyrics still ring very true, now more than ever. Plus, I don’t really think the song’s production is that dated, really. This would go down a treat next to either The Pierces or Beverley Knight on Radio 2.

  2. 2
    Steve Mannion on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Aggressively hyped on radio iirc (actual adverts for the song, not just A-listed weeks before release), I was surprised it could only manage a couple of weeks at #1 in the end especially given its giant leaps to the top (e.g. #37 to #13 in its third week).

  3. 3
    Erithian on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Don’t remember the adverts, but do remember what a breath of fresh air this was at number one – original, passionate, although as Tom suggests maybe too mysterious for its own good. Many years later I caught up with the parent album “Great Expectations” from a CD library, and what a consistently fine album it was too – pity she wasn’t able to maintain the momentum, with five subsequent hits each smaller than the last. Heartening to see that she still has ambitions – she fancies making a Sunderland Cup Final record, and I for one look forward to hearing it: http://www.tasminarcher.com/pdfs/tasmin_LofL.pdf

  4. 4
    weej on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Isn’t it odd that the UK produced so many fine black pop-soul singers in the 1990s, but managed in each case to grant them nothing more than a brief burst of success with a quick descent into obscurity – I’m thinking Caron Wheeler, Tasmin, Shola Ama, Karen Ramirez. The only one who seemed to get a good career out of it was Gabrielle, and that always seemed like a series of comebacks (anyway, she’s not a patch on the previous four, IMO). This is a bit of a pet theory and quite possibly evidence of nothing more than selection bias on my part, but as far as further evidence goes I’d like to ask who was the most talented singer in Eternal, and was it the one who got a solo career out of it?

  5. 5
    swanstep on 4 Oct 2011 #

    This one’s new to me…. at first listen, just OK, sub-Seal, but then the good stuff: ‘seeeense of adventure wo-woah’ and the organ breaks in (an Apollo 100 ‘Joy’ reference perhaps?) while the vocals blast off into triple-tracking or whatever it is. Neat. Not sub-Seal but Seal-worthy. A solid 6 at least.

    Interesting to pair this song with Bragg’s ‘Space Race is Over’ from 1996: similar ideas surely, but Bragg’s direct and v. sentimental.

  6. 6
    swanstep on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Subsidiary thought: mopey ’90s thought about relatively limited opportunity for manned space flight (say, definitely compared to the movie 2001) seems a little small-minded in retrospect. The ’90s saw the launch of the Hubble and several other important space-telescopes – the beginnings of the current golden age in astronomy (that also drove a lot of new physics after the cancellation of the SSC and before the LHC’s recent opening).

  7. 7
    punctum on 4 Oct 2011 #

    I have an extremely soft spot for the number ones of this period, for reasons that need not concern you, and “Sleeping Satellite” epitomises that welcoming autumn breeze (rather than chill). Some called the young black singer/songwriter from Bradford the new Tanita Tikaram, even though much of her debut album Great Expectations, including “Sleeping Satellite,” was written as far back as 1988. In fact she sounds like a female, softer Seal, radiating the same anxious curiosity of concern in her voice.

    Is “Sleeping Satellite” arguing in favour of or against progress? With its accusatory hook of “I blame you for the moonlit sky/And the dream that died/With the eagle’s flight” there are reminders of my mother and grandmother, both of whom blamed the Apollo flights as precipitatory factors in the subsequent radical changes in the Earth’s weather, the systematic depletion of the ozone layer, and so forth. But she continues: “I blame you for the moonlit nights/When I wonder why/Are the seas still dry?/Don’t blame the sleeping satellite.” In other words, don’t blame the moon for existing, but did we seal our eventual doom by wanting to touch it (“And still we try/To justify the waste/For a taste of man’s greatest adventure”)? Or was it a luxury at the expense of more pressing needs at home (cf. Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s On The Moon”) – “If the Earth’s sacrificed/For the price of its greatest treasure”?

    The performance balances its various strands of anguish; Archer’s plaintive voice breaking on the first “flight,” her hoarseness straining on “greatest adventure,” her underlying sweetness (especially on the wordless “wo-ho-ooh-wo-oo-ho”s between verses and at fadeout) bringing an older and sadly wiser Kim Wilde to mind – the sudden blossoming of backwards, dreaming harmonies in the middle eight sound like Dollar, but then the lid is roughly closed by two sets of four harsh guitar/piano strums.

    And still Archer believes it might just be worth the price. “And when we shoot for the stars/What a giant step!/Have we got what it takes/To carry the weight of this concept?” The song dissolves between its gorgeous 1967-meets-1982 chords and its shards of organ and lead guitar. “Or pass it by/Like a shot in the dark?/Miss the mark with a sense of adventure?” “Sleeping Satellite” is a polite scream raised under a bluer moon, brilliantly produced by Julian Mendelssohn, which essentially asks its listeners to choose between past and future, expedience and long-term, adventure and safety – but somehow remembers to bear in mind that it shouldn’t really be an either/or situation.

  8. 8
    JLucas on 4 Oct 2011 #

    While Tasmin never did recapture the success of this single, her followup single ‘In Your Care’ did spend 3 weeks in the top 20, and must surely be one of the bravest sequels to a #1 hit of the 90s – being a very raw and plaintive song about child abuse. It was also the official children in need single that year, a far cry from the karaoke cover versions we get now.

    http://youtu.be/GrXYiiigba4

    I really liked (and still like) her ‘Great Expectations’ album. She definitely deserved to get more of a career from this.

    Her final top 40 hit was an EP of Elvis Costello covers featuring lovely renditions of ‘Shipbuilding’ and ‘New Amsterdam’ in particular.

  9. 9
    Cumbrian on 4 Oct 2011 #

    A weird thing happened on my most recent holiday – well, not that weird but something I noted in any case. I was over in the US visiting my girlfriend’s parents and, in three separate public spaces, I heard Sleeping Satellite on the in-house music system. I hadn’t heard this song in years – my recollection is that Tasmin Archer disappeared pretty much immediately after this got to #1 (though I note from the replies above that she had some singles come out to diminishing returns afterwards) and I didn’t give her a second thought (until Smashing Pumpkins Tonight Tonight came out and the video, for some reason, reminded me of it but otherwise nothing – looking at it now, it looks a bit more Kate Bush/a bunnyable late 1993 video) until a couple of months ago.

    It seemed to suit the contexts in which I heard it – a restaurant and in a couple of shops – I find it musically inoffensive, even a bit muzaky, if I am to be a bit unkind. Certainly, it flows by and can be put on in the background whilst you’re doing something else. I imagine it was a big hit amongst the daytime radio listeners rather than anyone else – and I’ll wager that they didn’t think about the lyrics too much at all.

    It does have a strong chorus hook though and has been going around in my head for weeks after coming home – to the point where it’s starting to drive me to distraction. Otherwise though, I find it a bit meh. Not one for me, I am afraid.

  10. 10
    Triffid Farm on 4 Oct 2011 #

    I read the edge of an Easter Island warning into the lyrics – that its a waste to indulge yourself with the moon missions when the earth is screaming and sacrificed and so on. The power still comes from the singer’s anguish at man’s self-destructive romance, which she feels herself nonetheless.

    I suspect though that this giant topic wasn’t the reason that it got to number one so much as that its a pleasant and very listenable tune. I think of it as a retail soundtrack really – it was a frequent player in shops, especially clothes shops, for years.

  11. 11
    Tom on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Incidentally – and I know I’ve said this about 5 times already – this should mark the return of a regular schedule to Popular. I started my new job this week, with a 4-day week so I have a day set aside for writing. But believe it when you see it!

  12. 12
    lex on 4 Oct 2011 #

    I remember being very confused by the success of this song. I didn’t really grow up around the radio, but I remember seeing posters for this everywhere in South London, and noting them because of a) the strange title, b) the fact that I didn’t come across Tasmin Archer anywhere else – she wasn’t a subject of playground discussion, I can’t remember whether I was buying Smash Hits at the time but she wouldn’t have been in it, and I’d just started to really follow the charts in 1992 but obviously she’d never had a hit before. So she was a totally unknown factor to me and I remember following this single’s gradual progress up the charts to No 1 with vague astonishment. It wasn’t until it got to No 1 that I heard it, I can’t remember what I thought initially but I grew to really like it – I don’t think I quite got the meaning at the time but I loved the obvious cosmic scope of the thing.

    I agree with JLucas that “In Your Care” is, if anything, even better – it really was astonishingly raw and spare and furious; in contrast to “Sleeping Satellite”s flowery/dreamy lushness, I’ve rarely heard a singer on a top 20 hit spit out a chorus as angrily as Archer did on “In Your Care” – “sonofabitch, you broke my heart”. I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable when watching that on TOTP. Her third and fourth singles were quality as well, with “Lords Of The New Church” tapping into a growing unease about religion that I was starting to feel at the time, and “Arienne” just having the most gorgeous chorus.

    Anyway, I acquired the album (taped off a library CD, I think), later bought it on CD, still have it, gonna dig it out when I get back to London. And indeed I used to have her second album, Bloom, which I remember thinking was even better, though I’ve no idea where my copy is. This was the lead single, “One More Good Night With The Boys” – haven’t heard it in years but I can immediately remember how it goes.

  13. 13
    JLucas on 4 Oct 2011 #

    With singles about the environmental impact of the space race (Sleeping Satellite), Child molestation (In Your Care), Religious exploitation (Lords Of The New Church) and rape (One More Good Night With The Boys) Tasmin certainly had more about her than the likes of Beverley Craven and Dina Carroll who were joining her on daytime radio playlists around the time!

    My favourite track on the debut album was ‘When It Comes Down To It’ which was an absolutely gorgeous ballad about the relatively featherweight subject of her ambivalent relationship with her estranged mother (I think).

    http://youtu.be/dHjMVjc7roY

  14. 14
    lex on 4 Oct 2011 #

    I guess Tasmin Archer should really have been bracketed with the wave of cathartic, intelligent female singer-songwriters emerging around then, like Tori Amos and PJ Harvey – except being British and black (and having such early mainstream success rather than coming from an indie scene like Harvey) set her apart a bit too much, and it was still some years before Alanis Morissette took that aesthetic into the heart of the mainstream.

  15. 15
    JLucas on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Didn’t ‘Bloom’ miss the Top 200 album charts entirely, despite the Gold-selling success of Great Expectations?

    It’s a bit light on chart-friendly choruses compared to her first album, but that’s still a shocking comedown by any standards.

  16. 16
    MarkG on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Who can say? Maybe she had a taste of grand success and thought ‘you know what? Sod this for a game of soldiers…’

    Or, in effect, this song became more her autobigraphy in retrospect. Shot to the moon too soon? or decided the seas were dry enough.

  17. 17
    Wheedly on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Regarding Punctum’s comment about the backing vocals sounding like ‘an older and sadly wiser Kim Wilde’, it’s a neat little coincidence that she’s recently recorded the song for a covers album.

  18. 18
    JLucas on 4 Oct 2011 #

    I was quite excited for Kim’s take on Sleeping Satellite, but unfortunately it isn’t very good at all.

    Her current covers album is a bizarre old selection though. Everything from the fairly predictable (Diana Ross, Kirsty Maccoll) to the outright mind-boggling (Suede, East 17).

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 4 Oct 2011 #

    At the time, “Sleeping Satellite” never really grabbed me as anything more than a pleasant slice of MOR. The lyrics never struck me as anything more than a subtle whinge. A coffee-shop song, then. But after reading Tom’s take on it, there is some kind of meta-conversation going on here, which I’m sure nobody was having at the time, compared to say, now; with the withdrawal of the Space Shuttle program, the earthquake and tsunami off the east coast of Japan, the freaky weather, the Large Hadron Collider and how SCIENCE and SOCIETY don’t make the most easy-going or comfortable bedfellows. The calming platitudes of Brian Cox nearly 20 years after “U R The Best Thing”, seems to soothe us as he explains how the Universe will eventally cool and contract after every single star has consumed all their energy in a few billion years’ time. Don’t blame any sleeping satellite for that.
    Tasmin seemed to be at the opposite end of this meta-conversation. Don’t interfere, don’t lets get too nosey for our own good. Look at what’s happening here. Let’s solve the problems closest to home before we reach for the stars. In other words: walk don’t run.

  20. 20
    23 Daves on 4 Oct 2011 #

    I actually overheard this record a few months back for the first time in years being played in the background somewhere, and the sudden rush of nostalgia actually prompted me to go to iTunes to buy a copy. My first impressions were bemused, as I didn’t remember it sounding quite like this – the production has dated enormously, with the bottom-heavy nature of the track anchoring some of its desires to truly soar (although I’m quite happy to be told that that the mp3 version has been mixed in some inferior way). In my memory, it always sounded rawer and rougher and more spontaneous, perhaps because I ended up over-emphasising the elements of the track I liked most.

    For whatever flaws it has – and I’ll certainly also agree the lyrics clunk at moments – the record has an incredibly haunting quality for me, and I can’t add much to Tom’s spot-on assessment above. At a time of early nineties dance pop optimism, I seem to remember that it also stood out amongst the crowd, telling us that we weren’t approaching some golden New Age of enlightenment but were instead just existing in the enormous shadow of previous achievements. More importantly, I think this is a strong enough song and topically relevant enough that if you handed it to Adele or someone similar now, it would still have a lot of potency.

    A seven seems about right to me.

  21. 21
    lonepilgrim on 4 Oct 2011 #

    23 Daves captures a lot of my response to this song.
    I liked it a lot at the time and yet when I listened to it again recently it seemed less impressive – perhaps because the production sounds a bit too bland.

    I’ve never bothered trying to interpret the lyrics and I wouldn’t be that sympathetic to an anti space travel sentiment if indeed that’s what it’s about.

    As well as sharing similar titles it’s always reminded me of this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXdwvDjxOkM&ob=av2e

  22. 22
    swanstep on 4 Oct 2011 #

    The organ part of SS has been reminding me of something: at first I thought it might be Telstar, but I now think it’s the organ part in the opening credits theme of the UFO TV series from the ’70s that I’ve been thinking of (just thought I’d share that in case anyone else is driven crazy with deja entendu!).

  23. 23
    swanstep on 4 Oct 2011 #

    @lonepilgrim, 21. SS has a somewhat similar vibe to The Beloved’s Sweet Harmony from around the same time. When I explored that today on youtube I was led to a later song by them (which was new to me): Satellite from 1996. Since Dave Matthews Band also had a big Satellite song in 1996/1997 I guess there was a bit of glut on this topic throughout the ’90s, I just hadn’t noticed!

  24. 24
    Alex on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Weirdly, heavy J.G. Ballard influence in the lyrics.

  25. 25
    MikeMCSG on 4 Oct 2011 #

    This has always seemed a bit of a watershed number one to me, one of the few number ones of the nineties to get there purely on the strength of the song ( no fanbase, no club exposure, no film/TV/advert tie-ins ) and probably the last time I thought the number one was the best record in the charts.

    The Seal comparisons are very apt; I recall being grateful to both of them that, having no interest in soul, (most) reggae or rap music, I could cite them to escape the R-word.

    I think the “Shipbuilding EP” was a big mistake. Her admiration for Costello was obviously sincere ( she later worked with The Attractions ) but it was too early in her career when she needed new product out. “Bloom” just got lost in the Britpop blast ( see also World Party’s “Egyptology” ).

    #12 “Arienne” did have a great chrorus lex but it was a pretty blatant lift from Dean Friedman’s “Ariel” ( sadly missing any line to compare with – I said “Hi” She said “Yeah I guess I am !” ) Anyhow it’s nice we’re in general agreement on this one.

  26. 26
    lex on 4 Oct 2011 #

    “Ballardian” is #1 most overused descriptor/cross-comparison with literature in all of music crit but I’m pro its use re: Tasmin!

  27. 27
    LondonLee on 4 Oct 2011 #

    This still sounds very new doesn’t it, apart from the rather squeaky keyboard at the end it could have come out last week. That’s either a good thing (it’s timeless) or bad (it’s bland), I can’t quite decide. Luverly tune though, not a million miles from ‘Crazy’

    Was Tasmin’s “space” in the market filled by Des’ree?

  28. 28
    hardtogethits on 4 Oct 2011 #

    #25 MikeMCSG a fine point in the opening paragraph – you beat me to making this observation. Truth is, I didn’t know where to start – there are so many different topics I want to hear views about with respect to this record.

    The “no fanbase, no club exposure, no film/TV/advert tie-ins” is a very succinct description. There are others that later made it, but for me the “get there purely on the strength of the song” argument is (somewhat incidentally) typified by its chart run – after this, there were only 2 more records in the pre-download era that started a climb outside the 40 and made it to number one a matter of weeks later.

    I am sure I would / will have more to write about here than with any other #1. (inc but not limited to: Its lyrical content, the purpose of pop, prejudice in pop, anti-provincialism). I’ll be back later, downthread, for better or worse.

  29. 29
    AndyPandy on 4 Oct 2011 #

    I’ve also particularly disliked this track – the kind of record old style Radio 1 dj’s (Simon Bates,Bruno Brookes, Dave Lee Travis etc) would enthuse about implying it was “real quality music” “not like that modern electronic crap”. I suppose they only had a year or so left at this stage.
    Also found the tune predictable and calculated and the subject matter like she’s sat down and thought “now what (obscure) topic can I write a song about as real songwriters don’t just write about love and dancing do they?”.
    Hate it. One of my rare 1’s the first excluding ‘The Stonk’ since ‘I Don’t like Mondays’ I think.

  30. 30
    Billy Smart on 4 Oct 2011 #

    This might be a retrospective hallucination on my part, but wasn’t a speeded-up ‘Sleeping Satellite’ chorus used in a happy hardcore choon soon afterwards?

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