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.