Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it was in a pub, on a jukebox, Christmas 1991. The violent, half-exciting sound of a stagnant music trying to tear itself out of its own rotten skin, it was only casually acknowledged by some of the local lads as it filled the room. New-born and still bloody, it was not yet a standard, and surely not music to pull to, which was after all why a lot of them where there. “What’s this?” I asked a mate, and he told me. I knew Nirvana as a late night, John Peel show rock band who’d put out a goofy, cool song about wanting their Grandpa to take them home. So I was kind of surprised they’d had a hit, let alone this likeable bit of Pixies-lite. And two songs later on came “Dominator” and I forgot all about it.

You see, over here, Nirvana weren’t the revolution, they were the reaction. The slickly entertaining AOR inhumanity Cobain rebelled against in the USA had already been sent packing here by a virulent European ahumanity, a mechanic brutalism that looked fit to stand as the century’s last modernist gasp. And the pitiless chrome fist-pump of “Dominator” held “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the same steely disregard as it did “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, as it did “Strings Of Life” for that matter. This isn’t techno anymore, that skyscraping daydreaming music of unity and respect. This is hardcore: this is me on top of you. “I’m the one and only dominator.”

The machine-thrums that power “Dominator” were known as ‘hoover-noises’, and originated with Joey Beltram. On his “Energy Flash” their stabbing pushed the track and the dancers upwards into the rush: on “Dominator” they’re a grey vortex, underpinning the beat. There’s no up here, just a relentless 4/4 forward motion: the only hint of peak comes when a fire bell erupts into the track, a dancefloor panic-stations. “There is no other. No other. No other.” – the marvellous, terrifying, thing is that there were hordes of others, thousands of records which came out of Europe to kill music, records whose protean impact and robotic savagery made “Dominator” sound almost weak. Almost: for me most of the Gabba tunes that came after overstate their case and seem zero-dimensional, whereas “Dominator” retains the clenched electronic strength it had that first time I heard it, less an unkept promise than an unfulfilled threat.