Oct 13

MARK MORRISON – “Return Of The Mack”

Popular88 comments • 14,869 views

#736, 30th March 1996

British R&B – like UK hip-hop – has tended to suffer credibility issues*. Back in the 50s and 60s, British groups lifted American sounds, but the American originals weren’t easy to find, and the signal could be scrambled in transmission. Productive mishearings ensued: the result, to a great extent, was the story we’ve been telling on this blog. By the mid-90s, things were different. News travelled faster, and production techniques were more transferable – the globalisation of pop apparent in the 21st century was well under way.

But they were also not so different – the British response to modern American music was still, typically, a slightly lead-footed imitation of it, just as it had been 40 years before. It’s the curse of the borrowing culture: you accept conventions as limits. When Britain did manage something more creative or divergent, the hybrid quickly got packaged up into its own genre – trip-hop, or later grime – and the more standard local product lapsed into general adequacy.

So one extraordinary thing about “Return Of The Mack” is that it seemed to have none of this cultural cringe. It was very good, and very good in exactly the way American R&B could be. There was nothing even slightly apologetic about its utter self-possession: the kind of absolute, to-the-manner-born confidence that stars exude. Which makes the other extraordinary thing about it – how comprehensively Mark Morrison fucked his opportunity up – even odder and sadder. On the strength of this song, we expected a superstar: we got a trivia answer, a panel show joke.

But in the context of the song, all that confidence might be a front – this guy’s been wounded, publically, by his ex, and he’s putting on a comeback show for himself, for his buddies, but especially for her. “All this pain you said I’d never feel – but I do, but I do do do”. And the more you listen the smaller he sounds – “hold on, be strong” Morrison mutters to himself on the outro.

The music certainly has his back – the rubbery basslines cocooning the song, the satisfying crunch of the drums, the light keyboard touches helping Morrison glide along his comeback trail. “Return Of The Mack” is a pleasure to listen to, a well-tailored suit of sound. But what’s it covering up? This is the final, hardest part of a break-up – the point where you have to turn “over it” from private claim to public practise – and it’s no wonder Morrison starts bolshy and ends up brittle. His smooth, high voice trails away at the end of every line, a vulnerable touch to counter the swagger. Perhaps this song is more British than it sounds.

*(in the case of UK hip-hop this was somewhat unfair: Britain produced a lot of enjoyable local hip-hop, which Freaky Trigger pal Tim Hopkins used to turn into excellent compilations. But it was a tight scene, deep-buried and little-respected, with no chance of national success let alone ever travelling.)



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  1. 61
    wichita lineman on 6 Oct 2013 #

    The Chris Evans-aided push to number one rings a bell, and ROTM’s peculiar arc to the top bears this out: 6-6-6-4-3-1. Or maybe it was just a grower. It certainly was for me.

    The NME headline that accompanied his first jail sentence – SLAMMERTIME! – suggests he wasn’t taken too seriously by Evans and the Britrock-obsessed indie press.

    The Vanilla Ice comparison way back in the thread is unfair, mind; from memory they were generally weak retreads of ROTM, but Morrison did have four more Top 10 hits in 96/97, the same season Leicester City finished 9th in the Premier League, won the League Cup, and qualified for Europe.

    Only God Can Judge Me’s mention on Wiki (“contains live performances, interviews, prayers, and three full-length songs”) does sound kind of intreeging, in a Neither Flesh Nor Flesh car-crash way.

  2. 62
    weej on 6 Oct 2013 #

    I listened to the Radio 1 Breakfast Show at the time and distinctly remember Evans making a BIG DEAL out of ROTM – i.e it was single of the week for more than one week and got multiple plays in the 45 mins I’d typically listen to it each day. My memory has been wrong before on these pages though, so don’t take my word on it. I just remember being annoyed at the time as it didn’t seem to be anything particularly special. It has grown on me a little now though – the production is excellent, the samples well-used, his voice is still a bit annoying, it’s true, but only enough to require a minor leap of faith. I think I was put off by the fact that he was making a comeback single for his debut which DID NOT COMPUTE, but that seems like a very silly reason not to like something now.

  3. 63
    Patrick Mexico on 6 Oct 2013 #

    Never mind comeback singles for debuts, what about acts debuting with an album called “Greatest Hits?” I’m sure there’s hundreds more than just Goldie Lookin Chain and Sheep on Drugs.

  4. 64
    wichita lineman on 6 Oct 2013 #

    The Cockney Rejects persevered with the gag until at least their third album – Greatest Hits Vol.3 – after which they ‘came out’ as a metal band.

  5. 65
    hardtogethits on 6 Oct 2013 #

    The run to the top certainly was unusual – a record breaker in a couple of respects. Its sales also grew every week from entry to making it to no.1, at a time when most records’ sales peaked in the first week and increases were rare.

  6. 66
    MB on 9 Oct 2013 #

    Some classic Leicester bashing in this thread – poor old East Midlands, forever ignored or lumped in with Brum…

    I was at school in Leicester when this came out, and it was a pretty big deal from what i remember. Plenty of (no doubt fictional) stories going round about knowing him, or his cousin, or (like the comment above) bumping into him in town etc. But it wasn’t exactly unadulterated hero status, plenty of us thought he was a bit of a joke (especially as I was very much in the prime of my 13 year old ‘just discovered Oasis etc’ stage at the time) – but there was certainly an element of civic pride involved.

    Leicester had and still has a sizeable black community, and there were a fair few clubs playing RnB at the time (there was a big RnB scene which crossed over into the later champagne garage stuff), so i don’t think its particularly odd for someone like him to come from there. The contrast with Kasabian is interesting actually – imo Kasabian are much more popular in the (whiter) outskirts of town (which is where they originate from, Blaby, Countesthorpe etc, and where I’d argue most of LCFC’s fanbase are drawn from) than they are in the more ethnically diverse city centre itself. Get the impression the reverse was true with Mark Morrison. And certainly I think the local press found it much easier to get behind Kasabian than they did with MM – the stories about him quickly shifted to the gun stuff. He did attempt a comeback a year or two later – appeared on the Brits waving a gun around I think. Didn’t really work, mainly because he was never able to repeat the quality of this track, and so he just descended into full on ridicule.

  7. 67
    Cumbrian on 9 Oct 2013 #

    Been on holiday, so missed the fun. As ever, when you’re late to the party, the vast majority of things I might have said have been covered (and far better than I would have managed), so I want go on. This gets a 7 from me – it’s pretty good – though I was a bit irritated by it keeping Design For Life off the top spot. That would have been a 9 – 1 off for continuing their career after its release (not that I think that their career post ADFL was worthless – just that it would have been an epic statement to come back from Richey disappearing with one amazing song, encompassing class and loss and the problems with laddism and all the rest and stopping it right there. There’s a #1 bunny that I feel the same about actually).

    I have no problems with Leicester per se, so the bashing was interesting. The main issue I have with the city is that their rugby team is annoyingly successful and, at least currently, is managed by a total arsehole. I’ve not always felt like this. Dean Richards was a boyhood hero for me – though he managed to flush that one away with his joke-shop blood antics after he left Leicester – and I always backed them against Bath in the early 90s, who always struck me as a bunch of (even more) posh boys that I wanted to get a good smashing. Of course, the main team I liked on that basis was Orrell – now sadly well down the league structure after mismanaging professionalism but who were a solid North West outpost in rugby union and were capable of beating anyone on their day back in the early 90s.

  8. 68
    thefatgit on 9 Oct 2013 #

    Cumbrian, interesting post re: Rugby Union. I’m caught in the confluence between London Irish and Harlequins, but it’s only too easy to let club Rugby wash over me (as inevitably, football is my main sporting passion) but Six Nations and test Rugby gets my attention. Having said that, I’ve spent many a happy evening with Rugby types, some poshos but mostly down-to-earth enthusiastic drinkers. I spent one evening with two-thirds of the Fiji squad and got embarrassingly out-drunk and out-sung by some of the nicest hard bastards you’ll ever meet. The Bloodgate story was awful, as I personally believed, somewhat naively, that Rugby Union was the last bastion of integrity in sport. I know now it was never thus, but I still feel there’s something “noble” about Rugby Union, which I no longer look for in footy.

  9. 69
    enitharmon on 9 Oct 2013 #

    I’m now trying to remember whether it was for Orrell or Waterloo that Nick Allott, which whom I shared an office desk in the early 90s, played. Anyway, it was in the dying days of amateurism and Nick told of how the team photos of county champions at Twickenham had the faces of players who had switched to League tippexed out.

    When Orrell/Waterloo came to play at Richmond my friend Maggie and I came away from the Richmond Town Squash Club one Saturday and stood at the edge of the pitch cheering Nick on (or taking the piss, depending on your perspective). I bet that couldn’t happen any more.

  10. 70
    MB on 9 Oct 2013 #

    funny that – noone in Leicester proper really cares about the rugby team. That’s more the wider county, your Meltons and Harboroughs. It’s all about the football for the outer city – the inner city is more complicated, in terms of access to the club etc.

  11. 71
    Cumbrian on 10 Oct 2013 #

    #70: I don’t know enough about Leicester and the environs (having shamefully never visited the area) so I’ll defer to your knowledge. It’s got to be damn busy in Leicester with cars coming in if the Tigers and City are both playing though, I’d imagine. Last year, average attendance for Tigers was 21,244, for City it was 21,301 (stats per Aviva Premiership and ESPN). Obviously, if City were in the football Premiership, their attendances would mushroom beyond those of Tigers but Leicester (and Northampton) must be the only places in England outside the West Country where rugby union properly challenges football. Welford Road is going to be expanded to 30,000 capacity as well, so they obviously think that they can get more people to go along.

    #69: Nick Allott played for Waterloo – another famous old club now much further down the league structure due to the advent of professionalism. Nick, sadly, died at a very young age – he was a victim of motor neuron disease and was struck down at the age of only 40. I would have been too young to have seen him but my Dad thought he was an exceptional player – he was on the fringes of the England team but never got a cap – and he had a young family at the time of his passing. Tragic story really. As for whether you can basically stand on the edge of the pitch taking the piss – well you couldn’t in the Premiership but Richmond play a bit lower down and their ground still doesn’t have stands on all sides and, although there is a metal pole barrier running around the edge of the field, on the bits without a stand, you’re stood 10 feet from the touchline. There’s plenty of opportunity to take the piss should you want!

    #68: Because I played when I was younger (and now ref after an injury forced me to stop), I’ve always been more of a rugby union person than a football person – though, in truth I am a sport tragic and will watch pretty much anything. Rugby union still has some of the old ethos but it is gradually moving away from it and the game has long had a culture of both high and low cheating – perhaps inevitably given its supposed origins in Webb-Ellis cheating to invent the game. I strongly suspect that there is a heavy performance enhancing drug culture that is not being latched on to by the authorities (the ball in play time has more than doubled recently and the players are bigger and hit harder than ever with no seeming drop off in performance – dubious in my view) but the game has long prided itself on skulduggery anyway; cheating at scrum to get an advantage being an obvious one that props take pride in. Bloodgate was just ridiculous – but it was borne of a culture of getting away with what you can, that’s been part of the game for ever. The fact that, for the most part, the ref is still called sir is a bit of window dressing I think!. Despite the diving and what not, I strongly suspect the football is in fact the cleaner game, it’s just under more of a microscope.

  12. 72
    Auntie Beryl once more on 11 Oct 2013 #

    Only God Can Judge Me was a mid price album, even as a new release – so Warners knew it was a busted flush and us retailers reacted accordingly.

    Morrison was last seen duetting with Connor Reeves (remember him?) on a track called Best Friend.

  13. 73
    Izzy on 11 Oct 2013 #

    Connor Reeves! He had one terrific single (My Father’s Son) then I lost sight of him completely.

  14. 74
    Niels Fez on 11 Oct 2013 #

    It’s interesting to read the comments about the Britishness of the sound on ‘Return Of The Mack’. Especially since the version that topped the chart – C & J Street Mix – was created and mixed in Copenhagen, Denmark.
    Mich ‘Cutfather’ Hansen og Joe Belmaati added their sound to quite a few Britsh soul tracks of that period – from Another Level to Shola Ama, Blue and Jamelia.
    The scratching on ‘Return of the Mack’ is by DJ Knud, another Copenhagen native with an ear for US (and UK) r’n’b and hip hop.

  15. 75
    James BC on 11 Oct 2013 #

    Agree with 74. It’s a mistake to categorise this as British Soul in the tradition of eg Soul II Soul, Roachford or the various near-successes of the 90s like Lyndon David Hall and Omar. This is simply a British artist going for the Bobby Brown/Teddy Riley RnB sound of the time and surprisingly succeeding.

  16. 76
    ciaran on 30 Oct 2013 #

    Any sign of the next instalment Tom.Its badly missed.


  17. 77
    Patrick Mexico on 31 Oct 2013 #

    I wouldn’t worry. It’s like the old proverb about waiting for a bus and three turning up at once. Unless it’s Wessex Bus, in which case, Houston, we have a problem.

  18. 78
    Lazarus on 31 Oct 2013 #

    We await the Return of the, er, Ewe.

  19. 79
    Patrick Mexico on 1 Nov 2013 #

    Tom’ll be fine. I remember him tweeting he wrote all his 1995 reviews in one colossal bulk of drafts. It’s best to look at some years anatomically rather than in short-and-sweet one-paragraph ditties. After all, for better or worse, the number ones of this year are a lot more relevant to common pop culture narratives of the time, say, compared to 1988 – or the second half of 1989, where Black Box and Soul II Soul apart, it’s all a bit “These people existed? Really?!”

    We’ll probably soon get to quite a few things worse than Jive Bunny, but the most horrible hits often yield the most piquant threads – more or less, Tom can’t lose.

  20. 80
    mrdiscopop on 19 Oct 2014 #

    For once, I disagree with Tom. Morrison had indeed created a passable facsimile of US R&B but, even at the time, it sounded dated to me. It came almost 18 months after the superior (and very similar) This Is How We Do It by Montell Jordan, and the New Jack Swing beats harked back to earlier Teddy Riley productions.

    The song is saved by Morrison’s swagger and, as someone noted above, he had enough attitude to score a Billboard placing. But the US is already speeding ahead, with The Fugees, Missy Elliot and Destiny’s Child waiting to rewrite the R&B rule book.

    That the genre was so ripe for reinvention is equally responsible for Morrison’s fall from grace. He had three further top 10 hits (none of which I can recall) before his legal troubles caught up with him, but he was already a relic when this hit number one.

    Still a great song, though. 7.

  21. 81
    Erithian on 7 Jan 2016 #

    Revisiting Popular entries from ’96 is interesting in itself – although I don’t have much to say about this except that I wasn’t too keen even before we knew what a prize plonker he was going to be – but it’s fun to look at a comment from just over two years ago to the effect of “if only Leicester City were in the Prem”…

  22. 82
    hectorthebat on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 31
    Porcys (Poland) – The Best Songs of the 1990s (2013) 71
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 14
    Melody Maker (UK) – Singles of the Year 9
    Select (UK) – Singles of the Year 7

  23. 83
    Deonte L Merritt on 15 Nov 2017 #

    I love that song thats my song the beat is on point top songs ever of the 90s I was in elementary school in 96/97 long time ago in Coopers Lane in Elementary that was year when Mark Morrison came out Return Of The Mack top song of 96 my childhood was good amazing nothing like old days favorite song of all time I feel old I am 26 now out of school finally I love that song amazing times of good music like that now its garbage the rap and everything.

  24. 84
    Duro on 28 Aug 2018 #

    Reading the comments from 2013 it strikes me that if A Design For Life had aged better than Return of the Mack 17 years after the event, it’s the former that sounds archaic to my ear another 5 years on. I think I’ve recently heard RotM in a few US tv shows, and when it came on the car radio a few months back I almost crashed in the excitement of it all.
    (A 9. I really quite like this song)

  25. 85
    Auntie Beryl on 30 Aug 2018 #

    Return Of The Mack was sampled extensively for a chart hit recently, the name of the artist I can’t place but much of the work had already been done, if you follow.

    Hard to imagine a 2018 reworking of A Design For Life tickling the Fab Streaming 40 any time soon.

  26. 86
    Paulito on 8 Oct 2018 #

    I note that in the five years since this review, Tom has covered slightly less than six-and-a-half years’ worth of further no. 1s. At that pace his task starts to look somewhat Sisyphean…

  27. 87
    Marlon Thomas on 26 Apr 2021 #

    I love this. An exquisite, gliding piece of Brit-soul-pop. 9/10 and I think I just about prefer it to A Design for Life by the Manics, although I believe that is good as well.

  28. 88
    Gareth Parker on 29 Apr 2021 #

    A pleasing mid tempo shuffle. I would agree with Tom’s 8/10 here.

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