A format note: CDs were still very expensive in 1990, though at the time vinyl was being phased out to get consumers to spend more money on the digital format. Tapes were a happy medium, and most albums were sold on cassette in 1990. Albums dominate the discussion of the playlist choice from NOW 17.
Simon Frith is a Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh. When I was an undergraduate there, I took a module in Music and its Social Contexts. I learned that music is defined as ‘socially organised sound’, ie sound with a purpose, usually dancing. Professor Frith gave some lectures on musicology, the academic study of music’s effect on the listener, and I wrote a course essay, for which he gave me a good mark, on the Elvis-ness of Elvis.
Prof Frith set up a prize for the Best British Album and awarded the first one to Screamadelica. Primal Scream’s album beat those by The Jesus and Mary Chain, Erasure, Simple Red, U2 and Young Disciples. There was also a classical album (John Tavener and Steven Isserlis) and a leftfield album (Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart) on the shortlist. The prize sought to find the best album of that year, and inspired debate within a judging panel of critics and musicians. Prof Frith chaired it and still does.
For every Pulp and Arctic Monkeys, who sold millions of albums and concert tickets after the critical stamp of approval, there has been a Speech Debelle and Klaxons, who did not sell out stadiums on the back of their win. Badly Drawn Boy won in 2000 and when I saw him in 2007 it was clear he was not prepared to play prizewinner, though we had a hint when he flung away the cheque on being given the Mercury Prize.
Radiohead have been nominated five times without winning, Coldplay four times without winning, and Laura Marling and Bat For Lashes three times without winning. PJ Harvey has been nominated four times and won twice, while Dizzee Rascal and Elbow each converted one of their three nominations into wins.
Is this a fair representation of British music since 1992? I think it is, and Primal Scream were clearly worthy winners because of their melange of rock and dance. ‘Baggy’ was the definitive sound of 1991 and 1992, just as 2016 was Skepta’s year in spite of David Bowie’s final album taking progressive jazz to the top of the charts. Grime and black music is the dominant cultural idiom of today – Benjamin Clementine and Sampha’s piano ballads won in 2015 and 2017 respectively – and back in 1992 Primal Scream’s ‘indie rave’ music was all the rage.
NOW 17 came out in spring 1990, the first NOW compilation of a decade which would take in a guitar rock revival, male vocal harmony groups and the Britney Spears phenomenon. Side 1 Track 1 is Blue Savannah by Erasure, which kicks off a compilation full of familiar acts (many on Virgin Records) and some familiar songs. An original that looks like a cover is Read My Lips/ Enough Is Enough by Jimmy Sommerville, a lost pop classic that sounds like the 1980s ticking into the 1990s.
There is plenty of catalogue here. John Lennon’s song Strawberry Fields Forever was revamped by Candy Flip, while Step On by Happy Mondays is a version of He’s Gonna Step on You Again, an old John Kongos song. Step On became a huge hit thanks to Shaun Ryder bellowing ‘You’re twisting my melon, man!’ Kingston Town by UB40 is also a cover version, as are Another Day in Paradise, which is brought up to date by Jam Tronik, and I’d Rather Go Blind, the old Etta James song recorded by Sydney Youngblood.
Norman Cook completely reinvented the SOS Band song Just Be Good To Me, called it Dub Be Good To Me and put it out as Beats International. He had a UK number one hit. There is another fascinating melange of songs released by JT & The Big Family, which seems to combine Moments in Love by The Art of Noise and Back to Life by Soul II Soul to create Moments in Soul, a Top 10 hit with some spoken word lyrics and familiar samples. Both songs take old sounds and twist them into new shapes to push on the sound of pop music, while the beginning of 1990 saw innovative original compositions which are still played today.
Killer was the world’s introduction to Seal who, with Adamski providing a killer beat, sang to a ‘solitary brother’ about being ‘free to live your life the way you wanna be’. George Michael would later mash Killer up with Papa Was a Rolling Stone. Mantronix employed Wondress Hutchinson to sing about how much she Got to Have Your Love on a song Liberty X would take back into the charts in the 2000s.
Paula Abdul was assisted by an animated character, MC Skat Kat, in the video to the poppy Opposites Attract, a song which allowed its writer Oliver Leiber to never work again. It also features the same drum sound that dominated house and pop: the Roland TR-808’s drum sound. Paula, meanwhile, became the fourth act to top the US charts with four songs from the same album. (Fun Fact 1: Whitney Houston, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Katy Perry share the record.)
Tina Turner (I Don’t Wanna Lose You), Phil Collins (I Wish It Would Rain Down) and Cliff Richard (Stronger Than That) all return for NOW 17, trying to be heard among the din of 1990s underground music trying to get out. Technotronic were also back with This Beat Is Technotronic, which kicks off Disc 2 and sounds a lot like Pump Up the Jam, on purpose since that beat is technotronic. A lost pop classic comes from Lonnie Gordon, whose song Happenin’ All Over Again (with NO G!) is a typical early 90s dance-pop song, complete with the famous ‘WOO! YEAH!’ sample favoured by hiphop acts of the time. Check out the magnificent chorus. Chime by Orbital doesn’t have a chorus: I’d suggest it is to acid house what Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys was to 60s pop. The suite moves from one section to the next, and I was blown away when I saw the pair perform at Glastonbury on TV some time in the mid-2000s.
Providing the sort of music that Steve Lamacq would like – baggy trousers, floppy fringes, good pull quotes for Lammo’s NME articles – Jesus Jones were Real Real Real while Inspiral Carpets told us This Is How It Feels (‘when your world means nothing at all’). (Fun Fact 2: Noel Gallagher was the roadie for the Inspirals at the time. Wonder what happened to him…)
Coming from the other side of the Atlantic were Faith No More, whose song From Out Of Nowhere sounds very much like a hair metal band doing an impression of a UK indie band. They would have two massive hits in the 1990s: Epic, with some cool rapping, and Easy, an easy but sensible choice of catalogue. Meanwhile, Hey You by The Quireboys is the opposite: a UK indie band sounding very much like a hair metal band. They still tour today, but with only one original member, the vocalist Spike. (Fun Fact 3: The Quireboys were managed by Sharon Osbourne, and they supported Guns’N’Roses on their 1989 UK tour.)
The Smiths had split up with great acrimony in the late 1980s, but Smiths-inspired music was hitting the charts, helped by the young Smiths fans who had grown up, gone to university and found ‘their’ bands. The House of Love were one such group, and their song Shine On is on the first disc of NOW 17. The band were signed to Creation Records, who later signed Noel Gallagher’s group Oasis (that’s what happened to him!) and grew very rich after releasing Screamadelica.
Perhaps the most macabre song of the album was Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode, which began with the words: ‘Words, like violence, break the silence’. I think it’s about drugs: ‘All I ever needed is here in my arms…’ The video involves a lot of walking, while the song is brilliantly sung by Dave Gahan. Depeche Mode are one of the great rock acts, able to play big stadiums in Britain and still exist as a cult in their own country. They are enormous in Central Europe, as one of the first Western bands to make an impression after the Iron Curtain fell on Soviet Russia.
Also big in Europe was house music, as shown by some tunes buried on the second disc of NOW 17. E-Zee Possee’s Everything Starts with an ‘E’ thumped away with the additional bonus of a toasting ragga MC Kinky and a sample of the guitar riff from Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. It is one of many songs shamelessly acknowledging that house music was music to take drugs to. The Bizz Nizz tune Don’t Miss the Party Line was another typical ‘I got mashed in 1990’ tune with a steady shuffle. Jean-Paul de Coster then joined forces with Phil Wilde to make music which would use two singers, Ray and Anita, as a front. We will meet 2 Unlimited shortly…