This Is My Nineties, Tell Me Yours
When did the Nineties start? Was it 1990 or 1991? Or maybe they started in 1988? In a warehouse rave, or on a forward looking independent record label, or a couple of music fiends getting together in some nowhere city in America, or some nowhere town in England for that matter. Anything important that happened musically in the Nineties (or the first half, at least) happened in the late Eighties. Where do I start on a decade as diverse as the Nineties? From house and techno to boy bands and Britpop and trip hop and everything in between?
I suppose my Nineties didn’t really start until the summer of 1991 when I gave up further education as a bad mistake, having failed to pass the second year of my degree three years in a row. I suppose I may have been more successful if I had spent more time in the lecture halls and libraries and less time logging on to a computer conferencing system writing music reviews. But 1990 and 1991 were fertile years for the type of music I loved, the kind of music the Melody Maker and NME would go mad for. I would religiously read the music papers, listen to John Peel, watch “The Word” and “Snub TV”, enjoying the burgeoning scene of noise pop (Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive), electronic dance music (Fluke, 808 State, The Orb) and the strange hybrid of the two that was indie-dance (led by Happy Mondays and Primal Scream). The fact that I had been following some of these acts since the mid 80s showed how long they took to reach some kind of mainstream appeal. But the indie aesthetic was still strong, some of these bands may have grazed the charts from time to time but there was no huge desire for success, nobody seriously thought this kind of music would reach number one. Songs which reached that hallowed position were usually established artists or old songs linked to films or TV adverts. If a song appeared in a Levis ad it would soon be Number One, leading to “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” by The Clash topping the charts, eight years after its initial release. Somehow the NME took this as a victory.
Even the breakthrough of Nirvana in late ’91 didn’t really affect the mainstream as much as it seemed (or as much as the NME says now) Compared to Extreme or Guns’n’Roses they were a breath of fresh air, and Kurt Cobain certainly meant every word he wrote and sang. But was the release of “Nevermind” so seismic? Record companies flocked like sheep to sign anything in plaid shirts in Seattle just as they flocked to sign anyone wearing flares in Manchester the year before. Always on the ball, record companies. I’m being harsh on Nirvana to be honest, but retrospect makes it hard to view their success as a double edged sword and the viewpoint remains that Cobain would rather have been a minor cult figure rather than a voice for his generation. He may have lived longer, for a start!
The mainstream during the early Nineties were dominated by big stars and big records, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Queen, George Michael, and a fresh faced boy band or two like Take That and East 17. They were always popping up in “Going Live” to plug a single or two, and eventually persistence paid off, Take That revealed their secret weapon – Gary Barlow wrote real songs and the world was theirs. Well, Britain anyway.
Meanwhile there was a constant stream of mediocrity. Bryan Adams destroyed 1991 with a hideous power ballad from that horrible film… Don’t go there… Then Simply Red issued “Stars” towards the end of that year, Annie Lennox issued “Diva”, Wet Wet Wet covered a Troggs psychedelic hit for a Hugh Grant film and it was number one for months, and so was UB40’s limp version of “Can’t help falling in love”… You forget how crap the early 90s were until you look back at the Brit awards for those years. The Brits were always a celebration of what has sold the most, and when what’s selling is lukewarm pigswill then the Brits would reflect that. This is why it felt like the world had tilted slightly off its axis when Suede performed their third single “Animal Nitrate” live on the ’93 Brits. Here was a British band, androgynous, rocking, playing live, and the audience didn’t quite understand it. This was the start of something else, the birth pangs of what would become known as Britpop. 1993 and 1994 were pregnant with promise, bands like Blur, St Etienne and Pulp were celebrating their Englishness, Primal Scream dropped their dance beats and aped the Rolling Stones, and a new band from Manchester claimed they were going to be bigger than the Beatles.
It pains me to say this but Oasis did change the British music industry. They were signed to Creation Records, an indie label albeit one backed by Sony after nearly going bankrupt during the early 90s when artistic ambition of Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine outstretched their commercial standing. But Oasis had a distinct work ethic building a reputation and fanbase within a year so their debut album could reach number one and break records for fasting selling debut album. All this with attitude, a sneer and a penchant for adapting Beatles-ish ideas into songs. I will admit I still love “Live forever” but most of their songs wash past in a wall of fuzz and Lennonesque vocal tics. They were also one of the worst live bands I ever saw, in Cardiff in early 96, a horrible noise, and my partner and I agreed to leave before the end. But Oasis became the biggest band in the country, and suddenly groups with guitars were back in style, Britpop was everywhere, some longstanding bands finally saw deserved success – Pulp and Manic Street Preachers – and some chancers had careers longer than they should. No names no packdrill, ok?
However, the dash for success damaged the spirit of independent music slightly. Major labels snapped up anyone with a guitar and an attitude – sheep again – flooding the charts with Britpop. Before 1995 the independent music scene was full of adventure and surprise, after 1995 that sense of adventure was smothered by the race for success. If Oasis could sell millions of records then so could other indie bands and the pressure for success wasn’t conducive to good music. Also Oasis’ tendency towards the anthemic led other bands towards a grandiosity which didn’t suit them. Case in point – The Verve issued some wonderful records in ’92 and ’93, long drifting psychedelic jam songs. They didn’t sell. In 1997 they issued dull but heartfelt songs like “The drugs don’t work” and reached number one. The old guard either revamped their sounds or faded away. George Michael got funky, Annie Lennox vanished, Bryan Adams turned up on anonymous dance singles, Simply Red attached a rhythmic sample to their comeback single… As for Michael Jackson, he became even more grandiose, sending a floating statue of himself down the Thames and issuing “Earth Song”, a pompous cry to save the world from man’s destructiveness, issued on non-recyclable vinyl or CD. Indie got pompous too – Embrace embraced big anthems, Oasis’ third album was a bloated overlong trudge, Radiohead tapped into a premillenial dread of the year 2000 with “OK Computer”. By the end of the decade the biggest indie act was Travis, pleasant Scots with a penchant for tunefulness, whose main crime was not being Teenage Fanclub.
Pop had changed too. Take That split in ’95, and it was expected that songwriter Gary Barlow would become the next Elton John, but it turned out that another member – Robbie Williams – became a bigger star. Admittedly he had a few hiccups along the way, his debut LP was casting around for styles from ballad to Britpop and one wonders how his career would have continued without “Angels”, another pompous ballad. Two actors – Robson and Jerome – made a series of tired cover versions of classics like “Unchained melody” and “I believe” and became enormously successful, guided by the hand of manager Simon Cowell. Was there any respite from overblown ballads? Thankfully yes. What can loosely be called ‘the dance scene’ provided some welcome noise, from the Prodigy to the Chemical Brothers and plenty more. Pop also managed a reboot thanks to the Spice Girls and their brand of girl power….
Do you know what? This is crap. I never bought a Spice Girls record, I hated Robson and Jerome, I thought 80% of Britpop was vacuous, I wasn’t listening to that at all. For me the mid to late 90s was Americana – Wilco, Jayhawks, Radar Brothers, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Grandaddy – and the more curious side of indie – Mogwai, Scott 4, Delakota. Music was too bloated and overblown by 1998, a search for some return to quietness, calmness, stillness was needed. Even Gomez were a breath of fresh air at the time. As the Nineties drew to a close I took my eye off the ball musically and never really got back on it, suddenly I had a house and a wife and couldn’t devote so many hours to indulging in intense music listening sessions. But I still tried to keep up, even if I wasn’t ahead of the game.
That was my nineties then, from student to husband, irresponsible to highly responsible, jobless to civil servant, and music soundtracked every move I made along the way. There’s probably tons of music I haven’t mentioned which I love, and styles that I have temporarily forgotten (regular followers will be saying “What, no Sarah Records?”) but the decade had ten years, I only had a few thousand words – I couldn’t possibly fit it all in. Looking back, the Nineties seemed a very compressed time – some scenes came and went quickly, while others hung around forever. For me, the Nineties was about the breakthrough of the marginal music I was always mocked for – the friends who laughed at bands called Happy Mondays and Boo Radleys, yet ended up being fans of their music. The margins are still there, but a lot less moves from the margins into the mainstream these days. Maybe that was the best thing about the Nineties – the possibilities were still there. You didn’t need the Brit School or a BBC Sound Of 201x award, you could become famous – even for those magical fifteen minutes – without all that back-up and support, you could get on Top Of The Pops with some strange single (“Candy pop” by Bis) or reach number one after years of toiling in your bedroom (“Your woman” by White Town). It was a time was anything was possible. We’ll never see those days again.