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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
What I’ve been listening to lately has been influenced by an unpleasant event: someone stole my laptop, which I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t backed up for quite a while. Among other things, I lost a big chunk of my iTunes library.
I travel a lot and I tend to use iTunes as a kind of portable jukebox, stocked more with CDs I’ve imported than with downloads. So I’m restocking, a few albums every day. Of course, some of them are no-brainer classics (Ray Charles, James Brown, Stevie Wonder). There’s also quite a lot of early jazz, because I’m weird and I like that sort of thing; and various unclassifiable oddities that I may write about over the next couple of months. Among the more mainstream pop stuff, though, I’ve noticed that a lot of it is from the 1990s, and almost none is from the 1980s.
People are always trying to divide, judge, or explain things in relation to decades, which is pretty silly if you actually think about it. It's usually either reductive (boiling the 70s down to 'The Disco Era') or inaccurate (the Swing Era inconveniently lasted from the mid 30s to the mid 40s, and what a lot of people think of as ‘The Sixties’ was really the late 60s and early 70s). But comparing decades still seems to be irresistible, the way that Top Ten or Top Fifty lists of anything are irresistible. We know they’re biased and pointless, but we still want to know who comes out on top.
I can sometimes be persuaded to rant about musical decades over a drink or two. It's stupid, it's fun, and overall, the 80s is my least favourite (even if it gave me my biggest commercial success). Of course there was music I liked, but most of it was by people, like Talking Heads or Prince, who'd already established themselves in the 70s. Otherwise, I was more interested in people outside the Anglo-American pop mainstream: Latinos like Ruben Blades and Eddie Palmieri, Brazilians like Caetano Veloso and Milton Nascimento, or Africans like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. The pop trends that we associate most specifically with the 80s never really thrilled me. The 70s had spawned a vast profusion of idiosyncratic artists, new ideas, and new genres, but they seemed to develop naturally, out of a kind of bubbling creative stew that often seemed independent of, and ahead of, the mainstream media or music industry. It was in the 80s that new faces started to arrive as though they were scheduled to, like buses, even if there was no one at the bus stop.
The New Romantics, for instance, always struck me as a too-obvious and too eagerly-hyped reaction against punk. Punk was raw and primitive? Then let’s be classy and sophisticated now! The trouble is, anyone can be raw and primitive,
whereas to be classy and sophisticated you need . . . class and sophistication. And that in turn requires some combination of natural style (which is a gift) and things like skill and maturity (which can be acquired, but the new artists of the 80s generally had no more patience for that than the punks had. They just wanted to put some pop tunefulness back in, or wear nicer clothes).
The most important genre that got started in the 80s is one I rarely comment on, because I have mixed (and often negative) feelings about it, and don’t really feel qualified: namely, hip-hop. Oddly enough, though, I was much more fascinated by Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC than most of my peers. My disillusion set in later.
Meanwhile in darkest England, frilly shirts and eyeliner gave way to Northern miserablism . . . well, it had to, didn't it? I preferred The Pet Shop Boys, or The Pogues, but to be honest, by the early 90s I was pretty sick of pop music altogether, and starting to wonder if I was already too old for it. My formative childhood and teenage years coincided with the creative explosions of the 60s and 70s. Maybe it was, inevitably, all downhill from there, or at least, was going to feel like it. As the 90s wore on, though, something happened. Regardless of how old I was, or how old anyone was, pop music started to get interesting again. And most of it was British.
I’m not going to dig any deeper than that. Instead, just for the fun of it – and because everyone loves lists – here, in no particular order, are twenty 90s albums which intrigued and entertained me at the time, and which I still like. They're mostly pretty well-known, but then I'm not trying to be clever. I was actually quite happy that at least for a while, I seemed to be liking the same stuff as lots of other people.
Us3: Hand On The Torch
MASSIVE ATTACK: Mezzanine
OASIS: What’s The Story Morning Glory
CHEMICAL BROTHERS: Dig Your Own Hole
PRIMAL SCREAM: Screamadelica
TALVIN SINGH: OK
GUSGUS: This Is Normal
PULP: Different Class
THE PRODIGY: The Fat Of The Land
RADIOHEAD: OK Computer
RONI SIZE & REPRAZENT: New Forms
MORPHINE: Cure For Pain
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: Walking Wounded
DODGY: Free Peace Sweet
With honourable mentions to some 'holdovers' (from the 70s!): Tom Waits (Bone Machine, 1992) Walter Becker (Eleven Tracks Of Whack, 1994) David Bowie (Earthling, 1997) and XTC (Apple Venus Vol. 1, 1999).