Thursday, 12 May 2011

Chugging through 1991

It was a baffling and lazy juxtaposition even by BBC 4’s standards. After letting the quality shine through with a doc on Scream’s Screamadelica, they then ran Movin on Up, an hour’s worth of the runts of the indie-dance litter performing on TOTP and undermining the charmed wizardry of Don’t Fight it Feel it, Higher than the Sun et al.

This cheap compilation of TOTP appearances from mostly one-hit wonders did serve to highlight the change in indie’s sensibility to ‘baggy’ along with its new-found commercial considerations (basically everyone wanted at least No 3 in the indie charts and a showing on ITV’s Saturday lunchtime music show, and a cool No 18 on the main chart). This was a time to claim street cred, forget about paying their dues and get paid. Post Roses and Mondays, the less cool kids were tuning on to the more interesting music championed by the NME and the other media in their droves but they had to get past this deceptive gateway first. Sadly many remained stuck with this mediocrity; as at least they could claim opposition to this.

The TOTP2/Chart Show-style gentle mockery in the notes halfway through the song was standard, but the format of picking bands’ most well-known hits from that years undermines any notion of Circa 1991 being some kind of a breakthrough period of creativity. There’s far better work on 808’s Ex:el album (though as Cubik shows they were already behind the curve in trying to assimilate the toughening sounds of Belgium and Detroit), Ride had done three or four better EPs and What time is Love cant be touched by the rest of the KLF oeuvre – certainly not 3AM Eternal (bleeps a year or two late). And some hits were re-releases from a year or two before when the nation wasn’t quite ready for this kind of vague positivity, such as the Mock Turtles’ Can You Dig It? (originally a B-side to Lay Me Down) or Shamen’s Move Any Mountain, which is a desecration of the earlier Progen.

The over-riding sensation I get from most of this music is CHUG – chuggy beats, chuggy riffs, a kind of half-arsed catalyst to drop the pint and dance, but way too short of energy to keep you there. It’s the kind of spirit nicely alluded to by Electronic’s performance, by a set of lads who have done enough drukqs to genuinely feel the flow – and to feel the benefits of space in their sound. The CHUG mantra of the others meant there was always something going on in the sound, be it half-arsed ‘funky’ drummings, enthusiastic and barely funky riffery or some lightweight ‘ravey’ synth signifier. Stylistically, Ride tried too hard on Unfamiliar, drummer Laurence feeling that he had to continuously punctuate with rushes of expressionistic fills and rolls when motorik would have been enough to offset those descending ‘sonic cathedrals’.

And the dancing! Well I guess the shapes I was throwing were oversized too at the time but Oceanic’s diva appears lost in her 'dream trip' And I stayed clear of the cycling shorts in the rave. Then there’s Damon and his flailing limbs betraying his inherent disinterest in the baggy sound foisted upon them, and Mr C’s ‘starting to rush’ style. All deeply out of fashion in these largely non-dancing days.

And the clothes! With the prevalence of simple bright sweatshirts and Ts, Schott-type rave jackets (yeah I know the score, extra pockets for your stuff and/or save on cloakroom bills), grandad tops and two-stripe student sportswear, it’s no surprise we ended up back in the high street with a ‘casual’ look that, bar minor changes in the fit of jeans and a bit more accessorising in the noughties (hats, beards, belts), proves hard to kill off. Too many of these performers were hitchers of the rave ethos – perhaps another argument in that period being a mere interlude in wider developments – when what we needed is a genuine change in mood. Culturally, it’s a short walk to egotistic Oasis beer boys fighting at gigs, and the bland end of sartorial revolt.

(Insanity seems to have been performed at least three times on TOTP; this wasnt the one I had in mind but the lycra and bad dancing r still present)

One song stands out a mile in this compilation – Unfinished Sympathy by Massive (as Gulf war diktats crazily demanded) and Shara Nelson’s heartfelt string-backed delivery (at the time TOTP had a mixed policy on live performance) and this was definitely other in the context of 1991’s chuggy litter; music that had not had a genre invented for it (and trip-hop would not do justice), music defined by a place other than northwest baggy or west midlands sweaty (Gary Clail with his soon to be Snub riff song also comes out of it with some merit for the Bristolians).

West Midlands sweaty, I said. And that’s a pigeonhole for shoving in and shutting the post-Grebo heroic beery dumbness displayed here by PWEI, the Stuffies with Vic Reeves (Big Night Out’s catchphrase craze put me off Vic and Bob for years) and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. These guys, coming correct with their indie band long-sleeved T-shirts and their excessive drinking were a permanent feature of our small-town pubs. All these bands sold shitloads of records in 1991, culminating in the Stuffies’ gig at the Walsall ground. It was eminently danceable if your idea of a dance is a mindless mosh.

Reflecting on this mostly dire music, it’s really no surprise that the original ravers of 88/89 wanted nothing to do with the emergent ‘indie-dance’ (neither indie enough, or dancey enough) and fled to glammier house, hip-hop manna, the good vibes of acid jazz or nihilistic rock, and why so many people on the cusp such as myself disavowed the same sounds and took refuge in three types of harder independent (though hardly full-on alternative) music; grunge (hardly sold by a pisstaking Cobain here), the harder end of shoegaze/noise pop and rave. And it’s also no wonder that the Britpop of a few years away sounded a lot more ebullient, more assured of its (more easily assimilated) reference points and with more ability to deliver when compared with this.

I know, it’s only a selective documentary but one mean-spirited and sarcastic enough to smash already damaged rose-tinted (and probably Lennon-shaped) specs. I was 18 in 1991. Those who were born in ’91 are 18/19 now. If Movin On Up was any guide, the young turks must be looking at ‘our’ music and laughing. A lot. Then making a brew and coming back to laugh some more. Then tweeting their schadenfreude.

Although significant major works got released that year (Screamadelica, Nevermind, Blue Lines, Loveless) there was also a massive waste of misdirected, follow-the-trend energy in British music . BBC iPlayer are taking this offline within days and I don’t anticipate a clamour to bring it back.


Alex Niven said...

Glad we got this back! Couldn't access it for a couple of days, though maybe that was just my computer?

W. Kasper said...

No, it was me too. I thought it was just my crappy ISP, but looks like it was a blogger issue.

Culla said...

Blogger removed everybody's last posts due to some glitch and it took them the best part of a day to recover the files

as someone said on twitter, the iWorld somehow managed to keep calm and carry on for a whole day without fresh posts!