This Week In Music History 2.20.14: '80s Innovation & '90s Insanity
Posted by David Hayter on 02.20.2014
This week David Hayter tackles innovation and expectation by looking back at one of Kurt Cobain's favourite albums and TLC's insane mid-90s implosion.
Disclaimer:Each week I will be delving into the history books to reflect on a pivotal chapter in music history. Last week we broke down the 10th anniversary of Kanye West's The College Dropout and in the coming months we'll tackle some of the best, worst and most divisive albums ever released.
This week were tackling two of the biggest concepts in music: innovation and expectation. Ironically, the former is often something that expectation demands, but achieving the first and living up to second are two of the most impossible tasks for any aspiring or even established musician.
Innovation: Let's Take A Trip To The Late 70s
Play something new. Don't sound like anyone else. Make something up off the top of your head. It sounds easy enough, but it's fiendishly difficult. Fortunately, back in 1980, pop culture and the youth of the day had an entirely different outlook on life. As the rock critic Simon Reynolds' famously put it: they wanted to rip it up and start again.
The summer of punk in 1977 is perhaps the most overblown event in music history. It was vital, but the whole period is steeped in so much narrative that it's become almost impossible to discern the reality from the BS. Whether you believed Punk was destined to wipe away pretentious old toss and rewrite the rock rule book, or was just a brilliantly democratic idea that made music a universal pursuit - there is no doubt that the events of 1977 inspired a generation of young and typically poor people to pick up musical instruments and start record labels.
Didn't know how to play? Don't want to sound like Emerson, Lake & Palmer? Wanna be a rockstar? Great, just give it a go and let the ideas flow.
The Post-Punk era quickly ensued. Peter Hook, the brilliant bassist behind both Joy Division and New Order – two bands who pioneered more sounds in one decade than most acts manage in a lifetime – admitted that he didn't know what post-punk was. He thought he was making punk music and discovering new sounds with his best mates. Hook's admission partly explains the brilliance of the period and the insane records that came out of it. The artists didn't think about what they ought to be or what they should do: they simply did.
So which album are we turning back the hands of time to reconsider?
Released This Week In 1980:
Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth
Young Marble Giants, a distinctly humble group from Wales, released only one album, but it just so happened to be a treasure trove of new ideas. Bizarrely, despite pre-dating its invention by nearly 30 years, you can hear their haunting minimal clicks and negative spaces of Burial's dubstep revolution in the Young Marble Giants work.
The two scenes aren't remotely related, but that comparison is designed to give you a flavor of the kind of distinctly urban emptiness that their music conveys. At times these simple scratchy rhythms sound like (the yet to be invented) 8-bit computer games and, in their most ambitious moments, like a desolate, sweeping, Western style soundtrack to a lonesome late night walk home. Young Marble Giants made minimalistic music for dark alleys, empty train carriages, deserted subways and depressing nights stranded in lonely apartment.
Colossal Youth captures a very distinct sense of isolation. It not simply abandoned streets, it's social separation too – lovers who don't satisfy and crowded bars full of people you have absolutely nothing in common with. I've listened to this record a hundred times or more and I still can't figure out if Young Marble Giants are scared of a potential nuclear apocalypse or a society devoid of community and connection. Their music is full of anger and frustration, but it is delivered with a delicious and utterly unflappable coolness of mind.
"Searching For Mr. Right" is magnificent; formed of fragments from an arrangement that never quite comes together. At times it feels like Young Marble Giants are playing their tracks in reverse - like everything and nothing fits - but each disparate strain is held in place by Alison Stratton's supine vocal performance.
She detached, disenfranchised, fragile, ice cool but never particularly ironic. There is a sincerity to her sighs that pairs perfectly with the band's cheeky but chilling arrangements.
Fans of alternative music simply have to hear this album – if you've enjoyed something as modern as The xx or as classic as Gang Of Four, you'll love this record. It's a creeping and undeniably cool listen that is street in a very real, but not remotely gangsta, sense.
But why take my word for it? Why not trust Kurt Cobain? He labeled the album one of the five most influential ever and included Colossal Youth on his 50 favourite albums list. Or how about the music critic Alexis Petridis who attempts to capture the essence on an album that's impossible to pin down:
"Colossal Youth, however, sounds no more of-the-moment than when it was first reissued in 1990, at the height of Madchester and the birth of grunge. Nor does it sound more dated. It exists in a world of its own. Amid the tick-tocking of the drum machine and Statton's oblique lyrics about robots, failed romance and train crashes, there is a sound that manages to be both stark and serpentine: a lone twanging guitar or organ and bass, the parts wrapping around each other "like knitting", as Moxham put it. It's a suitably un-rock'n'roll simile for music that sounds like nothing else in rock'n'roll."
Expectation: Let's Talk About The Late 1990s
How do you follow up a career-defining album? What happens when you've had your one big idea and your expected to keep going, releasing bigger and better records?
Most artists would kill for just one original idea, but, bizarrely, far from insuring an easy ride, turning the pop culture on its head with a breakthrough album can quickly become a poisoned chalice. Forget about earning some leeway, fans will simultaneously expect both more of the same and something new. Backlash is inevitable. In truth, fans don't know what they want until they hear it and that makes the process of following up a hit impossibly fraught.
Do you know what doesn't make the process any easier?
Finding out that the most successful year of your career (1994) made you a grand total of $35,000 (income) and debts of $3.5 million.
So there's a lesson for you kids: you can release a Diamond selling album (11 million copies sold) and a combination of lawsuits and internal turmoil will force you to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. So be careful.
Still, it could be worse. Your boyfriend/producer/father of your children could hold out for $4.2 million and creative control to – you know – work on other projects instead of the one that you are paying him to produce.
So have you figured about which 90s group and which album we're talking about yet?
Released This Week In 1999:
TLC - Fanmail
Yes all of that insanity happened.
TLC, one of the funkiest and most fun pop groups of the 1990s, went from zany safe sex advocates to the face of forward thinking hip hop inspired soul/pop in the blink of a left eye. If that description sounds awkward it's because, when CrazySexyCool dropped in 1994, TLC didn't really sound like anyone else. They were defiantly pop, but they were brazen, inspiring and effortlessly likeable.
In a half-decade dominated by rock'n'roll suicide, drug fuelled parties, police brutality and slacker disenfranchisement – the success of three well-meaning goof balls felt like a palette cleanser. TLC made smart, intelligent, ethical pop that was anything but boring. In fact, it exuded character and eccentricity.
Sadly, it would take TLC five years to overcome their financial woes and creative differences. By 1999, CrazySexyCool was a distant memory and an urban legend in its own right. Faced with overblown hype and an army of post-TLC imitators, the embattled trio of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins had to both surpass and reassert themselves.
So Did Fanmail live up to the hype?
Nobody really knows. 15 years have passed and the world is in the grips of a full blown 90s RnB revival and no one (critics or fans) can decide whether Fanmail was a success or a failure.
In the moment it certainly did the trick. Eyebrows were raised as the band embraced gimmicky future-pop production techniques and tried to position themselves as fiercely independent women, but hits as irresistible as "No Scrubs" and "Unpretty" drowned out the dissenting voices.
Listening to Fanmail is a strange experience. It lurches between the mundane and ridiculous. "Silly Ho" bombards the listener with an ultra-bouncy baseline, snatched vocal whoops and shot clock buzzers – it's possibly the best thing TLC released since "Creep". "Lovesick" is stranger still. The girls tell us that their boyfriends make them sick over the sounds of a touch tone keypad and the noise of someone hanging up a receiver.
On the opposite extreme the girls deliver silkily sung ballads that could have come from any smoothie 70s soul-pop record. "Dear Lie" is so sweet that the producers decided to include a sparkle noise at the outset. Then of course there's "No Scrubs" and "Unpretty", two of the biggest singles of the 90s, slap bang in the middle of the insanity.
Fanmail ended up being the album that nobody and everybody wanted. The album in many ways replicates the formula of CrazySexyCool without ever really sounding like a proper successor. There is one track, however, that practically throws up its hands and says: "screw it, we don't know what you want and we don't know what we want either".
"I'm Good At Being Bad" is the best kind of bananas. The opening is a total red herring. It's all glossy feminine chart ready soul; dainty fragility, well mannered and unimposing – it's sounds horrible right? Well, thankfully it's a cruel joke and the girls discard their kind loving boyfriend and demand a guy with stacks of cash and giant dick. The girl's transition back and forth between their modern hip-hop style and the old 70s soft-pop stylings at will. They hum a little Donna Summer and croon about masturbating to an imagined lover. It's brilliant
Trying to rate Fanmail out of five is ultimately pointless. This isn't an album. It's a magnificently orchestrated mess. Despite being a platinum selling hit, it feels like the red headed stepchild of late-90s urban soul. TLC and their collaborators created the type of record that label big wigs must dread. It remains an inspiration and a touchstone for so many of today's top popstars, but no one in their right mind considers it a classic.
Perhaps part of the Fanmail's problem is that two years latter Timbaland and Aaliyah would deliver modern R&B's drop the mic moment: "We Need A Resolution".
This Week's Lesson From Pop History
If there's anything to be learnt from Young Marble Giants' incredible debut and TLC's confusing follow up it's this:
Innovation doesn't pay the bills. Colossal Youth was a huge indie chart success in the UK, but, shortly after its release, Young Marble Giants had returned to anonymity. Equally, CrazySexyCool may have gone 11xPlatinum, but it ended up costing TLC millions.
In all seriousness, don't worry about money and forget about artificial expectation.
Those strange, lonely, little sounds that only seem to make sense in your head might go onto inspire one of the greatest rockstars in history and legion of other completely unimaginable bands.
And who cares if you'll never write a song as good as "Creep" again? Keep throwing all those insane ideas against the wall. You might just end up with two of the biggest hit singles of your career and an album that the industry will spend a decade trying to figure out (and another five years trying to imitate).