I was very tempted to deal with this most problematic of number ones with a swift six-word dismissal – something along the lines of “Well, you really needn’t have bothered” – and leave it at that. But in view of the exceptionally sad and unrepresentative procession of number ones which 1991 has offered, I can’t just leave it there. Not that you’d know from looking at this imperfect list, but 1991 not only boasted one of the best, hottest and longest summers in living memory (as I recall, it seemed to start midway through February and carried on well into November) but was a fantastic year for music.
If 1991’s two defining singles were, beyond question, “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Britain and America, black and white, what led up to them, what they led to – then everything else worthwhile about that year has some kind of umbilical connection to either, or both. There seems to have been a recent cooling of admiration for “Unfinished Sympathy,” which, though perhaps understandable in the sense that newcomers arriving at it now may wonder what the fuss was all about, so thoroughly has its vocabulary been absorbed into pop, remains unjustified. Those of us who sat or stood agog on first listening – and equally those of us who had already been primed by the previous autumn’s release of “Daydreaming” – knew that here was a beginning of time worthy of rank with “Good Vibrations” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Cold Sweat” or “I Feel Love” or “Transmission.” Its terrible beauty lies in what is excluded from the record more than what is incorporated (the Wild Bunch having learned from dub and electric Miles and Jam and Lewis with equal fecundity); there is no bassline (Prince!), the song’s topline melody, carried solely by Shara Nelson’s vocal, takes some while to discern, Wil Malone’s Thom Bell-meets-Ben-Britten string arrangement is deliciously yet disturbingly minimalist, and – as confirmed by the ending’s explicit tribute to the ending of Joy Division’s “The Eternal” – the production is more than an apt match for a song about incompleteness, disorientation, indecision, dread. But its encroaching power also arises from its dextrous ability to weave so many strands of what had been good about post-punk, New Pop and post-Chic dance music into a spectacle so seamless and solid; this was the end of a journey which had begun with “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” and “(Somebody) Help Me Out” alike. Even Trevor Horn, who later cut the song with Tina Turner, had to bow in awe.
Likewise, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” absorbed everything that its author loved about his lonely eighties – the holy yearning of his C86 tape inhabitants, the hold-and-release tension of the Pixies, the bollock-bypassing power of Big Black, the Buttholes, Sonic Youth and Killdozer – all pent up for years and unleashed (expertly, for producer Butch Vig understood pop) in a torrent of not quite linear exhortations and ecstasies. No one who witnessed the stage invasion performance of the song on The Word (born in 1967, Cobain knew that the whole idea was that everyone should be able to join in), or the doped, 16 rpm growling rendition on TOTP, or saw them onstage at the Kilburn National or at Reading, or listened over and over to the aqueous blood of Nevermind, could have been in any doubt that Nirvana were a gateway; if not to Cobain’s own future, then to the generation (must we call it X?) who saw it as the call to arms that it was, that this was the next step…but to where?
And deriving indirectly from the beneficent, welcoming eclecticism of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines came Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, which encapsulated everything Bobby Gillespie knew in 1991 – but since he wisely left 99% of the record’s musical groundwork to others the record was the personification of the searing primary reds and yellows on its cover. Still, call Screamadelica a Sabres Of Paradise album in disguise, but it couldn’t have happened without Gillespie’s stupid, joyous, knowing, ignorant absorption of whatever he’d bought in Reckless or MVE the previous month, or having Weatherall drag him off to Acid House clubs to get the Primals away from becoming…the Stone Roses? Their performance at the Empire Leicester Square at the end of that August was spectral, nearly inhuman in its greatness; the endless chanting of “A Love Supreme” from someone who barely half a decade earlier wouldn’t be dragged from his Kim Fowley collection when still running the Splash One club back home in George Square. It was incendiary, illuminating, and we didn’t sleep for two days afterwards.
Of course there was also – especially! – rave; the KLF that era’s pop supremacists, and then Orbital, LFO and the Aphex Twin, all emerging from their various provincial corners to continue what Larry Heard, and for that matter Art Of Noise, and for anti-matter Joe Meek, had started; the Low Countries turning New Beat into a demonic Carl Orff chant which made Enigma sound even more like Ray Conniff; T99’s astonishing “Anaesthesia,” Human Resource’s “Dominator,” Quadrophonia’s “Quadrophonia,” endless, anonymous one-off smashes (Bizarre Inc, Brothers In Rhythm, Scotland’s Oceanic and Time Frequency), the Shamen dying and reborn (more about them in 1992) – and most significantly the Prodigy, smashing into that autumn’s top three with “Charly”; the terror of seventies kids’ public information films magnified and turning upon its parents with the greatest fuck-you attitude in pop since Jerry Lee Lewis. And then you had Altern-8 emerging with their Vicks sinus masks purchased from WH Smiths, 808 State triumphing with their manifesto for blood “In Your Face” and fantastic Ex:El album, happy hardcore just lurking around the corner at the farthest reaches of the FM dial, already stretching its lingerie to enter into the jungle…while Bomb the Bass’ “Winter In July” was an elegy for the eighties worthy of Massive Attack. That doesn’t even get us as far as the Orb, with their landmark double Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, and “Little Fluffy Clouds” finally and movingly shoehorning Steve Reich, Pat Metheny and Rickie Lee Jones into the top ten.
And Saint Etienne, with that summer’s soundtrack, Foxbase Alpha, still a potent lesson on how to learn and take from the old without sacrificing the new (Adele and others would do well to take detailed note of its example); there is the sixties bubblegum card idolatry, but also a Marine Ice cube of nowness – no one who did the rounds of Camden Town could fail to understand “London Belongs To Me” entirely, and “Nothing Can Stop Us” with its never-better use of a Dusty Springfield sample (even Dale Winton acknowledged its greatness) might have been never-was pop, but for us that summer it was absolutely on-the-punctumised-spot pop. Their distant cousins Stereolab also emerged that year with the Neu! pop of “Superelectric” (remember, no one else was doing Neu! pop in ’91, no one at all).
There was shoegazing, of course, and Chapterhouse and Slowdive’s albums have yet to vacate these shelves – shot down almost before they’d got started (were male critics frightened off by the generally feminine thrust of shoegazing?) but their music (as with, bless them, Lush) has persisted and still sounds good, and not just in an absentee Cocteau Twins sort of way. Blur were, as ever, somewhere in between; their debut album Leisure was messily optimistic, yet astonishing things like “Sing” already gave notice that their path was going to be neither obvious or uninteresting.
But shoegazing suffered in part because it had no choice but to crouch down mock-unworthily facing Loveless, a record and a group who are in a lot of ways still unwriteable, even if only because so much has already been written, possibly far too much. Suffice it to say here that with Loveless, MBV took the feminisation of pop further than anyone had yet done, and arguably no one has advanced on it since, by which I mean the detachment of body from music (the logical extension of the Bailey/Edge “playing with no hands” approach), the absence of male groin swerving, the near-total unification of thought, clarity, blurring, process and product. And in their Town and Country Club gig that December, a tape of which I still proudly possess, they played the music which in most ways I’d waited most of my life to see a “rock” group play (at last, they’ve caught up with Ornette!).
There were yet other pleasures to be sought; the sublime classicism of Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, the third of Creation’s unbeatable 1991 trilogy, the generous faith which delivers songs of the elegant quality of “Star Sign” and “The Concept”; and Laughing Stock, Talk Talk’s nascent conclusion to 1988’s Spirit Of Eden, Mark Hollis walking even further into his own forest and finding something approaching peace and sanity. Meanwhile, Julian Cope walked towards the poll tax riots and released Peggy Suicide, his best record in seven years (and, in “Safe Surfer,” possibly his best ever song)…and perennial eighties indie no-hopers Pulp suddenly found themselves with the single “My Legendary Girlfriend,” and everyone with equal suddenness started listening. Did I mention the first Electronica album?
Hip hop remained potent in 1991; the year’s curveball was without doubt And Now The Legacy Begins by the Dream Warriors (Toronto ahoy!), a brilliant diffusion of old jazz samples and near-abstract new school electronica. The most articulate record was Ice-T’s O.G. (Original Gangster) – his “New Jack Hustler” is poetry worthy of Langston Hughes and should long since have been added to basic school literary curricula…and how depressingly true its sentiments remain today. Where Public Enemy remained the most blisteringly direct of rap acts with Apocalypse ’91: The Empire Strikes Black, and A Tribe Called Quest the most seductively ebullient with The Low End Theory, then PM Dawn were perilously close to falling off the planet entirely; the Spandau-quoting/bettering “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss,” a deserved top three hit, was a sneakily ethereal farewell to, and reinvention of, New Pop, and their album went out even further (“Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine”).
As for American “rock,” REM’s “Losing My Religion” welcomed Generation X as much in its quiet boldness as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” defined it – if only the Manic Street Preachers’ “Motown Junk,” the British “Teen Spirit” released in 1991 which nearly everyone who wasn’t a music journalist missed, had been properly available and gone to number one - and their Out Of Time album, though these days mainly viewed as a prequel to the unassailable greatness of Automatic For The People, is an eloquent delineation of what needed to fall (“Radio Song”) or be redefined (“Losing My Religion”) – and no one could object to their finding their own way back to “I’m A Believer” via “Shiny Happy People.” But the promise of the Runaways and Patti (and Suzi Quatro? And Gertrude Stein? And…) also made a violent impact with Pretty On The Inside, Hole’s first and best album, with Babes In Toyland’s To Mother and Bongwater’s brilliant The Power Of Pussy not far behind. And yet there were also Metallica (with their finest record, or at least the bookend to Master Of Puppets) and the Pixies, coming to an end but persevering with Trompe Le Monde, whose first side at least remains faultless. And from where-the-fuck-knows-where blew in Mercury Rev with the no wave one-song Astral Weeks that was “Carwash Hair” and the bewilderingly compelling Yerself Is Steam album.
I haven’t even mentioned the Keep Rock Scruffy camp of Carter USM, the Wonder Stuff, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and the like (with the partial exception of Carter’s 30 Something – the precise flipside of the Pet Shop Boys’ Behaviour, made more pronounced by their temporary ownership of the Reading Festival that Saturday night; alleged headliners James, though a perfectly fine and noble group, need not have bothered turning up – they were not my cup of Ribena, but goodness they were loved), and yet other events spring to mind (Definition Of Sound? “Missing The Moon” by the Field Mice? Curve?).
The reason why I have devoted 2000 or so words to describing what was so great and immortal about the crucial music of 1991 is in great part to offset a singularly depressing year for number ones, since, with the sole exception of the KLF and perhaps a couple of partial exceptions towards the year’s end, it has consisted of bland, unidemographic film themes, or subteen novelties, or a general refusal to face the present, let alone the future. Above all it deepens the central mystery of “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” spending almost a third of that year at number one.
The record was at number one for 16 straight weeks – that is, four months, from July through to November – the longest continuous run of any record at the top. Indeed, the previous double-digit number one run was achieved by the previous record holder, Slim Whitman’s “Rose Marie,” on top for 11 weeks in 1955 (fittingly, the veteran country star guested at one of Adams’ Wembley concerts that autumn to indulge in a duet of that latter song) – though Frankie Laine’s cumulative 18-week run with “I Believe” over three spells in 1953 is now unlikely ever to be bettered.
And yet the most remarkable thing about “Everything I Do” is its total unremarkability. It doesn’t sound like the sort of translucent epic which would cross all boundaries and appeal to everyone; instead it still comes across as just another conveyor belt power ballad tacked onto the end of a hopeful blockbuster (in this case, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, featuring Kevin Costner as himself, Morgan Freeman warming up for playing exactly the same role in Unforgiven and Alan Rickman as Peter Wyngarde), bolted together by Adams and his co-authors Michael Kamen and producer Mutt Lange. Everything about it seems so mechanically assembled, from its pauses and meticulous build-up of volume and assumed intensity (the “there’s NO love! Like YOUR love!! And no OTHER!!! Could give MORE love!!!” in the bridge, the dying organ following the post-Rod hoarseness of “I’d die for you,” the sadly noted presence of Little Feat’s Bill Payne on piano) that it could only appeal to people who wanted the façade of love rather than its dirtier reality.
Speaking of which, many records were stopped at number two by the Adams juggernaut, but since they were generally of the order of “More Than Words,” the Everly Brothers tribute proffered by lo-cal Red Hot Chili Peppers wannabes Extreme (and yet this was the year of Blood Sugar Sex Magik and “Under The Bridge”!) or the Scorpions’ ghastily whistling triumph-of-capitalism ode “Wind Of Change” they need not bother us too much. But the unluckiest was the best – “I’m Too Sexy” by the hip, knowing and intelligent New Pop disciples Right Said Fred, number one in the States but stuck at number two behind Bryan for six long weeks.
And yet this was a time when singles sales were said to be beginning their decline, an age of short, sharp runs at the top. So what, or who, exactly kept “Everything I Do” at number one for so long. Although it eventually passed the million mark, its sales were not record-breaking (given that, for instance, the original “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” had sold over three million in just five weeks at the top) and the murmurs spread that it had retained the number one because sales were generally low and there was…wait for it…no competition.
No competition? But I’ve just spent the best part of an hour and a half detailing everything else that was happening! Still, look at the chart peaks of some of those singles I mentioned above, and others besides – “Unfinished Sympathy” stopped at #13, “Losing My Religion” didn’t get past #19, “Higher Than The Sun” was lucky to snatch one week at #40, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made it to #7. Then again, consider the cumulative sales of their parent albums, all of which have continued to sell (and still occasionally re-enter the album chart) to this day. Such records were designed for long-term impact.
But in 1991 they didn’t cross over. As good as Simply Red’s Stars is in its own way (and at its best, e.g. “For Your Babies,” it is very good indeed), its status as the year’s top seller spelt it out; benign and essentially harmless music designed to appeal to the maximum catchment area. While Hucknall is smart enough to put his profits to good use (much of the royalties from that album helped finance the indispensable Blood and Fire reggae/dub reissue label), what is there to say about Dire Straits’ On Every Street (apart from the odd Johnny Marr influence in the title track) or Waking Up The Neighbours, or the polite double face of New Rock, Use Your Illusion I & II by Guns N' Roses, with its four top five singles, including a Schwarzenegger film theme, two 1973 cover versions and a bad 1973 Elton John pastiche, or…well, there may be something to say about the radio of that time; Radio 1 in particular had not yet undergone its Matthew Bannister purge, and apart from Peel at night and the Evening Session slightly earlier, it was still primarily staffed by many of the same ageing DJs and producers who had been present at its launch in 1967, whose politics were conservative (usually with a capital C) and whose musical preferences followed suit. Thus the Establishment – Collins, Clapton, etc. – still ruled, and despite its original purpose being a station for youth, it was now largely designed for the same valiumised housewives who would have wept along with Vikki Carr back at the beginning of this story. They didn’t still quite trust youth to make its own mind up, and several of the year’s key dance crossover smashes – “Charly” among them – were not even playlisted. And while Generation X, both here and there, had the volume, their parents still had the spending power, and with the still nascent onset of the CD reissue “revolution” the old songs were still favoured, the past still cherished at the future’s expense. “Everything I Do,” then – a Simon Bates Our Tune if ever there were one – symbolises in its terrifying (if impermanent) triumph the death which lies in cherishing what you already know and shutting your mind and life off to any notion of a future. I’ll leave it in the corporate past, where it belongs, with the corporate types who release albums with titles like Waking Up The Neighbours then move into a house in Chelsea and buy and close down the pub next door because it makes too much noise. As for Canadian music in 1991, I was always more of a Consolidated fan.