When nu­ance ruled the charts be­fore Brit­pop

The New European - - Agenda - BY SOPHIA DEBOICK

Grunge seemed to be tak­ing over the world as 1992 rolled into 1993. As Nir­vana re­leased In Utero in Septem­ber and recorded their MTV Un­plugged con­cert in Novem­ber, their as­cent con­tin­ued unchecked, while Pearl Jam’s sec­ond al­bum Vs. broke sales records on its Oc­to­ber re­lease. Mean­while, Bri­tain was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the ear­li­est birth pangs of Brit­pop. But be­fore that term came to ap­ply to a nos­tal­gia-tinged ex­er­cise in a car­toon­ish blokeish­ness, darker ex­per­i­ments were afoot. Mean­while, fe­male artists on both sides of the At­lantic took a stand with con­fronta­tional, of­ten overtly po­lit­i­cal mu­sic, ex­pos­ing grunge – os­ten­si­bly a re­ac­tion to the cock-rock sen­si­bil­i­ties of hair metal – as woe­fully ma­cho.

The UK chart hardly hinted at such high stakes in a year of mega-hits. Whit­ney Houston’s I Will Al­ways Love You hit its 10th week at No.1 in early Fe­bru­ary be­fore fi­nally drop­ping down the chart. Meat Loaf spent seven weeks in the top spot from Oc­to­ber with I’d Do Any­thing For Love (But I Won’t Do That), the the­atri­cal sin­gle only fall­ing as Take That and Mr Blobby du­elled for Christ­mas No.1.

Dance­hall made its pres­ence felt as Chaka De­mus and Pli­ers got three Top 5 hits and Shaggy’s de­but Oh Carolina went to No.1, while Euro­dance proved it could still shift units as Ace of Base, Culture Beat and 2 Un­lim­ited – who made ‘Techno! Techno! Techno! Techno!’ the phrase of the year – all put sin­gles in the top spot, while Had­daway’s What Is Love? was a global hit.

Michael Jack­son’s 1992 sin­gle Heal the World lin­gered on the chart as a re­sult of his his­toric Su­per Bowl per­for­mance in Jan­uary, shortly be­fore child abuse al­le­ga­tions against him broke. Prince’s Con­tro­versy, a re-re­lease from 1981, would be his 13th UK Top 10 hit and was apt since he had an­nounced in June that he would no longer be known as Prince but as an un­pro­nounce­able sym­bol.

The dark an­drog­yny of Suede, on dis­play as they per­formed So Young on

Top of the Pops in May, was out of place among this pop panoply, but the sin­gle had hit No.22 none­the­less. Their ap­pear­ance at Fe­bru­ary’s Brit awards could have been deemed a dis­as­ter, as they were in­tro­duced as ‘Swede’, sounded chaotic, and left the au­di­ence stony-faced fol­low­ing the spec­ta­cle of a half-naked Brett An­der­son vigorously beat­ing his but­tocks with a mi­cro­phone. But the raw en­ergy of the Brits per­for­mance ex­plained why they were able to crack the sin­gles chart, as An­i­mal Ni­trate reached No.7, while their epony­mous de­but LP went straight in at No.1 on its March re­lease.

Suede’s se­duc­tively-gothic glam rock for the 1990s made them more than de­serv­ing of at­ten­tion, but the hype around them in the mu­sic press was un­ri­valled, as they were styled as a force against the grunge in­va­sion. April’s

Se­lect put a midriff-bar­ing An­der­son on the cover against a Union Jack back­ground with the head­line “Yanks go home”.

The pose was a typ­i­cally-ef­fem­i­nate one, and An­der­son had al­ready set out his stall as a pu­ta­tive dis­rupter of sex­ual and gen­der norms, declar­ing to Melody Maker the pre­vi­ous year “I’m a bi­sex­ual man who’s never had a ho­mo­sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ence”. As win­ners of that year’s Mer­cury Prize, Suede sealed their artis­tic cre­den­tials and crowned their year, but a dis­as­trous US tour in the au­tumn and de­cline in re­la­tions be­tween An­der­son and co-writer and gui­tarist Bernard But­ler sug­gested dif­fi­cult times to come.

Mean­while, a Bri­tish group of older vin­tage was rather more suc­cess­fully tak­ing the fight to the US in the March of 1993. Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and De­vo­tion was not only a No.1 LP across Europe, spawn­ing two Top 10s on the UK sin­gles chart, but hit the top of the Bill­board chart too. This main­stream suc­cess came de­spite song­writer Martin Gore plung­ing head-first into the po­ten­tially-con­tro­ver­sial, re­li­gious al­lu­sions he had flirted with in the past, meld­ing them with the band’s typ­i­cally large help­ings of sin, per­ver­sion and emo­tional pain. But as the pre­vi­ously synth-bound group took on full rock band op­tics dur­ing their 96-date De­vo­tional tour be­tween May and De­cem­ber, putting drums, gui­tars and back­ing singers on the stage, they be­came ac­ces­si­ble to the unini­ti­ated and en­tered a new phase of

mega-star­dom. On the De­vo­tional tour Dave Ga­han gave full flight to his rock star fan­tasies, com­mand­ing the mono­lithic stage set with the same kind of snake-hipped dis­play of sex­ual en­ergy as Brett An­der­son was mak­ing a spe­cial­ity, lead­ing to the NME’S Johnny Cig­a­rettes brand­ing him a faker, and the “sta­dium sex führer of doom rock”.

But the rock star schtick got all too real at Oc­to­ber’s gig in New Or­leans when Ga­han, in the grip of heroin ad­dic­tion, suf­fered a drug-in­duced heart at­tack on stage. As Gore strug­gled with al­co­holism and Andy Fletcher spi­ralled into clin­i­cal de­pres­sion the group dy­nam­ics fal­tered and Alan Wilder, who had been largely re­spon­si­ble for the record­ing of what had be­come the band’s big­gest al­bum to date, made the de­ci­sion to leave. As those who re­mained strug­gled to re­gain con­trol of their lives, Depeche Mode would go on a four-year hia­tus be­fore the low-key LP Ul­tra an­nounced their sur­vival to tell the tale.

While Ga­han and An­der­son may have put for­ward ver­sions of mas­culin­ity that con­trasted sharply with the scruffy ag­gres­sion of grunge, the ‘four white men’ com­po­si­tion of their bands was in­dica­tive of the con­tin­u­ing male dom­i­na­tion of the mu­sic in­dus­try, and 1993 marked the mo­ment women claimed their right to rep­re­sen­ta­tion and re­spect within rock.

Riot gr­rrl – a fem­i­nist move­ment that took a punk DIY ap­proach to cham­pi­oning women’s place in mu­sic – had al­ready crys­tallised, but the Oc­to­ber re­lease of Riot gr­rrl pioneers Bikini

Kill’s de­but al­bum Pussy Whipped was a land­mark mo­ment, while the sin­gle

Rebel Girl be­came the move­ment’s an­them, re­flect­ing its prin­ci­ples of mu­tual fe­male em­pow­er­ment (“That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neigh­bour­hood/ I got news for you, she is/ They say she’s a dyke, but I know/ She is my best friend”).

Bri­tish band Huggy Bear, who styled them­selves as ‘boy-girl rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’, had re­leased a split al­bum with Bikini Kill in March, hav­ing al­ready made a name for them­selves through their Fe­bru­ary per­for­mance on The Word when they dis­rupted the pro­gramme in re­sponse to an item on the show they con­sid­ered sex­ist. The con­tro­versy got them a Melody Maker cover and turned the spot­light on the Riot gr­rrl move­ment in the UK.

Be­yond Riot gr­rrl proper, fe­male artists were em­brac­ing punk-in­flected rock and vigorously re­ject­ing re­stric­tive ideals of fem­i­nin­ity. The Breed­ers, formed by Kim Deal of Pix­ies and Tanya Donelly of Throw­ing Muses, saw their sec­ond al­bum Last Splash draw wide­spread crit­i­cal praise and reach No.5 in the UK al­bum charts, while sin­gle Can­non­ball be­came an es­sen­tial al­ter­na­tive song of that sum­mer. PJ Har­vey’s un­com­pro­mis­ing

Rid of Me ap­peared in May, its epony­mous sin­gle a raw ex­pres­sion of lust (“Lick my legs, I’m on fire/ Lick my legs of de­sire”). Bjork’s De­but, re­leased two months later, re­vealed a voice of huge power, and her sin­gle Big Time Sen­su­al­ity was no less out­spo­ken, the singer pro­claim­ing “It takes courage to en­joy it/ The hard­core and the gen­tle”. Even such main­stream hits of the year as An­nie Len­nox’s Love Song for a Vam­pire, a tie-in with late-1992 block­buster Bram Stoker’s Drac­ula that was far more beau­ti­ful than it had a right to be, and 4 Non Blon­des’ run­away hit

What’s Up? put women’s writ­ing and per­for­mance cen­tre stage.

The bru­tal rape and mur­der of Mia Za­p­ata of up-and-com­ing Seat­tle punk band The Gits in the July of 1993 was dev­as­tat­ing proof of the con­tin­u­ing need for women’s self-ad­vo­cacy and fem­i­nist ac­tivism, even on the brink of the 21st cen­tury, and shook the Seat­tle grunge scene to its core. With Ra­dio­head’s Creep – a world­wide hit on its re-re­lease this year – eas­ily read as a man­i­festo for the self-pity­ing ha­rasser, what­ever its in­ten­tion, and the ma­cho swag­ger of Brit­pop on the hori­zon, as Oa­sis landed a con­tract at the be­gin­ning of the year and Blur’s Mod­ern Life is Rub­bish ap­peared, 1993 could be seen as the last stand of a more com­plex and po­lit­i­cally con­scious ap­proach to rock.

Photo: Ebet Roberts/redferns

DARK AN­DROG­YNY: Suede’s Brett An­der­son

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