More Popular-inspired musical memories of 1991. A couple of these are out of order so that they read better.
1991 was a transitional year for me: I’d moved out of the home I grew up in, gone interstate, started a PhD, moved from a college room to a friend’s spare room to a share house, suspended my PhD so I could do a one-year masters after a late offer came in, driven all the way back home so I could leave my car and all my stuff there, flown from Hobart, to Melbourne, to Bangkok, to Amsterdam (where I wandered around the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum for a couple of days), to London (for the first time in six years, which felt like forever at that age), stayed with relatives for a bit, and finally caught the train up to the town where I would be spending the next nine months.
I’ve been reading Popular comments long enough to feel a bit reluctant to say which town it was, because I know the baggage it brings; but hey, I was a young Aussie, and we can ignore all of that class stuff when it suits us. So, it was one of those universities—the ones with the punts. Someone mentioned Terry Waite above; I saw him wandering down the street one day while I was there, not long after his release. Walked past Stephen Hawking once, too.
So, there I was, newly arrived in Ancient University, in another college room, wondering what came next. Wondering where the “buttery” was, so I could eat. Wondering where the shower was. (It wasn’t. A year of baths lay ahead.) And wondering what I would listen to.
Through all of these months of personal upheaval and culture shock, music had been a reassurance, a connection to the known, even as my tastes were changing. At the beginning of the year I was discovering Brahms; later, thanks to new flatmates, I was hearing Ziggy-era Bowie and Capitol-era Sinatra for the first time; and a chance purchase of The La’s in a bargain bin opened my ears to what was to come next. But those CDs and tapes were all back in Australia.
In those days, relocating to the other side of the world was a much bigger deal than it is now. Communicating with home meant writing aerogrammes and waiting a week each way for a reply, or feeding pound coins into a payphone at an ominous rate. My stay was almost over when I saw another postgrad using one of the college Middle Common Room computers to email her parents in NZ, which looked fantastic, but there was no point getting an email account unless my folks had one as well (I got one six months later). Keeping up with news from Australia was pretty much impossible; about all I got from the BBC was the news that our PM had put his arm around the Queen (which led to MCR conversations about republicanism where I was bemused to be asked, not if Australia would become a republic—which was taken as a given—but whether Britain should). In those days, the other side of the world really did feel like the other side of the world; I felt more removed from home and family and friends during that year than I have in the past decade of living in Britain again. That’s ubiquitous low-cost global communications networks for you.
The other thing that must be utterly different for today’s international students is that, in the digital domain at least, there’s no need to leave anything behind. A pocket-sized terabyte USB hard-drive will let you bring everything, assuming you’ve ripped it all or it was digital in the first place. In 1991, even though my music collection was obviously much smaller than it is now, there was no way I was fitting much of it into a 20kg suitcase—so I didn’t even try. I didn’t even bring a walkman or a single mixtape. My first purchases were a portable CD player/tapedeck/radio and a pair of yellow-foam Sennheisers from Richer Sounds, and then I started my music-buying from scratch.
As a result, just about every CD I bought that year is burned into my brain, starting with the first few from the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street: new albums by Tom Petty (one of his best), Big Country (not their best), and the Pet Shop Boys (greatest hits). I even remember far more of Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio than it really deserves. As for what came next... well, that comes next.
And along with those early purchases, one unexpected but oddly reassuring thread of continuity: the song that had been at number one when I was packing everything into my car in Canberra in August was still number one when I was unpacking my suitcase in Cambridge in September (I mean, Ancient University... damn). Even better, the distraction of relocating to the other side of the world meant that I didn’t loathe it with the burning passion that hearing it continuously for 11 or 16 weeks would have kindled.
I still didn’t think it was all that, though. While I knew some of Adams’s work, he was more to the taste of my brother and some of my friends; the kind of people who loved Bon Jovi. I had a C90 of Cuts Like a Knife and Reckless courtesy of my brother, but this song wasn’t much like those. I was a big Hysteria fan, so the Mutt Lange production should have appealed to me, but here it didn’t. In Popular scoring terms I might have given this a 4 at the time, and that’s what I’ve given it now.
But I’m still happy to hear it (once, and for the first time in years), thanks to the time it takes me back to. So much good music, and so much else, was just around the corner.
At the same time as I was getting a musical education and an academic education in my new English surroundings, I was also getting a comedy education. My love of comedy, written, drawn, and performed, long predated my love of popular music, but by 1991 Australian television wasn’t doing a good job of keeping us up-to-date on the latest and greatest comedy from the UK—by far my favourite kind.
Fortunately, I was now surrounded by comedy evangelists. During freshers’ week I’d checked out a few possible areas of extracurricular activity to leaven nine months of Thinking. I gave the student newspaper a miss because I’d been there, done that a few years earlier; gave rowing a miss because there was no way I was getting up in the dark to practice; and instead gave comedy performing a go, for the first time since I was 11. Fortunately, I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself, and after getting my first laugh was hooked. I ended up falling in with a bunch of fellow newcomers (some of us MPhil students, some first-years) and putting on a couple of shows with them, which did pretty well in the local context; my writing and performing partner that year has been a good friend ever since. I also have him to thank for half of the new music I discovered that year (and in later years, thanks to tapes swapped through the mail), as like many aspiring comedians he was also a frustrated rockstar.
“Dizzy” wasn’t one of his gifts to me, but he at least helped me work out who this Vic Reeves bloke was. My knowledge remained second-hand, though: I’d missed the original run of Big Night Out by six months, and had no means of watching a video of it even if one had been released by that point. So to me, Vic was some guy who apparently put a Caramac under a rabbit, who also sang on a number one single.
It was everywhere for a while, and I bought the hype enough to buy... a C90, onto which I recorded a copy of Never Loved Elvis and selections from the Wonder Stuff’s earlier albums courtesy of the college music room. It was only then that I realised I wasn’t a big fan of Miles Hunt’s vocals and didn’t like the albums much either; they were soon eclipsed in my affections by the Stone Roses, Blur, et al.
I didn’t mind “Dizzy”, though. Listening to it now, it holds up fairly well until Hunt’s backing vocals kick in, as long as you aren’t expecting any kind of comedy. A couple of years later I bought a second-hand CD single of it back in Australia, out of early nostalgia for those early months in Britain, but it never got much play. 4.
When “The Fly” buzzed into view, I was already halfway through my first nine-week term as an MPhil student in England. By this point I was a regular visitor to the local independent record store (which I now see went under in 2003), spending my precious converted coin on a string of CDs recommended by new friends and the UK student zeitgeist in general: The Stone Roses, Screamadelica and Blur’s Leisure all got heavy play in those early weeks. And then came Achtung Baby.
In previous comments I’ve written about my late-’80s ambivalence about U2, despite having been a big fan of Under a Blood Red Sky and Boy. My interest was sustained by key tracks from their major ’80s albums, like “The Unforgettable Fire”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “God Part II”, and, yes, “Desire”; but it felt like an increasingly long time since I’d loved one of their albums wholeheartedly.
Achtung Baby changed that overnight. I can’t remember when I first heard the clarion call opening of “The Fly”, but I was instantly hooked, and picked up the album more or less immediately. Within days it was my favourite U2 album, filling the gaps I had heard in previous releases with sounds I hadn’t known I was looking for—some of them not far from the bands mentioned above—and featuring a string of tracks with hardly any duds. Only “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” struck me as weak, and even that was later rescued for me by the Temple Bar Edit of the single release. The rest sounded amazing, each and every one.
In the Bryan Adams entry I wrote about music serving as continuity between the other side of the world and this, but through bands like the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Blur, Ride, and towards the end of my stay Spiritualized, it was also acculturating me to my new location (in space and, in hindsight, time). What was so extraordinary about Achtung Baby was that it did both at once. Here was a band I had effectively grown up with, having discovered them at the end of the year I discovered pop, whose previous straight rock releases sat perfectly comfortably in an Australian musical context (with the exception of the noodlier parts of The Unforgettable Fire); and here they were raiding a musical toybox I had only just discovered, and only because I’d uprooted myself from that context. It was thrilling.
Also thrilling were its roots in the most exciting news event of my lifetime to that point (and probably to this point), the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The darker corners of Achtung Baby sounded like the ghosts of East Berlin, and the excited clatter of its more upbeat tracks sounded like the rattling open of a cage. And this was before I’d actually visited Berlin, which I first did in 1998, where you can hear the opening notes of “Zoo Station” in the sound of every tram. Turning their attention from America to Germany felt in 1991 like exactly the right move.
As I said, I loved just about each and every track. The pinnacle had to be “One”—something about its lyrics and texture spoke to me then, and does now—but I could also listen to “Zoo Station” again and again. My favourite sequence of the album, though, was “So Cruel” followed by “The Fly” followed by “Mysterious Ways”, with this track the pivot of the whole album, and in some ways an encapsulation of it.
That opening riff again: a fantastic single opening, clearing whatever you were listening to out of the way so that you only had ears for this; but also a perfect contrast on the album to the elegance of “So Cruel”. And then those clattering drums, as if Larry Mullen was banging on the side of a Trabi, and over the top of them the Edge’s best guitar work in ages. I loved every second of that solo and outro.
Yer man Hewson never sounded better to me, either. I’m inured enough to the derision he attracts here to state simply that I like his voice, and especially here: the breathiness of it, the growl of it, the whine of it, the falsetto of it, the insistence of it. And although I’ve sometimes had problems with his lyrics, these ones can still delight me after all these years. Nobody has mentioned my favourite line of the song, which seems to capture so much about where U2 was in 1991: it’s no secret that ambition bites the nails of success. Screw this one up and we’re toast, boys. They didn’t.
I listened to Achtung Baby again a few times when we were discussing “Desire” last year, and although it had lost a little of its startling impact in light of what came after (from U2 and others), it held up for me—although it sounded even darker and, in places, sparser than I’d remembered. “The Fly”, though, still stands out from its surroundings.
As musical madeleines for the favourite times of my life go, I’ve had worse. 9.