Picking up some Popular highlights from 1990-91. I haven’t been commenting there as much lately, but these years were fairly musically significant for me...
“Ice Ice Baby” marked pretty much the end of my paying attention to what made number one on the Australian charts; I was only sporadically aware of them from here on. I’d like to say that the reason was the one-two blow of seven weeks of “Unchained Melody” at number one followed by three weeks of this, but the real reason was that at the end of Vanilla Ice’s reign in January 1991 I moved interstate, and that kind of upheaval plays havoc with TV viewing, which had been my main way of keeping track of the charts. The Australian equivalent of TOTP, Countdown, had made a slight return in 1990 as Countdown Revolution, which had meant I was reasonably aware of the charts during my honours year, but that was cancelled in December. But only two of Australia’s number ones of 1990 had made it into my own collection anyway (Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Faith No More’s “Epic”), so the time was right to leave the charts behind, or so it seemed.
But not before Vanilla left his icy mark. My brother was keen on the track, but I wasn’t: as a dedicated fan of the Australian version of Queen’s Greatest Hits, which included “Under Pressure”, I felt his use of that iconic bassline was little short of theft, and took offence on John Deacon’s behalf. Strange, really, because I was never that big a fan of “Under Pressure”, but it was the principle of it. Lucky, also, that I’d never heard “Super Freak”, or I might have taken equal offence at “U Can’t Touch This” instead of enjoying its five-week run as an Australian Number one in mid-1990. All that was really happening was that “Ice Ice Baby” was the first major hit whose blatant appropriation of another song’s hook was obvious to me. But that was enough.
What also rankled was that the media at the time—chiefly the Australian Rolling Stone, in my case as reader—were touting Vanilla Ice as the Elvis of rap, which seemed a pretty weak claim on the basis of a single song built around a pinched bassline. I don’t remember the song being pitched or received as a novelty: people seriously expected Vanilla to be huge, as if the collective unconscious was willing Eminem into existence before Marshall Mathers was ready.
How do I feel about it now? Compared to some of the stuff we’ve encountered in 1989-90 it’s relatively harmless, but it still feels pretty weak. 3 on a bad day, 4 on a good day.
One abiding memory of this is that it was riding high in the Australian charts at the exact moment that the bombs rained down on Baghdad in the Gulf War: my first memory of round-the-clock news coverage, and possibly my last chance to watch such coverage; the last long summer’s day I can remember doing nothing except watch television. Zip, flash, boom, doo do-do-doo do-do-doo-do.
When I was reading about this track last week I was also thinking it was a fluke number one thanks to the kinds of multiple releases of CD singles that we came to know and resent throughout the 1990s. But looking more closely, that doesn’t seem true: it had just the one UK CD-single, along with a cassingle, 7”, 12”, and picture discs of the 7” and 12”. Only the most devoted fans would have bought two or more of those, surely not enough to make the difference between number one and lower.
It’s impressive to learn that this was Iron Maiden’s tenth UK top 10 hit, and that they’ve since had ten more. They’ve had nothing like that in Australia; until last year’s The Final Frontier reached number 2, their highest-peaking album there was 1992’s Fear of the Dark at number 11; and their only charting single, “Be Quick or Be Dead”, peaked at number 47.
And yet they were known there in the 1980s, and were considered as metal as any other metal band until Metallica rewrote the rulebook. As a young Australian metal fan, I certainly thought of them that way, even if they weren’t my favourite (that was Judas Priest).
Within months of buying my first singles at the age of 15 I was listening to C90s of The Number of the Beast, Pyromania and Defenders of the Faith courtesy of my even more metal friends. (Yes, Pyromania. The definition of metal really was different back then. Van Halen were definitely still considered heavy metal in 1983, before they invented the hair variety with “Jump”. A 1983 Kerrang! poll apparently placed Maiden’s Piece of Mind and The Number of the Beast as the two greatest metal albums of all time, which shows how premature such claims can be, but still.)
But it all started to fizzle out the following year, especially once I’d discovered the Beatles. I kept up my interest in Judas Priest and Def Leppard for a few more years, only letting them go when grunge arrived; but Iron Maiden I left behind when Powerslave had nothing to match my favourite Maiden track (the one that I wish had been number one, which was, yes, “Run to the Hills”).
Metallica’s black album was the last metal album I bought on its release; I’ve picked up a few CDs since, but only to replace those old C90s. (Favourite of these: Judas Priest’s Turbo, not because of the album, which was one of their weakest, but because it cost me exactly €6.66.) The last metal album I genuinely loved was Judas Priest’s Painkiller of 1990, which I see is now considered a speed metal classic; if I hadn’t got distracted by shoegazers and grunge I might have followed that path.
Painkiller throws “Bring Your Daughter” into stark relief: Iron Maiden’s pantomime plodder sounds like it’s late to a party that had already sped over the horizon. I love that Maiden made number one with something, but this is far from their finest hour, even though I can only judge on the basis of their first four albums. (Last week was the first time I’d heard this track, in fact.) It’s a 4 from me.
Ahhh, Enigma. In my first online music discussions, this band and this track in particular featured far too heavily. That was because the venue was the Mike Oldfield mailing list, and the early ’90s was the moment Oldfield’s musical quality fell off a cliff—or a second cliff, if you were the sort who believed that it fell off a first cliff a decade earlier, like a stepped waterfall. And Michael Cretu was partly to blame.
Cretu produced a track on Oldfield’s 1987 album Islands, and the two were (and presumably still are) friends. In fact, when Enigma first appeared, there was some speculation that it was an Oldfield pseudonym until the facts emerged. Some of us found that notion questionable, though, because Oldfield’s then-current album was an hour-long track of heavy-rock instrumental world music in the same vein as 1976’s Ommadawn; and his next, in 1991, was full of mutant jazz, with Courtney Pine making a guest appearance. No particular sign, then, that he was about to head into the land of mellow.
Then came 1992’s Tubular Bells II, which started well in the demo stage but had the rough edges stripped off by producer Trevor Horn and ended up a bit too smooth for some tastes, though it still had its moments. Where things really went wrong was with its 1994 successor, The Songs of Distant Earth, a concept album based on an Arthur C. Clarke novel, which featured... whalesong. And Gregorian bloody chant. Monks in space!
For the first time, Oldfield sounded like a follower of musical fashion, which whatever one thought of his previous work was not a charge that could easily have been made before. The rip-off was too obvious, especially given the known friendship between the two. The album had its charms, and I preferred it to Cretu’s, but as a sign of things to come it was a worry; and, with one or two exceptions in the late 1990s, a worry borne out by his subsequent work. No more heavy-guitar world music from our Mike; just lots of chillout with occasional techno flourishes.
So as the years went on I bore an increasing grudge against Curly M.C., as Cretu styled himself, as if he were solely to blame for Oldfield’s cosy musical choices. At some point I had actually succumbed to peer pressure (the peers being that mailing list) and picked up a second-hand CD of the first Enigma album; but at some later point I realised that I couldn’t stand it, and sold it on. I don’t even have an mp3 of Sadeness lurking on my hard disk any more.
That said, it wasn’t the most offensive of tracks; it was more that a whole album of it was about 45 minutes too much. I wanted to nudge it to 5 for being the blueprint for so much other music in the 1990s... but it’s not a blueprint I can stomach, really, and not a track I want to listen to again for a while. 4.
I was a solid admirer of Queen as a teenager, though not quite as big a fan as some of my friends, and maintained my interest even after they fell somewhat out of fashion in the Australian charts after A Kind of Magic. I listened to The Miracle a lot when it came out, and was absolutely obsessed by “The Invisible Man”, which still sounds terrific to me. Innuendo felt like a bit of a step down at the time—basically, I was missing an “Invisible Man” part two—but on this listen I enjoyed it. I’d have to say, though, that I enjoy just about every track more than the opener; not that “Innuendo” itself is bad, but it does plod a bit. I don’t mind the “Kashmir” similarities (and am surprised I didn’t notice them at the time, as I was listening to Led Zep back then too)—in fact I wish they’d pushed them harder, instead of shifting into more familiar Queen territory at the “we’ll keep on trying” line. It’s baffling that it made number one anywhere, though—about the last track I’d have released as a single. Well done, whoever decided to. 5.
After A Kind of Magic, Queen started to slide in the Oz charts, although “I Want It All” reached number 10 in 1989 (“Innuendo” peaked at number 28 there). Highlander was a big hit in my age group in 1986, and its songs were considered a highlight; not as good as their work on Flash Gordon, but full of great Queen moments. But I remember reading a dismissive review taking the piss out of “Who Wants to Live Frevvahhhh”, and doubting my own devotion to Queen as a result—could there really be something wrong with pompous and overblown rock music?—which maybe was symptomatic of a wider revisionism. That song now sounds fine to me; about as subtle as Freddie ever got, which was not very, but almost too poignant in light of what was to come.
I’d moved on by the time Made in Heaven appeared, and only ended up buying it a couple of years ago for a quid or two. I liked it more than I expected to—despite the relative absence of memorable hooks, it hangs together surprisingly well, although the Freddie yelps pinched from earlier tracks jar a bit. I expect I’ll listen to it more often than The Cosmos Rocks, at least, although even that oddity has its moments.
But now I’m curious about Hot Space, which apart from their first album is the only gap in my collection. The die-hard Queen fans all warned against it back in the day, and there were so many other albums to investigate that I never got around to it... but it sounds like it could be worth a punt.
[Later: Hot Space Really Not That Bad, Shock! Okay, it might take me a few listens to grow to like all of it, but tracks 5-11 sound like standard and pretty solid ’80s Queen, and “Dancer” is good stuff. If a couple of tracks were different it would be a very good Queen album—which is about what I’d say of The Works, too.]
The very first recorded music I bought with my own pocket-money, at the relatively advanced age of 14 or just-turned 15, was the 1973 RSO LP of Joseph, in the second-hand racks of the upstairs record shop that used to be part of Ellison Hawker (small nugget of detail for 40-something Tasmanian readers there). What can I say—all my pop music epiphanies were still months or years away. So although we never performed the show at school, the thought of it still gives me a twinge of nostalgia, even if it’s at least 20 years since I deliberately listened to any Lloyd-Webber.
Watching the video of Donovan’s performance for the first time, the memories of that vinyl purchase come flooding back, and I’m afraid Jase’s effort can’t compare (which is not to say that the 1973 recording was much chop either). To give him his due, it’s a competent vocal from an artist I generally can’t stand; but the rhythm track is awful, and the kiddie chorus too sickly by half (but then, aren’t most kiddie chorii?).
What’s most striking, though, is the sudden thought that Jase here seems to be modelling himself on the veteran star who had cornered the UK market in biblical-inspired pop. Go on, have a look at those close-ups from 0:50 to 1:20 and tell me they don’t remind you of Cliff.
Pharaoh sez: You shall be my number... 2.