Popular is ten, and I’m as excited for each new entry as ever. My commenting tailed off for a while when the UK charts deviated strongly from my own 1993-94 listening, but a string of 1995-96 singles is bringing me back into the fold...

George Michael, “Jesus to a Child”, 20 January 1996

I appreciate this more today than I would have in 1996, being this side of my late-’90s/early ’00s bossa nova fascination. I don’t even remember having heard it before my first listens this week, even though it was number one in Australia for a couple of weeks (at the same time as here). Maybe I did hear it, but its smooth noodlings bubbled under my attention threshold.

But now I like it a good deal; one of his finer vocal performances, and now that I’m (a bit) older and slower myself it doesn’t feel too long. It has the edge on “A Different Corner”, which I gave a 7, and all that keeps me from going higher here is that I still feel no great urge to own this track or Older. Maybe that will change when we reach his next entry.

Babylon Zoo, “Spaceman”, 27 January 1996

I picked up a second-hand copy of “Spaceman” on CD single a few months after it peaked at number 3 in Australia, but it didn’t last long in my collection; my two dollars’ worth of interest was exhausted within a year. (Yes, I can tell this from an archived spreadsheet of my past music purchases. Sad, I know.) Off it went to Revolution CD in Canberra, the same way as a couple of other one-hit wonders I mentally lump with this one, EMF’s “Unbelievable” and Spacehog’s “In the Meantime” (both on their parent albums, no less; at least I didn’t fall for that with Babylon Zoo). Unlike those two, though, “Spaceman” hadn’t enjoyed a slight return in Fraunhofer form.

I wish I hadn’t ditched it now; not least because the only versions I can find online aren’t the one I remember, the shorter radio edit, which didn’t have the distracting “Babylon Zoo” chant. At least EMF had the good sense to break up their eponymous chanting with the mother of all obscenities. But that silly touch aside, I feel unexpectedly warm towards this. The slide from dancing chipmunks to cod glam doesn’t bother me, and didn’t bother me back then; I would have found it hard to take a whole single of the sped-up vocals, as a listen to the Zupervarian mix has confirmed. I wasn’t introduced to the song by a 30-second snippet on an advert, so there was no bait and switch. No, I liked that sort of doom-laden rock plod back in the mid-’90s, with the synth touches to make it feel appropriately fin de siecle. A few Aussie bands at the time traded in the same, and I liked them too.

All of which means that “Spaceman” now has a remarkable ability to take me back in Time as well as Space, to see 1996 in all its OK Computer-is-just-around-the-corner glory. Perhaps not coincidentally, after OK Computer was released the following year was when I ditched this CD single; Jas Mann couldn’t compete with the real rock-n-bits thing. I was being a bit harsh on it, though. As taking-themselves-too-seriously one-hit wonders go, this is as memorable and goofy as any, and I’m now inclined to give it... oh, go on then, 7.

Eye-opening tidbit encountered while reading around the tracks I’ve mentioned here: Spacehog’s lead singer Royston Langdon was married to Liv Tyler for five years.

The Prodigy, “Firestarter”, 30 March 1996

As usual, I watched this again on YouTube in preparation for the impending Popular entry, but as far-from-usual, felt a rush of adrenalin that I rarely experience when re-hearing songs I haven’t heard in a while. Because “Firestarter” was my own gateway drug to a world of music I had previously underrated, and ushered in a new listening regime, not quite displacing but certainly squeezing my mid-’90s Britpop fixation. When I think of what I was listening to in the late 1990s through to about 2001, Big Beat is a big, big part of it: the Chemical Brothers, the Propellerheads, Mezzanine, and especially the Prodigy. (That and lounge music, and I don’t think Dean Elliott will be bothering us at Popular.)

When I was sixteen, I was exposed via a tape-swap with a friend to an album that overturned half of what I thought popular music could be. “It’s so bad it’s good,” he said, and while I agreed about his second claim, I disagreed about the first: there was nothing bad about Never Mind the Bollocks, it was all utterly thrilling. Other punk bands never got hold of me in the same way, but Johnny Rotten set the Sex Pistols apart; his London drawl sounded like little else in the pop of the time, a time when so many non-American singers pretended an American accent. I was fascinated by how he could turn every sneer into a hook.

Later Lydon projects didn’t snare me the same way, although I found a few songs to enjoy on PIL’s greatest hits, and “Open Up” worked for me too. And then came this: this glorious explosion of sound, as close as singles of the 1990s came to “Anarchy in the UK”. There’s Keith Flint, sounding just like Rotten and looking like a mohawk bulldog; for a listener whose experience of London had been heavily influenced by West End souvenirs, this was None More London (although apart from his early years, Flint is actually The Only Way is Essex). And there’s that mixed-up and maxed-out electronic howl, which I would come to explore further in the Prodigy’s back catalogue, and on this single’s parent album. Liam Howlett’s complex sampling, altering and layering of sound in this track and others, even in their less compelling later work, is nothing less than awesome.

So good it’s good. 10.

30 September 2013 · Music