1996 was an unexpectedly strong year for UK number ones, with thirteen votes from me in Popular’s end-of-year poll of songs worth six or more out of ten. Only a few were songs I was actually listening to then and would listen to much today; what I really loved that year were Suede’s Coming Up and Ash’s 1977, still my favourite albums by each band. But one or two became favourites not long afterwards...

Prodigy, “Breathe”, 23 November 1996

The opening of “Breathe” is masterful. Within a few seconds we’re in a science-fictional scene of menacing cyborgs: music for Daleks, music for the Terminator, music for Darth Vader as daunting as the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. A few seconds later, the drums kick in, and the Prodigy invent the Propellerheads, whose expansion on this sound would be used to great effect in the soundtrack of The Matrix. And then comes the slash of the whip, rounding us up like cattle; and underneath it all, that fibrillating bassline, maintaining the tension throughout the track. I can’t fault the soundscape of “Breathe”; it’s one of the most effective musical collages in pop.

The lyrics maintain that sense of menace, even if I didn’t always understand all of them (it’s only the Popular thread that has let me hear it as “come play my game”, rather than “don’t die boy die”, and “addict insane” never quite registered). I should really say, then, that the delivery of the lyrics is what contributed to the mood of the track for me, although “inhale, exhale” is a fantastic hook. Music for Daleks, indeed.

Noting the track’s sense of menace is different from saying it was frightening, because it wasn’t; by the mid-90s we knew full well that most pop/rock menace was an act. We’d lived through Alice Cooper, heavy metal, punk and the rest, and even if not all of us loved it all, we were all by now familiar with the tricks. The truly frightening figures of pop, as recent revelations have shown, hid their menace rather than flaunted it. But just as there’s always been an audience for horror movies, none of whom believe that Bruce Campbell’s hand was actually possessed in Evil Dead II, there’s going to be an audience for musical menace.

As an Australian I always thought of this as the more popular track of The Fat of the Land, the almost-number-one that “Firestarter” wasn’t. But as with the Chemical Brothers, I was late to this party. “Breathe” was everywhere in Australia in 1997, spending 34 weeks in the charts from December ’96, but I didn’t pick up the Prodigy’s albums until early ’99. I remember the Fat of the Land posters competing for my attention and cash in ’97 with a certain Oasis album, and betting wrong (although at least I had Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space to console me); and in 1998 I was too busy travelling and finding work to listen to much new music.

Never mind: once I did pick up The Fat of the Land I recognised it immediately as one of the key albums of the decade, a relentless rush of thrilling sounds let down only by its closing track, “Fuel My Fire”. If they’d found a better song to follow “Climbatize” (their equivalent of Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days”), or even closed with that instead, I’d consider it almost flawless. Even tracks like “Diesel Power” and “Funky Shit” work beautifully in the context of the album, though I doubt either would have done much as singles. And of course the album opens with a track even more thrilling than the two we’ve seen here. I’ve never seen its video, and by the sounds of it don’t want to, but “Smack My Bitch Up” is aural crack, as compelling an opening as the pilot of Breaking Bad.

I don’t mind their earlier albums, although they each have stretches I find skippable. “Baby’s Got a Temper” was a massive disappointment, and Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned and Invaders Must Die didn’t do much to recover the situation. With the 2002 single in particular, the Prodigy seemed to be flailing around for relevance, their sound and themes a terrible fit for the post-9/11 mood. But in the late 1990s, they made perfect sense, even to a 30-something power-pop/alt-rock listener as far from urban England as you could get.

I’ve gone back and forth on what score to give this, thinking that I surely shouldn’t repeat my score for their earlier single. But how can I do otherwise? 10.

Boyzone, “A Different Beat”, 14 December 1996

I want to be a bit more charitable towards this than I’m feeling, because I remember the Jan Moir furore all too well, which inclines me to give Stephen Gately more than the usual benefit of the doubt. Gately seemed like a nice guy and the boys were clearly enjoying their time in the spotlight, but this is really irritating. There’s nothing either offensive or impressive about Gately’s performance here (although his singing of the title in the chorus is the only hook in the whole song for me). It just underlines the entirely arbitrary composition of the band, as revealed in their debut on Ireland’s Late Late Show (a clip that tells you all you need to know about Boyzone—or at least tells me all I need to know). Get the look right first, and figure out who can sing (and dance) later.

Between the song and the video, “A Different Beat” is just a cheap ripoff of a bunch of well-worn (by 1996) tropes intended to suggest a Big Statement About the World—a touch of Band Aid, a touch of Enya, a touch of “Earth Song”, a touch of Ladysmith Black Mambozo—with no evidence that the band themselves had any basis to make such a statement beyond Feeling Stuff. It’s not as if anyone demands wisdom for the ages from 20-year-olds, so why not wait a few years? Unless you figure the gig could be up at any moment, and that you’d better rush out your observations about global precipitation a.s.a.p.

Either way, we can all agree that the mists of Niagara have no place in a video (if not song) primarily about Africa. Why didn’t they just sing about Victoria Falls instead? It has the requisite four syllables and everything. Hmm, except “the mists of Victoria” makes me think of Mildura gumtrees at dawn. Okay, maybe not.

I’ve seen the rain fall in Africa. I’ve observed the snow of Alaska from the outdoor deck at Anchorage airport while transiting from Tokyo to London. I even visited Niagara Falls once, although I don’t recall a significant mist problem. This is the sound of Boyzone going over the edge in a barrel. 2.

Dunblane, “Throw These Guns Away” / “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, 21 December 1996

I’ve passed through Dunblane, on a cycling trip to Loch Katrine a decade ago. Now that I’ve got a son of my own in primary school, I can hardly bear to think about what happened there in March 1996. And I can’t hear this single without thinking of what came after.

I flew home to Tasmania on Sunday 28 April 1996 for a job interview the next morning. Switching on the news in my hotel room that night, I saw an old school friend, a nurse, meeting ambulances at the Royal Hobart Hospital, where victims of our Dunblane-inspired massacre were being taken. At that point the killer was still at large. He had shot 58 people, killing 35, in and around a popular tourist location that I and every other southern Tasmanian had visited many times. When I read descriptions of the events in the cafe and gift shop (since demolished), I can still visualise the rooms.

My parents had mentioned they were thinking of going for a drive down there on the weekend. I spent the night wondering if they had.

I was a bit subdued in the interview, and didn’t get the job. Mum and Dad had driven to Port Arthur and back on the Saturday. Several years later, they moved to a town nearby, and I’ve visited the area many times since. Fortunately, the place has taken on a new significance for me.

Australia passed strict gun laws in the wake of Port Arthur, and bought back and destroyed three-quarters of a million guns, including the air-rifle Dad had taught me how to shoot as a teenager, and the vintage rifle he had inherited from a 19th-century ancestor. I don’t lose any sleep over that; there are other family heirlooms, and what the hell would I or my brother have done with it. If we compare firearm mortality rates between 1996 and today, around four or five thousand gun deaths have been prevented in Australia as a result of those laws.

I have no idea what score to give this record. The additional lyrics to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” are jarring next to Dylan’s, authorised or not, and the performance is nothing amazing. But the lack of celebrity guests is refreshing, and the notable exception of Mark Knopfler on guitar makes perfect sense on a Dylan cover. The original song on this double A-side is less artful, but more affecting for it. The musician behind the single has remained committed to the cause, travelling to Tasmania, America and Turkey to support families of victims and campaign for gun control, and deserves credit for his efforts. I think I’ll give this 5.

Spice Girls, “2 Become 1”, 28 December 1996

The third Spice Girls single is the second I barely recall having heard before, so I spent a bit of time with it before committing to a mark. My first listen and viewing of the video left me relatively indifferent—the instinctive reaction of a ’90s indie fan, no doubt—but I could tell there was more going on, and gave it a chance to rise from a 5. The second, with the video hidden, sounded much better, the lush orchestral backing and interplay of voices working well for me now, taking it to a 6. But that’s where I’m stuck. I watched the video again to see if it would add more, but something about the five of them hanging out together in a New York street feels at odds with the intimate message of the song. Why don’t we d-d-do it in the road? Not that I would rather the video showed them hanging out in a bedroom. There were five in the bed, and the Baby Spice said...

12 February 2014 · Music