Your disco needs you too: more 1997 UK number ones at Popular.

U2, “Discotheque”, 15th February 1997

If you’d asked me a year ago out of the blue I might have called this an 8, just going on my 1997 memories of it. In recent weeks I was thinking I’d end up at 7. Then I actually listened to it again, and it was so long—a tighter 3-minute mix would have made a significant difference. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for the Edge’s throatier guitar work, and I’m still a fan, so it’s 6.

It isn’t because re-listening to old U2 songs makes me fall out of love with them—I still heard exactly what I first admired in Achtung Baby when Popular reached “The Fly”, and re-listening increased my appreciation for The Unforgettable Fire in later years—but Pop does seem to have suffered in hindsight. Not nearly as quickly as another ’97 album we could mention, though. And I still like “Mofo”, so when someone does a blog about all the singles that reached number 35 in Australia I’m all set. (I always wished they hadn’t pulled their punches with its lyrics, though. “Mother sucking rock and roll”, indeed.)

I listened again to Pop in full in response to this thread, and it was a bit of a struggle. The album falls so flat after “Mofo”; the songs are all so subdued, quiet, verging on lifeless. There are one or two where they crank up the Edge and Bono gives it his bombastic best, like “Gone”, but even those fail to capture their previous peaks in that style. And although I quite like the Edge’s guitar flourishes in isolation, on too many tracks they feel like a bad fit for what the songs are trying to do. And I don’t much like what the songs are trying to do. If I want to listen to a quiet, subdued album I’ll reach for dozens of alternatives before I reach for U2.

At the time, Pop had a reputation for irony, yet apart from the video for this single and the tour accoutrements there’s precious little irony on it: the lyrics are all pretty earnest—“Wake Up Dead Man”, for example. The album could have been U2 at their most straight-faced if they’d packaged and produced it differently; most of the songs would have worked that way. But Zooropa—which seems to me their only “ironic” album, lyrically at least—cast too long a shadow at this point.

Looking through my U2 MP3s by year of release I remembered a 1997 track I had forgotten, their cover of Pop Muzik for the Pop Mart tour. At 8:52 it’s too long, but it’s good, if not M good. If they had included this on the album the project might have made more sense. If they’d mixed the album like this the project might have made more sense...

We can’t mention U2’s studio noodling without also talking about their 1995 album-that-wasn’t, Passengers’ Original Soundtracks 1. It yielded one great song in “Miss Sarajevo”, and one or two others worth consideration, but it wasn’t a promising step at the time, a lack of promise subsequently borne out. If they’d combined the best of that album and Pop and, I dunno, waved a magic wand or something, they might have produced a mid-to-late-’90s album worth loving, but it wasn’t to be.

No Doubt, “Don’t Speak”, 22 February 1997

I marvel now at the fact that I never heard this at the time—or if I did, it never registered. “Just a Girl” was all over the radio station I used to listen to, Tragic Kingdom was an inescapable presence on record store racks, and “Don’t Speak” was number one in Australia for eight weeks from 9 February 1997—eight weeks—and yet I had no memory of it before watching the video last week. The recent LL Cool J track was eminently forgettable and didn’t chart well at home, so I could justify my ignorance there, but neither is true here.

So with a fresh ear, untainted by overexposure: I like it. It’s full of interesting flourishes, owes an obvious debt to Madonna, and sounds like it deserves to be number one, rather than being a fluke of one. 7.

Spice Girls, “Who Do You Think You Are?”/“Mama”, 15 March 1997

On a first listen last night, sans video, I found “Mama” a bit treacly and “Who Do You Think You Are?” just average, a 4 and a 5 respectively. But a day later I’m warming to both, and unexpectedly finding “Mama” the better of the two. “Who Do You Think You Are?” feels a bit disco-by-numbers still, but “Mama” has an air of honesty it would feel curmudgeonly to hate, even if it isn’t something I’ll listen to often. On music alone they sound like album tracks, but the videos do a fair job of selling them as singles.

Overall, my least favourite of their singles so far, and it doesn’t quite reach a six for me. A solid five, though.

This thread led, of all places, to a digression on Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”...

I can imagine “Another Brick in the Wall” giving 1979 parents the vapours, but as a then-11-year-old it seemed like the musical version of the attitude in my weekly comics or other reading matter. I know now that it was a darker vision of school than the cheekier one in Jennings or Cheeky, and was borne out of the awful school experiences of many people my parents’ age, but as a child fortunate enough to be attending school after the abolition of corporal punishment I missed all of that. I must have assumed that the darker side of “Another Brick” or even Cheeky Weekly was just for effect, or perhaps that school was different in the UK. The main source of torment in my school wasn’t the teachers but our fellow pupils.

Now that I’m older, and can read between the lines of “Another Brick” better, and can place it in the context of The Wall and Waters, I still don’t see it as an anti-education diatribe. It just captures, for me, the miserable experience of boys who went to school in the 1940s and 1950s. Many male teachers in those years were returned soldiers, messed up by the war in all sorts of ways, and taking it out, some of them, on their pupils. They weren’t still teaching 11-year-olds by the late 1970s, thankfully. My male teacher in 1979 was a great guy who encouraged a friend and me to write and perform sketches for our grade 6 co-ed class, and told us about a funny TV show with a giant hedgehog. No dark sarcasm in the classroom.

The Chemical Brothers, “Block Rockin’ Beats”, 5 April 1997

Part of me was thinking that this must have been like “Breathe”, a much bigger hit in Australia than its predecessor, because this feels more ubiquitous to me; but no, it’s just me. This reached number 28 in Oz and charted for 5 weeks; “Setting Sun” peaked at 27 and charted for 9. Dig Your Own Hole reached number three on our album charts, though, and Come With Us hit number one, so we didn’t mind a bit of Chems.

“Block Rockin’ Beats” was the key track on Dig Your Own Hole for me, a manifesto of sorts, and as effective an album opener as almost any they’ve made. I say “almost” because I still can’t go past the duo of “Come With Us” and “It Began in Afrika” as my favourite stretch of Chemical Brothers, although “Hey Boy Hey Girl” comes close; any of those would have scored a ten from me.

This I was going to give nine, but I think I’ve temporarily overdosed on it since we discussed “Setting Sun”, because today it feels like an 8.

21 February 2014 · Music