Racing around the world with Popular.

Baz Luhrmann, “Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, 12 June 1999

In late-’90s Australia, we had been told to “Slip, Slop, Slap” for twenty years, which must have sapped some of the novelty from director Baz Luhrmann’s unlikely UK hit for us; although the 1998 parent album, Something for Everybody, peaked at number 14, the 1999 single didn’t reach our top forty.

That may be because John Safran’s parody had preemptively peaked at number 20, thanks to incessant airplay on JJJ in 1998. By the time the original became a minor hit in America and a number one in the UK, we were over it. I suspect that, like me, more young Aussies heard Safran’s parody than the original. In fact I actually bought that, whereas I’m not sure I’d ever heard this in its entirety before it reached Popular.

Safran was already well-known to young Australian TV viewers from the 1997 ABC series Race Around the World, and since “Not the Sunscreen Song” has made some extraordinary television; John Safran’s Music Jamboree and especially John Safran vs God are well worth the viewing time. John Safran’s Race Relations couldn’t quite match its predecessor, but still has its moments.

The original, with its Nellee Hooper production, sounds like a single that would never even have existed today. The email-forwarded column that inspired it would have been intercepted by others long before Luhrmann heard it. Some unknown would have set the text to a GarageBand track on a YouTube clip, which would have racked up a few hundred thousand views, and that would have been that. Nobody would have overplayed it, the beauty of those clips being that you watch them only as many times as you personally can stand.

I’m not sure it would even have become a viral video, though, if it were happening today, because it feels as if we’ve been overloaded with commencement speeches (real or imagined) since this was a hit; we read or watch the best of each year’s crop in a way that we never could before the Web. Before the 2000s, the only graduation speeches I’d ever heard were the ones from my own graduation ceremonies. They were scarce commodities even in the late ’90s; now they’re old hat.

So one listen of this was quite enough. 2. Five for Safran (maybe even six; it made me laugh as I listened to it again).

Vengaboys, “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!”, 26 June 1999

The Vengaboys’ “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!” (the punctuation is important!!) is a milestone in my personal Popular journey, if not on its own merits then for the moment it represents.

But for me, that moment wasn’t mid-1999. At that point I probably would have given this a low score, purely on the basis of seeing the ads for The Party Album! (punctuationisimportant) on Australian TV, because I doubt I’d heard the entire song. I was still, in 1999, fairly skeptical about dance music, house music, electronic music, and their permutations, although examples of them were creeping into my listening.

Fast-forward to mid-2000, though, and my life was in flux, at the tender age of 32. Our landlord had sold our house from under us, and my wife and I took that as the spur to “go thermonuclear”: I quit my job, we went travelling, and then I looked for work overseas while she brought in some more cash back home. It turned out to be the start of a year of uncertainty, and at the end of it we ended up here.

At the beginning of that year, though, was the travel. A trip we had already been planning for mid-2000, and had been dreaming about for as long as we’d been together, now became heavily symbolic: a journey filled with possibility, with our stuff all in storage and who knew what ahead.

We spent a month in Madagascar, travelling there from Canberra via Perth, Harare and Johannesburg. It was the kind of trip you write a book about; at least, I tried to, before getting bogged down in what came later. I was left with only a string of blog entries, a 90,000-word journal transcript, photographs and souvenirs that look like relics from another world, and a lingering sense of unfinished business. Unfinished because there were moments on that trip that hang in my memory as some of the best in my life, and I want to do more with them than just turn them over in my head.*

One of those blog entries was about that inescapable soundtrack of travel, the background music: the music you hear in a foreign place seems to play louder and longer in your head than so much else. Besides Abba, country and western, and a string of Gasy tracks that haunt me even today (the ones that got away, and a few that didn’t), the music of Madagascar in mid-2000 was The Party Album!

Perhaps I’d been primed by Aqua, or perhaps by the Eurodance compilations I’d picked up in Germany in 1998, but whenever the Vengaboys went into a minibus tape deck I found I could listen and not hate it. Soon I was singing along on the long journeys between Malagasy towns, turning the taxi-brousse into a Vengabus. As I wrote in my diary on one of our last days in the country:

Somewhere halfway back, the Malagasy music was replaced with—in a flashback to the week before—the Vengaboys. ... By the time we were out on the main road to Fianar, passing through busy Betsileo villages, the album was in its free-form techno second half—good music, actually, but so 1990s electronic that it made a surreal soundtrack to what we were staring at out the back of the truck: jam-packed streets at a market-day, with men in traditional garb walking along the road in the same direction as us, disappearing behind us into the mist. All to a techno soundtrack. Unforgettable.

I was right; it was.

On our trip out through South Africa, spending a day in Pretoria, I picked up the album for 30 rand. We played it a lot that year, and it was The Party Album! more than any other that opened my ears to sounds that I would explore in much greater depth in the following decade.

The second half of the album (track 6 of 17 onwards) is the better part of it, and much less easily dismissed than you might expect from this track. “Overwhelm Yourself” and “All Night Passion” are excellent album cuts, and not just because I’m pretty sure that the former is my misty Malagasy soundtrack. (Of course, now that I’m prompted to look it up, I learn that my copy of The Party Album! is some odd South African version with a track listing that doesn’t match any of the versions on Wikipedia. It’s basically the Greatest Hits Part 1 1999 re-release, but with “Vengababes from Outer Space” as its last track.)

The singles are all in the first part of the album, and it’s fair to say that “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!” isn’t my very favourite; I prefer “We Like to Party!” and “Up and Down”. But I can’t deny those beats, that essence of Dutch doof-doof; or the sense of fun that imbues every moment; or the happiness they evoke in me, by bringing back memories I hold so close.

I would give it 10, but that would be silly. For me, though, it’s an 8.

*I really must go back to all those words I wrote on Madagascar and do something more with them. They did have some wider exposure at the time; an English-language newspaper there emailed me to ask if they could reprint some of my blog posts as columns, which I was very happy for them to do.

20 November 2014 · Music