Organised Sound #5

Back To The ‘90s

Gary Steel takes a wander through his musical 1990s.

I WAS A bit shocked when New Zealand singer-songwriter Kimbra released a song called ‘90s Music’ last year. At a pinch, I can handle the idea that people feel nostalgic towards the 1980s, or any decade prior to that, but the 1990s still feels curiously rudderless as a music decade, fragmented and desiccated. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is that for the first time since the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s, the 1990s was a decade lacking in one overriding music trend that would make everyone think about the world a little bit differently.

And yes, it’s true that I was a teenager in the 1970s, when the sounds of that era had their way with me in a spectacular way, etching their very essence into my impressionable psyche; just as it’s true that I was still a young man in the 1980s, when I was excited by the new digital technology and what seemed at the time to hold the promise of a new music utopia, in which anyone could be a musician and we could dump all those boring old instruments for polyphonic synthesisers and drum machines.

So I can understand that someone who experienced their youth in the 1990s might feel that their era was somehow special. But really? It wasn’t that nothing of consequence or quality occurred in the ‘90s, just that there was little that was era-defining.

Rap/hip-hop had been one of the most fascinating developments of the ‘80s, but it had already climaxed by the turn of the decade with its best records, like Public Enemy’s great 1988 It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, which had more to express as a sonic experience and more to say as a socially and politically aware oratorio than all the 1990s gangsta rap records put together big pile and ceremoniously torched. Hip-hop quickly went from one of the great musical movements to little more than another way to get kids to conform their ideas about sexuality and consumerism. Hip-hop was huge in the ‘90s, but its creative mojo had wilted away to next to nothing.

But while the ‘90s lacked that one great defining musical movement, it did have its smaller moments. For many, the greatest thing about the decade was the commercial culmination of a scene that got stuck with the name ‘grunge’. What that really meant was punk influenced rock that happened to come from Seattle, and Nirvana were the poster boys. The sadly fated Kurt Cobain and his two cobbers were capable of some great, savage riffing, but it was the way they combined their rough-hewn energy with traditional pop melodies and Cobain’s weird lyrics and edgy vocal performance that made them matter, and their 1991 Nevermind album is a real standout. The 2011 remastered version reveals it as one of the best engineered hard rock records of its era, too.

While a few excellent bands came out of the grunge movement, the same couldn’t be said of Britpop, a nostalgic music style that seemed to seek to revive the melodicism of pre-psychedelic Beatles and Kinks, but with a slightly ‘90s sensibility.

Oasis were the smash hit of the scene, but it’s increasingly difficult to understand why: overshadowed by the arguments of the two Gallagher brothers, the music sounded thin and weedy even back then, and tried far too hard to evoke 1960s nostalgia. On the edges of that movement was Blur, who had a lot going for them even as they took much of their inspiration from the Kinds and 1970s new wave group XTC.

The real action in the ‘90s wasn’t on the charts but in specialist areas where different scenes merged and fused. It was inevitable that with the increasing sophistication of machines, electronic dance music would throw up some fabulous mutations, and from the house music sub-genres of the mid-to-late ‘80s onwards, dance music would contort into some spectacular new shapes.

Most dance music is of course geared for warehouses and clubs, and not designed to be listened to on home stereos, and that’s where things started to get interesting. In 1989 English group Soul II Soul released a new kind of soul/funk/reggae/rap hybrid with the album Club Classics Vol One, and two years later, in 1991, their distant cousins in Massive Attack created a whole new world for exploration with Blue Lines. Another of those ‘90s albums that stand the test of time, Blue Lines judiciously sampled old jazz, funk and soul tracks to create a new hybrid that the music media dubbed trip-hop. The group was a kind of collective, which included vocal star turns by both unknowns and the likes of reggae crooner Horace Andy. It was a natural melting pot of influences that had its origins in dance music, but was also engaging enough sonically as a late night head-nodding sensation.

Around the same time, certain perpetrators of acid house were evolving their more electronic music into IDM (intelligent dance music), a kind of latterday evolution of the ethos of German group Kraftwerk, in which the latest technology was employed, including sampling and programming. The British kingpins of this genre were Autechre, a duo whose music became so dense and complex and arrhythmic over time that – while fans still trumpeted their loyalty – many people found it utterly baffling.

There were so many sub-genres of electronic music in the ‘90s, and many of them were thrilling. It was a kind of revolution in sound, where functional music (dance) met sonic, conceptual, technological and compositional innovation.

In 1993, for instance, jungle started beaming out of pirate radio in the UK. With its polyrhythmic, sped-up percussion, deep bass irruptions and mad, guttural vocal samples, jungle made you want to fling yourself around any old dance floor, but also put sparks through your neural network. Within a couple of years, jungle had mutated into several different styles of drum and bass, some of it more spatial and ambient, some with a dub reggae pulse, others with jazz inflexions, and then there was the dark, dystopian version (there’s always a dark, dystopian version, don’t you know?)

Germany has always excelled at electronics, and the big Berlin thing from the mid-‘90s onward was techno, which they imported from Detroit, and turned into a variety of sleek shapes that became known as minimal techno. Once again, various musical bacteria got into the system: the deep bass of Jamaican dub became an important ingredient, and some of it incorporated the rhythmic scratches of vinyl run-out grooves or the detritus of failing computers into the fabric of the music. Most importantly for sound fetishists, German minimal techno went overtime on the vinyl revival, and the standard of audio engineering, mastering and pressings was peerless. For me, cuts from the Basic Channel, Chain Reaction and Kompakt labels, and the group Monolake, are some of the real highlights of the 1990s, and they show that genuine innovation in contemporary music was still alive, even if it was within the cracks and within niche audiences.

I’m sure there will be readers out there that will wonder why I didn’t mention the Red Hot Chili Peppers or U2 (well, 1990’s Achtung Baby was a good ‘un), or the rise of dire nu metal groups like Limp Bizkit, or why I didn’t talk about the new breed of female singer-songwriter, the most popular of which was Alanis Morissette. That’s because they were mostly horrible. Morisette’s hectoring faux-feminist ranting couldn’t disguise the fact that she was a manufactured product, and like so many ‘90s singer-songwriters, she lacked that special quality that had marked the likes of Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Kate Bush: a sense of humility, of life, of wonder, of complexity. There was a lot of ‘me’ generation stuff coming out of America in the ‘90s, and that was one of the problems with grunge, which was like the other side of that coin. Unlike ‘70s punk, which railed against society and cultural stasis and status, grunge was all ‘pity me I want to die’, and I guess that was necessary to counter all the bling and banditry of those cop killer rappers, but it still wasn’t a good look, and it didn’t make for classic music.

It’s also why the ‘90s was also one of the first decades that was heavily into nostalgia, and many acts long thought lost or dead returned to active recording careers and live concerts. Bob Dylan and Patti Smith played a double date in Auckland, for instance, while a bunch of septuagenarian musicians from Cuba, dug out of obscurity by guitarist Ry Cooder, the Buena Vista Social Club, made an incredible comeback. Which brings me to my last observation about the 1990s. To add to the complexity of an already complex decade, there was also a genuine swing back to organic, acoustic, roots music from around the world by an audience somewhat disaffected (and maybe disinfected!) by the superficiality of the prevailing trends. One of my favourite labels in the ‘90s was an audiophile world music label called MA, which specialised in close-miked recordings of acoustic jazz and world fusions that were sonically splendiferous, but also authentic to a time, a room, a grain of sound, a musical/cultural sensibility, and a cultural tradition.

What was your music 1990s all about?

Gary Steel has been writing genre-transgressive music reviews for various publications for more than 35 years (but don’t hold that against him), and currently co-runs NZ hi-fi/music/technology site,

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