The History of Rock Music: 1989-1994

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(Copyright c 2009 Piero Scaruffi)

Brit and non-Brit pop


(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")

Brit-pop 1990-94

TM, r, Copyright c 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

As was often the case in rock music, the most publicized phenomenon was also the least artistically interesting. "Brit-pop" became a derogatory term, one associated with ephemeral and dubious acts that speculated on facile melodies and trivial arrangements. If the British Invasion of the 1960s had at least revitalized the USA scene, the "Brit-pop" invasion of the 1990s... was hardly an invasion at all. The Brit-pop bands were all terribly similar and, mostly, tedious. In the end, only a few of them managed to have one or two world-wide hits, and most of them added very little to the history of rock music (other than yet another proof of the aberrations of its industry).

In 1990 Brit-pop had not materialized yet as a "fad", but the seeds were already being planted by bands such as Lightning Seeds, with their retro' classic Cloudcuckooland (? 1989 - feb 1990), and La's, with La's (jul 1987/feb 1990 - oct 1990), specializing in sculpting memorable and unassuming melodies. Teenage Fanclub produced one of the best imitations of Big Star with Bandwagonesque (apr/may 1991 - nov 1991).

Heavenly (2) inherited the Primitives' passion for melodious simplicity. Fronted by former Talulah Gosh's singer Amelia Fletcher, they resurrected the age of Petula Clark, the girl-groups and bubblegum music on Heavenly Vs Satan (? 1990 - jan 1991). Their romantic and naive approach to the pop tune evolved with Le Jardin De Heavenly (feb 1992 - jun 1992) and Decline And Fall (apr/jun 1994 - sep 1994) into a new form of revisionist art, one that transformed Britain's perennial Sixties revival into an international language.

Pulp, fronted by Jarvis Cocker's out-of-fashion dandy style, were the quintessence of glam, retro` and kitsch on albums such as the erotic concept His 'N' Hers (jul 1992/feb 1994 - apr 1994) and singles such as My Legendary Girlfriend (1991), Babies (1992) and Common People (1995).

Scotland's Eugenius, the new project by former Vaselines' guitarist/singer Eugene Kelly, with Oomalama (? 1991/? 1992 - sep 1992), and Ireland's Frank And Walters, with Trains Boats And Planes (? 1991 - oct 1992), also predated the 1994 explosion.

The massive Brit-pop phenomenon began in earnest with the bands destined to rule the world (according to the British press of the time): the Boo Radleys (1), who went "retro" with Giant Steps (feb/mar 1993 - aug 1993), Blur, who attained stardom with Parklife (nov 1993/jan 1994 - apr 1994), and Oasis, the band (or the "bluff") that best personified the fad, from the exuberant Definitely Maybe (dec 1993/apr 1994 - aug 1994) to the multi-million seller Morning Glory (mar/jun 1995 - oct 1995).

The most stunning feature of these bands was their absolute lack of imagination. They continued a British tradition, dating from at least the Beatles, of pop musicians who had nothing to say but said it in a sophisticated manner.

Then it became a race to produce ever more predictable music. Each "next big thing" hailed by the British press was merely a copy of a copy of a copy of something that was not particularly exciting even the first time around.

If nothing else, Suede (1), featuring guitarist Bernard Butler and vocalist Brett Anderson, offered an original take on glam-pop on Suede (nov 1992/jan 1993 - mar 1993).

Former Microdisney's guitarist Sean O'Hagan proved his stature as a Brian Wilson-style arranger on the second and third albums by the High Llamas (1), Gideon Gaye (late 1993/early 1994 - jun 1994) and especially on the elaborate and monumental Hawaii (? 1995 - mar 1996).

Supergrass sounded like the heirs to the Buzzcocks' punk-pop, at least on I Should Coco (feb/aug 1994 - may 1995).

One "next big thing" led to another "next big thing", and soon England was embroiled in a revival of the "mod" culture of the 1960s (read: the Who and, more recently, the Jam). Pioneered by Ocean Color Scene's Moseley Shoals (? 1994/? 1995 - apr 1996), the neo-mod school peaked with the Wildhearts, the most energetic and blasphemous of the pack, notably their album Earth Vs The Wildhearts (? 1993 - aug 1993).

Inspired by the new wave of the 1970s, bands such as Elastica, fronted by Justine Frischmann and harking back to Blondie's and the Cars' disco-punk sound of the 1970s on Elastica (aug 1993/dec 1994 - mar 1995), and Sleeper, also relying on a female voice (Louise Wener) on Smart (? 1994 - feb 1995), offered a less trivial kind of commercial rock.

Retro futurism, 1991

TM, r, Copyright c 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Brit-pop was just the tip of the iceberg. British rock was being swept by a tidal wave of melodic innovation. One facet of it consisted in the transposition of synth-pop and new-wave forms into the body of kitsch music. The theme of bridging nostalgia and futurism harked back to the decadent rockers of the 1970s (and, above all, Brian Eno). The new generation disposed with the decadent poses, and retained only the aesthetic.

Stereolab (12) were not the first and were not the only ones, but somehow they came to represent a nostalgic take on Sixties pop music that employed electronic rhythms and arrangements. Built around the collation of keyboardist Tim Gane (ex-McCarthy) and French vocalist Laetitia Sadier, i.e. the juxtaposition of hypnotic, acid instrumental scores and surreal, naive vocals, as refined by their early EPs Super 45 (nov 1990 - may 1991) and Super-Electric (? ? - sep 1991), Stereolab walked a fine line between avantgarde and pop. As they continued to fine-tune the idea on Peng (apr 1992 - may 1992), echoing the trance of the Velvet Underground, Neu and Suicide, while increasing the doses of electronic sounds, Sadier's voice became a sound and an instrument, contributing more than catchy refrains to the allure of the mini-album Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (? 1992 - jan 1993), the aesthetic manifesto of their chamber kitsch. Stereolab probably reached their zenith with the singles of John Cage Bubblegum (1993) and Jenny Ondioline (1993), that inspired the stylistic tour de force of Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements (may 1993 - sep 1993). Stereolab had coined a new musical language, as austere as classical music and as light as easy-listening. New keyboardist Katharine Gifford contributed to the elegant and smooth sound of Mars Audiac Quintet (spr 1994 - aug 1994), their most accomplished fusion of nostalgia and futurism, although not as innovative as the previous album. Emperor Tomato Ketchup (? 1995 - mar 1996) was even more impersonal, pure sound for the sake of sound, pure abstraction of kitsch music. Stereolab injected Soft Machine's progressive-rock, Terry Riley's minimalism, Neu's robotik rhythm and Pink Floyd's atmospheric psychedelia into the fragile melodic skeleton of British pop music.

"Retro futurism" was pioneered also by Saint Etienne (2). Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs bridged Depeche Mode's synth-pop, the Sixties pop revival, sensual disco-like vocals (Sarah Cracknell) and almost neo-classical arrangements on the sophisticated production exploits of Foxbase Alpha (? 1990/? 1991 - sep 1991) and So Tough (sum/fall 1992 - feb 1993). They were unique in crafting a celestial, effervescent and ghostly fusion of jazz, funk, lounge and house music. Tiger Bay (sum/fall 1993 - feb 1994) achieved pure nirvana, pure ambience and pure style. At their best, it felt as if a Broadway star of the 1950s was backed by Giorgio Moroder on electronic keyboards and by an orchestra conducted by Ennio Morricone.

State Of Grace (1) matched Saint Etienne's achievements on Jamboreebop (? ? - may 1995).

Space devised a form of kitsch that basically bridged Brit-pop and "Madchester" on Spiders (jan 1995/? 1996 - sep 1996).

But it was in Japan that the genre found the most fertile terrain. Pizzicato Five (1), who had turned supermarket muzak into a sub-genre of synth-pop with Couples (apr 1987 - jun 1987), became one of the leading retro bands when they enrolled eccentric vocalist Maki Nomiya, the ideal alter ego of electronic keyboardist Yasuharu Konishi. The single Lover's Rock (1990), possibly their masterpiece, and the album This Year's Girl (? ? - sep 1991) celebrated their passion for icons of the Sixties (James Bond soundtracks, hare-krishna chanting, novelty numbers, silly dance crazes), whereas later collections such as Bossa Nova 2001 (? ? - jun 1993) and Happy End Of The World (? ? - jun 1997) experimented with a format closer to orchestral disco-music.

Art-pop, 1993

TM, r, Copyright c 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Despite all the trivial music cooked up by the assembly chains of Brit-pop, some British bands experimented with different ideas of what a song is supposed to be.

The Tindersticks (1) deployed elegant quasi-orchestral arrangements, that relied mostly on the delicate polyphony of guitar, keyboards and violin, on Tindersticks (may 1993 - oct 1993). Its songs were the ideal soundtrack for brothels packed with philosophers. Stuart Staples' voice (a Chris Isaak soundalike) was lost in the labyrinth of his own visions, haunted by the giant shadows of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. But the subtlety of that work drained away as the band (a "big" band) opted for orchestral pop and lounge music on Tinderstick (may/jul 1994 - apr 1995) and Curtains (jul/oct 1996 - jun 1997).

Radiohead (2), the most hyped and probably the most over-rated band of the decade, upped the ante for studio trickery. They had begun as third-rate disciples of the Smiths, and albums such as Pablo Honey (sep/nov 1992 - feb 1993) and The Bends (feb/nov 1994 - mar 1995) were cauldrons of Brit-pop cliches. Then OK Computer (sep 1995/mar 1997 - may 1997) happened and the word "chic" took on a new meaning. The album was a masterpiece of faux avantgarde (of pretending to be avantgarde while playing mellow pop music). It was, more properly, a new link in the chain of production artifices that changed the way pop music "sounds": the Beatles' Sgt Pepper, Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Michael Jackson's Thriller. Despite the massive doses of grandiloquence a` la U2 and of facile pathos a` la David Bowie, the album's mannerism led to the same excesses that detracted from late Pink Floyd's albums (lush textures, languid melodies, drowsy chanting). Since the production aspects of music were beginning to prevail over the music itself, it was just about natural to make them "the" music. The sound of Kid A (jan 1999/apr 2000 - oct 2000) had decomposed and absorbed countless new perfumes, like a carcass in the woods. All sounds were processed and mixed, including the vocals. Radiohead moved as close to electronica as possible without actually endorsing it. Radiohead became masters of the artificial, masters of minimizing the emotional content of very complex structures. Amnesiac (jan 1999/apr 2000 - jun 2001) replaced "music" with a barrage of semi-mechanical loops, warped instruments and digital noises, while bending Thom Yorke's baritone to a subhuman register and stranding it in the midst of hostile arrangements, making it sound more and more like an alienated psychopath. Their limit was that they were more form than content, more "hype" than message and more nothing than everything. However, Radiohead were emblematic of a new trend in rock music that conceived each song as an isolated and saturated microcosmos of studio effects; each song as an ecosystem of interacting sounds in motion.


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