Britpop Month: Ben P Scott’s musical memories from the early 90s
As someone who is about to turn 30 years old in 2014, it’s fair to say that Britpop was the movement that I grew up with. It began when I was a kid and ended when I was in my teens. Here is the first of five articles remembering the 90s. In this first part, I explain some of the junk I was listening to in the early part of the decade, and remember how dull things were before Britpop arrived. For those too young to remember (or who weren’t even born) this will give you an idea of how different things would have been if Britpop never arrived…
For the first edition of my musical memories, I’m going to rewind the cassette tape of my musical life back to some of my earliest childhood memories. It’s going to be the most difficult instalment of this column that I am ever likely to write. Not just because I have to try and cast my mind back as far as it goes, but because I have to reveal some dark, shameful secrets. Terrible sins that I shudder at the thought of. Yes that’s right, I’m talking about the music I listened to up until the age of about 8 or 9.
I was born in Bath, England in June 1984. It took me about eight years to become interested in music, but once I did it blew all the other interests I previously had out of the window. Once I got into music, there was no turning back. To pinpoint the first band or song that had a real effect on me would be difficult, but in the early 90’s I remember my mum driving a (ridiculous) Citroen 2CV with a tape player. Amongst the things played on that car stereo that I didn’t like were Phil Collins, the Eurythmics and Simply Red. But the main thing that I knew I DID like was The Beatles. Their early work is what reminds me most of that hideous yellow 2CV, a car with an engine so loud you’d have to turn the stereo up to epic volumes to even hear the tunes. I seem to remember thinking that ‘Yesterday’ sounded so sad that it must have been written in tribute to the man who had been shot, not knowing of course that Lennon hadn’t been killed until years after the group’s break up. For some reason ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ evokes memories of harbours… was this maybe a track I’d heard a lot of while being on holidays as a kid? Michael Jackson was absolutely massive in the very early 90’s, and there just seemed to be something fascinating about him. One thing’s for sure, in about 1991 every kid in my school was a fan and so was I. In fact, I remember being bought the ‘Dangerous’ album on cassette, and sitting down excitedly to watch the TV premiere of his video for ‘In The Closet’. He almost seemed like this magical being from another planet. Until the allegations started…
A lot of people from the UK will probably remember the Britannia Music Club. Every month they would send out a leaflet with various offers on chart CDs and new releases, which were always very bland and safe. As well as choosing a few things to buy, my parents would be sent the 'album of the month' as part of their membership, which they could keep or return. I can remember some of these were Lisa Stansfield, Aerosmith, Extreme, Bryan Adams, and a 'Now...' CD from about 1990. Oh dear. With only my parents music, the radio (usually the shitty local station because we couldn't get good reception on anything else), Top Of The Pops and The ITV Chart Show to keep me updated about music, is it any wonder I was listening to some utter bollocks in the early 90's? There were just 12 number one singles all year in 1992. ITV's Chart Show would've been great if only I bothered to pay attention to the 'specialist' charts instead of the rubbish in the actual main top 20. A few years later this show would be playing great stuff, but in the early 90's all I can remember them playing were horribly bland releases from the likes of Whitney Houston, Curtis Stigers, Billy Ray Cyrus, Mariah Carey, Jon Secada, Richard Marx, Curtis Stigers, Jimmy Nail, and that fucking Shakespeare's Sister song which was number one for weeks. I had the decency to avoid buying any of those atrocities, but my childhood musical CV still has a lot of shit stains on it......
Madonna was the sex symbol of the time (in fact, she’d turned into a right slut) but back then I only had eyes (and sadly, ears) for Kylie Minogue. In fact I was given the ‘Kylie’ album on tape for a birthday or Christmas present. I also fancied the blonde one out of ABBA, not realising that she would have probably have aged quite a bit by that point. And because of radio and TV playing terrible shite like Erasure‘s cover of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ (which may have even been number one at the time?) I heard it, ended up liking Erasure and decided to listen to the original, which led to me being bought a tape copy of ‘ABBA Gold’. During the days before I knew what good music was, I could only like what the radio and telly allowed me to hear, and this is why that awful ABBA tape was in my cassette player quite regularly. Because I’d heard the Take That version of ‘Could It Be Magic’ on the ITV Chart Show, I ended up asking my mum to buy me a Barry Manilow album at a car boot sale, because I wanted to hear the original. I actually thought that vinyl copy of ‘Manilow Magic’ was good too. THAT’s what happens when you’re a young kid and you don’t know what good and bad music is yet. Bad music just sounds like normal music because you haven’t heard the good stuff yet. One Christmas (i think 1992) I asked my Nan and Grandad for Right Said Fred‘s album ‘Up’, and god bless them they went out and bought it me for me, which must have been embarrassing for them. I’m so glad Britpop wasn’t too far away….. But Barry Manilow? Shit…
One of the big musical events of my childhood was the death of Freddie Mercury, and I remember it seemed like Queen were being played everywhere. The Freddie Mercury tribute concert was a huge event at the time, and was how I first came across Guns N Roses and even more importantly, David Bowie. Still being too young to afford to buy music, I often used to just make recorded tapes of albums I had asked my Mum to borrow from the library, hits from the radio, and various music from my parents collections (mostly various tracks from compilations, most of which appeared to have been issued in the 80's). I didn't buy my first record until some point in 1993 or maybe even early 1994 (further research through my memories will confirm that soon) which involves buying the record with your own money rather than your parents or someone else getting it for you. But it was Queen who became the first band I was ever a real fan of, firstly because of the couple of Queen LPs my parents owned, plus the fact that all my Dad's friends seemed to have the group's 'Greatest Hits' on all the time at gatherings and the fact that the band were hard to ignore around the early 90's due to the coverage given to Mercury's death. I remember owning a few copied Queen albums on various cassette tapes and I can clearly remember displaying my fondness for Queen in a piece of my school work. In primary school, probably around 1992 our class was asked to draw a picture of what they'd like to be when they grew up. I drew myself on a stage as the frontman of a four piece band who looked remarkably like Queen. In fact it clearly was Queen, because I even drew the logo on the drum kit. I can't even begin to think of what my teacher thought of one of her pupils wanting to be Freddie Mercury, and in retrospect I'm glad I didn't keep Freddie as a role model, I certainly couldn't have lived his lifestyle. Plus a lot of the time Queen were dreadful anyway.
As well as owning Queen's 'Greatest Hits' and taped copies of a few of their LPs that my Mum and Dad owned, I was also given a Queen promo cassette by my Dad's friend John Hanson. John was very much into his music, his ex wife worked for EMI Records and apparently he went to school with one of Jesus Jones. Me and my brother became good friends with his son Wilf. The three of us used to mess around with a keyboard, some pots and pans, and improvise our own songs. We'd record the resulting racket on to cassette and call our band Wet Dog. You'll hear a lot more about John and Wilf in future editions of this column. In 1992 my parents took us to the annual Balloon Fiesta in Bristol where we watched a Radio One Roadshow taking place. Hosting was Marky Mark and "performing" was a guy called Junior and a bunch of knobheads called East 17, who were miming badly to their rather terrible 'House Of Love'. So I definitely couldn't class this as my first gig that's for sure. The first time I remember watching an actual band play live was in about 1993, but I class my first gig as the time in 1994 where for the first time I watched a band with their own material. It wasn't until early 1998 that I got to see someone famous for the first time. Again, all that to come in future memoirs.
My Auntie Karen, her husband Phil and my three cousins Luke, Russell and Vicky lived in Barnsley, a long way from my home in Wiltshire. Oddly the only thing I remember about visiting them in 1992 is that it was around the time that rave music had gone mainstream, and as well as The Shamen's excellent 'Ebeneezer Goode', Felix's 'Don't You Want Me' and Snap!'s 'Rhythm Is A Dancer' were also massive hits at the time. I also remember that while I was there visiting on that occasion, I listened to Genesis live at Knebworth on Radio One. At least it wasn't more Right Said Fred. Actually, at some point (not sure which year) I became rather keen on a few tracks from some of my mum's Genesis CDs, and I'm not even talking about the cool Peter Gabriel-featuring early stuff either. 'That's All' was a massive favourite of mine back then. The best song Phil Collins ever sang? I reckon.
A lot of you who read my music blog will be thinking "Queen? Right Said Fred? Erasure? Barry fucking Manilow? How did this guy end up with the fine taste and knowledge he has now?".
It's 1993 and i'm 8 years old. The radio is full of shite, and it's impossible to hear anything good. And if you don't hear what's good, you don't know what's good... Rather like the kids of today in fact, although not quite as bad.
Thanks to his appearance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, I started listening to George Michael, and became keen on his 'Faith' album, which I had a vinyl copy of. Rather naff yes, but what a catchy title track, and slightly less ridiculous than the stuff he did with Wham! (whose 'Make It Big' was a vinyl LP I also owned)... A compilation tape I can't remember the title of, featuring various reggae tracks, ranging from old classics (which were awesome) to the watered down pop reggae that was briefly popular in the early 90s (which definitely was not awesome). That particular brand of fake rasta-pop must have struck a chord with me at the time though, since I was once the not-so-proud owner of a 7" copy of Chaka Demus and Pliers' awful cover of 'Twist and Shout'. Plus, for one of my birthdays I actually asked for and got bought a 12" copy of Shaggy's 'Oh Carolina'... It featured an absolutely atrocious version of 'Rivers Of Babylon' on the flipside. I'm so glad Britpop wasn't too far away...
Then there is a vague memory of the beginning of a turning point, not just for me but for music in general… In 1993, while my Dad was doing building work on my Auntie’s old house in Southwick, Wiltshire, I was sat in his old transit van listening to a cassette of the 1993 Brit Awards, recorded from radio or TV the night before. It was then that I heard Suede for the first time, thinking it was the same group that did ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’. I soon realised my error and was suddenly intrigued by this new band with this exciting, in-your-face new sound. There was something freaky about them and I liked it. I also liked Peter Gabriel’s ‘Steam’, which he performed at the show, and I soon began listening to some of his Best Of album ‘Shaking The Tree’ that my Mum had just bought on CD.
But that still didn't stop me from experimenting with some seriously dodgy music during my childhood. I can remember a family holiday to Andorra and the music played during the drive, plus some of the stuff I had on my Walkman while tackling the Andorran ski slopes. The music I heard a lot of during this holiday included a tape of Erasure's greatest hits. An awful group who made appalling songs, but I suppose it was an early indication of my future fondness for electro music.
The holiday involved a long drive through France and I do recall some of the music that accompanied this journey... A cassette copy of 'The Freddie Mercury Album' (which represented the very worst side of the man), 'Take That And Party' (they didn't seem so dismal to an 8 year old)... A tape of Eric Clapton's 'Journeyman'... what sort of 8 year old would listen to this? I can't remember if it was actually mine or if it belonged to my parents.
A far better option was my cassette of The Shamen's 'Boss Drum' album, which my Dad also held a fondness for, and a tape ever present on my Walkman while I attempted to ski. My Dad also claimed to have once met Mr C from The Shamen while while watching The Orb live. Then finally there was a cassette of Brian May's abysmal solo album, which probably was one of mine given my liking for Queen... Abysmal is actually too kind a description.
But as I said in last week's column, all the tapes and records I owned at that point were either bought for me as presents or home-recorded copies of stuff, and the first record I actually went out and bought myself was still a while off yet. The hotel we stayed at was owned by my Auntie Susan (the same Auntie with the house in Southwick) as well as her husband Dave, and a great place it was too. They had a stereo system that played music in the bar, dining area and through the little radios in the rooms. All I remember hearing on it was Cher's Greatest Hits. While in the shops there, I can recall hearing Lenny Kravitz's 'Are You Gonna Go My Way', a cover of the Bryan Adams track 'Run To You' by dance act Rage, and 'Be My Baby' by the singer Vanessa Paradis.
Also present with us on this holiday were my Dad's mate Brian and his family. Brian was the singer in a crappy covers band called Footloose, who played a mixture of cliched 50's rock n roll numbers and AOR hits. One night in 1993 or possibly 1994, they played at the Trowbridge Rugby Club, where I ended up being invited up to sing Queen's 'I Want To Break Free' with them. Not exactly the most credible of introductions to the world of rock n roll...
But although the rest of 1993 would result in me owning more hideous records, things started to change later in the year...
I'm 9 years old, and about to start my fifth year at primary school. This was 1993 again, and my school (Aloeric School in Melksham) had each class bury a time capsule containing various items from the 20th century. With my fondness for music developing, I decided that it was important that future generations could experience popular music as it was in 1993. So what did I pick as a definitive musical representation of the 20th century and all its creative wonders? 'No Limits' by 2 Unlimited. Quite why I picked it, I cannot be begin to imagine. Just picture the scene in years to come, every single CD, tape and record is wiped out by an earth sweeping fire that also takes out all the computers, leaving the few remaining survivors with nothing left of the complete history of recorded music. Then years later, future generations of man find a time capsule from the 90's buried in Melksham. Then imagine the future inhabitants of earth marvelling at the likes of 'Tribal Dance' or 'Maximum Overdrive'. A scary thought.
Also around about this point in the early 90’s I would watch MTV at my Nan and Grandad’s house (since we didn’t have Sky), and one of the videos in heavy rotation on MTV at the time was ‘Three Little Pigs’ by ridiculous comedy heavy metal group Green Jelly. With its animated video featuring plasticine pigs, this was a song which I begged my parents to buy me the 7″ single of. And I got it. A pink vinyl too. Don’t own it anymore though. I also pleaded with my Mum to buy me a copy of Green Jelly’s album on cassette, which I also got. It had a song on it called ‘Shitman’ with lyrics that went “I’ve got poo-poo on my shoe”. Enough said.
Far more important for me was the arrival of David Bowie into my musical life. I’d first seen Bowie on telly, singing at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, and he had been appearing on the ITV Chart Show a lot since he’d just released ‘Black Tie White Noise’. But I’d only really heard a couple of his tracks and for some reason at that point I still didn’t really take much notice of the ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’ LPs that my mum owned. I should have. It might have saved me from listening to mostly shite for the rest of 1993. But having said that, I was listening to more of my Mum’s Beatles LPs and was becoming quite a fan. I found it so intriguing how they seemed to have changed into a completely different band over the space of just a few years. But in those days I was definitely more fond of their earlier work, easy to singalong to and simply the best pop music there ever was.
During this year, my Mum was listening to REM's 'Automatic For The People' a lot, a record which had increased in popularity since its release the previous year. This was around summer 1993, when we got our red tabby cat Max, who would go on to live with us for 19 years. I'll always think of that little furry man every time I hear any song from that album. I remember seeing the videos to 'Man In The Moon', 'Drive', 'Everybody Hurts' and 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite' quite often on the ITV Chart Show. I used to buy Smash Hits every so often too, and at this point they had a weekly cut-out cassette booklet. The idea of this was that if you had a homemade compilation tapes of songs from a favourite group, then one of these cut-out booklets could be used as the cover. I remember REM being one of the artists featured once. In the 'facts' part of the booklet was information such as Michael Stipe's obsession with skateboarding and his unusual habit of swimming in his garden pond. I didn't know what to believe. I just knew that this band were producing some really great songs. Far less brilliant was my Mum's other often-played album of the time, 'Diva' by the diabolically bland Annie Lennox.
My Dad was keen on reggae, and Bob Marley would be on the stereo in his van a lot. He also liked UB40, and so did I after hearing 'Labour Of Love'. But their weak cover of 'I Can't Help Falling In Love' wasn't easy to escape from since it was number one at the time, and I became quite keen on that. There was a cassette of their album 'Promises And Lies', but aside from that hit single I can't remember a thing about the other tracks. I was able to hear Elvis because of my Dad's double cassette 'Presley' album, featuring all the hits. But it was his copy of the 'Elvis Love Songs' LP that I seemed to play a lot.
But I was still too young to know good music from bad music. It all just sounded like a load of songs. You have to grow a bit and hear more of what's out there to set a standard. Because otherwise you'll end up like one of those people that buys X Factor singles and who accepts any old rubbish that's played to them. And I suppose in a way, listening to stuff like 2 Unlimited, Right Said Fred, Shaggy and Green Jelly taught me what bad music was. Well it did after I had learned how awful it was compared to the real treasure out there in the musical world. One supposedly "awful" song from that period that I do still regard fondly is 'All That She Wants' by Ace Of Base. An absolute pop masterpiece with one of the most infectious choruses ever committed to record. I've become more fond of it now than I was back then.
My Dad's mate Brian (not the one from the band I mentioned in last week's column) ran a second hand shop near where my Great Nan lived. In fact, 'junk shop' would probably be a more appropriate term for it, a dark and dusty place that smelt odd and had boxes of records for sale. Which is where my Dad bought me a 7" copy of 'West End Girls' by the Pet Shop Boys and worse, Meatloaf's atrocious 'Bat Out Of Hell', which I played to death. Nowadays the mere thought of that album frightens me. What a TERRIBLE record. I don't know what was worse, that or the hideously overblown sack of excrement that was 'I Would Do Anything For Love', a song which I still didn't have the good taste to stay away from. Awful, awful shite. I had a cassette copy of Bat Out Of Hell II too. Now THAT'S just wrong.
But despite now being aware that 'I Would Do Anything For Love' is a true abomination, hearing it still gives me this nostalgic sensation that some would mistake for the feeling they get when they hear a good song. But because I know this song is subconsciously attached to my childhood, that's why it still sounds powerful to me. Despite being shit. I hope you know what I mean.
But I know enough good music to know that David Bowie will always sound great in a sentimental way AND in terms of knowing you're listening to some truly great work. His impact on my life was absolutely pivotal. And you'll have to read the next instalment of my story for more about that...
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.