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Strings please: the rise and fall of the orchestral-pop sound of the 1990s – Part Two

Part Two of my deep dive exploration of the rise and fall of orchestral pop in the 1990s; read Part One here

Released at the tail end of 1993, yet peaking in the early months of 1994, ‘Linger’ is my favourite Cranberries song. Full of tantalising regret and lovelorn melodies, there’s a keening honest quality to Dolores O’Riordan‘s memorable vocals that tenderly outlines a fleeting moment that opens up the door to a nascent love that is elusive. In the documentary ’99 Love Life & Rock ‘n’ Roll, Dolores O’Riordan says that the song is about her first serious kiss. When O’Riordan auditioned as the lead singer for the band, she wrote the lyrics, turning it into a song of regret based on an experience with a 17-year-old soldier she once fell in love with. A strumming backdrop that has echoes of The Sundays‘ 1990 album Reading Writing and Arithmetic, builds to an epic sweep of strings, violins and cellos rising and puncturing sweetly with a cinematic framing. It was arranged by John Metcalfe. Stephen Street had called in his friend John Metcalfe and the Duke Quartet to develop up the part that O’Riordan had originally written. “She had this line, but it was played on a very cheap little string synth that she had,” says Street. “I just said to John, ‘Look, here’s the line, can you arrange it properly for a string quartet?’ But we actually ended up blending a little bit of the original line that Dolores played, and put lots of reverb on that, so it’s just kind of there in the background. What you hear in the foreground more is the actual real strings.”

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Swelling to an infectious, sweeping and heart-tugging chorus invested with the heartbreak of being messed around, augmented by Dolores’s Irish lilt in a way that touches your heart, her vocals are both sweet and romantic but also heartbroken. In an era when it was rare for bands from (Limerick) Ireland to break through, the Cranberries were a band for the moment, marrying bittersweet melodies and down-to-earth song-writing. Drummer Fergal Lawler later recalled first meeting her in an interview: “It was a Sunday afternoon. She arrived with a keyboard under her arm, just set it up and played a few songs. We couldn’t really hear her because she was singing through a guitar amp or something. I gave her a lift up to the bus stop and I was saying, ‘Will we see you next week?’ We gave her a tape of the music for ‘Linger’, which she took with her. The following week she came back, and she had lyrics written out and melodies and she sang along to what we were playing, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God. She’s great.'”

Many of the best compositions in the ’90s that used strings, weren’t crafting anthems that were more at home at the proms than Glastonbury, they were using them to create atmospheres. ‘Roads’ by Portishead is an aching, down-tempo track that frames daubing keys, and wah-wah guitars with a mournful yet subtle string arrangement that captures a sense of emotional depth and introspection when paired with Beth Gibbons’ exquisite and haunting vocal performance. It was released in 1994 as part of their excellent debut album Dummy and quickly became one of the band’s most beloved and iconic songs. With its bruised melodies and enigmatic lyrics, ‘Roads’ leaves you with mysterious intrigue about what happened on those dark highways. 

Following the dynasty of his father Tim, Jeff Buckley‘s album Grace, released in 1994, still informs many singer-songwriters to this day. The rolling ‘Last Goodbye‘ is one of his most powerful moments, the jazz-flecked string arrangements by German/American jazz composer and pianist Karl Berger sewn into Buckley’s tumbling arpeggios and heartbroken and soaring falsetto as parting is such sweet sorrow. It’s a sound that effortlessly blurs the soul/rock/blues genres and led many to uncover his album for the first time in the years that passed.  The record would influence the likes of Radiohead‘s 1995 album The Bends, Coldplay‘s debut album and, unfortunately, an abundance of overly earnest singer-songwriters that would clog the charts at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium. But more of that in part three. 
 

Tori Amos released her classic album Under The Pink in 1994, one track in particular ‘Yes, Anastasia‘ utilises classical influences. A haunting song about Anastasia Romanov, a grand duchess of Russia who was the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna. Anastasia’s life was marked by privilege and tragedy, as she and her family were executed by a revolutionary firing squad in 1918. Shifting from intimate piano motifs and Amos’s touching vocals, swirling into an epic with swooping vocals and grand strings that add a dramatic foreboding to this tragic tale.
 
“That’s my big epic. A lot of Debussy influence on the first half, and the Russian composers on the second half.” She told the Beat in ’94, “I was real excited working with Phil Shenale, who arranged the strings. We’d had quite a famous arranger arranging and Eric and I erased it all after we had some margaritas. No, we purposely did, it was shit.”
 
Phil Shenale did the string arrangement for this song. But Phil wasn’t the first string arranger hired to work on Under the Pink.” She wrote in ‘A Piano’ liner notes in 2006. “I had called in someone with “a reputation.” I’ll never forget the day that after we completed a four-song session with a 50-piece orchestra at Ocean Way Studios, I went and erased all 50 pieces on all four tracks without telling the record company. I was working with a string arrangement I hadn’t heard before because I was told this was the way the string arranger created, and I would just have to trust. Now I went along with it because of certain advisors on the project and the reputation of the string arranger. This is where I’ve learned to trust my instinct. After the session was over I went next door to the Columbia Bar and Grill. Eric Rosse and the engineer on the string session, John Beverly Jones, were there, and I remember it as clear as the day it happened. They both looked at me, over weak margaritas with extra salt, and asked if I really wanted to do this, if I really wanted to erase the equivalent of what a medium-sized house in Pomona would cost. Without a doubt, after another lick of salt, I got up, walked next door, and pushed the erase button. It was the most liberating feeling to get rid of something that I felt compromised the songs. I knew if I was willing to do that, I would be okay in life.”
 
“‘Yes, Anastasia'” was one of those tracks where I erased the strings. She was with me during that time, all the way from Virginia.” Shenale explained, “I think because of the blood on the tracks for Anastasia herself — with the brutality, the murders that happened with her family — that when there was a misalignment with the string arrangement, when the composition of the structure was compromised, and when ultimately the story was compromised, I decided we needed a little blood on our tracks too. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I think she made the greatest case for me to erase everything.”

1994 was a fertile year for string sound, Madonna‘s Bedtime Stories mined that sound particularly on standout tracks like Secret and ‘Take a Bow, Tasmin Archer‘s ‘Sleeping Satellite’ is a grandly sweeping number one hit with a rich vocal that looked to the stars. Let’s brush over the likes of Wet Wet Wet who dominated the chart with their saccharine and dreadfully cheesy string-led version of ‘Love is All Around.

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But perhaps the best example came from Kylie Minogue in August of 1994 and the lavish ‘Confide in Me’. Making her move from Stock, Aitken and Waterman to hip dance label Deconstruction, Minogue teamed up with producers Brothers In Rhythm. Its dramatic Eastern style stings and cinematic John Barry soundtrack sound with paddling Balearic beats in a nod perhaps to Björk‘s work a few years earlier; it’s a compelling suite of sound, according to producer Steve Anderson (one half of Brothers In Rhythm) it even includes a gated didgeridoo in the “stick or twist” part!  Minogue’s vocal is alluring, yet mysterious, it seduces with a magnetism. She plays a femme fatale as she pleads for a confession, with almost sinister verses released by her long dramatic note of the chorus that reels you in and kisses off in equal measure. It’s one of Minogue’s best vocals and records.

‘Inner City Life’ is a portion of the first track on Goldie‘s 1994 album Timeless, which is a 21-minute opus. The single edit is a fantastic piece of revelry about finding calm in the eye of the city’s storm. I love the way the song creates an atmosphere with synth strings, seamlessly blending breakbeats and basslines that are common in jungle with orchestral textures and soulful airless vocals by Diane Charlemagne. It also features a sample from Ike Turner‘s song ‘Funky Mule‘, from his 1969 album, A Black Man’s Soul. Despite appearing on the Trainspotting soundtrack, Goldie complained it didn’t get the airplay it deserved at the time. And we totally agree. Producer Rob Playford who worked with Goldie on the record told Sound on Sound “We then put some drums in towards the end to give the strings more time to develop. It was then that I found this trick on the sampler that I don’t think anyone has done since. The breakbeat is actually made up of two mono files on the sampler, which I adjusted separately, so that when I stuck them together, I had the break riding up and spinning around in the stereo soundfield. It sounded like nothing we’d ever heard, it was a revelation — we listened to that for hours and hours.”

Providing a bridge between their debut album Definitely Maybe, also released this year, Oasis released the single ‘Whatever’ at the tail end of 1994. With strings supplied by the London Symphony Orchestra, it attempted to ape The Beatles sound, it was a portent of things to come from the Manchester lads. NME editor Tommy Udo wrote at the time “‘Whatever’ is only the best single of 1994, only the best Oasis single of 1994 because I feel reasonably confident that they’ll do one better every time. Basically, it pisses over everything else. A song to die for, with a descending scale and a f—ing string section: from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘All You Need Is Love’ in under a year.” Whilst it’s far from the best single of this year, it’s undeniably catchy, with nursery rhyme lyrics and a melody with a singalong quality (“I’m free to be whatever I”) it aped the carefree attitude of The Soup Dragon‘s ‘I’m Free’. Neil Innes of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band claimed the song borrowed portions of his song ‘How Sweet to Be an Idiot’. Innes and Oasis later settled a plagiarism lawsuit and Innes received songwriting credit. It laid down the foundations for songs like ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’ that would appear on their next album What’s the Story (Morning Glory). 

Bernard Butler left Suede in acrimonious circumstances during the recording of Dog Man Star, finding creative solace in the bosom of David McAlmont who had become similarly disenfranchised with the music business after numerous label wrangles. They formed a brief yet successful partnership and their finest moment came to glorious effect on their debut single ‘Yes’ that hit no.8 in the charts at the end of May and early June in 1995.“I had just left Suede and my life was falling apart and it was horrible. When you leave a band everything is connected to it like friends. When you leave one in a bad way, you end up on your own. ” Butler explained to Louder than war in 2013 “You also didn’t have a label and all of the things you grow accustomed to in a band. I just wanted to write joyful music in the summer and I’d just been writing on Dog Man Star for the previous six months so that was tough as well. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield and Motown. I wanted to write something very Bacharach/David type of thing with plenty of key changes and strings and a big baseline and that was a big inspiration.  I gave the tape to David after meeting him and he had the words done after a couple of days and when we met up he said that he only had one verse so we just repeated the verse. He was perfect and we recorded it in two days in France and I did the overdubs myself. The song means a lot to people.”

David McAlmont told the James Mcmahon podcast in 2022, that “ever since I heard Prince as a teenager I’ve loved an axe wielder, and I think Bernard is splendid at it. It’s one of the highlights of my working life, sitting in the studio with him watching him play. Before he played me the song, all those years ago, he said he’d been listening to lots of Dusty Springfield, and I can hear that in it. I took the record home and did some work on it, but I don’t know what I did. I’ve heard people say it’s uplifting, but whatever I did, I’ve never done it again!”

Teaming up with producer Mike Hedges known for his work with The Beautiful South ‘Yes’ attempts to recreate the Wall of Sound productional technique beloved of Phil Spector,  ‘Yes’ is an affirmation writ large in a pop song, subverting the classic ‘I Will Survive’, it’s about dusting yourself down after a soon to be ex-lover has kicked you in the guts. Thus it took on a knowing double meaning for the down-on-their-luck pair, as McAlmont’s sky-scraping vocals radiated an effortless soul, a joyous redemptive power that towering toward great heights.  Butler’s epic and sweeping arrangements give Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ a lick of paint, draping McAlmont’s notes in shimmering production, bounding drums and spiralling guitars.  It’s wonderful.

Also released in May of 1995, was another seminal single of the period, Pulp‘s imperious ‘Common People’ lifted from their album Different Class, was a somewhat exaggerated account of Jarvis’ time with a girl in St Martin’s college gave him a platform for a wry, withering attack on upper-middle class attempts to slum it with the proles: (“you’ll never know what its like to live your life without meaning or control”). It’s delivered over throbbing disco pop beats, and the insistent keyboards of Candida Doyle, rising to Russell Senior’s violin-driven crescendos. It became an anthem, and as they performed it at Glastonbury ’95 with all of Jarvis’ command of the Pyramid stage, their ascent was complete!

Whilst the mainstream pandered to the stereotypical idea of Blur as a bunch of southern arty ponces and Oasis as working-class northern heroes,  ‘Common People’ was perhaps the definitive and most eloquent comment on the British obsession with class in the ’90s.

With the release of The Bends in 1995, Radiohead began to gather traction in the States, their album also expanded their sonic palette. Working with John Leckie known for his work on The Stone Roses debut, they brought in extra instrumentation to augment one haunting track in particularly ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. Leckie remembers “Jonny Greenwood [guitarist, keyboardist] had written some string parts for Fake Plastic Trees, (Nice Dream), and maybe another track. They wanted a cello player and I knew this girl called Caroline Lavelle who worked with a string quartet. She was coming down to record with Jonny’s friend [John Matthias] who was playing violin. Anyway, we wanted to get a track down of Fake Plastic Trees and Thom said, ‘I’ll do it now!’”

Leckie was amazed by Yorke’s ability to produce such a haunting song so quickly “I won’t say he did it first take, but he did it second or third take. The whole track dynamic was created from Thom’s original performance.” With ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, they wanted to use strings and Jonny said he would score for them. They had a friend, John Matthias, who could play violin and they wanted me to fix a cello player, and that turned out to be Caroline Lavelle who plays on Peter Gabriel’s stuff. But when they arrived, I realised that we had this violinist from Oxford who was a student, together with probably the best cello player in the world! So there was a slightly uneasy atmosphere to it, particularly since Jonny hadn’t written any parts out. But we built it up track by track and it worked really well. The day before that we’d recorded Thom just singing the song with an acoustic guitar and we worked around that. We didn’t replace the voice and he kept the time himself – the drums were one of the last things to go on.

Also in 1995, North East group Dubstar released their excellent debut album Disgraceful in June on Food Records, skirting the lines between dream and synth pop. From that album two songs stand out, ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now‘ that feature the cellos of Audrey Riley. “ I have a really clear memory of Stephen Hague (producer) playing me a couple of tracks from the Dubstar album because he’d just started working on it. And he was really excited about it. I was in the studio working on another recording and he said ‘Oh, before you go do you want to hear an album I’m working on at the moment? Because I think it’s amazing.” She remembers, “So, he played me a couple of tracks from that album, and I was like ‘Whoa, that’s just fantastic! The mixing of the synths and real instruments was fantastic,’  there’s also the combination of her amazing charismatic vocals. Steve Hiller did actually write me a cello piece. What a talent. What an underused talent.”

“And later, in 2003, I got a small Arts Council grant to do a project for cello, electric guitar, and piano to commission to work from artists whose music I’d really enjoyed working on, and arranging,  to ask them to write me a piece instead. “

Released in 1995 Maxinquaye was the debut long player from Bristolian rapper and producer Tricky, Having grown frustrated in Massive Attack, he met vocalist Martina Topley Bird and began working with her.  For the lead single ‘Overcome’ Tricky flips the beats of Massive Attack track ‘Karmacoma’ incorporating a sample of Shakespears Sister‘s 1992 track ‘Moonchild‘. 

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Heavy with a rolling atmosphere dubby pitch shifting beats, flutes, swirling strip loops and an intoxicating atmosphere like a fever dream with a foreboding bubbling underneath, some speculated on its erotic themes as Topley Bird’s vocals give voice to the imagery of sultry fornication.  Tricky told Melody Maker at the time that the themes were intensely personal but also the existential and hung heavy with global anxieties at the same time. “in Overcome: ‘You and I walking through the suburbs / We’re not exactly lovers’. Then it goes, ‘And then you wait / For the next Kuwait’. You could be walking down the street with your girlfriend, and at the same moment, Kuwait is getting bombed. It’s to do with a moment in time. I’m trying to be three-dimensional. It’s about the world. I suppose there is a lot of sex and violence in the world. We’re like – Martina, what’s that word – sociologists? Is that a word? We’re documentarians. That’s what we do. We document the situations around us. Violence. Death. Sex. Money. Deviousness.”
 
Oasis returned with ‘Wonderwall’ in October 1995, one of the most influential string-led “anthems” of the period, for better and mostly worse.  With a title taken from the 1968 film of the same name for which George Harrison had provided the soundtrack.  It’s a combination of strummed guitar and Liam’s booming vocal to the fore in the intro with every other instrument compressed by producer Owen Morris in Rockfield studios in Wales, this song is unmistakable. It wears its heart on its sleeve, written about Noel’s then-girlfriend Meg Matthews. He also told the NME in ’96 it’s “about an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself”. It’s a rare moment of tenderness from the band, but Liam’s stretching of the word “maybe” to breaking point helps give the impression of an “everyman sing-along” that any lad can sing, yet on repeated as it was for the rest of the decade, it ended up sounding like a dirge with its three notes and lack of melodic nuance and one dimensional “belted out” delivery, with every busker, bad pub singer and amateur acoustic guitarist thinking they could butcher the song.  But it was the cello sound in the background, that was the instrumental part that had largest influence upon the use of strings on ballads that would follow in the 1990s, it turns out it was played on a mellotron by Bonehead. As Owen Morris told Sound on Sound:
 
“In the meantime, given all of the computer-based work that I had done with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, I always had Cubase running, and on Morning Glory we also got an old Mellotron in. Bonehead wasn’t going to play his usual strum-along bar chords on ‘Wonderwall’. “ Morris remembers “So I went and picked out the root notes, showed him where they were, and then got him to play those with the Mellotron’s cello sound, which we all liked. After picking out a harmony for the bridge and chorus to build it, we were basically finished by dinner time. The only things that weren’t on there were the little piano line that comes in at the end — we knew the track needed something there to keep it going, and Noel would provide it a few weeks later — and the Kurzweil strings that I’d add during the mix.”
 

As a teenager in 1994, I was a fan of Oasis’s first few albums back then. There was initially the blast of refreshing noise and brazenness about them on their debut album but What’s the Story (Morning Glory) in particular, in hindsight, was inconsistent, over-hyped, and relied on a few big singles to achieve such success. Maybe moving to London and becoming tabloid fodder, coupled with the commercial roll that they were on increased Noel’s arrogance, in particular.

Whilst Oasis undoubtedly gave hope to working-class acts for escape their effect on Britpop would be more troubling, like a magpie Noel Gallagher dumbing down the sound and lyrics of guitar music, inspiring a rush for the signatures for any post-Oasis guitar bands who wanted to slap strings on their record. “Once you get records like Wonderwall going out there with a famous string line on it, that’s it. It’s like the record companies tell the producers to add more cello because that’s what’s successful at the moment, and then it gets overkill,” remembers Audrey Riley. 

Michael Hann in the Guardian argues whilst Britpop harked back to the 1960s, Oasis and Blur lacked everything that made inspirations such as the Kinks or the Beatles interesting – their borrowings from black culture, filtered through suburban English eyes, or their wide-eyed sense of exploration – was left undigested.”

The success of ballads like ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger‘(which I actually prefer despite its clear debt to John Lennon‘s ‘Imagine’) became influential records on the public and music consciousness, laying the foundations for the mainstream success of ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams and The Verve in 1997, and in the overly earnest balladry of late ’90s by bands like Travis, Embrace, Coldplay and in the early 2000s, by bands like Starsailor and Keane, but more about them in part three. 

Whilst some retrospectives such as Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley’s on the BBC last year look back with rose-tinted spectacles and argue Britpop was “youth culture winning” revelling in the excitement of these bands gate crashing the mainstream thanks in part to The Evening Session, Top of the Pops, TFI Friday and becoming successful and yes the success of Oasis and Blur and others like the Manic Street Preachers and Pulp, Elastica, Suede did feel initially exciting at the time, it did empower many kids from outside of London who now felt they had a route for escape beyond becoming a footballer – remember this was the era before the internet – to feel they could form a band and gate-crash the charts, get a degree, build a career or enter the media. It also gave northern and regional voices a platform.

But it also swiftly became a bandwagon and a pigeonhole for the music weeklies, that seemingly included every band that happened to be playing guitars at the time, whether they were actually part of it or not. It also had long-lasting consequences leading to a dumbing down of independent music, a moment when indie became pop, and the hit became more important than the song, often the sound was watered down to terrace singalongs as the pressure was on to repeat the hit, thus in some ways “indie” was robbed of what made it unique and individual and as labels like Creation, Food, and others got soaked up by major labels, stripped of principle.  “The whole Britpop thing killed that eccentricity in music for quite a long time,” argued Luke Haines in a DIS interview

It also led part of a generation of blokes to think that being in a band equalled only wanting to look and sound like Oasis lads, wielding sloganeering terrace singalongs (literally in the case of ‘Three Lions’, released around Euro 96). Lest we forget laddism was now in full swing a boorish often masochistic movement, for which Liam was the monkey walking poster boy, fuelled by a very male retro (and white) ‘real music’ scene presided over by what some dubbed “Noelrock” (Ocean Colour Scene, Northern Uproar, Stereophonics et al) and titles like Loaded and Nuts flooded in with an uncomfortable objectification of women on their front pages, and in photo shoots, in recent years certain members of ’90s bands who shall remain nameless have been exposed for vile behaviour towards women during and after the ’90s.

NEWS: Lush to play their final ever show in Manchester on Friday

Miki Berenyi of Lush, talked about an unsavoury incident with Blur during an interview with her for the 2015 documentary Girl in a Band: Tales from the Rock’ n’ Roll Front Line.  “I remember Alex from Blur sinking his teeth into my arse, and he thought it was hilarious, and he thought I’d be really flattered. And this is what I mean about the change. Suddenly, it seemed OK to relate to women in that way.”

“I object to this idea that Britpop was fucking amazing,” she also said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’d been there, jumping up and down to ‘Girls and Boys’. Some of the music was great. But Britpop was a monoculture. Every scene has an underbelly, but there was no room for any other story. Of course, you can’t say that because people will go: stop being such a killjoy; you’re only saying that just because Lush weren’t popular – which I have conceded!”
 
So, the Britpop years weren’t all pints down the good mixer and hazy summers of love either. From the vulgar Oasis Vs Blur chart battle (1996), engineered by their labels and desperate media outlets to further stoke the rivalry between the bands, the lines drawn crudely between northerners and southerners, working-class oiks versus art school poshos it was ultimately doomed merely adding to the sense to the sense that Britpop had already jumped the shark. Characterised by Blur‘s worst ‘carry on’ style ‘oo-er missus’ video ‘Country House’, was a very bad brassy retooling of the Parklife sound, with its “mockney vocals” and caricatured characters, only this yuppie character living a very unhappy life in a country manor, with horns and clunky lyrics written on the back of a fag packet, it was lifted from their album The Great Escape from this year. This record also contained the much better string-led song ‘The Universal‘ with a chorus line of ‘it really really could happen’ grasping for hope amidst despair. The song was sold off to a British Gas advert, its intro killed by over play. Damon Albarn told the Quietus “The music industry has changed… I mean, there are very few people that consider not having their music put out in that way these days.”
 

 
A band called Thurman jumped onto the Parklife bandwagon and lurched Britpop into full-on self-parody, the whole Seaside Postcard caricature of English ‘cultcha’ reflected by their laughable song ‘English Tea’ (sample lyric: “Oh, what a lovely day to drink some English tea”) as noted in John Harris in his book the Last Party. 

Drug taking too was on the rise; cocaine fuelled Britpop’s ascent in the pubs and heroin addiction robbed us of the work of talents like Donna Matthews of Elastica. It was a situation documented in Duffy’s excellently observation Needle Mythology which captures the moment when drugs began to ensnare musicians with its dangerous allure of cool. While what Harris calls ‘The Eleanor Rigby of Britpop’ ‘London Girls’ is a plinky plonky oft overlooked document of Camden night-life at the height of the dance between Britpop bands and the weeklies over eager scribes…

Take That released ‘Back for Good’ – a heart-on-the-sleeve ballad aimed squarely at the MOR market, its strings and pulling-the-heartstrings melody was perhaps Gary Barlow’s best song to that point. It would sadly inspire the likes of Boyzone and other boybands to follow suit, lending very cheesy strings to saccharine cover versions. 
 
Elsewhere in 1995 you had the swift assent of Menswear who were hyped and derided in equal measure, affectionately dubbed the ‘Take That of indie’ they got signed to London Records following a rush by labels flashing big advances to snap up the “Next Blur or Oasis”,  they became the biggest distillation of the swift asset quickly followed by a bursting of the Britpop bubble.  Arriving in Camden with barely two songs to their name there ensued a major label battle to sign them, a flurry of hype. Whilst their sound was a little flimsy they had three decent singles most notably ‘Being Brave’ that actually had a full string section. They briefly troubled the charts before a downward spiral that saw them nursing breakdowns, addictions and a very strangely promoted second album that vanished without a trace, they were the start of a flood of bands who took up the “Britpop” mantle in the next few years.

Also that year, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue produced the elegant murder ballad ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. Seal’s tumbling ballad Kiss From A Rose was re-released and became a hit, its tender vocals and plush pastoral Beatles-style arrangements from Trevor Horn gave it a cinematic quality that fitted the Batman soundtrack. Late rapper Coolio released a big hit in Gangstas Paradise’ sampling Stevie Wonder‘s ‘Pastime Paradise’, its synth string stabs adding a grandeur to Coolio’s tale of gang warfare and young minds being corrupted by money and power. He tells the story of Stevie Wonder allowing the sample to be used only if his rap wasn’t laden with expletives. Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice fame scored a hit with ‘A Girl Like You Before its Rickenbacker shimmy and ’60s production, played into the revival at the time.  Bjork returned with the brassy and barking take on ‘It’s Oh So Quiet‘ proving that she was an exceptionally unique pop star. Other excellent cuts such as ‘Army of Me’ and ‘Hyperballad‘ from her second album Post melded elements of electronica and classical, showed she was an artist to be reckoned with.  
 

 
Unfortunately despite the brilliant records this year, you had the square-dancing-meets-euro dance sound of ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ by Reddnex – a musical abomination to my ears. While the number one spot was sickeningly dominated by Robson and Jerome, two actors who capitalising on the huge ratings for ITV’s drama Soldier Soldier, ruined a series of classic crooner records with hit covers including a dreary version of ‘Unchained Melody’ featuring the kind of syrupy strings and dreadfully pale and bland reworkings so beloved of Simon Cowell the head of their label. Little wonder in years to come he would judge TV talent shows, that spawned more dreadful cover versions that would clutter the charts.
 
Following the success of ‘Yes’, another band of outsiders Manic Street Preachers sought out its producer Mike Hedges to help them record their new album so they decamped to his Normandy Chateaux to record. It would be a collaboration that would help them produce Everything Must Go one of their best albums, and heralded their foray into the upper echelons of the charts. It is their most immediate work and struck a chord with a wider public in a way none of their previous albums had. Yet it was tinged with tragedy, regret and a new found functionalism (C&A jeans and T-shirts now replaced feather boas and eye liner), artwork now minimal, as they bravely soldiered on despite still dealing with the grief of the loss of their friend and creative driving force Richard James Edwards.
Everything Must Go at 20: If Everything was the End
 
James Dean Bradfield was a huge fan of Motown, Spector and Northern Soul” My mum had lots of Motown in the house. I just loved the strings and the arrangements. It was the same with ELO: I’m on record that they were my first musical love.” He told The Quietus when discussing Everything Must Go’s reissue “I presented Jeff Lynne with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Q Awards about 12 years ago. So, that love of strings in music was always there, for me. And my mum was a bit of a Sinatra fan, and ‘Summer Wind’ is one of my favourite songs: the strings on that were just transcendent. And yeah, ‘Born To Run’ as well. Because that record took ages, and Springsteen was obsessed with creating a soundscape, he really was. And I wanted that, for Everything Must Go.”

“Libraries gave us power/Then work came and made us free/What price now for a shallow piece of dignity?!” hollers James Dean Bradfield, impassioned with eyes closed, above a backdrop of tumbling arpeggios, cavernous drums and Spector-ish widescreen production whose steepling strings sway, crescendo and sigh with sadness. This is the unforgettable intro to  ‘A Design for Life’ the Manic Street Preacher‘s definitive ’90s statement. Tackling the theme of working-class identity, bassist (and lyricist and chief dress wearer) Nicky Wire delivers a staunch defence of the community where he grew up and a belief in the importance of resilience, self-improvement and solidarity as political power attempts to oppress you at every turn– “libraries gave us power” indeed. The memorable video is intercut with quotes and scenes like fox hunting and Royal Ascot to represent what the band saw as class privilege. This was set against a backdrop of the decimation of their hometown Blackwood, as Thatcher destroyed its mining industry in the 1980s and the economic decline of the early 1990s and many think the miners scars are referenced here with the lines: “I wish I had a bottle/Right here in my dirty face to wear the scars/To show from where I came”.

Wire recalled. “He said it was something special. Ennio Morricone, a bit of Tamla, a bit of Spector. Our only reservation was that it might be too epic.”

But Bradfield  was less worried: “When I was writing it, I could hear strings,” he said. “It would have been a denial of the song to make it sound small.”

Working on the album that was to become Everything Must Go, the trio and producer Mike Hedges enlisted Martin Greene to produce a sweeping string arrangement for the track and parts were recorded at Abbey Road.

It’s a powerful first statement from the band as a three-piece and an epic first single with an elegantly bombastic rock chorus that at the time represented a surprising shift from a band who had musically up until that point dealt only in politically charged glam rock and incendiary proto post-punk.

For Wire it was a statement of resonance against the prevailing trends around him a piece of Welshness amongst a very caricatured “British” musical landscape “I’d just bought a lovely little terraced house in the Valleys and I’d got married a couple of years before. So I was also trying to think of a way of being anti-rock’n’roll. When we won two Brits, I wore a T-shirt that said: “I love hoovering.” There was undoubtedly some anger at how the working classes were being portrayed in Britpop. Post-Parklife, it had become a cockney jamboree of greyhound racing. I couldn’t relate to it.” ‘A Design For Life’ burst to number 2 in the hit parade in 1996, and broke the three Welsh fellas’ album (Everything Must Go) into the mainstream at their time of heaviest loss. Their lyricist and childhood friend Richard James Edwards went missing in 1994 and remains unfound.

In a scene dominated by crowd like chants and sometimes cartoonish flag waving, Carry On imagery, The Manics were in contrast a band plugged into their surroundings, the working class and their own mythology ‘A Design for Life’ was an epic political statement and stands toe to toe with Pulp‘s ‘Common People’ as the most socially conscious statement of the era. Drenched in soaring strings, and shot with regret and a kind of redemption of somehow getting through a tragedy so close to home, the Mike Hedges produced Everything Must Go was cocooned in its own orbit and quite unlike any other release that year, yet for a very short period the Manics became mainstream.
 
 
The Manics were part of a wave of bands now labelled ‘Cool Cymru’  alongside amongst others Catatonia, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and the Super Furry Animals they really hit the mainstream charts in 1997 and into the late ’90s.
 
Super Furry Animals were made up of Gruff Rhys, Cian Carian Huw Bunford, Guto Pryce  and Dafydd Ieuan from around Wales. They formed in Cardiff and signed to the Ankst label in 1995. They had bright imaginations and invention, refreshingly for the era taking influences from everywhere, early Pink Floyd, ELO, techno, electronica, and hip hop as Record Collector points outDuring periods in which British alternative music was characterised by drab, po-faced, stick-a-string-section-on-it blandness, they blazed fiercely with a run of anything-goes records that showed a joyous disregard for genre and convention.”
Signing to Creation at the time home to Oasis, but also at points Primal Scream, Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. They decamped to produce their debut album Fuzzy Logic, eschewing the bilingual sounds of their early work. This English release was fizzing with psychy- melodies, off the wall lyrics and energy. Released in May of 1996, it also had some ambition, standouts like ‘Something 4 the Weekend’ and ‘Hometown Unicorn’ were unstoppable. But it’s ‘If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You’ that ladles elements of The Beach BoysPet Sounds and Hunky Dory era David Bowie filtered through their inventive kaleidoscopic views into a glorious composition, when the strings hit they take it up several notches again, toward heavenly. As Super Furry Animals biographer Ric Rawlins puts it on: ”If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You’ the strings are introduced during a musical diversion then stick around to deliver that emotional wallop towards the end.”
 
 
Forming bilingual Pembrokeshire-based idiosyncratic pop act Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in his teens; Euros Childs (pronounced Eye-ross) met John Lawrence and Richard James while they were still at Bro Myrddin Welsh Comprehensive School in Carmarthen. They were later joined by Euros’s sister Megan on violin, signing to the Welsh label Ankst they released Patio in 1992.  They created a stripped back mini orchestra influenced by traditional folk, from Welsh odysseys to English language psychedelia, by the way of sighing pastoral folk and Glam stomps that charted their fascinating musical journeys through young experiences, Welsh landscapes, medieval history and beyond, creating countless superlative but often criminally ignored albums (Bwyd Time, Barafundle, Spanish Dance Troupe etc). 
 
‘Patio Song‘ is perhaps the most well known song of this period, lifted from their brilliant album Barafundle, it was released in 1996 only getting to 41 in the charts but making it to the John Peel Festive Fifty. With a carousel backing that marries folky flourishes to a bountiful chorus, there’s a juxtaposition of English and Welsh couplets, also a contrast between surrealist and lovelorn imagery about kissing a girl switching to surrealist lyrics about a patio that’s on fire.
 
Gorky’s went on to set a record for having the most top 75 singles in the charts (eight) without ever making the top 40. But we think they’re fantastic!
 
 
Catatonia released their debut Way Beyond Blue in 1996, collecting together their early singles from the early ’90s, it was their best release in my view. In distinctive vocalist Cerys Matthews hailing from Swansea, she of the big voice, the big Welsh accent that hid a soft underbelly, and songwriter and guitarist Mark Roberts, they had an impressive songwriting team at their heart. The first major lineup featured Dafydd Ieuan of Super Furry Animals on drums, Paul Jones on bass, and Clancy Pegg on keyboards. Ieuan would later leave the band and Owen Hopkin would join on guitars. Highlights included the catchy ‘You’ve Got Alot to Answer for’ – that bittersweet exclamation was a big singalong and ‘Lost Cat’, but they also hinted at the wider sonics of their later material, with the enveloping strings and horns of ‘Infantile‘. 
cerys matthews catatonia london 1996 martyn goodacre
 
In a recent blog BBC Wales music presenter Adam Walton wrote about his experiences of interviewing and seeing Catatonia at the time. 

“I especially loved the more expansive, shape-shifting album tracks that were never destined to become singles. ‘This Boy Can’t Swim’, ‘Infantile’ and the title song still put a gentle charge through my soul, casting things in woozy, captivating ellipses.

Cerys’ voice is a monument to those times, and I love her presence, her charisma and the sense of sublime mischief she had about her. Much as I admire the success and craft of their chart conquering second album, ‘International Velvet’, it was the debut that entranced me and continues to do so.”

Having tapped into the string-led sound on Disarm’ on their Siamese Dream album, The Smashing Pumpkins took it up several notches for the release of their sprawling concept album Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness. Released in May of 1996 ‘Tonight, Tonight’ is a grandly cinematic song from that album aided by a video that could be pulled out of a Tim Burton movie, Corgan’s waspish and bittersweet delivery aided by a massive and soaring string section that’s unmistakable from the intro, it was played by the Chicago Symphony orchestra, written by the band’s frontman, Billy Corgan, and arranged with Audrey Riley. 

“So, I got a phone call from the producer Alan Moulder, to do an arrangement for the Smashing Pumpkins, I had loved their album Siamese Dream previously. He said the first arrangement hadn’t worked out, so I flew straight out to Chicago the next day and it was very much an arrangement between Billy Corgan and myself.” Riley recalls “Billy Corgan had an arrangement and a very definite idea of how he wanted it to sound, to have that fabulous melody at the start. He had that beautiful top line already. My job was to translate it to an arrangement for the string players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it was very cinematic; it sounded great!”

Riley continues: “My students asked me the other day, how did you get so much emotion into that arrangement? I said well I had just fallen in love at the time and I was feeling very emotional and it came out.”
 
Strangelove from Bristol had much in common with Suede, melancholic themes, introspective lyrics and mangled guitars, yet their records came from a more subconscious place, main songwriter Patrick Duff spent most of the ’90s wired, spitting out streams of consciousness from deep inside. 
 
The long player Love and Other Demons released in 1996 on Food Records was their richest release yet, featuring guest vocals from Brett Anderson on the affecting ‘She’s Everywhere’ but also the wonderful ‘Sway’ drenched in rich melancholia, inspired by Patrick’s battles with alcoholism, this melancholic song is drawn with Patrick’s wistful vocal, and the sighing cellos of Audrey Riley. “Sway is a lovely song,” she remembers, “I believe it was producer Paul Corkett who asked me to play on it as I was working a lot for Stephen Hague and Food records at the time. I wasn’t feeling great at the time, perhaps a bit depressed really. I remember being in RAK studios playing the cello and it coming out very naturally in 3/4 time,  it was such a beautiful song. There was another one later on called the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ when I went a bit crazy with the orchestration, but that’s what they wanted.”
 
 
On 1996’s Endtroducing released on Mo’ Wax, DJ Shadow aka San Jose-born Joshua Paul Davis, programmed beats and layered samples to create an immersive soundtrack influenced by his love of hip hop and his crate digging of jazz, punk and psychedelic records and soundtracks. ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’ samples the basslines of Pekka Pohjola‘s ‘The Madness Subsides’ and elements of American composer and arranger David Axelrod‘s piano piece The Human Abstract‘ splicing its distinctive descending piano motif, intricately together with rolling drums, cello notes, slow-burning soul samples to craft a simmering sonic that’s effortlessly evocative. 
 
 
Even as early as 1996 bands started to emerge in the slipstream of Oasis; one such was Kula Shaker who were ordained by Noel as a band to watch. Their debut album K released at the end of is a travesty of stodgy ’70s influences, cod middle eastern sounds and cultural appropriation from singer Crispian Mills, the son of Hayley Mills and grandson of Sir John Mills, a nepo baby before they were called that. The worst examples are the Hammond-flavoured flange rawk of ‘Tattva’ or the sitar strings, chants and chunky psych riffs of ‘Govinda’ that play on tired rock tropes and dress them up in mysticism that’s about as authentic and interesting as a reproduced Indian rug from Home Bargains.  When bands like Cornershop were producing fine music of actual Indian descent at the time (including the brilliant Brimful of Asha’), this gap year trip by four poshos to India felt very tacky and hollow.
 
 
Shed Seven delivered a second album called A Maximum High, that brought another northern voice to the fore. Much derided by the music press yet loved to this day by a hardcore of fans, lead singer Rick Witter’s foghorn vocals and meat and potato “indie-rock” sound was largely, well…a bit dull. The NME argued they might be unfashionable but their success has to be respected. “Any group who can sell 250,000 copies of ‘A Maximum High’ whilst retaining all the credibility and sophistication of a Millets cagoule must have something going for them.”
 
Their best song was ‘Chasing Rainbows’released the following year, it has a kind of longing that isn’t present in the rest of their catalogue, yet still lacks a kind of subtlety. Witter delivering a Liam-esque drawl to the chorus, but the chorus does have a wistful charm. “It’s about disappointment and wanting what you can’t have – “I’ve been chasing rainbows all my life” – which obviously everyone can relate to,” explained Witter to the Guardian. It’s perhaps most recently known for a hilarious lockdown inspired charity cover featuring minor celebrities and Z-list indie band members. 
 
There was also ‘Going for Gold’ with Witter’s one-pitched delivery that are either down to earth or a bit flat depending where you sit and crashing crescendos feels a little bit much. It’s an inferior example from the album even if its clearly bore fruit in royalties in Olympic coverage in the years since its release. While the blustery ‘Getting Better’ collides into strings and horns in the final portion it ends up sounding like a dirge, that lacks nuance, its brazenness repeatedly hitting you around the head, like a fist fight you are losing on a drunken Saturday night. 
 
Perhaps the worst example of post-Oasis bands in 1996, came with Northern Uproar hailing from Stockport and looking like four lads in cagoules off a street corner who have been let into a Top of the Pops studio by mistake. The song ‘Town is a stodgy ballad with very badly strained vocals, cliched lyrics and strings welded on as the sound of the moment,  it’s another cautionary tale of why not every band needed to be snapped up back then. 

Elsewhere Italian DJ Robert Miles scored a dance hit with a distinctive violin sampling cut ‘Children’. Babybird turned a twisted tongue- -in-cheek song into a string-draped anthem on ‘You’re Gorgeous’ on the face of it a love song, but deceptively about a creepy photographer who has the script flipped on them by the model narrating the lyrics. Toni Braxton‘s Unbreak My Heart combined tear-jerking soul and plush R&B, with graceful strings. George Michael‘s beautifully drawn ‘Jesus to a Child’ was a big number one hit, combining plucked Spanish guitars and a sumptuously subtle arrangement that perfectly accompanies Michael’s mournful delivery rife with evocative couplets consumed by grief.
 
 
The Divine Comedy led by Neil Hannon also returned in 1996. At the height of the summer of Britpop, he found the full-scale ’60s revival and played into it, taking on a Raffish persona for his fourth album Cassanova adding an even bigger string and brass section, a cheeky knowing wink and even catchier, bolder songs to his catalogue.
 
“I saw the scene developing around me in London, what would become Britpop, and I thought ‘I want a bit of the action’,” Hannon told ABC. 
 
“After the third album, Promenade, I thought, ‘Right. I’ve really got to knuckle down and make the biggest record imaginable’. I could see the way the wind was blowing, and I was interested in the same kind of things as quite a lot of other people seemed to be at the time. It’s funny the way these zeitgeist things happen, but suddenly everybody was looking at John Barry and Morricone and the sixties. It was a bit Austin Powers in a way! And it all went hand in hand with whole laddish thing and Loaded magazine and stuff like that.” He told PRS Magazine in an interview.

“I’d actually got laid which was a miracle, so I thought I’d write about it. Then Casanova was born which, to me, was a massive self-parody. You get a bit of luck with the ladies and suddenly you’re Casanova! But it took a long time to make and Keith Cullen [of Setanta Records] didn’t have any money, so he was kind of begging and borrowing studios for months and months and months. I obviously assumed that I was always on the cusp of success, but looking back on it now, it’s dumb luck and really good timing, and a few catchy tunes.”
 
It was also helped out by the fact that Chris Evans heard the raucous Divine Comedy single ‘Something for the Weekend’ on a night out, and played it on Radio One the next day. Afforded an extra budget by their label Setanta after the success of Edwyn Collins’s ‘A Girl Like You’,  Hannon and co-producer/drummer Darren Allison called on multiple violin and cello and horn players.. Revolving around the theme of sex, it finds Hannon in full personality mode full of camp, bravado and a real joy for producing tongue-in-cheek, chamber pop inspired again by Scott Walker but amping it up to 11.
 
The ‘Frog Princess’ released at the tale end of 1996, possess a sweeping, charm and romantic glamour that captures the crooners and ’60s artists so beloved of Hannon, even a touch of Hollywood musical about it. On the surface, a whimsical fairy tale, but beneath  the water lies a tale of self acceptance and love, the ugly duckling into a swan.  ” The metaphor of a frog princess represents the idea of finding beauty in unexpected places and embracing one’s unique qualities..”

 
Stay tuned for the third and final part soon. 

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.