In the 1990’s I reached adolescence,a time when I hear tell that ones musical interests for the rest of their lives tend to form. For a number of different reasons,most of my musical interests during this turbulent era were still far more effect by my family and self discovery than through peers my own age. A lot of things changed during this period for the culture around me in general. And for better or for worse,the music and information on this subject that entered my life during this time clearly reflected this.
I’ve continued to find it historically interesting that the year 1990 started out with me taking more and more of an interest in novelty and jokey songs. Perhaps the influence of WNEPORK tapes still being made with my father had a lot to do with this. Basically what it came down to is that comedy records really helped to make clear that life wasn’t likely as bad as we thought and that we could all use to laugh a little more. Tending to be rather serious at this age,it did help a lot.
Additionally to this was my interest in TV theme songs. Looking back on it now,many of them were actually compositions by some of the most talented songwriters and performers of their day. Among my favorites were the big band sounding theme for “The Patty Duke Show”,as well as Donny Hathaway’s them for “Maude” and Sammy Davis Jr’s intensely funky theme from the 1970’s Robert Blake vehicle “Baretta”. Along with the compositions from Henri Mancini and Joe Raposo these helped me learn much about classic songwriting.
Of course I also realized at this time that many singers and songwriters got their starts doing catchy jingles to sell products. This album pictured did not always contain the original performances,but was a potent reminder of how Madison Avenue always had a way with pitching their wares using the influence of popular music styles and vital slogans at the time. Not only that but they were a lot of fun to hear at the time. In a way to learn some of what influenced my parents generation.
One of the most iconic images,even before I saw the Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing, of 1990 for me was that of the character Radio Raheem blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” on his boombox throughout this film. It continued influencing my tastes in hip-hop in the same way as “Rappers Delight” had earlier on. The song didn’t tell anyone what they had to think. It just let them know they could think. While it would be years before I truly understood PE’s impact,this set the bar pretty high.
I could go on for many blogs discussing the Pet Shop Boys general influence on my musical interests. However this album was significant because it was the first CD I ever owned. When my dad got his first CD player,a Sony Discman,at Christmas 1990 he had my mom and I both pick up CD’s for ourselves. I was attracted to this not only for it’s color bar jacket,but I’d heard this wonderfully cinematic opus from my friend Alison Stone who also had the CD as well. After this many things would change.
One record changed the world for me,in a way I’m still deeply effected by to this day. One day in late 1991 I saw this music video for this very loud and rather frightening song by a trio of three rather unwashed young men calling themselves Nirvana. While I deeply admired their album cover for Nevermind featuring a naked infant chasing a dollar bill on a fish hook,I tuned out the unpleasant sound song and tried to forget about it. When I began junior high school the next year,a day came when I was accosted by two other kids who were at least a grade older myself. All I was wearing were faded jeans and a magenta t-shirt. They kept pushing me further and further out of their space with there hands. I eventually fell over. When I asked them what gives,they said if I listened to Kurt Cobain I’d know what I deserved. No melodrama intended but my heart broke at that time. It pretty much stayed that way for a long time.
When I recently read the lyrics to this song I realized it was basically a metaphoric lyric about a gun related school shooting. In 1994 Kurt Cobain died of an apparently drug related gun shot wound to the head. The year after this and the grunge era entered my life was a time full of fearful events. Rodney King was assaulted by police in LA,followed by riots in that city. Clarence Thomas was indicted for sexual harassment and the country was embroiled in a particularly nasty presidential election.
Ever since that time,it seems as if people involved in pop culture have grown far more sarcastic and ignorant in their expressions towards each other. For years I detested “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I viewed it as something of a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of anyone involved in the pop culture. It came to a time where the radio didn’t seem to even play anything but other songs that copied it. For me turning 13 definitely did not represent the destruction of my childhood. This song did.
Spending much of my 12’th and 13’th year of life as a stressed-from-schoolwork insomniac I’d often wake up at 6-7AM in the morning-strung out and tired but unable to sleep. On one such awkward morning before the dusk arrived I was listening to the radio as low as I could,feeling what I thought was something similar to what intoxication would feel like. Suddenly this song came on that had a very Latin flavor to it,with a lead singer I recognized somehow. I had a tape recorder on and taped the song. For weeks afterward I listened to this song over and over. I thought it was by Santana because of the melody and Latin rock sound of it. I finally asked my father who it was by. He told me it was the Steely Dan song “Do It Again”. I’d heard them and Donald Fagan for several years beforehand. But never would’ve associated a song like this with them. Upon learning this and it’s accompanying album Can’t Buy A Thrill was very atypical of their sound. Considering my childhood musical confidence was completely shaken after the traumatizing experience of Nirvana,this was just the musical change of venue I was looking for.
One day I was listening to a community radio station in my area called WERU that operated at the time from an old hen house. In mid afternoon on a rather rainy day,this very jerky sound song came on featuring this singer that sounded like a very screechy child began singing about “PUSHING THE LITTLE DASIES AND MAKE THEM COME UP”. To this day,I couldn’t really describe what I was hearing. So I could only laugh with what was later revealed to have been my interesting,if very unintended,musical introduction to Ween. The music may have very suddenly gone from dark and frightening to humorously bizarre.
Upon first hearing this song performed by Arrested Development,and their charismatic leader by the name of Speech it immediately made me feel good inside. He was singing and rapping about the loss of two beloved relatives in close succession. The intensely philosophical poetry expressed in the song and it’s chorus of “take me to another land/let me understand your plan” perfectly expressed the need I felt at the time for some type of secularized redemption of the physical world. At the time I would not have phrased it that way,but it comes to that in the end. What I could not have known either is the fact that at this point,poly-rhythmic afro funk had again entered my life. The difference here was,as opposed to my earlier experiences with Headhunters was that I was getting closer to being able to define exactly what this music was.
At a time when the pop radio I once loved was completely dominated by the grunge rock that was promoting itself as “alternative”,there was a song that stood out for me. During the first year I was involved heavily with photography, I often went to a lot of photo stores for advice that winter of 1992. On those trips,I kept hearing this song on the radio in the car much as I was hearing the “Chick Hill Song” (Level 42’s “Something About You”) seven years earlier. The song featured a strong,soulful and velvet voiced singer with a very powerful melodic statement. I knew the song was called “The Right Kind Of Love” But it wasn’t until last year did I learn it was by an teen idol named Jeremy Jordan from the Beverley Hills 90210 soundtrack. I never watched that show. But considering the vitriolic treatment everyone from DJ’s to writers gave artists/performers such as Jordan in his day,it’s only helped me appreciate this song even more.
Throughout 1991/92 my father was playing a lot of music by a man named Dovovan,a Scottish born singer/songwriter he had a passion for during the 1960’s. It was not difficult to be entranced by his uniquely written and arranged songs such as “First There Is A Mountain”,”Jennifer Juniper”,”Sunshine Superman” and “Barabajagal”. Still one song leaped out from all these Donovan songs I was suddenly hearing. It was this melodically complex,yet very singable song with a lot of jazzy drum brushing and changes in tempo. Donovan was singing about romance in very visual and colorful terms,even for psychedelia and seemed to be speaking in a type of Gaelic tongue in parts of the song. It was his song “Where Your Love Like Heaven”,originally recorded in 1967. It is still something I acknowledge as one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of pop music I’ve heard and will always count among my very favorite songs.
Out of nowhere in early 1993 came this song from Donald Fagen,whom I was suddenly becoming very interested in along with Steely Dan with a lot of intentional saturation listening of Aja and The Nightfly during this time. Actually,this was really a brand new Steely Dan song featuring Walter Becker though not using that name. It was completely in the old tradition of Steely Dan-slyly and cleanly funky. By this time I was starting to get some of his humor. I laughed with this song about body snatching extra terrestrial women as a metaphor for futurist femininity. In particular Fagen’s line “they’re mixing with the population/a virus wearing pumps and pearls”. During that time for me anyway humor,of a witty and rye nature or otherwise,was more than welcomed.
During my 13’th year of life the TV station my dad worked at was undergoing a technical overhaul. Computers and early digital communications were beginning to become a factor. Part of this change was a link to satellite television for feed purposes. Late at night after most of the workers had gone home,my dad would have some free reign over what he could watch on this system and often invited my mom and I to join him. One particular favorite of ours was the Caribbean music channel. One time this uptempo ska song came on that got my mom,dad and I singing.dancing and playing the song over and over on tape to do so again. It was called “Tease Me” by Chaka Demus and Pliers. Later on they purchased their full cassette Murder She Wrote and,on a trip to NJ to visit my aunt this cassette wound up being the only music aside from the radio we had to listen to on the trip. So the song and the rest of the album became ingrained in my subconscious. Funny how rhythms and rhymes in music can do that.
Janet Jackson’s music had fascinated me since she tool “control” of her music back in the mid 80.s In 1993 something happened with her that was rather unexpected. At the time when this album came out,I genuinely had little clue about sexual seduction-female or otherwise. While fully aware and proud of my homosexuality by this time,without anyone in my life being too aware of it,and also being very involved in photography the cover shot to this CD made an important impact on me in terms of expressing objective feminine beauty. For her part Janet was expressing her own sexual liberation which,unlike with later efforts by female artists trying to get “nasty” to get attention,was done with class and taste here. Upon hearing the album sometime later,it’s sensually funk and musically unexpected songs actually helped me to understand how much cover art can impact on the music heard within.
As with Arrested Development,it was my viewing of Saturday Night Live during this time that exposed me to the song “If I Had No Loot” by this band called Toni Toni Tone. Lead by the rather Stevie Wonder-inspired singer/songwriter now calling himself Raphael Saadiq,this songs musically organic groove and strong writing showcased an alternative to the largely electronic new jack swing music saturating the radio in the same way as grunge was at the time. Interesting part is,as with Mint Condition who I’d learn about much later,Toni Toni Tone presented themselves as real musicians playing a contemporary music that itself was actually rooted in the funk and soul of the 70’s I’d come to love. When I was given this CD as a Christmas present in 1993,by which time I finally had a CD player of my own,it seemed as if there had actually been some lights sparkling out from behind the dark musical tunnel in the world around me after all.
……To Be Continued