My music listening reached an intensity in the 90’s that I had not experienced since my late teens. For much of my adult life, as family and work responsibilities crowded in, the luxury of listening to music had been pushed aside. But now, in my early forties, deeply wounded by divorce and the destruction of much of my previous life, music became my solace and my saviour. After a hard day at work, I could unwind at home by putting on the headphones and listen to a whole album without interruption. I switched off the light and allowed myself to be completely taken over by the sounds feeding into my head. It was a blessed escape and a small but important consolation for the pain of separation from my family.
As the 1990’s dawned I was freshly ensconced in my post-divorce flat in North Tyneside. It was the beginning of a new era for me. Upon leaving my marital home I had grabbed my most precious vinyl LPs (Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, The Doors , The Velvet Underground etc) to take with me to my new life, but most of the family’s large record collection stayed right where it was, for the hopeful edification of my children and my ex-wife. So I wasn’t only starting again emotionally and socially, I was starting over in music too. I had to build up a new collection, beginning almost from scratch. As it was, many music fans were also busily re-purchasing their record collections, this time on CD , the new format which was rapidly replacing vinyl. That was a great trick by the music industry– getting us all to buy our music collections twice! It’s yet another example of how technology drives our lives in the modern world. However, as it so happened, it suited my circumstances to abandon vinyl ( though never completely jettisoning it). I now embraced the new format. I purchased a second-hand music player from a friend, erected a neat stacking system of shelves and started filling them with shiny new Compact Discs. My old vinyl LP sleeves, I used to decorate the walls!
My musical experience in the 1990’s and beyond was not just about listening though. It was also about taking part. No I didn’t form a rock band, but I did join a folk choir. I heard the Caedmon Choir singing in a Friends of the Earth anti- nuclear festival at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. ( This beautiful stretch of coastline was being threatened by the building of a Nuclear Power station.) They were (are) named after an Anglo-Saxon monk in north-east England, who was supposedly given the power of song by God. I was so impressed with Caedmon Choir’s performance and repertoire, that I decided to join them. I knew I had a decent bass-baritone voice but had previously only sung at church as a kid and in a school production , as a teacher, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” So I travelled to Gateshead’s Caedmon Hall one dark, cold Tuesday evening and joined the acappella, 4 part harmony, mixed choir that was to become a regular feature of my life for the next 14 years or so. ( I later joined other choirs and still enjoy being a member of the excellent Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir.) We sang a mixture of folk, pop, gospel, classical and World music, led by the renowned singer-songwriter Sandra Kerr. We did gigs and even recorded a couple of albums.( I later found a cassette version of one of them: “Angry, Gentle People”, being sold for 50p in a charity shop — so I bought it!) It was all very exhilarating. Apart from enjoying the music, I made lots of good friends. Amongst others, I sang alongside Rachel and Becky Unthank ( and their mum Pat) who were later to become famous alternative- folk recording artists.( I promise this will be the last name drop in this blog!) We sang at concert halls, community halls, hospitals and care homes, as well as in shopping centres and on street corners. The whole choir experience sharpened my musical skills. It developed my musical knowledge and appreciation immeasurably.
Meanwhile, back in my flat I bought an expensive, Japanese keyboard and started playing a lot more again. I had learnt piano as a child. I played light classical, pop, blues and a bit of jazz, though not very well. I acquired a lodger, M, who was a friend of a friend, and he just happened to be the editor of the periodical: “Keyboard Monthly”. He helped me choose the Korg and introduced me to new music and artists. One day he interviewed Tori Amos and later I went with him to see her show at Newcastle’s Opera House. She put on a mesmerising, dynamic performance, her sweet but powerful, soaring voice interweaving with the 2 keyboards that she played both alternately and simultaneously. ( shades of Keith Emerson here.) Tori Amos was to became one of my favourite musicians of the 90’s. I quickly acquired her first 2 albums :”Little Earthquakes” and “Under the Pink” and played them to death in my little flat. I then bought the rest of her output. I found her singing intense and unique. She used her mezzo-soprano voice as another instrument, accompanying her piano-driven songs. Her lyrics were interesting too. They dealt with serious subjects such as sexuality, politics, feminism and religion. They even featured a tale of sexual abuse. I believe many of them were semi- autobiographical. Like most great artists, Tori Amos creates her own world which one can immerse oneself in. I missed my family, but one small compensation of living alone was that I had more time to listen to music. This meant that initially difficult music would become more accessible after repeated hearings.
To the uninitiated, Amos might have sounded like an American Kate Bush, with her high pitched, swooping and soaring vocals. However, once given time, she emerges with her own distinctive, compelling style. In fact, Amos ironically later led me back to the work of Kate Bush, particularly “Hounds of Love” and her 21st century albums. I had previously dismissed Bush as an irritating “screecher”, but now, I came to appreciate her genius and become a fully paid up member of the fan club. Better late than never, as they say.
Not surprisingly, the 90’s were just as complicated musically as the previous decade. The music scene had splintered into a whole myriad of genres, styles and artists. I was now in my 40’s, so teenage pop had little interest to me, except to keep up with what my pupils were listening to. Thus I didn’t bother with boy bands like “Take That” or girl bands like the pseudo-feminists, “The Spice Girls.” I ignored the bubble gum pop of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Although it is now highly revered, the so-called” “Grunge” rock of “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” , also failed to grab me, maybe because I wasn’t an alienated adolescent feeling disenchanted with the established adult world. My mid-life crisis had consigned my teenage angst to the dim and distant past. I was still a big rock fan though and the stuff I particularly liked was dubbed “alternative rock” by the critics.
I loved the American garage rock band REM whom I had belatedly discovered in the late 80’s. In the 1990s, they managed the difficult task of achieving mainstream popularity whilst still retaining critical acclaim. REM were a constantly evolving band who kept their edge. I particularly liked their first two 90’s albums: “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”, which achieved massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. The former had a baroque, acoustic feel using a variety of string instruments to go alongside the guitars. The latter had a more subdued, moody atmosphere with sudden, thrilling explosions of electric guitar. The songs dealt with deep subjects such as mortality and spirituality, had interesting lyrics and often beautiful melodies. I found Michael Stipe’s vocal style compelling. In the 90’s, REM emerged from their previous obscurity to become a major stadium rock band, although inevitably some of their subtlety and sensitivity had to be sacrificed in the live performances. Maybe this is why they put out a more strident, heavy rock album: “Monster” in the middle of the decade. I bought this but didn’t find it as satisfying as their earlier offerings.
I was lucky enough to see REM live at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium which normally hosted international rugby matches. I lashed out and bought a transport and concert package for my eldest daughter, Joanna, her partner Al and myself. We travelled up from Newcastle upon Tyne in a large convoy of double decker buses, listening to REM classics all the way up through Northumberland and into Scotland. Unfortunately, our driver got lost in Edinburgh and we nearly missed the start of the concert. Even we diehard fans got rather sick of “Losing my Religion” and “Man on the Moon” by the time we had listened to them for the twentieth time! But we made it in the end and enjoyed a great show, even though we had to sit in plastic seats and swivel our heads to the left to see the stage. REM were supported by the Irish folk/rock band “The Cranberries” who were very popular at the time. I liked them too and bought their first 2 albums. ( strong melodies, beautifully sung and played.)
I continued to like folk rock. As well as the Cranberries, I kept up with the Waterboys’ output and had a spell of liking The Levellers, another celtic band with a more political edge, as can be deduced from their name. (The original Levellers were enlightened but ill-fated mid 17th century revolutionaries.) After a while their earnest lyrics and strident style began to grate on me, but not before I went to see them perform really well at Newcastle’s atmospheric Mayfair club, along with the equally good Chumbawamba. Unfortunately that gig, which I attended with my second daughter, Catherine, was marred by a terrible accident, when someone fell off a balcony and later died. It rather put rock music into perspective! Also in the folk-rock mode were the excellent Oyster Band, who like The Levellers featured an electric violinist and had a real edge. The Oysters led me to the superb June Tabor as they made a joint album with her. Her wonderful haunting voice and melancholic folk songs made her one of my favourites. A Tabor gig was always totally engrossing.
June Tabor in turn led me to appreciate the excellent bluesy guitar playing and strong singing of her right hand man: Martyn Simpson. I regularly went to see him too, when he launched out as a solo performer. Although he moved from Manchester to far away New Orleans, he seemed to pop up in Tyneside very regularly.
I was lucky to live in the north east of England where there was a multitude of musical venues, large and small. My local Buddle Arts Centre in Wallsend featured lots of talented singers and musicians. I remember going to see Robin Williamson, of Incredible String Band fame, perform there, lacing his other-wordly songs with magical stories. I also saw Peggy Seeger perform although she must have been well into her 70’s by then. The gig was uncomfortable though as she was still very much the militant feminist, blaming men for all the world’s ills, so being a man, I was made to squirm in my seat quite a lot! Tyneside also had its own resident singer-songwriter and superb guitarist: Isaac Guillary, who sadly only achieved local fame. Going back to the folk scene I enjoyed the celtic music of Capercaille, their reels and jigs interspersed with beautifully sung gaelic ballads. I saw them at the now defunct Riverside club. My lodger had bought me one of their lovely albums for Christmas.
I suppose one of the most famous musical “events” of the 1990’s was the emergence of “Britpop”. This was largely a contrived label made up by the press to help sell its papers. It also helped to sell lots of records of the four main groups involved: Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede. British pop/rock groups of the mid-90’s were hyped up to be the modern successors of the famous bands of the 6o’s. The media got excited that the Brits seemed to be conquering the pop world once again. A typical example of this hype was the so-called “Battle of the bands” when the latest singles by Oasis and Blur were supposed to be having a race to be Number 1. Just for the record, Blur won. Well, where did I stand in all this? I must hold up my hands and admit that, rightly or wrongly, I’ve never shown much interest in Suede. Maybe I should stream them now and give them a belated chance? They just never caught my ear. One can never say the same about Oasis, who were probably the most hyped band of the four. Oasis were in your face all the time and seemed to take up permanent residence in the tabloids with their “bad boy” antics and controversial pronouncements. I didn’t like them at all despite their incredible success.( or maybe because of their incredible success.) I found their guitar based sound quite derivative of 60’s groups like The Beatles and their unsavoury behaviour to be a pale imitation of the Stones or the Pistols. I was irritated by their whining singing style and hated their sneering arrogance. I got to hear their songs because they were never off the radio but I never got to like them or their music. I felt they were greatly over-rated.
So that left Blur and Pulp. I liked Blur but never grew to love them. I could see their songs were clever and well performed and I admired the way they constantly experimented with different instruments and styles. I particularly enjoyed the LP “13” which included both electronic and gospel elements, which takes some doing in the same album. The lyrics of Damon Albarn were thoughtful and increasingly personal. They could also be great fun as in the highly enjoyable “Parklife” album which celebrated their cockney roots. However, I think much of my appreciation of Blur’s music came retrospectively, looking at their back-catalogue after listening to their strange but stimulating “Think Tank” album in the early noughties.
Pulp were my big love out of the so-called Britpop big 4. My daughter, Catherine, put me on to them, as again, I was a bit slow on the uptake. With my advancing age, roles were now being reversed. I was now getting recommendations from my children. Pulp had been going since 1978 but only hit it big two decades on. I enjoyed all their excellent 90s albums: “His ‘n’ Hers”, “Different Class” and “This is Hardcore”. I also went to see them at Newcastle City Hall with Jarvis Cocker putting on a fabulous show-man’s performance. The group had a driving, pop-rock sound with catchy keyboards complementing the guitars. But it’s Cocker’s witty, earthy, often challenging lyrics that makes Pulp’s sound so distinctive. They deal with serious subjects ranging from sex to social class, from the perils of fame to the dangers of drugs, but they often approach them in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Much of the music is dramatic and often looks at the dark side of life. Some are like mini operas. I remember listening to and thrilling to the tracks of Different Class, especially the title track and L.O.V.E. The latter struck a deep chord with me as I was embarking on a post-marriage love affair at the time and the lyrics captured the raw intensity of the feelings that were coursing through me. And at the same time Jarvis always had that ability to make you laugh with his wry comments on the absurdities of everyday life and his playful but compelling vocal performances. Yes, to me, “Pulp” easily won the battle of the bands. A little later, Catherine also introduced me to the grandiose, lush pop and clever, quirky lyrics of Neil Hannon’s brilliant”Divine Comedy” Thy became another long term favourite of mine.
In the 90’s I discovered 3 great American female singer-songwriters apart from the aforementioned Tori Amos — Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Kraus and Lucinda Williams. For this I have to thank a friend and a magazine. G., the friend, was a fellow chorister who also became my squash partner ( a vitally important role) and music gig buddy. She went on a road trip to the southern states of the USA and while driving around in her hire car, she listened non-stop to some of the many American radio stations that crowded the airwaves. She subsequently ended up spending much of her holiday money on CDs! She kindly “burnt” a few copies for me and it was through this that I grew to love Mary Chapin Carpenter. She had been packaged as a country singer but really she was ( and is) a superb singer-songwriter . I loved her 1992 album “Come On, Come On” and then quickly bought everything else she had recorded. She mixed up-tempo, driving country-rock with tender, emotional, personal songs. Her lyrics often spoke to me as I negotiated the ups and downs of my unstable post-marriage world . Most of all I found her rich voice so soothing and beautiful. I was also lucky to see her live at York’s Barbican centre — an excellent show shared with Shaun Colvin, who I also grew to like. The warmth of Mary Chapin’s personality shone through and made it a very special evening.
It was the same story with Alison Kraus. She possesses an absolutely exquisite voice and I fell in love with her blue-grass style music after acquiring several excellent albums and going to see her in concert. Kraus led me into an appreciation of a whole new genre of popular music, as I had never considered blue-grass before. It was exciting to branch out and explore new musical worlds. I in fact became interested in American roots music in general, a genre that was increasing in popularity under the heading of “Americana.” I was to discover a rich vein of new artists by going along this route. All this brings me to the magazine that I mentioned earlier. “Uncut” specialises in music and film and once I got into it and took out a subscription, a whole wealth of music fell into my lap. Every month it also included a sampler CD so one could listen to some of the music that was being reviewed. Thus I discovered the excellent Gillian Welch and her down to earth but lovely roots music recorded with Dave Rawlings, sometimes in her own living room. One day I read a letter from someone who said he couldn’t stop playing “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams. So I took a risk and went out and bought it. This was before the age of music streaming and youtube. ( at least for me it was.) Pretty soon I couldn’t stop playing it either. It’s a classic southern country rock album, with strong, haunting songs and dynamic guitar work . Lucinda’s voice expresses raw, searing emotion, all delivered in her rich Texan drawl. Fantastic!
The trouble with music blogs is that it’s difficult to avoid boring lists. That’s often how we categorise pop music — into charts, and catalogues of names and titles. UNCUT magazine is a serial offender. The thing about “Best Of” music lists is that they are totally subjective. Someone will always disagree with your choices or get upset and even angry if you’ve missed their choices out. As this is a purely personal blog I make no apologies if I have omitted your favourites. When the list is retrospective, memory also plays a part in perhaps distorting the original picture. I’ve tried to give a flavour of my musical experiences and preferences from the 1990s, and some of the events surrounding them. Even as I try to wind this blog up, more musical memories flood into my mind: the thrilling feminist anger of Alanis Morrissette on her mega album “Jagged Little Pill”; the futuristic, electronic soundscapes and weird but wonderful singing of Bjork: the 90’s offerings of Neil Young, especially “Harvest Moon” and “Rockin’ in the Free World”; the exciting hip-hop tinged rock of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers; the powerful songs and sensational singing of Jeff Buckley, son of the incomparable Tim, on his only album “Grace” ( before his young life was cut tragically short); the bombastic, wild, witty art-rock of Oklahoma’s “The Flaming Lips”. I will even admit to obsessively listening to the top selling, radio friendly albums of Dido and David Grey, before I suddenly got sick of them. Then there were the artists such as Mary Black and Eddie Reader, whom I loved for their beautiful voices but whose material gradually got more and more comfortable and middle of the road, until I stopped listening. I also remember a phase of constantly listening to Cheryl Crow, but then dropped her as suddenly as I had discovered her. The Beat goes on, as Cher used to sing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my musical journey through the 90’s. It was a turbulent decade for me personally, but no matter whether I was ecstatically happy or totally depressed, I could always find something to match my mood and lift my spirits. Playing, singing and listening to music help me negotiate through the emotional minefield.
PS — All that, and I still forgot to name-check The Verve! Their “Urban Hymns ” was one of my top albums of the later 90’s.