Situation no win: What modern rock looked like in 1991

Chart-watching listeners, note: after Nirvana exploded, Sept. 28, 1991’s modern rock top five would look like an Archaeopteryx skeleton. “Modern rock” had enough currency before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for my top forty station to block program a Sunday night segment. “The Post-Modern Music Show,” they called it. Thanks to the success of Love and Rockets’ “So Alive,” The Cure’s “Lovesong,” and Depeche Mode’s trio of big Violator singles, labels started paying attention, and what tragic irony: Nirvana’s breakthrough meant the eventual dissolution of the original format and programming. I.R.S. Records’ promo muscle wasn’t gonna get any Kirsty MacColl on a ’93 playlist.

Anyway, I heard about seven of these ten at the time, even own a couple of the host albums (other acts I heard often: The Ocean Blue, Inspiral Carpets, Kirsty MacColl, Alison Moyet, and – wow – Brand New Heavies).

10. Northside – “Take Five”

On Factory Records. It’s got a shufflebeat, with an emphasis on the hi-hat. Madchester, in other words, whose sound still made U.S. inroads until, what, the Charlatans’ “Weirdo” the following summer?

9. Squeeze – “Satisfied”

Speaking of persistence…I would imagine Squeeze were college radio band emeritus by 1991; I could argue that their existence created the programming. Thus, those stations which reported “modern rock” songs made sure every post-“Hourglass” single hit the top twenty. “Satisfied” doesn’t sound like 1991, but with its colorless harmonies and unemphatic hook it doesn’t sound like much of anything either.

8. Voices of the Beehive – “Monsters and Angels”

In 1971 they would have been strumming acoustic guitars. It’s 1991 – they needed a drum program and synth ooze. I remember this as a bigger hit than its position suggests.

7. Big Audio Dynamite – “Rush”

And here was the hit. Mick Jones’ post-Clash experiment in collage and musique concrete had straightened into conventional pop punk by the time they recorded The Globe, resulting in his first American top forty appearance since “Rock the Casbah” nine years earlier. I understand what impressed older listeners: the act finds sampling correlatives for the line “Rush for the change of atmosphere,” and for college radio fans who loved Prince Paul’s work on De La Soul is Dead a couple months ago it felt like the English punk ethos and the Daisy Age could make common cause, sweetened with Madchester overtones (no surprise that BAD also opened for U2 on one of the Zoo TV tour legs). The chorus remains charming; Jones’ vocal doesn’t.

6. Crowded House – “It’s Only Natural”

The #2 success of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” in spring ’87 still looks like one of the oddest of chart flukes, so it doesn’t surprise me that after “Something So Strong” subsequent singles fizzled. By the time of Woodface, Crowded House had reverted – like Neil Finn’s last band Split Enz – to college radio act. In the rest of the world, however, Woodface represented the beginning of their most popular phase; when they broke up in 1996, Crowded House were a beloved institution everywhere except the United States. The smoky Woodface, which plays as if Finn listened to The Beatles “Girl” on repeat, marked the beginning and end of brother Tim’s acrimonious tenure. But the partnership produced their leanest and funniest material yet, with Mitchell Froom and his Magic Calliopes confined to discreet color. For the most part. “It’s Only Natural” redressed the grievous mistake of issuing the stupid and fussy America-baiting “Chocolate Cake” as single.

5. Billy Bragg – “Sexuality”

With a sympathetic band and Johnny Marr’s production on a few numbers, Don’t Try This at Home was supposed to be the folk singer’s Bringing It All Back Home. I own it on tape. Listening to it a few days ago, I was bored by the dirges and buoyed by anything with a beat. Liberal pieties (“If you stick around/I’m sure that we can find some common ground”) and synthetic string motifs yanked from Marr’s Electronic single “Tighten Up” (which hit the top ten a couple weeks earlier) time stamp this as a 1991 production; it’s an AIDS memorial pin in song. If Bragg were to have scored a short Disney film shown at Epcot about sexuality, it would’ve sounded like this.

4. Tin Machine – “One Shot”

Oh man – this was a modern rock hit? It’s got a tune and an ooh-ooh hook: David Bowie was making a concession, people. But it also has Bowie singing “One shot put her away.” With vibrato.

3. The Smithereens – “Top of the Pops”

“Tell Me When Did Things Go So Wrong” was the title of their last modern rock hit, but until Matthew Swwet reminded listeners that a jangle isn’t a thud Pat Dinizio churned out leaden singles without a hint of wit or strangeness. “Top of the Pops” and “A Girl Like You” turn “catchy” into a incoherent buzz word.

2. Psychedelic Furs – “Until She Comes”

Brand loyalty accounts for the P-Furs scoring a #1 as their obsolescence grew more pronounced; like Squeeze, they were there at the beginning. I like this exhausted sigh of a record though, with Richard Butler and his self-harmonizing making like foghorns through the aural murk of a decade’s worth of persuading people that love love love is all of heaven away.

1. Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians – “So You Think You’re in Love”

When the Soft Boy moved to A&M Records in the late eighties, he took advantage of its promotional budget for “Balloon Man” and “Madonna of the Wasps” college and 120 Minutes airplay. Having fan Peter Buck play the hooks guaranteed a jingle-jangle morning. No dead wives and men with light bulb heads appear in “So You Think You’re in Love,” the simplest tune in the Robyn Hitchcock canon, which is why Buck’s new post-Out of Time clout and growing buzz made it his biggest hit. The mix is a mess: as he’d prove on XTC’s Nonesuch released the following year, Paul Fox had no clue how to record trad rock. Yet! I love Perspex Island anyway.

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