1994: The Year That Was
As various music publications and 6Music celebrate the year 1994, our man Simon Tucker remembers a year pivotal in his life.
Looking backwards can be a dangerous thing. Retro mania is in full swing right now with vinyl reissues selling by the bucket load, bands from the era reforming, the fondness for “classic album” shows etc so I want to make this clear from the start. This isn’t a blog about how music was so much better back then (yawn) or how music is rubbish these days (obviously untrue) as to write one of them would be a waste of my time and yours. No, this is just one person’s (mine) memories of the year and what it meant to me.
First a bit of background. I was fifteen in 1994. Prime age. Doing what thousands of kids were doing all over the UK at that time, struggling through school and feeling the threat of must-have employment or university on the horizon. I was decent academically but instead of focusing on studies I decided as an act of self preservation (violent bullying had been a constant throughout my life) I would try and fit it with the “cool kids”. This of course meant smoking fags, getting hammered on cheap cider, enjoying trips on mushrooms (hey I grew up at the foot of a mountain where they grew freely), smoking pot (the dangerous high-grade weed was years off entering my home town, it was all just resin) and the main one – trying to get with girls.
Throughout all of this music was a constant and what music you were into seemed to be whatever group of people you were hanging out with at the time. Looking back I now notice that I would be obsessed by a certain genre for a period of time then discover something new and whilst it felt like years it was in bursts of a couple of months before the need to discover something new would pull me in a different direction.
This is how it went.
Early 1994 I was seriously into the American guitar music that had been labelled “grunge” by the press. I liked it so much that when I stepped off the bus after a school trip to Germany my mum approached me full of trepidation to tell me she had some “bad news”. I instantly thought a family member had died and was dreading the name that was about to come out of her mouth. She then told me Kurt had killed himself. It has to be said my initial response was relief (it wasn’t a family member after all) before I felt a sense of sadness. My mum, bless her, had recorded all the news and tributes etc which I then watched repeatedly. Thing is, time moved so fast when you are that age so it wasn’t long before other things sparked into life (mine anyway).
It’s easy to mock them now and I am guilty of writing them off and dismissing them myself from time to time but when those first clutch of Oasis singles (three in six months: Supersonic, Shakermaker, Live Forever) launched them into the nation’s consciousness it was incredibly thrilling.
These singles were so powerful, funny, and euphoric it would take a heart of stone not to become enamored with them. As a fifteen year old from a working class area of Wales they seemed like the people I would see hanging on street corners kicking a football at car windows. People you would equally want to avoid and be a part off. They were fucking cool. Yes the music was following an old tradition of British pop but why was that a bad thing? They had melodies that could be sung on the terraces or on the streets, volume that would piss off your parents, and amazing haircuts.
When Liam sang about living forever or cigarettes and alcohol you felt that here was someone who knew your life better than you did, who was saying it was ok to do the things we were doing, that there was hope. Shit, maybe one day I too could be a rock and roll star (my middle-aged self just died a little writing that in my slippers). Blur were there of course but the singles (Girls and Boys, Parklife) made me want to pull my own teeth out I hated them so much. Luckily the rest of the album contained some real gems with This Is A Low, Tracy Jacks, and End of a Century particularly resonating.
In 1994 MTV was still doing what it set out to do by playing ACTUAL MUSIC VIDEOS. This served as a wonderful tool for discovery for a fifteen year old locked in the valleys. Hearing the flute intro and seeing the video for Beastie Boys Sure Shot made me take notice of them again (I wasn’t a fan of their rap/rock early years and had somehow missed Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head). Add the wonderful Sabotage and my passion for all things Beastie and Ill Communication was sealed for life. I still think it is the bands finest work and am proud to say that they are my five-year-old son’s favorite band.
MTV kept the hits coming. The Prodigy released the incredible No Good (Start The Dance) video which added to Underworld’s dubnobassmesswithmyheadman, and Orbital’s Snivilisation and the electronic bug firmly bit. The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation was an incredibly important album for me and remains one that I listen to regularly. The Narcotic Suite alone forever giving me goose pimples.’1994 was the year that I discovered rave culture and one that would take over my life for many years. Meeting people who accepted me for who I was, dancing all night and losing myself in a sea of lazers and sweaty people become IT. This is where I wanted to spend the rest of my days…
As anyone who has been through the same kind of epiphany will tell you, you always need a counter balance to the heady euphoria and there was a whole raft of artists producing more introspective music needed for when you were feeling fragile or low. In my case the band that spoke to me most on these occasions were Portishead who released the seminal album Dummy in ’94.
Here was music that seemed to have been beamed in from another planet. There were influences you could recognise (hip hop, film soundtracks) but the music was just so bloody original. In Beth Gibbons you had one of the finest female vocalists of the era (she remains to this day an astonishing singular talent) who was singing songs of lust, infidelity, yearning, and hope. The music was downbeat but not depressing. Like classic blues it was telling a story, the story of now. A narrative that regardless of gender, sexuality or geography you could understand and relate to.
Dummy remains a classic of its time that still sounds so magnificent (although personally I would like to say that I believe the bands last album Third remains their masterpiece). The lazy journalistic trait of labeling it “downbeat” or “dinner party” music was a complete misnomer. I mean would you like to have Dummy on in the background whilst you eat dinner? It is far to seductive for that. Listening to Dummy was and remains an uplifting experience and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
With so much going on in the UK during this year and the imagined collapse of “grunge” (Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session serving as a beautiful closing chapter) it could have been easy to become locked into all things Britannia. The papers fell for it of course. The Union Jack was on everything and the repulsive rise of publications such as FHM and Loaded, “bloke” humor (gag) the sudden influx of Ben Sherman shirt wearing twats doing loads of cheap coke, drinking Stella and fighting because they were “mad for it” (mad for it? you’re from Tonypandy you prat) become de rigeur and oh how cool and perfect we were.
This is where I swerved from many of the prevalent trends. It just seemed so tasteless and crass. I dived further into what people were terming the Bristol sound and casting my gaze over the pond via MTV (of course) American music started to come back into my life. Nine Inch Nail’s The Downward Spiral was sexy and frightening, Beck’s Mellow Gold sounded like Dylan on mescaline, Warren G’s Regulate..G Funk Era sounded like soul music with bite, Nas and Biggie releasing albums that brought the grime of American life right into your bedroom. It was all just firing.
Films were also a major influence in a teenagers life. The Crow (and its incredible soundtrack) tapped into teenage angst and would go on to influence countless of kids, Pulp Fiction lept of the screen like a bad mutha fucker, Tim Burton released his seminal Ed Wood (starring a never better Johnny Depp), the indie classic Clerks showed what you could do with a small budget and a great script, buffoon humor was resurrected in the form of Dumb and Dumber (a personal favorite) and everywhere you looked people were losing their shit at a British film called Four Weddings and a Funeral (the less said about the Wet Wet Wet song the better….it haunts my dreams).
So 1994 saw my life go from 40-110mph. Everything sped up, got more chaotic, more exciting, more intoxicating. It was a pivotal year in my life for which I look back with mostly fond memories. It wasn’t the “best ever year for…” because there’s no such thing. It was just a great time to be a teenager embarking on the big march to adulthood.