Over last year – to mark twenty years since I began writing about music – I ran a series of posts looking at the music I was buying and listening to in 1996 (and that was released that year), partly to jog my memory and partly to dig into my formative musical influences a bit, too.
It actually turned out to be a lot of fun, and surprisingly easy to write – particularly as a lot of the music that I was writing about, I’ve been so familiar with for so many years, while the other flipside there were a few releases that I found I didn’t enjoy any more. As we got to the end of the year, I was asked by a couple of people if I was going to continue it into 1997, and I must admit that I had my doubts initially.
But, I pulled together a list of releases that I own that were released in 1997, and suddenly, it was like, ok, this can be done. So, following last year’s pattern, the same rules apply. Broadly, they will be covered in order of release (with exceptions where I don’t have the original release date available), and I’ll look at ten each month.
And you know what? The first ten, well, haven’t all aged so well.
Iron Dust Crush
1997 (actual release date unknown)
Many goths are probably sick of this song nowadays, but the fact remains that this is one of those eternal goth dancefloor songs, that seems to fill a dancefloor every time I hear it. Pretty much the only song I remember of this Belgian band, it was – I believe – their debut single and they never bettered it. Unusually for the style, it isn’t so much bass-led as a propulsive, drum-led charge with a vocalist that could do an Eldritch impression with the best of them, and fluked with a glorious, soaring (and anthemic chorus) in a song that was yet another to play on the impending millenium without actually really saying anything, other than a passing reference or two to inequality. The rest of the album isn’t close to the greatness of this – just another goth band – and perhaps it’s impact has been dulled a little by at least two, maybe three, re-issues, over time. I honestly can’t recall where I first heard it, mind – it just seems to have always been “there”, playing at any goth night I’ve been to.
Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)
Possibly one of the most unlikely remixes, and even more an unexpected Number One in the UK. The original borrows from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Sphinx lyrically, and reputedly the song is about Courtney Love – not that mattered here, as Armand Van Helden stripped away all but a few provocative lines of Amos’s vocals, and attached them to a monstrous club banger. This song was everywhere that year, slaying clubs, TV, radio, and while it raised Tori Amos’s profile notably, it gave Van Helden an even bigger boost, and he was the remixer du jour for some time afterward, and seemed to be in the charts every month with something different (either another remix, or one of his own tracks).
Nancy Boy EP
Placebo – one of the very first bands I ever saw live, and a band I saw quite a bit in the 90s – have had something of an issue with their earlier material, and when they announced their 20th anniversary tour last year, the press release that came with it seemed to suggest that the band were going to be playing earlier material because they had to, rather than that they wanted to. I was on holiday, too, when the London gigs came around, otherwise I’d have gone to see them live again for the first time in well over a decade.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of a few songs omitted from their retrospective tour was of their greatest songs. Hidden away as a B-side to Nancy Boy, it perhaps shows a nastier, cattier side to Brian Molko than had been shown previously, and something that was rarely unleashed since, either. It barrels along at a similar pace to some of the other songs by the band at the time (listening again now after some time, it bears a resemblance to 36 Degrees and Bruise Pristine at points), but the spitting fury in Molko’s lyrics was unusually blunt, and perhaps twenty years on doesn’t show him in a great light.
By the beginning of 1997, the initial boom of Britpop had subsided a bit, with the mainstream very much having co-opted it (Vanity Fair’s Cool Britannia cover in March 1997 was perhaps where it really dropped off, and the release of Be Here Now by Oasis later in the summer properly put another nail in the coffin.
Blur were already experiencing problems with their image by this point, too. After the extraordinary success and peaks of Parklife, follow-up The Great Escape felt rather half-baked (despite their “beating” Oasis to number one with Country House, possibly the worst single they ever released), and so the band rethought their approach for their fifth album.
So despite years of disparaging American culture and music, it was a shock to find Blur’s fifth album to be very much in debt to the likes of Pavement, and containing songs that suddenly are all-but-saying “America is great!”. There was faux-Americana (Country Sad Ballad Man), rock balladry (Beetlebum), and of course the two-minute blast of Song 2, that really did break America and became an MTV staple and sports theme everywhere.
The thing is, the best songs on the album for me are those where Blur stuck to what had made them great in the first place. Despite the US-centric title, M.O.R. would happily have fitted on either of the previous albums mentioned, with a charging pace, soaring chorus and quirky effects, and as the fourth – and last – single from the album, was not a massive hit. What I didn’t realise until now, though, was that it borrows liberally from Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging – very much a British influence, of course…
Brighten the Corners
Of course, there was a bitter irony in the release of the new Blur album rather overshadowing the new Pavement album, that was released on the same day. I remember being a little disappointed in the album at the time – and listening to it again now hasn’t really changed my view. The first two Pavement albums – Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – are basically near perfect albums, and by the time of this the band clearly didn’t have their heart in it anymore (as a gig around this time at the NME Awards shows proved even more forcefully, an irritable band that didn’t appear exactly happy to be onstage). Even single Shady Lane – a pretty, delicate song at heart, and one of their finest choruses – seems on the verge of collapse all the way and is over before you know it, and the rest of the album is a collection of songs that in past years Pavement would barely have released as B-sides, at least in my opinion.
This album is so fucking great – still – that I could just write about every single song on it if I had more time. Devin Townsend has been extraordinarily prolific over the years, under a number of project names, but his band Strapping Young Lad still have a level of affection from fans that most other artists would kill for. His best album remains City, a nine track, hyperspeed blast of industrial-tinged thrash metal that can sound overwhelming on first listen, partly as the production is so dense (and Gene Hoglan’s drumming is at an insane pace for most of the time). There are many highlights, as I’ve noted – indeed there are no duff tracks whatsoever – but Detox remains impressive. Nearly six minutes of blasting, gloriously melodic metal that remains a jaw-dropping technical achievement.
Eight Arms To Hold You
I adored the first Veruca Salt album. This, belated, follow-up was barely a patch on their stellar debut, but it had its moments. Particularly the single Volcano Girls, which provided a book-end and reveal to Seether amid a retro-seventies rock feel and anthemic choruses. Indeed, the album took that approach for much of it, jettisoning much of what made the first album so great for a sound that looked deep into their past (and presumably youth), and sadly spent so much time digging into said past that there was nothing that was a step forward.
A couple of years ago, I idly reflected on nu-metal, which spawned a nostalgic thread and 223: Break Stuff – Reappraising Nu-Metal?. Two years on, JNCO trousers are back in fashion, and loads of bands from the time have been playing bigger venues than they have in ages. Then there was the well-attended club nights Sabotage and Break Stuff in the past couple of weeks that were both stuffed with people reliving those days. Whether this is a good thing depends on your view of the music, but as I noted on that Tuesday Ten, some was good, some was bad. Very bad.
Coal Chamber were somewhere in between. Their first album had two songs that made them dancefloor/moshpit favourites from the off, and have ever since bookended their gigs. The rampaging charge of album opener Loco was one (covered a couple of times here), the other was Sway. Starting off with a whispered vocal hook, it absolutely explodes into life and spending the following three or four minutes racing out of the speakers like another runaway train.
The opening “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire / We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn / Burn, motherfucker, BURN“, by the way, actually comes from a track that has been repurposed in so many ways. Rock Master Scott and The Dynamic Three’s The Roof Is On Fire had it’s intro sampled to astonishing effect by The Chemical Brother’s Hey Boy Hey Girl, the following “Somebody say ‘ho’ (ho) / Say ‘ho, ho’ (ho, ho)” by Concrete Lung in Eat My Goal, while the refrain used here was used by the Bloodhound Gang a year before Coal Chamber, too.
She Makes My Nose Bleed
Attack of the Grey Lantern
I mentioned Mansun in 263: Tracks (June 1996), with their early single Take It Easy Chicken. By that point, we perhaps knew the band weren’t the same as their so-called peers, and this point was rammed home by their first album, that was certainly rather more open-minded in scope than many, and had a wicked sense of humour, too. By the time opener The Chad Who Loved Me (yes, a pastiche of a bond theme, of sorts, too) was done on first listen, I was hooked, and the rest of the album was a gloriously eclectic one, even if it took me ages to pick up on the themes of some of the songs (something that took even longer on follow-up Six).
Long my favourite song on the album, though, is one of the less successful singles, She Makes My Nose Bleed. I’ve been entirely sure why – the subject of the song never (thankfully) resonated with my own experiences, but melodically it is probably Mansun’s greatest pop song and thus in my eyes is rather unjustly forgotten by many.
Lost Highway OST
In the early part of 1997, soundtracks were still an important way of launching a band, or launching new material in one way or another, and interestingly enough this soundtrack (to the first of a few “difficult” David Lynch films of recent decades), served one band in each way. Nine Inch Nails had been fairly quiet for a while, after The Downward Spiral, the remix album Further Down The Spiral and related touring had completed, and the release of new track The Perfect Drug on this album was thus quite an event – and quite a shock, with the heavy use of drum’n’bass in the track (it remains a fairly divisive track to this day).
Elsewhere, though, to most US (and British) ears this album was the first time that they’d come across Rammstein. I’d had their debut album passed to me just a month or two before, so I knew what to expect, but to the music press, they were something of a sensation – and especially so once they’d seen the video for this track (and the live footage, too!). The brooding, stately chug of this track is actually recounting the horror of the Ramstein Air Show Disaster, but was also repurposed by the band into being their signature live track for some time, where Till Lindemann wore a chainmail coat and set it on fire (in later years the coat was discarded and replaced with arm-mounted flamethrowers). Seeing it live for the first time (which I did four years later, in 2001) was quite the experience, and seeing them again and again live since has never got old.