When: November 1991
Where: My dad’s ’88 Corolla (radio tuned to KROQ-FM), southbound on Mariondale Avenue, Los Angeles
Who: My mother
There isn’t much to say about my memory that isn’t already above. Although since starting up a Background Music playlist for my mom, this is the first memory that we seem to share. I’d rather talk about U2.
U2 is the poster-boy for “Better to burn out than fade away.” Most bands stop being good 10 years after their first LP, and while U2 beats that rule by a year, they had already ruined their public persona when Achtung Baby was released. “Rattle and Hum,” the documentary on the making of The Joshua Tree, had portrayed Bono and company as selfish, ruthless yuppies doing anything for a quick buck; a sharp contrast to their diplomatic image.
Achtung Baby was three years after this PR disaster, and while it was a good album, it was their creative dead end. While the band is still commercially successful, the newer music is poorly-received and gives the impression that U2 is on a never-ending reunion tour. One can only wonder how people would feel if they’d called it quits after releasing this single.
Next: 1992 arrives, and Trip-Hop helps a decade take shape.
When: April 1991
Where: My dad’s ’88 Corolla (radio tuned to KROQ-FM)
Who: My mom
The first time I heard this song, my uncle Jay was still referring to me as “The Baby,” so excuse me for what happened next.
“There’s No Other Way” by Blur has the honor of being the first song ever to get stuck in my head. After 1991, I never heard it. Which is why, after a while, I became convinced that I’d invented it. All I remembered of that song was Graham Coxon’s iconic opening riff. No lyrics, no band name, no information to speak of from the DJ.
Flash forward to February 2009. Things weren’t going so well at college, and I decided to get into Blur. I downloaded their first album, Leisure, from back in their shoegaze days and I play the first song, which is kind of long, so I skipped to the second track. What happened at that moment was the best possible outcome of this long, impossible situation. The very next thing I did was enter it into the playlist.
My teaser for this article was “What do you do when a song gets stuck in your head for 18 years, and you don’t know the name of the song, the artist, or the lyrics?” The answer unfortunately is nothing. I came across this song out of dumb luck. And it isn’t the only one I’ve had this problem with. Sadly, humming into your computer microphone will not get you very far.
Note: Certain memories are stronger than others, and as such I tend to focus on the song itself when it’s weak.
Next: The People vs. U2
When: January 1991
Where: My father’s 1988 Corolla, with the radio tuned to KROQ-FM
Who: My mother
Living in the future often puts you at a disadvantage. People living in, say, 1978, have no idea that the terrible clothes and music they have to live with will soon be completely swept away. On the other side, people living in good times never seem to think that bad things are coming. Most people who thought about it would put 1991 in the latter position, but when I first heard this song that January, nobody knew what would happen next.
In January 1991, The Soviet Union was our nominal enemy, The Cosby Show was on the air and Whitesnake was on tour. After all the changes of 1989-90, one could reasonably step back and realize that things had changed very little.
While The Stone Roses had swept through Europe, there was no indication that Britpop would ever reach America (it did, but not for years). Even this ubiquitous single, lost right in the middle ground between The Byrds and Best Coast, only peaked at #13 in the United States. Only when it was covered by Sixpence None The Richer (about which more later) did it appear seemingly on every TV show and advertisement for the next ten years.
Sixpence’s version is a simplified and feminized version of this otherwise dynamic song. One-album-wonder The La’s had infused it with a complex harmony and ambiguous subject matter; the band members had teased the idea that it was about heroin, already becoming the defining drug of the Nineties. So while Sixpence’s softer version may have been a hit in the boardroom, the original stands alone.
Next: What do you do when a song gets stuck in your head for 18 years, and you don’t know the name of the song, the artist, or the lyrics?