No Lyrics, No Problem for 2 Unlimited [February 7, 1993]
Plus: Bon Jovi, Saint Etienne, and Belly
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s Feburary 7th, 1993 again
📰 TV host Bill Grundy dies, 16 years after The Sex Pistols killed his career. 📽️ Stay Tuned arrives in UK cinemas, a wacky comedy that’s a lot like the “Interdimensional Cable” episode of Rick and Morty.📺 On actual TV, as Tom Jones appears on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to dance The Carlton.
🎶 In the UK Top 40, “I Will Always Love You” has been dethroned! Let’s meet our first new chart-topper of 1993…
This week’s Number One: “No Limit”—2 Unlimited
“The lyrics aren't supposed to mean that much
They're just a vehicle for a lovely voice”
”An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter”—Mansun
When Tom Ewing of Freaky Trigger wrote about this song, he described a memory of seeing former NME hack Tony Parsons on TV, reading aloud the lyrics of 2 Unlimited’s biggest hit “in a tone of profound regret.”
I can’t find footage of this event (which I did not see) nor the Spitting Image parody that changes the words to “There’s no lyrics!” (I did see that one.) The closest thing I can find is this clip of Dylan Moran having a go at Fatboy Slim’s “Rockefeller Skank”:
This was a common opinion at the time, and some people were genuinely kind of furious about “No Limit”, which seemed like a parody of lyric-writing, a Eurovision wannabe that somehow became a chart-topper, and proof that civilization was on the brink of collapse.
In hindsight, getting mad about 2 Unlimited was very silly. Complaining about the lyrics of “No Limit” is like complaining because your wanted your Big Mac served medium-rare. They haven’t made a mistake—you’ve just missing the point.
And I admit that I was very much one of the point-missers. Songs like “No Limit” sent me into a rage because they defied something I had come to believe with a religious passion:
Lyrics are the most important part of music.
Sometimes, I have to force myself to listen to the whole of a song. My attention latches onto the vocals that everything sounds a capella on the first listen. I heard a SZA song the other day, and I couldn’t hum the melody but I know that one of the lyrics is: “Hurry now, baby, stick it in/Before the memories get to kickin' in.”
In my early teènage years, I had a big overlap between books and music. I was reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy at the time, so I felt drawn to lyrics in the same genre. Queen were great for fantasy vibes (Queen II is the novel that Tolkien wished he could right) while Bowie provided futuristic space thrills, especially on Diamond Dogs, which is the soundtrack to an abandoned musical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But I think the first time I felt the power of lyrics as a way to describe the messy emotions of life here on earth was around 1993, probably the time I first heard Pearl Jam’s Vs.
From that moment on, I was on a mission to find the richest, deepest lyrics I could, and I was lucky/unlucky enough to discover the likes of Leonard Cohen, The Cure, Public Enemy, The Smiths, and—my poison of choice— Manic Street Preachers. Lots of poring over liner notes; lots of copying out lyrics in long-hand.
If you’re a lyric person, you’re probably already rushing to the comments to tell me about the records that you can quote verbatim. This is a common experience.
Sadly, there’s an embarrassing flipside to all this: the sense of cultural superiority over people who felt genuine emotions at songs with cringey lyrics, or even songs with no lyrics at all.
Personally, I didn’t feel superior. I just felt sad. Music felt like this secret garden that I had discovered all by myself. It was hard to be alone in there, and it was hard to think about everyone trapped in their boring world of bland song lyrics. The kind of sadness, perhaps, that evangelicals feel when thinking about the unsaved.
It felt greedy, having these ripples of joy pass through my brain without being able to share them. I mean, everyone should be able to feel this joy, because everyone has the same kind of brain, right?
No no no no
A few years ago, Twitter decided that there were two types of people: “wordcels”, who are verbal thinkers; and “shape rotators”, who are primarily visuospatial thinkers. Wordcel is derived from the term “Incel”, and that’s way too complicated to unpack right now (but here’s an explanation by
if you're curious)
“Shape rotator” comes from the visuospatial questions on a standard IQ test, which often ask you to visualise a 3D shape from a different angle.
IQ tests examine a range of abilities, including verbal, visual, and logical skills. Your IQ is your combined score on all of these tests. This concept of IQ is based on the idea that all human brains are basically the same. If you’re really smart, you should be good at everything.
The Wordcel vs Shape-Rotator thing is interesting, because it asks: what if these are completely seperate qualities? What if people think in fundamentally different ways? What if there are different types of human brain?
The human brain comes in far more varieties than just verbal and visual. A recent New Yorker essay called “How Should We Think About Different Thinking Styles?” digs into the wide world of cognitive diversity, interviewing verbal and visuospatial thinkers, and those who fit into other categories. The author describes their own thought process like this:
My head isn’t entirely word-free; like many people, I occasionally talk to myself in an inner monologue. (Remember the milk! Ten more reps!) On the whole, though, silence reigns. Blankness, too: I see hardly any visual images, rarely picturing things, people, or places. Thinking happens as a kind of pressure behind my eyes, but I need to talk out loud in order to complete most of my thoughts.
(Worth noting that being a non-wordcel hasn’t hampered this author’s language skills—after all, they got published in The New Yorker.)
I always imagined that everyone’s mind worked in roughly the same way as mine. That everyone has an incessant inner monologue, talking talking talking without a pause for breath. Also, that when people say they can visualise something in detail, they’re exagerrating.
The fact that we have these different internal structures explains a lot, I think. It explains how we react to music: why some people dance, why some sing along, why some play air guitar, why some ignore it completely.
And why some people, like me, focus on the lyrics. Because certain lyrics echo my internal music.
There’s no limit
All that said, there’s a huge irony here:“No Limit” does have lyrics! Quite a lot of them!
Here is a sample:
No limits allowed, 'cause there's much crowd
Microphone check as I choose my route
I'm playing on the road, I've got no fear
The south from my mouth is on record here
There never will be no mountain too high
Reach the top, touch the sky
They tried to diss me 'cause I sell out
I'm making techno and I am proud
Never heard these lyrics before? Blame (or possibly thank) Pete Waterman who took one listen to this and declared it to be “the worst rap I’ve ever heard”. All of Ray Slijngaard’s lyrics were cut from the UK single release, except for the word “techno”, which gets repeated over and over again.
Waterman understood something I didn’t, which is that some people might enjoy rich lyrics, but most people will enjoy a catchy beat. “No Limit” sold over 2 million copies, so I guess he was right.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 12 (New Entry): “You’re In A Bad Way”—Saint Etienne
A throwaway number, written over the course of a single teabreak and based on a loose idea: “what if would Hermann’s Hermits sound like in the 90s?”
Saint Etienne had intended this as a B-side, hence the lack of effort, but Creation Records’ Alan McGee spotted its potential and talked them into making it a single. “You’re In A Bad Way” ended up becoming one of their biggest chart hits and earned their first appearance on Top Of The Pops*.
(* Kind of. They performed “Seven Ways To Love” under the name Cola Boy in 1991.)
Number 17 (New Entry): “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”—Sting
The Select review of this album (Ten Summoner’s Tales) is kind of funny. Andrew Collins basically said: “This is very dull, middle-aged music, but we should be kind because we’ll listen to stuff like this when we’re in our 40s.”
Happy to say he was wrong! I don’t hate this, but it’s a bit bland and I would never whack it on Spotify. Maybe all that will change in my 50s.
Number 26 (↓ from 16): “Bed Of Roses”—Bon Jovi
“Sitting here wasted and wounded/At this old piano”
Is Jon trying to channel Tom Waits here? The rest of the lyrics are quite Waitsian, with references to alcoholism and women who done left him cause he just ain’t no good, and it’s all going okay until the second verse, which goes:
“With an ironclad fist
I wake up and french kiss the morning”
Yeah, I prefer 2 Unlimited to be honest.
Number 32 (New Entry): “Anyone Can Play Guitar”—Radiohead
The first ever Radiohead single in the UK Top 40, following the dismal failure of their previous effort… “Creep”.
To explain, “Creep” came out in 1992, but bombed miserably after radio stations deemed it too depressing. The slightly more upbeat “Anyone Can Play Guitar” fared slightly better, which helped Pablo Honey get into the album charts.
Pablo Honey didn’t perform brilliantly, but it did well enough to get “Creep” a re-release. Spoiler alert: it did better the second time.
Number 34 (New Entry): “Beautiful Girl”—INXS
I’ve long been uncomfortable with the idea of this as an eating disorder anthem, but the YouTube comments are full of people saying that this song saved their life, so what do I know? If you made someone’s life better, then good work.
Album of the Week
It’s hard to step out of the shadows when you’ve been in not one, but two seminal bands. Tanya Donnelly started out as the guitarist in her step-sister Kristen’s band, Throwing Muses, before helping Kim Deal found her next project, The Breeders.
Now, it’s Tanya’s turn to step up to the mic. Belly had released a smattering of EPs since 1990, some of which are collected on Star, including the very catchy “Gepetto”
Most of this album’s 15 tracks are brand new, and generally lean towards a kind of melancholy dreampop, beginning with the nursery rhyme aesthetic of “Someone To Die For”, a song about dying for your sister:
If there’s a complaint about this album, it’s that it perhaps stays a little too close to the Throwing Muses. While I wouldn’t say that Kristen Hersh could sing all of the songs on Star, it maybe doesn’t put enough clear daylight between the two step-siblings.
Except in the songs where Donnelly shows off her talent for writing a pop hook. Star has a few of these, like the delightful “Slow Dog” and the album’s big hit single, “Feed The Tree”:
A solid record from a rare talent, and a sign of great things to come.
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I hate to day it, but I did see Sting play while in my 40s, and it was a pretty good show!
Also: Belly's "Slow Dog" is fantastic. Donnelly's The Loyal Seas project is great too; a bit mellower, but still awesome.