The government says you must listen to Billy Ray Cyrus [August 23, 1992]
Plus: Annie Lennox, Take That, Bananrama, and The Lemonheads
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of August 23, 1992.
📰 In the news this week Hurricane Andrew smashes into the Bahamas before causing record-breaking structural damage in Florida.
📽️New films in the cinema include Juice, starring a (mostly) unknown young actor called Tupac Shakur.
📺On TV, BBC broadcasts the final episode of their six-part adaption of Five Children and It.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’, but snapping at it’s heels is…
This week’s Number 3: ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ — Billy Ray Cyrus
Teenagers in Ireland get to enjoy some of the longest school holidays in the world. Three glorious months of intermittent sunshine and no homework—it is bliss.
Of course, the longer you’re away, the harder it is to go back. Nothing is as soul-deadening as those final days of August, when the autumnal drizzle starts to settle in, when you’re trying on your scratchy school uniform (it’s too big, but you’ll grow into it), when your parents are covering your schoolbooks in leftover wallpaper, when it’s dark at dinnertime each evening, and it finally dawns on you that it is time to return to that awful place.
Going back after the summer of 1992 was especially hard for me because it meant Third Year, and Third Year in Ireland is a year of hellish exams. Nine months of pain, they told us at the end of Second Year. Worse than having a baby.
On the first day back at school, I discovered that everyone in my class had a growth spurt—except me. I was half a foot below everyone’s eyeline, feeling even more invisible than I had the previous year.
Can things possibly get any worse?
Of course they would, and of course it would somehow involve my PE teacher.
My PE teacher was a woman roughly my height (which, at that point, was quite small), with the coiled, compressed strength of a featherweight boxer. Usually, she spent these classes barking at us to run faster while barely managing to disguise the loathing she felt at our being such a disappointing bunch of physical mediocrities.
But this week was different. For starters, she was smiling.
This smile—a previously unobserved phenomenon—was so distracting that it took me a second to clock the fact that she wasn’t in a tracksuit. Instead, she was wearing jeans and a tucked-in plaid shirt.
I got that ice-cold creeping up my spine, like a character in a horror movie who realises that there’s somebody in the house.
She may have said “howdy y’all” One-by-one, everyone in my class started to realise what was about to happen.
We had heard about it in the news. We had seen it on TV. Perhaps some of our parents had tried it, and then enthusiastically encouraged us to try it, and we had all refused it because we were a hardcore grunge school (with a small subculture of ravers.)
And, of course, we knew that song. Everyone knew that song. You couldn’t leave your house without hearing that song. If it wasn’t on the radio (it was always on the radio) you would hear people whistling it.
We had tried to escape. We thought we were immune. But now we were trapped.
We had to do line dancing.
The 90s had plenty of novelty dance crazes: Voguing, the Macarena, the Saturday Night, the Running Man.
But ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ was more than just a dance. It was a whole style of dancing, a style of music, and a cultural aesthetic that suddenly became part of the mainstream.
From Alberta to Auckland, from Carlow to Cape Town, wherever white people congregated in 1992, you would hear the sound of boots being scooted. People wore plaid shirts tucked into blue jeans. People wore stetsons.
In a previous newsletter, we talked about how ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ seemed to launch an overnight cultural transformation. ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ did something similar, especially in Ireland which already had quite a high tolerance for country music.
But there was one crucial difference. My PE teacher never put on Nevermind and taught us how to mosh. And yet somehow, in the Autumn of 1992, I found myself in PE class, being forced to learn how to grapevine.
Remember, this was a state-mandated PE class. My teacher was a civil servant. In effect, the government were forcing me to dance to Billy Ray Cyrus.
It was weird for me, and it was also a weird time for Billy Ray Cyrus. ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ made him an international superstar but it also left him strangely isolated.
Country music in general often struggles for any kind of mainstream acceptance (I’ve lost count of the people I’ve heard say, “I listen to a bit of everything…except country.”) Country artists are usually treated as outsiders until they pivot to pop and distance themselves from their CMT roots, like Shania Twain and Taylor Swift.
Billy Ray Cyrus has always stayed true to country, but country was a little embarrassed by him. Which was predictable in a way: this is a genre that fetishises rustic authenticity, so there was bound to be some pushback against an ex-stripper who’s big in the pop charts.
Country diehards hated ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ almost as much as I did in 1992, with Travis Tritt saying that Cyrus had reduced the genre to an “ass-wiggling contest”. When ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ won a fan-voted CMA in 1993, a visibly upset Cyrus slammed his hand on the podium and yelled, “here’s a quarter, call someone who cares!”
(That’s the name of a Travis Tritt song, btw.)
Looking back now, I can admit that ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ wasn’t terrible. I’ll go further and say… it’s actually a good song. It’s funny and catchy, and Cyrus is hella charm. The man can pull off a mullet, you have to respect him.
The problem was, I think, is that everyone was so overwhelmed by the song at the time. Existing country music fans had to deal with millions of casuals showing up at their clubs. Non-country fans had to deal with country music existing. Billy Ray Cyrus found his life reduced to a constant debate about this harmless, throwaway pop song (which he didn’t even write.)
In the years since, I’ve met plenty of people who genuinely love line dancing, and good luck to them. It’s not for me, but I’m sure that with a few beers and some good friends, it’s terrific fun.
It’s just not fun when it’s forced on you. It is now fun when you’re being urged to do it by a PE teacher who is growing increasingly manic as she realises that something she enjoyed on a Saturday night is much less fun on a Tuesday morning. I think she had a vision of us getting into the groove, having a good time, maybe even throwing out an enthusiastic “yee haw!”
Instead, we shambled this forced jollity, like a bunch of accountants at a corporate retreat. We were terrible when we started. After an hour of instruction, we were somehow worse.
The following week, our PE teacher was back in her tracksuit, blowing her whistle and yelling at us all for being slow and clumsy. It was nice to have everything back to normal. Although, for years after, I would shudder whenever I heard that song.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 9 (↑ from 23): ‘Walking On Broken Glass’ — Annie Lennox
Incredibly fun and very lavish video on this one. Hugh Laurie reprises his Blackadder character, John Malkovich is in Dangerous Liaisons mode, and Annie Lennox looks smashing in a red turban.
Number 15 (↑ from 17): ‘I Found Heaven’ — Take That
‘I Found Heaven’ is the only Take That single that wasn’t written by Gary Barlow (apart from their cover versions). And you can tell—’I Found Heaven’ is pleasant enough, but it pales in comparison to the rest of Take That and Party!
Barlow gets a lot of stick these days for his intense Boring Uncle energy, but it’s actually quite remarkable that a young songwriter had such a successful pop career.
Number 24 (New Entry): ‘Bulletproof!’ — Pop Will Eat Itself
PWEI sometimes got dismissed as Just Another Baggy Band, which is wrong on multiple levels, starting with the fact that they were immensely competent musicians.
That’s obvious these days, now that Clint Mansell is a revered composer, but The Look Or The Lifestyle? was kind of dismissed by critics at the time. If you really give ‘Bulletproof!’ a chance though, you hear that it’s a remarkably clever and well-constructed psychedelic groove that’s much tighter than other bands who were attempting the same thing.
Number 34 (New Entry): ‘Movin On’ — Bananarama
The 1980s pop charts were dominated by two remarkable trios: the three women of Bananarama, and the omnipresent Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
Both trios became duos in 1991, following the departures of Jacquie O’Sullivan and Matt Aitken. ‘Movin On’ sees them join forces, and… yeah, they both sound a little diminished. Sara and Keren can still bring it vocally, as they always do, but the track itself sounds like Pete Waterman is sketching out a first draft of Steps. I don’t want to compare it to Shakespears Sister, but there was no danger of this being Number One for eight weeks.
A perfectly serviceable pop song then, but everyone involved has done much better work.
Number 38 (New Entry): ‘It’s Probably Me’ — Sting feat. Eric Clapton
The dad rock that our dads used to listen to. Grandad rock? Anyway, I find this quite pleasant so I guess I’m getting old.
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Album of the Week
It’s A Shame About Ray — The Lemonheads
If you weren’t a plugged-in hipster in the early 90s, chances are that you discovered The Lemonheads the same way as most people: through their rock cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’.
Evan Dando always hated that people discovered his music through this song (Paul Simon, apparently, wasn’t thrilled with it either.) It didn’t help that the closest they closest they had come to a hit before ‘Mrs Robinson’ was with a version of Suzanne Vega’s ‘Luka’.
‘Mrs Robinson’ wasn’t originally on It’s A Shame About Ray, but the label quickly issued an expanded version of the album once there was some whiff of chart success.
That’s probably how most people came to own a copy of It’s A Shame About Ray. You wonder what those people made of the record when they listened to the opening number, which a jaunty tune told from the point of view of a toddler in a stroller?
Probably not that put off, to be honest. A lot of people would have realised that they were in the presence of a great American pop great classicists who was doing something new while also harking back to a rich past.
It’s a Shame About Ray proudly wears its influences on their sleeve, especially the nods to Big Star. Songs like ‘Confetti’ could sit easily on an album like #1 Record…
…while ‘Alison’s Starting To Happen’ sounds like the Platonic ideal of that first song that every garage band writes. Thousands of bands have recorded a song like ‘Alison’s Starting To Happen’ but few have ever nailed it like this:
The Lemonheads at this point in time include Juliana Hatfield (who had already released her solo debut) and David Ryan (who would drum for the band until 1995). But, ultimately, this is an Evan Dando record, dominated by his rich lyrics and melancholy voice.
There should be a word in German for the feeling you get when you’re listening to Dando sing. The kind of nostalgia that’s glowing warm at first but you know it’s going to hurt later. It’s looking an old photo of an ex; it’s driving past your childhood home and seeing that another family lives there. Whatever the word is for that feeling, that’s the word for Evan Dando. It hits really hard on a sad song like ‘My Drug Buddy’:
The original tracklist of It’s A Shame About Ray concludes with another cover version: ‘Frank Mills’ from the musical Hair. It might seem like a strange choice, except maybe it’s the clue to understanding how Dando’s mind works.
He understands all music as one big story, and he wants to make something that’s part of that story. That’s a noblest aspirations for any artist. And It’s A Shame About Ray succeeds at doing that, with or without ‘Mrs Robinson’. A classic, in every sense of the word.
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We were scheduled to look at The Shamen’s ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ anyway, so we might as well talk about Jerry Sadowitz.