The Sugarcubes 'Hit' helps Bjork escape from the island[January 12, 1992]
Plus: The Prodigy, The Wedding Present, Paula Abdul, and Tori Amos
Hi, welcome to This Week in the 90s. Each week, we talk about music 30 years ago. Stick your email in here ↓ to get a new issue every Wednesday.
Welcome to the week of January 12, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Those Were The Days Of Our Lives’ — Queen
‘Everybody In The Place’ — Prodigy
‘Goodnight Girl’ — Wet Wet Wet
‘Justified and Ancient’ — The KLF feat. Tammy Wynette
‘Too Blind to See It’ — Kim Syms
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 19: ‘Hit’ — The Sugarcubes
Pop music lyrics generally focus on one of three themes:
I can’t wait until we have sex
I’m so sad we’re not having sex
We gotta get out of this small town
These are strong, universal themes that everyone experiences, especially during our teenage years when we like to lie in our bed, totally still, and listen to pop songs.
One can only imagine how strongly an Icelandic teenager must have felt the need to escape during the 80s. Iceland is a tiny, weird rock in the middle of nowhere with a population the size of Plymouth. Air travel was expensive back then, making Iceland so distant that it may as well have been in a different galaxy.
The rest of the world knew very little about Iceland. When The Sugarcubes played Saturday Night Live in 1988, a confused Matthew Broderick introduced them as being “all the way from Iceland”, then helpfully clarified that by adding, “our NATO ally.”
The Sugarcubes had escaped from Iceland, despite their best efforts. Most Icelandic bands of the 80s tried their best to ingratiate themselves with American and mainland European audiences by singing in English and writing radio-friendly pop songs.
But The Sugarcubes had always behaved like they were trying to repel an alien invasion. They wrote weird, epic, noisy, experimental post-punk songs with lyrics in Icelandic. And then, if they could be bothered, they translated those songs into English.
It worked. Their 1987 international debut, ‘Birthday’, became a surprise hit on the alternative charts in the US and UK. It’s a stunning piece of floaty dreampop, made special by the lead vocalist who was described thusly in a Rolling Stone feature:
In a single line she swings from romantic cooing to an angry snarl, punctuating her chorus with Indian war whoops and breathtaking supershrieks.
That singer had been famous in her native Iceland since she was 11. Björk Guðmundsdóttir grew up on a commune and enrolled at a local music school, where she studied flute and piano.
During one school recital, she performed a cover of Tina Charles’ disco classic ‘I Love To Love’. A recording of this performance somehow found its way onto national radio, and she became an overnight sensation. A label signed her to record an album, and li’l Bjork became a star.
Her teenage years coincided with a post-punk explosion in Iceland. Everyone in Reykayik seemed to be in a band, with dreams of getting out and becoming international stars.
Some of them did, a little. Einar Örn Benediktsson and Bragi Ólafsson played in bands that toured the UK, where they formed important ties with other bands like The Fall and Crass.
Einar, Bjork and some other future Sugarcubes started a band called Kuki that toured Europe. Kuki’s shows were legendarily wild, and often ended with Einar trying to hang himself onstage.
Still, there comes a moment when you have to grow up and settle down.
Bjork got married to a guitarist called Thor, and soon they had a son. She wrote a book of poetry and started doing some local theatre. Bjork and Thor joined Einar and Bragi in a new band, which recorded songs exclusively in Icelandic, making them extremely unlikely to ever appeal to a foreign audience.
There was just one problem. This new band was really, really good.
Sometimes, it seems like Bjork had no choice but to become an international megastar. She is too talented, too Bjorky, to have remained in Iceland her whole life.
And she was much too big to be contained by a band like The Sugarcubes. Their first album was a wonder, but the follow-up sounded like a group being pulled in too many different directions.
By 1992, Bjork was divorced and ready to start the next phase of her life. But there was one loose end: The Sugarcubes were still under contract for one more album.
Stick Around For Joy is a pretty good swansong for the band, even if it runs out of steam in the second half. It sounds like Pixies at its best, especially on tracks like ‘Leash Called Love’.
One song stands out. It sounds entirely unlike the rest of The Sugarcubes oeuvre, and doesn’t even sound like Bjork’s future solo stuff. The song is ‘Hit’, and it is one of the best pop songs of the 90s.
‘Hit’ focuses on the primary theme of pop lyrics (I can’t wait until we have sex!) and few songs have so perfectly captured the agony and ecstasy of new love:
I lie in my bed, totally still
My eyes wide open
I’m in rapture
From which orifice did The Sugarcubes pull this song? How did these noisy weirdoes produce something so polished, so effective, so catchy, so radio-friendly?
We may never know. Their opaque songwriting process means that all songs are credited to “The Sugarcubes”. Maybe Thor wrote it for his ex-wife. Maybe it came to Einar in an auto-asphyxiation-induced haze.
But it’s more romantic to think that Bjork wrote this as a parting gift for her old friends. I like to imagine her looking out over a fjord and knowing that it was time to leave this island. Knowing that she’s destined for great things, knowing that she will have big hits.
And before she leaves, she wants her friends to have one last hit.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 2 (↑ from 10): ‘Everybody In The Place’ — The Prodigy
The Prodigy’s ‘Charly’ had brought them chart success, but also got them lumped into perhaps the worst musical genre in history: Kiddy Rave (or Toytown Techno, according to Wikipedia).
Kiddy Rave involved an ironic juxtaposition of hardcore beats with samples from old kid’s shows. Which was clever the first time, and incredibly irritating by the time we got to things like Smart-E’s ‘Sesame’s Treet’.
‘Everybody In The Place’ sees them move away from that and just have a good old-fashioned rave in the street. Personally, I prefer the uncomplicated good times of The Prodigy Experience to the somewhat bloated crossover monster of The Fat of the Land. They’re just having fun. It’s nice.
Today’s Twit90s In Memoriam section: RIP to Keith Flint, who’ll be gone two years in March.
Number 20 (New Entry): ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ — Clivilles and Cole
I’m always slightly in awe of people who have such as successful imperial phase that they can launch side projects. Like in 1991, when The KLF sold so many records that they released ‘It’s Grim Up North’ under a different name.
Clivilles and Cole are the C and C in C+C Music Factory, who were almost as successful as The KLF in 1991. Here, they reappear in the charts with a reworking of U2’s ‘Pride' that has a much harder edge than the C+C Music Factory stuff.
And it’s not even their only chart hit this week! The guys also appear slightly higher up the charts with remixes of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’. Now that’s an imperial phase.
Number 26 (New Entry): ‘Blue Eyes’ — The Wedding Present
The Wedding Present never quite crossed over into the mainstream like, say, Pulp did.
They did something in 1992 that nobody else has ever done.
They had twelve consecutive Top 40 hits.
One each month.
We’ll be talking about this incredible run over the coming weeks. For now, just enjoy the first of the sequence, the very sweet love song ‘Blue Eyes’.
Number 29 (New Entry): ‘Vibeology’ — Paula Abdul
Perhaps the opposite end of the musical spectrum from The Wedding Present, ‘Vibeology’ is all about letting Paula do what she does best: dance. She choreographed for Michael Jackson, you know.
Number 30 (New Entry): ‘Idiots At The Wheel EP’ — Kingmaker
‘Really Scrape The Sky’ is the lead track on this EP, and the first song on their debut album Eat Yourself Whole. It’s very catchy.
Album of the Week
Little Earthquakes — Tori Amos
Tori Amos has lots of theatre kid quirks that can be offputting, one of which is her insistence on referring to her songs as if they were living people. Living girls, so she always refers to a song as “her” rather than “it”.
But when you listen to a Tori Amos album all the way through—and I admit that this is the first time I’ve ever done so—this kind of makes sense? In a way?
Each of these songs very much has its own personality. Lead singles ‘Crucify’ and ‘Silent All These Years’ have distinct DNA, while a song like ‘Precious Things’ feels like an entire other album condensed into four and a bit minutes.
The standout track here is the a capella ballad, ‘Me and a Gun’, which tells in unflinching language the story of Amos’s rape at age 21. It somehow manages to be both immensely beautiful and the most harrowing thing ever recorded.
So, I guess it does make sense for Tori to call these songs “the girls”. They’re all alive, individual, unique. And they are stronger when they are all together, which I guess makes Little Earthquakes not so much an album as a family.