The deep grief of Too Much Love Will Kill You [September 6, 1992]
Plus: Extreme, East 17, Sonia, and Sugar
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of September 6, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: Britain gets its first national commercial radio station with the launch of Classic FM.
📽️New films in the cinema include biting political satire Bob Roberts and the surreal French romance of Les amants du pont-neuf.
📺On TV, football hipsters rejoice as Channel 4 launches Football Italia. Gooooolaço!
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ by Snap!, but let’s turn our attention to…
This week’s Number 6: ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ — Brian May
2016 was a deeply weird year.
Brexit happened. Trump got in. Leicester won the Premier League, and the Chicago Cubs broke the curse that kept them from winning a World Series.
But the thing that made 2016 feel most like a fever dream was the never-ending string of celebrity deaths. It was like a pandemic, but one that only affected people with a million Twitter followers. Some deaths had been expected (Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro) but many of them were genuinely shocking, like Alan Rickman, Carrie Fischer and Anton Yelchin.
The incessant drumbeat of death made it hard to dwell on any of the individual losses. I was devastated when Bowie died, but Prince was gone a few weeks later. Leonard Cohen’s passing seemed genuinely momentous, but that was soon dwarfed by George Michael.
By the end of 2016, I think we all just felt a bit numb. There wasn’t enough time between shocks to work through grief.
Which raises the question, how long do you need to process the grief of a celebrity's death?
Grief, 90s style
The 90s had quite a few shock celebrity deaths, some so significant that they felt like turning points in history
River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, Brandon Lee, Biggie, Tupac—all saw long periods of public mourning and deep conversations about who we were, as a society. Princess Diana’s death was as big as 9/11, purely in the way that everyone stopped what they were doing and spent the next week glued to the TV, staring slack-jawed at the aftermath.
Or hey, maybe that’s just how I personally experienced these deaths. I was a kid for most of the 90s, and I was a kid who had been fortunate enough to only ever experience death as something that happens to very old people.
Being sheltered from death when you’re young makes you believe that death waits for people until they’re ready. And then, a celebrity—those people who are famous precisely because they are so full of life—gets taken, and you realise how fragile everyone is.
This is the heart of grief. It’s not just sadness, it is tension, a constant anxiety about death’s implications for life.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Grief feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling.”
Your first celebrity death
Freddie Mercury was probably my first big celebrity death, in the sense that it was the first one that really shook me. I wasn’t even that big of a Queen fan. It was more that Freddie had been so alive, and then he wasn’t…
It was also one of the long periods of public mourning I’ve ever witnessed. Freddie got an epic send-off, which I’m sure he would have been thrilled about.
In November 1991, Mercury had issued a statement that confirmed what many long suspected: he was HIV positive and now had AIDS. A day after that statement, he was dead.
Although there had been months of speculations about his health, it still came as a shock. There was a genuine sense of public grief, with mourners who had never met him leaving oceans of flowers outside his home. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ surged to the top of the charts and became that year’s Xmas Number One, and everyone talked about whether he knew something when he sang “life had just begun/And now I’ve gone and thrown it all away”.
(Of course he didn’t, but it still sent a shiver down the spine.)
In April 1992, Wembley Stadium rocked to a massive tribute concert in the style of Live Aid. During that show, Brian May played a song he wrote while Queen were recording The Works, not long after Freddie had first tested positive. The song is, essentially, about May cheating on his wife, with fairly straightforward ‘Torn Between Two Lovers’-style lyrics.
But context is everything. That night at Wembley, it became a song about the relationship between love and death. A song about grief.
May released ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ on August 24th, exactly 274 days after Freddie’s death. That’s a hell of a long time, much longer than the turnaround time on Puff Daddy’s ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ (roughly three months after Biggie died) or Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind’ (which debuted at Diana’s funeral).
But people bought it because they were still sad about Freddie. Grief takes a long time, and the pain comes and goes according to its own schedule.
These things take time
Yesterday (September 5th) was Freddie Mercury’s birthday, and social media was full of lovely tributes, many of them from heartbroken fans who still feel the pain thirty years later.
I think we’re getting better at facing up to grief. Or at least, we’re producing more art with grief as an explicit theme. Pixar’s Up showed that grief can be the basis for an exciting children’s film. Marvel’s recent Wandavision showed that you can discuss grief for a whole season and still only scratch the surface.
But there’s still some way to go. When we deal with any negative emotions, we’re always under pressure to accept it and move on, to make our grief something neat and tidy that you can fold away after a few weeks, rather than disturb people with what one writer calls “a grief with many ragged ends”.
Perhaps that’s why people sometimes go all-out on public mourning for celebrities we’ve never met. It’s a chance to experience grief as part of a large group, and to take courage from those who share your feelings.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 13 (↑ from 29): ‘Rest In Peace’ — Extreme
Speaking of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, that was probably the last time Extreme played to a stadium audience.
It’s a slight shame because this track is quite funky. If they had timed things differently, they maybe could have succeeded in the Red Hot Chili Peppers space and had a more successful 90s.
Instead, they kind of got swept away with the rest of the Hair Metal dinosaurs. They deserved better.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Jam’ — Michael Jackson
Michael Jordan, Heavy D, and Kris Kross all appear in this video. Honestly, it feels like he’s trying a bit too hard to create a Michael Jackson-level spectacle.
Number 15 (↑ from 26): ‘House Of Love’ — East 17
One of the big stories of 1992 so far has been the rise of Take That, a bunch of handsome Northern lads whose secret weapon is a very talented young songwriter, Gary Barlow.
Now, we have a bunch of handsome Southern lads with their own secret weapon: the songwriting abilities of young Tony Mortimer. Barlow wrote a lot of Take That And Party; Mortimer wrote every track on Walthamstow.
Not only that, but Mortimer displayed a natural understanding of rave and hip-hop, as heard on the energetic and gritty belter, ‘House of Love’. Take That still have the advantage, but East 17 are snapping at their heels.
The rivalry is on.
Number 18 (↑ from 25): ‘Das Boot’ — U96
1992 was like some kind of competition to get in the charts by remixing the most bizarre thing you could think of. We’ve already heard an acid house remix of the Sesame Street theme; soon, we’ll get a Eurodance version of the Tetris music.
Meanwhile, here’s a robot shouting “TECHNO” over the music from German submarine drama Das Boot.
Number 30 (New Entry): ‘Boogie Nights’ — Sonia
When Michael Ball almost won the Eurovision earlier in 1992, he invented what seemed like a winning formula. The formula went like this:
Find a slightly faded pop star
Stick them in Eurovision
Get a guaranteed Top 3 finish (because of British pop exceptionalism)
Release an album with the Eurovision track + some other stuff
Sonia was already in this cycle in September 1992. She was confirmed early on to be the United Kingdom’s Eurovision representative, and this track was earmarked for her post-Eurovision album.
It kind of worked. ‘Better The Devil You Know’ came second, and the Better The Devil You Know album sold well. Frances Rufelle tried something similar the following year, but her album vanished without a trace.
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Album of the Week
Copper Blue — Sugar
Bob Mould had been through a rough few years after Hüsker Dü had imploded in 1988. Nobody cared about Mould’s solo debut, and the follow-up did even worse, which led to the indignity of being dropped.
Just to make things worse, Nirvana broke through with a sound that owed a lot to Hüsker Dü. Honestly, a lot of people would have given up at this stage.
But Bob Mould doesn’t know when to quit! He put together a new band called Sugar with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis, and they managed to score a new contract with Alan McGee’s Creation Records.
Alan McGee was still reeling from the pyrrhic victory of Screamadelica, a massive hit that almost destroyed Creation (we told that story a few months ago.) He had been forced to sell out to Sony, and Sony were now horrified to discover that Creation was not so much a label as a scheme for turning money into cocaine. They wanted another hit, and they wanted it done professionally.
So, there was a lot riding on Sugar’s debut album for both McGee and Mould.
Maybe that’s why Copper Blue sounds the way it does. It’s not a fussily produced album—most of the arrangements are pretty basic, almost as if they wanted to get it down as quickly as possible. Mould often sings like he’s in a hurry, like he’s bursting to get all of these words out of him.
Whatever the reason, it works. The bare-bones feel of it puts the emphasis on Mould’s songwriting, and the guy is an absolute master of melody. Take away the fuzz pedals, and some of these tracks could be on a Beatles record, like the utterly irresistible ‘Helpless’:
Of course, there’s also a lot of that sound, the 80s alt-rock sound that made bands like Hüsker Dü and Pixies the heroes of every indie disco, such as the joyful bop ‘A Good Idea’:
But the thing about Copper Blue that’ll haunt you forever is Mould’s unique lyrical voice. Here’s a great writer at a tricky moment in life: as well as his professional problems, Mould was still in the closet and at growing risk of being outed. Copper Blue’s lyrics talk a lot about water and drowning, reaching a crescendo in ‘Hoover Dam’, where he contemplates being swept away by the Mississippi.
The lyrical standout (and maybe the best track on the record) is ‘The Slim’, a harrowing study of grief:
And I, with your breath on my pillow
I with the memory, I get to wait it out
Never put it away
But perhaps the most influential song on Copper Blue is the one that doesn’t quite sound like the others.
‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ is an insanely catchy pop song that bursts out of Side 2. It’s arguably the pop song, in fact, providing a formula that inspired all those bands like Counting Crows and Deep Blue Something. Name a song that was used in the credits of a 90s teen romcom, and that song probably owes something to ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’.
Pressure makes diamonds, they say. Copper Blue was recorded under quite a bit of pressure and turned out to be an absolute gem, earning both commercial success (400,000 units sold) and a critical smash (NME named it Best Album of 1992).
Thirty years on, it still feels like being struck like lightning. One of the greatest alt-rock records of the 90s.
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The singing dentist!