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Daniel O'Donnell, king of the Irish soft boys [August 1, 1993]
Plus: Dannii Minogue, Bon Jovi, and Morphine
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to August 1, 1993!
📰 Stacy Koon and Lawrence Powell are sentenced to 30 months in prison for beating up Rodney King.
📽️ The Snapper, which is a loose sequel to The Commitments, hits cinemas. It has fewer songs but better jokes.
📺 Cousin Balki rides into the sunset as US TV shows the final episode of Perfect Strangers.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Pray’ by Take That, but let’s turn our attention to this week’s Number 31…
Daniel O’Donnell, ’Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love?’
We all have those memories that occasionally drift into your mind and create such a strong sense of embarrassment that it almost hurts. Personally, one of my cringiest memories involves a conversation by a beach almost 30 years ago.
I was on a family day out, and I started talking to my mother about our different tastes in music, and suddenly I felt that rage that only exists between teenagers and parents. Her music seemed so bland, so unthreatening. My music just gave her a headache. Her refusal to accept that I was right caused me to get more and more frustrated until I unironically blurted out the phrase, “Don’t you know that music is supposed to mean something?”
I wasn’t wearing a fedora, but I should have been.
I’m not sure what music made me so zealous that day. It was around 93/94, so I was mostly vibing on Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains or something equally indefensible. But it wasn’t any particular song that inflamed my teen passion. It was the fact that so much music existed. I was at that point in life where I was discovering art outside the mainstream, and each new discovery made me feel like an explorer.
And every explorer wants to take people with them. Show them what they’ve discovered. Every time I found something dark and strange and daring, I wanted to show it to everyone and say, “See? Isn’t this exciting?”
My mother wasn’t an uptight conservative or anything, but she had zero interest in anything hard or difficult. She preferred softness. Gentle music. Books where people fall in love and everything works out in the end. When we rented a movie for the family to watch, she only ever had one request: “Get something light”.
She even enjoyed Daniel O’Donnell, which was so incomprehensible to me that I sometimes wondered if we were related at all.
We live in the modern age
You may never have heard of Daniel O’Donnell, especially if you’re not from Ireland. Allow me to introduce him.
Daniel (affectionately known as ‘Wee Daniel’) is one of the leading figures in the genre known as Country’n’Irish, which is basically bluegrass with a bit of folk thrown in. It’s a genre that emerged from dancehalls in rural Irish towns, music with drunk farmers with poor rhythm.
Daniel spent the 80s establishing himself on the live scene, building a reputation as a charming crooner with good stage banter. However, all of this was happening far away from the pop charts, even in his native Ireland.
Everything changed in 1992 when his cover of ‘I Just Want To Dance With You’ became a surprise UK hit. Wee Daniel was invited onto Top Of The Pops, where he sang live in his natty tuxedo between performances by The Shamen, Soul II Soul and Manic Street Preachers.
People had a hard time making sense of this guy. Calling him “corny” barely scratches the surface—he makes Barry Manilow look like Easy E. He is beyond corny, like a character from a book written to teach manners to Victorian children.
Daniel always looks like a Catholic schoolboy on Confirmation day: neat suit, clean face, shiny shoes, a haircut that’s very tidy but also looks like it would be lovely and soft if you petted him. He is machine-tooled to appeal to mothers, and he emphasised this by constantly talking about the most important woman in his life, his own lovely Irish mammy.
Everything about Daniel was so unthreateningly asexual that he inspired an entire genre of jokes, like:
Did you hear Daniel O’Donnell got a girl into trouble?
He told her mammy she was smoking.
Daniel became such a pop-culture punching bag that he inspired an entire episode of Father Ted, in which Craggy Island is visited by soft-boy crooner Eoin McLove. In the episode, Eoin turns out to be a nasty, narcissistic manchild whose only positive quality is a supernatural ability to charm old ladies. His talent eventually backfires, causing a Night Of The Living Dead-style attack by an army of fans.
The joke in the episode is that nobody believes anyone could be as genuinely nice as Daniel O’Donnell pretends to be. “Wee Daniel” is obviously a persona. If you got to know him, you’d probably discover he’s a monster.
(Also, his non-existent romantic life meant everyone suspected him of either being closeted or hiding some kind of unspeakable perversion.)
None of this really affected Daniel, who carried on performing and growing throughout the 90s, building an audience in the UK and, later, on the country circuit in the States. All the while, Daniel remained Daniel: never scruffy, never controversial, never raising his voice, always singing in that same gentle lilt, making music with no sharp edges, as soft as a pillow.
For now the tenderness
It’s frustrating when parents say, “You’ll understand when you’re older.” And then time passes, and you discover they were right.
I navigated the twists and turns of adult life, sticking pretty rigidly to my belief that the most enjoyable art is the stuff that challenges or promises to reveal some deeper truth.
Then I became a parent, and then a single parent, and I began to appreciate softness. Not mindless entertainment, not the endless screaming of reality TV or superhero movies but the joy of what my mother would describe as, “something light”.
My kid became the infection vector for this kind of entertainment in my house. She helped me reconnect with the joy of pop music and kids’ entertainment. At some point during my fifth rewatch of High School Musical 2, I had an epiphany about how things can be soft and frothy, yet still have a deep meaning to them.
Softness is the meaning, sometimes. Some artists work hard to create a place where people can feel safe for a moment, just long enough to catch their breath. This is important, meaningful work.
The friends we used to know
Around the time of the Eoin McLove episode, Daniel did a thing that was very Daniel.
He was playing the Mary From Dungloe festival (which is a real thing) and he made a joke about how everyone could come to his house the next day for a cup of tea.
His fans did not see the funny side, and hundreds of them arrived the next morning, seeking tea and biscuits. Daniel and his mother were genial hosts, making sure everyone got a cuppa. The event was repeated the following year and continued annually until the early 2000s when the crowds grew too voluminous for Daniel’s kettle.
Daniel got married in 2002, started doing some reality TV shows with his wife, and slowly made the pivot to National Treasure status. As we learned more about him as a person, we learned that he’s nothing like Eoin McLove. He is just Daniel O’Donnell, an extremely sweet and gentle person. There are no hidden layers to his onstage persona. It’s Daniel all the way down.
That sincerity has been the bedrock of his career. It’s how he’s sold 15 million albums, built a massive worldwide following, and set an incredible UK chart record by having a new album in the Top 40 every year since 1991.
(That is 33 years and counting. His next album should make it 34.)
He’s done all this without pandering or pivoting, without jumping bandwagons or chasing trends. Daniel knows who his audience is, knows what they want, and he’s always been laser-focused on taking care of them.
Which implies that Daniel has always known who he is. While other people saw him as an enigma, he was always utterly certain about who Daniel O’Donnell is and what Daniel O’Donnell’s place is in this world. There’s something beautiful about that, and perhaps a little scary too. Very few people have that kind of self-knowledge. Perhaps that’s why he sometimes seems a little alien to those of us who are always uncertain.
Tomorrow we'll understand
My mother’s old and quite frail now, and her life has shrunk down, as happens when you’ve lived long enough. She listens to a lot of Daniel O’Donnell, which means that I listen to a lot of Daniel O’Donnell. I’ve listened to more Daniel O’Donnell this year than any other artist.
I’m still not a fan of his music. That’s okay. It’s not for me. Not everything has to be for me.
He brings joy and comfort to my mother though, and I respect him for that. After all these years, I understand that work like this is art too. It can only be done by a real artist.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 10, ↑] Dannii Minogue, ‘This Is It’
An energetic version of the Melba Moore disco classic from 1976. It’s a very enjoyable single, but it’s also the kind of thing that Kylie was doing in 1989, which makes it feel like a step backward for Dannii.
Also, Dannii’s last Top 10 hit until 1997. After this, Dannii will spend some time presenting The Big Breakfast, get married, have some hits in Japan, lose her record contract, get divorced, pose for Playboy, and have a successful run as Rizzo in Grease. See you back here in four years, Dannii!
[Number 15 ↑] Whitney Houston, ‘Run To You’
Okay, I think we all have The Bodyguard fatigue now. This is the fifth single and yet another chance to marvel at Whitney’s incredible pipes, which is something we’ve been doing for almost a year.
[Number 21, New] Bon Jovi, ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is the worst catchphrase. Why would you want to do that? Sleep is brilliant. Honestly, I’m only awake right now because of societal pressure.
[Number 23, ↓ ] Michael Jackson, ‘Will You Be There’
Absolutely horrible timing for this single, which is taken from the children’s movie Free Willy. By the end of August 1993, the allegations against Jackson will become public.
The song itself is pretty good. It’s like ‘Earth Song’ but more funky and less messianic.
[Number 40, New] Ice Cube, ‘Check Yo Self’
A sequel to ‘It Was A Good Day’, which uses a heavy sample of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, much like Coi Leray’s 2023 hit ‘Players’. Time is a flat circle!
Album of the Week
Morphine, Cure For Pain
You’d struggle to find a 90s alt-ock outfit with a weirder sound than Massachusetts band Morphine.
Morphine consisted of drummer Jerome Dupree (who quit the band for health reasons during the recording of Cure For Pain), saxophonist Dana Colley, and vocalist Mark Sandman, who also played a one-stringed bass guitar (although he later added a second string).
Drums, sax and a dysfunctional bass might sound like a recipe for a quirky novelty rock act like The Presidents of the United States. But as soon as you dive into Cure For Pain, you hear that Morphine create a dark, almost nightmarishly claustrophobic blues rock for the ages:
This is smoky late-night music; drinking whiskey and thinking about the one that got away music. It’s well-worn territory, and bands treading this path have to compete with the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave (not to mention every artists in the entire history of blues, folk and country).
The genius of Morphine is their ability to put a twist on this genre with their unique instrumentation. Sandman’s partially stringed bass gives a meaty punch to tracks like ‘Thursday’, which Colley’s sax builds into a carnal, debauched riot:
This is the magic of Cure For Pain. Most of the songs are quite ordinary in terms of basic songwriting (it’s easy to imagine Cowboy Junkies singing something like ‘Mary Won’t You Call My Name’), but Morphine cut these ideas into little pieces and then stitch them back together Frankenstein-style, creating something deeply familiar yet unsettlingly strange.
The peak of this sound is perhaps on ‘Candy’, a song that’s mostly vocals and sax buoyed up by an underwater-sounding bassline. It’s beautiful.
Morphine’s story after Cure For Pain is deeply tragic: the band trudged through the 90s with little success, and then Mark Sandman died of a heart attack onstage during a gig in Italy.
Since then, they’ve acquired cult status and Cure For Pain has been recognised as one of the great albums of this decade. Quite rightly too. It’s a masterpiece.
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