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Dr. Alban decides that it's his life [September 13,1992]
Plus: The Wedding Present, Happy Mondays, Sinéad O'Connor, and Tom Waits
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of September 13, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: Black Wednesday leads to economic chaos, crashing the Pound and forcing Britain out of the ERM.
📽️New films in the cinema include two heavy hitters: all-star women’s baseball movie A League Of Their Own, and the eventual Best Picture winner, Unforgiven.
📺On TV, Channel 4 launches Terry and Julian, in which Julian Clary shares a flat with a normal bloke. This one-season wonder was co-written by Paul Merton.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ by The Shamen. But this week, let’s talk about…
This week’s Number 4: ‘It’s My Life’ — Dr. Alban
Recently, I had one of those blood-chilling moments that happen in every parent’s life, when your little baby turns around and says the words you’ve been dreading since the moment they were born:
“Hey dad, there’s a university open day next month.”
We still have a few years before college, but things are now in motion, and her impending adulthood looms ever closer.
Luckily, she already has a reasonably clear idea of what she wants to do. Or, at least, she has narrowed it down to two or three options, all of which are in the arts.
(I won’t say what, exactly. If you want to learn her secrets, you’ll have to subscribe to her newsletter.)
When I talk to friends about this—and once they get over the initial shock of realising that my baby is approaching college age—they kind of furrow their brows a little. Not in disgust, but more in concern, like I’ve announced that she’s thinking of joining the circus or starting a TikTok prank channel.
They pause, and then say things like “I guess she can be a freelance creative”, or “yeah, maybe she can use that degree to get a job in marketing, maybe?” They’ve skipped past college and graduation in their heads. They’re thinking about employability and trying to not to picture another arts graduate on the dole.
These conversations give me flashbacks to when I was 17, and trying to decide what I was going to do. All I really wanted to do as a teenager was read books and try to write, which meant that the logical third-level choice would be English.
But can you get a job with that?
How Mr. Alban became Dr. Alban
Alban Uzoma Nwapa grew up in a high-achieving family.
His father was a local GP who managed to protect his family from the worst ravages of the Nigerian civil war. After the conflict ended, all 10 Nwapa children went on to achieve respectable careers, becoming doctors, bankers, and diplomats.
Nigeria was still reeling from the civil war in the 70s, so most of the Nwapa family trained abroad and then returned home. Middle child Alban followed this plan too, using a family contact in the Stockholm embassy to blag a Swedish student visa so he could study dentistry. The plan was to get his degree, gain some experience, then spend his life as a dentist in Nigeria.
But that’s easier said then done when you’re alone in a faraway country. Alban had to pay his own way through college, so he took whatever work he could find that didn’t interfere with his studies. One of those jobs was working as a cleaner in a cool Stockholm nightclub called Alphabet Street.
Here’s where the story gets a bit Disney.
One evening, Alban is cleaning as normal, helping Alphabet Street get ready for the night ahead. The club owner comes out of his office, raging, panicking. Tonight’s DJ has called off sick and there’s nobody around to replace him. Punters are already queueing outside the door. What is he going to do?
Alban is a big music fan, and he loves the sound at Alphabet Street. He puts his hand up and says, “I can try DJing if you like? I’ve never done it before, but how hard can it be?”
The club owner says, “alright kid. Show me what you got.”
Alban steps up to the decks, and he is terrible. He drops records, he can’t mix for shit, he’s jumping between BPMs like he’s having a nervous breakown. An iPod on shuffle would have done a better job. The audience boo him. But the club owner sees something in him, and Alban gets another chance.
He continued studying dentistry after that, eventually graduating and opening his own practice in Stockholm. But, by night, the artist now known as Dr. Alban is mixing reggae, dancehall and house, and even starts rapping for the now-adoring crowd.
Double lives can’t last forever. Eventually, you have to choose one.
A sad day for Swedish dentistry
My final decision about college was based on the most stupid fucking thing imaginable.
No lie, this is true. It all came down to one book: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. I tried to read Nostromo when I was 17, and I hated it so much that I decided not to do English, just in case Conrad was on the curriculum.
I took Computer Science instead, and that will always be one of my great regrets. Why did I pick CS? I thought I would get a job out of it. But I was bad at it, and I left college just as the Web 1.0 crash happened, and I haven’t written a line of code since 9/11. I may as well have not gone to college at all.
Regret is often something nebulous, a matter of vague what-ifs. But sometimes regret is very clear: you say heads and it comes up tails, you go left when you should have turned right. The 50/50 decisions that either go your way or don’t.
At the end of the 80s, Dr. Alban faced one of those either/or decisions. Music or dentistry.
In the end, his decision was swayed by a person he had befriended in Stockholm: Denniz PoP, a fellow DJ with ambitions to become a producer. He offered to help Dr. Alban cut a single and even got Leila K. to drop a guest verse.
That single was called ‘Hello Africa’ and it whips ass:
‘Hello Africa’ was a big hit in Sweden, Austria and, crucially, Nigeria, which meant that Dr. Alban’s family got to see him in action. Now that he had a hit, they were a lot more receptive to his musical ambitions.
But they didn’t give up on their original plans. The Nwapa family still wanted everyone to come back to Nigeria and be part of their respectable middle-class family.
The back-and-forth arguments about his future inspired him to write some lyrics. After five hours in the recording studio, he had his next single:
Safe to say, this moment was the end of Dr. Alban’s dental career.
It was also the moment he decided to stay in Sweden, where he still lives today. There was another big hit (‘Sing Hallelujah’) and seven studio albums before he moved back into full-time DJing.
By the way, ‘It’s My Life’ was also a pivotal moment for Denniz PoP. As co-writer, he made a fortune from the record, which allowed him to open his own studio. He hired an ambitious young producer called Max Martin, and they got to work on their next project: Ace Of Base.
Choose your own adventure
Less romantic people might say that we need dentists more than pop stars. Some people would support shutting down every Humanities department and getting kids to learn a trade instead.
This recent tweet does a good job of explaining why that’s a problem:
We need poets and painters and art historians and philosophers and folklorists. We need pop stars. They keep the universe balanced. They make life worth living.
My advice to my kid has been this: study something that interests you, do it as well as you can, and trust in yourself to figure things out as you go along. Life is too unpredictable to make rigid plans. You never know when the club owner is going to turn around to you and say, “hey, can you DJ?”
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Love Slave’ — The Wedding Present
Almost full-frontal nudity in the video for this one. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your preference) David Gedge keeps on his massive Y-fronts in the video.
Number 18 (↑ from 22): ‘Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Home’ — Sinéad O’Connor
There’s an extremely bad-taste website called The Death List where people try to guess which celebrity will die next.
I admit that I look at The Death List regularly, but only to find out who’s still alive. Like, did you know that Loretta Lynn is still going? She’s 90 now, and in 2021 she released her fiftieth studio album. What a titan.
Anyway, Lynn’s original recording of ‘Success’ is a fairly standard country number. Sinead O’Connor reimagines it as a bombastic Andrew Lloyd Webber-style epic, ending in a quite cathartic freakout.
This was actually the first song that Sinead sang when she appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1992. The second song was an a capella version of Bob Marley’s ‘War’, and that’s when she ripped up the photo of the Pope.
Number 28 (New Entry): ‘Generations’ — Inspiral Carpets
Personally, I quite like this era of the Carpets and I think ‘Dragging Me Down’ is a great single. But I think we can all agree that Revenge Of The Goldfish is a terrible name for an album. It’s low-energy, mildly amusing whimsy, hardly the stuff of rock legend.
This is the problem with a lot of baggy/greebo of the early 90s: the music is good, but the presentation is limp. Bands of this era were all “hey, we’re just like you!”, but the rock revivalism of grunge reminded us that we don’t want rock stars to be just like us. We want them to be stars.
That’s why Britpop’s legacy is so much more vivid, even if the music was roughly the same. It was just bigger, from the Gallaghers’ battering ram arrogance to Brett Anderson’s “Oscar Wilde? Who’s that bitch?” swagger. Britpop dared to dream of bigger things than going to the pub with your mates.
Number 35 (New Entry): ‘Stinkin Thinkin’ — Happy Mondays
There’s so much to say about Happy Mondays in 1992 and the whole Yes Please! fiasco. Factory Records collapsed, Shaun nearly died, it was quite a palaver.
And we will say all that soon. But for now, let’s just enjoy ‘Stinkin Thinkin’, which is actually really good.
Number 31 (New Entry): ‘Digging In The Dirt’ — Peter Gabriel
This is the third song inspired by Rosanna Arquette. She dated Steve Porcaro in the 80s, and he wrote Toto’s ‘Rosanna’ in her honor. A few years later, she dated Peter Gabriel, and he inspired her to write ‘In Your Eyes’, which is the song that John Cusack plays from his boombox in Say Anything.
‘Digging In The Dirt’ is a song about their breakup, which sounds like it was quite painful. Interesting to note that it sounds more like classic Genesis than the actual Genesis, who were in their We Can’t Dance phase in 1992.
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Album of the Week
Bone Machine — Tom Waits
There have always been two distinct sides to Tom Waits: Tom the great songwriter with a knack for heartbreaking poetry, and Tom the demented cabaret imp.
Songwriter Tom was beginning to go mainstream in the early 90s, mostly thanks to Rod Stewart covering ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ and ‘Downtown Train’. He could, if he wanted, have let himself be canonised into the Great American Songbook.
And perhaps that’s why Bone Machine is dominated by the other Tom, the demented imp. It feels at times like a reaction, like a fuck-you to the world of respectable musicianship. The lead single here is called ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’, in which the 43-year old Waits reels off everything that’s terrible about adulthood.
Bone Machine was recorded in a bare studio with a concrete floor, chosen by Waits specifically for its echo. The room itself becomes an instrument in the semi-live track ‘Jesus Going To Be Here’, which bounces off the studio’s empty walls:
The biggest departure for Waits in Bone Machine is his increased interest in percussion. He had started drumming as a way of relieving stress, and most of the sound on this album is just Tom hitting stuff with a stick.
It leads to some complex, almost tribal rhythms on tracks like ‘The Earth Died Screaming’:
While other times you get a simple tabla beat on spoken-word piece ‘The Ocean’
Songwriter Tom does occasionally appear, with moments of naked emotion on tracks like ‘Who Are You This Time’ and ‘That Feel’. But if Rod Stewart was going to cover anything on Bone Machine, it would probably be the heartbreakingly simple ‘A Little Rain’.
Your response to Bone Machine probably depends on your favourite Tom. If you’re a fan of Songwriter Tom, the guy who wrote ‘Martha’ and ‘I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’, then this record will just sound like some lunatic in a basement hitting things with sticks.
If you like the other Tom, the ‘16 Shells From a 30.6’ Tom, the demented cabaret imp Tom, then you’ll love Bone Machine. It is a lunatic in a basement hitting things with sticks, and it is great.
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Manics time, plus we’ll have a listen to the Singles soundtrack.