Electronic, and the unlikely friendship of two icons [July 5, 1992]
Plus: the worst single of the 90s, and an album by Eric B & Rakim
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of Month XX, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: Democractic candidate Bill Clinton announces Al Gore as his vice-presidential running mate. In Iraq, U.N. inspectors stage sit-in to gain access to suspected weapons sites.
📽️Big new film in the cinema this week is Batman Returns, with Michael Keaton battling Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito. (Why did they release a Christmas movie in July?)
📺On TV, two big soap operas hit the small screen. Fox airs the first episode of Melrose Place, while the BBC launches Eldorado. One of them will be a huge success.
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🎶 Number One in the UK Top 40 is still ABBA-Esque by Erasure, but today let’s take a look at…
This week’s Number 8: ‘Disappointed’ — Electronic
There are moments in life when you really, really need someone to come along and help you.
And sometimes, just occasionally, that person appears in your life out of nowhere. Almost as if the universe felt sorry for you and sent them your way.
Some years back, I was going through one of those life-altering breakups that was so bad I decided to move to another country. I booked a one-way ticket on a flight that was leaving in a week, and started packing.
Meanwhile, I downloaded an online dating app. I had no intention of meeting anyone, I just needed something to hide the fact that my phone had grown unbearably silent over the previous weeks.
A few days before take-off, I exchanged a couple of friendly messages with someone who lived nearby. She asked if I wanted to have a coffee.
I said that I was leaving forever in a week.
She said that coffee usually takes less than a week.
The next day, the two of us met. I started by saying, “I’ve just been through a horrible breakup”, which is how I started every conversation at that time. She said she had also been through a horrible breakup.
And the two of us—complete strangers—proceeded to spend the next four hours telling each other everything. Our entire life stories. The conversation moved fast because we rarely needed to understand anything. We both just understood.
We had each met the person we needed to meet in that precise moment. Almost as if they universe had felt sorry for us and sent us in each other’s way.
I found myself thinking about this while I was reading an interview with Johnny Marr about the path that led him to Electronic.
Marr is, of course, best known as the lead guitarist of The Smiths. That’s him playing the ground-shaking riff on ‘How Soon Is Now’. That’s also him playing the piano on ‘Asleep’, and the harmonica on ‘Ask’, and the marimba on ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’.
Perhaps more importantly, Marr was the sole composer on all of The Smiths tracks. Morrissey may have created the line “And if a double-decker bus crashes into us/To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die”, but Marr injected it with the musical electricity that brought it to life.
This songwriting partnership started when Morrissey was 19 and Marr was just 14. Marr actually approached Moz—he just went round his house, knocked on his door, and said, “do you want to be in a band?”
The two bonded instantly and developed a rare song-writing chemistry. There’s a great interview where Marr talked about writing ‘Half A Person’, in which he says:
“[It was] the best songwriting moment me and Morrissey ever had. We were so close, practically touching. I could see him kind of willing me on, waiting to see what I was going to play. Then I could see him thinking, ‘That’s exactly where I was hoping you’d go.’ It was a fantastic shared moment.”
But the relationship imploded. By the time of Strangeways Here We Come, the two were barely on speaking terms.
Johnny quit The Smiths in 1987, but The Smiths weren’t finished with Johnny. Walking out of a generation-defining band isn’t easy, with fans and press both putting him under intense pressure.
Later, he found himself in court, defending the band’s profit-sharing arrangement that gave Morrissey and Marr 40% each, while Mike and Andy got 10%. The trial was a gruelling humiliation for all involved, and turned the already toxic Marr-Morrissey relationship into pure poison. The two are still having public spats in 2022.
During all of this, Marr tried to disappear into several other bands, first touring with The Pretenders and later recording with The The.
Both of those are great bands, but there was something tragic about one of England’s finest songwriters becoming, in essence, a session musician.
If the indie kids were upset when The Smith split up, imagine their response in 1980 when Ian Curtis killed himself.
The music press stoked the mythmaking with Sounds Magazine’s infamous “He died for you” article. The surviving band members were left with only two options: split up and retire, or become a kind of Joy Division tribute band.
They did neither.
Instead, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris (and Gillian Gilbert on keys) became a new band doing a new kind of music, with a more electronic, pop-oriented sound. New Order made songs you heard in clubs. New Order part-owned the most exciting club in Britain, Manchester’s The Hacienda, where ecstasy-fuelled rave culture was taking off.
Everything seemed great for New Order, but the band were increasingly strained as the 80s went on. The Hacienda was a money-losing, crime-ridden nightmare. Factory Records was run by a lunatic cokehead. Plus, Bernard, Peter and Stephen were still processing their survivor’s guilt after Ian’s death.
At the start of the 90s, New Order were entangled in their much-delayed album, Republic, which ran massively overbudget and wouldn’t reach record shops until 1993. By that point, Factory Records had collapsed. The Hacienda was hanging by a thread, as were New Order themselves.
Peter Hook said that by 1992, he and Sumner were "at that point in the relationship where you hate each others' stinking guts".
Let’s go back a few years.
It’s 1988. Bernard Sumner is touring America with New Order. Bernard hates touring America. Maybe it’s because Ian killed himself right before Joy Division’s U.S. tour; maybe he just hates America. Either way, Bernard is miserable.
Drugs have driven everyone in the band’s orbit a bit mad. There are money pressures. His relationship with Hooky is falling apart. And, although he might not know it yet, Bernard is a few months away from getting a divorce.
Bernard comes offstage in San Francisco, and there is Johnny Marr. Johnny is in Hollywood, experimenting with a career in movie soundtracks (which doesn’t pan out.) The two men are Manchester icons, but they barely know each other in person.
Bernard and Johnny talk, and find they have a lot in common. They start writing together and end up spending over 12 hours per day on collaboration. Bernard, now divorced, moves into Johnny’s house.
In an interview, Marr said:
When Bernard and I got together, initially, there was, of course, the musical agenda. We were excited about that. And I can look back now and say, well, there was a certain amount of us finding a bit of sanctuary from both having been in these intense Manchester groups. And we were getting to know each other, too, because we didn’t know each other that well on a personal level. But after that, we got to know each other very quick.
When asked why they get on so well together, he said:
“It was because Bernard and I both started out as guitar players in bands, not lead singers. So as successful and established a lead singer as Bernard Sumner is, he doesn’t have that wanker mentality – that has to hog the limelight all the time.
(Peter Hook might argue with the “Sumner is not a wanker” thing, but I’m sure we’ll tell his side of the story someday.)
The initial plan for Electronic was to release a few anonymous white labels. But it’s hard to stay anonymous when you’ve got a supergroup of this pedigree.
Neil Tennant begged to be involved and laid down some stunning vocals on their debut single, ‘Getting Away With It’, which was a surprise worldwide hit in 1989 (surprise in the sense that nobody was expecting a Marr/Sumner/Tennant collaboration).
Depeche Mode asked them to be their support act, so their first official gig together was in front of 70,000 people. And when the album finally appeared, Electronic received rave reviews from the music press.
Sumner and Marr will never be defined by Electronic. Nobody will ever introduce either them as “the guy who wrote ‘Get The Message’.” Although they released three very successful albums, it will always be a side project.
But for the two of them, it seems like an experience that changed their lives.
Marr said, "We lived in each other’s pockets for nine years…We worked together every day – 12 hours, 13 hours, every day, for years…we would go on holiday together.”
By all accounts, both of them really needed that kind of support, that kind of release at the time. It’s almost as if the universe took pity on them and sent them in each other’s direction.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 3 (New Entry): ‘Sesame’s Treet’ — Smart-E’s
Whenever there’s a list of The Worst Songs Of All Time, it’s always stuff like ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘The Macarena’ or ‘The Birdie Song’.
But none of those are close to being the worst songs of all time. In fact, they end up on Worst Song lists because they’re actually kind of good. They have irresistible melodies that get lodged into your head. It takes a certain kind of genius to achieve that.
A real list of Worst Songs Ever would look at things that were made with minimal effort, with no interest in anything other than shifting units. In the 70s and 80s, that meant musical by-products like Stars on 45 and Jive Bunny. In the 2000s, that meant Reality TV stars plodding through cover versions while Simon Cowell held a gun to their heads.
In the 90s, the worst songs were made by very lazy rave DJs.
‘Sesame’s Treet’ is a grindingly dismal attempt to cash in on the Kiddy Rave/Toytown Techno fad that started (and peaked) with The Prodigy’s ‘Charly’. The Prodigy accidentally pioneered a formula that lots of other chancers copied: hardcore beats + children’s TV show = $$$
Even by the fairly low standards of this genre, ‘Sesame’s Treet’ is a poor effort. The beats are mid and the Sesame Street samples sit poorly with the rest of the track (compare with the fairly passable job that Shaft did on ‘Roobarb and Custard’.)
The fact that they called themselves Smart-Es just shows what a boring, cynical trend-chasers they were. I don’t know who the Smart-E’s are, but I say this with deep sincerity: I hope they lost all royalties from this record in a cryptocurrency scam.
Number 11 (New Entry): ‘A Trip to Trumpton’ — Urban Hype
This is also dogshit, but it sounds like ‘The Box’ compared to that last track.
Number 15 (↑ from 26): ‘I Drove All Night’ — Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison was the subject of one of the first and most surreal fanfics I’ve ever read: Roy Orbison Wrapped In Clingfilm.
These were a series of stories in which Roy Orbison would, through a series of events, end up completely wrapped in Clingfilm. One of them was set in space.
What I’m saying is, we should have known from the beginning that the internet was cursed.
Number 26 (↓ from 21): ‘Good Stuff’ — The B-52s
This song is a really good test of whether you love or loathe The B-52s’ schtick. Specifically, whether you like Fred or find him annoying. There is a lot of Fred on this track.
When we shared this song on Twitter last week (hey, follow us on Twitter), a lot of people said they loved it, but a few people said it made them want to use a pencil to puncture their own eardrums.
A bit Marmite, then.
Number 32 (New Entry): ‘100%’ — Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth respond to grunge with guitars so angular that they must have written the sheet music with a geometry set. Lovely stuff.
This is the opener from Dirty, which we’ll soon talk about in more depth. Thurston wrote this track, btw.
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Album of the Week
Don’t Sweat The Technique — Eric B & Rakim
It’s July 1992, and we are heading for a momentous culture shift in the world of hip-hop. In a few months, Dre will drop an album that has the cultural impact of 100,000 Neverminds, flattening everything that stood before it.
But we’re not there yet.
Right now, there is time for one last truly great album in the genre that will soon be known as “old school”.
Eric B & Rakim are slightly unusual in that they were more popular in the U.K. than in their native U.S. ‘I Know You Got Soul’ had fallen just short of the top 10 in 1987, but gave us the “pump up the volume” sample at the heart of M|A|R|R|S’s hit of the same name. The following year, the duo’s signature hit, ‘Paid In Full’, reached Number 15.
Coming into the 90s, the duo had a reputation as peerless MCs with a genius for using samples. Their 1990 record Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em received the greatest honour in the world of hip-hop: five mics from The Source. Would the follow-up be as good?
Well, The Source thought it was only worthy of four mics, but it’s still a phenomenally strong record. If anyone thought the veteran duo might start slipping, they dispel all doubt on the proto-G-funk opener, ‘What’s On Your Mind’?
There then follows a run of politically minded tracks, culminating in the anti-Gulf War song ‘Casualties of War’. Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy addressed similar topics on their album but there’s so much more energy and lyrical dexterity on this record:
Rakim’s lyrics and Eric B’s loops make Don’t Sweat The Technique an intense, insular experience, like sitting in the back of a limo as it rolls through a rough Long Island neighborhood at 2am. The mood is strongest on moody, bassy ‘What’s Going On’, which abandons any hope Marvin Gaye found in his song of the same title:
It’s not all downbeat though. There’s a lot to think about here, but there’s also plenty of stuff you can dance to. The title track is built around a magical jazz loop that’s equal parts cool and aggressive, making it the perfect background for Rakim rapping about how they do this better than anyone else.
When people talk about hip hop in this era, they (quite rightly) exalt acts like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. But Eric B. & Rakim were restless innovators, who pushed hard at the edges of the genre and helped open things up for what was to come. The next generation of New York rappers—including Jay-Z and Wu Tang Clan—all owe a debt to this duo.
Sadly, Eric B. & Rakim collapsed in on themselves shortly after Don’t Sweat The Technique, mainly due to record label shenanigans. At least they bowed out at the top.
Lads, Jimmy Nail is in the charts.
A supergroup, one of the best hip hop records of all time, and one of the worst tracks even unleashed on humanity... the 90s really had it all, didn't it?
Sick burn! "The fact that they called themselves Smart-Es just shows what a boring, cynical trend-chasers they were. I don’t know who the Smart-E’s are, but I say this with deep sincerity: I hope they lost all royalties from this record in a cryptocurrency scam."