Discover more from This Week in The 90s
Marc Almond vs boring guitar guys on 'The Days of Pearly Spencer' [April 19, 1992]
Plus: Iron Maiden, Carter USM, Ten Sharp, and Pavement
Welcome to the week of April 19, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Deeply Dippy’ — Right Said Fred (=)
‘Be Quick or Be Dead’ — Iron Maiden (New)
‘On A Ragga Tip’ — SL2 (↑)
‘Save The Best For Last’ — Vanessa Williams (↓)
‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister (↓)
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 9: ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’ — Marc Almond
Naming things is an incredibly powerful act.
When you name something, you change the way people see that thing. It’s why we fight so much over language, why we prohibit some words and try to reclaim others.
Names have power.
For instance, consider the person who plays songs for an intimate audience. These people have had many names over the centuries. Bard. Balladeer. Troubador. Minstrel. All of these names reflect a slightly different social function.
In the 20th century, these artists acquired a new title: singer-songwriter. This name emphasised the craft and hard work of such musicians, while highlighting the contrast with manufactured popstars.
But in recent years, this type of person has acquired a new name. And it is devastating.
That name is: Guys With Guitars At Parties.
(The exact taxonomy on Urban Dictionary is “That dude with the guitar at a party”.)
Men with acoustic guitars now have a very toxic brand. And honestly? They kind of brought it on themselves. They can be super annoying.
I remember the first time I became keenly aware of the Guys With Guitars At Parties type.
I was dating someone who dragged me along to their mate’s gig in the back room of some pub. Around 100 people were there, all of whom were all friends (or friends of friends) of the guy onstage.
His plan was to play a one-hour set of self-penned songs. Quiet, whispery songs on an acoustic guitar.
But you know what happens when you get 100 friends into a bar? They talk. They catch up. They have a terrific time.
What they do not do is sit silently and reflect on your gentle songs about heartbreak.
But the singer didn’t give up. Eyes screwed tight, he kept playing. He kept raising his voice a little louder, so we would step up the volume of our conversation. Then he would play a little louder, so we would talk louder still.
And then he would turn beetroot-red and scream, “everyone just shut up!”
Which we would do. For thirty seconds. And then we’d start talking, and the cycle would start again.
I wanted to go up there, put my arm around him, and say, “There is only one way for you to escape this situation with any dignity. You have to play ‘Sweet Caroline’.”
The problem with the contemporary Guy With Guitar At Party type is that they want to elevate themselves above the crowd. They have a Bob Dylan fantasy where the sheer power of their poetry can stun an audience into silence.
But this is a new thing. Performing musicians used to be very different.
A few years back, I was at my uncle’s 70th birthday. There were around 30-40 Irish people in his living room, all of whom were also in their 70s and upwards.
These people had been attending social gatherings since World War II. They were party professionals.
My uncle had arranged for two musicians to come in and provide a bit of entertainment. And I watched in fascination as these guys went about their job in a very old-fashioned way.
They didn’t demand attention from the crowd. They never sushed anyone—they wouldn’t have dared.
Instead, they worked in harmony with the conversation. When the chat was flowing, they sat back and played softly. When the crowd wanted music, they cranked it up. The whole evening flowed like one long melody.
It was what Irish people call a session.
The vast majority of Irish music emerges from this session atmosphere. Artists have no choice—if you try to fight the session, you end up like the first guy I mentioned, screaming at your friends to shut up.
One of the people that emerged from this scene was Belfast singer-songwriter David McWilliams.
McWilliams’ biography almost feels like a broadly drawn Irish stereotype. He was born poor, got expelled for drinking at school, worked in a factory, cut his teeth on the local showband scene, and then jumped a boat to London at the start of the Troubles.
His career was blighted by bad luck, mismanagement and drinking, plus an association with pirate radio that earned him a lifelong blacklisting by the BBC. In spite of this, he created one massive international hit single: ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’
‘Pearly Spencer’ clearly has its roots in the world of traditional, folky songwriting. But, like much of McWilliams’ 60s output, it has a rich orchestral arrangement that sounds like Scott Walker during his Jacques Brel era.
Walker (and Brel) worked in a very different tradition, a mode that we might call cabaret.
Cabaret artists are also attention-seekers, but there’s a difference in how they court attention. Whereas singer-songwriters want people to be wowed by genius, cabaret types work to earn attention by being big, theatrical, and flamboyant.
Being boring is the worst thing you can do in cabaret.
And you know who’s never been boring in his life? Marc Almond.
Marc Almond first broke through as one half of Soft Cell, whose Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret combined electro beats with vivid lyrics about gay life in early-80s London. The biggest hit from that was a cover: Gloria Jones’ Northern Soul anthem, ‘Tainted Love’.
In 1991, Almond released the record album Tenement Symphony, which had some fine original songs. But again, the biggest hits were covers, including this version of ‘Pearly Spencer’.
In Almond’s hands, the track becomes a full-on melodrama. It’s snappier, smoother, and it includes an extra verse where Pearly gets some redemption.
The cabaret singer can add a little pizzazz to any Guitar Guy song.
But in the topsy-turvy world of the early 90s, Marc Almond didn’t get quite as much credit and respect as Guitar Guy songwriters.
In fact, the people of the 90s applauded for what is one of the most egregious covers in pop music.
David Grey, the undisputed king of Guys With Guitars At Parties, covered the best song Almond ever wrote, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’. It’s the final track on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and it’s a very touching tale of queer heartbreak.
Grey lives up to his name by sucking all the life out of it, processing it into a bland soup that says nothing of interest.
Plus, the lyrics just sound really weird when a straight guy sings them. There’s a verse that goes:
I'll find someone who's not going cheap in the sales
A nice little housewife
Who'll give me a steady life
And won’t keep going off the rails
Which is a killer line when it’s spoken between two men. It acquires a very different meaning when it’s a bloke shouting it at his ex-girlfriend.
This is perhaps why the singer-songwriter has evolved into the Guy With Guitar At A Party stereotype.
This subgenre is overloaded with straight white men, and ultimately there are only so many things you can say about the experience of being a straight white man before it gets really tedious for everyone.
Today, there are some successful singer-songwriters in the charts, like Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers, but they offer a more diverse perspective. And Ed Sheeran sells buckets of records, but even he tries to mix it up a bit. He knows that, in 2022, it’s better to be a terrible rapper than a full-on Guy With Guitar At A Party.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 2 (New Entry): ‘Be Quick or Be Dead’ — Iron Maiden
Kind of hard these days to believe that Iron Maiden used to be such a big draw. ‘Be Quick or Be Dead’ is one of seventeen Top 10 singles that the band had between 1982 and 2007. Their previous release, ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter’ went straight in at Number One, which was a rare feat in those days.
Number 8 (New Entry): ‘The Only Living Boy in New Cross’ — Carter USM
…whereas this was Carter’s only Top 10 hit. We might take a look at their album 1992 in a few weeks.
Number 10 (↑ from 12): ‘You’ — Ten Sharp
Sometimes when you go through these old charts, you see a song and think, “I have no idea what this is. I have never heard of the song or the band.”
But then you hear the opening chords and you instantly remember all the lyrics.
This is very much one of those songs. If you’re ever hosting a pub quiz and you’re feeling vicious, play this song and ask people to name the band.
Number 27 (↓ from 21): ‘Am I The Same Girl?’ — Swing Out Sister
This is the most successful version of a much-covered song, but the definitive version was probably Dusty Springfield’s:
Number 36 (New Entry): ‘Twisterella’ — Ride
Album of the Week
Slanted and Enchanted — Pavement
Back in 2003, Pitchfork published a hand-written record review, which is exactly the kind of early Aughts hipster energy that makes Pitchfork so Pitchforky.
The record reviewed was a reissue of Pavement’s 1992 debut, Slanted and Enchanted. Most of the review focused on how much this album had influenced the article’s author, who was 16 years old and trying hard to start a band in his basement when the record was released.
Much of the Pitchfork review focus on Nevermind, and Pitchfork guy has no respect for Nirvana, who he accuses of the heinous crime of being accessible. Whereas Pavement were so inaccessible that it took him weeks of driving around just to find a copy of Slanted and Enchanted.
I feel inspired by that reviewer’s wild comparisons, so let’s go one step further and make an even wilder claim:
Nevermind was the last great Gen X rock record. Slanted and Enchanted was the first great Millennial rock record.
Bear with me.
Here’s a thing that people don’t like to admit about grunge: it didn’t really lead to anything else. There was no big post-Nevermind movement, and the whole genre kind of fizzled out after Kurt died. Grohl, Vedder, Cornell and the rest went on to make music that gets played a lot on classic rock radio.
On the other hand, Slanted and Enchanted very much feels like the beginning of a journey.
You can hear it on the opening track, ‘Summer Babe’, which starts off like the kind of lo-fi, dead-end indie band that were ten a penny in the 90s, before it blossoms into something surprisingly melodic:
Pavement often get comparisons with bands like The Fall (Mark E Smith once dismissed Pavement by saying, “they’re just The Fall in 1985”) but there’s a classic pop sensibility running through these songs, like on the loose funk of ‘Two States’ or the Beach Boys-ey “do do do”s of ‘In The Mouth A Desert’:
And at times you can hear the influence of pre-punk icons, like the Lou Reed qualities of the album’s centrepiece ‘Here’:
Most of the tracks on Slanted and Enchanted feels like attempts to answer a question, and that question is, “what’s the richest, most complex sound that we can create without buying new gear or leaving this garage?”
And that joyful, cerebral, lo-fi aesthetic would dominate a certain strand of American alternative music, with bands like Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev breaking through to the mainstream as the decade went on.
In the 21st century, not only did this aesthetic win out, but it became the only viable branch of rock. Grunge is dead, punk is dead, emo came and went, but this inward-looking artsy indie sound survived and lived on in bands like Arcade Fire and anyone who has ever walked onstage with a guitar at Coachella.
The oldest Millenials were only around 12 when Slanted and Enchanted dropped, which means it is ridiculous to say that this record is aimed at their generation. But Slanted had a huge impact and sent a lot of people moving in a new direction. And that revolution came to maturity right around the time that a lot of those Millennials started reading Pitchfork.
The decadent and slightly sad story of Flowered Up, and their epic ‘Weekender’. Plus, The Cure are back!