Mr Bean's role in the collapse of democratic society [April 5, 1992]
PLUS: Vanessa Williams, Altern 8, Blur, Soundgarden, and P.J. Harvey
Welcome to the week of April 5, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister (=)
‘Deeply Dippy’ — Right Said Fred (↑)
‘To Be With You’ — Mr. Big (=)
‘Joy’ — Soul II Soul (↑)
‘Why’ — Annie Lennox (↑)
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 x: ‘(I Want To Be) Elected’ — Mr Bean & Smear Campaign
All politicians are the same. They’re a shower of corrupt bastards. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, because politicians always get elected.
In early 90s—before I could vote myself—I heard a lot of this anti-politician rhetoric. People had a kind of democratic fatalism, a belief that all elections were a sham because the politicians were all conspiring against us.
Which was weird, because Ireland had only acquired democracy 70 years previously. But this kind of ennui was everywhere in 1992. In the US, even the Democrat candidate Bill Clinton was running on a small government platform.
(“Small government” = the idea that government will always be rotten, but you can at least try to shrink it.)
1992 was also an election year in Britain. There was no Red Nose Day that year, but the Comic Relief people decided that the election would be a good opportunity to drop their official charity single: Mr Bean and some British rockers covering Alice Cooper’s 1972 song, ‘Elected’.
In 1972, Alice Cooper was the demon that haunted middle America’s nightmares.
His gender-bending, his satanic imagery, his repeated threats to blow up a school—never have so many pearls been clutched in anguish.
As a joke, Cooper rewrote an old song of his (‘Reflected’) with new lyrics hinting that he might run for the White House. The whole thing was a satire about the venal and crass nature of politics.
In 2016, Cooper looked back on the song, saying:
“I’m so not political so it’s funny that I wrote the song that was one of the most political songs, and I was not trying to be political I was just having fun with it. The most absurd thing in the world in 1972 would be Alice Cooper being president. It would be like if you said that Mr. Rogers is now going to sing for the Rolling Stones. It was on that level of absurdity.”
1972 was a pivotal moment in election history. Vietnam had become a brutal war of attrition, and the Civil Rights movement had created a chasm between liberals and conservatives.
The Democrat candidate was George McGovern, who promised to pull out of Vietnam and end poverty in America.
Republican incumbent Richard Nixon played to the grievances of Evangelical Christians and Southern racists while stoking Cold War paranoia. It was a Love vs Fear election.
Nixon didn’t just beat McGovern in ‘72. He obliterated him. He burned McGovern’s platform to the ground and salted the earth so nothing would ever grow there again.
Alice Cooper is not responsible for this, of course. It’s unlikely that his song made any tangible difference.
But you have to be a real dumbass to look at McGovern and Nixon and think, yup, these guys are all alike. No matter who gets in, nothing will really change.
1972 was clearly a moment where the timelines split. Maybe the President McGovern universe is better than ours, maybe it’s worse. But without a doubt, it is different.
It matters who wins elections.
Fast forward 20 years.
For the first time since 1979, Margaret Thatcher is not leading a party into the general election, thanks to a Tory coup in 1990 that had installed John Major as PM.
But Thatcher still cast a long shadow. She had spent the 80s remaking Britain according to her worldview, a philosophy that she stated succinctly in a 1987 interview:
“There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
The 1992 election was kind of a referendum on Thatcherism. Britain could either reject and repeal her philosophy, or it could embrace it forever.
According to most British media at the time, it was no contest. Britain had seen the error of Thatcher’s ways and John Major was heading for humiliation.
Anyway, all of that is the background for ‘(I Want To Be) Elected)’, by Rowan Atkinson in Mr Bean mode, Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, and a few blokes from journeyman rock band, Skin.
It’s hideous. Cooper’s version was silly and winking; Dickinson just bellows this like it’s a Maiden b-side. And Mr Bean talks all the way through it, despite being essentially a mime act.
You absolutely could not release a song like this in 2022.
It’s not offensive or anything (except aurally). But that’s the problem. It’s nothing. It is dispassionate, disinterested, entirely politically agnostic.
Absolutely nobody wants to hear that shit these days. Nobody has time for the “politicians are all alike” schtick any more.
Every election or referendum these days, everyone tenses up as if we’re watching a bomb being defused. There is too much at stake.
In the last few years, we’ve had Brexit, Trump, a near-miss with Le Pen. We’ve had Orbán and Bolsanero and Duterte and now Orbán again. We’ve had Russian interference and Facebook misinformation and Cambridge Analytica. We’ve had Corbyn and Boris and the murder of Jo Cox and the murder of David Amess.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a comedian who got elected on a platform that was basically, “politicians are all clowns, so we might as well elect a comedian.” Three years later, he’s in a vicious war against an authoritarian, trying to save democracy with his bare hands.
Thinking about life in 2022 might make you pine for the good old days when elections didn’t feel like life-or-death struggles.
Except that they’ve always been this way. It was only a mix of ignorance and privilege that made us believe otherwise.
And certain parties encouraged us to be cynical. Thatcher essentially said that government is part of society. You can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other.
The 1992 general election ended with a Tory victory that surprised everyone except The Sun (who claimed it was they “wot won it”)
Neil Kinnock stepped down as Labour leader. His nine-year campaign to save the British trade union movement had failed. Within two years, Labour had elected Tony Blair to take them in a new direction.
In 2002, Thatcher was asked to name her greatest achievement. She replied:
“Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”
It’s probably a bit of a stretch to blame Mr Bean for the death of British socialism, even if that would make a great PhD topic.
But the triviality of this song really grates now. Looking back from the increasingly hellish 2020s, it makes you wish that 90s voters had more belief in the power of their ballot. Maybe if we had been more rigorous then, things would be different now.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 8 (↑ from 11): ‘Save The Best For Last’ — Vanessa Williams
‘Save The Best For Last’ is the final chapter of one of the all-time great comeback stories.
The Vanessa Williams story basically goes like this: she did a nude modelling gig in college with the understanding that the pictures would never be distributed. In 1984, Williams became the first Black Miss America. Shortly after, Penthouse obtained and published the nudes without permission. Miss America forced Williams to resign in disgrace.
The whole incident was extremely sketchy, but Williams didn’t let it hold her back. She launched a pop career, eventually striking gold with the ballad ‘Save The Best For Last’, which sold a gazillion units worldwide. After that, she went into acting, earning immortality as the villainous Wilhelmina in Ugly Betty.
In 2016, the Miss America organization formally apologised and asked Williams to judge. But by then, it seemed like she was the one doing them a favour.
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘Evapor 8’ — Altern 8
Altern 8 always felt like a down-and-dirty DIY act, making cheap videos and hosting raves in car parks.
But somehow they got P.P. Arnold do guest vocals on this track. As in, P.P. Arnold who sang ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’. She’s perhaps not as famous as Tammy Wynette, but it’s still a good get.
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Viva Las Vegas’ — ZZ Top
ZZ Top doing their beards-and-guitars thing. This entirely okay Elvis cover was released as a promo for their Greatest Hits. It’s not as good as The Dead Kennedys’ version.
Number 30 (New Entry): ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ — Soundgarden
If you ask most people to name three grunge bands, they will probably say Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
And yet, Badmotorfinger didn’t go mainstream in the same way as Nevermind and Ten. Maybe because singles like ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ were a bit too metal? I don’t know—theories welcome.
Number 32 (New Entry): ‘Popscene’ — Blur
In 1992, ‘Popscene’ sounded like the smouldering embers of last year’s post-Madchester bonfire. A bunch of indie-pop also-rans trying to squeeze out one more EP before the label cut them loose.
‘Popscene’ was a failure, but it was an important failure. Leisure had been something of a bandwagon-jump, and now ‘Popscene’ was criticised for being out of step with the grunge zeitgeist and sounding “too British”.
The band did some soul-searching after this and decided that they couldn’t keep chasing trends. They had to create them. And so, they set to work on Modern Life is Rubbish, which would become a foundational text of Britpop.
Album of the Week
Dry — P.J. Harvey
What were you like when you were 21?
I was a tongue-tied idiot, still in the latter stages of childhood. I hadn’t figured out any of life’s great answers. I didn’t even really know what the questions were.
Like many people, I turned to music for spiritual guidance. And one of the records that I played to death was P.J. Harvey’s debut, Dry.
Back then, it never occurred to me that I was seeking counsel from another 21-year old.
Polly Jean doesn’t sound 21 on her debut. She sounds like she’s a thousand years old. She sounds like the earth crying out. When that first chord of ‘Oh My Lover’ is struck, it sounds like a mighty wind rolling through the mountains.
It’s still extraordinary that someone so young could be so precise about their philosophy and artistic intentions.
Take the song ‘Dress’, for example. We now live in an age where feminist theory is mainstream, and your 9-year old nephew can explain concepts like patriarchy, male gaze, and gender performance. But back in 1992, these concepts were largely academic, and obscure to most people.
Yet they’re all explained in a single verse on the debut single from a 21-year old, who sang:
Must be a way that I can dress to please him
It's hard to walk in the dress, it's not easy
I'm swinging over like a heavy-loaded fruit tree
There’s a stunning thematic clarity on this record, with consistent ideas and images running through each song. On ‘Happy and Bleeding’, she sings, “So fruit flower myself inside out/I'm happy and bleeding for you”.
The stunning breakthrough single, ‘Sheela-na-Gig’ (a reference to Celtic fertility symbols) opens with the lines, “I've been trying to show you over and over/Look at these, my child-bearing hips…”
Most artists—most people—struggle with two big problems: figuring out what they want to say, and figuring out how they want to say it.
Dry shows that Polly Jean has never had any problem choosing her subjects or refining her thoughts. She’s one of the most clear-eyed writers we have, and it seems like she’s been this way since birth.
As for how she wants to say it… Dry has a lot in common with Pablo Honey. P.J. Harvey and Radiohead have both gone on quite a journey over the last 30 years, creating innovative sounds that make their debuts sound almost primitive. Harvey doesn’t seem embarrassed by these old songs, but she makes it clear that she’s moved on.
But Dry, like Pablo Honey, is probably a lot easier to listen to than some of the new stuff, precisely because it’s so simple. This is a knock-out rock record and it is still enormously fun to play loud. I’m older than 21 now—I’m more than twice as old—but I still find new truths in the guitars and lyrics of Dry.
Ba day ba wadladie day
Ey ey ba day ba wadladie day
Reads first section of blog. Existential crisis hits <insert Matthew McConaughey smoking in True Detective GIF>
I always felt Soundgarden and Alice in Chains are metal bands that were told by their record labels to wear plaid.
PJ Harvey being around this long, feels both kinda right and also depressing at the same time.