Seal stops clubbing with his rebooted 'Killer' [Nov 10, 1991
Plus: a rave special edition with Bassheads, Altern-8 and Anticappella
This week’s Number 14: ‘Killer’ — Seal
First of all, this song was obviously created before the era of Search Engine Optimisation, because a Google image search for “killer seal” brings up this guy:
Anyway, the version of ‘Killer’ that charted in 1991 is not the version that most people know and love. Or maybe it is. Kind of. It gets complicated.
Back in 1988, Britain was in the midst of a rave explosion so mighty that it was dubbed the Second Summer of Love. Hundreds of mini-Woodstocks happened across the land, with illegal pop-up dance parties in forests and valleys, in abandoned factories and deserted quarries.
Young people would pile into their cars and follow a series of cryptic clues that led them to the middle of nowhere, and then beyond that again, until they finally stumbled across the oasis. Thousands of their fellow ravers crowded around massive speakers, losing themselves in electronic beats until the sun came up.
This music was known as acid house, named for the favourite drug among late-80s ravers: LSD.
But this wasn’t quite true. Acid was on the scene, but even in 1988 rave culture centered around MDMA. The tabloids—who created much of the taxonomy of this era—hadn’t yet launched their campaign against Ecstasy, so Acid was labelled as the villain.
The Acid House movement was probably the last time music felt genuinely dangerous. Yes, there have been moral panics about things like hip-hop since the 90s, but late 80s rave culture seemed to threaten more than your kids getting a tattoo and becoming homophobic.
Rave culture actually seemed like a threat to civilisation. It seemed like a generation of young people were going to tear down capitalism, stick a dummy in everyone’s mouth, and force us to dance to Carl Cox until we die.
The media at the time portrayed it as a kind of brainwashing cult. Any contact with Acid House could be deadly.
When the BBC banned ‘We Call It Acieed’ by D-Mob, it felt like this madness might be transmissible through music. Just hearing a song could change your brain chemistry. Music was dangerous again.
And so, each rave hit that made it to the Top 10 felt like a breach in civilization’s barricades. Even if the song was cheesy (like D-Mob’s), there was still a bit of a subversive edge to it.
And if the song was good? Oh man. When a great dance song crossed over into the mainstream, it sounded like the starting pistol of a revolution.
Some time during the Second Summer of Love, a producer called Adam Tinley was starting to make an impression on the local scene. DJing under the name Adamski, he started working on this one track that he called ‘The Killer’, because he was thinking about movie hitmen when he made it. In 1990, Adamski had a solo hit with acid house number, ‘N-R-G.’
Seal was a jobbing singer who had toured Europe and Asia with various blues and rock bands. He was almost 30 and beginning to lose faith in himself, and started spending a lot of time taking drugs and dancing to acid house.
Adamski met Seal at such an event and the two bonded over music. When he heard ‘The Killer’, he begged Adamski to let him put some lyrics on it. The resulting track is 1990’s ‘Killer’, one of the biggest crossover hits of the year and arguably the bop of the decade:
But wait, hold up, aren’t we talking about the charts in 1991?
‘Killer’ launched Seal into the stratosphere, but it was clear that he didn’t have a future in the grimy world of acid house. Instead, he signed to Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records and adopted a more soulful style.
The resulting album is a lot smoother. ‘Crazy’ became his signature song, and eventually helped him become a household name in America.
Seal also contained an updated version of ‘Killer’ which was released as a single, peaking at Number 8. It sounds like this:
It’s not very different from the original. But it’s different enough.
It’s a little slower, for starters. It foregrounds Seal’s vocals higher above the dance best, and it gives him a few extra bits to sing (such as the new intro informing us that “it’s the loneliness that’s the killer”.)
This is the sound of acid house, tamed.
By 1991, the beast was almost entirely domesticated. Raves were moving indoors, into the vast superclubs of Manchester, London and all across Europe. DJs were superstars and a growing number of chart hits were explicitly about the joy of dropping pills. Nobody really cared, even when The Shamen started singing “E’s are good!”
It would be harsh to accuse Seal of being a sell-out. Seal was never a big acid house evangelist and only became involved in rave through a chance meeting with Adamski. This soulful version of ‘Killer’ is probably a more honest version of the real Seal than the one we heard in 1990.
But it’s a reminder that capitalism is pretty good at dealing with threats, especially cultural ones. The system has an insidious magic that allows it to swallow rebels whole and turn them into something that sounds good on drivetime radio.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 8 (New Entry): ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ — Bassheads
The rave revolution did change one thing forever. It introduced people to the concept of not caring about copyright laws.
‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ is one of the most brazen examples of DJs not clearing their samples, with cuts from Afrika Bambaata, The Osmonds, Talking Heads and Pink Floyd. Bassheads got into trouble with all of these acts, so the version that charted in 1991 is horribly butchered, with all of the samples either recreated by session musicians or removed entirely.
But thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can easily find the original version. Take that, copyright law.
Number 11 (New Entry): ‘Activ 8 (Come With Me)’ — Altern-8
Probably nobody ever quite captures the essence of rave culture like Altern-8. Everything about them says, “yup, you are definitely an early 90s raver”, from their hazmat suits to their charmingly cheap DIY video.
Look at all the people dancing in their video. Aren’t they having a good time? How did anyone think these lovely folks were a threat to civilization?
Number 32 (New Entry): ‘2√231’ — Anticapella
There were two Italian dance acts in the 90s—Capella and Anticappella—and both involved Gianfranco Bortolotti. It’s not clear what the relationship between the two was, but I like to think that Bortolotti got mad at Capella and decided to set up a rival act.
More bands should do this. Motorhead should have been called Antihawkwind.
Anyway, 2√231 is equal to 30.98, maths fans.
Number 35 (New Entry): ‘Sin’ — Nine Inch Nails
If you strip out Trent’s vocal, this sounds like a standard Eurodisco rave song. For real, it would have been the sound of the summer in Ibiza.
Number 40 (New Entry): ‘My Town’ — Glass Tiger
Moving away from rave, this minor chart hit went on to become a massive anthem in Glass Tiger’s native Scotland. I, personally, have heard this sung on the streets of Edinburgh at 2am on more than one occasion. It’s also a staple of bagpiping buskers.
Album of the Week
Bandwagoneqsue — Teenage Fanclub
I remember getting furiously angry at a Teenage Fanclub interview in a mid-90s issue of Melody Maker.
First, they talked about how they missed out on punk because they were more into Steely Dan in the 70s. Then, they went on about how you can’t be angry when you’re their age (which at the time of that particular interview was 32.)
Teenage Fanclub, I may have yelled, what is the point of you?
But I had also calmed down a bit when I was 32, which allowed me to develop an appreciation for these nice men doing their nice songs. The Fannies make no attempt to hide their influences: The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Steely Dan (of course.)
But more than anything else, they are influenced by one band: Big Star.
Bandwagonesque has been referred to as the fourth Big Star album. That is mostly intended as a compliment. It’s a comparison that’s often undeniable, especially on the lead single, ‘What You Do To Me’, which could sit comfortably on #1 Record.
Bandwagonesque finished above Nevermind in some of the 1991 polls. Kurt Cobain himself said that Teenage Fanclub were the best band in the world at the time.
And yeah, it’s a great album but I’m not sure it’s aged that well. After all, we have Spotify now. It’s so easy to just put on Big Star instead.