PRINT December 1996

Real Life Rock

Top Ten (Plus Three)

Real life 1996—thirteen dispatches from pop’s sex and perception wars: one for each full moon, including July’s second, the blue moon, which is thus at the year’s center. This selection, designed to be put on cassette and played in the car, is predominantly UK-based but contains a few wider premises: that multitime reference—sourcing recorded material from up to a hundred years back—continues to open up multiple possibilities; that electronic dance is still closer to my heart than guitar music, except for Nirvana, whose live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, in its ambition and sheer directness, makes almost every other rock record this year redundant; that, in an industry and a media climate which encourages self-censorship, synthesis and crossover is one key to healthy living and good art. The point being: Do you want to live according to how you feel or how you’re told to feel? —Jon Savage

1 THE BEATLES: “Tomorrow Never Knows” (from Anthology II: Capitol). The Anthology project—time-released throughout the year—is a fascinating exercise in mass-market archaeology which, it being 1996, means that it upends history: Beatles remix and re-dux. Less frantic and effect-laden than the released master, but always dominated by that Ringo heartbeat, this “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a startling time-capsule, swooning and droning in a manner that suggests that the Beatles might have heard the Velvet Underground: together with John Cale’s contemporaneous feedback/improv masterpiece, “Loop,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” marks the year 1966 as the moment when pop began to move out of linear to looped time.

2 SPRING HEEL JACK: “Midwest” (from 68 Million Shades: Island/Trade 2). Now fully established as a musical genre, as opposed to a specific subculture, Drum N’Bass has insinuated itself as a broadcaster of the contemporary perception: Poised between two very different rhythms and meters—the half-speed of that massive, dub reggae bass and the hyperspeed of time-stretched, breakbeat percussion—it teaches us how to live in several time scales at once. An ambient instrumental, “Midwest” is also a classic travel record: repeated themes ebb and flow over seven minutes, shifting phase like the hypnotic repetitions you get on a freeway. And always, at the bottom, the British fascination with America: its sense of space, embodied here by a high synthesizer note, sustained over the chatter of drum and bass like a vista of far-off mountains.

3 PERE UBU: “Street Waves” (from Datapanik in Year Zero: Geffen 5-CD box set). Pere Ubu is a great American group and this is one of their finest moments: a rock song so inclusive and prophetic that it hasn’t been superseded, twenty years after it was recorded. Nothing sounded like this 45 when it first appeared in 1976: at once psychedelic and aggressive, “Street Waves” breaks right down to loping drums, the sinuous, melodic bass lines that would have such an impact on Brit groups like Joy Division, and Allen Ravenstine’s dirty synthesizer blasts—as powerful as the north wind speeding in from Lake Erie. Together with its flip, “My Dark Ages” and other 45s like “Heart of Darkness” (also collected here), “Street Waves” crystallized an influential aesthetic: evoking at once the terrors and beauties of Cleveland’s industrial legacy, it dared to suggest that the decayed inner city could be a beautiful place in which to live, and even have fun.

4 LOBE: “Placebo” (from Lobe: Swim/Dutch East India Trading Company). This album from Aberdeen’s Ian Hartley is an electronic trip such as could only have been produced this year, within a market large enough to sustain a record as resolutely within its own world as this. “Placebo” begins with a drone, before settling into a midpaced, ambient pulse, with three or four different textures phasing up and down. At three minutes, the track breaks down into a single organ figure, building back up with the bass and a gorgeous countermelody which rides the track out: at once romantic and meditative, ambiguously narcotic, “Placebo” embodies the possibilities of pure electronic composition.

5 SUPER FURRY ANIMALS: “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” (Creation). The problem with much white guitar music is its pomposity (the certainty that only rock contains real meaning), its seductive machismo (young men responding to the power of amplification), and its techno-fear. This apparent throwaway—a UK B-side until copyright problems delayed its release until later this year—is a perfect corrective: beginning with a short, plaintive verse in Welsh-accented English (“There’s nothing much to do/Except to sit and rot in front of televisions/Staring back at me/Just waiting for the microwaves/To mushroom to the sea”), Super Furry Animals sample, loop and synth-layer Steely Dan’s famous whine in “Showbiz Kids” (“they don’t give a fuck about anyone else”) over several minutes into an explicit, witty, perfectly punk antiauthority chant.

6 PET SHOP BOYS: “The Truck-Driver and His Mate” (Parlophone). Bilingual is a great album but this song, tucked away on a B-side, is this year’s Pet moment: a response to the transcendent guitar surges of Oasis’ UK number one, “Some Might Say.” Featuring precise but affectionate lyrics, “The Truck-Driver and His Mate” has a guitar-driven, wordless-vocal chorus that sounds like an orgasm, underscoring this gleeful tale of straight-acting gay men: the song is both an object fantasy and a sly critique of the male-bonded world of Britpop. Rarely have the Pet Shop Boys sounded like they’re having more fun, by doing exactly what they’re not supposed to do: rock.

7 A.S.R. FEATURING SHELLEY P: “I’ll Trance You There” (from Best of Trance: Low Price Music 4-CD compilation). One feature of this year has been the proliferation in the UK of budget dance music mixes and compilations, with the rate of creativity and production in this area during the last five years so intense that it’s possible to discover time capsules from even the recent past. This is one such delight: twelve minutes of ebb and flow, with a sampled, breathy female vocal testifying, exhorting, and chanting over Terry Riley drones, relentless gay disco bass figures, and synth-flute melodies, affirming Trance as the true inheritor of the psychedelic mantle.

8 JUNIOR VASQUEZ: remix of “Wave Speech” by Peter Lazonby (Brainiak). Lazonby’s original is another fifteen-minute ambient trip—meditative and romantic—but Vasquez rips it up into a heart-stopping stomper that does what all great dance records do: insist that you live every moment as if it was your last. With a sampled female vocal as orgasmic as the Nuyorican voice on Raze’s House classic Break 4Love, an explicit drug reference in the repeated, awestruck “high,” and traces of the original’s cosmic intentions (the Timothy Leary–type voice chanting: “Rising, floating, flowering”), this organ-drenched remix is perfectly poised between the city and country, between the spiritual and the sexy, between the sacred and the profane—as rare and as powerful as a blue moon.

9 R.E.M.: “New Test Leper” (New Adventures in Hi-Fi: Warner Brothers). R.E.M.’s best record for years has been lost in the publicity surrounding their new $80 million Warner Brothers deal, but this is exactly what they’re paid to do. Singing intimately, Michael Stipe takes on a plain-folks persona ideally suited to the group’s mid-paced folk rock: that of an unspecified outcast (who could easily be an AIDS sufferer) participating in the brutality of today’s media bear pit—the ritual humiliation practiced by daytime-TV talk shows. Cut off by a commercial break, he can’t get his point across: “I thought I might help them understand,” he muses, but his anger breaks out in the vocal whiplash on the word “leper.”

10 KULA SHAKER: “Tattva” (from K: Sony). With its youthful (early twenties) energy and Sanskrit lyric, Tattva was a sensational midsummer UK hit: falling within Britpop’s mid-’60s fetish but building out from its sitar affectations into an apparently sincere spirituality. For a moment, Kula Shaker looked like a perfectly overproduced, androgynous 1968 pop group but with their next record, “Hey Dude,” they reversed into tomorrow—allying 1969 riff-rock with the vaunting machismo of a lyric like “you treat me like a woman when I feel like a man.” In this respect, Kula Shaker reflect all too well the needlessly conservative sex/gender attitudes of Britpop: scared of what?

11 BLACK STAR LINER: “Duggie Dhol” (from Yemen Cutta Connection: EXP Records). A predominantly Anglo-Asian ensemble from Bradford, Black Star Liner has also benefited from the formal and structural possibilities of electronic music: the ability to meld anything you want with a house beat, the freedom offered by home production and independent labels. Outstripping white rock’s fascination with the sitar with a perfect blend of Indian classical and cheese pop, of West and East, “Duggie Dhol” features Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh on guest vocal, recorded in Punjabi, as live and distorted as a holy man calling the village to prayer. Near the end, you begin to get it, as Singh rants away: “IBM, IBM, IBM. . . . COCA COLA!”

12 SOFT CELL: “Youth” and “Sex Dwarf” (from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret: Mercury/Sire). The UK TV show “Top of the Pops” has taken to showing archive videos alongside its usual chart rundown. One week, they showed Soft Cell rampaging through “Tainted Love”—the biggest selling record of 1981 in the UK. Broadcast in between timid groups of Britpop lads—Ocean Colour Scene, Cast, et al.—they suddenly looked sensational: provocative, conceptual, revealing a deeply buried part of the British psyche, of which Northern camp is just a part. This segue encompasses Soft Cell’s ambition, swinging from the best pop song ever written about old age (“Youth”) to all-out perv-fest of “Sex Dwarf”: bad boy fantasies exposed and turned into liberation through sheer glee, humor and those monstrous gay disco bass lines. The early ’80s revival starts here.

13 THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS: “Setting Sun” (Virgin/Astralwerks). As important for what it symbolizes as the noise that it makes, Setting Sun went straight in at number one in the UK charts this early autumn. Taking off from Ringo’s drum loop on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the Chemical Brothers set up an electronic maelstrom into which they drop the barely recognizable, chanting voice of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher: “You said your body was young but your mind was very old.” By the time he chants “the visions we had have faded away,” you realize that this is E burnout we’re talking about here, but this disillusionment is easily overcome by the production’s effortless fusion of dance and rock—forms that have all too often met in opposition this year. Considering that Gallagher is associated with retro rock in the public mind, this is an inspired and liberating development—not the least because it tells a truth about an exhaustion within Ecstasy culture.

Greil Marcus is on sabbatical from his regular Artforum page. His next Top Ten list will appear in the January 1997 issue.