Making the news in the first week of March 1994 – well, there was actually only one story dominating headlines.
With one newspaper headline the names of Fred and Rosemary West and Cromwell Street would forever be linked as a small scale police operation into rape allegations swiftly turned into a macabre dismantling of the house in Gloucester where the pair murdered their victims and hid their bodies in walls, cellars and patios. Brighter headlines were also made at the end of February 1994 by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean who had come out of competitive retirement to go for Gold one last time at the Winter Olympics, ultimately winning just a bronze medal in the Ice Dance with their ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’ routine.
Muscally, we’ve hit the Top 40 of this particular chart. Time to wheel out both the good and the bad…
Sisters With Voices, as the acronym would have you believe – a three-piece New Jill Swing group who benefitted from the fairy dust sprinkled by producer Teddy Riley who along with Jam and Lewis had an almost unbreakable stranglehold on American R&B at the time. SWV’s big UK breakthrough had come the previous summer when an inspired remix of early single Right Here which combined it with the melody of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature (a mash-up before the concept had even been invented I guess) had stormed the Top 10. Downtown was a somewhat belated follow-up, the fourth single to be released from debut album It’s About Time which itself didn’t actually sell that many copies on these shores. Although the version streamed online appears to be the original album version, this single release was a slightly remixed take on the song, turning the laid back album track into a floor-filler and one which also stirred in lines from Freak Me by Silk – the legendary R&B song that Another Level would take to Number One before the end of the decade.
This was the lead single and title track from Level 42’s 1994 album, a collection of songs which would ultimately wind up being the final studio album from the veteran pop act. By this stage in their career Level 42 were by and large playing to the gallery, and so Forever Now is for all the world a single frozen in time from a decade earlier, drenched in chirpy trumpets, funk basslines and the wine bar harmonies that King and Lindup made uniquely their own. The recording of the album marked the return to the fold of Phil Gould for the first time since 1986s Running In The Family and the end result was a rather more satisfying body of work and as it turned out a fitting swansong for the work of Level 42 as a whole. The single marched into the Top 20 and out again with an efficiency that suggested it was a record whose appeal was restricted to fans alone – did anyone really try to pretend otherwise? Having many friends who were (and I guess still are) rabid Level 42 fans I’ve always worked to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of their work. Make no mistake though, they called it a day at just the right time. The musical world was moving on and it was time for the band to do so as well.
For those schooled on memories of the gentler side of the Inspiral Carpets repertoire – hits such as This Is How It Feels or even Dragging Me Down, the presence of I Want You in their opus comes like a bolt from the blue. Possibly the loudest, angriest track Clint and the boys ever released, the song was released as a swift follow-up to January hit single Saturn 5 and was the second single to be lifted from their third album Devil Hopping which would arrive in the shops a couple of weeks after this chart was announced. What made this single special, however, was the novelty of their special guest star, because the single version of I Want You features a vocal by no less a figure than Mark E Smith of The Fall. It is truly the most extraordinary duet in indie history, as true to form Smith appears to have turned up at the studio with his own song in his head and rather than directly participating simply embarks on a companion monologue to Tom Hingley’s sung vocals, shouting “I think you should remember whose side you are on” through a distorted microphone at regular intervals. It was truly the most breathtakingly bizarre collaboration most of us had ever heard at that stage, and the effect was only added to when both Smith and the Carpets turned up together to perform the track in front of a somewhat nonplussed studio audience. Shamefully the Top 40 show chose to play the Smith-less album version of the single, denying me the chance to relive the moment until I dug it out online but rest assured the version linked to above and playlisted below is the single mix that remains to this day something of a showstopper.
A slick American radio ballad from one-hit-wonder Wendy Moten who got her big break after appearing onstage with Michael Bolton at a benefit concert. The uplifting Come In Out Of The Rain is a song that was clearly designed to show off her prowess of a singer but on reflection actually has the opposite effect. The problem is that for the most part, the song is beyond her, requiring a measure of emotion and power that she just cannot sustain. Come to the climax of the ballad she can do little more than bellow the lyrics as loud as possible, with absolutely no tremolo or control. It is the kind of singing trap that X Factor contestants and the like fall into when they are handed material that is just out of reach. Contestants on a talent show we can give a free pass to. For a highly produced singer whose records are being promoted internationally there is surely no valid excuse. Such critiques aside, the single reached Number 8 in February 1994 but is little heard these days outside of the tracklistings of “Best Of the 90s That Don’t Cost Very Much To Licence” budget compilations.
A watershed moment here, presenting the UK chart debut of slacker generation hero Beck as he charges into the British charts with a single that had featured as a Top Of The Pops exclusive a week before. Loser remains one of his finest singles to this day, a defiant anti-folk stoner anthem sung by the star in a Bob Dylan-esque drawl. To this day it remains one of Beck’s biggest ever singles (perhaps unjustly so) with only 1997 single The New Pollution edging it out with a Number 14 peak. From my own personal view, the single inspires memories of one of the most spectacular political schisms of my student career after my colleagues on the student radio station developed a love of its B-side, the “lounge” version of MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack in which Beck performs the song that led to his discovery as if he is channelling the ghost of Dean Martin. The campus radio station was in the middle of its first-ever four week FM broadcast at the time and the Bailrigg FM management, ever mindful of the fact that it was their names on the licence, became nervous about the constant airing of a track espousing the joys of smoking crack and threatened removal from the airwaves of anyone playing the single. When a select band of the more high profile presenters rebelled against this musical censorship and aired it in constant rotation they had to resort to gouging the station’s only CD copy with a pair of keys to render all but Track 1 unplayable. Fight for the power kids, and don’t worry if you upset someone who went on to become technology manager of a satellite TV company in Malaysia. It is worth it in the long run, although as I recall he never did make good on his promise to replace the disc once the Easter holidays were over.
Even speaking as an unashamed and unreconstructed Meat Loaf fan, I have this theory that most of his best songs don’t really work in isolation as singles. With the odd notable exception, he’s not a man known for hit songs, but as the singer behind the Bat Out Of Hell trio of concept albums. Despite this, at the end of 1993 he did produce one of the aforementioned notable exceptions in the shape of the lead single from "Bat II", namely I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) which spent seven weeks at Number One and became the biggest selling single of 1993 in this country. In spite of this, following it up with another large hit was not automatically a certainty.
Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through was an obvious choice for a second single as it was a track fans had been waiting for him to sing for over a decade. The song was one of a number originally penned by Jim Steinman for the planned follow up to the original Bat Out Of Hell album, a project which was shelved when Meat’s voice gave out on him at the end of the 70s. The song finally found its way onto Steinman’s own “solo” album Bad For Good with an uncredited Rory Dodd on vocals instead, his version reaching Number 52 in the summer of 1981. Hence when the track found its way onto the finally recorded Volume 2 of the concept, there was a sense of closure about it, Meat Loaf finally singing the famous song that was always written for him in the first place.
Look truth be told, it is not the greatest single he would ever release either. Even by Steinman’s standards, the lyrics reach quite extraordinary depths of ludicrousness: “the angels had guitars even before they had wings” and whoever decided the track needed a squealing saxophone solo in the middle needs shooting. Still, Dreams… does have one small moment of historical significance, thanks to the video which not only features Meat Loaf in drag as a fortune teller but also a teenaged and then virtually unknown Angelina Jolie as the runaway in search of solace.
The early 90s saw a number of hot British (or in this case, Irish) bands start their careers being totally ignored by domestic audiences and only finding stardom after a surprise American hit. Radiohead in 1993 were one, and a year later came The Cranberries who had first released Linger earlier the previous year to little impact, the gentle lilting ballad crawling to a brief Number 74 chart appearance in February 1993. The transformation in the fortunes of both the song and the band came at the end of that year when somehow miraculously Linger became an American Top 10 to propel Dolores and the Hogan brothers to almost instant stardom. A domestic re-release of the track followed in early 1994 and thanks to the cachet of its Stateside success Linger finally became the British (and Irish for that matter) hit single it always should have been. The Cranberries were stars at last, although given that this directly resulted in that hideous Eurodance remake of Zombie a year or so later, this should really be seen as a double-edged sword.
I remember the sharp intake of breath that the release of this single caused. The Power Of Love was at the time a much admired and fondly remembered single in the minds of British audiences, thanks entirely to original co-writer Jennifer Rush’s lavish rendition which had reached Number One in 1985 and which was at the time the biggest selling single by a female artist ever. As far as America was concerned however the song was pretty much unknown, Rush’s version having flopped and a remake by Laura Branigan having merely grazed the Top 40 there in 1987. With Celine Dion well on her way to becoming the biggest selling artist on the planet in the early 1990s it kind of made perfect sense for her to take the song on and just possibly turn it into the American hit it never had been to that point.
Hence those of us of a certain age viewed the release of the Celine Dion remake of The Power Of Love with a great deal of suspicion. We knew the song intimately in what surely was already the definitive version. Any new attempt to perform it was almost certainly going to be a disappointment. That said, the single certainly did the trick for the Canadian warbler. Save for her 1992 duet with Peabo Bryson on Beauty And The Beast she was a virtual unknown in this country with all her subsequent singles (including global smash Where Does My Heart Beat Now) missing the Top 40 altogether. The Power Of Love finally put her on the map on these shores, marching its way to Number 4 in mid-January and setting the stage for megahit Number One smash Think Twice a year later. The production was naturally as horrible and as overblown as you might expect and ground the understated synthesised beauty of the Jennifer Rush version into the dirt with some ill-advised bombastic rock guitars that strangled all the life and emotion out of the song. For good or ill, the huge worldwide sales of Celine Dion’s The Power Of Love mean it has ended up as the definitive version to all but us children of the 80s. Disturbingly when listening to Jennifer Rush these days I find myself anticipating the crunching guitar chords in the bridge that were the defining moment of David Foster’s production of the Dion version. I hate myself for that.
A mysteriously popular dancehall hit which dominated charts and clubs all over Europe during 1994 and which can quite possibly be considered as one of the last true ragga hits before the genre mutated into jungle during the course of the year. Reel 2 Real was a pseudonym for producer Erick Morillo and I Like To Move It actually began life as a Latino House track before vocals from Mark “The Mad Stuntman” Quashie were added. More Reel 2 Real hits followed during the next couple of years before Morillo started to fear the money he was accumulating was actually damaging his creativity, and he swiftly abandoned the project to move back underground and recreate himself as a much-in-demand live DJ instead.
Sometimes it is worth persevering with even the dowdiest chart to uncover a particular gem. I didn’t really have my eye on the more “alternative” scene at the time so I confess to forgetting just what it was that propelled the Smashing Pumpkins from chart also-rans to the very cusp of the Top 10. Notoriously and quite properly one of their most famous singles, Disarm was the third track to be lifted from the Pumpkins’ breakthrough album Siamese Dream and their first proper hit of any kind on these shores. 1996 single Tonight Tonight would go Top 10 for real and give them their biggest ever hit, but in terms of ambition, presence and songwriting brilliance Disarm has to rank as one of Billy Corgan’s finest moments on record. The presence of the song in the charts caused a minor kerfuffle during this week when Top Of The Pops passed on a chance to air the song despite it being the highest new entry of the week, owing to the blood-soaked lyrics and in particular the line “cut that little child” from the first verse. Happily, the Radio One Top 40 show played it in full and unexpurgated. As it should be.