1989 was a year in which:
- The Batman soundtrack spent six weeks in the #1 spot, even though there’s a reason why Simon Pegg isn’t the least bit hesitant to kill a zombie with that record in Shaun of the Dead.
- Alannah Myles was popular for six minutes, and your girlfriend wouldn’t stop playing that fucking “Black Velvet” song.
- Newsday published a story in which singer Charles Shaw contended he sang most of the vocals on the Milli Vanilli album All or Nothing. Newsday fails to ask why anyone would want credit for such a thing. Even though the story breaks in December, Milli Vanilli still wins the “Best New Artist” award at the Grammys the following February.
- Tone Loc released the song “Wild Thing,” which promptly becomes the biggest selling single since “We Are the World.” Radio stations start thinking hey, we should maybe start playing that “rap” that all the kids are talking about.
- Madonna divorced Sean Penn, giving everyone over the age of 14 hope that they had a chance. (Penn’s brother Michael fared better, releasing his debut album March.)
- Mr. Mister split up, took their broken wings, and learned to fly again. Learned to live and love so free.
- The Rolling Stones started their Steel Wheels tour, and the media wondered if they were too old to be viable – and that 23 years ago. One reviewer complained about the exorbitant price of the concert t-shirts: $20. The Stones start the tour with an impromptu show at a small club in New Haven, CT. Fewer than 700 people paid $3 to get in.
- The biggest selling single of the year was “Look Away,” by Chicago. (It’s possible that every year in our Rocktober coverage has mentioned Chicago at least once; I’m just trying to keep up.)
- Paul McCartney released a live album that was available only in the Soviet Union. People in the U.S. paid $1,000 for bootlegs instead of just waiting 10 years to illegally download it.
Oh. What.The.F@#K? Really 1989? REALLY
As mediocre as the last year of the decade was overall, every month except December managed to produce at least one album that had a significant impact on music. Let’s go through month-by-month and recall how you avoided OD’ing on Roxette, Debbie Gibson, and Technotronic.
Technique – New Order
Back in the days before you could learn everything about a band on Wikipedia (some of it actually true) New Order knew how to keep you in the dark. They avoided media if they could, rarely included anything about themselves in album notes, and barely acknowledged the crowd during live shows. One writer called them so low-profile that “they barely seem to exist.”
Technique, the band’s fifth album, continued their post-Joy Division electro-dance style but brought an acid house flavor into the mix. Technique is much more than the standard late-80s electronic record; sure, songs like “Fine Time” feature dance-music sampling, but other songs like “Run” feature crunchy guitar work and punk solos.
New Order wouldn’t make another record for four years, by which time infighting (not to mention grunge) sapped the band of its power. But Technique ranks alongside Power, Corruption, and Lies as the band’s best.
Honorable Mention: New York - Lou Reed
As Nasty As They Wanna Be – 2 Live Crew
While it is by no means a hip-hop masterpiece, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, is important for one big reason: it’s the first album in history to officially be labeled “obscene.”
A Florida district court judge issued the ruling on June 6, 1989. The next day, a Florida record shop owner was arrested for selling a copy of the album. On June 9, two of 2 Live Crew's members, Luther Campbell and Chris Wongon, were arrested for performing songs from the album at a Miami-area nightclub. Ironically, two days later the Supreme Court ruled that burning the American flag was protected under the First Amendment.
An obscenity trial followed. Oddly enough, the record shop owner was found guilty (he was fined $1,000), but the band was acquitted, a result which caused more problems than it solved. Numerous counties and towns tried to ban the group from performing but failed, and it wasn’t long before the hubbub died down. A January, 1991 Miami Herald article noted that, “The music industry and its advocates say the legal record is mixed enough to scare away any elected official from stepping back onto the anti-obscenity bandwagon.” At the end of the day, all the nearly two-year legal flap did was help 2 Live Crew sell two million copies of the album.
So was As Nasty As They Wanna Be dirty? Oh hell yes. One Christian group claimed that “there are 1,117 explicit descriptions of male and female genitalia and 870 depictions of anal sex on the album.” (It’s amusing to picture a group of fundamentalist Christians sitting in a room, pen and paper at the ready, jotting down every dirty word and conferring on their exact meanings.)
But was it good? Not really. The humor columnist Art Buchwald said it best: “…it was a jumble of sounds. I couldn't understand a word. I put it into another tape machine to check it, and once again it was unintelligible.” (Buchwald also joked that, based on the album’s reputation, it could be “used as a weapon in case someone attacks me.”)
2 Live Crew released one more album in 1994, but by then so many hip-hop artists were pushing the envelope of good taste that Christian groups weren’t even bothering to catalog the anal sex references anymore. The band called it quits in 1995.
Honorable mention: Indigo Girls – Indigo Girls (Also worth noting: the Indigo Girls were nominated for Best New Artist the following year, losing, of course, to Milli Vanilli.)
3 Feet High and Rising – De La Soul
Unlike 2 Live Crew, Long Island’s De La Soul didn’t traffic in misogynistic lyrics. Unlike Public Enemy, they weren’t overtly political. And unlike Ice-T, they weren’t interested in violence. They called themselves “speakers,” not rappers, and claimed we were living in the “Daisy Age.” During live shows, two sensibly dressed “flower girls” would throw daises into the audience and hold up cue cards as the band said certain words, a la “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” They resembled new age yoga instructors more than hip-hop geniuses.
But geniuses they were. 3 Feet High and Rising is a wonderfully eclectic, 23-song (and skit) masterpiece. Made in the days before samples needed to be cleared (and paid for) the album is riddled with a list of them as long and diverse as any Girl Talk album. The band’s label even offered a $500 reward to the first person to identify a convoluted sample on "Plug Tunin'." And the raps, alternately brilliant and completely nonsensical, are spectacular. Kelvin Mercer (Posdnuos) and David Jude Jolicoeur (Trugoy) bounce rhymes off each other and the beats with the skill and precision of dancers.
3 Feet High and Rising’s status in the pantheon of rap cannot be overstated; the Village Voice called it the “Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop,” and in 2012 the Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Those accolades notwithstanding, it remains one of the most fun records ever made.
Honorable mention: 101 – Depeche Mode
Concert You Wish You Saw: Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians opening for R.E.M.
Doolittle – The Pixies
We talked about the formation and early years of The Pixies in our 1987 article. In 1989 their days under the radar were over with the release of Doolittle, a fantastically surreal collection of 15 songs each with its own unmistakable kinetic energy. The music is intense, blistering, and dark (the exception being “Here Comes Your Man,” which, ironically, became the most well-known song on the album), with frightening lyrics sung by a seemingly possessed Black Francis. Francis wields his pleasant falsetto and his flat-out, vocal-chord crushing scream with equal abandon and the music pulsates right along with him.
Doolittle sold 100,000 copies almost immediately on word of mouth alone. Opening slots for the Cure and Love and Rockets helped garner more fans. Francis shrugged off the success with his usual “what’re ya gonna do?” charm, telling the Boston Globe that “I ain't a star until they give me what my rider backstage provisions say.” Even after the New Yorker called them the “band of the moment” and SPIN went one better and called them the “band of the year,” Francis wasn’t having it. “What does it mean?” he asked The San Diego Union-Tribune in late 1989. “What could we possibly do to set us apart from what has happened in the past 30 years of rock and roll?”
Easy: make an album like Doolittle.
Honorable mention: Workbook - Bob Mould
The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
Manchester, England, has seemingly always been a hotbed of great music. The Smiths, New Order, The Fall, and countless other bands had come out of the North West England town. In the late 80s, however, Manchester became to England what Seattle would be to the U.S. just two years later – a scene. “Madchester” exploded, a scene more rooted in San Francisco-style psychedelia than anything Morrissey might be doing. Bands like the Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets captured a 60s vibe with some touches of house music that was labeled “baggy.”
At the forefront of this movement was The Stone Roses. Their music called to mind early Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Byrds, but with a more hypnotic groove to it. The single “Made of Stone” got them some attention in the UK, and by the time their eponymous debut album was released, the second single, “Fools Gold,” had made them megastars in their home country.
The fame went to their heads quickly; they refused opening slots for New Order and the Rolling Stones, proclaiming they were the “best band in the world” and didn’t need to open for anyone. They rode the success of the album until the hype died down, and, thanks to a prolonged battle with their record company among other issues, people went from asking when their follow-up would be released to “what ever happened to…?” A follow-up was finally released in 1994 but didn’t achieve nearly the level of attention.
But The Stone Roses endures. Countless bands still seek to mix a 60s sound with something more modern; few succeed as well as the Stone Roses. The opening track, “I Wanna Be Adored,” is pop perfection. “She Bangs the Drums” brought R.E.M. to mind as much as the Byrds, and of course, even at 10 minutes, “Fool’s Gold” remains a minimalist masterpiece, coasting on muttered vocals, a catchy bass riff, and plenty of wah-pedal guitar.
Honorable mention: Disintegration – the Cure
Concert You Wish You Saw: Afghan Wigs opening for The Flaming Lips
The Real Thing – Faith No More
Yes, I realize Margin Walker came out this month as well, but we need to be objective: without The Real Thing – specifically its second single “Epic” - it’s possible there may never have been such a thing as “nu metal.” No Korn, no Staind, and no Limp Bizkit. And then where would we be? Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but The Real Thing did give the music industry a bit of a jolt.
The band was ready to record their third album when it became apparent they needed to fire vocalist Chuck Mosley who had taken to falling asleep on stage, among other indiscretions. They continued the recording process without a singer, hoping their next vocalist could come up with lyrics to tracks that had already been laid down. Shortly after, Mike Patton was chosen as their singer and given just two weeks to write the lyrics. Patton tossed off the lyrics to “Epic” without giving them too much thought.
Nearly 18 months after releasing the album, the video (which had previously been relegated to MTV’s “alternative” music show 120 Minutes) was in regular rotation on the network, and became a massive hit. Only the band didn’t know it. Touring in Europe, they thought the band’s manager was overstating the success of the song. “We thought he was buttering us up so he could keep us on the road,” Patton later said. “I remember landing in the airport, going to the hotel, turning on the TV by chance and seeing the damn video and going oh shit, joke’s on us.”
“Epic” may not have had the massive influence on nu metal that some contend; certainly the rap/metal hybrid existed well before Faith No More. But The Real Thing did open the doors for a new generation of metal bands and prompted MTV and commercial radio to look towards harder music.
VERY honorable mention: Margin Walker – Fugazi
Concert You Wish You Saw: Townes Van Zandt opening for Cowboy Junkies
Paul’s Boutique – The Beastie Boys
"The Beastie Boys sound smug and obnoxious. They were more appealing as goofballs." New York Times
"It sounds like self-parody now…" Los Angeles Times
"Less appealing and more appalling than ever, the Beastie Boys strut and stumble through their second album." St. Petersburg Times
"…the most eagerly unawaited and unnecessary album since the Sex Pistols' second." - The Independent
Hard to believe now, but that was the general consensus when the Beastie Boys released their second album, Paul’s Boutique.
After 1986’s Licensed to Ill, many had considered the Beasties a flash in the pan. Their bratty spell had worn off and the band faded from public consciousness. In early 1989, the Miami Herald even ran a "where are they now?" story on the band. Ever the jokesters, Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D had started a rumor that they had been deported for lewd conduct. Thus, many news outlets were surprised when talk of another album began to bubble up.
Part of the reason the band had been keeping quiet was an ongoing legal battle with Def Jam Records, who had released License to Ill. Even though the band's contract dictated they were to receive $2.5 million, they were paid just $100,000 total, despite selling 4.5 million copies of the album. Def Jam founder Russell Simmons claimed the band did not honor their side of the contract, and in what seems like one the most laughably misdirected sentiments of all time, did not want to cede creative control of the Beasties' music to the band themselves. Thus they signed with Capitol Records and began work on a second album in the midst of the lawsuit.
Like so many of the all-time great records, the sample-heavy, complicated Paul's Boutique was underappreciated in its time. "It's been more or less ignored by the fickle public," wrote the Boston Globe. Fans wanted more of what they heard on Licensed to Ill, and were upset they didn't get it. Capitol Records CEO Joe Smith, who had helped to wrestle the band away from Def Jam, said the band had made the label a "laughingstock."
Such comments seem beyond silly now. As Dan LeRoy says in his fantastic book about the making of the record, "within ten (years), Paul's Boutique would be universally recognized as a landmark achievement, a masterpiece of rhyme and collage that changes in sampling law had insured could never be repeated."
Honorable mention: Peace and Love – the Pogues
Concert You Wish You Saw: The Stray Cats opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan
Other Concert You Wish You Saw: The Sugarcubes, Public Image Ltd., and New Order
Mother’s Milk – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers had enjoyed minor success with 1987's Uplift Mofo Party Plan. In June of 1988, however, guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a drug overdose. His death - not to mention the addiction issues still confronting lead singer Anthony Keidis - affected drummer Jack Irons so much that he dropped out of the band, leaving only Keidis and hyperactive bassist Flea as the only (and original) members.
Various news reports said the band was unlikely to continue, but Keidis later said "There was never a time we weren't going to keep the band going." Just three months after Slovak's death they settled on John Frusciante as their new guitar player, and 6'3" drummer Chad Smith joined not long after. The 18 year-old Frusciante had been a fan of the band for some time; Keidis said Smith played "like a herd of psychedelic gorillas." The revamped lineup had instant chemistry, adding complex melodies to the standard Chili Peppers' funk-metal hybrid. Critics compared the new sound (and Frusciante's skills) to Jimi Hendrix, but Keidis waved off the comparison, saying all music fell into two categories, "soulful or not soulful."
The band took the new lineup on the road to test new material. Keidis made local headlines during an April 21, 1989, concert at George Mason University where he was accused of "touching a woman's face with his penis," according to police reports. A lower court judge sentenced him to 60 days in jail, but after an appeal he was only fined $1,000.
The band released Mother's Milk to positive reviews on August 16, 1989. Critics frequently made the Hendrix comparison, but that was largely because of a blistering version of "Fire." But other songs such as "Sexy Mexican Maid" and the feisty "Johnny Kick A Hole In the Sky" featured deep, heavy grooves in addition to nimble guitar work. Several songs, including the aptly named "Pretty Little Ditty" feature Flea on the trumpet as well as the bass. But it was the band's cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" that catapulted them into the spotlight. The song became a huge hit on both alternative and commercial radio, as well as MTV.
Mother's Milk would be overshadowed by the next Peppers album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which made them one of the biggest bands in the world. But 1989 offered a fantastic preview of what was to come.
Honorable mention: Devil’s Night Out - Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Concert You Wish You Saw: The Replacements opening for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Other Concert You Wish You Saw: The Pixies, Love and Rockets, and The Cure
Oh Mercy – Bob Dylan
Pick a year from 1970 through 1988 and you can find any number of articles that say Bob Dylan was “washed up.” Dylan’s output in the 80s - specifically Saved, Shot of Love, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove – are considered almost tragic low points.
Three things happened in the late 80s that brought Dylan out of his rut. The first was a hand injury he suffered in 1987. According to his autobiography, Dylan began writing words, not necessarily music, and they just kept coming to him. The words, he said, were “the kind that come to you in the middle of the night, when you just want to go back to bed.”
Another fortuitous circumstance was the formation of The Travelling Wilburys, an all-star group of some Dylan’s best friends. Playing and writing with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and others got Dylan’s creative juices flowing. He began to add words to the music; now he just needed to record.
At the urging of Bono, Dylan went into the studio with New Orleans-based producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois had produced U2’s The Joshua Tree, and that had worked out just fine both musically and commercially. Though they certainly had their differences of opinion (Lanois reportedly smashed a dobro over the sound of “Political World”), Dylan appreciated Lanois’ attention to detail, flexibility, and the fact that he owned his own studio. ''Daniel just allowed the record to take place any old time, day or night,'' Dylan told USA Today. ''You didn't have to walk through secretaries, pinball machines and managers and hangers-on in the lobby.''
Lanois shaped the sounds as meticulously as a sculptor, creating a wonderfully lush instrumentation and managing to make Dylan’s voice blend in flawlessly. The whimsy he displayed with the Wilburys was replaced with some very dark thoughts; songs like “Everything Is Broken” and “Man in the Long Black Coat” were as ominous as anything Dylan had done in decades.
Critics universally praised the album, and while it’s certainly a great record, it’s possible the pop insanity of 1989 made it sound even better. (The album was released the same day as Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation and one week after Aerosmith’s Pump.) Lanois would produce another Dylan “comeback” album, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, helping Zimmy end the 90s on just as a high a note as he’d finished the 80s.
Honorable mention: Let Love Rule - Lenny Kravitz
Concert You Wish You Saw: The Pogues opening for Bob Dylan
Freedom – Neil Young
While critics thought Dylan was merely making bad albums, they thought Neil Young may have legitimately lost his mind. Young had spent the decade churning out poorly received, almost experimental exercises in country (Old Ways), rockabilly (Everybody's Rockin') and electronic…something (Trans). Not surprising given his affinity for the chameleon-like singer Bobby Darin (“That guy went through more changes than anybody,” Young said), but people were ready to have the jeans-wearing, guitar waling, angry Neil Young back.
They almost got too much of it. Young was set to release an extremely hard-edged collection called Eldorado until he told his record company to hold off. "People were so used to getting 'surprises' from me,” he told the L.A. Times. “If I put out this real heavy kind of speed-metal album, they would just say, 'Oh, there's crazy Neil, just doing something strange again.'”
Three cuts from that record – including a rousing version of “On Broadway” - were reworked when Young went back into the studio for sessions that ultimately yielded a whopping 32 songs. Eleven of those songs became Freedom, one of the best reviewed albums of the year and Young’s entire career. Young called the album “an essay on freedom, freedom of the soul, freedom in relationships, freedom to be yourself, freedom to love.''
The ten sad, beautiful stories sandwiched between two distinct versions of the now-classic “Rockin’ In the Free World” run the gamut of Young’s styles. Even the quieter acoustic songs such as “Eldorado” contain random blasts of noise. “Too Far Gone” calls to mind “Tonight’s the Night” in its love of debauchery. On “Ways of Love,” Young and Linda Ronstadt re-write the standard country “cheating song” from the point of the view of the cheater.
And then of course there’s “Free World.” Set in the context of Tiananmen Square and the only-a-matter-of-time collapse of the Berlin Wall, the song was a blistering refutation of the concept of American “freedom,” which Young called “a double-edged sword.” It remains one of his angriest songs and solidified his status as one of the all-time great songwriters.
Honorable mention: Pretty Hate Machine - Nine Inch Nails
Concert You Wish You Saw: Guns N’ Roses opening for the Rolling Stones
All Hail the Queen – Queen Latifah
Up until the late 80s, women were being rapped about, not rapping themselves, and they fell into two categories: compliant, ornamental sex objects, and those that were not and were therefore “bitches.”
As mentioned earlier, rap was just finding its way to the mainstream in the late 80s. Commercial radio was playing Young M.C. and Tone Loc, but certainly not NWA, Public Enemy, or Boogie Down Productions. A 1990 L.A. Times article made the laughable understatement that “traces of misogynistic, anti-gay and possibly racist attitudes” were present in rap (gasp) but noted that “there are also positive elements - pro-education, anti-drugs - that promote individual responsibility.” Rap had positive male role models but to that point basically only one woman, MC Lyte, whose 1988 album Lyte as a Rock, is considered a classic.
That same year, a demo by a new rapper calling herself Queen Latifah found its way to Tommy Boy Records. The label signed her and released her first single, the reggae-infused “Wrath of My Madness.” A follow-up single, “Dance for Me,” came out not long after. The buzz in the hip-hop world was palpable, but – not surprisingly, given the time period - neither single generated much interest from commercial radio.
The daughter of a public school teacher and a police officer, Dana Elaine Owens became Queen Latifah (the name means “delicate” or “sensitive” in Arabic) when she began beat boxing for a hip-hop group called Ladies Fresh, and was now striking out on her own. She was inventive both lyrically and musically, utilized Third World beats to her music and – in a precursor of the amazing career she was to have – sang just as well as she rapped.
Her debut album, All Hail the Queen, was an instant critical and commercial hit, a musical hodge-podge of different genres and styles that coalesced around her fantastic vocals. One song was built around a Sly and the Family Stone riff, others brought in Latin-influenced disco rhythms, and another saw label mates De La Soul sounding like chipmunks as they rapped on “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children.”
The album’s most pointed feminist statement, “Ladies First” featured fellow newcomer Monie Love and was as powerful politically as it was musically. The song became a hit on Yo MTV Raps and crossed over to mainstream not long after. In addition to selling albums, the song also brought the spotlight on the seamier side of hip-hop. The African American Review noted that “In its serious exploration and glorification of African American women's history, ‘Ladies First’ seizes a televisual moment and breaks the continuity of sexism and racism that dominates the music video flow.”
While that “flow” hasn’t been completely broken to this day, All Hail the Queen paved the way for the hundreds of female rappers that would follow, and made Queen Latifah one of the biggest stars in the world.
Honorable mention: On Fire – Galaxie 500
Concert You Wish You Saw: Nine Inch Nails opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain
Other Concert You Wish You Saw: Smashing Pumpkins opening for The Buzzcocks (one show only, in Chicago)
Not surprisingly, the decade went out with a whimper, with record labels dumping projected busts and Christmas albums on the market. While Merry, Merry Christmas by New Kids on the Block obviously stands the test of time, it was time to enter the decade of grunge, Sugar Ray, Ricky Martin, and the Macarena.