Apr 132012

My family and I were having lunch in a hipster diner in Philadelphia the other day when the radio station or playlist switched from fun ’60s songs like The Zombies‘ “Time of the Season” to early ’90s hits, from half-remembered Britpop bands to that Janet Jackson video shot in sepia tone, when she’s super-buff and frolicking in the sand with an equally buff model-type of guy. Remember that song?

The music made me unexpectedly nostalgic for the early ’90s, a palette-cleansing decade of sorts, following the most culturally offensive decade of my life to date, the ’80s. I mainly got to enjoy the early ’90s during the year my wife and I lived in Budapest, Hungary, from October 1993 to October 1994. Living over there by ourselves, watching Ray CokesMTV’s Most Wanted on EuroMTV, without our network of like-minded culturally snobbish friends to insulate us, I could appreciate artists like Blur; Suede; Darryl-Ann; some heavyset, black, super-corny English “hippie” guy…and those mainstream videos from back home with drop-the-cat moments by the likes of Janet Jackson and Madonna. I even learned to love a song by The Cure, a remix no less with some Sid and Marty Krofft-style “undersea” video. I can never remember the name of that song. Some day, when I do, I’ll purchase it and add it to my iPod.

It was during that year abroad that Townsman andyr sent me cassettes with Matthew Sweet‘s Girlfriend, Crowded House‘s Together Alone, and Martin Newell‘s Greatest Living Englishman. It was inspiring to hear albums with that ’60s-based vibe. Even the cheesiest of those Britpop bands, like Jesus Jones, had a groovy ’60s vibe beneath the surface. Then there was “Groove Is in the Heart.” Now THAT was a song (and video) that made the early ’90s worth living.

Curly hair came back into fashion, and all-cotton fibers. Grunge bands were kind of like ’70s burnouts of my youth. Elaine on Seinfeld was cute and funky the way women had not been during long stretches of mainstream ’80s living. The early ’90s held mild promise. Beck came along and seemed poised to take it to the next level, maybe even put our culture over the top to my long-awaited Peace Warrior era. But it was not to be. Maybe Bill Clinton getting busted for his Monica Lewinsky affair did us in. Now we seem to be living through the most prudish stretch since the 1950s. Or maybe we’re too far onto our own little social astral planes.

Where were you in the early ’90s? What was your musical world?


  25 Responses to “Early 1990s Nostalgia”

  1. shawnkilroy

    I was in college and had a show at the college radio station in 91. Nevermind, Check Your Head, Mellow Gold, Smell The Magic, Cypress Hill, Leisure, Screamadelica, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Raise, No Pocky For Kitty, Bandwagonesque, & Actung Baby all came out within 2 or 3 months of each other. It was a very exciting time, because it seemed that good music was easier to come by. All of the hair metal and bullshit RnB and cheap hip hop that had dominated the previous 5 years was losing some of it’s power. It was a very exciting time, indeed.

  2. As far as new music, I’m pretty sure my tastes were still mostly shit in the early ’90s, but for a few outliers, such as Achtung Baby, Automatic for the People, maybe Michael Penn’s Free for All.

    As an example of crap, I liked the s/t to The Commitments a lot. They were the Blues Brothers of their time, with hot Irish girls instead of Aykroyd. Actually, there’s probably nothing intrinsically wrong with that soundtrack, but I’m embarassed by the fact that I did not immediately proceed to buy the Stax original versions of those songs.

    I also remember the day I was torn between Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend and The Black Crowes’ Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. I went with the latter, which I’m pretty sure is by far the most acceptable Black Crowes album, but I still wonder what my life would have been like if I bought the Matthew Sweet instead.

    I tend to consider 1997 the year my tastes were more not-suck than suck. Even that may be too kind to the young me.

  3. In the early 90’s I was in the midst of my own personal cultural revolution. In 1988 I quit a job on Wall Street to move to San Francisco, where, after a year of working a faceless “coat and tie” job, I started bartending. I also began playing in bands that played original music, not covers, for the first time, and I wrote most of the songs for those bands (many of which were excruciatingly embarrassing but still, it was some kind of growth).

    Musically, I was really into All Shook Down by the Replacements, and was still clinging to the hope that they would soldier on. I was also liked Buffalo Tom (especially Let Me Come Over) and similar scruffed up pop/rock.

    I started my ongoing obsession with Tom Waits. I was well into Peter Case’s solo stuff and a bit of John Hiatt, and a bunch of roots rock although I’m drawing a blank on examples other than Wire Train and Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys.

    It was the first time that I dove into old time country, especially Hank Williams, George Jones, and Bob Wills, and I was in the process of whittling the blues down to just Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Robert Johnson.

    SF was a bit ahead of the curve for music back then so I was surrounded by the grunge before it really broke nationwide but it was never my thing. The dot-com bubble had not yet chased out all of the interesting people from SF so there was a great local music scene that was incredibly diverse.

    As an aside, I disagree with the Mod when he says that the 80s “the most culturally offensive decade”. Sure there was a lot to dislike about the 80s, not the least of which was the production sound on most of the recordings. But I think the 80s are underrated and very well may have been the golden age of alternative (with a small “a”) rock. The Replacements, the Hoodoo Gurus, Paul Kelly and the Messengers, Tom Waits’ Island Records Trilogy, Camper Van Bethoven, etc.

  4. shawnkilroy

    Bone Machine & Black Rider. such a good time for Tom

  5. Oh right, I also liked Bone Machine when it came out! Another rare outing into cool music for high school-era me. Bonus fact: I put it on a blank tape along with a bunch of songs from Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I kinda wish I still had that tape, just for the transition from “That Feel” to “Poundcake.” That sums up the early ’90s.

  6. Happiness Stan

    Until giving it a bit of thought I would have had it down as one of the duller times to look back on, but then remembered the Wedding Present, House of Love, Ride, Teenage Fanclub, The Fall (I love almost all of their records, but when Brix left they went into overdrive and produced probably the best body of music of any of their eras), The Rockingbirds, The Frank and Walters, Galaxie 500, Lush, The Levellers, Tindersticks, Madder Rose – and Frank Sidebottom at almost every festival!

  7. In the early 90s, I was listening to a lot of alt-country and “hip” country artists like Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash, and Carlene Carter — Geez – I used to go The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. a lot.

    I also kept up my Minnesota roots by listening to the Gear Daddies and Jayhawks. I also dug Matthew Sweet and World Party.

    I still had an 80s hangover too — Keeping up with Warren Zevon, Big Audio Dynamite, Sugar, Paul Westerberg, SouI Asylum. I think the album I may have listened to most in 1991-92 was Squeeze’s Play.

  8. In the early ’90s I was well into the slide that continues to the present where new music meant next to nothing to me. Bone Machine is great but Waits at the time was an artist I’d first listened to almost 20 years prior. I too was hoping that the Replacements would be a group I could look forward to for a long time; that hope was soon shattered.

    I did love Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend and I noticed that he is soon to tour with a band and will perform that entire album. I’m not sure what I feel about that. On the one hand, it’s a case of been there, done that. I saw him several times 20 years ago when he did most if not all of that then-current album. On the other hand, it was good…

  9. I also like Play. It’s very slick, but it’s got something — not sure what — that none of the other latter-day Squeeze albums I’ve heard have.

  10. Southern Culture On The Skids 1992 release of “Ditch Diggin” with their brand of surf and rockabilly saved me in the early nineties from what was going on at the time and their ’95 release of “Dirt Track Date” with it’s greasy brand of swamp rock was my salvation. I’m the proverbial stick in the mud. I just don’t relate to most “modern” rock and pop.

  11. tonyola

    In 1988, I decided to put an engineering career and path to middle management on hold and pursue music fulltime. Not only had I developed some mad keyboard skills, but I saw my harassed bosses and thought “Is this hell my future?”. I spent 1989 touring throughout the USA in an Elvis/showband – there’s nothing like gigging six nights a week to sharpen your chops. Then I spent a few years in various gigs in South Florida and writing some commercial music.

    I’ve said this before but now I can expand upon it: I thought there were a lot of cool developments in music around the turn on the ’90s. Madchester, shoegazer, NiN, TMBG, industrial, acid house, alt dance, alt rock, funk-metal, techno, and so forth. Then it all hit a brick wall in late 1991 at least in the US. A little phenomenon called grunge became the new anthem for weepy teenagers, bored slackers, and world-weary collegians everywhere. Goodbye synths, samplers, rhythms, fun, and adventurousness. Hello plaid shirts, no style, angst, sludgy guitars, and recycled ’70s riffs. How boring. That’s when I began losing interest in trying to keep up with musical trends. While there were some bright spots in the musical scene during the ’90s, the party appeared to be over and the only thing left was the hangover.

  12. 2000 Man

    I had been at the Printing Press I worked at for about ten years and had two kids that were pretty young. I was really into The Stones and could easily listen to nothing but Stones for weeks at a time. Other than that, I was checking out stuff I had missed from the 80’s, like The Replacements and starting to listen to what is probably the backbone of Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Probably the mid 90’s I really started checking out what was new again, and I liked Buffalo Tom and Dumptruck and all sorts of stuff. I usually bought used cd’s, but you could get so much new stuff used two days after it came out. I think I got Pearl Jam’s Ten for half price the week it came out because I bought the one the kid in the store was playing.

    I liked Grunge. I know Tonyola sees no style, but I thought it was funny that those kids dressed exactly like I had since Jr. High. I think I quit wearing flannel shirts when Grunge hit because I was finally done with them. But I thought Mudhoney and Nirvana were fucking awesome!

  13. Locally, I remember there were a lot of examples of Americana bands in the early 90s. You stood a good chance of hearing a lap steel and/or a banjo if you saw live music in Philly during that time. A flannel shirt on stage was more likely to mean you were copping a country look rather than a grunge look.

  14. Happiness Stan

    I’m with you on grunge, I was recently voted third coolest Townsperson to walk out on Nirvana or something along those lines for walking out on Nirvana’s “Classic” (except it wasn’t – it was bloody awful) set at the Reading Festival. The Madchester/ shoegazing/ indie scene in the UK stayed pretty healthy for a couple of years longer than I think it did in the US. Because British radio is so geared to pop it is difficult for anything remotely like ROCK to get a foothold, and we always slip back into melody like a great big fluffy blanket, no matter how cool we think we are or would like to be.

  15. cliff sovinsanity

    The early 90’s were the best of times for me. In 1991, I was 21 and fresh out of college, although still living at home. I saw a band nearly every weekend whether it was local or somewhere in Detroit. I had the pleasure of seeing the likes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Sonic Youth, Social Distortion, The Ramones, Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Beck, Alex Chilton, Jayhawks, Lollapalooza 1 and 4, Guided by Voices, The Lemonheads, The Pogues, Public Enemy, Midnight Oil, and countless others.
    It was great time for radio as well. Hair metal, was usurped by a bunch of noisy bands from Seattle. The local alt rock station had a varied playlist of The Replacements, Jane’s Addiction, My Bloody Valentine, Lush and Buffalo Tom.
    This was a fantastic time.

  16. ladymisskirroyale

    Ah, music very close to my heart!

    In 1988, I moved from California to Rhode Island to attend grad school. It was a great time to expand my horizons, not only learning more about The Biggest Little but about the very intense music scene there. I started djing at WRIU in 1989; they had a block format, with rock being played from 9 pm until 6 am. I worked my way up from the 3-6 shift to the 12-3 shift, and in 1990 got my coveted 9-12 time slot. I also was the “assistant to the co- music director,” or, in other words, someone who sat around and listened to a lot of stuff that came in.

    Providence, RI in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s morphed from the home of Tavares and John Cafferty/Beaver Brown Band to a pop mecca. Everyone knew everyone and appeared in each others bands. And the promoters attracted other national and international folk due to this scene and the proximity to Boston. I saw My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, and Pavement, among others in Providence. Local acts, like Throwing Muses, Belly, and Velvet Crush became popular. It was an exciting time.

    Some of my favorite recordings are from 1990, 1991 and 1994. Among them: “Loveless,” Slowdive’s “Just For A Day,” The Trash Can Sinatra’s “Cake,” The Throwing Muses’ “The Real Ramona,” Belly’s “Star,” Charlatan UK “Some Friendly,” Portishead’s “Dummy” and Tricky’s “Maxinquaye.”

  17. When the CD hit the cut-outs, I used to buy copies and push it on friends and family. I’ve liked a few songs by Tilbrook since, but Play seems to be their last great songwriting gasp. They’re touring this summer with the B-52s and I may travel the two miles it would take for me to see them at Wolf Trap . . . and I can leave before the B-52s start getting annoying.

  18. ladymisskirroyale

    I met the gang from Lush to get them to do a promo radio id after one of their shows in Providence. I hadn’t realized how completely soused they were until they stopped singing and started talking. I think it took them several takes to get our call letters down.

    But i still love them and many of the bands you mentioned.

  19. 9092 was quitting law school and getting my teaching degree and ensconced in the Band and solo Robbie. 92 got married and moved out here and listened to 95% Stones for about four years. Part of that 5% was seeing Zevon play in a bar. Early 96 discovered Noel Gallagher and switched to 95% Oasis (which many would consider 50% Beatles) until the rise of Napster turbo-boosted my ability to surf tons of different music.


  20. misterioso

    No nostalgia for the early 90s. Still love “Groove is in the Heart,” though, and “Girlfriend.” Saw some good shows–still went to shows–but overall, very, very little I look back on with dewy eyes.

  21. BigSteve

    The early 90s? That’s 20 years ago now, how am I supposed to remember it well enough to be nostalgic for it?

  22. Happiness Stan

    I had a friend who knew them fairly well and was quite keen to introduce me to them, although we never quite got it together. She always said they were all lovely, and her judgement of character was always good enough for me.

  23. Happiness Stan

    I’m getting quite nostalgic looking back and thinking of those bands. It was the most horrible, miserable and desolate period I’ve ever experienced in my personal life, so I really wouldn’t want to go back there, but there was so much great music around to take the edge off.

    For me it feels like the last great wave of creativity, happening at a time which coincidentally also marked the end of non-niche vinyl.

  24. I left the suburbs of Cobb County GA (home of about-to-be-speaker Newt) for Athens GA in September 1989, so the early 90’s were all about UGA and the Alternative music about to become “grunge”

    Saw b-52’s ,Guadalcanal Diary, Peter Case, my FIRST WEEK.

    Ramones, Crowded House, Matthew Sweet, Cracker, BoDeans, McCartney, Let’s Active, Drivin N Cryin concerts to follow just months later.

    Missed REM at 40 Watt (have the bootleg, their only show from that era outside of “unplugged”)

    Dumb frat guy stole the Weaver D’s ” Automatic For The People” sign and it made national news (screw the Gulf War, the soul food sign was stolen, how DARE you home of REM)

    Missed Nirvanna at 40 Watt. Pearl Jam agreed to play at Legion Field (the area between the dorms) and then hit MTV with “Alive” but played the show anyway. MTV was there. I watched from my dorm window! Saw Phish play to 150 people on a tuesday night and sell their own merch. Widespread Panic were a local band trying to get a paying gig but settling for a free lunchtime show in the common area.

    Pixies, Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails and Red hot Chilli Peppers were the CDs blasting out of the dorm rooms of the hip kids. The rest played Black Crowes, VH, Metallica, Warrant, Lenny Kravitz.

    My big records from that era were Cracker’s s/t, Chris Whitley “Living With The Law”, Jellyfish “Bellybutton”, Beastie Boys “Check Yo Head”, Smithereens 11, Drivin N Cryin’s Fly Me Courageous, Replacements All Shook Down. Also Prince Diamonds and Pearls, Areosmith Get a Grip, Guns & Roses UYI II&I and The 2nd Keith Richards solo CD. Buzzcocks box set was huge for me and my brother and changed our songwriting in a big way (bought it after reading the Rolling Stone review, we had never heard of them)

    Saw The Replacements 5 times, two amazing club shows, two drunk club shows and opening for Tom Petty on “Into The Great Wide Open” Slim sang country songs and wore a dress. They did a slow country version of I’ll Be You and didn’t make it to the end. The crowd did not clap or cheer at all.

    And through all of this “new” music, the most POPULAR MUSIC was Van Halen, Metallica, EnVogue, Janet, Madonna, C&C Music Factory.

    Overall, I bought more music and went to more shows then I have since. Lollaplooza was fun, McCartney shows were amazing, Petty, Sting, Aerosmith played outdoors every summer, good times!

  25. How did I forget to mention The Jayhawks, my favorite band! A friend got the cassette of Hollywood Town Hall and did not like it but thought it might be something I would like. 20 years later that is the CD I would take with me if I had to choose just one to listen to for the rest of my life.

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