Published November 20, 2013
The year 1993 might not seem like a pivotal time in popular music, but in retrospect, a lot of narratives came to a close 20 years ago. Many of them had their roots in the late ‘80s. Most came to a head in 1991.
A documentary on Sonic Youth, also featuring The Ramones and a new band called Nirvana, bore the name ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke.’ Some saw this as an American attempt to import British style punk, rooted in the economic crisis of the mid ‘70s, into the Bush-era depression (remember that one?). “Now they are beginning to get it,” sneered ex-Pistol John Lydon from London.
The kings of gloom
By the time the documentary came out in 1992, American ‘90s punk (as opposed to the ‘70s CBGB’s version) was called grunge, and unlike its forerunner had a marked tolerance for long hair and lumberjack shirts. Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ displaced Michael Jackson at the top of the American charts, but by the end of 1993 they had made their final studio album, the dark but brilliant ‘In Utero.’
Pearl Jam followed a similar trajectory with 1991’s ‘Ten’ followed by the less commercial, but arguably better album ‘Vs’ in 1993. The following year, Kurt Cobain opted for suicide and Vedder and co. did the same career-wise by refusing to sell tickets through Ticketmaster to protest the monopoly. They were right, of course, but the monopolists soon proved who had the power.
While grunge was making its last stand, the aging (well, members had turned thirty) supergroups U2 and Guns N’ Roses were concluding mammoth stadium tours in support of their 1991 offerings. In need of new product, both threw out albums hastily recorded between dates. Guns N’ Roses’ put out ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’ a lazy collection of covers that would prove to be their last album for 15 years, by which point they had become a mere shadow of their former greatness.
U2’s ‘Zooropa’ was more innovative, moving from a sombre Sunday morning to the Saturday night madness of ‘Achtung Baby.’ It was the last truly innovative album from a band that always seemed ready to redefine itself despite massive popularity. The Zoo TV tour somehow captured the spirit of the times, which brought us the end of communism, the rise of the internet and the first multimedia war in the Persian Gulf. But by the time ‘Pop’ came out in 1997, they seemed trapped inside their giant shiny lemon.
My name is Prince (or something)
Another ‘80s superstar, the artist still known as Prince, appeared with a new band and a great album in 1991 called ‘Diamonds and Pearls.’ ‘Love Symbol’ followed in 1992, including his last great single, “Seven.” A greatest hits collection in 1993 signalled the end of Prince as a force in popular music. The digital age was not kind. The man who had meticulously edited the songs on ‘Purple Rain’ to fit onto two sides of an LP filled every release to the brim with the advent of CD and quantity trumped quality. He also changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, prompting his record label to send out floppy discs with the new font to music journalists. When his next album came out, it was credited to “Prince 1958-1993.” In any case, it all made more sense than Madonna’s ‘Sex’ book, which came out in 1992.
Last cough of the ‘80s
The most spectacular public meltdown belonged to Michael Jackson, who made his last great pop album ‘Dangerous’ in 1991. He started 1993 by confessing to Oprah that he had been molested by his father, and before the year was out he was himself accused of wrongdoing. Whatever the truth, he never recovered from the resulting humiliation.
It was also a bad time for hairband rock. Dire Straits had tried to follow-up their massive ‘Brothers in Arms’ with the moderately successful ‘On Every Street’ in 1991. A live album in 1993 was to be their last new release. Even Springsteen went all Axl Rose, firing one of the great rock bands, his own E-Street Band, and releasing two albums on the same day backed by lesser stand-ins. The following world tour finished in 1993 and remains a low point in his career.
By 1993, the ‘80s were well and truly over, and even grunge, which had briefly risen to the surface, was waning again. Rap, perhaps scared off by the LA riots, decided to abandon politics. ‘Home Invasion’ was Ice-T’s last real attempt, while Snoop Dogg took over with “Gin and Juice.” Meanwhile, popular music was about to have one of its periodic shifts from the US to the UK. Suede made their first album in 1993 and were pictured on the cover of Select magazine with the caption: “Yanks Go Home!” Blur also turned to Englishness with Modern Life is Rubbish, and Britpop was to go global the next year with Parklife and Oasis’s debut album.
The first rock ’n’ roll president
The year 1993 was also a game changer in American politics. Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, LL Cool J and Fleetwood Mac performed at the inauguration party of Bill Clinton, the first American president from the generation that grew up with rock ’n’ roll. It is interesting to note that, if Obama represents a new generation taking over, Clinton and Bush Jr. may have been the only two American presidents of the ‘68 generation, reflecting its two strands. It is also interesting that American popular music seems to fare better under Republican presidents than under Democrat ones. The Eisenhower era gave us Elvis and rock ’n’ roll itself, under JFK, the focus shifted to Britain, while returning to the US at around the same time Nixon was getting ready to run. The initiative again shifted to the UK in 1976 with punk, incidentally the same year Jimmy Carter was elected, while American pop music seems infinitely better during the Reagan/Bush years, than in the Clinton era, which gave us Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, and the Bodyguard soundtrack. So, does pop thrive best when in opposition to authority, even when not itself political in nature? Well, just look at what happened to Britpop when Tony Blair took over. And expect four more years of blandness under Obama.
Iceland’s first true pop star
By far the biggest event of 1993 in Icelandic pop was the news in early July that ‘Debut’ had debuted in the UK Top 20, soon rising all the way number three. The Sugarcubes had laid the groundwork, but Björk had now firmly placed Icelandic music on the map. At year’s end, ‘Debut’ was voted both best Icelandic and best international album by the tabloid DV, nonsensical perhaps but still an indication that these were no longer entirely separate worlds.
For many of the biggest acts to emerge in the ‘80s, 1993 would prove the end of an era. Sálin hans Jóns míns disbanded in March and singer Stefán Hilmarsson formed the moderately successful Pláhnetan, while guitarist and songwriter Guðmundur Jónsson had the flop of the year with old ‘70s stalwarts Pelican and played to empty halls around the country.
Music for the masses
Todmobile had managed to turn many a drunken ball on to their form of artrock and decided to quit while they were ahead, making their final album and a string of farewell shows. Nýdönsk, which had been strong both artistically and commercially since their debut in 1989, failed to sell their 1993 album ‘Hunang’ which would show up in bargain bins for years to come. The band disbanded as a result and singer Daniel would later form Gusgus. Nýdönsk, Todmobile and Sálin would all re-appear before the end of the decade in diminished versions.
Another veteran, Bubbi, had his last vintage year. In the summer, he toured the countryside with the band GCD and his solo album ‘Lífið er ljúft’ was the biggest album of the Christmas season along with that of opera singer Kristján Jóhannsson. The next year, he would take up rapping and became a boxing presenter. In his defence, rap didn’t really reach Iceland until the later ‘90s, so someone had to do it.
Rockers Ham made their last album, ‘Saga rokksins 1988-93’ (“The History of Rock and Roll 1988-93”). Guitarist Sigurjón Kjartansson eventually became a media personality alongside current mayor Jón Gnarr, while singer Óttar Proppe went to work in a bookstore, later joining Jón in politics. The future of Icelandic pop, meanwhile, was to be found on the debut album by youngster Páll Óskar Hjálmtýsson, who still reigns as Iceland’s pop king to this day.
After the break-up of the domestic giants and the success of Björk, the Reykjavík scene became ever more fractured but also more original. True to form, grunge didn’t really make it in Iceland until Botnleðja (Silt) won the Icelandic Music Experiments in 1995, but the electronic scene was vibrant and abreast of international trends, as could be heard on the Icerave sampler (not to be confused with the Icesave dispute). The outside world was no longer as far away, as three young men who met in the cafeteria of the Technical School and would go on to form Sigur Rós may have discussed.