June 30 – Dishwalla Had Us Watching The Roads

If you’re going to end up being a One Hit Wonder, it’s always good if that one hit is really a hit. Such is the case for Dishwalla, whose one big hit hit the top of Billboard‘s Alternative Rock chart on this day in 1996. “Counting Blue Cars” would end up being one of the decade’s most popular modern rock songs … and garner a death threat or two for the band’s singer!

Dishwalla are a southern California band started in the early-’90s, by singer/keyboardist J.R. Richard and guitarist Rodney Cravens, who is the only constant member of the band to this day. Their first hint of success came in ’94, with them contributing a song – “It’s Going To Take Some Time” – to a Carpenters tribute album. It also found its way onto their debut album for A&M Records, Pet Your Friends, a record memorable for its cover as well as content. They used a 1948 Life magazine photo of a teen girl running with her pet deer.

The second single, “Haze” drew almost no attention anywhere, and A&M had probably all but forgotten about them with the album gathering dust nearly a year after its release. Then came the blue cars.

The third single was one of the most instantly-catchy, crunchy post-grunge singles of the decade and dealt with the singer talking to a small child who refers to God as a “her.” As allmusic put it, it was one of the band’s “well-crafted songs with rich guitar textures.”

Richard says the song came around after he had a similar talk to an unnamed small kid. “From that younger perspective, I think we take things in a much more honest way because we’re not being biased by how we’re supposed to think. God,” he adds, “being an omnipotent being could be a male or female.”

Seemingly innocent enough, but enough to rile up a number of Evangelicals who thought it rather blasphemous to suggest God could be a “her.” “It did end up being one of those songs that really affected people, both positively and negatively,” the writer says. “I never thought I’d ever have a song I’d get death threats for writing!”

A&M weren’t overly pleased with it too initially, but for a different reason. They hated the title, since they assumed people wouldn’t know what “Counting Blue Cars” was an would skip over the album. They needn’t have worried. Pet Your Friends went gold domestically. And while “Counting Blue Cars” peaked at #15 on the overall singles chart, it had staying power! It spend 48 weeks on the chart, was picked by Billboard as the Mainstream Rock song of the year for ’96 and was named the Most Played Song on Radio by ASCAP two years running, in ’96 and ’97.

Amazingly, Dishwalla have kept going to this day, and have put out four more albums with almost no hint of any follow-up success.

June 24 – Morrissey Was ‘People’s Kind Of People

People were paying attention to The Smiths 37 years back. Or, should we say People were paying attention to Morrissey of The Smiths 37 years ago. Because on this day in 1985, that supermarket checkout favorite publication ran a feature article on Morrissey… only one month after running an extensive cover story on Madonna. While Madonna was hot, sexy and controversial at that time, “the Moz”, as his friends call him, might not seemed like an obvious selling point for a mass market American magazine. After all, he was a surly guy who fronted a band only a select few college students seemed to know about in the U.S. at that point.

Nevertheless, the magazine introduced its readers – something in the general range of six million or so then – to the counter-culture darlings in an extensive write-up. They titled it “Roll Over, Bob Dylan and Tell Madonna the News – The Smiths Morrissey is Rock’s Latest Messiah!”. One might just suspect neither Jesus nor Morrissey would love that title, but it surely grabbed people’s attention. The story noted how hot they were already in the UK and that they were touring the States for their Meat is Murder album (which had been released three months prior and already topped the Brit charts.) they gave some background on the singer/songwriter including that “for three years he sat in his bedroom, filling notebooks with words… by day, he’d been a schoolboy track star, by night sought sustenance in the feminist writings of Susan Brownmiller and Molly Haskall.” Which they noted , fueled rumors of him being gay (a bigger deal back then) which he refused to confirm although he did say his childhood and teen memories were “totally morbid” and involved “uninteresting episodes with girls.” Other little bon mots thrown out by Morrissey included that he thought “Michael Jackson has outlived his usefulness,” but he liked Duran Duran and he thought “most records portray life as it isn’t lived.” that led People, the magazine, to suggest people, the crowds, to find him “unacceptably honest” and that songs of sexual rejection would lead them to bad memories of their own. Certainly songs like the great “How Soon Is Now?” or “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” weren’t exactly in line with much of the perky-’80s vibe pop radio favored at the time.  All in all, they deemed him “articulate and calculating” and the fitting “spokesman for a generation sagging under rampant unemployment.”

Did it all help? Well, it likely didn’t hurt sales for The Smiths, but they weren’t taking a run at Madonna at the cash register or ticket office despite it. Meat is Murder failed to crack the American top 100 (it did make the Canadian top 40 – likely a function of more alternative rock stations there than a wider readership of People) . However, it did show Morrissey to be more prophetic than he might’ve seemed then in one way. “The U.S. is not asleep,” he proclaimed. “It is a hotbed of radicalism.” Looking at the world of today, they might have been snoozing… but he might have been right. By the way, in a weird turn of events which could well have amused the Smiths frontman, while most People covers featured movie stars or pop ones like Madonna, this particular issue had a mostly black cover saying “I knew Josef Mengele!”.

June 7 – STP Made Critics Red In The Face. Or Maybe ‘Purple’

It was a good day for sneering critics in 1994…but so too was it a good day for southern California’s Stone Temple Pilots, who put out their second album, often referred to as Purple, that day. And boy how many in the music media loved to hate them!

It came about two years after their debut, which had sold well but earned scathing reviews. Some merely hated the grungey sound to begin with, but many thought they were deliberate rip-offs of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. For Purple, they decided to answer back the critics…a little. They expanded their sound a bit and incorporated more elements drawn from the Blues or pop than before. As bassist (and perhaps main songwriter) Robert DeLeo said then, “how could you not be personally offended or hurt by someone dissing what’s so personal to you?” They did keep one thing in common with the first record, bringing back producer Brendan O’Brien who always seemed to be able to inject a little lightness and “pop” into the darkest of sounds.

Robert and brother Dean DeLeo (the guitarist) began working on the ten brand new songs late in ’93, sometimes with singer Scott Weiland’s input. Two songs were done earlier; “Big Empty” was a song they did early in ’93 on their MTV Unplugged show and just revamped for use in The Crow soundtrack; “Lounge Fly” had been recorded in summer ’93 during a stop at Prince’s Minnesota Paisley Park studio.

The album contained some of the decade’s more memorable Alt Rock tunes, including “Big Empty,” “Vasoline” and especially “Interstate Love Song”, a song which at worst stood toe-to-toe with the best of Nirvana’s output in creating a memorable, catchy radio-friendly riff. So much so in fact that it spent 15 weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock chart, an all-time record then, outdoing “Start Me Up” by a band many had heard of called the Rolling Stones which had been the previous record-holder in that department for over a decade!

Fans loved it, even if they were a tad confused over what to call it. The cover, with the fat baby riding a flying dragon, only had their band name on it and the LP and cassettes simply said “Stone Temple Pilots” on the spine. However, in front of the dragon there was a Chinese character which apparently was “purple”, and with many of the LPS being pressed on purple vinyl, it generally came to be referred to as that. Call it “Stone Temple Pilots “ or call it “Purple,” you could call it hard to find at record stores that June. It debuted at #1 on the American charts, selling past a quarter million copies in the first week. It would be their only #1 in the U.S., and also topped Aussie charts, while reaching #2 in Canada and #10 in the UK, not a bad mark for a country which didn’t embrace the loud depression-and-flannel sound like North America did. It’s currently 6X platinum at home, their most lofty sales total to date.

So, critics probably said “yes! This is a West Coast album we can get behind! These guys are better than we thought.” Right? Well, no. Critics still seemed determined to pan them and call them cheap imitations, even if they couldn’t agree on whether they were imitating Pearl Jam or Led Zeppelin. Entertainment Weekly graded it “B-” , grudgingly admitting “they pull off these copycat melodies with supreme skill,” but saying it might as well be an “alt rock tribute album”, comparing “Unglued” to Soundgarden, “Interstate Love Song” to a “more polite version” of Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” (it takes some sort of special ear to hear that comparison, we think), and “Silvergun Superman” to “REM if they still made arena-ready albums.” Grumpy Robert Christgau at the Village Voice merely gave it a “bomb” symbol as a grade while Rolling Stone were mixed, giving it 3-stars. They declared that Weiland did indeed sound like Eddie Vedder but “probably because both vocalists lift from the same ’70s rock groups” and at least noticing there was “nothing grungey at all about Stone Temple Pilot’s palatable suburban riffs.” Time though seems to have been a friend to Purple. Quite a few retroactive reviews consider it one of the genre’s better efforts; allmusic for example rate it 4-stars. They figured it to be a “quantum leap over their debut, showcasing a band hitting its stride,” describing the music as “heavily melodic and slightly psychedelic” and summing it up by noting “mainstream hard rock didn’t get any better “than “Interestate Love Song” or “Big Empty” in the ’90s.

Stone Temple Pilots would continue to diversify their sound, and annoy critics, with their follow-up, Tiny Music.

May 26 – Sundays Preached Lovely Melodies

Here’s where the story started, in a way of speaking, for The Sundays. The Brits hit the top of Billboard’s alternative rock chart this day in 1990 with the lovely “Here’s Where The Story Ends.

It was a promising start to the career of the band with at its core ethereal-voiced Harriet Wheeler and guitarist David Gauvrin, who happen to be a couple. They started writing songs while attending university together despite having no musical background; they built up quite a following playing live in London and appearing on John Peel’s radio show and signed to Rough Trade Records in Europe, with Nirvana’s label DGC handling them in North America. Their debut, Reading, Writing And Arithmetic won rave reviews; Entertainment Weekly noticed it and rated it “A-” calling it “an album radiant with apparently effortless sophistication”; Rolling Stone called it an “alluring slice of lighter-than-air guitar pop.” Allmusic likewise gave it 4.5-stars and, like many others, compared them to The Smiths but with “ethereal vocals and a stronger backbeat” while considering the single “lilting melancholy…thoroughly engaging.” Comparisons to the Cocteau twins and The Cure (Wheeler’s hair bore a striking resemblance to Robert Smith’s at times) were drawn and the album went gold in the U.S. and hit #4 at home. However, two subsequent albums were fairly-well received and didn’t exactly flop (their breezy  ’97 single “Summertime” hit the UK top 20 and was another alternative radio hit here)  but the band lost momentum and essentially retired by 1997 with Wheeler and Gauvrin preferring to put their time into their family life.

April 30 – Beck Perfected Being A Winner By…Being A ‘Loser’?

Ever feel like you can’t win for losing? Well, today we look at the oddball story of a song and singer that seemingly that couldn’t lose for winning. “Loser” by Beck hit a peak of #10 in the U.S. this day in 1994.

The song certainly sounded like very little else on radio then, fitting because Beck was rather unlike many of the artists he shared the airwaves with. At the time, he was 23, and back in his beloved L.A., after a stint of living in New York. He’d spent some time with relatives in Europe as a kid, but always gravitated back to the Pacific coast. His mother was a friend of Andy Warhol’s, so needless to say, a bit of an odd, avant garde type. Beck dropped out of school after grade eight, but used a fake ID to attend some music and literature classes at a California college. When he was 16, he got himself a guitar and taught himself to play, taking to the streets to busk. He was a big fan of folk music and hip-hop, and tried to combine the two. “I knew my folk music would take off if I put hip-hop beats behind it,” he later said.

He tried that out in cafes in New York and L.A., singing somewhat stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Or at times “I’d just make up these ridiculous songs just to see if people were listening. ‘Loser’ was an extension of that.” (A previous indie single he put out was called “MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack” so one might think he took advantage of that strategy of checking to see if anyone was listening frequently.)

It caught the ear of a local producer, who put the song out as a 12” vinyl single on his own Bong Load label. They made 500 of them. Then Beck began to win, with “Loser.” Two local college radio stations liked it and played it, which in turn drew attention from alt rock powerhouse KROQ in town. As Pitchfork put it, “it arrived without context or marketing” in the city. But with one of the nation’s top stations backing it, major labels got curious and soon Geffen – Nirvana’s label – signed Beck and got him working on his first album, Mellow Gold. “Loser” was the first track for it.

Beck played guitars and bass on it, and synths on some tracks for the album, but he got some major help from Carl Stephenson, the producer. Stephenson played sitar on the song, but more importantly put the dance beat to it and found all the little samples, like George Bush saying “I’m a driver, I’m a winner.” Stephenson would later say he rather disliked the song and regretted putting something so negative out there.

Many felt differently though. Rolling Stone called it “ultra-catchy” and were one of several publications that worked some sort of Bob Dylan comparison in with its review. They also correctly seemed to predict it would take off since “slacker victims often trumpet their dropout status with dilapidated jeans, greasy hair and a sarcastic, defeatist posture.” Everything needed to make Beck their “unwitting icon” as Record Collector‘s Bruno MacDonald suggests.

By the time Mellow Gold came out, “Loser” had already spent five weeks at #1 on the Alternative Rock chart, and from there, mainstream success followed, hitting the top 10 at home as well as in Canada and New Zealand and #15 in the UK. With it ending up a (mellow?) gold single, it remains Beck’s biggest-seller to date. Many would say that was quite a good “winner” of a debut. 

April 22 – Turning Silver Into Platinum

Some record executives might have become… well, the band name thinking about their Canadian sales. Moist hit their high-water mark this day in 1998, being awarded a 4X platinum album for their debut Silver in their homeland. It wasn’t exactly an overnight success though, the album had come out just over four years earlier.

Moist were a quintet back then, lumped in with the “grunge” movement but having more in common with a number of other modern rock acts of the day like Collective Soul or fellow-Canucks Our Lady Peace than the traditional Seattle sound personified by Nirvana.

Moist met in school in Kingston, Ontario, home of another famous Canadian band – the Tragically Hip. In fact, the singer and frontman for Moist, David Usher went to school with the frontman for the Hip, Gord Downie. However, they set their sights westward and moved to Vancouver to be closer to the happening Seattle scene in 1992, and made their own bare-bones indie cassette the following year. Record chain Sam’s promoted it in the city and they became locally popular…. enough to then sign to EMI Records, who had them record a full-length album. But didn’t bet the house on them. Silver was made for about $4000 and included five of the songs off the earlier cassette, just remastered and remixed.

The 49 minute album contained a dozen tracks (11 plus a “hidden” one at the end) with names that sounded largely fitting for the times – “Machine Punch Through”, “Freaky Be Beautiful” and the two real hit singles off it, the title track “Silver” and “Push.” That one got played on MTV (it even found its way into a Beavis and Butthead episode) and made the U.S. rock charts, the only significant indent they made south of the border. At home, the album hit #12 and the two singles were top 20 hits. Curiously enough, the three studio albums they did later on all charted higher in Canada, but sold fewer copies.

Allmusic rated the album 4-stars, noting the “dark, angry songs show the influence absorbed from… Seattle, but Silver is no copy of anyone else’s style.” The website Bucket List included it in their look at the ’90s, considering them “something different than most of the angsty grunge acts that were emerging. They were dark and brooding, for sure, but somehow they seemed playful” as well.

Singer/writer David Usher had more melodic, atmospheric aspirations as well and launched a lengthy solo career later in the ’90s and disbanded Moist around the end of the decade but has since relaunched them.

April 15 – Depeche Mode Battled Demons With ‘Ultra’ Decent Results

We often talk about “decades” of music as if they were distinctly separate entities from one another. As if once 1980 rolled around, all things ’70s were dead and buried; that the ’90s were a not only a different species than the ’80s but a different life form altogether. As different and separate as an oak from a frog or Mars from Saturn. Now of course, that’s not the reality of it. Years blend into each other and even if Elton and Fleetwood Mac saw smaller audiences listening in the ’80s than the ’70s, they kept on rolling and doing pretty much what they’d always been doing.

That said, when we think ’80s, there’s a tendency to think lively, light-weight, electropop music, flashy videos and outrageous hair. Fast forward to the ’90s and we think grunge, distorted guitars and ripped flannel shirts. So, as Rolling Stone would note, “it ain’t easy being an ’80s icon (in the ’90s.)” One might imagine that Men without Hats wouldn’t have found as receptive an audience in 1993 had they dusted off their Casios and recorded a “Safety Dance Part 2” and had happy Rennaissance Fayre characters frolicking in the video as they did with their original in the ’80s. Which brings us to Depeche Mode.

Beginning as a relatively upbeat, synthesizer-driven dance-pop outfit in the early-’80s, they’d grown considerably darker, deeper and less bop-poppy as the decade progressed and by the beginning of the ’90s were barely recognizable in their black clothes and tattoos, sporting dour (yet still danceable) tunes that even broke out a Fender or Les Paul to compliment the Casios and Yamahas from time to time. That trend continued as they put an end to four years of virtual exile with their ninth studio album, Ultra, which came out this day in 1997.

It had been an interesting, if chaotic span between Songs of Faith and Devotion and this one for the Brits. Although they’d toured extensively for that album and spent much of ’93-94 on the road, they’d spent some time apart and seemed to the world to have fallen apart by the time Ultra hit the shelves. Largely because of singer Dave Gahan’s spiraling heroin addiction which led to at least two overdoses, a nearly-successful suicide attempt and becoming so well acquainted with some paramedics (who responded to calls to resusitate or rescue him) that they knew him and nicknamed him “The Cat”… as in having nine lives. All this silliness coupled with not a lot going on left founding member Alan Wilder disenchanted, and eventually quitting the band, leaving them with the first new lineup since their second album, and only a core trio of Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher.

Little wonder this left them in a fairly dark space as Martin Gore began collecting his thoughts and penning tunes for this album. They began recording in early-’96 and took about a year to finish it, using studios in L.A. , New York and London along the way as Gahan finally began to get his life more together (he spent some of that time in rehab which finally would take) and move to the U.S.

The result was put together by a new producer to them, Tim Simenon, a producer who’d worked with Neneh Cherry and an act called Gavin Friday that the band really liked, and was widely known as a happening English club DJ at the time. three cities, a year of time and a new producer made Ultra a little less cohesive than many of their works. all that drama made it largely, although not unremittingly, bleak. But the band’s talent made it a solid work nonetheless.

Rolling Stone compared them to U2 in following up their statement that it wasn’t easy being an ’80s icon by them, and noted while the Irish lads had turned to electronica and Euro club sounds to keep them relevant, Depeche Mode went the opposite way, “the prior decade’s most arena-friendly technopop outfits began relying more on… guitars…to lend emotional urgency.” While no one was going to confuse them with Metallica around then, there was no missing the fact that they had a heavier sound less completely reliant on synths and electric pianos than they had been a decade before. Martin Gore still knew how to write a catchy song though, and this one contained several of the best of their latter works, including the lovely “Home” and the brooding “Barrel of a Gun.” Perhaps adding to the effect, the made-to-be-listened-to-on-CD effort came in just over an hour with eight of the 11 tracks running past five minutes.

Not all critics were entirely enthused, although few really despised it either. Rolling Stone gave it 3-stars, Entertainment Weekly graded it a “B+” and overseas in their homeland, the NME rated it 6/10. Rolling Stone liked “the bittersweet strings in the plaintive ‘Home’” and “moody, pulsating ballads such as ‘The Bottom Line’ and “Love Thieves” (which) are ideal vehicles for Gahan’s brooding baritone” but felt it lacked a standout obvious radio single. EW liked the “up-to-the-second synth effects with ripping melodies”. The NME meanwhile, noted it was the “culmination of a festering melodrama” and seemed to dislike not so much the music – “kinkier than U2 but not as perverse as Nine Inch Nails” – as their American popularity. They criticized the Mode for spending years “driving their juggernaut of angst across the States” with “startingly successful” results.

Perhaps not startingly, but it was successful. Ultra hit #1 in the UK (their second, and to date, last one) and Germany and hit a very respectable #2 in Canada and #5 in the U.S., where “It’s No Good” became their sixth top 40 hit. The album went gold in all those places and in the UK, “It’s No Good” got to #5, “Barrel of a Gun” made #4 (their best showing on the singles chart since “People are People” nearly a decade and a half earlier) and were joined by “Home” and “Useless” in the top 40, making it their third-straight album to score a quartet of top 40 hits at home. Guess that “juggernaut of angst” found a “Home” on both sides of the ocean, NME.

April 5 – The Kegger That Reverberated For 30 Years

It was a party for the ages on this night in 1980 in Georgia. But I doubt many realized it at the time – they were too busy getting drunk and just having a good time!

Some hit bands are put together by committees (think the Monkees); others are built to be super-groups from the best of other bands (Asia, Led Zeppelin). Many get there by a group of people determined to be stars who studiously practice and write together for years (maybe Toto, for instance). Then there’s R.E.M.

The most successful American alt rock band, and the pride of Athens, Georgia came together by accident on this day 42 years ago. The four knew each other somewhat; Michael Stipe hung out at Peter Buck’s workplace (Wuxtry Records); Mike Mills and Bill Berry were friends at the University of Georgia there. Presumably they all knew one another and had some level of common musical interest and as we now know, some musical talent. However, they really didn’t come together with an aim to change the face of the musical landscape. They just decided to jam together a little to add some background noise to a friend’s party!

So it was that on an unseasonably cold spring night, what would become R.E.M. and about 300 others, mainly from the UofG, jammed into an abandoned Episcopal church on Oconee Street in Athens to throw a party for Kathleen O’Brien, who was celebrating her birthday. O’Brien worked at the campus radio station which no doubt endeared her to the boys in R.E.M. A good time was had by all by the few accounts, and the quartet played a handful of rather unmemorable covers of artists from Jonathan Richman to the Sex Pistols to the Stones. They played a couple of originals, rough versions of tracks that could eventually make the Murmur album like “Perfect Circle“.

And that might have been the end of the story if not for some unknown person’s greed. Or thirst. In true college form, the party was a “kegger”, with beer aplenty. Someone actually stole several kegs from the party. Poor student O’Brien had put down a deposit on the metal kegs and was on the hook for quite a few dollars. The musicians felt bad for her, and arranged to play a local bar – Tyrone’s OC – on May 6 to raise funds to pay her beer losses. In the meantime, they practiced a bit and haphazardly settled on the name that would take them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame some 25 years later!

Tyrone’s bar burned down a couple of years later, but the music tourist can still see the steeple and part of the ruined church to this day.

While the band broke up after 31 years, various members have at times worked together since and they seem on amicable terms. Ironically, they saw a sudden resurgence in popularity of their ’80s single “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” in the early days of the pandemic  (it hit recharted on iTunes in early 2020). Mike Mills said of that, “we certainly never saw that coming with this song…you just never know how it’s going to work out.” Same goes for starting a new band, or any other venture, but in R.E.M.’s case, that kegger turned out pretty well!

March 26 – Tears For Fears Weren’t ‘Hurting’ For Fans

Suffering is supposed to be the raw stuff of art,” ’80s wunderkind author Jay McInerney once said. Today we celebrate a pair of his musical contemporaries who’d no doubt agree, Tears for Fears. The duo that went on to become one of Britain’s biggest acts of the decade had their first real taste of success on this day in 1983 when their debut album, The Hurting, made it to #1 on the UK charts.

While it might seem they were a veritable overnight success, that’s hardly the case. Their rise to fame took some time – and a lot of suffering. As much as the recording of the album was arduous, the years leading up to it that was the raw material was tougher. The Hurting was a concept album about childhood stress, psychological distress and resultant psycho-therapy. Not the love affairs and fast Chevys that populate so much of pop music.

Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who make up the band (technically keyboardist/engineer Ian Stanley and drummer Manny Elias were also part of the band but they were kept to decidedly supporting roles) had a lot of raw material to work with when they first met in the late 1970s in their hometown of Bath, England, a city which is also home to Peter Gabriel and Midge Ure among others. They joined a band called Neon with Pete Byrnes and Rob Fischer (the latter became Naked Eyes after Orzabal and Smith departed.) and then a short-lived group called Graduate. Graduate had little fan support at home but managed to have a chart-topping single – “Elvis Should Play Ska” – in Spain.

While Orzabal had surprisingly grown up loving country music and Smith had leaned more towards the heavy metal stylings of Blue Oyster Cult and Led Zep, they had both come to love Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and Gary Numan. They decided to form their own band to create that sort of sound. Their initial name, History of Headaches (Orzabal later said of that name, “It’s awful!”) quickly gave way to the one we are familiar with.

Their backgrounds played a big role in creating the rather bleak content of their early work. Both had grown up in “council estates”, the British version of public housing tenements and were fairly poor as children. Smith’s family might have been worse off financially. “It was a very poor, basic upbringing, but it taught you to be independent,” he told The Quietus in a substantial 2013 interview.

Orzabal’s upbringing was more unusual. His parents owned an “entertainment” company which was run out of their apartment after his Dad suffered a nervous breakdown when Roland was three. The entertainment was largely stripping. His mom had been an exotic dancer and went on to train young women for that, something he recalls his Dad quite enjoying! However, beyond the naked ladies, the company also employed a ventriloquist, who taught little Roland that skill, and several musicians. Guitarists would sometimes stop by and play, and the lad would sing along. “I thought, yup, that’s what I want to do.” Continue reading “March 26 – Tears For Fears Weren’t ‘Hurting’ For Fans”

March 20 – Pill A Diamond In The Rough

Think about ’90s music that changed the aural landscape and you probably think of a trio out of Seattle and an album of theirs with a swimming baby on the cover…or maybe Whitney Houston and her dog-scaring  high notes on a song we looked at earlier this week. No question about it, Whitney had a huge hit just as Nirvana’s Nevermind was becoming huge, and changing the sound of the radio airwaves for years to come. It remains a short of shorthand representation of the entire decade now. But… “you oughta know” there was another album that sold more and perhaps shook up the music industry even more. And it was a big day for it, and its artist, Alanis Morissette 26 years ago.

Jagged Little Pill was certified diamond status in Canada on this day in 1996, diamond meaning 10X platinum. The first ever album to hit that mark in the Great White North was Saturday Night Fever in 1978. It had been a dramatic rocket to the top of the charts for the Ottawa singer who’d had a little – emphasis on little – success in her homeland a few years earlier as a teenybopper pop singer in the mode of Tiffany or Brandy. And like them, in the past she’d used only her first name.

But Alanis had matured, gone through a few bad relationships and found that she liked to rock a little. She signed with Madonna’s Maverick Records (a division of Warner Brothers) got super-producer Glen Ballard as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Dave Navarro to help her and had gone to L.A. to record. What she turned out arguably turned out to be the soundtrack to Gen X angst and “grrrl-power”. Much like Tears For Fears Songs from the Big Chair a decade earlier, Jagged Little Pill was like a trip to the psychiatrist’s couch on disc. Alanis covered dealt with everything from her seething rage at the ex who’d left her (“You Oughta Know”) to confusion (“Ironic”, which as many have pointed out, ironically details all sorts of things which really aren’t ironic at all in the lyrics) to come out with youthful optimism (“Hand in My Pocket”). The result was a power-pop masterpiece that captured the zeitgest of the decade perfectly. As Rolling Stone put it, Alanis created “the ’90s version of Carole King’s Tapestry – a woman using her plain soft rock voice to sift through the emotional wreckage of her youth.”

Released mid-June ’95, it had gone gold in Canada by August and knocked the Smashing Pumpkins out of the #1 spot on the album chart by November. After being replaced on top of the charts by The Beatles compilation Anthology I at Christmas time, it soon went back to #1 and ended up spending 21 weeks there in total. It kept selling and selling all through its second summer, and by fall ’96, was double diamond in Canada, one of only 12 albums ever to reach that level. Little wonder that, as it spawned four-straight #1 singles there – “Hand in my Pocket”, “Ironic”, “You Learn” and “Head Over Feet”, all following in the footsteps of the album’s anthem of anger, “You Oughta Know” which was a top 10 hit.

Now that in itself would be noteworthy, but of course Ms. Morissette’s popularity wasn’t confined to the land of Molsons and moose. The album did almost as well, as quickly in the U.S., spending a dozen weeks at #1, being the best-seller of ’96 and, at the time making her the youngest artist to have a diamond album there. she was 21 when she picked up that hardware. And the story was much the same around the world – it hit #1 in the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Belgium…seemingly almost everywhere they listen to pop music. When all was said and done it had sold 16 million in the U.S. and more than double that worldwide. It ended up being the third biggest album of the decade, globally, behind only two other female artists – Whitney Houston and her The Bodyguard and fellow Canuck Shania Twain’s Come on Over.

That last fact probably sums up the biggest change in music in the ’90s, bigger even than Kurt Cobain’s little band shaking up rock radio. While the previous two decades had seen some popular and big-selling female artists – Linda Ronstadt , Carole King and Olivia Newton-John in the ’70s, Madonna, Whitney and Pat Benatar in the ’80s for example – the music we listened to and bought was primarily male. And that would continue until Alanis unleashed her pent up anger and turned it into over 30 million albums and radio domination for better than a year. Before you knew it, radio – rock, alternative, country, pop – was falling over itself to promote new female artists and yet another Canadian lady, Sarah McLachlan, had begun what was briefly the hottest ticket on the concert market, Lilith Fair.

Maybe it’s “ironic”, but Morissette herself didn’t seem to benefit as much as many other artists from the change she helped bring about. While her follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sold about four million copies globally and topped North American charts, it was seen as a flop (one of only a handful of examples of a homegrown album that would be 4X platinum in Canada and not seen as “successful”) and she’s still recording, she never again had a mega-selling record nor a song that would be a virtual anthem for a generation. But singers ranging from Sia to Kacey Musgraves should all feel just a little bit grateful to Alanis for the time when she did. If you wish to revisit the age of angst and lumberjack shirts again, Alanis is doing a 25th Anniversary tour for Jagged Little Pill (it was scheduled to happen earlier but pushed back by the pandemic, hence the “odd” math) this summer, with a number of shows in Canada, and a few in England and the States. Most will be opened by a band with another fiery femme singer of the ’90s, Garbage