In conversation with the witty and articulate (it says here) author of Does That Make Sense? at the weekend, he commented that this particular chart retrospective was an intriguing one in that he barely recognised any of the songs I’d written about so far. This wasn’t from the point of view of a casual music listener either, he had worked for music radio stations for well over a decade and a half. It was just that the songs from this period had dropped out of his mind completely.
In a sense he is not wrong, as I’ve always had this inkling that by and large 1994 was an “off” year for genuine musical classics. It is not that many of the songs on the charts were bad records, they were certainly popular enough at the time and were bought by many happy music fans, but simply that the number of records from that period which went on to become acknowledged pop classics – destined to be played and remembered from that point on – were pretty thin on the ground to be frank. Thinking back to last Christmas when I did the festive chart of 1995 and reminisced about million sellers and some of the biggest selling records of all time, this chart feels like a barren landscape in comparison. Memories aplenty, but classics few.
Back in my own music radio days I used to be charged with the broadcast of the post-breakfast Classic 9 at 9 schedule stalwart, featuring a handful of songs selected from a particular year in chart history. It was with a sense of dread that I would pick up the music log in the morning and discover that I would be spending the next 40 minutes spinning the garbage of 1994. “Remember this?”, I would say – convinced that nobody tuned in actually would. That said, there are one or two memorable musical moments lurking within the Top 10, even if their true significance was not apparent until a couple of years later. Time to find out.
10: Suede – Stay Together
We start with a record that has quite an intriguing tale, for the expectation and hype surrounding its release is quite different from the way history remembers it. If you read the archive chart commentary I linked to earlier, you will start to understand why. When ‘Stay Together’ was released, reviewers and listeners were all but united in their view that this was the band’s masterpiece. Their first new recording since the release of acclaimed debut album ‘Suede’, ‘Stay Together’ was viewed as the single their talents had been working towards, a towering and soaring epic that was the ultimate marriage of Brett Anderson’s vocals and Bernard Butler’s virtuoso guitar work.
The single was “ultimate” in one sense anyway, for it marked the final schism in the relationship between the guitarist and charismatic frontman. Within weeks Butler had left Suede and they were facing up the release of second album ‘Dog Man Star’ without what most viewed as the defining element of their sound. Hence the gap between the contemporary view of the single and subsequent critical analysis. At the time it was indeed Suede’s biggest hit ever, an instant Top 3 smash and a chart height they would only return to one more time. It was the biggest single of the moment and garlanded with praise and appreciation. Put simply, many were prepared to forgive them if this record turned out to be the greatest record they ever made. Brett Anderson and indeed the rest of Suede now profess to hate the track and regard it as a genuine low point in their lives and careers. Whether that is truly due to its musical credentials or simply because it conjures up for them memories of a rather unpleasant time for them personally is never explicitly stated, but on their ‘Lost In TV’ DVD retrospective the commentary track for ‘Stay Together’ features the band noisily exiting the studio rather than staying to watch it again.
Was ‘Stay Together’ the masterpiece it was hailed as at the time, or was it as Anderson later commented, a classic case of hype dictating success? Click the title above to hear it for yourselves.
9: Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart/Sting – All For Love
Or “Laryngitis inc” as I christened it at the time, the notion of uniting three of the most gravelly voiced stars in rock surely the kind of idea that comes after a late night drinking session rather than during moments of sober reflection. One of the few all-star celebrity collaborations that doesn’t wind up being less than the sum of its parts, ‘All For Love’ was an Adams/Lange/Kamen penned song that featured on the soundtrack of the Walt Disney remake of ‘The Three Musketeers’, a film worth checking out if only to stare in astonishment at Keifer Sutherland’s beard and moustache combination. Despite maybe lacking just a little in terms of melody, the song was a Number 2 smash hit and gave both Sting and Stewart their biggest chart hits for some considerable time. Just try to resist the temptation to clear your throat while listening to it.
8: Cappella – Move On Baby
Wondering just where the token club hit of the week was in this chart? Wonder no more as there are actually a couple in here. Cappella was the creation of Italian producer Gianfranco Bortolotti who used the moniker for a series of records he released from the late 80s onwards. Although starting out as a Hi-NRG act, Cappella soon began hitting paydirt with a series of Eurodance hits. After ‘U Got 2 Know’ and ‘U Got 2 Let The Music’ had been smashes in 1993, Cappella kicked off their 1994 account with this identikit hit single which raced to Number 7 in short order. By this time the group were being fronted for promotional purposes by British duo Rodney Bishop and Kelly Overett although the latter was hired more as a dancer than a singer – a fact never more obvious when the Top Of The Pops rules at the time required her to sing ‘Move On Baby’ for their TV performance in a voice that sounded nothing like Ann-Marie Smith who had actually performed on the record. Not that anyone cared at the time. ‘Move On Baby’ was frantic, mindless, floor-filling dance music. It could hardly fail no matter who the singer was.
Now tracking it down online is a bit of a struggle as the only version listed for streaming is an odd acapella version from an old compilation of similar tracks. Hence (and sadly not for the last time in this Top 10) we have to fall back on a video:
7: Elton John and RuPaul – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
Make no mistake. This record is a :picard: moment.
There have indeed been moments in Elton John’s career when you just want to grab him by the lapels (or other extremities) and shout “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING” very loudly in his face. This single is one of them.
The occasion was the release of his 1993 ‘Duets’ album which as the title suggests, saw the star team up with a variety of showbiz friends on a series of double-headed tracks. The first single released was a seasonal rendition of ‘True Love’ with the added novelty of his teaming up for the first time since 1976 with Kiki Dee, their duet on ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ that year for a long time his only brush with a Number One single. What possessed him then to subsequently remake that very classic in such a brutal manner is something of a mystery. To add insult to injury the new version of ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ wasn’t even performed with a proper singer, the track now reduced to a camp comedy record thanks to the vocal contribution of American drag star RuPaul who was experiencing unexplained levels of celebrity at the time. Produced by none other than Giorgio Moroder who really should have known better, the much loved disco classic was torn to shreds by what surely must be the un-worthiest cover version in history – reduced to the level of a plastic techno track and performed by a pouting Queen whose singing talents were dubious to say the least (that’s RuPaul, not Elton before anyone wonders).
The Elton/RuPaul double act had legs beyond this single too as the pair were booked to host the 1994 Brit Awards around the time of its release, peppering the ceremony with as many gay jokes as they could physically manage. “I have never seen so many helmets” mused the American star when the Pet Shop Boys pitched up to perform ‘Go West’ with a choir of miners. “Somehow I think you jest” grinned Elton with all the comic timing of a lettuce.
Something tells me that licensing issues are restricting the online availability of the ‘Duets’ album as it is suspiciously absent from Elton John’s catalogue on all jukebox services. Make do instead with the performance by Elton and “Miss” RuPaul from the 1994 Brits ceremony. This may ruin your week though, be warned.
6: 2 Unlimited – Let The Beat Control Your Body
Or maybe this will ruin it. The ninth in what seemed like a million hit singles for 2 Unlimited in the mid-90s, this one having the distinction of marking the first anniversary of Number One smash hit ‘No Limit’. By this time it had been decided that the UK was ready for Ray Slijngaard’s rapping skills and the singles being released were the full vocal versions rather than the stripped down instrumental mixes that had been promoted here up to now. As we’ve stumbled across before, 2 Unlimited’s catalogue is more or less completely absent online leaving us to resort to another YouTube embed.
5: D:Ream – Things Can Only Get Better
For those of us who had been fans from the start, it seemed as if D:Ream were never going to become stars. ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ had been first released in January 1993 and had given the duo of Peter Cunnah and Al Mackenzie their first Top 40 hit, introducing the nation to what appeared to be a winning combination of dance beats and enormously catchy pop records. Mysteriously though the records failed to catch fire. ‘Things’ bombed out at Number 24 and although ‘U R The Best Thing’ made Number 19 the pair spent the year releasing a succession of singles that arrived in the Top 30 and then vanished again in short order. The breakthrough finally came early the following year, ironically after Mackenzie had tired of making underappreciated pop music and quit the group to make “proper” dance records. Now reduced to essentially Cunnah as a solo act, D:Ream had supported Take That on tour to a rapturous reaction and so reactivated ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ in a slightly beefier remix that amplified its credentials as a pop anthem. A timely release in the first weeks of 1994 meant the single had a clear path to the top of the charts, the single enjoying a comfortable four week run to establish itself firmly as one of the biggest hits of the year. It took a year, but the D:Ream project was finally off and running although for long term fans like me it was a bittersweet moment. Rather than enjoying the pleasure of a Number One record, I was more inclined to accost buyers of the single and demand to know where they were a year ago.
History naturally now records the track as becoming an unofficial anthem for the 1997 Labour Party election campaign, an event which saw the group perform at election rallies and for yet another re-release of the single to make Number 19 in the aftermath of the election. Sadly this also meant the record label electing to release a Greatest Hits collection rather than the third D:Ream album which was sat in the can waiting for a release date. To this day the recordings have never seen the light of day.
4: Toni Braxton – Breathe Again
The second single (‘Another Sad Love Song’ had come first in September 1993) but first actual hit in the UK for the American soul star. Her musical career had begun in the late 80s as a member of family group The Braxtons, but when the first single from the five sisters bombed in the States they were swiftly dropped and Toni signed as a solo artist instead. With a deep register that was reminiscent of Anita Baker she was handed a ready made portfolio of intense, soulful ballads for her self-titled debut album and after a stuttering start in the UK she made a breakthrough in early 1994 with this sultry track. In another fun example of British and US tastes diverging to a quite alarming degree in the 1990s, Toni Braxton’s later singles wound up as UK hits in radically remixed dance versions rather than their slowed down equivalents to which America was in thrall. This divide was most famously seen in 1996 with her award-winning hit ‘Un-break My Heart’ which topped the US charts as a mellow ballad but instead became a huge seller here in a souped up Frankie Knuckles floor filling remake. Back to ‘Breathe Again’ though, and the single had peaked at Number 2 in early February and was still languishing in the Top 5 a month later as part of a leisurely burnout.
3: Enigma – Return To Innocence
Apparently it is all the fault of London Underground. Whilst riding the tube one day during a trip to London, Romanian producer Michael Cretu was lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the train and woke up with the same mellow beat in his head. Along with fellow producers David Farstein and Frank Peterson he went on to create Enigma whose debut album ‘MCMXC AD’ was released in late 1990. The ethereal and hypnotic mix of Greogrian chants and club beats somehow tapped a vein in audiences worldwide and the album sold in its millions to become far and away the biggest New Age album the industry had ever seen. Its most famous single ‘Sadness Part 1’ topped the charts here in early 1991 and put Enigma on the musical map of the decade for good.
Thus anticipation was at fever pitch for the follow-up album ‘The Cross Of Changes’ when it hit the stores in early 1994. To their eternal credit Cretu and team resisted the temptation to revisit the same old formula and so instead produced an album that stirred in elements from a far wider range of sources. The lead single was ‘Return To Innocence’, based not as most people assumed on a Native American chant but on an aboriginal Taiwanese chant lifted from a CD that happened to come into Cretu’s possession. Coupled with a heavily disguised Led Zeppelin drum beat, the single once more weaved its magic on audiences all over the world with ‘Return To Innocence’ storming to Number 3 in the UK in fairly short order. The sampled chanting at the start of the track would later be the subject of a series of lawsuits when it transpired that far from being a public domain recording as had been assumed, the CD of ‘Jubilant Drinking Song’ had been taken from a commercial release by two Taiwanese singers who had recorded the track in Paris in 1988. As a result the two Amis singers to this day receive 100% of the royalties for ‘Return To Innocence’.
It is hard to put into words just how ubiquitous the first two Enigma albums were during the start of the decade. As a chilled out first year student I must have lulled myself to sleep countless times to the tape of ‘MCMXC AD’ to the extent that I can’t play it now without the entire album playing several bars ahead in my consciousness. It is the same story for ‘The Cross Of Changes’. Don’t ask me how, but despite not hearing the tape for a decade and a half, I sampled some of its tracks online whilst researching this piece and found myself recognising every beat, every musical phrase and every single lyric. Enigma was theoretically as far removed from the musical mainstream as it was possible to get and yet this single is somehow the defining sound of this particular chart countdown. Don’t bother wondering just how they sold so many copies. Somehow it was if it was genetically coded into us all.
2: Ace Of Base – The Sign
Every so often the tastes of the American public have the capacity to surprise. This is apparent at the time of writing with the very British Taio Cruz currently sitting pretty at the Top of the Hot 100. In 1993 the unexpected transatlantic success was Swedish pop group Ace Of Base who had quite rightly captivated Europe that summer with a breezy combination of pop and dub-reggae on smash hit single ‘All That She Wants’ but who surprised even themselves when American radio embraced them joyfully too.
Ace Of Base had been signed to Arista records in the USA, but legendary label boss Clive Davis was concerned that in spite of the massive success of ‘All That She Wants’ their debut album ‘Happy Nation’ did not contain anything he felt would be a follow-up hit. The group were swiftly ordered back to the studio to produce some new tracks to freshen the disc up – ‘The Sign’ emerging from these sessions to become the title track of the newly repackaged American version of the ‘Happy Nation’ album. It could well be that Davis was correct, for although ‘All That She Wants’ had been a Number One single in the UK, the darker follow-up ‘Wheel Of Fortune’ had made a mere Number 20 whilst the title track from their album had missed the Top 40 altogether. The Diane Warren-penned ‘The Sign’ changed all that and contemporaneously with its journey to the top of the American charts it charged into the runners up slot in Britain to remove from Ace Of Base the dreaded one hit wonder tag that had been hovering over their heads.
Ace Of Base’s British hit tally continued until the end of the decade, and with the group refusing to rest on their laurels and constantly evolving their sound it meant they produced along the way some of the most memorable Scando-pop singles of the era, veering from the outright Eurodance of ‘Beautiful Life’ to the glorious Motown stomp of ‘Always Have, Always Will’. In February 1994 ‘The Sign’ was a single about setting the past aside, moving on from the bad times and reaching forward with hope. As someone battling at the time with a crippling depression that left me on the edge of a breakdown I simply could not get enough of the song and its sentiment. I wish the same could be said for We7 who don’t appear to have any Ace Of Base songs save for ‘All That She Wants’ in their catalogue. They are safe and sound on Spotify though.
1: Mariah Carey – Without You
There are naturally very few things that all music writers agree on, but you would be hard pressed to find much deviation from a consensus that ‘Without You’ is one of the finest pop singles ever made. Written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger for their 1970 album ‘No Dice’, the track became a worldwide smash hit two years later thanks to a version by American singer Harry Nilsson which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Essentially ‘Without You’ invented the power ballad, combining an understated piano and strings arrangement with the singers impassioned, almost gut-wrenching rendition of the song. This was a man reaching into the very depths of his soul to convey his longing and heartbreak and emotionally it was nearly impossible to resist him.
Such was the esteem that ‘Without You’ was held that for a long time the song was considered almost untouchable. It didn’t help that it was such a difficult song to sing, the power and emotion of Nilsson’s version coming from the sheer range of his voice. Only the most powerful pair of lungs could even hope to compete. Enter then Mariah Carey whose five-octave vocal range meant that she was virtually the only modern day singer who could even begin to contemplate taking the song on.
The third single from her ‘Music Box’ album, her version of ‘Without You’ by a strange coincidence was released just as Harry Nilsson himself passed away and so effectively served as the perfect tribute to the man whose voice had soundtracked the falling in love and heartbreak of so many different generations of music fans. Done wrong this single could have been a disaster but somehow the power of the song shone through. Carey’s inability to control her vocal hysterics has meant she has ruined countless songs in the past but on ‘Without You’ she pitches it perfectly and makes the song her own. It didn’t need covering at all, the definitive version already existed for sure, but the Mariah Carey single did enough to justify its own existence and then some.
After three and a half years of trying, the song finally gave Mariah Carey one of the few honours that had eluded her so far – a UK Number One single and one which entered at the top upon release and retained a stranglehold for a full four weeks. This particular week was its third and at the time it showed little sign of shifting any time soon – much to the chagrin of Ace of Base who were locked at Number 2 and denied their own second chart-topper. For all her success with original songs it remains a curious quirk of Mariah Carey’s UK career that her only Number One hits are two cover versions – this single and a lazy 2000 collaboration with Westlife on ‘Against All Odds’.
So that then was the UK Top 40 show from February 27th 1994, even if it did take two weeks for us to get there – and you can hear as much as possible of the whole thing thanks to the Spotify (34 out of 40) and We7 (33 out of 40) playlists. As much of a snapshot in time as the records the chart contains, the rest of the tape features the hallmarks of a Radio One schedule in a state of nervous transition. A trail for Steve Wright In The Morning (which almost proved to be a career killer) is followed by the first ten minutes of Bob Harris introducing a series of long lost Jimi Hendrix sessions retrieved from the archives.
Incidentally if song by song nostalgia is your thing then you could do far worse than to check out a feature running on online pop culture fanzine Freaky Trigger. Creator Tom Ewing is currently midway through a project called Popular which aims to document every single Number One record dating all the way back to 1952. Tom’s approach to music writing is dramatically different to mine as where I take time to point out the reasons to appreciate a piece of music, he will acidly and expertly point out its flaws and stop to wonder why people bothered. Popular makes for some fascinating reading – the project has reached mid 1987 at the time of writing, so check it out when you can. In the meantime I’m off to spin the nostalgia wheel again sometime in April.