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World In Motion: The Chaos of Alternative Culture in Early ‘90s Britain, and Why OMD’s ‘Liberator’ Is A Perfect Album

Written by Imogen Bebb 02/2020

Okay, I confess. 

I’ll hold my hands up. 

I’ll come clean. 

I’ll admit it.

I’ve been on a real early 1990s kick recently. 

And I’m going to spend the next 3000 words talking to you about it – particularly some specific movements in music, television and comedy during that time that have really captured my attention. 

(Eventually we’ll get to talking about OMD’s much-maligned ‘Liberator’ album released in 1993,a copy of which I recently purchased on vinyl, but we’ve got a bit of ground to cover before that so bear with me). 

This sudden interest in the nineties surprised me to be honest; despite being born in 1999 I’ve been an ‘80s devotee since I was a teenager, and have never had any real interest in the 1990s (perhaps with the exception of Blur who I am a big fan of). Delving into the music, the media and the social and political climates of the decade never really appealed to me in the same way as it did with lthe previous one, which I will readily admit to fetishising to within an inch of its life. 

Personally I blame BBC4 with their 1990 ‘Top of the Pops’ repeats on a Friday night, which I vowed I would stop watching when we were presented with the musical atrocity that is Bombalurina’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ for three weeks running (if you’ve never heard it, please do yourself a favour and avoid it at all costs; I can find something good to say about most records but that is possibly the most scarring thing I have ever seen or heard, and I’ve been on nights out in Wolverhampton). 

Anyway, on principal more than anything else I doggedly carried on watching week after week, and now very reluctantly have to admit that one or two of the songs have grown on me. It’s not even stuff that I’d heard of before – most of the tracks I find myself playing later of my own accord are tracks that were completely new to me: ‘Show Me Heaven’ by Maria McKee, ‘The Only Rhyme That Bites’ by MC Tunes vs 808 State, ‘Dub Be Good To Me’ by Beats International, ‘Live Together’ by Lisa Stansfield.

Contrary to what I’d believed for years about the early ‘90s, there were obviously one or two good songs about. However, there were some real shockers too, particularly those of the novelty variety – the Bombalurina track, as I’ve already mentioned, as well as ‘Turtle Power’ by Partners In Cryme (oh dear god), ‘Mona’ by Craig McLachlan and Check 1-2 (catchier but equally horrendous) and ‘Instant Replay’ by Yell (perhaps even worse than the rest put together, simply because of how seriously it seemed like they were taking themselves…at least the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had a sense of humour). 

All in all, the very beginning of the decade – let’s say 1990 to 1993 – was obviously quite a confusing time for British music. Even with those few songs I’ve listed above you can see there were a huge number of genres being thrown about, some becoming more established than others in the UK charts as the decade went on. The heavyweight musical movements one associates with the decade either didn’t hit the British mainstream properly until a little later (Brit Pop, Girl/Boy bands), had started during the previous decade (‘Madchester’, the sickly slickness of Stock, Aitken & Waterman-esque productions), or were coming from elsewhere in the world (Grunge, Alt Rock and Hip Hop, all of which were primarily American movements popularised by the likes of Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Public Enemy respectively, and Eurodance, which for some unknown reason was immensely popular in this country during the early ‘90s). 

Rave culture is perhaps the one exception to this, in that it was a movement that had its heyday in the early ‘90s, but again it wasn’t an idea completely original to that decade; it was essentially a byproduct of acid house (an American movement that began in Chicago in the mid-‘80s) and the ‘second summer of love’ (1988 in the UK, when the combination of the popularity of the drug MDMA, and Electronic Dance Music (EDM), resulted in huge, often illegal ‘raves’ being held around the country).

So I think it’s fair to say that much of what was going on in the world of popular music during that period (from 1990 to 1993) was rising from the ashes of – or at the very least, was something of an offshoot of – musical movements of the previous decade. Nineties music and the counterculture surrounding it was still trying to find its feet. 

This underlying feeling of chaos overtly presents itself on those early ‘90s episodes of ‘Top of the Pops’ I mentioned, particularly in the way the show, the performers and the audience actually looked. A mish-mash of presenting styles, hairstyles, clothing styles, and indeed styles of music; in 1990 it was not uncommon for an ‘edgy’ alternative band like Sisters of Mercy to be vying for chart positions with pop royalty like Cliff Richard, or for an American rapper act like MC Hammer to be battling with very British synth pop acts from the ‘80s like Depeche Mode.

As music critic Robert Christgau described the decade (but whose comments I think are particularly relevant to those early years of the ‘90s), music at that time was ‘richly chaotic [and] unknowable’.

Also adding to my current fixation with the ‘90s is YouTube, with its apparently infinite number of clips from the early years (from 1996 to around 2000) of ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ – a ‘richly chaotic’ panel show if ever there was one.

Described by medium.com as a programme ‘in which the current state of rock and pop music was laid down on the chopping block’, ‘NMTB’ featured guests from any number of near and far flung corners of music (including OMD’s own Andy McCluskey in one episode) and comedy, and was home to music-based rounds such as ‘Indecipherable Lyrics’ (where teams hear a song with barely-discernible lyrics and have to identify what’s being sung, although most guests give up with this and go down the route of funniest interpretation), ‘The Intros Round’ (where the team captain and another team member perform song intros to the other member of their team using only sounds), and ‘Next Lines’ (where the host reads a lyric and the team has to come up with the next line of the song). 

One of the things I find fascinating about the show is how irreverent a lot of its humour was, despite it being broadcast on the BBC and its relatively fixed rounds and format. Host Mark Lemarr would have a dig at anyone and anything, often deploying slapstick humour, antagonistic barbs and ersatz hostility during his seventeen series at the helm, but still managed to be absolutely hilarious and incredibly likeable. Team captains Phill Jupitus and Sean Hughes weren’t exactly arbitrators of peace either – Jupitus with his cocksure humour and character observations, Hughes with his slightly subtler but equally sharp-witted manner.

But that’s the fun of it – the chaos, the unknown, opinions that get batted around, but also the overarching notion that (mostly) everyone was having a good time. Watching any episode from those first ten seasons feels a bit like what I’d imagine a younger child observing a student party through a window would feel like: there are things you see and hear that you understand and that amuse you, some things that you see and hear that you know are toeing the line a little, but most of all there’s an overwhelming feeling of wanting to be part of – or at the very least, carry on observing – the scene that’s unfolding. 

(I actually think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the majority of the ‘90s; for someone like myself who wasn’t actually there, so has to make do with reading about it and watching things from the time, it does feel a little like looking through a window into somewhere I wish I could actually be or experience). 

Although ‘NMTB’ wasn’t the first comedy panel show with a surreal, disorderly undertone, it was the first (and as far as I know, only) television show of this oeuvre to be based around music, which in my opinion makes it a hugely important resource when it comes to gathering the opinions and feel of music at that particular time in history.

What it also does is give us a point from which we can draw a direct line of influence back to earlier in the decade – to that period of 1990 – 1993.

Realistically, the clearest, most definite line of influence that can be drawn back from ‘NMTB’ is to the surreal, often utterly confusing humour of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, who rose to fame as a comedy duo through programmes like ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ (1990 – 1991), ‘The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer (1993 to 1995), and ‘Shooting Stars’ (1995 – 1997). 

Compared to the anarchy of Reeves and Mortimers’ original shows, ‘…Buzzcocks’ could just as well have been ‘Songs of Praise’. 

I’ll make another confession here – perhaps to the detriment of my health, as I know how popular they are – but I don’t really understand Reeves and Mortimer at all. I don’t think they’re particularly funny, just incredibly silly and able to make themselves look like idiots whenever and however they choose. 

However, I am also aware it is impossible for me not to acknowledge the far-reaching effect of their comedic style during the early ‘90s – a particularly transitory period for not only music, as we have seen, but also ‘alternative’ British comedy. 

In particular, ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ (a bizarre, almost dream-like parody of that British staple, the variety show) is regarded as a seminal voice in the field, with its influence felt in any number of ensuing cult sitcoms and alternative sketch shows, including ‘Brass Eye’ (1997), ‘Smack the Pony’ (1999 – 2003), ‘Nighty Night’ (2004 – 2005) and Green Wing (2004 – 2007). 

Other forces at work in the world of comedy during the early 1990s included Harry Enfield with his sketch show ‘Harry Enfield & Chums’, first broadcast in 1990 and including the now notorious character of ‘Kevin the Teenager’. There was also the Fry & Laurie

and French & Saunders sketch shows (1987 – 2005, and 1989 – 1995 respectively), Paul Whitehouse, who starred in shows with Harry Enfield and went on to co-write ‘The Fast Show’ (1994 – 2007), and ‘NMTB’  own Sean Hughes, with his aptly named Channel 4 sitcom ‘Sean’s Show’ (1992 – 1993). 

I’d like to talk about ‘Sean’s Show’ for a moment, mainly because I firmly believe that everyone should watch it and that it was just as influential as Reeves and Mortimer’s programmes (and also has the added benefit of being far more entertaining, in my humble opinion). 

Based around the concept of Hughes living on his own in a flat, but also aware of the fact he is on a set and that there is a 400-strong audience present, the show achieved the commendable feat of being funny, idiosyncratic, relatable and utterly unique, all at the same time. 

As was typical of many classic comedies where much of the humour was based around developing the characters in a particular situation until the audience grew to know and love them (‘Dad’s Army’, ‘Only Fools and Horses’, ‘Porridge’ etc.) Hughes’ script featured multiple running gags that people could sometimes empathise with, but that were pushed to the most surreal of limits during the show – a sock that’s never dry, scrubbing a pan every episode because the scrambled egg won’t come off it, playing jazz down the phone when someone rings so the caller thinks Hughes is ‘sophisticated’, persistent phone calls from a woman named Angela who he ‘did not lead on’, the local shop charging huge amounts of money for a tub of coleslaw and a tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti. 

As well as the anti-sitcom situations Hughes often found himself in, such as discovering he has a twelve-year-old son called Gordon who proceeds to demand £175 a week for ‘sweets’, or finding that his ninety three-year old neighbour is in fact a notorious gangster, in every episode he usually delivers a stand-up sequence or two to the audience, often concerning the topics of sex, his Catholic upbringing, living alone, early 1990s society or his relationship with his Father, the latter of which often provides the show’s most poignant moments. Much of this material was derived from Hughes’ original one-man stand-up show ‘A One Night Stand With Sean Hughes’, that led to him becoming the youngest comedian ever to win the distinguished Perrier Award, and which The Spectator described as a show that ‘changed our preconceptions of what stand-up comedy should be – not by being strident or political, but by rejecting trite one-liners and [Hughes] letting his imagination run riot.’

As if that’s not enough, a significant part of the show’s script is dedicated to music; Hughes manages to get a Smiths or Morrissey reference in whenever possible, and The Cure pop up in the series two finale. He even somehow manages to pre-empt the Brit Pop hype by featuring Pulp in an episode of series one, who were a relatively unknown indie band in 1992 with zero hit singles or mainstream prowess (they’d have their first top ten hit in 1995 with ‘Common People’). 

The reason I am going into such depth here is because, as a result of the amalgamation of all these things, ‘Sean’s Show’ is essential social commentary – as successful comedies often are. Underneath the recurring gags and hyperbole of the storylines lies a snapshot of the burgeoning new attitudes and the desire for change amongst young people in Britain during that time; a restless, unorthodox counterculture that was preparing to fight back against the staid dominance of the mainstream.

The majority of this unenterprising feeling in the early ‘90s within which many younger people found themselves trapped could be attributed to the Conservative government, who had been in power since May 1979 (under Margaret Thatcher until May 1990 and then under John Major, until Tony Blair won the election for Labour in May 1997). 

Conservative policies in the early ‘90s were primarily about strength and stability, and people taking responsibility for themselves and the way they lived in any way they could. In the party’s General Election manifesto from 1992, there was a huge focus on stability and responsibility in particular, shown in phrases like ‘taking responsibility for Britain’, ‘making our country respected and secure’ and ‘strengthen[ing] our influence for good’.

It’s not surprising then with a government (and in turn, mainstream culture) so focused on the ideas of duty, culpability and stability, that young people at that time were reacting by getting on board with movements in alternative culture that were often transitional, unorthodox and chaotic.

Which is exactly why ‘Liberator’ – OMD’s ninth studio album, released on 14th June 1993 – was a perfect album for those times.

(See, I promised we’d get to the album eventually).

As I mentioned earlier, ‘Liberator’ seems to be a much-maligned release within OMD’s back catalogue, which is something I’ve never really understood. 

Alright, it’s no ‘Architecture and Morality’ (the band’s hugely popular third album released in 1981), and it’s certainly no ‘Organisation’ (their second album released in 1980), but I’ve always found that one of the joys of OMD’s music is that – either on purpose or by accident – they do not seem capable of making an album with the same aural palette as any of its predecessors. 

‘Liberator’ certainly adheres to that theme. It doesn’t remind me of anything the band had done previously, even ‘Sugar Tax’, the album directly preceding it.

But at the same time you can still tell it’s an OMD album; ‘Liberator’ still has a distinctly melancholy feel, which in my opinion makes up a huge part of the emotional fabric that so many of the band’s best tracks are almost suffocated with.

So why don’t people like it? Personally, I think it’s mainly due to the fact those adjectives I mentioned earlier to describe the early ‘90s could also be used to describe this album – transitional, unorthodox and just a little bit chaotic. 

Let’s go through them one by one, shall we? (Oh joy, I hear you cry).

When I looked up some other words for ‘transitional’, the main ones presented to me were things like ‘changing’, ‘adapting’, ‘transforming’.

‘Adapting’ was the one that immediately stood out to me; this album sounds like a band adapting to what’s going on around them. This album sounds like it’s been made by a band who, having made great strides in the world of electronic music over a decade before, are now trying to fit in with the musical environment into which electronic music has since mutated.

Personally, I think they do a pretty good job. ‘Angus Dei’, the first track on the album’s second side, is pure ‘EDM’ as it were, and makes great use of samples whilst still sounding like OMD. ‘Everyday’, the album’s third single, has a club-ready beat that propels it along until those glorious final choruses, which is definitely one of my favourite moments on the album. ‘Dream of Me’ creates that typical ‘90s loud-quiet/busy-sparse dynamic, starting off swathed in sorrowful synths and McCluskey’s lugubrious vocals, before dropping down to the drums and barely anything else.

Another one of our words, ‘chaotic’, is one that perhaps sums up the mood of the album as a whole, which is potentially one of the reasons it is not considered too popular in the OMD fandom; rather than getting a sound or a feel and sticking with it, it feels like there’s a number of different emotions and intensity levels that come and go, almost randomly, throughout. There’s love-and-hate songs, dance tracks, songs prickling with feelings of weary retaliation, heartfelt pseudo-ballads, and as a listener we lurch from one to the other. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing though. Again, it reflects the nature of music and culture at the time, which was, as we’ve seen, pretty chaotic and prone to changing a lot. 

Perhaps ‘chaotic’ is a little unfair – volatile might be a better choice of word. That ebb and flow of the lyrical themes and aural sensibilities as we go through the album means we often are left with the impression that the whole lot could be blown sky high at any second – ‘sorry, we haven’t got any emotional baggage left to unpack here, you’ll have to listen to something else for a bit’ – which indeed it veers dangerously, yet exhilaratingly, close to doing on a number of tracks. 

Take ‘Best Years Of Our Lives’ for example, the track which I think best represents this unloading of soul-stirring cargo. ‘I begged you just to leave me when we’d argue and we’d fight / but even as we stumble through the darkness and the light / you know these were the best years of our lives’, McCluskey sings, holding nothing back with the vocal delivery as the song builds to its crescendo. This isn’t background music, this is a song with real emotion in it, real pain, real heartache, and pushes to the fore some real intensity that I don’t think we’d heard from OMD before at this point.  

Okay, ‘Sugar Tax’ was a pretty emotional album with some lyrics that I’ll readily admit have made me cry more than once. But the tracks on ‘Liberator’ seem to reveal a much rawer side to this emotion than we’re used to as OMD fans. 

This brings me to our final word that I feel describes this album and its sentiment perfectly – ‘unorthodox’. Not in the wider sense, perhaps (although maybe referencing specific porn stars does one track a little in that bracket), but more in comparison to the band’s previous releases.

Yes, ‘Sugar Tax’ can be a difficult album to listen to if you are in a particular state of mind, as are various OMD tracks with a similarly desolate feel on previous albums (‘The Beginning and The End’, ‘Of All The Things We’ve Made’, ‘The Avenue’ etc.)

The big difference, however, is that all these previous emotional, ‘sad’ songs have something romantic about them too. And I don’t mean ‘romantic’ in the sense of describing giving someone flowers, or showering them with kisses at any given opportunity. I mean romantic as in delivered through the warm tinge of rose-coloured spectacles – things are bad but they’re not so bad, things are bad but we had good times once, things are bad but listen to those glorious synths and choir sounds rising out of nowhere like they could carry you straight to heaven and back. 

There is nothing romantic about most of the music on ‘Liberator’.  A cold, unforgiving, near-relentless barrage of varying emotional sentiments? Yes. A sense of romanticism throughout? Not so much.

And yes, I think that non-conformist stance ‘Liberator’ takes in comparison to OMD’s previous releases is what makes it unpopular amongst many fans. 

It’s too raw. Too volatile. Too uncertain. Too unsettled. Too real. 

The aim of this article wasn’t to try and persuade you that ‘Liberator’ is OMD’s best album musically, because frankly, I don’t believe it is. 

But what I have tried to do is persuade you how much the album encapsulates the transitional nature of the time in which it was released – and in many ways isn’t that what an album is supposed to do? Is that not its purpose? To capture a moment or place in time like a musical photograph, whether that’s the particular place an artist is in with their music, or where society is in that moment?

If that is indeed so, which I believe it is, then ‘Liberator’ does the job perfectly. 

———

Just a note to say thanks for reading if you made it this far! Thanks for Sarah and Barry too for the opportunity to write this blog – I had an enormous amount of fun writing this article and I hope it was enjoyable to read.

See you next time!

Written by Imogen Bebb 02/2020