The poor bastard from Bell Cablemedia never knew what hit him.
There he was, wandering around London in 1996, quietly canvassing my neighbourhood to see who'd be interested in signing up for cable TV once all the infrastructure had been laid. And he knocks on my door. By that time, I'd been living there for six years, and getting more and more frustrated with the lousy quality of the terrestrial television signal I'd been getting. I pounced on the cable guy like a bored housewife on a hot milkman, and within half an hour I'd signed all the paperwork.
In the subsequent 13 years, my cable service has been taken over by Cable and Wireless, then NTL, then Virgin Media, and it's now something I take for granted. But back then, the extra few dozen channels were a revelation, particularly the music ones. (Even things like CMT or The Landscape Channel, neither of which lasted very long on Bell.) So alongside the Mark Radcliffe show on Radio 1, music television - though not, surprisingly, Music Television - became my other way of discovering what was new on the scene. Which may explain why the selections on my 1996 compilation look a little more interesting, compared with the rather predictable Britpop glut of 1995. See what you think, anyway.
1. PET SHOP BOYS – Discoteca/Single (from Bilingual, Parlophone) (video)
Hay una discoteca por acqui? If anyone was capable of making a song with the chorus 'is there a disco near here?' sound sadder than a sackful of drowning kittens, it'd be the Pet Shop Boys. Actually, this is the sort of cheat I pull off once every few years in these compilations: using two consecutive tracks from the same album because I can't bear to tear them apart. Although, to be fair, this is a proper segue that reprises the first song at the end of the second. Discoteca uses my favourite size of percussion ensemble, 'ludicrously overstaffed', to counterpoint the melancholy of its narrator alone in a foreign country: while Single looks at the upside of the anonymity of the long-distance businessman, in one of the PSB's occasional attempts at satire.
2. THE DIVINE COMEDY – Becoming More Like Alfie (from Casanova, Setanta) (video)
If The Divine Comedy could ever be said to have achieved mainstream success, then this was around the point where it started to happen. Neil Hannon's first two albums were made with a small bunch of collaborators, but Casanova was the first one where The Divine Comedy could actually be considered a band. What turned them into a force to be reckoned with was Joby Talbot, keyboardist and arranger, who gave Hannon's delusions of grandeur a degree of actual grandeur. His songs are lifted to a whole other level as a result, whether they're huge overblown epics or tight little hey-where-did-the-third-verse-go? pop nuggets like Alfie.
3. R.E.M. - Leave (from New Adventures In Hi-Fi, Warner) (video)
Revisiting these songs years after I decided they were the best of their year has turned out to be very educational at times, and here's a good example. When it comes to R.E.M., I shamelessly tend to like the albums that everyone else likes. Hi-Fi may not necessarily be one of the records that's stood the test of time, but I've always liked Leave... or so I thought. Listening to the 2008 live rendition at the video link above, it turns out what I really liked was the two-note siren noise running all the way through the studio version. Without that, it's just a rather dull song. Whereas, say, Losing My Religion sounds great no matter how you arrange it.
4. PRIMITIVE RADIO GODS – Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand (from Rocket, Sony) (video)
The phrase 'one-hit wonder' is going to turn up several times on this page. A consequence of using music video as a primary tool for discovering songs, or something else? To be honest, I don't really remember seeing this Primitive Radio Gods video before, so I guess the song must have been all over the wireless at the time. It's the contrast that makes it work, I think: the full-on passion of the BB King sample against the emotionless, um, everything else on the record. To be honest, it amazed me to discover they're still going, because I could barely make it through the rest of their album.
5. NEARLY GOD – Poems (from Nearly God, Durban Poison) (video)
Oops. When I wrote about the 1994 tape, I wondered out loud why Terry Hall had never appeared again on these compilations before or since. Turns out I'd forgotten he could be found here, providing a guest verse on another one of Tricky's doped-down paranoiafests. Nearly God was Tricky's collaborative side project, making this his third consecutive appearance on these tapes. Shockingly, I've never got around to acknowledging the huge contribution that Martina Topley-Bird's vocals have made in all three cases. Consider this an apology.
6. WHITE TOWN – Your Woman (from Abort, Retry, Fail?, Parasol) (video)
Yeah, got that? Pick Of The Year 1996, not 1997. I bought this song when it was on White Town's independent EP, not the major label re-release that got them a number one hit early the following year. Like Primitive Radio Gods, it's another song where old sample meets new deadpan, but this one seems to have held up surprisingly well 13 years later. Jyoti Mishra is still making music, and appears to be wryly amused whenever people remember him as That Guy Who Made That Record.
7. SHANE MACGOWAN AND THE POPES – Christmas Lullaby (from Christmas Party EP '96, Warner) (video)
This one's just here because of pure sentimentality on my part, I'm sure. Shane MacGowan was on the verge of permanently losing it at this point: he'd spent two years working on a followup to his debut solo album The Snake, and it'd be another year before we finally got to hear that. In the meantime, this shameless stopgap single tries to evoke memories of his finest hour, with a vocal that's barely coherent and lyrics that are no longer agile enough to pull off the switches between starving children and exploding Christmas trees. I might have fallen for it at the time, but very few other people did. No, I won't be seeing The Pogues play live this Christmas, since you ask.
8. CHEMICAL BROTHERS – Setting Sun (from single Setting Sun, Virgin) (video)
No Oasis this year: instead, we have Noel Gallagher doing his best Beatles copyist vocal on a Chemical Brothers track that really, really wants to be Tomorrow Never Knows. In fact, at a few of their live gigs it actually became Tomorrow Never Knows: most notably at the Oasis 1996 Knebworth gig where the Chemicals played support. Anyway, its lopsided groove makes for a fine old filthy racket, the sort of thing you'd expect to be soundtracking car chases in hipper action movies. The only place I can ever recall hearing it in a film, though, is in the trailer for A Life Less Ordinary. (That strangely appears to be the second reference to the film in this article. You missed the first one? Look harder.)
1. UNDERWORLD – Born Slippy (from Trainspotting: Original Soundtrack, EMI) (video)
With all these references to A Life Less Ordinary, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was Danny Boyle's big film at the time. But that was a year or so later: in 1996, he was more preoccupied with a little thing called Trainspotting. I remember seeing it on its opening night and being thrilled to buggery by the climax, watching Renton trying to steal that bag of cash from a sleeping Begbie precisely at the moment that Born Slippy's kick drum comes in louder than God. I literally walked straight out of the cinema and straight into a record shop, buying the soundtrack album almost entirely for that one song. I've liked lots of what Underworld have done since, but I'd imagine they're all well aware that this song tweaked the nipples of the zeitgeist more strongly than anything else they'll ever do. No amount of non-ironic appropriation by lagered lagered lagered shouty lads can ever take that away from them.
2. NICK CAVE & PJ HARVEY – Henry Lee (from Murder Ballads, Mute) (video)
Recorded during that brief period when Nick and Polly were an item, and it looked like they were going to become a Goth Sonny & Cher. (Makes me wish I'd been around for this, frankly.) Henry Lee is one of Cave's loveliest tunes - so good he used it twice - and Harvey gives it an extra layer of sweetness, even as she's singing about hacking someone to bits with a knife. Sadly, no audio record exists on the interweb of Mark and Lard's Man City-centric update, Franny Lee, so you'll just have to play the original and sing along to it.
3. LUSH – Ladykillers (from Lovelife, 4AD) (video)
Compared to last year, we're definitely low on British boys playing guitars. Will British girls playing guitars do as a compromise? Of course it will. Fun, feisty and feminist - note the whiny complaints about the latter by adolescent virgins on the YouTube link - Ladykillers stands up for me as Lush's finest hour. Like Elastica, they were another one of those bands where I didn't like the one you were supposed to fancy as much as the other one. Or is that me missing the point of the song there?
4. FUGEES – Ready Or Not (from The Score, Columbia) (video)
Yeah, everyone knows what the Fugees sounded like back in 1996. I have no idea what this is doing on this tape, though. I can only assume that the mental image of Nina Simone defecating on a microphone was what swung it for me, and for that I apologise.
5. GOLDBUG – Whole Lotta Love (from single Whole Lotta Love, Acid Jazz) (video)
So it would appear that this was how you got yourself a one-off novelty hit in 1996: grab an old sample and build your entire song around it. Although Goldbug appeared to not quite get the hang of it, using a massively familiar sample from the Pearl & Dean theme and incorporating it into a cover of an even more famous song, completely bollocksing their chance of picking up any royalties. Also, unlike Primitive Radio God and White Town, there's nothing tentative about the way the band hurls themselves into it. The result was a damn fine single, also notable for its B-side Asteroid, which strips it all down to just the Pearl & Dean bit and a big fuckoff drum loop.
6. PATRA – Scent Of Attraction (from Scent Of Attraction, Sony) (video)
Now, can I fit Patra into my parade of 1996 one-hit wonders? Was Scent Of Attraction even a hit in the UK? I certainly know it was all over cable channel The Box, which was how I heard it in the first place. Back then, The Box was a jukebox channel, where you could call a premium rate phoneline and select a video to be played. Or, more accurately, a record company plugger with an expense account could call repeatedly and get their current priority track on air. (Also on heavy rotation around that time: this thing, many weeks before it even got released.) To be honest, Patra's collaboration with Aaron Hall is nearly indistinguishable from most smooth-to-the-point-of-unlistenable R&B: what really sets it apart and gives it a rough edge is her filthy Jamaican gob, yelling rudeness all over it.
7. THE CURE – Gone! (from Wild Mood Swings, Fiction) (video)
This strand of Spank Gold has been covering five years worth of old compilation tapes from 1993 to 1997. And of all the tracks I selected in those five years, this has been the only one where in 2009 I've stared at the title on a sleeve and been totally unable to recall what the hell it sounded like. Turns out it's The Cure in one of their more upbeat moods, which is always a pleasant thing to hear. Although the lyrics do give you pause for thought: if your life's reached the kind of low point where you have to be told to cheer up and pull yourself together by Robert Smith from The Cure, there's probably really no hope for you.
8. THE BLUE NILE – Family Life (from Peace At Last, Warner) (video)
1996 was the year when POTY patron Lou stopped being my work colleague and started just being my mate, as he moved on to pastures new. He was responsible for my musical awakening in a couple of major areas - my adoration of Tom Waits and The Blue Nile are both essentially his fault. I remember that at his leaving do, one of the topics of conversation was that the Nile had just announced the release of their first album in eight years. Peace At Last turned out to be a beautiful piece of work, with Family Life at its heartbreaking core. I don't think I've ever been so emotionally overwhelmed by a pause in a lyric before ("Jesus, you..."). Just in case you're counting, as of November 2009 the total number of albums released by the Nile since Peace At Last is currently precisely one.
9. SUEDE – The Chemistry Between Us (from Coming Up, Nude) (video)
To finish off with, some more old favourites coming back in the wake of a split: a bit of post-Butler Suede, which turns out to be a much more reliable proposition than post-Pogues MacGowan (or post-MacGowan Pogues, if we're honest). Sure, Brett Anderson's drug references are almost self-parodic by this point - "oh, class A, class B / is that the only chemistry / between us?" - but they're married to a tune that's so lovely you can forgive them anything. I'm prepared to admit that my continuing love for Suede in 1999 was probably as sentimental as my love for Shane MacGowan was in 1996, but this song still appears to be genuinely good.
So that's how my first year of cable television affected my taste in music. And if you're now stricken with nostalgia for defunct mid-90s telly, I won't mind if you pretend that the YouTube video playlist below is actually The Landscape Channel. Being a monkey, and all.