Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Sound Familiar?

Who Are They?
A group of anarchists from the UK who managed to churn out one of the most popular songs of the ‘90s.

Chumbawamba began as Skin Disease, a parody of the Oi! punk bands of the time. Once the band changed its name to Chumbawamba, it became one of the forerunners of the ‘80s anarcho-punk movement. (Just remember, these are the guys who brought you “Tubthumping.”)

Chumbawamba’s first few releases were politically-charged punk records. Their first LP, 1986’s Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, was a critique of the Live Aid concert. How can you critique something like Live Aid, you ask? Well, Chumbawamba argued that the concert was primarily a “cosmetic spectacle” designed to draw attention away from the real political causes of world hunger. Makes sense, right?

If criticizing Live Aid wasn’t radical enough for you, let me direct your attention to the band’s second album, 1987’s Never Mind the Ballots…Here’s the Rest of Your Lives. That one questioned the validity of the British democratic system and mocked the charity campaign of popstar supergroup Ferry Aid.

So when did Chumbawamba start writing catchy pop songs about “pissing the night away?"

By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, our anarchist heroes had begun to absorb influences from techno music and rave culture (because everyone had a rave phase in the ‘90s). They moved away from their anarcho-punk roots and displayed their pop sensibilites with 1990’s Slap! and 1992’s Shhh.

After signing to indie label One Little Indian in 1994, Chumbawamba revisited their anarchist roots with the appropriately titled Anarchy. The band parted with the label less than two years later and made the controversial decision to move to major label EMI. Like every other band that has opted for a major label (Green Day and Soundgarden, for example), Chumbawamba was met with animosity from fans. (And when your fans are also anarchists, things can get a little more intense.)

Fellow anarcho-punk band Oi Polloi took the so-called “selling out” thing to heart and released an “anti-Chumbawamba” EP called Bare Faced Hypocrisy Sells Records. But Chumbawamba stayed firm with their decision, claiming that the move brought with it the opportunity to spread the band’s message to a wider audience.

What message they were trying to across in “Tubthumping” was anybody’s guess. The karaoke hit was Chumbawamba’s highest charting single and prompted thousands of drunken bar patrons to shout, “I get knocked down, but I get up again!”

But the band didn’t let mainstream success get in the way of their anarchist attitudes. During an appearance on American political talk show Politically Incorrect in 1998, vocalist/drummer Alice Nutter told fans to steal Tubthumping from large chains like Virgin. Well, Virgin didn’t really appreciate that, so the chain began removing the album from shelves and selling it from behind the counter.

Where Are They Now?
Still churning out albums (and a musical)!

After the “Tubthumping” hype died down at the end of the ‘90s, Chumbawamba left EMI and formed their own record label, MUTT.

In 2002, the band released Readymades, an album that mixed samples of folk music and dance beats.

That same year, General Motors paid Chumbawamba $100,000 to use their song “Pass It Along” for a Pontiac Vibe ad. Much to everyone’s surprise, the band agreed, but ended up giving the money they received to anti-corporate activist groups.

And what did those groups do with the cash? Why, they launched an information and environmental campaign against GM. Ah, those clever anarchists.

Subsequent releases Un, A Singsong and a Scrap, and The Boys Bands Have Won were a little more on the folksy side. After a few more tours, the lineup began to change.

As of right now, there are five members of Chumbawamba (that number has fluctuated since the band formed in 1982). Former members have gone on to work in the film industry, like former vocalist Dunstan Bruce. He founded Dandy Films, an independent film and video company in the UK.

Alice Nutter and former drummer Harry Hamer collaborated on a handful of musical dramas, most notably 2006’s Love and Petrol and 2008’s Where’s Vietnam?. Both of them continue to work in theater.

But Why Chumbawamba?
Believe it or not, this band still churns out albums. They also churn out musicals now, apparently. While the musical has yet to surface, Chumbawamba went ahead and made a soundtrack for it anyway. It’s called Chumbawamba & Red Ladder Present: Big Society! and it was released back in January of this year. So hopefully we’ll have a real musical to go along with the soundtrack sometime soon.

What Does Sam Think?
In terms of commercial appeal, Chumbawamba is definitely a one-hit-wonder band. Don’t lie to me and say that you’re hoarding their entire discography in your attic because, let’s face it, you probably didn’t know they had more than two albums until today.

I was aware that these guys were huge anarchists before I wrote this entry, but I had no idea they had such a rich history. The sections above are condensed accounts of Chumbawamba’s adventures throughout the years because I know nobody would read the novel I could have written.

That said, it’s very unusual for a one-hit-wonder band to keep on keepin’ on after the success of their one hit. It’s normal for that kind of band to release a couple more albums before calling it quits, but dropping album after album a decade after your popularity diminishes? That takes dedication.

While I really can’t analyze Chumbawamba’s 17-album discography (yes, I said 17), I can always comment on “Tubthumping.”

The song is pretty simplistic, even for a punk band. But at the same time, it’s not surprising that it was written by a bunch of anarchists.

Why? Well, look at the lyrics:

I get knocked down, but I get up again.
No, you’re never gonna keep me down.

How punk rock is that for you? As catchy as “Tubthumping” is, it’s really a song about being oppressed. I have a feeling that the band knew the appeal the song would have and used that as a way to spread their message. The message wasn’t that everyone should be an anarchist; the message was that you shouldn’t let someone or something hold you down.

So that middle-aged drunk guy slurring “Tubthumping” at karaoke night may actually be a victim of oppression. Or maybe he just really likes embarrassing himself.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Backstreet Boys

Sound Familiar?

“Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” “I Want It That Way,” “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely”

Who Are They?

Only one of the biggest boy bands to ever exist (One Direction who?).

Way back in 1992, big-time producer Lou Pearlman (known as “Big Poppa” to his clients, a name that should only be reserved for Biggie Smalls) placed an ad in the Orlando Sentinel announcing auditions for a boy band. After hundreds of auditions, Lou settled on A.J. McLean, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough and Brian Littrell. The name Backstreet Boys was Lou’s idea, as was the venue for the band’s first ever gig (SeaWorld in Orlando…really?).

The band’s first single, 1995’s “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” was only a minor success in the US, but those crazy Europeans loved it (as is usually the case). Because of the initial European success, the Backstreet Boys’ promotion was shifted to Europe.

The eponymous first album was released internationally (with the exception of the US and Canada) in 1996. The album immediately went platinum in Germany and the boys became one of the most successful debut artists in the world.

“Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” the first single from their debut US album, managed to climb as high as #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The US debut was something of a mish-mash of the band’s first two international albums (for once, the States got all the leftovers). Both self-titled debuts sold over 28 million copies combined.

Meanwhile, in 1997, Brian Littrell filed a lawsuit against good ol’ Lou “Big Poppa” Pearlman, claiming that the producer had not been truthful about the earnings made by the group. The rest of the band eventually joined the lawsuit, which resulted in a number of settlements.

During that legal mess, the Backstreet Boys began recording Millennium. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, sold over 1 million copies in its first week, broke the record for most shipments in one year, and became the best-selling album of 1999. (And you guys contributed to that success because I know for a fact that everyone has a copy of that album, whether you’ll admit to it or not.)

By October 1999, the band had struck one of the largest record deals ever (valued at $60 million) with Jive Records.

Where Are They Now?

Together again (minus Kevin Richardson) and stronger than ever.

In early 2000, the Backstreet Boys took a trip to the Bahamas to start writing songs for what would later become Black & Blue. To promote the album’s release in November of that year, the band traveled around the world in 100 hours (55 hours for traveling and 45 hours for public appearances). That’s dedication, people. Black & Blue ended up having the best international sales in a week for any album in history.

Though Black & Blue never matched the hype of the first two Backstreet Boys albums, it still enjoyed international success.

In 2002, the band expressed a strong desire to leave their management company (Nick Carter remained with the company to manage his solo career). Their relationship with Jive wasn’t any better. The band filed a $75-100 million lawsuit against Zomba Music Company (Jive’s parent company) claiming breach of contract. Basically, the label decided to promote Nick’s solo album at the expense of group. (This is a sign that the label considered Nick to be the poster boy of the band.)

On top of that, A.J. McLean visited Oprah in November 2003 to announce his addiction to alcohol and drugs. After A.J.’s appearance on the show, the band decided to put their differences aside and record a comeback album.

That comeback album, 2005’s Never Gone, received some pretty harsh criticism from music publications (Rolling Stone gave it an extremely disappointing one star rating). Kevin Richardson left the band a year later to “pursue other interests.”

The Backstreet Boys released two more albums after Never Gone (2007’s Unbreakable and 2009’s This Is Us). Just when fans thought they had run out of steam, the boys announced a joint world tour with fellow boy band heartthrobs New Kids on the Block in 2010.

But Why Backstreet Boys?

Plans for recording a new album this year have been confirmed!

What Does Sam Think?

Ah, boy bands. The songs of Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were the soundtrack of my childhood. I’m sure you feel the same way (if you’re my age, that is).

Yes, the sweet nostalgia of singing “I Want It That Way” to my Backstreet Boys posters is hitting me all at once. Swooning over A.J. McLean and imagining he was singing to me…

Ahem. Sorry about that. Back to the point.

The Backstreet Boys were definitely more than just a nostalgia act. They possessed obvious talent and refused to be just another manufactured pop act. Of course they didn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking. Boy bands had been around for a while before these guys came around. The formula was pretty much set in stone by the mid-‘90s: Start a boy band, release a ton of catchy tracks, receive money and girls’ panties.

But we can’t forget that the Backstreet Boys weren’t the only heartthrobs taking the world by storm at this point. Does the name ‘N Sync ring a bell?

We can fight about who was better later (I personally preferred ‘N Sync, but I think that was because of Justin Timberlake and his sexy Ramen Noodle hair). The point is that both these bands, however silly they seem to us now, were an important part of the ‘90s.

I’m not going to argue that songs like “We Got It Goin’ On” had some profound hidden meaning or anything. The Backstreet Boys and other groups like them may have been making music they enjoyed, but when it comes to boy bands, it’s all about selling a product. And boy, did these guys sell well.

When you think back to the first band you ever loved, you’re probably thinking of one of these boy bands. Am I right? Of course there are exceptions (and liars), but let’s face it: You used to be obsessed with these guys. And after you got over that obsession, you discovered the bands you listen to today.

And before you judge little girls who go gaga for One Direction, just remember that you wanted to marry Nick Carter when you were 10 years old.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fiona Apple

Sound Familiar?

“Criminal,” “Sleep To Dream,” “Fast As You Can”

Who Is She?

One of the most influential brooding songstresses of the ‘90s.

Fiona Maggart (a.k.a. Fiona Apple) was born into a showbiz family. Her mother was a singer, her father was an actor, her older sister is currently a cabaret singer, and her half-brother is a film/music video director. Oh, and her maternal grandmother was a dancer in the 1920s, while her maternal grandfather was a multireedist and vocalist in the big band era.

So it wasn’t really that much of a surprise when Fiona wanted to become a professional musician.

In 1994, Fiona sent a demo tape with a friend to give to music publicist Kathryn Schenker, who then passed the tape along to Sony Music executive Andy Slater. Andy was so impressed with Fiona’s contralto voice, piano skills, and lyrics that he signed her immediately.

Fiona’s debut album Tidal was released in 1996. Fueled by the monster hit “Criminal,” Tidal went on to sell 2.7 million copies in the US.

But with huge success comes great controversy. The video for “Criminal” (directed by Mark Romanek) featured a scantily-clad, barely legal Fiona Apple in a ‘70s-era tract house the morning after a pretty intense house party. Because Fiona was only 19 at the time the video was released (and let’s not forget the multitude of virtually nude shots of her), critics and audiences were quick to call exploitation.

Funny thing is that was the plan all along.

“I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself,” Fiona told Spin in 1997.

But that was just the tip of iceberg in terms of controversy. When Fiona accepted the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 1997, she gave the audience an unexpected lecture that went a little something like this:

“This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying.”

The media immediately called her out about it, characterizing her speech as ungrateful and basically ridiculous. But Fiona was unapologetic. She stood her ground.

After the shenanigans surrounding Tidal and “Criminal” died down, Fiona released When the Pawn… in 1999. The full title of that album is actually a poem written by Fiona in response to a Spin article that cast her in a negative light. Here it is for your reading pleasure:

When the pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king
What he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight
And he’ll win the whole thing ‘fore he enters the ring
There’s no body to batter when your mind is your might
So when you go solo, you hold your own hand
And remember that depth is the greatest of heights
And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land
And if you fall it won’t matter, ‘cause you’ll know that you’re right

The title’s length earned it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2001 (that record was later broken in 2007 by Soulwax, then again in 2008 by Chumbawamba).

When the Pawn… was more experimental than Tidal and received overwhelming positive reviews. What is didn’t receive was the same commercial success as its predecessor.

Where Is She Now?

Prepping for her long-awaited fourth studio album to drop this summer.

After When the Pawn… fell short commercially, Fiona began recording its follow-up, Extraordinary Machine, in 2002. In 2004, tracks were leaked on the Internet in MP3 format and eventually found their way to US and international radio. By 2005, the entire album went online. When it reached P2P networks, it was all over.

But fans decided to start a campaign to support the album’s official release (you don’t see that every day). They originally believed that Epic Records had rejected the final version of Extraordinary Machine, but the truth was that Fiona was unhappy with the results.

After rerecording almost the entire album (with the exception of two tracks), Extraordinary Machine was officially released in 2005.

The official album made just about every music publication’s year-end list, with the exception of Pitchfork (is that really a surprise?). Pitchfork’s reason for hating on the album? The leaked tracks were better.

After the release of a few singles (including a super fantastic video for “Not About Love” featuring Zach Galifianakis), Fiona disappeared for a while. She released a handful of charity singles, but kept promising that a new album would drop in spring 2011. Spring 2011 actually means summer 2012, in case you were wondering.

During a show with Jon Brion in November 2011, Fiona revealed that the album had been done “for a fucking year.” Earlier this year, Epic Records announced that the album would be released in 2012. Last month, Fiona revealed the full title of the album: The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do. (I’m guessing this will be shortened to The Idler Wheel… by lazy publications).

But Why Fiona Apple?

Well, if you just read that last section, you’d know that she’s releasing The Idler Wheel… (yeah, I’m lazy) this year. In June, to be exact. Fiona also performed a killer set at this year’s SXSW Festival. And she performed new songs!

What Does Sam Think?

If you know me at all, you know I’m obsessed with this woman. Seriously. She’s basically my spirit animal (along with Gwen Stefani and PJ Harvey).

That said, I’m a little biased. Okay, extremely biased. But I’ll keep my fangirling to a minimum for this section.

Fiona represents a dying breed of female songwriters. We had this explosion of them in the ‘90s with Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, etc., then they kind of fell off the face of the earth once pop acts like Britney Spears came along. Female singer-songwriters still exist, but they’re (unfairly) overshadowed by overproduced, mediocre bullshit (sorry, did that sound bitter?).

So what makes Fiona a special snowflake? I mean, anyone can sing and play piano, right?

Fiona takes that to the next level. She’s obviously an accomplished pianist and her contralto voice is to die for, but it’s her lyrics that give her songs that extra punch. They’re deeply personal and effortlessly poetic (and this woman loves her poetry, as evidenced by her choices for album titles).

If you look at the lyrics from “Criminal” without knowing who wrote them, you’d be pretty impressed. What if I told you that song was written by a 19-year-old girl? The subject matter seems too mature for anyone under the age of 25, but Fiona makes us believe it.

On the same album (Tidal), we have an extremely personal song called “Sullen Girl,” which is about the trauma Fiona experienced after being raped at age 12. That track is so incredibly powerful, and not just because of subject matter. Fiona puts words to an experience that most victims wouldn’t be able to describe. The result is an account of a personal tragedy that moves the listener to tears.

Bottom line is that Fiona Apple is one of the most talented singer-songwriters of the ‘90s. She knows how to write simple songs with complicated subject matter and make them relatable (whether on purpose or by accident). She’s not concerned with what people think and she’s not afraid to speak her mind.

If you want a role model, girls, you’ve found one.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spice Girls

Sound Familiar?

“Wannabe,” “2 Become 1,” “Spice Up Your Life”

Who Are They?

Only the most popular girl group in the history of the world. (And the best-known pop act since John, Paul, George, and Ringo.)

Once upon a time in the mid-to-late-‘90s, the entire teen-band scene was saturated with boys. Though ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys came a couple years later, we still had bands like Take That and East 17 (if those aren’t ringing any bells, don’t worry about it). So father-and-son management team Bob and Chris Herbert decided it was time to create an all female pop group.

Enter Melanie Chisholm, Victoria Adams (Beckham), Emma Bunton, Melanie Brown and Geri Halliwell. Those five ladies survived auditions, callbacks, and endless renditions of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” to become Touch (isn’t that a terrible name?).

After a couple of showcases, it became apparent that the girls needed some work. Heart Management was pulling them in one direction, but the girls wanted to go in a completely different direction. Frustrated with the lack of a contract (and the sinking feeling that this project just wasn’t going anywhere), our heroines took matters into their own hands.

The group persuaded Bob Herbert to set up a showcase performance for a bunch of producers and industry bigwigs. Due to an overwhelmingly positive reaction, the Herberts quickly created a binding contract for the group (because who would want to let go of the Spice Girls?). The girls delayed signing the contract, and in March 1995, they left Heart Management. (Legend has it that they stole the master recordings of their discography from the management offices.)

After signing a management deal with 19 Entertainment and a record deal with Virgin Records, the group became the Spice Girls and released their debut album, Spice, in 1996.

Their debut single “Wannabe” became a global hit, hitting #1 in 31 countries. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, it’s the biggest selling debut single by an all-female group of all time.

Paul Gorman, contributing editor of Music Week, wrote a piece on the girls in July 1996 in which he predicted the end of Britpop and the rise of so-called “bubblegum” pop.

He wrote: “Just when boys with guitars threaten to rule pop life, an all-girl, in-yer-face pop group have arrived with enough sass to burst that rockist bubble.”

Was he right? The obvious answer is "yes."

After the Spice Girls conquered Europe with Spice, they went straight to the US, where their arrival was accurately compared to Beatlemania. Spice ended up winning a slew of awards and spawned four consecutive #1 hits, a feat previously accomplished by one other group in history (Jackson 5.)

So what does the biggest selling band in the world do its free time? Make a movie, of course! Spice World was released in 1997 alongside the album of the same name.

After the success of the film and the album, the Spice Girls fired their manager, Simon Fuller, which proved to be a bad move. Less than a year after the decision to ditch Simon, Geri Halliwell left the group. She claimed she was suffering from exhaustion, but the tabloids blamed her departure on a fight with Mel B.

Where Are They Now?

Officially broken up (put perhaps planning for a comeback soon?).

Despite Geri’s sudden exit (and Victoria and Mel B.’s pregnancies), the Spice Girls decided to release one more album, 2000’s Forever.

The album wasn’t nearly as successful as its predecessors, and in December 2000, the group announced that they were going on an indefinite hiatus.

But that wasn’t the end of the Spice Girls.

The Brit babes reunited in 2007 for a world tour (tickets for the first London date of the tour sold out in 38 seconds). No new album surfaced, but a handful of charity singles were released.

The comeback tour ended a year later, but in 2009, rumors about a second reunion (and a Spice Girls musical called Viva Forever) emerged.

But Why Spice Girls?

Because I can, that’s why. Also, they may be making yet another comeback this year. In January 2012, Mel B. hinted at the possibility of a reunion at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. Here’s to hoping it actually happens.

What Does Sam Think?

So I’m sure every girl who was alive in the ‘90s loved the Spice Girls. You may deny it now, but don’t lie to me and say that you didn’t know every word to “Wannabe” (even the “zigazig-a” part). You still have that song memorized. Admit it.

That said, it really doesn’t matter if the girls had real talent or not. They single-handedly changed the face of pop music. We went from Britpop bands like Blur and Oasis to bubblegum pop groups like the Spice Girls and the boy bands of the late-‘90s.

While not everyone was happy about the musical shift, you have to admire the sheer power behind it. The Spice Girls had one of the best marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen. This may sound like blasphemy, but they were The Beatles of the ‘90s. Yeah, they were created by a greedy management agency, but they escaped the mold made for them and went off in their own direction.

So let’s look at these girls as pop culture icons (because that’s exactly what they are).

Each girl took on a different persona in the group and each girl had her own look (Sporty Spice, Scary Spice, Baby Spice, Posh Spice, and Ginger Spice.) Those separate images set them apart as a group. Little girls everywhere could pick one member to identify with (even if that Spice Girl’s image wasn’t exactly true to her character.) You had a favorite Spice Girl and you know it (mine was Scary Spice.)

That marketing technique grabbed the attention of preteen girls. That's is a good and bad thing. On one hand, it plays with a more mainstream idea of feminism. You (as a preteen girl) can be any kind of girl you want: scary, posh, sporty, etc. The group also preached the “Girl Power!” slogan. In essence, the Spice Girls kind of made girls like being girls.

But of course you have feminists who claim that the Spice Girls were an embarrassment to the idea of feminism. For example, you can be proud to be a girl, but only if you identify as posh, sporty, etc. You can’t just be you.

I personally think the Spice Girls served as decent role models for little girls. They weren't as in-your-face as the Riot Grrrl bands, but they weren't nearly as sexualized as later pop acts (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera.) They kind of pushed Britpop into a corner, though. I’m not too happy about that. But they had a lasting affect on music. Now that we have pop groups like the Pussycat Dolls or what have you, I really find myself missing the days of watching Spice World and singing along to “Wannabe” at slumber parties.

Friendship lasts forever, guys.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.