"Forget the centre: the margins are where the signals are coming from. Everything is velocity and disappearance and mutation." - Ian Penman, [the Phantoms of] TRICKNOLOGY [versus a Politics of Authenticity], The Wire, March 1995
"Maxinquaye is at once a feast of androgyny and a forward-looking, hot/cold example of what can happen when technology is pushed to extremes. You get so disorientated you forget yourself and blissfully lose your mind." - Dele Fedele, NME, February 1995
Yes, yes, yes, Britpop, battle of the bands, Oasis and Blur on News at Ten. 1995. It was fun. It felt like a big deal. And if you'd have asked me at the time I'd have said I was on Blur's side, though on reflection Country House is a rotten single, probably worse than Oasis's Roll With It which it beat to number one (now if it had been The Universal that would have been a different matter. Not even Scottish Gas have totally killed the attractions of that song).
But even at the time I didn't really like either band that much (Pulp and Suede were my Britpop bands of choice) and the Britpop pups who were following in their wake were mostly awful.
More than that, it was becoming increasingly clear that the "patriotic fervour" Simon Reynolds identified that year was the very reason why Britpop was doomed. Doomed to end in self-congratulatory, ultimately banal attempts to imitate the Beatles. Doomed to endlessly recycle the sounds of the sixties but with little of the ambition and sonic adventure of that earlier time. Another example of rock's innate conservatism.
In fact let's go further. Let's suggest that 1995 was not the high point but the death knell of what we might call NME rock. Yes, Oasis's Knebworth apotheosis was still in the future and Blur still had some of their best records to make, but after 1995 it's increasingly difficult to take guitar bands seriously. The noise they make starts to sound backward-looking, middle-aged. Dad rock, as it would soon be called. Guitars were not the future. Increasingly they weren't even the present.
Take the case of Radiohead. Theirs has been one of the great musical journeys - if you'll allow me use of the word du jour - of the last 20 years.
In many ways they've been retreating from the mainstream since their 1995 album The Bends, bravely seeking out new sounds; new to them at any rate. And yet every time their name comes up I can't help thinking of British football bravely trying to change direction while European and Latin American football has morphed and morphed and morphed again in the meantime.
Radiohead have dabbled with post-rock and jazz and found sounds and you can applaud the effort, you can hail it as adventurous, even avant garde. But it's a very 20th-century notion of the avant garde. It looked dated and sounded flat-footed, compared to what was happening at the same time in 21st century R&B. (Plus, if I'm honest I still like The Bends more than anything they've done since.)
And so in 1995 you can look at the high number of guitar bands on the list as a kind of final flourish. They'll not disappear. There are more singles from Ash to come that still make me giddily happy and maybe the odd Manics single (though they're now edging into their classic rock-equals-dull post Nicky Wire era). But they're throwbacks really. A much loved, familiar sound that's comforting but doesn't seem cutting edge any more.
But that's okay. There's plenty more to be getting on with.
"People use the word 'chaotic' a lot," Tricky laughs, as he settles himself in an armchair and immediately begins dismantling a cigarette, "but the records only sound chaotic because I honestly don't know what I'm doing. Technically, I'm totally naive, and emotionally, I'm f----- up. The music is just a way to try and work out what is going on inside my head." - Sean O'Hagan, The Face, February 1995
If anyone asks me what my favourite album is I usually point out that the single is the true currency of pop music. But if they insist then I'll probably tell them it's Tricky's Maxinquaye. There are others that jostle it from time to time - Pet Sounds, The Lexicon of Love, Hatful of Hollow and Homogenic are the ones on the tip of my tongue today - but Maxinquaye's narcotic, erotic textures and the way its energies switch from wired to blunted in an instant, keep snagging me, keep dragging me in, dragging me under.
It's an insular, immersive record. Sometimes submersive. An album that's drowning, not waving, one that takes the trip-hip blueprint laid down by Massive Attack's Blue Lines and dirties it up, rubs it in grit and grime, covers it in fear and desire.
Jon Savage recognised the strange, disorientating power of the thing when it came out. Reviewing it in Mojo in March 1995 he said: "This is a brilliant record: densely layered, full of barely controlled nervous energy, paranoid under surveillance, at times more intimate than you'd wish - like an eavesdropped conversation between estranged lovers. Extrapolating from the intensely personal to the universal, Maxinquaye functions as a emotional litmus paper - blue for deep, dysfunctional depression ("brain wants me to"), red for transforming anger."
It's the personal I like most. The sense that we're inside Tricky's head, those whispered, slurred half-raps that rattle through you, that imply a consummation waiting to explode ("My brain thinks bomblike"), the music circling, the female voices (mostly his then partner Martina Topley-Bird) offering consolations and come-ons.
Twist my arm and I'd say it works best on Pumpkin, which in fact features vocals from a pre-Goldfrapp Alison Goldfrapp and a sample from the Smashing Pumpkins's track Suffer. It's a song - a texture - that sounds like the aftermath of something (sex? drugs? both?). You can feel the rumple of sheets, smell the nicotine fug, sense the late night ticking into early-morning (or maybe it's late afternoon drifting towards the dark), feel the intoxicating suffocation ("I can't breathe," Tricky speaks, the scratch of the thought there in his voice ), the suffocating intoxication ("I smell of she") that's at work between two people. Is this hell or heaven? It depends ...
"I see no colour," he declares roundly. "I never have done. I can honestly say that I am way beyond that, which is why it scared the life out of me when all the fuss about Maxinquaye started - realising that as a black artist, you're either a rapper or a soul singer, and I didn't want to be just either of those things. I wanted to be a musician". - Tricky as told to Ben Thompson, Ways of Hearing, (Gollancz), 1998
In 1995 Ian Penman - who along with Paul Morley were either the demons or the messiahs of early eighties NME rock writers (I'm in the latter camp) - wrote an essay about Tricky in which he talked of a conversation with Mark Stewart that followed Penman's criticism of the "maudlin & dopey materialism" of the Pop Group's We Are All Prostitutes. But how do you speak politically in song, Stewart asked him? Penman says he "sketchily described - an Ideal Song in which any political inclination could only be registered as a trace of confusion or ambiguity; that if politics was daily ruined for us by being dully ground out in the language of Authority then any counter-cultural motion must find an ENTIRELY NEW language. He said: well, what examples do you have of this? I had to say: none, really, because what I describe is a dreamed song, and there just aren't any real ones around, at the moment. Sorry.
"Last year, when I heard Tricky's astonishing 'Aftermath' (additional vcls: Mark Stewart), I knew that conversation had somehow come home to roost."
I like the tenor of Penman's argument here, the sense of sound as revolutionary in and of itself. And I like to think that my love of Tricky carries - unacknowledged but present - that desire for a "new language". A fusion of song and texture. A sense of an alternative that goes beyond pop's default liberal humanism.
You can see the limits of the latter at play in one of the other contenders for this year's choice. Miss Sarajevo was U2 - in the guise of Passengers - singing about the way the Balkan conflict had destroyed normality in Bosnia. It's a gesture of solidarity and is as heartfelt and pretty as the Dublin band have ever sounded.
But what elevates it, what makes it the best thing they've ever done is the way the U2-y bits suddenly swell and split and Luciano Pavarotti's voice soars through the gap. It stretches the song way beyond its politics. Maybe, you could say that's because I don't understand what Pavarotti is singing of course, but I'd argue that it's the noise of the opera singer that takes us beyond newspaper headlines and politics, takes us somewhere else. Not a new language in this case, but a reappropriation of an old language.
I'm scratching around here to try to explain why Tricky's Pumpkin grips me so much, trying to locate my love of it within Penman's essay. Maybe that's too much of a stretch. My thoughts are more inchoate, less focused than Penman's. But in the end it's the impressionism of the song - the whole album - that fascinates me, the sense that we are seeing what Tricky is seeing, seeing through his eyes.
Compare Pumpkin to the euphoria of, say, Born Slippy, and you might damn it for its insularity. But that's the very thing that I respond to. We are now entering inner space.
The Universal, Blur
McAlmont & Butler, Yes
Born Slippy, Underworld
Common People, Pulp
Gangsta's Paradise, Coolio
In the Name of the Father, Black Grape
Hell is Round the Corner, Tricky
Glory Box, Portishead
Fake Plastic Trees, Radiohead
Miss Sarajevo, Passengers
Wake Up, Boo!, The Boo Radleys
You Oughta Know, Alanis Morrissette
1979, Smashing Pumpkins
Girl From Mars, Ash
I Want You, Madonna
Down By the Water, PJ Harvey
Army of Me, Bjork
Your Loving Arms, Billie Ray Martin
The Bomb (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind), Bucketheads
Finlay's Rainbow, A Guy Called Gerald
NME Single of the Year: Reverend Black Grape: Black Grape
John Peel's Festive 50 Winner: Common People, Pulp
And the best-selling single of 1995: Unchained Melody/White Cliffs ..., Robson & Jerome