A Woman On The Radio Talks About A Revolution

Two albums that came out in 1991 from British bands were outliers in what I liked that year. This was a year when popular rock music was in transition from hair bands to grunge. Grunge bands though being played in medium rotation on college radio was bubbling under the surface of the American rock scene but would not break through until later in the year. Hair bands were still touring, popular on commercial radio and MTV and releasing new albums but their influence and dominance was about to come to an abrupt end.

In between the the two camps of rock music being hair bands and what would come to be grunge there was room for these hybrid bands such as EMF and Jesus Jones that made their way onto MTV, commercial radio and into my own then eighteen-year old music rotation at home and in my car in the spring and early summer of 1991.

At the outset of 1991 the hair bands were in firm control of rock music but by the late summer momentum was turning towards the new sound of grunge bands and by fall it was down to a full out battle between the old and new sounds.

The rock music landscape in what would be a pivotal year for the genre was in a tug of war between the hair bands and the upstart bands that would become the faces of grunge. Skid Row released their sophomore album, Slave To The Grind, in June which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 indicating that there was still plenty of enthusiasm for their music. Metallica's "black album" came out in August and it also reached number one on the Billboard 200 that year too. I was never a Metallica fan so I never even noticed it. Instead it would be another album by another band that came out that same month that caught my attention.

The Revolution In Rock Music Was On

Pearl Jam released their landmark album Ten in August and had their first commercial hit with the song Alive. One month later Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit and the monumental album Nevermind in September. Rock audiences began to snap up these two albums and explore them deeper and everyone was being bombarded by Smells Like Teen Spirit on MTV.  The world of rock was changing.

But the hair bands were not to go so quietly as Gun N' Roses would see the peak of their success and excess by releasing two albums in September, Use Your Illusion I & II. 1991 was the year they released grossly epic music videos that were more like self indulgent short films. November Rain was ridiculous in every way. They were a band drunk on themselves but audiences still bought up both albums but I had no interest in them whatsoever. Use Your Illusion II would reach number one on the charts and Use Your Illusion I would see number two. Despite their success Gun N' Roses was on the way down from here after their masturbatory albums of excess left them blind to what they should have seen from the corners of their eyes.

September was also the month that Alice In Chains' 1990 album Facelift went gold. If you had to pinpoint when the rock music landscape changed from glam and leather to flannel among teenagers it would be either August or September of 1991. The success of Gun N' Roses' two albums might have been the apex of the glam and leather fever but their excess was what helped to break it thankfully.

Bands such as Bon Jovi that had ruled the charts in the 1980s  couldn't transition to the new sound of the 1990s. By 1991 it had been three years since their last album and even though I had loved them and went to see them in concert on their New Jersey tour in 1989 their sound was so out of touch to what I craved that I never listened to them again. Other bands like Motley Crue put out a greatest hits album and Poison released a concert album in the fall but both bands couldn't sound more stale by 1991.

The future of rock's new sound continued to evolve as Soundgarden's album Badmotorfinger came out in October.

I might have been mesmerized by Nevermind and Ten but I did take notice when U2's Achtung Baby came out in November that year. Established bands like R.E.M. which had a number one album with Out Of Time in 1991 and U2 would adapt their sound and be able to remain popular in the alternative 90s.

Meanwhile, EMF and Jesus Jones managed to find success in the middle of the two rock camps with a sound influenced by the beats of dance music. The rock guitar was still there but less so than their American counterparts. These were two bands listened to for a good time and to dance along with, not bang your head but yet it was still rock.

In the U.S. in 1991 there was not much current British rock on American radio other than the Cure who had had phenomenal success with Disintegration in 1989 so there was a void of British rock bands at the time. The success of EMF and Jesus Jones in 1991 might have helped pave the way for Oasis (Definitely Maybe) and Blur (Parklife) to be successful stateside in 1994.

These were not great albums from beginning to end but they did have catchy songs that were able to find a place with American audiences and my ears. EMF had their number one hit with Unbelievable and Jesus Jones' album Doubt would have two top five hits in the United States with Right Here, Right Now and Real, Real, Real.

Screen cap from EMF's Unbelievable music video.

EMF's Unbelievable from Schubert Dip was the more dance oriented of the hit songs of these two bands. It had a raucous beat, a prominent base line in the mix, samples and keyboards pushing an uptempo song. The song is relentless in its tempo but it does have some hard breaks and even a guitar solo in it. The music video was like watching a rave with the band members dancing on stage, the swirling lights and the crowd dancing to the song. This song was a complete left turn from anything else on commercial rock radio at the time. The song was one big good time.

Unfortunately the rest of Schubert Dip was a let down. Only the song Lies was of half-interest to me. So EMF caught lightning in a bottle with Unbelievable and they had no staying power in the American rock scene. The album released in May 1991 would reach number twelve on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and they would never achieve that success again.

Jesus Jones' album Doubt also recorded in 1990 like Schubert Dip and released in 1991. It would climb to number twenty-seven on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart but it would produce more than one hit song. Of the two albums Doubt was the better one as it featured more skillful songwriting and had a more cohesive sound. Of the two bands Jesus Jones would have seemed to be a more sustainable band but like EMF they never managed to have prolonged success in the United States. The window that had quickly opened for them while rock was transitioning in 1991 would just as quickly close as grunge took over.

Right Here, Right Now was a song that was perfectly timed at the beginning of the new decade. It captured the sentiment of the time that was about hope and a sense of change that was flowering in the air. After the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the failures of communism at the end of the 1980s hope for a brighter future was evident. The song opens with the line, "A woman on the radio talks about a revolution, when it's already passed her by." That line is quite funny because it speaks to differences of how some (the media, the older generation, the powers that be) are finally catching on after the revolution has already happened and the new generation is taking control. Rock music was ready to take that cue too and it would happen in 1991.

This song is a celebration and makes a wise observation of that change in the world with lines such as, "I saw the decade end, when it seemed the world could change at the blink of an eye and if anything, then there's your sign of the times." I felt that way, I felt that the world was changing and mostly for the better. The Cold War was over and it no longer captured our imaginations in a slurry of fear. Anything was possible and many of us in the United States were getting ready to put our faith into a candidate from Hope, Arkansas in October 1991 named Bill Clinton.

Screen cap from the video for Right Here, Right Now.

Right Here, Right Now touched on the mood of so many of us that year that it hit number one of the modern rock chart and number two on the Billboard Hot 100. The music video for the song was just made for the MTV generation as it employs clips of actual news events projected onto a wall while the lead singer sits on a sofa watching the world change. MTV played that video so often you could not avoid seeing it several times a day that spring and summer.

EMF and Jesus Jones would never achieve the level of success as they did in 1991 but they did leave us with a few hits that are still worthy of listening to today.

The brief success and my liking of these two bands prove that I and other teenagers were ready for something other than glam and leather rock. Little did I know that while I was enjoying EMF and Jesus Jones, a band I had never heard of called Nirvana was in the studio that spring recording Nevermind. As much as I loved rock music I never could get into Skid Row or Metallica and I was tired of Bon Jovi, Poison and Motley Crue. Lord knows my friends were pushing Skid Row on me since 1989 but I never liked them. Thankfully bands such Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains were there to take the reigns of rock if only for a brief few years. It was an exciting time in rock music and one I wish we could experience at least one more time in my life.