The 50-pound man had a field day on September 24, 1991. Making his annual trip to Our Price (younger readers: imagine a Spotify home screen you can walk around, but without having anyone putting albums and compilations you haven’t asked for into your basket when you’re not looking), this legend of the music marketing release plan snaffled up the new album he was there to buy – Bryan Adams’ ‘Waking Up The Neighbours’, knowing that dick – and began browsing arguably the greatest ‘this week’s releases’ rack in history.
Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’. Pixies’, ‘Trompe Le Monde’. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’. A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal ‘The Low End Theory’. And an eye-catching platter from this new ‘gunge’ band his orthodontist had been going on about: ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana. Who knows how many beige trouser budgets were broken into that year.
Looking through a timeline full of 30th anniversaries of such classic albums this week, it’s tempting to think that the tail-end of September in 1991 was the best time for music buying ever. Besides all the aforementioned monsters hitting the shelves at once, the album chart creaked beneath the weight of Guns N’ Roses’ dual ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums, Talk Talk’s ‘Laughing Stock’, ‘Foxbase Alpha’ by St. Etienne and Hole’s ‘Pretty On The Inside’, all released the previous Monday.
It was a great week for the alt-rock Nostradamus too, with Josh Homme‘s pre-Queens of the Stone Age desert rockers Kyuss releasing their debut album ‘Wretch’ and the second album from Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar’s Uncle Tupelo – ‘Still Feel Gone’ – fresh in on import. To have walked into a record shop that week and walked out with the debut from Curtis Stigers would have been like breaking into a Celebrations factory to steal a single miniature Bounty, or going to Glastonbury for the falafel.
This was the week that defined grunge, reinvented hip-hop, killed ‘indie dance’, shot Generation E into solar orbit and crash-landed space metal onto a whole new planet of sound. ‘The Low End Theory’, with its jazzy tones, has been called the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s…’ of hip-hop, credited with challenging the macho posturing of gangsta rap and influencing generations in its wake. ‘Screamadelica’ was as decisive a full-stop on the rock-rave crossover as My Bloody Valentine‘s ‘Loveless’ would be for shoegazing two months later. Between ‘Trompe Le Monde’, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ and ‘Nevermind’, American rock –until then still a bit bandana and hairspray – was reformed in gnarled and grimy new shapes, reclaiming the zeitgeist from the Manc maraca maniacs. In seven days, everything changed.
History records few scheduling clashes quite so cataclysmic. September 28, 1987, no doubt saw riotous scenes at the HMV check-out as the warring tribes of fey indie, electro-goth and demented incest punk clashed at the tills, scrabbling for their copies of The Smiths’ ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, Depeche Mode’s ‘Music For The Masses’ and Pixies’ ‘Come On Pilgrim’ respectively, much to the bemused annoyance of the long queue for Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Popped In Souled Out’.
Within a week of August 23, 1994, The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ and Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ all hit the streets, like the three stages of some subliminal alt-rock anger counselling. And on May 2, 1989, you could have picked up both ‘The Stone Roses’ and The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ on your way to the shortest-ever house party.
But nothing came close to the five-star tsunami that swamped music on September 24, 1991. The precedent set by The Beatles and The Stones agreeing to carve up the calendar throughout the ‘60s so as not to compete for Number One – by now a sales-maximising industry standard – was designed to avoid just such a pile-up of pivotal releases (although, to be fair, it hadn’t stopped ‘Rubber Soul’ coming out the same week as The Who’s ‘My Generation’ and The Byrds’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ in December 1965). So what could have caused this perfect sonic storm?
Well, when record sales were a ‘thing’, Q3-4 (or ‘autumn’ as it’s known outside hardcore cocaine circles) was the peak period for releasing alternative albums – straight after the festival season and just as end-of-year tours were kicking off. It’s what created the most memorable and epic indie chart battles of the ‘90s. Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Bandwagonesque’ vs. My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’. Mercury Rev’s ‘See You On The Other Side’ vs. The Flaming Lips’ ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’. Catherine Wheel’s ‘Like Cats And Dogs’ vs. The Boo Radleys’ ‘C’mon Kids’, the post-shoegaze Blur vs. Oasis…
On top of this, 1991 was a maelstrom of micro-scenes. Madchester had morphed into a nationwide baggy shuffle that was still twisting the last drops from its MDMA-laced melon. Shoegazing had risen like a dawn mist on some volcanic Saturnian moon. Grunge was getting under the fingernails of Britain’s youth, countered with the first inklings of a home-proud retro pop that would soon cohere into the Britpop fightback.
Then there was techno, grebo, fraggle, indie-dance, Stourbridge rock, ambient electronica and whatever in God’s rave ice cream van The KLF were. It was that untamed and undefined hinterland between Madchester and Britpop, when independent labels like Creation and 4AD had struck the odd bit of chart gold and had enough money to chuck at a plethora of experimental punt bands or good-idea-on-drugs projects.
None of it was considered a commercial threat to anything else because it was all so wonderfully disparate and, anyway, only baggy bands, The Wonder Stuff and EMF ever actually charted. No-one would have spared a second thought to the cultural impact of releasing a weird Andrew Weatherall remix project on the same day as an album from a bunch of little-known headbangers from Seattle.
1991 was a golden period of free-for-all underground expression, then. And the really exciting thing is, we’re back there again. With the majors having hoovered up, regulated the life out of and largely dumped alternative music back into the undergrowth over the ensuing decades, all the factors are in place for another September 24, 1991. A thriving sub-strata of DIY artists with no commercial expectations reigning in their creativity. A surfeit of outlets via which to get ground-breaking music released. No era-defining sound or aesthetic to chase; a wide-open stylistic playing field just waiting for its new champions to emerge.
So ditch those oh-so-predictable playlists and head for the fringes – you don’t want to let the best musical week of your life pass you by.