How 1990 Changed The Face Of Music – 10 Defining Moments

1990: a new decade“, Soul II Soul pointed out, presumably while shedding a tear for 1989 and their disappearing place in the zeitgeist. Jazzie B was right though, it was a new decade, the last of the century, a chance to begin anew. We’d fought and died in the Stock, Aitken and Waterman wars, but it felt as if something different was stirring. No one knew yet that these were the Last Days of Thatcher; instead, according to gap-year mystic Guru Josh, it was “time for the guru“, and we all nodded sagely like we knew what it meant. It was time to tackle the big questions as well, like, “Why’s the BBC calling it MCMXC when it’s easier to say MXM?”

Anyway, that’s one for the board of trustees. We’re more concerned with putting on our thickest rose-tinted glasses and having a good old dance. So let’s disappear into our windsock-proportioned Joe Bloggs’ flares and remember the year’s pivotal musical moments.

Spike Island

A staggering 28,000 people in bucket hats came to Spike Island on the Mersey estuary on May 27 to pay tribute to The Stone Roses’ rise to Most Important Band In The Land. No matter that they were on the verge of squandering it all with latest single ‘One Love’, a song that might have plotted a new direction but instead waved goodbye to an entire career. No, this was for the moment, a celebration of the fusion of dance and rock culture, with frogmen in the water in case anyone fell in.

‘There She Goes’

“I hate it. It’s the worst. A pile of shit. There is not one good thing I can find to say about it.” As far as award-winning promo campaigns go, Lee Mavers’ hard-sell of The La’s’ debut (and only) album left a little to be desired. But as the dust (that’s genuine, analogue, 1960s dust) settled around it, the band’s signature song climbed into the top 20 a full two years after its initial release, keeping the flame alive for great British guitar bands, and curmudgeonly sods, into the 1990s.

Orbital on Top Of The Pops

Just a few months after the legendary Madchester show, where Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses shared a studio and the lunatics took over the asylum, Orbital’s appearance made Top Of The Pops feel like “ours” again. Phil and Paul Hartnoll (somewhat reluctantly) performed early rave hit ‘Chime’, and for a brief moment, the underground was brought above the surface. The brothers wore T-shirts proclaiming “No Poll Tax” in answer to Margaret Thatcher’s latest smack-down of the masses, and everyone wanted to kiss their shining crania.

‘Pills ‘N’ Thrills And Bellyaches’

“If we’d have been on any other record label, there’s no way they’d have let some guy who was spinning a few tunes in Ibiza come and produce a record for us,” Shaun Ryder told NME last year. “That was one of the good things with Factory.” He was talking about Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne’s transformation of the Happy Mondays, from brilliant loose-fit funk amateurs to sequenced hit machines, peaking with the mighty ‘Step On’. Not that Ryder was impressed with the methods: “I can do what Oakie does, chucking in a few good ideas and getting someone to press the buttons.”

Adamski at Number One

The odd couple: a skinny white dude from the New Forest with a knack for pop-rave and a giant black Nigerian/Brazilian with a grizzled old soul voice. Adamski (Adam Tinley to his mum) and Seal shouldn’t have combined so fruitfully, and were never great pals, but ‘Killer’ was a once-in-a-lifetime record, busting hard electro-pop to the top of the charts. It made a megastar out of Seal. Adamski, meanwhile, was next heard singing Elvis Presley’s ‘All Shook Up’ over ‘The Space Jungle’, heading straight for the dumper.

Ice Cube gets political

Ice Cube left NWA in 1989 after an age-old dispute over cash, but he had a higher purpose for his debut solo album. ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’, released in May 1990, began with the rapper being sizzled in the electric chair on ‘Better Off Dead’ and went on to tackle social justice and the trials of black Americans in the inner cities with a righteous ire far removed from the petulance and bravado of ‘Straight Outta Compton’. A major voice had found its megaphone.

Baggy invades the charts

I saw the decade in when it seemed the world would change at the blink of an eye“, sang Jesus Jones’ Mike Edwards on ‘Right Here, Right Now’. And it did – well, the indie world at least. Following in the footsteps of the Mondays and the Roses, everyone found a dance element to their music, from Primal Scream to the bleedin’ Soup Dragons, but it was Jesus Jones and EMF with ‘Unbelievable’ who took baggy to the upper reaches of the charts. Some bands refused, with Ride introducing shoegaze to the mainstream, but the die was cast. Everyone wanted a Boy’s Own remix.

Warehouse rave crackdown

Ah, the glory days of rave, when all you had to do was track down some guy called Wizard Toes to a lay-by on the M25 to find out where tonight’s party was. In just a few short hours, you could be hugging a total stranger to The Waterboys’ ‘The Whole Of The Moon’. The cops were just getting wind of all this in 1990 and warehouses from Radlett to Blackburn were being invaded as part of a desperate clampdown, with £20,000 fines and prison sentences doled out. No joy. All it did was encourage proliferation, with illegal raves dominating the dance scene into the early 1990s.

Travellers ruck at Glasto

Michael Eavis used to welcome travellers to Glastonbury Festival with open arms and, indeed, an open gate, but that all changed in 1990 when they clashed with police. The Battle of Yeoman’s Bridge was precipitated on the Monday morning when security manhandled one drunk traveller, and it soon escalated into open warfare. Petrol bombs and improvised weapons were chucked about as a great Glasto tradition came to an end and the artisan bakers moved in.


King Boy D (Bill Drummond ) and Rockman Rock (Jimmy Cauty) had already made their name – well, The Timelords’ name – in 1988 with ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’, but they became a pop cultural force to reckon with in 1990 with their invention of ‘stadium house’. ‘What Time Is Love? (Live At Trancentral)’ broke the Top Five, setting in motion a couple of years where The KLF ruled the charts with situationist gambits, duets with Tammy Wynette and terrifying times for sheep. Some people are still holding out for their return.