This month in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was May of 1994.
VHS In The VCR
Star Trek: The Next Generation comes to an end by Will Johnson
May 23rd, 1994, was the best kind of long day for me. WTOG 44—later UPN 44—in Tampa was celebrating the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation by playing fifteen of their best episodes in a row right before the premiere of the series finale. It was to be 17 hours of life-changing (and butt-numbing) star trekkin’. My relationships with Star Trek at that point—when I was 12—was limited to free VHS rentals of the original series and the original crew’s films from the library. I enjoyed the camp level of the original and the movies, even Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, were fun little adventures for me. But I wasn’t quite the Trekkie I would become yet and had watched maybe a handful of TNG eps at that point. But thanks to those wise schedulers at WTOG, I was ready to be baptized in fire and become a Trekker for Life!
Due to the way syndication works—and I will interrupt this sentence to say that I don’t know anything about how syndication works—I’m pretty sure the TNG finale premiered on different days and on different times for people across the state of Florida and all over the United States. So, if this is true, I had a unique experience that others might not have had, which adds an extra level of excitement to the proceedings. But I didn’t know that at the time, so my 12-year-old butt just sat there and watched every episode presented as if this was normal—and, well, it probably was normal for me to sit in front of the TV for 71% of an entire day. I can’t remember the “set-list”, but the 15 episodes WTOG showed had made such a big impression on me that when I watched the finale, I was shook.
The final episode, titled “All Good Things…”, had Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) going from one era of TNG’s timeline to another in a back and forth test of humanity’s intellectual prowess and ethical standards by the omnipotent and mischievous Q (John de Lancie). Since I had basically crammed seven seasons of “essential” TNG television in roughly 15 hours, the callbacks and undeniable chemistry between the ensemble cast was truly affecting. Not only did I love the ship itself and the iconic set design, but I adored the moral conundrums and philosophical debate the show presented openly. This wasn’t Star Wars; this was something adult and it spoke to the 12-year-old me like an adult or, at the very least, a person trying to understand what adults think and do. It never talked down to me and only educated me. I say this with all sincerity: Star Trek, and TNG specifically, made me a better person by preaching about tolerance, respect, loyalty, culture, art, ethics, and pride. And the best part is, I can literally time stamp the moment my journey to be that better person began…May 23rd, 1994.
After that 16 episode binge, if you include the finale, I simply could not get enough. Not only was Star Trek: Generations—the first film featuring the Next Generation cast—already filming and prepared for a late ’94 release, but WTOG kept the TNG love alive by playing the show seven days a week at 11 pm. On weekend nights, I double featured an episode of TNG with the Midnight showtime of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Comedy Central. And on school nights, I had my super fancy VHS set to record TNG every night for rapid consumption after school the next day.
I still have seven or eight VHS tapes in storage, with homemade labels, showing the Season, Episode #, and Episode Title of TNG episodes I had recorded. If you were lucky, you could fit six episodes on one tape, eight if you sat there and cut out the commercials manually—which, of course, I did. And from officially licensed VHS releases to opening night of TNG film premieres to visiting Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas, to meeting the cast and crew either at cons or supporting them in stage productions to reading over 100—yes, 100—Star Trek novels to literally writing about the show’s influence on me right now, May 23rd, 1994 was the starting point for a love and obsession that is still potent and powerful today.
The Stand by Paul Billington
I wasn’t a Stephen King fan.
He freaked me out—well, not the person, but his books. My experience of his work came from sneaking a look into his tomes when I was like 9 or 10, and wishing I hadn’t. My dad loved his work. But reading bits of Carrie or Salem’s Lot won’t really give you sweet dreams at that age.
And then I was exposed to his work on the TV—1979 I think. The Salem’s Lot miniseries, on the night of a big storm while on a family holiday. Lightning crashed and I saw that creepy f**cking kid gently tapping at the window of another character in the movie. I, for one, NEVER left my curtains open at night after that. Wuss? Damn right. Who’s with me?!
Fast forward to 1994 and I had no reason at all to watch The Stand other than it had a few actors in it I had genuine respect for. Gary Sinise headlined abroad (and for some, dumpster-bound) cast that included Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe (pre-The West Wing), Jamey Sheridan, but also indie-darling Laura San Giacomo, Kathy Bates and Ed Harris. I was intrigued by the premise; a world post-infection, a huge part of the planet wiped out and a resultant struggle for the souls of those left behind. In the background there was Mother Abigail on the side of light, appearing in dreams and visions, while Randall Flagg sought to corrupt those who were left and ensure his demonic plans came to fruition using human weakness as his primary weapon.
The book is a favourite of many, and it’s a large book to take on for a relatively short mini-series. I haven’t read it, but from this interpretation, it’s clear to see there’s a large, human story to tell amongst the more supernatural happenings that surround the characters. As with many of his protagonists, Stephen King knows how to give depth without being too obvious with any manipulation of his audience – and whereas this series does well with some, the actors are not all successful with being as subtle as the maestro could have been hoping for.
In hindsight, there was probably a lot to overcome for this miniseries to make any kind of splash. King adaptations were notoriously hit and miss back then, although cinematically things were picking up with Stand By Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption etc. Interestingly these are more psychological ‘horror’ than straight forward terror. And I think that is why The Stand worked for me. Four parts to the series gave time for character and plot to move at a meandering but rewarding pace, and most of the performances carry and earnestness that really engaged me. Those performances, a good old fashioned battle between good and evil, plus W.G. Snuffy Walden’s haunting score, help carry the show right up until it’s slightly-underwhelming ending (for those of us in the UK, the sight of the National Lottery “It’s You!” golden-hand, intervening at the last moment is unfortunate and a bit silly). But up till then it stands out as one of the richer of all the Stephen King TV adaptations of the time (which included the likes of The Langoliers, Golden Years, IT ) and actually achieved an Emmy win amongst a few nominations—so it can’t have been that bad! Unless my memory completely fails me.
At the Comic Shop
Unity Saga, Vol. 1 by John Bernardy
By the time 1994 rolled around, Valiant Comics was both at the forefront of the comic book collector boom and completely bucking the trend, all with good reason: it was flashy by being the best damn story you could ask for, in a time when comics were more about exciting art than serialized storytelling.
Valiant began as a company with former Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter and a few friends—among them being writer/artists Bob Layton and Barry Windsor Smith. Their only goal: to make great comics. And they were going to do it with stories first.
Shooter wanted the art to fit into particular non-flashy panel layouts so that readability was valued above all else. And he wanted the characters to react as realistically as possible to their situations. He also wanted to make sure there were only a few core books introduced one at a time so that the company could put all their energy into every page they produced while it would also be easy for readers to collect every book.
He began Valiant’s superhero universe by acquiring the license to Gold Key comic characters Magnus Robot Fighter and Solar Man of the Atom (with Turok Son of Stone to be introduced organically later within Unity). Then he created worlds around these two characters’ time periods—Magnus is set 2000 years in the future while Solar is set in the present day. Rai joined Magnus in the future while X-O Manowar, Shadowman and the kids in Harbinger joined Solar’s time period.
These six books told concise world-building stories that had a ton of human moments all over it. The conflict in Unity grew from the story-line in Solar when fellow doctor Erica Pierce developed similar reality-changing powers as the main character Phil Seleski, except Erica wasn’t handling her near-godlike powers nearly as well and created a pocket reality where all six books converged.
Unity began with a #0 issue and ended with its #1, book-ending two issues of each of the six monthly books already introduced, as well as two additional books—the Barry Windsor Smith buddy comedy Archer & Armstrong and the appropriately named Eternal Warrior. All told, Unity is told in 18 parts, and in 1994 absolutely none of them were reprinted or turned into a trade paperback.
When this trade collection finally came out (one a month over this summer, easily showing up its Shooterless follow-up crossover Chaos Effect) the individual original issues were at minimum $20 a piece, and we’d barely gotten any of the pre-Unity Valliant comics reprinted–Harbinger, X-O Manowar and Shadowman only had one partial collection each at this point. While Valiant was careening out of control in the present, its early products were considered gold, and you were expected to pay accordingly for them. Thank god this was finally collected.
While we had high hopes for Chaos Effect to reach similar catharsis from the convergence of company’s post-Unity story-lines, we were finally able to read the magic that happened in 1992 without breaking the bank to do so.
We finally got to see Rai save the day by making the ultimate sacrifice. We got to see the Eternal Warrior work together with himself from both timelines. We got to see the birth of Kris and Pete’s—really, Torque’s—baby, and then be revealed to be Magnus, who is then sent into the future to be raised by his robot caretaker A-1 when Mothergod’s converged reality separates back into its original timelines. The plot itself is rooted in the unravelling mind of Erica Pierce as she lashes out at her past trauma. Not only does it tie back into the origin of Solar and herself, but it also gives meaning to every book in Valiant’s publishing schedule. The way events flow through all of the books—with such meaningful ramifications for all of them—is structurally fascinating not to mention daunting, yet Shooter and his team pulled off the whole thing beautifully.
The story itself may lack certain nuance by today’s standards, much like how Spider-Man’s original 1964 origin lacks sophistication compared to today’s storytelling, but at the time Unity was cutting edge and deeply psychological while still being entertaining and easy to consume. It bent time and storytelling conventions, and it truly deserves to be remembered today as a momentous ‘90s event twice—both in 1992 when it first happened and in 1994 when we regular folks were finally able to access it and learn it deserved every ounce of its reputation.
CDs On Rotation In Our 6-Disk
May 1994 was when Pearl Jam took Ticketmaster to court over things like hidden fees, but I am by no means an expert on that whole story. But I encourage you to look up the whole saga. It’s not every day a popular band at the height of their power uses it—likely to their financial detriment—to stick up for their fans’ wallets and take on a giant organization that packs too many hidden fees into concert tickets.
I also missed the Indigo Girls putting out Swamp Ophelia and The Future Sound Of London releasing Lifeforms, among other albums. Sonic Youth’s album skipped past me as well because it’s one radio hit short-circuited my brain, but I’ll at least fix that one here.
Sonic Youth- Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star by John Bernardy
I love PopCulture25YL because it gives me a chance to go back and make discoveries I’d have otherwise kept passing by. Sonic Youth would’ve been one of these bands left un-listened to, but I remembered their big hit and how much I hated it. Anything that could elicit that kind of response deserves a second chance, to see if I just wasn’t ready for it at the time.
“Bull In The Heather” messed with my head back in ’94. It was ten years before I took in a steady intake of Modest Mouse’s entire catalogue, so I wasn’t ready for anything this chaotic or even sour. And even in the grunge era, this song was harsh as hell. Every time that guitar was used more like an explosion than an instrument, it made my skin crawl. Why would somebody want to do that? And then the chorus is just a half a sentence. I couldn’t comprehend.
I make this song sound terrible, but it’s not. Sonic Youth is just about art rock, and in 1994, I was barely listening to music. I kept trying to tune my radio when Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” came on because I thought my reception was bad. I was young and inexperienced. I was not ready for Sonic Youth.
On this eighth album of theirs, they had perfected the mix of—or at least the shift between—melodic moments and pure noise. The band drones and hangs on dissonant melodies as well as Modest Mouse while adding in non-sequitur and pure chaos as well as Deerhoof’s ever done. I expect both those bands have this album in their own collections and paid a ton of attention to Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s Sonic Youth work.
I find myself fond of everything in “Bull in the Heather” now. Nothing stays on a melody long enough to be a pop song, but that doesn’t matter anymore. The mood is what Sonic Youth is after. “Sweet Shine” was touching even though I’m not quite sure on the plot, and it’s my second favorite song on the album. The untitled song at the end has no words and barely holds together, but it’s just as compelling as every track before it. I listened to this whole album and loved it. It didn’t matter if Thurston was on lead vocals or if it was Kim. It was a fantastic experiment in what could constitute a track of music.
I’m listening to the album again right now. Sonic Youth is good, folks.
Toad the Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea by John Bernardy
Dulcinea is Toad the Wet Sprocket’s fourth album and the first to follow 1991’s fear, which put the band on the map with songs like “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want”. This album has songs in that vein—“Something’s Always Wrong” as a prime example—but it goes in different directions as well.
The album’s title and themes riff on Cervantes’ Don Quixote—how things are versus how you perceive them—but I missed all that when I first heard the album. Deep as I ever got was trying to write songs as close as possible to “Fall Down,” for my money still the best song on this album. It’s the most driving song, has a Cure-style guitar solo, hard-stops in a most satisfying way before the back third, and its momentum gives an intensity to the impossibly smooth vocals of Glen Phillips.
Phillips’ vocals are extremely clean. He rarely shouts, and when he does, he almost has a Pink Floyd quality. You’ll know his voice when you hear it, and it gives you certain calm regardless of the instrumentation around him.
Beyond the two radio hits, “Listen” did some interesting things with the band’s style and “Windmills” stuck out as a hidden treasure. Overall, I’d say Dulcinea is a happy middle between Live’s Throwing Copper and Travis’ The Man Who while not being derivative or overly influential to either band. Toad has its own sound, and it’s always good. I hadn’t listened to this album in a while and reacquainting with it did not disappoint.
The Beastie Boys- Ill Communication by J.C. Hotchkiss
Beastie Boys are and will always be in my top five favorite musicians on the planet. It is hard for me to pick which album is my favorite, but without a doubt, the album that has three of my top ten tracks is Ill Communication. The team of DJ Ad Rock (Adam Horowitz), MCA (the late great Adam Yauch), and Mike D (Michael Diamond) were the dream team. Influenced by hip hop, jazz, and what they were feeling, the Beastie Boys created a sound on Ill Communication that set it apart from their earlier sound on Licensed to Ill and Check Your Head.
Ill Communication was an album that hit number one on the Billboard US Top 200 and is list in the book “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die”. Leading off with “Sure Shot”, the “roo, roo, roo” from a dog sets off a jazzy hip hop beat that continues throughout. This song is one of those three tracks that if I hear it on the radio, the volume is going straight to 11.
“Sabotage”, the first single off the album is one of those songs that when you hear it, it brings you back to a memory. For me, it’s the video. To see our boys sliding over cars and being fabulous 70’s cop show cops and robbers is a memory forever cemented in my memory. It’s too good to keep that memory all to myself.
“Get It Together” is another song that brings back the sweetest of memories. Like when I had my college radio show. I would play the heck out of this song. With the mic also shared with Q-Tip from Tribe Called Quest, this song is one of those head-bopper songs that I can still hear ringing through my ears.
All the songs are fantastic on Ill Communication. This album is one of the most complete listening albums I have in my rotation. I don’t ever get sick of any songs from it. So go ahead, dust off that CD and pop in some great music from an even better trio. Beastie Boys forever.