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September 1994: Friends, Due South, Liz Phair and More

This week in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music and shows from the month that was September of 1994. 

VHS In The VCR

The 1994-1995 TV season boasts one of the best crops of new show debuts ever, and now that we’ve entered September, we’re in the thick of it. Conventional wisdom says we’d be covering ER here, but conventional wisdom 25 years ago also said the doctor show from the LA Law writer was going to mop the floor with it. Just as then, that ER pilot is so good it’s going to take over and become something of a bigger deal. On September 19th—ER’s actual 25th anniversary—it’ll feature in our Perfect Pilots series. Which is a day before our look into X-Files Season 2 begins.

We’ll be deep diving into X-Files once a month, 25 years later to the month for every single episode of Season 2. We hope to be doing this with many shows—like Friends, later in this very column, but the concept started with X-Files and I’m so happy to see it finally begin next week.

But ER and X-Files are only part of the packed classic TV season:

Due South   by Natasha B.C. Smith

A print ad for the new CBS show Due South has the two leads standing next to each other on a white background, one in a canadian mounty uniform and perfect posture, one in current day trendy black and painted pastels pointing at the mouny as if to say "get a load of this guy".

Due South is a cop show with the quirkiness cranked up to 11, and with a large dose of comedy mixed in with its drama and action. Benton Fraser (Paul Gross) is a Canadian Mountie who relocates to Chicago and partners with Ray Vecchio (David Marciano), a Chicago cop. The main characters are built around poking fun at every Canadian and American stereotype you can think of, yet they never feel one-dimensional, and as an audience we genuinely care about them. Due South’s premise is, at its core, incredibly simple, but the resulting show is completely unique, and chances are if you watched it, you remember it fondly as something truly special.

In the character of Fraser, Paul Gross and the writers maintain just the right balance of perfection and ridiculousness. His good looks, unerring kindness, impressive feats of heroism, and talents in just about everything are tempered by his naivety and cluelessness when it comes to street smarts and social situations. This is, of course, where Vecchio shines.

Some of the best episodes center on the one area in which Fraser is perhaps just as screwed up as the rest of us—his love life. Women are constantly falling for Fraser—and who can blame them—but he generally remains oblivious and uninterested. The two main love interests he does have in the show are a criminal he’s tracking down, and his boss, suggesting that he only wants what he can’t have. These storylines are fascinating in showing emotional vulnerability and dysfunctional tendencies in a usually over-achieving and unflappable character.

While Fraser and Vecchio are the stars of the show, they also have a somewhat unusual sidekick—Fraser’s pet wolf. Long before Grey Wind, Summer and Ghost hit our TV screens, there was Deifenbaker, the deaf wolf who was always happy to help with the crime-solving.

It can be hard to describe this show without totally underselling it and making it sound stupid. It isn’t. It absolutely could have been, in the wrong hands, but it’s handled with such aplomb that everything about it works. It’s consistently hilarious, when a lesser show might have come off as cheesy. The characters are always lovable and interesting, when in another show they could have been annoying. The drama is gripping, when it could easily have seemed contrived. Everything about Due South is a delicate balancing act, and it’s all pulled off to perfection.

Along with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ally McBeal, Due South is one of the best dramedies of the ‘90s, deftly blending genres with great results. Perhaps it’s too optimistic to ever be made now—it’s certainly no dark, gritty drama, like so many of today’s successful shows. No, Due South is pure escapism, and Fraser is the hero we all want, but know could never really exist. It still holds up, and while it is definitely a ‘90s show, it is endlessly rewatchable.

In a show that is essentially rooted in reality, yet another quirk that shouldn’t work (but somehow does) is the fact that Fraser is occasionally visited by the ghost of his dead father. In some episodes it could be argued that these appearances are all in Fraser’s mind, but there are definitely episodes where Fraser Sr. interacts with other people enough to make it clear that he is a real, legit ghost, not a figment of Fraser’s imagination. Other than these semi-regular appearances of a genuine ghost, there is nothing supernatural about the show whatsoever. This genre-defying surrealism is, of course, typical of Due South, and only adds to its insane brilliance.

Touched By An Angel   by Abbie Sears

The angels of Touched By An Angel, Monica, Tess and Andrew stand next to each other.

I only recently discovered that Touched By An Angel is turning 25 years old. Honestly I had thought it had been around a lot longer than that. I have seen many episodes of the show over the years through my grandmother. This is one of her most favourite things to watch on television because of the touching stories involved. The show is special to me now because even now while my grandmother has dementia, this is a show that she still remembers when it’s on. She can still watch and recognise these stories and that means something wonderful.

Television you watch or music you listen to with your grandparents, I think always holds an extra special place in someone’s heart because you cherish every moment with your grandparents. That’s why this show stands out to me. Every episode is full of encouragement and hope. In each episode, we are introduced to someone who is at a crossroads in life and is in quite a dark place, and an angel is sent to help them. There are three angels: Monica, Tess and Andrew, and one is assigned each time to help this person see the worth in their lives and they overcome what they are going through and come out with a happy ending. The show spreads the message of the love of the Lord and that you always have someone who is looking out for you.

I know for a lot of us our grandparents are the angels that are helping us through life. That is the case for me and my other grandparents. At the moment I’m so grateful to still be able to see my grandmother and share these moments with her, and a big part of that is through shows like this that we have always watched together.

Silk Stalkings Retrospective   by Mya McBriar

A spread of the first five DVD season sets of Silk Stalkings.

Silk Stalkings (1991-1999) was a colorful cop drama that specialized in sex, scantily clad women, and murder. Set in the wealthy community of Palm Beach, FL, homicide detectives, partners, friends, and ultimately lovers, Rita Lee Lance, played by Mitzi Kapture (Baywatch, The Young and the Restless) and Chris Lorenzo played by Rob Estes (Melrose Place, 90210), gave a lot of heart to what might have otherwise been considered trashy television. The title, Silk Stalkings, referred to the “crimes of passion” cases that were featured in each episode. It was also a play on the term “silk stockings” by the show’s creator, Stephen J. Cannell. The series originally aired on CBS as part of their, “Crimetime After Primetime,” programming package (1991-1993), but was canceled by CBS in 1993. It was quickly picked up by the USA Network, where it lived for six more seasons.

In September of 1994, Silk Stalkings premiered its fourth season with a two-part episode titled, Natural Selection. The plot is about a sadist serial killer who’s creating snuff films of his murders to sell on the black market. Chris struggles to regain mobility in his arm after being shot at the end of Season 3. He rushes to return to work, which accidentally results in Rita getting hurt. Feeling guilty, Chris abruptly quits the force – leaving Rita on her own to catch the killer. Rita has a personal stake in the case after two runaways she tried to get off the street are murdered. She decides to use herself as bait, but gets trapped by the killer. At the end, Chris arrives just in time to stop him from killing Rita.

The series was purposely stylized in very bold and bright colors. Themes of greed, domestic violence, drug use, and jealous lovers ran amuck in every self-contained episode. Rita narrates each episode with an opening monologue and closing epilogue that summarized the episode’s plot with clever puns and ironic observations on human nature. Despite many clichéd and outrageous stories, many of which would likely be considered sexist today, Rita was a strong woman with a sterling moral compass. She also kicked her share of criminal ass, and she often did so in high heels and miniskirts.

Rob Estes was a humorous heartthrob as Detective Chris Lorenzo – gifted with a killer smile and a litany of snappy one liners. The ladies adored him throughout the series – even though he continually dressed in a variety of wildly colored suits. Chris had his share of girlfriends over the seasons, but he always had a real devotion to Rita. They had a lovable partnership as detectives and a true friendship. Their relationship didn’t turn romantic until shortly before both actors departed the series in the beginning of Season 5. In the remaining seasons, USA introduced new male/female partners (Tyler Layton, Nick Kokotakis, Janet Gunn, & Chris Potter) until the series was truly canceled in Season 8.

For its day, Silk Stalkings was scandalous. I discovered this show when I was young. I always felt like I got away with something deliciously bad by staying up late to watch. I also had a celebrity crush on Rob Estes. I enjoyed the ridiculous story-lines, because they had a campy, soap opera appeal that was fun to watch. The show was an edgier guilty pleasure in an era of more popular soap-dramas like Melrose Place, Party of Five, and Beverly Hills 90210, which definitely separated it from the pack. However, I lost interest in the series when Chris and Rita left, because, for me, their relationship was the best element.

Friends (S1E1 + S1E2)   by Abbie Sears Rachel is in her wedding dress explaining why she ran out on her own wedding while on the same couch in the Central Perk, Ross looks on gobsmacked.

Can you believe that it’s been 25 years since Friends first aired? I still watch Friends every day of my life. I can’t imagine life without it. Friends is one big circle of romantic relationships based around these six friends living in New York City. On September 22nd 1994, the very first episode “The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate” aired and I’m not sure that anybody involved expected for this sitcom to become the timeless classic it is today.

The pilot introduces us to Monica Geller, Ross Geller, Chandler Bing, Joey Tribbiani and Phoebe Buffay. They are at Central Perk, a coffee shop that the gang spends the entirety of their days in for the whole 10 seasons. In this first scene, they get to talking about love, and Ross exclaims he just wants to be married again, in reference to his recent separation from his wife, Carol. And at this point, in walks Rachel Green, dressed in a huge white wedding dress. That’s right, Ross and Rachel, both separated from long term partners and running into each-other with the world’s most obvious sign. This is a special moment, and Ross had no idea what was to come with the woman he had loved since high school.

Rachel decides to leave her life of privilege and move in with Monica in the city. She becomes focused on doing things for herself, and officially the Friends gang are together. I love this first episode. I love to watch everything fall into place from the very beginning. Friends is one of the few shows that seemed to know its identity from day one. There were no periods of time when I felt that the episodes were unnecessary and it is always hilarious. The rest of the 10 seasons are perfectly in keeping with the tone of this pilot, it really set the scene for one of the greatest shows of our lifetime.

The second episode of Friends, “The One with the Sonogram at the End,” throws Ross a curve ball when he finds out his lesbian ex-wife is with child. Ross is faced to make an important decision about whether he wants to be in the baby’s life. Ross is the definition of a good man. He wouldn’t leave Carol to raise a baby without his help and he wouldn’t leave his son without a father, but this surprise was certainly not a light one. It’s hard for Ross to accept Carol’s nee’ lesbian life partner Susan and has to accept her involvement in the child’s life as a second mother figure.

Also in this second episode Rachel returns her engagement ring to her now-ex fiancé Barry, and I like to view these events as both Ross and Rachel moving on from their long term relationships and realising that they can live without their ex partners. It’s all heading to them finding each other. Ross just needs to grab a spoon.

CDs On Rotation In Our Six-Disk

Liz Phair- Whip Smart   by John Bernardy

the cover for the Liz Phair album whip smart has an out-of-focus portrait in a circle in the center of a brown red and yellow star. On the left is a painting of a boy in a blue starred hat holding roses into the air.

Liz Phair’s “Supernova” was absolutely everywhere in 1994, with good reason. It was catchy. It had hooks with the vocals and with that wobbly guitar. It was even less than three minutes long so it never outstayed its welcome.

But the rest of the album sounds nothing like it, so you might be surprised how much subdued wonderfulness there is to be had on this album.

The first track starts with a piano playing chopsticks, and it’s as simple as that sounds. Then Liz starts to sing a subdued, frank, slice-of-life story over the top of it. She meets a guy, talks her way through what would happen, but ends in the line “but secretly I’m timid” to upend where we thought it would go.

The whole album—aside from the riffy fun of the destined-to-be-a-hit-single “Supernova” and the appropriately thumpy “Jealousy”—is restrained like this.

“Shane” is another quiet storytelling song that ends in a repeated refrain “you gotta have fear in your heart.” For being so “secretly timid” I feel like Phair is telling us autobiographical details through every second of this album. Maybe the events are less than real, but emotional journeys she appears to go through here.

The stories on the album match well with what I remember hearing about Phair, stage fright hampering her career and all. Just listening to “Supernova,” you might wonder how those rumors could be, but listening to the album, it’s pretty apparent. Liz Phair puts her heart out there for us,

Liz Phair – Supernova

Music video by Liz Phair performing Supernova (Video).

Massive Attack- Protection   by Chris Flackett

The album cover of Massive Attack's Protection is abtract art: on a silver background is a diamond shape of a hazardous materials symbol, with a round humanoid shape on top of that holding a fork and a knife as if ready to feast.

How do you follow up a ground breaking work like Blue Lines? More of the same perhaps?

You’d be forgiven for thinking this with a quick glance at the cover of Massive Attack’s sophomore effort Protection. Not only are the regular toasters all present and correct – Tricky, reggae legend Horace Andy – but the cover reuses the same font and flammable gas symbol as that which appeared on Blue Lines. Had the Bristol trip-hoppers found a successful formula, one they hoped to refine into further success as they cannibalised themselves into diminishing creative returns?

Thankfully, no. Is it a great album? No. It never quite matches as a whole the high points reached by Blue Lines before it and Mezzanine to come, but it is a strong effort that functions as a clear transitional piece from the night time R‘n’B and dub of the former to the brooding, melancholic, guitar driven industrial trip hop of the latter.

So is it just a curiosity piece, worth a listen to see how the group developed? Again, no. The title track is one of the best tracks Massive Attack ever made, bittersweet and wistful. The mood matches the mood suggested by the grey-blue background of the album cover – the feeling of sunlight trying to fight through an overcast sky, a light rain washing over you, much like the keyboards swirling like a gentle downpour in the background. It’s equal parts sensual and full of ennui, topped off by the effortless, naturally emotive and jazzy vocals of Everything but the Girl’s Tracey Thorn. If you only listen to one Massive Attack track, make it this one.

The rest of the album shuffles along on restrained rumbling bass lines that connects the album to its dub roots. Introverted and brooding, it refuses you the sweet release of an “Unfinished Symphony” or a “Teardrop,” preferring instead to force the listener to work for their rewards, requiring closer attention to its obstructive, occasionally cinematic nature.

Halfway through the album, a hushed moody groove halfway between a club track and a dub groove intrudes into the mind’s eye, conjuring images of driving at night through a seedy, rundown central part of town, where washed-out neon lights glare from signs above shop doorways. It’s a little bit Taxi Driver and a little bit Nil By Mouth. Horace Andy’s sweet honey tones ride the groove and we are in the middle of a track called “Spying Glass,” a nice summation of the mood of the album as a whole.

Between this and the title track, the album carries enough sullen heart to warrant a spot in people’s affections. Dare to intrude upon it.

 

The Notorious B.I.G.- Ready to Die, & Tupac- Thug Life, Volume 1   by John Bernardy

On a mostly white background, there is a small picture of a baby. Above the child reads The Notorious BIG, and below reads Ready To Die.On a black background is a photo of some of the rappers of the group Thug Life. The frame of their photo are the block letters of their group name: Thug Life.

The East Coast/West Coast rap feud has begun to take effect, but it’s not showing itself in the music yet. Right now in 1994, the players are taking the stage: Tupac released group effort Thug Life, Volume 1 while the Notorious B.I.G. releases his debut album Ready To Die 25 years ago today.

I can understand why people think Chris Wallace was a big deal. He definitely had personality, and he told stories of wanting to go legit as a superstar while also climbing out of the crime he needed to be involved in to survive in the hood. His charisma is apparent. But also, so is his misogyny.

“Me and My Bitch” is a story about Biggie finding the woman he wants to start a family with, and it goes from there into marriage until she’s killed, but the title of the song proves the problematic tone, and why I have problems squaring this album.

Couple that with following his producer Puff Daddy’s advice to make more poppy singles like “Juicy” that show off Biggie as a “ladies man” (in the most disgusting ways possible) in a way that doesn’t quite fit the tone of the rest of the album, and you get what ends up being fairly uneven for such a lauded classic.

I do like the first track, “Intro” which basically tells a story from Biggie’s birth to him arriving on the hip hop scene, but the promise from that song gets bogged down in the other issues that didn’t age well at all. If you don’t listen to the lyrics, the vibe of Biggie’s voice plus the production makes this a fun listen, but if I had to choose a rap album from this year I’d still go back to Nas before this. After all, Nas does the East Coast sound but he leaves the misogyny mostly off the album. It can be done. Though before that, especially with Method Man’s appearance on this album’s track “The What”, I’d go back to 36 Chambers, every time.

Meanwhile over on the West Coast, Tupac puts together a group called Thug Life and they release their only album. And it’s focused almost entirely on the thug life. No “ladies man” songs, only a little bit about partying. Most of it’s about doing the work, whether it’s about what they’re trying to do with their hip hop careers or what they’re overcoming on the streets. Paraphrasing the last song on the album, “Out on Bail”, Tupac really seems to be making something while he’s “made for jail” but “out on bail.” And he always talks about when he’s gone as if he always expects the thug life will get him one day.

Which of course it will when the East Coast/West Coast rap feud kicks in to high gear. But right now it’s only at the beginning. And where Tupac becomes the face of the West Coast side of feud, the Notorious B.I.G., face of the East Coast. Yet here they are sharing song space on Thug Life’s “Runnin’ (From tha Police).” They’re friendly right now, but we all know how downhill it goes from here.

If you need a representation best explaining Thug Life, Volume 1, I’d pick “Cradle To The Grave.” As far as representing the best side of Ready To Die, I’d pick “Warning.”

 

Radiohead- My Iron Lung   by Chris Flackett

the back and front of Radiohead's My Iron Lung CD packaging focuses on a purple colored abstract candid shot of a street scene with people's legs on the front, and a blue filtered street scene of the back of a man on the back.

Where were you in 1994? Radiohead were in their own Iron Lung, one arguably of their own making, and they were suffocating fast.

Not that a hit single is usually considered a negative in the career of a promising, up and coming band. But imagine that one song was a black hole swallowing up everything else about you, stripping everything from your identity until there was nothing left but the song and nothing else, assuming your place in annals of history. Nirvana had “Teen Spirit.” Radiohead had “Creep.”

Finding that “Creep” attracted so much attention that the rest of their songs were being ignored, Radiohead decided they didn’t want to be one hit wonders; in fact, they didn’t want to be simple “hit makers” at all. They were going to make their music on their own terms. The rehabilitation into the band we know and love started here.

Originally released as two CD versions of the My Iron Lung single, the title track and its attendant B-sides from both CDs were rounded up on to a single EP release for the Australian market but has since been released worldwide to much acclaim.

The title track is Radiohead’s statement of new intent. Over shimmering, almost sensual guitar lines Thom Yorke croons his frustration of being at the mercy of his hit song: “this is our new song, just like our last one: a total waste of time, My Iron Lung.” When guitarist Johnny Greenwood is let off the leash and finally lets rip, you can feel the tension of months of being under “Creep”’s shadow explode and evaporate in the sweet release of volume and attack.

Other songs predict where Radiohead would travel to on albums like The Bends and OK Computer. “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” creates the same kind as hushed, eerie calm as later tracks like “Street Spirit” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” which always give me the feeling of driving on a deserted motorway at night, exhaustion creating the illusion of floating slightly into the ether. It’s lovely.

“Permanent Daylight,” a tribute to Sonic Youth, creates unease and surprise by putting together unexpected clusters of chord changes to create an uncanny aural tapestry in much the same way the quieter “In Limbo” did on Kid A. Meanwhile, the furious, propulsive “The Trickster” and “Lewis (Mistreated)” open the door to the scorched earth guitars that “Creep” suggested and the likes of “Just,” “Paranoid Android,” and “2+2=5” confirmed.

The EP ends with an acoustic version of “Creep,” stripped down and naked, as if to say farewell to the past and to greet a creative, fulfilling future. Yes, there would be much more tension in the wake of the success of OK Computer, but for now here was a band still so early into their career, reclaiming their identity and opening up new possibilities. The future starts here.

 


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