Of course, “Tom’s Diner” had a long history before it became a hit, and another altogether different legacy after its release. It was originally written around 1981 or 1982 when Suzanne Vega was a student at Barnard College – the diner is a real place and she really did frequent it, though the physical building is probably better known these days as the exterior location of Monk’s Café in Seinfeld. The song eventually saw release half a decade after it was written, on Vega’s critically acclaimed 1987 album Solitude Standing and it appears on the album twice, once as the a capella opening track and once as an instrumental to close the album out.
It was the third single released off the album, and wasn’t a big hit – it got to 58 in the UK Singles charts and made no impression in the US at all. The big hit was “Luka”, which got to Number 3 on the Hot 100 in America and 23 in the UK. And, for a song like “Tom’s Diner”, that really ought to have been the end of the story. A well-regarded but minor success beloved of fans, maybe, but destined to make little impression on the general public.
This was not the fate of “Tom’s Diner”. In fact it has two legacies (well, three if you include the 1987 single release), the first of which is what brings it to our attention in 1990. The song itself is, if it needs to be said, a simple slice of everyday life narrated by Vega from a composite of events while she sits in the titular diner observing the world around her. The album version has no instrumentation at all, it’s just Vega singing a simple, somewhat captivating melody as the world happens around her. It’s a charming song, though it’s also not difficult to see why it maybe didn’t take the charts by storm. It might have made more progress in 1969, when folk-music was in vogue and Janis Joplin was at the height of her powers, but in 1987 it didn’t have much chance – honestly, getting to 58 is actually pretty impressive. The original version runs through the verse structure a few times, then ends with Vega singing the same melody as used with the lyrics but wordlessly, “do do do de do do do de” style. It’s a minor coda to the song, an outro.
Step up to the plate, then, British remixers DNA, who take the outro and make it the key component in the song. Now, instead of being the way out of the song it becomes the way in, it becomes the break in-between the verses functioning as a “chorus” of sorts, and it ultimately becomes the most memorable part of the song. It is a genius move. All good remixes, mash-ups or cover versions take the essence of a song, transform it, and explore new depths within that song while retaining a core of what made the original so great, and that’s precisely what the DNA remix of this song does. The focus of the song shifts – it retains the slice-of-life verses but by repurposing the coda and placing the lyric over a sampled dance beat (from Soul II Soul’s “Keep Moving”) it re-contextualises the song and shifts the emphasis.
The results are both dramatic, in the sense that the song feels like it has much more dramatic weight behind it, and impressive. The DNA remix also alters when the song finishes – the original ends with Vega finishing her coffee and going to catch a train while also containing the intriguing but unexpanded-upon line “I am thinking of your voice”. Dropping the final verse means the song finishes on a sort of lyrical ellipse, with the slightly-staggered “to the bells of the cathedral” line suggesting that there will be more of life’s little events to observe. In other words the original has a closed ending – she gets up and leaves – and the remix has an open ending, where continuing vignettes are implied. This is, simply, brilliant, expanding the original without in any way taking away from it and lending some genuine additional power to an already great song. It is precisely what a good remix should do. This is the song’s first legacy – demonstrating just how much greatness can be derived from a song just by switching around a few elements.
Vega, by her own admission, loved what DNA did with her song and understandably so. But the original version has its place in history as well – the second legacy of “Tom’s Diner” is the one that gives Suzanne Vega the moniker “The Mother of MP3’s”. Well, it had to be someone. The story goes that Karlheinz Brandenburg (very much the father of the MP3, since he designed the compression algorithm that we now know as the MP3) heard the song “Tom’s Diner” playing on the radio and decided that it would be the perfect test for his new compression technique, which was (and is) designed to shrink music files to a practical size. Brandenburg responded to the warmth of Vega’s voice and thought it would be the ideal stress-test – if that voice sounded good after being run through compression then just about anything would.
And fair enough, the production of “Tom’s Diner” does make terrific use of the warmth and naturalness of Vega’s voice. It’s not a “technically accomplished” performance, per se, but that’s not what it’s about – it’s about capturing an essence, and that’s what Vega’s voice does so well and what Brandenburg responded too. The end result was that Brandenburg tweaked his algorithm until Vega sounded just right and that algorithm became the finished version of MP3 compression – hence why she’s known as the Mother Of MP3’s. Of course there’s way more to MP3 than that, and the codec has been worked on, developed, tweaked and played around with by many, many people over the years as technology has improved and refinements have been made. But it was “Tom’s Diner” that helped bring the original to fruition. It’s a curious second legacy to a warm, endearing and enchanting little song – and it’s not a bad heritage to have.
Meanwhile, it’s time head down the Atlantic highway to ask one very simple question – is there anything more glorious than the sound of Kate Pierson’s voice at full pelt? She has an absolutely astounding voice, able to give joy to just about any track she appears on, whether it’s a myriad of B52’s songs, helping to breathe life into R.E.M.’s otherwise-not-wholly-convincing “Shiny Happy People”, or playing the part of Iggy Pop’s neglected girlfriend on the brilliant single “Candy” (also released in 1990). Whatever she does, it’s always magnificent. And the height of public awareness of just how undeniably fabulous her voice is comes, of course, “Love Shack”.
It reached Number 2 in the UK and Number 3 in the US, but of course the song’s legacy far outpaces its chart performance at the turn of the decade. It’s “Love Shack”, for goodness sake! From the moment those drums kick in there’s just something so undeniably captivating about “Love Shack” – once that song has started you can’t shut it off till it’s done. When Fred Schneider practically declaims, “you see a faded sign at the side of the road it says fifteen miles to the…” before handing over to the explosive, “looooooove shack!” that’s it – you’re in and you are staying in. It’s a joyfully loose song, shambolic in all the ways a good party should be but with just enough structure to hold it all together.
It’s fairly traditional in style for a B-52’s song – compare to the likes of “Planet Claire” or even “Rock Lobster” and the difference is easy to see – but it’s just so irrepressible that it never feels like it’s courting accusations of sell-out. And the whole band are feeding into the greatness of the song. Sometimes it’s a big moment like Pierson’s brassy vocals on the chorus. Sometimes it’s something absurdly simple like Cindy Wilson’s, “tin roof! Rusted!” that brings the whole song to a stop before crashing back to into the chorus. The whole thing is just carried off with such aplomb.
The song is produced by Don Was (production duties on the album were split between Was and Nile Rogers) who holds everything together admirably, though a small note –the album version is actually superior to the single version. The single version truncates the “bang bang bang / on the door baby” section by a fair bit and completely unnecessarily – this was done to shorten the song from the album version (which runs at 5:21) to something a little less unwieldy for radio play (the single is 4:15, shaving off over a minute). But it also undermines the build-up – after the explosion of energy from the second chorus the song falls back a bit to allow the listener to catch their breath. That’s what the “bang bang bang” section provides, and the length of it on the album version lets the listener do just that before winding all the way back up to maximum power again. The extra time taken gives the climax extra punch precisely because it took a little longer to get to. The shorter version undercuts this a little.
Not that it’s too troublesome – in either version “Love Shack” is an outstanding single, and one that helped restore the fortunes of the B-52’s which had been in decline for some years. They really couldn’t have asked for a better song to help reconnect with audiences, and a second single from the album, “Roam”, is, if anything, even better. No mean feat, that. Both “Love Shack” and “Tom’s Diner”, despite being very different types of songs, do have one thing in common though. They’re from the heart. Whether it’s hazy recollections from a rain-soaked eatery in the big city or fun times hanging out with your pals in the middle of nowhere, both songs are united by how genuine they are. And that’s what makes both songs such winners. There’s no pretentions, no self-importance and no artifice. These are two heart-felt songs that do an amazing job of delivering the goods in two completely different but, ultimately, complimentary styles.
The decade is off to an amazing start.
What Else Happened in 1990?
Madonna continues to court controversy, first with her Blonde Ambition tour (including that famous cone bra, courtesy of Jean-Paul Gautier) then with “Justify My Love”, the video for which is promptly banned due to its sexual content. The Red, Hot + Blue AIDS benefit album is released, with modern artists interpreting the work of Cole Porter. Rod Stewart marries Rachel Hunter and Mick Jagger marries Jerry Hall (not all at the same time). One of the biggest bands of the 90’s, Pearl Jam, are founded and Eurythmics, one of the biggest groups of the 80’s, disband. They Might Be Giants gain unexpected mainstream success with Flood, and The Lightning Seeds debut with the charming Cloudcuckooland. MC Hammer parachute-pants his way into public consciousness with Please Hammer… Don’t Hurt ‘Em and MTV launches the Unplugged series, featuring Squeeze as the first incumbent. Iggy Pop pulls out of his 80’s slump with Brick By Brick, and N.W.A. are 100 Miles and Runnin’. George Michael entreats us to Listen Without Prejudice while The Happy Mondays have Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches. Depeche Mode fulfil all that potential with their best album, Violator, and Public Enemy give us Fear Of A Black Planet. The biggest single of the year – and of her career – is Sinead O’Connor’s Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U”, though the rest of the Top 5 singles are pretty hit and miss. Madonna is inevitably in there with “Vogue” at the Number 2 position, though she’s only one ahead of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (a song better than the Queen/David Bowie hit “Under Pressure” from which it flagrantly stole the bassline, though that’s not saying much), and behind them are MC Hammer and, erm, Roxette. Still there are a few great singles – Dee-lite’s fabulous “Groove Is In The Heart”, Iggy Pop’s “Candy”, Happy Monday’s “Kinky Afro”, and EMF’s adorable attempt at being bad boys “Unbelievable” are all released. And, at the age of 77, one of the most shout-able names in music passes away – “Leonard Bernstein!”
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Well not much, since we covered the two best contenders as it is. But putting that aside the actual answer is Pavarotti. In 1990 the England football squad made it to the World Cup semi-finals and the soundtrack to that achievement was Pavarotti belting out “Nessun Dorma”, which made it to Number 2 in the UK in June. Beyond that though the UK is mostly a collection of leftover 80’s dross with Kylie, Craig McLachlan, New Kids On The Block and, God help us all, Gazza all ascending to Number 2. Technotronic “Pump Up The Jam” early in the year in America and along similar lines Snap! have “The Power”. And, of all people, Bette Midler scrapes a late-in-the-year Number 2 in America with “From A Distance”. But best of all, Alannah Myles’s steamy Southern Gothic “Black Velvet” slithers its way to Number 2 in the UK in March and is, frankly, just a great single (it peaks at Number 1 for one whole week in the US, if you please).
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
11. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
12. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
13. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
14. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
15. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
16. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
17. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
18. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
19. Queen, “Killer Queen”
20. Blondie, “Denis”
21. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
22. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
23. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
24. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
25. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
26. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
27. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
28. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
29. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
30. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
31. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
32. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
33. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”