It doesn’t get nearly as much attention as, say, 1992, but 1989 may have been the most interesting year for modern rock.
The reason for this was that the creation of Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart the year prior created a context for people in the music industry who never would have had a chance at having a mainstream hit otherwise. And MTV, with its 120 Minutes franchise going strong, was ready to push the songs, too.
And during the first year of that chart, that meant that musicians that had defined the music industry’s fringes were starting to clean up their act a little bit. They were doing things that were actually honest-to-God radio friendly, and that was weird.
Pere Ubu is a great example of this. Here’s what they sounded like in 1979, via early single “The Fabulous Sequel (Have Shoes Will Walk).” They sounded messy and unhinged, a great example of post-punk that did more to build legends than sell records. But in 1989, they wore down the edges for their album Cloudland, which featured the song “Waiting for Mary,” a song that put David Thomas’ lyrics about being stuck in a diner in a cheese-pop context with a passing resemblance to both Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” also released that year, and early singles by Barenaked Ladies. It's a guilty pleasure. You didn't know Pere Ubu had it in them.
(This late-‘80s context also created fascinating situations like the existence of David Sanborn’s show Night Music, which, in a single episode, had Pere Ubu, Loudon Wainwright, Philip Glass, and Deborah Harry on the same stage—a downright surreal level of talent that could be apparently found on every episode of the show!)
And that meant veteran acts that never would have been played on mainstream radio previously were actually making a go of it. It’s in this context that Adrian Belew’s fourth solo album, Mr. Music Head, came out. Belew was well-known in music circles for his impressive resume—he got his break as Frank Zappa’s guitarist, and spent time working with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson, among other acts. This led to a long-running role as King Crimson’s lead singer and second guitarist—a very plum spot to land. He gained a reputation as a musician’s musician, though not a rock star.
But he was also a dad, and while recording Mr. Music Head, he wrote a goofy song with his 10-year-old daughter Audie, in which the duo basically made fun of his career up to that point. Per Something Else, it just so happened that someone associated with Atlantic Records walked in and heard the song as it was being recorded.
“There was a guy there that came through who was a producer for Atlantic Records,” Belew told the outlet. “He heard it and fell in love. He didn’t hear any of the other stuff, but he was ready to sign me. My whole career with Atlantic was based on that song, something that I didn’t think I would put out anyway.”
This led to Belew’s solo album appearing on Atlantic—and being driven by a cute novelty single intended for his daughter. It became a massive hit on both the modern rock charts and on the Billboard Hot 100.
The idea was technically out of the Zappa playbook—just ask Moon Unit about “Valley Girl”—but in some ways, the result was far stranger, because little in Belew’s career suggested this was the thing that was gonna be his breakthrough. It sounded like Belew had accidentally stumbled onto the Blossom theme song two years before Mayim Bialik did.
“No one was the least bit interested in the material that I had until suddenly ‘Oh Daddy’ appeared on the scene,” Belew told Ultimate Classic Rock.
Fortunately for Belew, it was a hit, but it wasn’t that big of a hit, fading out after a while after taking over MTV and VH1 for a time. The non-characteristic song didn’t come to define his career.
And 1989 would not come to define alternative rock, despite the handful of big records that came out that year. It would not truly hit the mainstream for another two to three years. Still, 1989 should not be forgotten as alternative rock’s weirdest year, where many of the songs straddled the lines of college rock and mainstream pop—and outside of their contemporary context, they sound literally bizarre.