Why Peter Murphy's 'Cuts You Up' Was One of the Biggest Alternative Hits of the Pre-'Nevermind' '90s

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Peter Murphy, "Cuts You Up"

This week, Billboard celebrates the 30th anniversary of our Alternative Songs chart. Here, we take an extended look at Peter Murphy's dawn-of-the-'90s hit "Cuts You Up" -- the oldest song in our all-time Alternative Songs chart ranking's top 10 -- and explain why it was emblematic of the genre in the pre-grunge era

When flashing back to the idea of '90s alternative, one song that might not come immediately to mind is Peter Murphy's "Cuts You Up." However, the second single from the ex-Bauhaus frontman's 1989 album Deep was a massive hit. "Cuts You Up" spent seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart (then called Modern Rock Tracks) starting in February 1990 -- back when the chart was still in its very early days -- and ended up ranked No. 9 on Billboard's all-time Alternative Songs chart.

The song's appeal is easy to parse. Sonically, "Cuts You Up" is striking and mysterious, based around a moody, autumnal violin sample, which gives way to faint acoustic guitars, a curving bass line and insistent drums. Lyrically, the song is poetic and elliptical, with vague references to something profoundly transformative (sample: "You know the way it leaves you dry/ It cuts you up and takes you high") that provokes soul-searching.

Fittingly, Murphy himself prefers to keep the hit’s meaning malleable. In a 2017 SongFacts interview, when asked what "takes you in and spits you out," he responded that it referred to "the path of discovery, self-knowledge, wisdom…once you feel you have it." Then, he adds, the path will "spit you out or off the way, and ruin your assumptions of this path."

This slippery message dovetails neatly with the then-loose alternative radio environment. Pre-grunge, "modern rock" was an umbrella term encompassing myriad genres -- to name a few, reggae, industrial, synth-pop, power-pop, neo-psychedelia, shoegaze, and proto-Britpop. Although there were certainly songs and acts that crossed over to the album rock or pop charts, a modern rock-tagged song just sounded different from prevailing trends; it was a case where you knew an alternative tune when you heard it. 

This diversity was partly a reflection of the Modern Rock Tracks reporting panel: a mix of major commercial stations known for risk-taking playlists (KROQ in Los Angeles; WHFS in Washington, D.C./Baltimore; and WFNX and WBCN in Boston) and ever-adventurous college radio stations. But the burgeoning alternative format was also filling an industry void -- namely, that most traditional album rock stations weren't playing new or cutting-edge music, despite the undeniable popularity of these artists. (For example, Depeche Mode famously drew over 60,000 fans to Pasadena's Rose Bowl for a June 1988 concert)

"Modern rock" became a catch-all term (and alternative radio stations a de facto home) for artists that weren't initially welcomed by the mainstream -- a fact borne out by 1988 Billboard reporting that "as mainstream rock outlets tightened their playlists, more labels were turning to alternative stations for airplay." In fact, then-CBS Records president Al Teller used part of his 1988 NARM keynote speech to criticize album rock radio: "With an ever-shrinking number of exceptions, AOR is not the first place to look for new artists, to discover new music. AOR has largely become COR -- catalog-oriented radio."

Peter Murphy had, to that point, built his career on forward-thinking music. In 1978, he started fronting Bauhaus, the tar-boiled U.K. post-punks whose minor-key abrasions and macabre glam swooning created the blueprint for gothic rock. With Bauhaus, Murphy was a dark-arts carnival barker, unleashing gulping shrieks, cautionary growls and horror-icon hysteria -- an unholy combination of Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop, with a dash of Nick Cave thrown in for good measure. Even still, the band remained mostly a cult fascination in the States: Only "Kick In the Eye," which peaked at No. 29 on the dance charts in 1981, made any mainstream headway.

After Bauhaus dissolved in 1983, the quartet split off into various projects and factions. Guitarist Daniel Ash and drummer Kevin Haskins focused on the side project Tones On Tail -- whose kinetic "Go!" was prominently sampled by Moby for his own similarly titled dance hit -- and then formed the revved-up rock band Love and Rockets with bassist David J. The bluesy "No New Tale To Tell" peaked at No. 18 on the Album Rock Tracks chart in 1988. But in 1989, somewhat improbably, Love and Rockets became the first Bauahus-relatetd project to land a bona fide crossover hit: The seductive soul burn "So Alive" spent five weeks atop the Modern Rock Tracks chart and crossed over to the Top 40, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Murphy, meanwhile, took longer to find his footing. He formed a short-lived band with Japan's Mick Karn, Dalis Car, and then launched a solo career, releasing two albums that resonated mainly with fans, 1986's Should the World Fail to Fall Apart and 1988's Love Hysteria. Produced by ex-The Fall member Simon Rogers, Deep resonated much more strongly. In fact, "Cuts You Up" was actually the album's second radio hit: "The Line Between The Devil's Teeth (And That Which Cannot Be Repeated)," a Bowie-circa-Scary Monsters grind, peaked at No. 18 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1989.

When Murphy finally had his first U.S. solo singles chart entries, the timing was no accident. Not only was the success of Love and Rockets galvanizing -- and a sign that culture was finally ready to embrace post-Bauhaus projects -- but the early years of the Modern Rock Tracks chart were particularly open to British acts.

In particular, the chart especially welcomed the post-punks, gothic gloom merchants, and iconoclastic singer-songwriters that emerged in the late '70s and early '80s. Between the chart's September 1988 inception and the chart dating from the week of September 21, 1991 -- a.k.a., the week Nirvana's game-changing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" debuted -- the following artists earned No. 1s: Siouxsie and the Banshees ("Kiss Them For Me," "Peek-A-Boo"); Kate Bush ("Love and Anger"); Depeche Mode ("Policy of Truth," "Enjoy the Silence"); Robyn Hitchcock ("So You Think You're In Love"); Echo & The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch ("Proud to Fall"); and Psychedelic Furs ("Until She Comes," "House").

In addition to similar geographical origins, these chart-topping veteran artists shared two other major characteristics: striking vocal presence and cult of personality. Murphy also possessed both of these in spades, but refined them with Deep: For the first time, he sounds comfortable as a solo artist. (Somewhat ironically, he recorded the album with his live band at the time, the One Hundred Men.) Deep streamlined his strengths -- a black-velvet voice, languid emotional drama, and ink-dark instrumentation -- with focused songwriting and poised performances.

On "Cuts You Up" especially, Murphy turns in an expectation-inverting vocal delivery that exudes longing and passion. The song's power comes from wordless chorus murmurs, which are interrupted only by him uttering the titular phrase, and steely emotional strength. As the song crests, and Murphy reveals a clue to enlightenment ("Move the heart, switch the pace/ Look for what seems out of place"), his voice becomes more urgent, which elevates the song into orbit.

Murphy would go on to have three more Modern Rock Tracks hits (including the 1992 No. 2 "The Sweetest Drop"), although "Cuts You Up" remains his biggest U.S. hit and a staple of solo shows. The song did find a home on retro specialty shows once alternative radio recentered around grunge, but its airplay today is extremely light, especially when compared to other huge '90s modern rock hits. One contributing factor? Unlike other songs of this era, "Cuts You Up" hasn't received a pop culture boost via syncs or soundtrack appearances. Quite appropriately, however, the tune did feature prominently in one recent TV moment: "Be Our Guest," the finale episode of 2016's American Horror Story: Hotel.