Music

The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan Was The First Female Vocalist To Win The Hottest 100

The Cranberries singer died on Monday aged 46.

On March 20, 1993, two bombs planted by Irish republicans exploded in the UK city of Warrington, injuring dozens and killing two young boys: 12-year-old Tim Parry and 3-year-old Jonathan Ball.

The bombings shocked the UK and Ireland, and had a profound effect on The Cranberries’ late vocalist Dolores O’Riordan, who was sitting on a tour bus in London with her band when the news of the attack broke.

“I remember at the time there were a lot of bombs going off in London and the Troubles were pretty bad,” she told Team Rock magazine in November last year. “I remember being on tour and being in the UK at the time when the child died, and just being really sad about it all. These bombs are going off in random places. It could have been anyone, you know?”

So a couple of months later, on a rare break between tours for their album Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We?, O’Riordan sat down at her home in Limerick with an acoustic guitar and began putting together the skeleton of a song called ‘Zombie’.

“I remember being in my flat, coming up with the chorus, which was catchy and anthemic,” she said. “So I took it into rehearsals, and I picked up the electric guitar. Then I kicked in distortion on the chorus, and I said to Ferg [Fergal Lawler, drums]: ‘Maybe you could beat the drums pretty hard.’ Even though it was written on an acoustic, it became a bit of a rocker.

“That was the most aggressive song we’d written. ‘Zombie’ was quite different to what we’d done before.”

When ‘Zombie’ was eventually released in September 1994, its effect was immediate. It rocked to #1 a number of countries, was certified platinum in Australia and Germany, and beat out Michael Jackson and TLC to win Best Song at the MTV Music Awards in 1995. The Cranberries’ album No Need To Argue went on to sell 17 million copies.

Australian audiences were particularly gripped by the song, and in January of 1994 we voted it in at #1 of triple j’s Hottest 100 — marking the first time ever that a female vocalist had taken out the top spot in a Hottest 100 countdown (there were polls in 1989, 1990, and 1991 — the yearly Hottest 100 ranking that we know now began officially in 1993.)

And for a long time, O’Riordan stood alone in the countdown’s history. Spiderbait bassist and vocalist Janet English made it to the top with the track ‘Buy Me A Pony’ in 1996 (English sang on a number of the band’s tracks, but only contributed backing vocals on ‘Pony’) so it wasn’t until 2010 that another female vocalist got to #1 outright, when Julia Stone and her brother Angus took it out with ‘Big Jet Plane’.

There haven’t been many since then: Kimbra featured on Gotye’s winning song ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ in 2011, and Kai contributed vocals for Flume’s ‘Never Be Like You’ in 2016. But in terms of female-fronted acts, O’Riordan still remains one of only two women to sing on a #1 song.

“It’s a tough thing to sing about, but when you’re young you don’t think twice about things, you just grab it and do it,” O’Riordan said about the confronting themes of ‘Zombie’. “As you get older you develop more fear and you get more apprehensive, but when you’re young you’ve no fear.”

O’Riordan died on Monday in London aged 46. Listen to ‘Zombie’ below.