Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Massive Attack featuring Tracey Thorn 'Protection'

Chart Peak: 14
YouTube
Massive Attack - a floating collective of rappers, DJs, singers and musicians - have featured at one time or another, talents such as Tricky, Shara Nelson and Nellee Hooper... 'Protection', a No.14 hit in January '95, features the vocal talents of Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn.
Funny they should mention Tricky, when only a couple of days ago he was performing on Radio 4 alongside June Whitfield. Not a very obvious combination of bookings, that. However, he's not involved with this particular track, though he does appear elsewhere on the album. Nellee Hooper's production is unmistakable of course.
In her autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star, Thorn describes receiving the original demo cassette which included the backing track for the song song that became 'Protection'. With no lyrics or vocal melody, there was only a very minimal loop, presumably just the beat and guitar samples from 'The Payback' by James Brown (which had of course already appeared as part of 'The Payback Mix' on Now 12) at a very slow pace. She admits that it was a difficult sound to get used to initially, but claims to have finally got the inspiration to write a lyric and finished the whole job in ten minutes.
And what a lyric it is too. The arresting first verse "This girl I know needs some shelter... You can't change the way she feels, but you can put your arms around her" was apparently inspired by an unnamed person some friends had told her about, but the later parts of the song are of course based on her own protective feelings towards partner Ben Watt, then recovering from a near-fatal illness. In truth, the two parts are not entirely distinct, the real point of the lyric being about mutual support "I leaned on you for years, now you can lean on me/ That's more than love, that's the way it should be", reinforced by the swapping "You're a boy and I'm a girl" lyric to emphasise the role reversal not as a novelty but as a natural even instinctive reaction. Of course this also fits with Thorn's feminist principles and rejection of gender stereotypes. In this context, it's hard not the feel that the "girl I know" in the first verse could easily be the protagonist, though of course not necessarily the real-life Thorn. A song of determination rather than than physical strength or aggression (and thus, as some have pointed out, an inversion of the James Brown source) it's perfectly set by Thorn's mournful but steely vocal and the gradual sweep of Hooper's brilliant arrangement.

You can see why Massive ended up naming the album (their best one, in my opinion) after this song, although oddly it was only the second single released. Perhaps this was intentional so that they could put it out in January for maximum impact. Even in the shorter radio edit featured here the track packs a big punch, though even more so with the addition of Michel Gondry's outstanding promo video. Much as I'd like to boast about being into this at the time, the reality is that I was even less ready than Tracey Thorn and didn't really appreciate the song until a few years later. Still, I was lucky enough to acquire both CD single formats in that nice cardboard wallet (protection, you see) for only 50p a couple of years ago. And much as I hate to end on a superficial note, aren't the discs a lovely shade of blue?

Also appearing on: Now 19 [as Massive], 29, 40, 54
Available on: Singles Collection

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Eternal 'Oh Baby I...'

Chart Peak: 4
YouTube
'Oh Baby I...' was Eternal's 5th consecutive hit and one of the biggest to date for Vernie, Easther, Louise and Kelle... It was a No. 4 smash in November '94
Nothing seems more inevitable on a mid-90s Now album than an Eternal track, does it? This at least has some significance as the last appearance (though penultimate hit) by the original quartet before Louise left/was pushed out. It's also the song that gives debut album Always and Forever its title, despite being the fifth single released from it.

To be honest it's a bit sappier than I remembered it being, but it is sort of catchy and the single mix has some nice sitar-like guitars that remind me of some early-70s soul tracks. Much as they remind me that I'd rather be listening to those instead of this, I'm still happy to rank this among the better Eternal singles.

Also appearing on: Now 26, 27, 28, 29, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37, 38
Available on: The Best

Monday, 18 August 2014

R. Kelly 'Bump N' Grind'

Chart Peak: 8
YouTube
'Bump N Grind' was the 4th UK hit in just 8 months for Chicago's Robert Kelly... It made No. 8 in January '95 and followed 'Your Body's Callin', 'Summer Bunnies' and 'She's Got That Vibe' into the chart.
Indeed, there isn't actually anything particularly wrong with a little bump and grind between consenting adults. Anyway, on to R. Kelly, who'd yet to turn into the chart-dominating star he soon was and was just an RnB vocalist with a strong tally of hits behind him. For that matter, this whole style of music wasn't quite mainstream all over the country in the mid-90s, though it certainly seemed to be what the singles buyers of North-West London wanted.

Nostalgia or no nostalgia, this song still isn't very good. In fact, whilst I've warmed to some of this music in the years since it was totally alien to my Britpop-loving teenage self, most of Kelly's music remains equally tasteless and given his success as writer and producer as well as his own hits, I think he deserves a lot of blame for the blandness of the genre (or at least the male-fronted side of it) from this point onwards. At least female singers would often be backed by an innovative production, but male singers seemed to need only some loverman posturing and to repeat the title often enough and there was a Top 10 hit for them. This is perhaps the definitive example of this and so sounds even worse than it actually is.

Also appearing on: Now 28, 29, 37, 40 (with Sparkle), 41, 44, 51, 55, 59
Available on: The Essential R. Kelly

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Shut Up And Dance 'Save It Till The Mourning After'

Chart Peak: 25

YouTube
Duo PJ and Smiley are Shut Up And Dance - they caused a storm with their 1992 smash 'Raving I'm Raving' which reached No. 2 despite being deleted on release... 'Save It Till The Mourning After', based on Duran Duran's 1982 classic, is due for release on 20/3/95.
There's already been a bit of an Eighties theme in the last few tracks, thanks to Simple Minds, The Human League and Sting, so a partial return of Duran Duran seems only fitting. The "classic" referred to in that note is, for those who don't know, 'Save A Prayer', whence this track gets its chorus and punning title.

'Raving I'm Raving' was a track that arguably made No.2 because it was deleted (due to an uncleared sample) and there was a rush to purchase it while people had the chance - presumably this is also why it never made it to a Now album, though a legalised version was later released on one of their albums. Because of that song I'd kind of remembered them as a dance act - and a dance track looping the Duran Duran track would not be a surprising thing to find - so I was faintly surprised that this is in fact a slightly inept socially conscious hip-hop track. It obviously means well but the targets are a bit obvious and there's not a lot of sharp observation or verbal dexterity, and unfortunately I don't really like the Duran song enough to really enjoy this but I have some respect for it.

Available on: Black Men United

Friday, 15 August 2014

Sting 'This Cowboy Song'

Chart Peak: 15
YouTube
'This Cowboy Song' was a sparkling No. 15 hit for Sting together with toaster Pato Banton in early '95... Sting's other solo successes include 'Englishman In New York', 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', 'Seven Days' and 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You'.
I'm not sure why of all Sting solo hits up to this point, anybody would mention the Number 25 hit 'Seven Days' over a bigger hit like 'Fields Of Gold', or indeed the single before this 'When We Dance', which had been his only solo Top 10 hit (apart from collaborations). Like that single, the original version of 'This Cowboy song and its hammy video were promotional tools for the former Police man's first hits compilation; however the lead track on the British single was this more reggae-oriented mix with the addition of a verse by Pato Banton. It was a well-timed addition since Banton, though a well-established presence on the reggae scene, had just had a Number One in late 1994 with his version of 'Baby Come Back', establishing himself temporarily as a mainstream presence and as current pop star, he may have been there to make a Sting single seem a bit more relevant than it otherwise would; I know it was barely fifteen years after the early Police hits but Sting had something of an image problem and even though he could still get his singles onto the radio and into the charts, he was already perceived as quite MOR.

If the song had actually been any good it might even have worked. The Banton version is certainly an improvement, just because his "follow your destiny" section emphasises the silliness of the song, but you couldn't really call this a highlight of anyone's career, and that's probably why nobody seems to remember it now. One of those interesting little byways of the Now albums.

Also appearing on: Now 18
Available on: Fields Of Gold - The Best Of Sting 1984 - 1994

Thursday, 14 August 2014

M People 'Sight For Sore Eyes'

Chart Peak:
YouTube
The last 3 years have seen M People rise from dance act to pop group to household name... 'Sight For Sore Eyes' followed previous smashes such as 'Moving on Up' and 'One Night In Heaven' into the Top 10 in November '94.
Some readers may not be surprised that when I looked up this video, my first thought was to try and identify the scap cars they use as a backdrop. I think it's (l-r): Austin Montego, Ford Escort Mk 3 3-door, Vauxhall Astra Mk1 or possibly Opel Kadet, Escort Mk 3 5-door, Ford Cortina Mk 4 and Renault 11, but I am very much open to correction. Needless to say, the song title also reminded me of a well-known joke by TV's Tim Vine of Housemates fame: "Conjuctivitis.com, that's a site for sore eyes."

I suppose you could make some sort of tenuous analogy between M People in the 90s and the Human League in the 80s - both amassed impressive runs of hits (this was the sixth of eight consecutive Top 10 hits, not counting a remix EP that only got to 32) after a slow start and then seemed to fall from favour quite quickly, and neither of them was known for making obviously intellectual music. The difference was that where the League sometimes came over as knowingly inane, M People just got on with things and thus were widely considered uncool. I'm no great fans of either act but I am willing to say in public that Heather Small is a better singer than Phil Oakey, and at least when she sings "at the drop of a hat" on this song she knows what she's talking about - imagine trying to keep a hat on top of that hair.

OK, so it's another post where I've put off discussing the song itself. It's not bad in an upbeat gospel-pop way but neither is it truly inspiring. At least it has some joy to it.

Also appearing on: Now 26, 27, 28
Available on: One Night In Heaven: The Very Best Of M People [Clean]

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Human League 'Tell Me When'

Chart Peak: 6
YouTube
Originally formed back in 1978, the Human League's ingenious marriage of pop sensibility and synthesiser technology spawned numerous 1980s hits... 'Tell Me When' saw them return with a Top 10 smash in January '95.
Third act in a row with their last Top 10 hit, although unlike the previous two tracks this isn't a final Now appearance. Despite the rather defensive tone of the Wikipedia article on this song, 'Tell Me When' has some strong claim to be a comeback hit, their highest-charting track in the UK since '(Keep Feeling) Fascination' way back on the first Now album, albeit assisted by release in what was then the "dead" week between Christmas and New Year. It was also the first fruit of their new contract with Eastwest, and their first single as a trio. Remarkably, it even went Top 40 in the US "after the early-1990s grunge movement had essentially eliminated their genre from the mainstream," as that Wikipedia article puts it.

So, an eventful single in the band's history. Not that eventful to listen to though, as it's a pale rewrite of 'Love Action' with anything that was distinctive about that track in favour of a very slick production and some boringly competent singing - even the rough edges that were once the most interesting thing about them have been sanded off. I don't hate this track but only because it provokes no reaction at all beyond recognition.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 8, 13, 31, 32
Available on: Octopus