Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Ultravox 'Vienna'

Chart Peak: 13 [2 in 1981]
'Vienna' originally ade No. 2 in 1981... It returned to the chart in February '93 reaching No. 13... lead singer Midge Ure also had a successful solo career as well as having earlier hits with Slik and Visage.
You might have noticed that I've been a little late (like, about three weeks) with some of these posts. My apologies for that but on the positive side, it means I can report on what happened when a group of Eurovision fans including my brother went to Austria for the contest.

I've also had time to discover that somebody appears to have done an Ultravox/Shostakovich mash-up. It's handy to have a bit of extra content actually, because the trouble with writing about 'Vienna' is that everyone knows it. At least, I'm fairly confident that anyone who bothers to open this post will be very familiar with the song that was stuck in the runner-up position behind John Lennon and Joe Dolce. It was re-issued to promote a combined Ultravox/Midge Ure compilation and as it worked its way up the chart, I remember my Mum joking that it was at risk of being kept off the top this time by Rolf Harris, who was charting with his version of 'Stairway To Heaven'. Of course it didn't come to that in the end, but it was a big enough hit to justify an appearance on Now 24, if only to make up for the fact that there weren't any Now albums in 1981.

I've kind of vacillated in my opinions of the song over the years. Obviously I was too young to really notice it when it was in the chart originally, then as a slightly older child I wasn't interested in a slow song. Later I learnt of its history as a song denied the Number One position by a novelty record and came to the conventional wisdom that this was a travesty... then I decided it was pretentious and boring (as Tom Ewing said on Popular, 'Vienna' is certainly funnier than 'Shaddap You Face'). Now I've moved on again, probably as part of my greater appreciation of the music of the 1980s, and I've come to see the song's overwrought nature as a feature, more than a bug. I like that they've combined a very icy synth-pop melody with a big (and well-recorded) grand piano part and a string section, and also that this is a rare example of a hit single that speeds up in the middle. It has a proper big finish too, and for that reason I think this probably should have been pushed one place further back in the running order. Still, it's safely in my Top 3 Ultravox songs now with 'Young Savage' and 'The Voice'.

Also appearing on: Now 3
Available on: The Best Of Ultravox

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Bryan Ferry 'I Put A Spell On You (single mix long version)

Chart Peak:
Screaming Jay Hawkins 'I Put A Spell On You' has been recorded by acts as diverse as Nina Simone, Alan Price and Demon Fuzz... Ferry's interpretation returned him to the Top 20 in March '93
Third cover version on the trot. Now I've nothing against cover versions and in fact I'm listening to some as I type this, but Bryan Ferry's covers have never really appealed to me. At best they're over-theatrical expressions of his persona but this song, which is famously dramatic to start with, is tackled in a very bland manner. Presumably this is supposed to be intentional and somehow subversive, but it just sound like he's run out of ideas and filled his album with cover versions out of necessity. He sounds bored by his own record and you can hardly blame him.

Since 1993 the song has of course been recorded by many other acts including Annie Lennox, though the highest-charting version here was by Sonique. If you're one of the people who bought Now 48 after seeing it on Peter Kay's recent TV series you'll already know that.

Also appearing on: Now 5, 13
Available on: Best Of

Monday, 25 May 2015

Faith No More 'Easy'

Chart Peak: 3
Lionel Richie's 'Easy' was originally a Top 10 hit in 1977 for the Commodores... The song gave San Franciscan band Faith No More their biggest UK success to date when it reach No. 3 in January '93.
At least Lionel Richie gets his whole name in the sleevenote. Interestingly they don't mention that the Commodores track had returned to the UK chart in 1988 after being featured in a TV commercial so the song was even more familiar to younger people than it might otherwise have been. The FNM version, actually credited as 'I'm Easy' in the UK (though some pressings in other countries featured the original title) was indeed their biggest hit over here, though they retained a significant following. Indeed, at time of writing they're in the Top 10 with a comeback album despite little mainstream attention. Although the band were famous/notorious for their outrageous behaviour on and offstage, they play this song fairly straight, doing just enough to make it acceptable to people who wouldn't admit to liking a Lionel Richie record though with hindsight they mainly serve to show how well-produced the original version actually was. Perhaps doing a relatively "normal" cover version was supposed to be a shock in itself, or perhaps the release was a way of getting the listed flipside 'Be Agressive' (apparently an ode to gay fellatio) into the unsuspecting public's cassette players. It still seems a bit pointless now.

Also appearing on: Now 17
Available on: This Is It: The Best of Faith No More

Friday, 8 May 2015

Ugly Kid Joe 'Cats In The Cradle'

Chart Peak: 7
'Cats In The Cradle' was originally a 1974 American chart-topper for its writer Harry Chap {sic}... Ugly Kid Joe's version had reached No. 7 in the UK chart by 28th March 1993.
I didn't realise (and you might not have either) that Ugly Kid Joe has as many as five Top 40 singles in the UK, though only two of them were considered worthy of inclusion in the Now series; they were the only two that made the Top 20. The second of them was this, a version of the song Harry Chapin wrote from a poem by his wife about her previous husband's relationship with their son. It's a kind of sardonic morality tale with just enough self-mockery to tone down the preaching. I'm not sure whether UKJ wanted to mock this song or celebrate it and the trouble is they don't seem to either. It's not a sped-up thrashy version but it's not really confident enough to sound like a genuine cover either. Still, they lucked out by picking a song that hadn't been a hit in the UK before and made the Top 10.

Also appearing on: Now 22
Available on: America's Least Wanted

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Peter Gabriel 'Steam'

Chart Peak: 10
'Steam', a Top 10 hit in January '93, was Gabriel's biggest solo success since the classic 'Sledgehammer' in 1986... His live performance of the song was a highlight of the 1993 Brits Awards [sic] show.
The last of Peter Garbriel's four Now appearances, coincidentally (other than perhaps for generational reasons) on the same album as his former colleagues Genesis bow out. Indeed all four Now albums that feature Gabriel also feature his old band, though Ashley Abram resisted the temptation ever to sequence them next to each other.

Released in the UK as the second single from the album Us, 'Steam' is a highly atypical track, much more fun than the rest of the disc both in its upbeat musical mood and in the light-hearted wordplay and unusual rhymes of the lyric ("You know your sinner from your saint/ You know your stripper from your paint/Whenever heaven's door are shut, you'll get them open but/ I know you". Although the song is ostensibly about a woman who understands everything except herself, there's a subtext of the same sexual energy as 'Sledgehammer', the song in his catalogue this most closely resembles. Indeed the song seems in places almost a conscious attempt to produce a successor to his biggest hit, but is saved from the appearance of cynicism by its genuine joie de vivre and the uncommercial decision to release a six minute single with no radio edit; the video edit is a little shorter though, presumably because of the cost of the special effects. It was reported at the time that Gabriel had been scanned into the computers to such a level of detail that future music videos could theoretically be made without his direct involvement, although I don't think he ever tested that theory. Whatever format they were encoded in is probably obsolete these days anyway. Besides, with the dark and highly personal nature of the album it's no bad thing to have a spot of light relief. It would have been false advertising to make this the first single off his album, but that's probably why it wasn't. It still works out of context anyway.

I hadn't seen the Brits performance before. It looks like it would have been quite something if I wasn't viewing it through an ancient VHS recording.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 8, 23
Available on: Us (Remastered)

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Depeche Mode 'I Feel You'

Chart Peak: 8
Consistent hitmakers since 1981, Depeche Mode have now had 20 Top 20 hits in Britain following the success of 'I Feel You' (no. 8 in February '93)... The group are also one of the biggest live acts in the world.
Second of only three Now appearances from DM, and whilst the three songs that made the grade aren't necessarily their best-known work they do give quite a flattering account of the band's work. 'I Feel You' was the first single from their first Number One album Songs Of Faith And Devotion, and showcases their new rock-oriented direction. Even more so than I thought, actually - I'd always assumed that Alan Wilder playing drums in the video was an affectation, but it turns out he really did play live drums, albeit that they were subsequently re-edited to produce a slightly unrealistic sound. Indeed, it's because Depeche Mode were synth-poppers playing at making rock music that this track sounds so odd and dramatic - I almost wish they'd stripped (no pun intended) the track even further down to concentrate on the riff and Dave Gahan's impassioned if not very melodic vocal. Still it's distinctive and I'd probably listen to it more often if they'd included the radio edit without that screechy feedback at the start.

Also appearing on: Now 17, 62
Available on: The Best Of Depeche Mode, Vol. 1 (Remastered)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Lenny Kravitz 'Are You Gonna Go My Way'

Chart Peak: 4
'Are You Gonna Go My Way', No. 4 in March '93, is Lenny's biggest British single to date... As well as being a successful solo performer, he has co-written/produced worldwide hits like Madonna's 'Justify My Love' and Vanessa Paradis' 'Be My Baby'.
It's a fun little game to watch the video for this song and try to work out how many other people Lenny Kravitz fancies himself as. Jimi Hendrix obviously, then he's waving his dreadlocks around like Bob Marley and showing off that he has a female drummer in a way that slightly reminds me of Prince, and he talks over his own vocal like Marvin Gaye did on What's Going On, whilst the crown of bright lights descending towards him suggests he might even have thought he was Jesus. Perhaps this is intended to be a joke, but even so he doesn't come over as a modest man. In reality, as opposed to the video, he actually played the drums on this track himself which is why I suspect that flaunting the lady drummer was a Prince wannabe move - it's also why I don't blame her for how boring the drumming on this track actually is. Kravitz certainly knows his music history and has technical skill, and he's come with an undeniably strong riff for this song but he seems to lack the imagination to do anything really exciting with it, the key change in the second verse is about as far as it goes. Maybe if he'd recorded live there'd have been more of a feel to it.

Also appearing on: Now 26, 42
Available on: Greatest Hits [Explicit]