Monday, 2 March 2015

Kim Wilde 'You Keep Me Hangin' On'

Chart Peak: 2
Originally a Top 10 hit for the Supremes in December 1966, Kim's version charted at No. 36 on 21st October and raced to No. 15 the following week.
So it turns out this is the second consecutive track that's a US Number One by a British act who never topped the domestic chart. Of course it's more remarkable in the case of Wilde because she had so many hits in total, amking her more comparable to the aforementioned likes of Genesis and Bananarama than to Cutting Crew even though it was into 1987 when this topped the US chart.

The original version of this song is a notable work of production, compressing many changes of mood and pace into a brief running time to ratchet up tension. Apparently Kim Wilde and her producing brother Ricki had forgotten this by the time they recorded this cover (they admitted they hadn't heard the song for some time) and they settled for a simplistic version which is supposed to be Hi-NRG-influenced but is mid-NRG at best. The closest this gets to being impressive is the amount of hair she has in the video.

Also appearing on: Now 8, 13, 14, 25
Available on: Another Step

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Cutting Crew (I Just Died) In Your Arms

Chart Peak: 4
Charted at No. 74 on 12th August, had sped to No. 4 by 16th September to become Cutting Crew's first hit single.
Arguably the two most different tracks on Side Three are right up against each other at the end. One thing Cutting Crew do have in common with Billy Bragg is that neither of them graced the main Now series again, although they're not quite the one-hit wonders you might recall them as: 'I've Been In Love Before' had two runs in the Top 40 and peaked as high as 24.

I must admit that it never occurred to me until now that Cutting Crew could be any nationality other than American, but apparently they were mostly British though ultimately more successful in the USA. This single was recorded there and certainly has every hallmark of being aimed at radio stations in that market: it's almost a textbook example of every mid-80s soft-rock cliche. Keyboard pads, a bit where it goes slightly quiet and builds up again, a "polite" guitar solo exactly where you expect it to be, endless repetitions of the big chorus... in fact only a few minutes after listening to it I'm already struggling to remember the verses but they're not really the point. Singer Nick Van Eede, a man clearly unfamiliar with the concept of "too much information", explains that he had the idea for the song title while having sex with his girlfriend and wrote it down for future use. His girlfriend's reaction to this, or indeed to the chorus lyric "I should have walked away" is not recorded. The record has a remarkable inert quality, as if it's trying to bypass any need for anyone to actually like it and heading straight to being a hit (in fairness it did succeed). Several of the band were successful session musicians and with all due respect to that trade, they sound like session men on this track too.

Available on: The Best Of Cutting Crew

Friday, 27 February 2015

Billy Bragg 'Greetings To The New Brunette'

Chart Peak: 58
His previous single 'Levi Stubbs' Tears' was a Top 30 hit... 'Greetings' was released as the follow-up in late October.
OK, a couple of things to mention early on. Firstly, some discographies list this track as "Billy Bragg with Johnny Marr and Kirsty MacColl" [also how it was listed on the chart] so for consistency with earlier posts I'm continuing to credit them even though they're not mentioned on the sleeve of Now 8. Kirsty MacColl sings a prominent backing vocal towards the end of the track and Johnny Marr, he plays guitar. And as for that video, since it's been copied from VH-1 I have to assume that it's official, even though the combination of stock footage and home movies of Bragg not singing give it an oddly posthumous feel.

Billy Bragg is of course still very much among us but despite his high profile he's never been a consistent singles chart performer so Ashley Abram was taking quite a risk placing this track on the album. It of course didn't pay off as this is one of two singles on Now 8 that missed the Top 50. Interestingly both of them are the only solo appearances in the series by performers who had Top 20 hits that were uncompiled; Bragg can technically claim that his next chart appearance after this was at Number One with 'She's Leaving Home', though inevitably it was Wet Wet Wet's flipside that made it to Now 12. It's a bit of a cliche to say that most of Bragg's best writing deals with the personal rather than the political, but it's not entirely untrue; not least of course because the emotions he's discussing here are eternal. Throughout the song his protagonist addresses the unseen "Shirley" with whom he evidently has a testy but enjoyable relationship - not an over-the-top Burton/Taylor kind of thing, the sort of relationship normal people have. Though Bragg possibly thinks of himself as cleverer than his narrator he still leaves him and Shirley as sympathetic characters and throws in perhaps his most-quoted lyric "How can you lie back and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?" Although this doesn't quite have the same emotional impact as the aforementioned 'Levi Stubbs' Tears', neither does it have the hectoring tone of some of his songs, and the conversational tone of the performance is safely within his limited vocal range. A good song that could even have been a hit were it not for the confusing title; Bragg did eventually give in and re-record the song as 'Shirley' a decade later. If it seems out of place here, at least Bragg is sometimes better enjoyed in smaller doses.

Kirsty MacColl also appears on: Now 10 [with the Pogues], 15, 31
Available on: Must I Paint You a Picture?: The Essential Billy Bragg

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Big Country 'One Great Thing'

Chart Peak: 19
Charted at No. 27 on 16th September, made No. 19 the following week becoming the group's third Top 30 single of 1986.
In contrast to Huey Lewis, Big Country are an act that I do associate with Now albums, because even though they're only actually on four of them those appearances have increased the number of Big Country songs I'm familiar with to a significant extent. 'One Great Thing' sounded only glancingly familiar if that, probably because it was used in beer adverts on the telly at the time (and obviously those weren't scheduled during children's programmes) but it's fairly typical stuff, forceful Celtic rock with a uplifting positive lyrical message. Exactly the sort of thing I tend to regard with suspicion but weirdly I find myself quite liking this one. And I've even played it more than once so it can't just be that it caught me on the right day.

Perhaps ironically, given its seemingly anti-nationalist sentiment, the song was used as part of the Scottish independence campaign after Stuart Adamson's death. The band kept recording into the 1990s and a version continues to exist even now, releasing a new album with Mike Peters from the Alarm on vocals in 2013. Better to remember them this way though.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 4, 7
Available on: The Seer

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Huey Lewis And The News 'Stuck With You'

Chart Peak: 12
Charted at no. 48 on 19th August, this American chart-topper peaked at No. 12 on 30th September.
A one-off appearance for Lewis and his band, which might be why they sound a little out of place somehow. Maybe it's just the arrival of such an obviously American act after so many British groups, but they somehow don't seem to belong in the same reality as the Now albums. Indeed, they only ever had three Top 20 singles in Britain, and two of them were 'The Power Of Love', so they weren't really as big as they seemed, though they had a couple of successful albums.

As much as they always sounded like a polished version of a bar-room band, they also sounded like they knew they were lucky to get where they were and wanted to make sure everyone had fun. To quote one of their own song titles (ironically from 2001) 'We're Not Here For A Long Time. We're Here For A Good Time'. The track has an easy-going one-of-the-guys cheer that's hard to dislike but also hard to think much about. It even sounds charmingly apologetic.

Available on: Greatest Hits: Huey Lewis And The News

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Status Quo 'In The Army Now'

Chart Peak: 2
Quo's twentieth (Yes, twentieth) UK Top 10 hit since 1968 and one of their biggest to date, 'Army' charted at No. 29 on 30th September and had shot to No.2 by 28th October.
I don't think "shot to No.2" is supposed to be an army-based pun but you can't be sure can you? Although Side 3 is obviously supposed to be the "rock" side of the album, there's a bit of a contrast between the different styles. Not that Status Quo don't have a sense of humour - though I think it was less in evidence in the 1980s than it is now - but they're not noted for being subtle or trying to sneak in challenging political ideas. In fact, 'In The Army Now' is an atypically serious song from them, although few in Britain would have noticed that it is in fact a cover of a 1981 single by the Dutch duo Bolland (who were born in South Africa, so there's some connection to the Madness song after all) and if anything the Quo version is a little toned-down in its content: they drop the admittedly dated references to Vietnam for a start. By 2010, they re-recorded an even more pro-military version in collaboration with the actual army, and I'm sure somebody could write a whole thesis about changing attitudes to the armed forces in 21st-century Britain.

The 1986 recording is notable as the biggest Quo hit that deviates from the archetypal sound they discovered in the early 1970s, and a rare example of them covering a song in a style closer to the one it was originally in than to their own. Unfortunately this means it shares the great failing of the Madness track (in that it sounds very dated now) but it's also quite bland and has a pseudo-serious mood it can't live up to, however catchy the chorus is.

When I first started writing this and looked the song up on YouTube, I thought it was actually more interesting than I remembered. It turned out that I'd actually found the video for the 12" mix, which is rather more dramatic and less monotonous. I might have given that version a better review.

Also appearing on: Now 4, 14, 18, 33 (with the Beach Boys), 53
Available on: In The Army Now

Monday, 23 February 2015

Madness '(Waiting For) The Ghost Train'

Chart Peak: 18
Their farewell single after 21 Top 21 hits! 'Ghost Train' features the return of pianist Mike Barson
Well, when the subject crops up of bands who were active in my childhood and used humour and entertaining videos to get some interesting subject matter over... well, you can't not mention Madness so it's good timing for them to turn up here. Good timing doesn't mean they were having a good time though, and by the middle of the decade the strain was starting to show as the singles weren't going Top 10 any more. Barson seems to have been a key figure in keeping the septet into some sort of order and after he'd left the remaining six obviously weren't having so much fun.

So they finally decided to split up, which called for a second best-of collection (Utter Madness
 to follow Complete Madness) and this new single. Tellingly, I have no memory of hearing this at the time at all, and when I did first encounter it (on a boxed set my dad bought at a car boot sale in the mid-90s) I wasn't keen. Over the years I've grown much fonder of it, the only Madness hit written entirely by Suggs (unless you count 'Forever Young', which peaked at 199 in 2010) which is apparently a song about apartheid in South Africa; I'd never have guessed but you can sort of hear it when you're looking out for it, especially in the chorus "It's black and white, don't try to hide" and in the accent with which he sings certain lyrics. Although the track was, like every other hit they had in the 80s, produced by regular collaborators Langer & Winstanley, it does sound decidedly of-its-time, dominated by brittle-sounding drums and synthesisers and a phasing effect that sounds a bit like they were playing about. Arguably they could have put more effort into the structure of the song than messing about with the gimmicks but I suppose they were losing focus a bit. Still, the song is strong enough to shine through and has the advantage of not being as overplayed as the big Madness songs.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 2, 3, 6, 21, 43
Available on: Mad Not Mad