Saturday, 31 January 2009

Jamiroquai 'Canned Heat'

Chart Peak: 4


Let's face it, Jay Kay is a very easy person to dislike. At times he almost seems a walking (dancing?) collection of everything people dislike about pop stars. And that's without even mentioning the facial hair. It has to be admitted, though, that for a while his brand of pop-oriented jazz-funk could be quite effective.

Even though this was the follow-up to a Number One single, though, there were signs that the formula was starting to wear thin (indeed, the next single was his/their first to miss the Top 20 in over five years). Even though Kay had long been the focal point of the act, and his and the group name were widely treated as synonymous, this is roughly the point where the original line-up began to dissolve and Jamiroquai turned into a solo project: most notably, long-serving bassist Stuart Zender was jettisoned during the sessions and all his contributions obliterated from the released album. More to the point though, 'Canned Heat' sounds like a man reshuffling the same cards he's played many times before - and that's a particular problem from an act never particularly known for originality in the first place. It's best described as a solid record - the string arrangements are good, the tune is toe-tapping enough, the lyrics steer clear of preachiness. But it wouldn't really matter if it didn't exist.

Also appearing on: Now 26, 36, 50
Available on: High Times: Singles 1992-2006

Friday, 30 January 2009

Tina 'When The Heartache Is Over'

Chart Peak: 10


Even before I found out they were together here, I always imagined these two songs as somehow related: both by veteran acts, obviously, and both similar in style, both on EMI for that matter, they charted in consecutive weeks. As it turned out, they were the last big hits for each act too.

Although the singles themselves were effectively a score draw, album buyers awarded Tina (as she's billed on the sleeve of this year's releases) a convincing victory: Number 9 for Twenty Four Seven against 71 for Ross's Every Day Is A New Day. And for once I'm going to agree with them. Neither of the songs is ever going to be mistaken for a career highpoint, but 'When The Heartache Is Over' certainly has a far more memorable chorus - so much so, indeed, that the Freemasons borrowed it for their own hit 'Love On My Mind' a few years later. Perhaps as importantly, the performance is instantly identifiable as Tina Turner, which might be why she managed to sell albums off the back of it.

Incidentally, the eagle-eyed will have spotted that Tina Turner is the first act to appear on both Now 1 and Now 44. She's not the only one though.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 4, 6, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 32, 34
Available on: Twenty Four Seven

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Diana Ross 'Not Over You Yet'

Chart Peak: 9


Quick trivia question - who was born first, Diana Ross or Bob Marley?

The answer is Miss Ross, by a matter of months. The reason I thought of the question was because Bob Marley is someone I never really remembered being alive, so he seems a(n) historically remote figure to me, whereas Ross continued to have hits regularly throughout the first couple of decades of my life. This was the last of them though, unless you count a collaboration with Westlife that nobody remembers.

The other reason I mention it is that I was struggling a bit to find much to say about the track itself. It's forgettable enough that I've actually had to listen to it a second time in order to say anything at all. The most remarkable thing about it is how anonymous it sounds, for a hit single by such a famous act.
Admittedly, she's not somebody you'd tend to associate with a particular style, but even her voice isn't readily recognisable, at least in the mix released as a UK single (the vocal has some pitchshifting effects reminiscent of the speed garage hits a couple of years earlier). It could easily be mistaken for Janet Jackson, and if I didn't know I'd have guessed it was a few years older than it actually is.

Apparently, this was nowhere near a hit in America, which is presumably why all the copies of the video on YouTube seem to have been taped from the British children's TV show Live & Kicking.

Also appearing on: Now 21, 22
Available on: Love and Life: The Very Best of Diana Ross

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Bob Marley vs Funkstar De Luxe 'Sun Is Shining'

Chart Peak: 3


My mum saw Bob Marley & The Wailers live. Don't get too jealous though. Apparently they were crap.

There's an obvious problem with trying to appraise this record in a cold January when it's dark by the time I get home from work. But anyone who bought this album in November 1999 would have had a similar experience, so here goes. Marley's highest-charting UK single (no, really - look it up) is a dancefloor-friendly rework of the mellow original album track. In that sense you might compare it to the previous Moloko track, but this time the advantage goes the other way: the original track, though slight, captures that lazy summer spirit in the way that reggae can do so well. Funkstar's production is more generic, and threatens to overwhelm the vocal and indeed the entire song sounds pushed to the periphery. I'm sure it's functional for the Ibiza clubs it was recorded for, though, and I don't find it as annoying as Finley Quaye's Top 20 version.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 23 (both Bob Marley & The Wailers)
Available on: Happy Songs

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Moloko 'Sing It Back'

Chart Peak: 4 (original version 45)


It's not spelt out on the list I'm using here, but I've taken as read that this is going to be Boris Dlugosch's remix, since it was the promotion of that one to A-side status over the rather spaced-out original version that made the song a hit and brought the band to mainstream attention.

The second Moloko album, I Am Not A Doctor, seemed to find the band at their most annoyingly, self-consciously weird. It's quite an achievement on Dlugosch's part that he succeeded in finding amid all this the pop heart of the song: the twisty rhythm and the remarkable performance of Roisin Murphy. Whilst this isn't quite my favourite vocal of hers, tending a little toward the whiny, it's a very ear-catching one that demands attention - and gets it too, remarkably for such a dancefloor hit. Nobody could accuse these vocals of being incidental, even if the lyrics don't seem to matter as much. Murphy later returned the favour by fronting Dlugosch's biggest solo hit, 'Never Enough'.

Also appearing on:
Now 45
Available on: Catalogue

Monday, 26 January 2009

Texas 'Summer Son'

Chart Peak: 5


Sixpence None The Richer were from Texas. Texas weren't.
They pulled off one of the more remarkable comebacks of the 1990s with 1997's album White On Blonde, dismissing their previous one-hit-wonder reputation by picking up on contemporary RnB sounds and concentrating on photogenic frontwoman Sharleen Spiteri, who became the face of the band in almost all subsequent videos and artwork.
Like so many bands in this position, they couldn't resist following it up with more of the same. 'Summer Son' comes from The Hush, and whilst it became their seventh consecutive Top 10 hit, it does sound like the formula is starting to wear a little thin. There's a trace of disco in the bell-like percussion (reminds me of 'Can You Feel It?' by the Jacksons - apparently there's also a Giorgio Moroder mix of this somewhere) and it meshes well enough with the biting guitars, but the bass end of the production sounds as dated as you might expect from something that was trying hard to sound modern ten years ago, and the song itself doesn't quite seem to get into gear. Enough time seems to have passed now that I can admit it when I like a song by Texas, but this doesn't quite seem to hit the spot - in fact I prefer the single that broke their Top 10 run, 'When We Are Together'.

And I can't let this pass without mentioning the rather odd video, which seems to interpret the notion of the Summer Son a bit too literally. Maybe Spiteri just wanted to be felt up by a topless male model.

Also appearing on:
Now 36, 37, 38, 38, 43, 47, 48, 49, 56, 62, 63
Available on: The Hush

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Sixpence None The Richer 'Kiss Me'

Chart Peak: 4


If this post seems a little ill-informed, you can blame the record company; this track has been removed from YouTube at their insistence. Even the Last.FM link above doesn't sound like the original studio version to me. I still have little difficulty in recalling such a radio staple though. 'Kiss Me' is possibly the tweeest track ever to appear on a Now album, both a strength and a weakness. In the wrong mood, this is painfully soppy childish drivel, but to give them their due they do go into the song with a cheery joie de vivre that makes this more likeable than if it came across as a purely commercial move. Leigh Nash sings breezily enough not to suggest that she feels the song to be beneath her, and the production (if you actually get to hear it) has a deft lightness of touch.
The less said about the version of 'There She Goes' that became their only other hit, the better, though.

Available on: Sixpence None the Richer

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Melanie C 'Northern Star'

Chart Peak: 4


And still they come. 1999 was something of a gap year for the Spice Girls with no new material from the group, but hits for three of the four members (and the one ex-member, of course).

For good or ill, Melanie Chisholm seems to have been the one who's taken her solo work most seriously, continuing to pursue it even during the Spice reunion. What this means is that she's covered more stylistic ground than most of the others, and opened her solo account with the ill-advised psuedo-rock of 'Going Down'. This follow-up found her on more familiar ground, once you got used to the idea of her singing a whole song on her own. She's probably the best singer in the Spice Girls, and certainly the one who found the most distinctive style. She's not really good enough to sell this song though - it still sounds like somebody trying to prove too much, or at least to prove that they have something to prove.

Also appearing on: Now 45 (with "Left Eye"), 47, 54, 55
Available on: Northern Star [Bonus Tracks]

Friday, 23 January 2009

Ronan Keating 'When You Say Nothing At All'

Chart Peak: 1


Solo career, part three. This one is rather a different kettle of fish though - Keating was (and now is, again) the established lead singer of Boyzone, and at this point the group was still officially a going concern. So trusting were the rest of the band, indeed, that this solo debut first appeared on a Boyzone greatest hits album, and was one of the three singles released to promote that release - it's also on the soundtrack to Notting Hill.
As it turned out, though, the band took the traditional "time off to work on other projects" and Keating (to the apparent surprise of his colleagues) didn't go back until 2008. This was obviously intended to be the launchpad of Keating as a solo star, especially in parts of the world where Boyzone hadn't been successful, and he started as he meant to go on: a cover version of a big country hit that was largely unknown to a British audience (Ireland I'm not so sure about) sung in his usual growl. They tend to merge into one after a while, but this was a big record in 1999, making the necessary inroads into the MOR market but still appealing to his teen audience. I discovered through Youtube that he later re-recorded the song as a duet with the Mexican singer Maria Rubio for Spanish-speaking markets.

Also appearing on: Now 47, 48, 49, 52, 53, 54 (with Lulu), 55, 57, 58 (with LeAnn Rimes), 59, 60 (with Yusuf), 64 (with Kate Rusby)
Available on: 10 Years of Hits

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Robbie Williams 'She's The One'

Chart Peak: 1 (1 week)


It's unlikely to be more than coincidence, but Geri Halliwell is followed by the man whom she'd probably have liked to see as a precedent - a high-profile member of a five-piece group who walked out at the height of their fame and became a major solo star. Indeed Robbie Williams was for several years the biggest pop star in Britain, eclipsing the success he'd had with Take That and clocking up a record-breaking number of Now appearances in the process (see below). Even though this was only his second solo Number One, he'd already reached a level of ubiquity that meant I couldn't stand the sight of him, and I did what I could to avoid it.

His profile has receded fairly rapidly in the last couple of years though, so it wasn't as hard as I thought to bring myself to listen to this one. So, the track then: it's a cover version of the little-known World Party song which was already the best part of a year old by the time it was afforded a single release as a double A with the previously-unreleased 'It's Only Us' (see Now 45). Surprisingly, it was this which proved to be the more popular side. It's a solid piece of writing from Karl Wallinger, but not one that arouses great passion in me. And much as I wouldn't have rushed to admit it, Williams puts in a decent performance - in fact it's probably the best singing on the album so far. I'm never going to love his voice or mannerisms, but this is him at his most tolerable.

Also appearing on:
Now 34, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 45, 47, 48, 49, 51 (with Nicole Kidman), 52 (with 1 Giant Leap & Maxi Jazz), 54, 55, 56, 59, 60, 62, 63, 65, 66, 74
Available on: Greatest Hits

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Geri Halliwell 'Mi Chico Latino'

Chart Peak: 1 (1 week)


Dear oh dear. It's a long time since I've heard this all the way through (if indeed I ever have) and it doesn't appear to have improved with age. Geri's second solo single after quitting the Spice Girls picks up on the year's vogue for "Latin" music - it was in fact deposed from the top of the chart by Lou Bega - and to be fair to her she did actually live in Spain before she was famous so she can at least speak the language. This doesn't excuse the fact the the song is pretty much 'La Isla Bonita', nor the painfully thin vocals. And speaking of painfully thin, why do we have to look at everyone's ribcage in the video there?

Of course, this record did what it set out to do: it gave Geri a solo Number One single and doubtless satisfied some urge on her part to prove that she had a future outside the group. But it's a pretty joyless experience for the rest of us.

Also appearing on: Now 43, 45, 49, 50, 51, 60
Available on: Schizophonic

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Steps 'Tragedy'

Chart Peak: 1 (1 week)


The first British act on the album. And in contrast to the singles people couldn't wait to buy, here's one that was first released in November 1998 but didn't make it to the top until January. Of course, there's a bit of a twist here, in that this was a double A-side single, and the slushy ballad 'Heartbeat' was promoted for the Christmas market (it duly appears on Now 41) with this more party-friendly track kept in reserve for the new year.

'Tragedy' is of course a version of the 1979 Bee Gees chart-topper. It tends to be the case that I like covers of Bee Gees songs more than their originals and I wouldn't say this was any exception. Sure, this is pretty stupid, but surely that was the whole point, and at least they don't sound like they're being scalded. This is honest, simple, meaningless music for the sort of wedding discos they show in the video, although we could have done without Pete Waterman's cameo, thanks.

Also appearing on: Now 39, 40, 41, 42, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51
Available on: Gold: Greatest Hits

Monday, 19 January 2009

Eiffel 65 'Blue (Da Ba Dee)'

Chart Peak: 1 (3 weeks)


Remember all that fuss about Kanye West's new direction a couple of months ago? I never saw anyone quote this as a possible influence on him. Yes, it's vocoders or pitchshifters or whatever particular device they used in the studio that day. I've got to admit it's an effect I've always found quite irritating, although at the time I didn't mind this one so much.
Like 'Mambo No 5' this was a song that tickled the Top 40 on import sales alone, presumably thanks to pre-release airplay and returning tourists. Here in the depths of winter it's not quite so much fun as I remembered it. I still feel mildly defensive about it though. The band have admitted that the lyrics are nonsensical (really?) but they sound as if they at least represent a tiny amount of effort and I suppose you could read something into them if you wanted to. And the tune is catchy enough - but, sorry, it's the vocoder. Mind you, I don't know how the vocals would have sounded without them.

Eiffel 65 were somewhat luckier than Lou Bega in the UK market. Not just the extra week at the top, but they also managed a second hit with the inferior 'Move Your Body' (more vocoder, but no attention-grabbing lyrical conceit) and even a Top 20 album.
Oh, and I don't know about anyone else, but I hate videos that play sound effects over the music. Especially when I'm doing this.

Available on: Europop

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Lou Bega 'Mambo No 5 (A Little Bit Of...)'

Chart Peak: 1 (2 weeks)


Well, this is a relief after the last one. Not that it'd be at all impossible to be annoyed by this track, and I'm pretty sure I did at the time, but at this distance it's more charming. An archetypal summer European hit, 'Mambo No 5' had already made its mark before the UK release in August, so much so that an import version made its way into the Top 40, exceptional for the time. Mind you, the fortnight for which it topped the UK chart can hardly compare to the 20-week stay it managed in France.

The premise is an underwhelming one - a Perez Prado instrumental with added lyrics and some now very Nineties-sounding production (check the squelchy intro). Its greatest strength is probably the gusto with which Bega delivers the words. It probably also helped that the catchy melody and the list of names in the lyric lent themselves perfectly to parody - including of course the version by Bob The Builder which itself arrives on a later Now album. It's little surprise, though, that this wasn't to be the start of a glorious career for him in Britain - the (almost indistinguishable) follow-up 'I Got A Girl' fell short of the Top 50 when it was apologetically released in December.

Available on: Mambo Mambo: The Best of Lou Bega

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Shania Twain 'That Don't Impress Me Much'

Chart Peak: 3


Sometimes, the reviews just write themselves, don't they?
This wasn't one I was especially looking forward to making myself listen to, and it's compounded by the fact that I had to go through several search results to try and find the version that was actually released in Europe (I try to link to official videos where possible, but Universal have only uploaded the country version for some reason). At least it's a song I've been subjected to often enough before that I didn't need to play the thing more than once. And there is a nice car in the video.

You might have guessed, if you read between the lines, that I'm not really a fan of this, the fourth of six UK hits from the huge Come On Over album. It's another in the line of trite, self-consciously perky songs she co-wrote with her then husband "Mutt" Lange. This one amps up the forced jokiness even more than usual, but what makes it exceptionally irritating - other than its lengthy chart run - is Lange's clumsy production on the pop version that was released here. He's evidently working outside his idiom in trying to tackle dance here, so we get some already-dated beats and what sounds like a synthesised bagpipe, which merely exacerbate the general shrillness of the track. The best I can say is that Twain sounds like she's enjoying herself: I wish I was.

Also appearing on: Now 39, 45, 46
Available on:Greatest Hits

Friday, 16 January 2009

Britney Spears '...Baby One More Time'

Chart Peak: 1 (2 weeks)


And so we leap forward the small matter of sixteen years to Christmas 1999, and Now That's What I Call Music! 44, which is not only the biggest seller of the series, but the biggest-selling Various Artists album ever in the UK (apart from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and a couple of cast recordings). Of course this leaves me curious to try and investigate what this has that the others don't.

'...Baby One More Time' [contrary to popular belief, "Hit me" is not actually part of the song title] helpfully supplies part of the answer. Not so much in its own phenomenal popularity (after all, people could and did buy this track in other places) but the fact that it was originally released in February; there had been two volumes already that year so its appearance here gives Now! 44 the appearance of a review of the year. Putting it right at the start of the album also enables me to pad out this post with all the scene-setting, as it's one of those records that's so well-known it's difficult to come up with a fresh perspective on it.
It has of course dated a bit, now that it's ten years old - the piano solo section towards the end is especially of its time - but it doesn't yet sound completely hideous. To make an obvious comparison, it's aged better than 'Genie In A Bottle'. The pounding piano remains the single most impressive element, which is presumably why it's brought forward to the very start of the song, and the slap-bass is unusually tolerable too. Listening to a streamed version on headphones, though, the production sounds almost too high-resolution, as if (in the best pop tradition) it wasn't really meant to be heard that clearly.
The lyrics are a different story, and not just because of that awkward "blinded/planned it" rhyme. There's an uncomfortable air of desperation on the part of our protagonist here: of course she's not literally asking anyone to hit her, but the effect is curiously uncomfortable even though it's all pretty much standard pop lyrics. Perhaps this is a result of Spears' clipped vocal performance. As with the music, it's not really intended to be taken this seriously, but it has the unfortunate effect of encouraging awful "serious" covers by the likes of Travis.

Also appearing on: Now 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 57, 58, 68, 69, 70, 72
Available on: Baby One More Time

Monday, 12 January 2009

Now 1 conclusion

Thirty tracks down, and what have we learnt? Well, I've discovered that I'd heard more of them than I thought I had. Will I be picking up a copy of the re-release on the way home from work? No. But I do think I have some sort of understanding of some of the songs now, even if I wouldn't claim to like any more of then than I used to.
Since Now 1 (as it was retrospectively called) is the only one in the regular series that tries to cover an entire year, I suppose we have to ask how accurate a reflection of the time it is; well there's certainly more Kajagoogoo than I remember. Also no Spandau Ballet, who had one of the few Number One singles of 1983 not represented. What I think has struck me most is how much of the album seems to conform to a stereotypical sound of the time.

One interesting comparison point: a series of digital-only compilations were released a couple of years ago, so we can get a sort of 21st-century perception of the year (admittedly compiled exclusively from the vaults of EMI and Universal). Here's what they came up with:

1 Red Red Wine - UB40
2 Karma Chameleon - Culture Club
3 Is There Something I Should Know - Duran Duran
4 Let's Dance - David Bowie
5 Beat Surrender - The Jam (this is actually from 1982, although it was still in the charts in January 1983)
6 Steppin' Out - Joe Jackson
7 I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me - Nik Kershaw
8 Temptation - Heaven 17
9 The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up) - Level 42
10 Tonight, I Celebrate My Love - Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack
11 Too Shy - Kajagoogoo
12 (This Is Not A) Love Song - Public Image Ltd
13 Dear Prudence - Siouxsie & The Banshees
14 Speak Like A Child - The Style Council
15 Pale Shelter - Tears For Fears
16 Our Lips Are Sealed - Fun Boy Three
17 Only You - The Flying Pickets (this is on Now II)
18 Every Breath You Take - The Police
19 The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up) [extended version] - Level 42
20 Too Shy [12-Inch version] - Kajagoogoo

Draw your own conclusions there.
Meanwhile, my vaguely-defined mission to understand the success of the Now albums continues. So you'll be "pleased" to hear that I shall be doing another one shortly as soon as I've got some more material on the Hit Parade blog.

EDIT: It turns out James Masterton, who unlike me did buy the thing, has had the same idea

Culture Club 'Victims'

Chart Peak: 3


And so we end, slightly randomly, with the follow-up to 'Karma Chameleon'. It's another song I didn't think I remembered, but found vaguely familiar by the time I actually got round to listening. I suppose it's one of those songs that I heard at the time but wasn't among the four hits or so that most big acts are allowed by posterity.

'Victims' finds the Club in power-ballad mode. It's certainly less potentially irritating than their bigger hit, and is possibly even the sort of thing I'd think was OK if it was by somebody I already thought I liked. Unfortunately, it begins to lose its way in the middle, once the drums and other instruments arrive. Perhaps it was different a quarter of a century ago, but it does seem to get a bit predictable, and it comes over as overproduced. It sounds - and I hope fans will forgive me for saying this - a bit like the sort of record an X-Factor winner might release. I should probably also confess that I've never been especially fond of Boy George's voice, although I know some are.

It's not unpleasant though, and you can tell why it was a hit in Britain - strangely, it wasn't released as a single in the USA. Apparently, there were rumours in 2007 that Kylie Minogue was going to release this as her comeback single, and even that makes a bit of sense.

Edit 13th January 2010: I've found the track 'Shirley Temple Moment' which depicts George storming off in a huff while recording this very track.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 4, 41 and 43
Available on: Colour By Numbers

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Madness 'The Sun And The Rain'

Chart Peak: 5


One of the dominant pop acts of my youth, Madness always seemed to have a new single and crazy video out: this was their fifteenth Top 10 hit since 1979, though it proved to be the last of their original career. In a way, you could see this as the beginning of the end for Madness - it was their last single written entirely by keyboard player Mike Barson, who handed in his notice soon afterwards - and tiredness was starting to creep in. By their high standards the actual performance is slightly weak; they never quite seem to get the tempo right, almost as though they're in a hurry to get through it.
That said, though, 'The Sun And The Rain' is the second track from this project that's on my MP3 player, and not without reason. It's a long way from the ska sound of their early material, reverting to the style of classic sixties pop, and particularly seeming to channel the Kinks, demonstrating one great skill that Madness seem to have learnt from them: the ability to make the everyday seem fascinating and often joyous. This is just a song about splashing about in puddles, but they make it sound like it matters. Particular credit is also due to the brilliant but not overexposed string arrangement.

One other fact: at the time of writing this is the only track on the album not available as a download, the licence on their back-catalogue having expired a while ago. Re-issues are apparently pending though.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 3, 6, 8, 21, 43
Available on: Millennium Collection: the Best of [Us Import]

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Simple Minds 'Waterfront'

Chart Peak: 13


I almost forgot to do this one. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking, Simple Minds being one of the bands who rank lowest on my likeability scale. I was briefly hopeful, because I thought I hadn't heard this song before, and I knew that they were one of those acts who (like UB40) had had a more interesting pre-history before their biggest success. However, once I'd found the track it didn't take long to realise that I had heard it before, that it hadn't made much of an impression on me and that it wasn't part of their experimental period.
Even if you ignore the video, 'Waterfront' is very clearly the birth of Simple Minds as a stadium rock act, the proverbial loud-sounding nothing. Big booming drums, that relentless one-note bassline, clanging guitars and all manner of huffing and puffing from Jim Kerr all of which tells us that, er, they're going to stand on a waterfront in a million years' time. Why wait Jim? It's possible that this is intended as some sort of metaphor for something else (Scotland?) but the whole thing rings so hollow it's difficult to care one way or the other. It's not even as catchy as, say, 'Alive And Kicking'

Also appearing on: Now 5, 6, 7, 14, 15, 23, 30
Available on: The Best of Simple Minds

Friday, 9 January 2009

The Cure 'The Lovecats'

Chart Peak: 7


I could be wrong, but I always had the impression that real Cure fans didn't like this very much. I think that might be part of the attraction, that and the bass.

The Goth thing never appealed to me much, and there's quite a lot about The Cure that I find sort of annoying, but I have to admit that they have a few pop songs in the catalogue that I can enjoy. This is usually one of them, although it's obviously a record that can be annoying under the wrong circumstances. Possibly if I'd heard it a lot when it was new, that would have been the case; actually on second thoughts as a child I'd probably have loved it, but an adult me might not be so keen. And of course you can see why people who'd been fans for years might resent this becoming an unprecedentedly big hit for them.

One thing I might not have appreciated at the time was the felinity of this song - I didn't really get to know any cats then. The lyrical references are all obvious (except maybe landing "hand in hand") but there's also a certain slinky quality about it. I like to imagine that they sealed the deal by having a nap after they'd finished recording it.

Incidentally, well as I know this song I still had to look up the correct spelling of the title. I based it on the images I found of the cover, but I'm open to corrections.

Also appearing on: Now 15, 18, 21, 22
Available on: Greatest Hits

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Genesis 'That's All'

Chart Peak: 16


You see, if it was me compiling this album I'd have saved this one up for the last track. Because it's called 'That's All' - geddit? Either way, this is sort of an interesting choice, since Genesis had their biggest single of the year (of their entire career, in fact) with 'Mama', but that was obviously considered a little bit too odd for this album. This is a far more conventional song, with Phil Collins singing over a piano riff about a relationship that seems to be going around in circles. Indeed, the tune seems to go around in circles too, making this one of their more effective songs.

Maybe it's just because I don't find Collins very likeable, but the rather crabby tone of this song is quite an advantage, that and the fact that it's not especially long. It's not quite as good as I thought I remembered it being, because there's a certain fussiness about it, both in the song itself, which seems to have one middle-eight too many, and in the performance, which does sound rather too much like the product of several weeks' repeated effort (apparently they were playing along to a drum machine, which probably accounts for the rather sterile air). And they finally snatch defeat with the hammy video where they try to dress up as tramps.

At the time, knowing little or nothing of their history, I couldn't understand why Phil Collins seemed to make Phil Collins records and Genesis records, which didn't sound all that different. Presumably he ultimately came to the same conclusion, which would explain why he left the band. But I have to admit that I greatly prefer this to his other appearance on Now 1.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 8, 9, 21, 23, 24
Available on: Platinum Collection

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Will Powers 'Kissing With Confidence'

Chart Peak: 17


Another one I wasn't looking forward to, in which celebrity photographer Lynn Goldsmith adopts the guise of parody self-help guru Will Powers, whilst an uncredited Carly Simon plays the satisfied customer. I suppose to be generous about it, making fun of these people was a fresher idea then that it would be now, but it still sounds a bit too much like a joke that's more fun to play than to hear. An all-star cast, including Steve Winwood, Nile Rodgers and Todd Rundgren, make a decent effort at trying to sound funky, but although it's vaguely memorable it doesn't really come off and the ultimate effect is more of a big celeb get-together than an enjoyable record.

Available on: 12" 80s Pop

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Tracey Ullman 'They Don't Know'

Chart Peak: 2


A sort of homecoming here. Not only in the literal sense, but also because this is the first time on the entire album that I can turn to my own MP3 library to listen. Although it was a hit in the autumn, the production makes it sound a little bit like a Christmas song, so perhaps it's just as well I'm not posting it any later than this.

Back when Homer and Marge were just Matt Groening's parents, Tracey Ullman had a secondary career as a singer, which brought her no fewer than four Top 10 singles. This was the biggest, possibly (or possibly not) because Kirsty MacColl's original version had failed to chart, though it was apparently a big radio hit in its day. Of course, both versions had come from Stiff records and MacColl appears on this recording too (one website has it that they're the same backing track, though this obviously isn't the case). Most obviously, at least once it's been pointed out to you, MacColl has to sing the high note after the instrumental break. None of this should be taken as criticising Ullman's version, though - while not a great singer technically she sells this song very effectively, pioneering the vogue for Sixties pastiche and carrying the hint of clumsiness that makes you root for the protagonist. Of course, she helped to sell it in a more literal way too, thanks to her fame and connections (check out the guest star at the end of the video!).

Possibly because she left the country, her pop career seems a little forgotten. Maybe it deserves better.

Also appearing on: Now 2
Available on: You Broke My Heart in 17 Places

Monday, 5 January 2009

Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack 'Tonight I Celebrate My Love'

Chart Peak: 2


In stark contrast to yesterday's new-to-me UB40 song, this is one I knew well enough that I was tempted to write this piece without listening back to it at all. There seems to be something about slushy records from early in my life that makes them feel almost inescapable. In the end I felt I had to play it once, but that was plenty.

Perhaps this is unfair on my part. It's difficult for me to find anything about this record that's actually bad; the tune is pretty if unimaginative, and the singing (particularly from Flack) is really quite good. I suppose this record is almost guilty by association because it's so exactly the sort of thing that local radio DJs play late at night and back-announce in a deep voice, normally pronouncing the word "love" as "lurrvve". It's the kind of thing you'd expect to hear as the last dance in a school disco (if you didn't go to a single-sex school) and I wasn't in the least surprised when I searched for Peabo Bryson on Amazon and one of the top results was called Bedroom Classics Volume 2.

At least my rush to get this over with has completed Side Three nice and fast.

Available on: The Very Best of Roberta Flack

Sunday, 4 January 2009

UB40 'Please Don't Make Me Cry'

Chart Peak: 10


Well, I wasn't going to until I found out I'd have another UB40 sing to write about. At least I haven't heard this before, which is one advantage over the grossly over-exposed 'Red Red Wine'. Also, whilst this is another cover version (from their first Labour Of Love album) it was at least a reggae song - by the brilliantly named Winston Groovy - to start with, so at least they knew what to do with it.
Well, they should have known anyway. Unfortunately, they seem to fall into the same trap they did before: surprisingly, since whatever else we might say about them their love of the music is clearly genuine, they appear not to have realised that the simplicity of the original is actually quite demanding, and even though they perform it at about the same tempo as Groovy, they don't seem to convey the same energy with their synthetic-sounding version - I don't know whether this means they rehearsed too much or not enough. The record also casts an unflattering light on Ali Campbell's lead vocal.
On the positive side, though, Winston Groovy obviously had more to gain from the exposure than Neil Diamond, and he seems to have done well enough out of it, having toured and recorded with the group. And the video, which shows a boxing match between the two Campbell brothers, looks a bit prophetic with hindsight.

Also appearing on: Now 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, 17, 18, 26, 41, 56
Available on: Labour of Love Vol.1-3: the Platinum Collection

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Howard Jones 'New Song'

Chart Peak: 3


I don't mind admitting that I found this title quite confusing at the time. And that was even before I had to try and remember which ones were Howard Jones and which ones were Nik Kershaw... Sometimes I still wonder whether he could have had a Number One if he'd actually called it 'Don't Crack Up' or 'Throw Off Your Mental Chains'.

Oh yes, if you hadn't already realised it's that one. The one where he has his little friend dancing around and throwing off some (physical) chains. Whether this was intended as a joke I don't know, but if so it seems to have worked only too well in preventing anyone from taking it seriously. Or maybe it was Jones' knitwear. Still I've tried to figure out why this doesn't convince - sure the lyrics are clicheed but they're almost so far into rock cliche as to come right out the other side. The glory of music is that it can make even trite or obvious sentiments sound convincing if they hit you hard enough, and that's probably where this falls down; the tune is moderately catchy but doesn't deliver (in melody or arrangement) the uplift that should accompany a rallying cry. It would have worked better as an advertising jingle. Also, as one YouTube commenter pointed out, the melody in the verses is actually quite similar to 'Solsbury Hill' - that's even more obvious if you compare it with Erasure's version, which is played on similar instrumentation.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 3, 5
Available on: Ultimate Collection

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Human League '(Keep Feeling) Fascination'

Chart Peak: 2


And meanwhile, the rest of the Human League had been pretty busy too. Phil Oakey had made a conscious decision to pursue a more pop-oriented sound; and a lucrative one too, this being their sixth consecutive Top 10 hit. For me, though, it's mostly annoying (with the exception of the revived 'Being Boiled', which is odd enough to be forgivable), because I often get the impression of a band looking down their noses at the audience, pretentious in their dismissal of seriousness, self-important in their heavy-handed lack of importance. As I've tried to keep in mind throughout this blog, I don't think there's anything at all wrong with simple or meaningless pop music; the very problem I have with the League is that they seem to be trying to impress you all the time with how lowbrow they are. Of course they weren't alone in that at the time, but the fact that they're still trying to do it now, and their apparent insistence on being recognised as some sort of pioneers, as well as the fact that so many people actually seem to do so, just exacerbates it and makes them feel like the start of something I dislike. I'd be less concerned about any of this, of course, if I felt that it worked as pop music but for me the vast majority of it doesn't. I'll surprise nobody by saying that they weren't a great reserve of vocal talent, but nothing else has ever drawn me in either. Now I know that persuading the relatively primitive synthesisers of the era to play in time with themselves let alone each other was more of a challenge than we realised then; but I don't think much of it was worth the effort.
All of which said, I tend to find 'Fascination' one of their more tolerable ones, so I was glad that it was this I had to listen to rather than any of those others. It seems odd to say that they're playing to their strengths when I've just implied that they didn't have many, but perhaps they're playing against their weaknesses - they spread the vocals around a bit, and that's an undeniably catchy riff despite or maybe because of the the fact that it's a bit out of tune. And not a bad bassline too, albeit a bit like 'Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)'. Maybe that's why this single actually managed to reach the US R&B chart.

Also appearing on: Now 8, 13, 30, 31, 32
Available on: The Very Best of the Human League

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Tina Turner 'Let's Stay Together'

Chart Peak: 6


My Dad's always been a big Tina Turner fan (Happy New Year if you're reading this!) so I remember the Private Dancer album (where this track appeared the following year) on pretty heavy rotation in the car for my formative years.
Back then, of course, I was entirely unaware that Tina Turner had any previous career, or that she was any older than any other pop star. As a matter of fact, this was the song that relaunched her, her first ever solo hit in the UK, and one that proved that this already-established performer was happy to pick up on the prevailing trends of the day; of course the fact that she probably didn't feel too much nostalgia for her former hit-making days might have helped with that. The track was originally recorded with the BEF (ie Heaven 17) who had a sideline in recording cover versions with what were then state-of-the-art production values and guest vocalists. Although they released two albums of these, it was this one track that became the biggest-ever success from the project. Listened to in the 21st century, the monotonous, programmed backing track does sound dated, but as with their own 'Temptation' it's somewhat rescued by the excitement of the vocal performance, which is given plenty of room by the starkness of the arrangement around it. It all sounds very much of its time of course (particularly those backing vocals, which admittedly might be a joke) but then again so does Al Green's original - that one just so happens to be in a style I'm more comfortable with. Neither would have been a fraction of the record it is without the quality of the singing, that's for sure.

Also appearing on: Now 4, 6, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 32, 34, 44
Available on: Private Dancer