Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Now 10 conclusions

There isn't really a lot to conclude about this album, save for the unexpected realisation that it's probably my favourite of the three we've covered so far. I wouldn't have said unprompted that I liked 1987 music more than 1999 or 1983, but this one seems more carefully selected, with a better balance of different styles: notably there's more rock on this than on 1 or 44, even if hardly any of it is good. No Tina Turner though.

See you next week in the 1990s.

Monday, 30 March 2009

The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl 'Fairytale Of New York'

Chart Peak: 2


"...And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day". Well, for the 31st of March anyway. Still, I suppose it's enough of a tribute to this song that I knowingly chose to do this album now, knowing what was at the end of it: I wouldn't have done that for Shakin' Stevens. In fact, this is the only Christmas song I can think of ever to appear on a regular Now album (as opposed to the various Now Christmas releases over the year), even though it wouldn't have had the legendary status it now has when the album was originally compiled in October or November of 1987. Perhaps that's because, unlike most successful Christmas songs in pop, this wasn't specifically recorded for the season: not that the release date was a coincidence, obviously, but it was a trailer for an album to be issued early in 1988. Indeed, I don't remember this one having the reputation it now has as the nation's favourite for the festive season until much later. For a while, it seemed to be viewed as the alternative to all the other big songs of the season, but now, through no fault of its own it's become almost as obvious as the others, which is another advantage of listening to it now.

All that said, it's not an easy one to review because it's so hard to make any original observations about it. Er... maybe Kirsty MacColl's vocals are a bit too good to be strictly in character, but they do add to the quality of the record itself, particularly as a contrast to Shane MacGowan. Apparently hers were only intended as guide vocals at first, but somebody had the right idea. "I could have been someone/Well so could anyone" is one of my favourite pieces of dialogue in any lyric ever. But maybe this song is a little too famous for its own good.

Kirsty MacColl also appears on: Now 8 [with Billy Bragg and Johnny Marr], 15, 13
Available on: If I Should Fall From Grace With God (Remastered & Expanded)

Squeeze 'Hourglass'

YouTube [Top Of The Pops performance]

It might seem odd that this was the only Squeeze song to appear on a Now album, except that it was their only Top 20 hit in the relevant time period: in fact, it was their first single to breach even the Top 40 since 1981, and they didn't manage another until 1993. Not in the UK, anyway: in the US 'Hourglass' was such a big hit it brought them a second Top 40 with, of all things, '853-5937', which stiffed at 91 back home.

'Hourglass' is, to me, a rare case of a group taking on 80s production values and winning. It's hard to say exactly why it works here when it often didn't, even on other Squeeze records: their previous album Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti is almost unlistenably gloopy and even some of the rest of Babylon And On sounds wrong today, but in this one case the taut sound of the recording, the compressed drumming and even the synthesised brass seem to hit the spot, lending it a sense of nervous energy (also captured by Ade Edmonson's MC Escher-style video, which alas you'll have to find for yourself thanks to certain business disputes at the moment). Although the catchy, almost chant-like chorus was immediately appealing to radio listeners on both sides of the Atlantic, including my younger self, there's also a darker heart to the lyric, with hindsight another of Chris Difford's more honest depictions of his own mental state. For his part, Glenn Tilbrook described the music as an attempt to emulate Prince, which wouldn't have occurred to me (either as a description of this or as something Squeeze might want to do) but makes perfect sense when you hear it.

I'm aware that this is one of the longest posts I've ever put here, but even though this track doesn't need my cheerleading I was determined to do it justice.

Available on:Essential Squeeze

Saturday, 28 March 2009

ABC 'When Smokey Sings'

Chart Peak: 11


ABC are a difficult act to react to, given their fondness for teetering on the borderline between the smart and the knowingly tacky, and the overall archness around a lot of their material. Of course, all of this was going over my head at the time, of course, when this was the first ABC song I could recall hearing since 'The Look Of Love' (it was indeed their biggest hit since 1982). I did know who Smokey was, of course, although I don't think it had yet occurred to me that there was something a bit odd about singing a song about how good somebody else is at singing.

Looking at the video now (I'm pretty sure I didn't see it then) it's clear that Martin Fry wasn't taking all this entirely seriously - he can barely keep a straight face - though I'm sure his appreciation of Motown is genuine. I'd also never noticed before how clunky some of the lyrics are: that "sings/violins" rhyme, "the back door it rings" and so on. The saxophone solo is naff in the extreme, and possibly not on purpose. Even so, though, it's a hard record to dislike entirely, even if it seems a bit of a calculated move, even going so far as to quote the 'Tears Of A Clown' melody in places. Perhaps that's just because I agree with them.

Available on: The Look of Love: The Very Best of ABC

Friday, 27 March 2009

Level 42 'It's Over'

Chart Peak: 10


More childhood memories here, albeit somewhat less cool ones. The tape of Running In The Family was often on in the car, and I remember the song for that more than its actual chart appearance, although looking it up now I see it was Level 42's last Top 10 single, though they continued to have hits well into the 1990s.

Doubtless to the annoyance of fans of their earlier jazz-funk material, 'It's Over' finds the group at their most smoothly commercial, a ballad with the obligatory video filmed in a canyon. Obviously, deep emotional impact isn't on the agenda, although it's just about possible that they're aiming for an unemotive effect: that would at least make sense in terms of the lyrical content. I'd struggle to call this more than inoffensive, but it's well put together.

Also appearing on: Now 4, 6, 7, 13, 14
Available on:The Very Best Of Level 42

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Housemartins 'Build'

Chart Peak: 15


Unlike the Erasure track, this is a song I know very well - indeed it's the first record on this blog that I actually have the original physical single of - so I didn't think there'd be any surprises. Then I looked it up on YouTube and found a version that had been subtitled into Portuguese because it was the theme tune to a Brazilian soap opera.

The Housemartins seem like a big part of my childhood, mainly because I remember my dad buying their first album London 0 Hull 4 and playing it a lot. He didn't actually have the follow-up The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death, which this comes from, but one of the first CDs I remember was their compilation Now That's What I Call Quite Good, complete with the classic record company slogan "Go! Discs - makes other labels seem crap". I thought that was really brilliant when I was 11 or 12. But I liked the music too; not that I understood all the political or religious imagery in it, but then I didn't need to. Perhaps more than any of the bands you might compare them with, they wrote brilliant pop songs. And they knew how to make a video too.

'Build' is one of their less frenetic moments, but it's got an impressive melody. It's also notable for the fact that drummer Dave Hemingway sings part of the chorus, prefiguring his co-vocalist role in The Beautiful South. Indeed, 'Build' was almost the final Housemartins single, as you can see at the end of the video, but the record company were less than happy, and insisted on another single (this proved to be the Peel session track 'There Is Always Something There To Remind Me', which I like even more than this but it was never much of a hit). I think this has aged as well as anything the Smiths did. It's just as well I have an excuse to post a picture of this 45 though - it turns out to be almost entirely unplayable.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 8, 9
Available on: The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Erasure 'The Circus'

Chart Peak: 6


It came as a slight surprise that this was only Erasure's third Top 10 single, because I thought I remembered them having being more or less a constant run of the things throughout the second half of the decade. They certainly seemed to be in every Chart Show Indie Chart, while I was trying to work out what that word meant.

Mind you, 'The Circus' isn't a song I remember hearing at the time. And indeed, although I remember that I heard it on the radio a few weeks ago, I don't remember what it sounded like from then either. Even when I've listened to it to this, the tune hasn't stuck with me. In some ways, there's an obvious comparison with 'Hey Matthew', in that they both seem to be trying to make some rather vague point about the travails of modern life, and the style is similar. But somehow the Erasure record charms me less, possibly because I've never cared for Andy Bell as a vocalist, or because I know Vince Clarke could do better than this, or because I've heard so many other Erasure songs that sound similar.

Also appearing on: Now 09, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 54

Available on:
Erasure Pop!: The First 20 Hits

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Nina Simone 'My Baby Just Cares For Me'

Chart Peak: 5


The albums might all have the word "Now" in the title, but giving a realistic picture of the popular singles of this time wouldn't be possible without representing at least some of the many old records that were re-released after being used in adverts, usually with a claymation promo video. The practice largely fell into disuse in the late 1990s when singles became too much of a loss-maker, although downloads have have revived it somewhat in the last two years.

Back to 1987, though. I don't really recall the advert this was used in, if indeed I ever saw it, but I do remember the song and video. I was aware even then that it was old, although I'm not sure I realised it was as many as 29 years back, or even that I could have understood how long that actually was. Happily, one advantage of this age is that it still sounds good today, because it never sounded like it was from the 1980s. Even though it's not the most heavyweight song, and she may not have been that keen to record it, it impresses me even more as an adult. Simone's very precise phrasing stands out, but what I really like now is her piano playing, which punctuates the song effectively and distracts you from the shortage of lyrics. Perhaps jazz fans wouldn't appreciate this so much, but for a sceptic like me this is right on the money. I suspect the same might not go for the "extended smooch version" that I saw on a 12" single of this in a charity shop the other week.

One more small historical note: perhaps because it was released by reissue label Charly, who never had that many hit singles to play with, this is one of the few singles to cross the invisible boundary and appear both on a Now album and on the contemporary volume in the rival series The Hits Album.

Available on: The Very Best of Nina Simone

Monday, 23 March 2009

Jan Hammer 'Crockett's Theme'

Chart Peak: 2


OK, so Karel Fialka is of partly Czech parentage, and Jan Hammer is also Czech. Were they doing this on purpose?

I've never seen an episode of Miami Vice, and at the time I didn't really know what it was about (when you're nine, a vice is something in the woodwork room) or who Crockett might be, but I was dimly aware that it was supposed to be a big deal, which would explain the two big hit singles from the soundtrack; this one charted higher in the UK than the actual theme tune.

Chiefly, I remember seeing this performed on Top Of The Pops, and my dad sagely commenting that the whole thing sounded like an intro. I don't think I could put it better than that myself. Nowadays, I have more appreciation for the work that would go into creating music with the technology of the day, and I'm prepared to be generous and assume that it sounded good in the TV show itself. But listened to as a stand-alone tune it's just dreary.

Also appearing on: Now 6
Available on: Escape From Television

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Karel Fialka 'Hey Matthew'

Chart Peak: 9


And the connections continue, since Cliff Richard apparently once covered Fialka's 'Aube Someday'. Apart from that fact, it's hard to get started on 'Hey Matthew', except to say it's one of those songs I remember from the time, but haven't really heard since - so it's not quite the song I recall. I was sure that I remembered "Matthew" as having an American accent, probably because he was talking about Airwolf and the A-Team and stuff.

Like a lot of records from this time, it sounds cheap - but unlike most of them it actually was, reportedly knocked off for a budget of £300. Nowadays he'd probably have to pay several times that for permission to use that Spiderman costume in the video. Strip away the synthesised production, though, and what it reminds me of most is one of the second-division protest singers of the 1960s, or those slightly earnest types who were still taking their acoustic guitars to schools when I was a pupil. It's simple musically and the moral is pretty obvious, and yet I can't entirely take against it, even if small children singing on pop records are something I struggle to tolerate. I suppose there's a certain warmth about it that discourages me from being too negative.

I wouldn't buy it though, which is probably just as well since it's the first track on this blog that I haven't found commercially available anywhere.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Cliff Richard 'My Pretty One'

Chart Peak: 6


Even accounting for the fact that most of his landmark releases were before the advent of the Now albums, it's remarkable how rarely Sir Cliff actually crops up in the series. With hindsight, some of the choices seem even more remarkable: I've hardly heard of any of them, and there are definitely post-1983 Cliff songs I do remember - not least 'Some People', the follow up to this one. But if I'd ever heard 'My Pretty One' before this week, I've forgotten about it.

Apart from the fact of its existence, 'My Pretty One' doesn't spring a lot of surprises. Writer/producer Alan Tarney had penned one of his best and most enduring latter-day singles in 1979's 'We Don't Talk Anymore' (and yes, I am aware that I just referred to a record from thirty years ago there, but it seems latter-day in context) but this isn't in the same league. Instead, it seems almost the stereotypical Cliff record of this era - trying to stay in touch with the times (because obviously he still wanted to be a success) but also dated even then: I mean, calling somebody "My pretty one"? Really? Whatever, it makes no sense at all now, but evidently worked for some people at the time: the parent LP Always Guaranteed is reportedly the biggest selling studio album of his career.

Also appearing on: Now 6, 15, 16, 17
Available on: Always Guaranteed

Friday, 20 March 2009

Bananarama 'Love In The First Degree'

Chart Peak: 3


Connections ahoy! The flipside of this single, 'Mr Sleaze' (credited to Stock Aitken Waterman) samples the laughter from the original version of 'Wipeout'. What was it you were saying about samples, Pete Waterman?

Anyway, whether the other side helped or hindered it, this was apparently the biggest-selling Bananarama single in the UK and aside from their contributions to charity ensembles, they never charted higher. Of course, they differ from most SAW acts in that they were already established, if struggling, when they called in the star producers, and weren't groomed by them for stardom; possibly for this reason they appeared to have more say in the sound of their records than some of the acts who were signed to the PWL label. By 1987 I was already aware that these records were something you weren't supposed to like, but I have a vague idea that I did enjoy at least this one, despite myself. For a long time in my teens and early adulthood I wouldn't have gone near it, but I'm more tolerant now. It's a decent tune, and winningly daft, although the production isn't to my taste and it's got to be said that the vocal performance is a bit lame. Still, reassuring that they can't keep a straight face in that video either.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14 (with Lananeeneenoonoo), 15
Available on: The Greatest Hits and More More More

Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Fat Boys (and the Beach Boys) 'Wipeout'

Chart Peak: 2


It's hard to know which is the more surprising cameo in a video: Andy Warhol in 'Misfit' or Brian Wilson in this. He certainly looks pretty staggered by it.

Now, there's no getting away from the fact that I enjoyed this record in 1987. At that point, I really knew nothing about musical history other than the Beatles. I can't have not heard any Beach Boys songs, but I don't think I realised they were a band from olden days until my mum happened to mention it. I didn't know there'd been a time without hip-hop music, and I'm pretty sure I've never heard the original of 'Wipeout' - if I even realised that was an old song, I didn't know it was an instrumental and that getting some veterans who weren't the original group to sing a chorus that wasn't even part of the original was in any way an odd thing to do.

So, how does it sound now? Well, it goes without saying that it's not the first Beach Boys record my adult self would want to draw your attention to, but by the standards of their 1980s recordings, an honest novelty song is actually quite a relief. It's certainly less embarrassing than Mike Love schmaltzfests like 'Getcha Back' or 'Kokomo', to say nothing of the justly forgotten 'Problem Child'. I'd resent this were it all the Beach Boys were known for, but luckily it isn't.

The Fat Boys also appear on: Now 13 (with Chubby Checker)
The Beach Boys also appear on: Now 33 (with Status Quo)
Available on: The Beach Boys Collection

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Los Lobos 'La Bamba'

Chart Peak: 1 (3 weeks)

Google video

(All the clips on YouTube seem to be people playing it on Guitar Hero. Or, er, tennis players singing it.)

Anyway, I think this song confused me at the time, because I couldn't understand the words - even at the age of nine I still must have been grappling with the concept of foreign languages, because I was English. Presumably children in Switzerland or Wales get to grips with the idea a bit sooner. Funnily enough, even when I did figure out that they were real words, just not English ones, I never made any effort to find out what they meant, although I sometimes made up my own.

Anyway, where was I? The most striking thing about this record now, considering that it was recorded for a biopic of somebody who died in 1959, is how eighties it sounds. Not in the same way that Kajagoogoo sound eighties, obviously, but the way it's recorded is very 1987 to 21st-century ears. It's a complaint I often seem to find myself making when listening to this album, but it's a bit of a distraction and seems to come at the expense of any energy in the music. I wouldn't have said so in 1987, but I'd rather be listening to original fifties rock n roll.

Available on: Wolf Tracks: The Best of Los Lobos

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Curiosity Killed The Cat 'Misfit'

Chart Peak: 7 [originally 76 in 1986]


At the time I did the search, the above video seemed to have survived - if it's been hidden by the time you read this, try this one.

I think even at the time, I thought there was something a bit silly about this. Yes, it's a ridiculous name for a band, but in those days lots of bands were called something like that. Maybe it was Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot (not his real name, of course - it was Martin Volpeliere-Pierrot) and his ridiculous hat and dancing; mind you, in hindsight that's pretty much what Michael Stipe was doing for the next few years. What I wouldn't have known or cared about at the time was that Andy Warhol (as in holes) appears in the video. You never saw him and Boot from The Perishers in the same place, did you?

From 2009, this is an easy record to make fun of, but perhaps there is something to be said for it. The chorus isn't as powerful as I remember it, at least in the mono versions I'm actually allowed to listen to, and the sentiment is pretty transparently cynical: but there is a half-decent tune lurking under here somewhere, and it certainly isn't the most ghastly thing on this album.

Also appearing on:
Now 9, 16
Available on: The Very Best Of Curiosity Killed The Cat

Monday, 16 March 2009

Wet Wet Wet 'Sweet Little Mystery'

Chart Peak: 5


And so Disc Two commences with a track that in some ways sounds more like an opener than 'Barcelona' did.

Despite what one reference book claims, this 'Sweet Little Mystery' has no discernable connection to the John Martyn song, although the title may not be coincidental, as the Wets did eventually cover another Martyn number. Instead we get another slice of the era's blue-eyed soul, but very much on the commercial end of the spectrum: the parent album was called Popped In, Souled Out (see what they did there?) and ironically it finally unseated Now 10 from the top of the chart in January 1988.

Thanks to the current legal situation, you'll have to take my word for it unless you can remember but I'm pretty sure the video showed the band larking about on jeeps in the Gambia, and that reflects the carefree, light-hearted vibe that's obviously intended here. Of course, for this very reason they swiftly became the unacceptable face of the style, and the fact that girls found Marti Pellow's face very acceptable did nothing for their street credibility. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then: plagiarism lawsuits, Pellow's heroin addiction, the only Top 10 single to spend a single week in the Top 75, and an awful lot of awful ballads. But with the benefit of nostalgia, it's still possible to hear some of the charm that these first couple of singles had.

Also appearing on:
Now 11, 12, 16, 21, 28, 31, 37, 38
Available on: Best Of

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Marillion 'Sugar Mice'

Chart Peak: 22


This is a review I approached with some trepidation, knowing that Marillion are a group with a loyal and vocal online fanbase. So here's the deal: I promise not to mention 'Kayliegh' and you promise not to leave comments telling me I'd like it more if it was by Radiohead, OK?

'Sugar Mice' was, by all accounts, the climax of Clutching At Straws, the band's last album with Fish. Apparently, it's a concept album about a failed rock star with a drink problem, and naturally you can draw your own conclusions about where Fish got the idea from. Listened to outwith that context - but in the knowledge that the singer was about to quit - it's tempting to hear it as the lament of a still-in-the-business rock star, regretting the way his work takes him away from home, etc. That would also explain why a man with a pronounced Scottish accent was watching the telly in Milwaukee; I presume this is accounted for elsewhere in the original album, but of course a Now album buyer wouldn't have that to go on either.

'Sugar Mice' is another song on this album that I hadn't heard - or really heard of - until I got here, and whilst I'm not going so far as to agree with the reviewer who called it the best song ever, it's probably the first track on Now 10 that I've liked more than I expected to. That said, I don't particularly like Fish's vocals. Sorry fans.

Also appearing on: Now 5, 6
Available on: Clutching at Straws

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The Alarm 'Rain In The Summertime'

Chart Peak: 18


OK, so it's a song by The Alarm that isn't '68 Guns'. In fact, their only other Top 20 single, as it turned out.
I'm sure they wouldn't thank me for saying this, but it does sound rather like U2. Mind you, there's good reason for that: both bands formed in the post-punk era, but both of them obviously had bigger ambitions for bigger music. They were also both proud of their Celtic ancestry.

The trouble was, and I know this might seem a controversial thing to say, that in 1987 U2 were releasing songs of the calibre of 'With Or Without You'. And The Alarm were releasing this rather nondescript potboiler, which even their fans don't seem terribly impressed by. By the time U2 got this lame, they were already the biggest band in the world.

Available on: Best of the Alarm & Mike Peters

Friday, 13 March 2009

Whitesnake 'Here I Go Again [USA Remix]'

Chart Peak: 9 [original version 34)


One thing this definitely has in common with the previous track is that it was already several years old. In 1987 David Coverdale and the musicians who were then Whitesnake produced a re-recording of the original 1982 hit, which replaces the word "hobo". This was remixed in turn in a bid for plays on US radio, and a successful one too, as it managed a week at the top of the Hot 100. It's that version which appears here.

And yet again, I'm mildly disappointed by a track on this album. Not that I'd have very high hopes, otherwise I might have made more of an effort to listen to it in the intervening couple of decades, but it was one I didn't hate. Whilst I still appreciate the lack of lecherous content here everything else is weaker than I remember it. Like Billy Idol again, it's really only the hairstyles that make this recognisable as rock, because everything else is so layered in keyboards, thudding echoey drums and endless reworking as to be without identity; the chorus isn't as strong as I thought it was either. Coverdale is a good singer, but not good enough to make this work. One of the better tracks on this side of the album, but that isn't saying much.

Also appearing on:
Now 11
Available on: 30th Anniversary Collection

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Billy Idol 'Mony Mony'

Chart Peak: 7


One that didn't get off to a great start. With all official videos barred to me, I suspected the version I'd found was a re-recording or something. However, comparison with clips from the album suggest that this is indeed the official version, it just sounds that bad. By 1987 I knew what punks were, and I think I might already have worked out that Billy Idol wasn't really one. I sort of remembered him as a metaller, albeit with hindsight a rather contrived one. Nowadays he doesn't even sound like that so much as some kind of watered-down synth-pop act. In fairness, the version of 'Mony Mony' that ultimately became a hit was a remix of his 1981 solo debut (the song itself of course goes back further still) but everything else I listened to him sounded much the same in style.

Wikipedia suggests that this single became controversial because you could sing rude words along to it - but can't you do that to any song ever written. I was more attracted by the fact that the backing vocals sound like they're singing "I feel like a pony", which will amuse those readers who are familiar with Cockney rhyming slang. If I want to be generous, I can say that this makes less claim than 'Crazy Crazy Nights' to be anything it isn't but otherwise it's a product of its time.

Also appearing on: Now 11
Available on: Vital Idol

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Kiss 'Crazy Crazy Nights'

Chart Peak: 4


Perhaps nine was the right age at which to hear this record. I don't specifically remember my opinion of it at that time, but it does have a slightly tantrum-esque quality that seems particularly suited to that age group.

I think this sort of consciously anthemic rock is something you need the right sort of mindset to appreciate. I don't think I have that mindset now, if I ever had: it doesn't mean that there are no records of that type I like, just that it's not something I'd consider inherently worthwhile. Kiss are singing to the people who do think that.

'Crazy Crazy Nights' plays to the rock-rebel pose, the idea that we're all being held back by some unspecified "they" and that we should all kick back and have a party. Fair enough, but the trouble is that 21 years later, it doesn't sound like a party, more like a day at the office. Any atmosphere of rebellion or challenge or even fun is undermined by the very sound of the record, which is so calculated and overproduced as to lose any excitement. And they're so tough and dangerous they wimp out of saying the word "crap". But maybe I'll like it more when I reach my fifties.

PS - Anyone who does manage to see this video should probably be warned that Kiss aren't wearing their make-up. It's probably scarier than when they were.

Available on: Greatest Hits

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Dear music industry: bite me

So, as has been widely reported here in the UK, all music videos posted or claimed by record companies have been blocked from UK YouTube users due to a royalty dispute. So several of the links won't be working in the forseeable future. I'll carry on as far as possible, but should I ever need to turn to illicit means to find a track, we'll know whose fault it is, won't we?

Heart 'Alone'

Chart Peak: 3


Generally speaking, I'm not the sort to accuse people of selling out. But it's hard to be generous to such a shameless piece of power balladry. In fact this pushes the usual buttons so predictably that the most surprising thing about it is that it wasn't written by Diane Warren, or even Albert Hammond: it's Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly, so not a lot better really.

If I really really try to be positive, I suppose I can say that Ann Wilson puts in a decent vocal performance. And this is better than Celine Dion's version - apparently Robert Forster from the Go-Betweens has had a go too, which might be interesting. This is one occasion when I definitely can't blame the fans who didn't approve of their new direction though, three weeks at the top of the US chart or no.

Also appearing on: Now 12
Available on: Greatest Hits: 1985-1995

Monday, 9 March 2009

T'Pau 'China In Your Hand'

Chart Peak: 1 (5 weeks)

Nine tracks in and this is only the second Number One single, albeit a long-running one (indeed it was the incumbent at the time of release) and one with a very minor place in history as the 600th single to top the UK chart.

I used to know all the words to this. Or at least, I thought I did: for some reason I thought the chorus was "Don't push too far your dreams of china in your hand," whereas in fact T'Pau are claiming that dreams *are* china in our hands. Yet as my mother, who used to work in the crockery department at Jones Brothers, pointed out, china isn't actually that likely to break in your hands, which is why they make teacups and things out of it. Still, it makes as much sense as the rest of the song, I suppose - when I was nine, I think I just assumed that songs were meant to be written in this sort of self-consciously "important" psuedo-mystical way, but now I know better. I also know that it's possible to write much better tunes than this, but by far the worst part of this must be moment when it appears to end, only to break into that ghastly sax solo. At best this is a terribly watered-down version of 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart', at worst it's everything dislikeable about 80s music.

Also appearing on: Now 11, 12, 13
Available on: T'Pau: The Greatest Hits

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Style Council 'Wanted'

Chart Peak: 20


The full title of this, their last Top 20 hit, is 'Wanted (Or Waiter, There's Some Soup In My Flies)'. Ahem. That's almost as bad as calling your band The Style Council.

Perhaps it's unfortunate that TSC (as fans call them) are destined to be viewed largely through the prism of what Paul Weller did either side of them. There's definitely something to be said for his having the bravery to abandon The Jam at the peak of their success and try to do something fresh. And there were some very good singles in the early days. By this point, however, they were dropping off the radar: indeed, the single before this, 'Waiting' was Weller's first ever to miss the UK Top 40, which was presumably the reason for rushing out this non-album 45 (the B-side was the title track from their album The Cost Of Loving). It's tempting to perceive the synth-heavy production as a precursor to their experiments with house music, but it does sound rather more like an effort to makes something that fits in with the idea of a hit in 1987, and some elements (the slap bass and Mick Talbot's repeated keyboard glissandi) just sound impossibly naff today. The effect is to smother any breezy charm that the rather slight song might have had, hence a record that was a hit in its day but seems forgotten now - I think I'd only heard it once before it cropped up here, and it's conspicuously absent from the best-of album I have.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 4, 5, 14
Available on: Greatest Hits

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Johnny Hates Jazz 'I Don't Want To Be A Hero'

Chart Peak: 11


The thing is, I do remember Johnny Hates Jazz. I remember a few of their singles (especially their biggest hit 'Shattered Dreams', which curiously failed to find its way to a Now album) but somehow I have no memory of ever hearing this one at the time. It seems to be the one you hear the most often now, for some reason.

Not that I really took any group that seriously when I was nine, obviously, but I could tell that there were some you were supposed to think of as important, and Johnny Hates Jazz never seemed to be one of them. It's mildly surprising to hear an anti-war sentiment, even a vague one like this, coming from a teen-friendly pop act; even if that's not what they wanted to be, that seems to have been how they ended up. That doesn't make this a very subversive record, though, partly because it wasn't released during, say, the Falklands or Gulf wars, when radio might have banned it, and partly because the lyrics tend rather towards the hackneyed. Also, the tune is a bit too much like 'I Can Make You Feel Good' for comfort.

Also appearing on:
Now 11, 12
Available on: Turn Back The Clock

Friday, 6 March 2009

John "Jellybean" Benitez featuring Steven Dante 'The Real Thing'

Chart Peak: 13

YouTube [12" version]

Six tracks in and this is the first one I don't remember. Even when I watched the video it didn't sound especially familiar, although it is a fairly typical record of its type, a pre acid-house club anthem. As such it sounds well made and well performed, but not especially original and full of things I'd heard many many times before. It's the sort of thing I feel more positive towards than I would have a few years ago, but still find it hard to get excited over, because I'm not part of the scene it belongs to. Had I had this album when it was new, though, I doubt I'd have given this track a second thought.

Also appearing on:
Now 11 [Jellybean with Elisa Fiorello], 12 [Jellybean with Adele Bertei]
Available on: Greatest Hits of the 80's

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Hue And Cry 'Labour Of Love'

Chart Peak: 6


Now here's a potentially clever bit of sequencing: M|A|R|R|S were a collaboration between members of Colourbox and AR Kane [although in practice 'Pump Up The Volume' is almost entirely the work of Colourbox] and the surname of the brothers who made this record was of course Kane. I never did work out which one was meant to be Hue and which one was Cry though...

I suppose this one has something in common with the Communards record, although one big difference is that I remember liking this at the time. Not that I knew what it was about, or even knew what the words were, but it was sort of catchy. It's part of the trend for vaguely political, post-new-wave blue-eyed soul in the mid-to-late eighties, and now sounds very much of its time - you certainly wouldn't expect to hear the phrase "withdraw my labour" in the chorus of a Top 20 hit nowadays. And that's even before you see the video, with a load of white paint being thrown at the band and their backing musicians.
Listening to it as an adult, I did wonder whether it was intended as some sort of comment on the direction of the Labour Party in 1987. Wikipedia suggests that it was instead aimed at Margaret Thatcher, from the perspective of a disillusioned working-class voter - and that's certainly a plausible reading, if we assume that addressing Thatcher as "baby" is just part of the metaphor. A solid record, I'd say, if no classic.

Also appearing on: Now 13, 14, 15, 24 [a remix of this track]
Available on: The Collection

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

M|A|R|R|S 'Pump Up The Volume'

Chart Peak: 1 (2 weeks)


I'd never heard anything like it. The only thing was, I didn't know I'd never heard anything like it. Of course, now I recognise that this was a landmark record in pop history, a mainstream breakthrough for dance music and sampling and the only Number One single on the legendary 4ad label, a record that spawned countless imitators and parodies - who could possibly forget 'Pump Up The Bitter' by Star Turn On 45 (Pints)? When I was nine years old all that was beyond my ken, though, and it was just another hit.

When the time came to write this, I approached it with some trepidation. One reason is that it is such an important track that it's difficult to supply any fresh insights about it. The other thing is that, well, I love it; it's always easier to pick holes in a record than identify what's truly impressive about it. As anyone who reads the last half-dozen or so Now 44 post will probably guess, I wouldn't describe myself as a dance fan, but I'm not averse to it either. Records like this and 'Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel' can really impress me because I don't wholly understand them; sure, I couldn't have written 'My Generation', but I know how it was done. The inspiration to find samples that work well together is all the more remarkable to me. In this case I especially like the screeches that bounce over the stereo spectrum, the dubby echo sounds that are a bit like somebody using a bathroom on the other side of the house and the way they use the sound of the record stopping as a percussion effect. But none of that really gets to the heart of why I find this so compelling. Some of the credit really has to go to the simple keyboard riff that guides the listener through the track, almost as if you're following a path with the vocal samples on either side of it.

Ah, but the samples... Apparently, not all the samples we know and love are part of the first 12" mix, but they're really what caught people's attention, and not always to the good. Hence the video I've linked to is the original 7" version with the Stock Aitken Waterman sample that they were forced to remove in what many perceived as an attempt to prolong Rick Astley's spell at the top (does this make them the first people ever to be Rickrolled?), and even this may not match the version that appeared on Now 10 itself. That's presumably why it's so hard to track down as a legal download: when I wanted to get it onto my MP3 player the best I could do was a version from something called 90's Dance Hits - Retro Dance Party where it turns into 'Please Don't Go' by KWS after three and a half minutes. Still, I suppose the very album title is quite a compliment to a record released as early as 1987.

Oh, and I've never heard 'Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)' which as the listed flipside of this surely becomes one of the most obscure Number One singles of all time.

Available on: The Best Club Anthems - 80s Classics

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Communards 'Never Can Say Goodbye'

Chart Peak: 4


There's not quite so much ambiguity here as there was on our last entry - the first contemporary record I can remember really disliking was by The Communards, although I can't now remember why. By that I don't mean that it's now a record I find it impossible to dislike, just that I genuinely can't recall what I had against it - in fact I can't really remember whether it was this one or 'Don't Leave Me This Way'. Mainly I just remember hearing it on the radio and shouting "WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH!" for two minutes or so. Now seems a good time to apologise to the band, and indeed to whichever members of my family were at home at the time.

The obvious criticism to level at their two biggest hits as an adult is that they were both cover versions of cover versions: in this case, it's essentially a copy of Gloria Gaynor's disco version of the Jackson 5's hit. But I don't know whether I knew that then, and I wouldn't have cared anyway though I certainly remember grown-ups bemoaning an excess of old songs in the chart at that time. Maybe it was just the name I didn't like. I suppose in a way it's a bit of a rite of passage to realise that some records are more to your liking than others. Two decades later, I don't find it nearly so objectionable, just pointless. I suppose it could be argued that Jimmy Somerville is making a radical move in addressing the lyric squarely at another man, but it's not really all that noticeable in practice.

In response to the many YouTube comments suggesting that some of the people involved in this record might be gay (really?) somebody's said, "The 80's were all about excess, big hair, fun times, and just being yourself!" although even then Somerville wasn't what you'd call long-haired and there's not a lot of excess on display - Richard Coles looks like the Anglican priest he's since become and the whole atmosphere is more office party than decadent feast. Actually, that's rather endearing.

Also appearing on: Now 6, 8, 9, 12
Available on: Very Best of Jimmy Somerville: Bronski Beat and the Communards

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Pet Shop Boys 'Rent'

Chart Peak: 8


Another slightly curious bit of sequencing: this isn't the most outlandishly dramatic record the PSBs have ever made and would seem to risk interrupting some of the momentum built up by the first track. 'Rent' was of course part of what Neil Tennant would call the bands's imperial phase, their seventh of seventeen consecutive Top 20 singles - in fact this was a bit of a blip in "only" reaching Number 8, when the four singles either side of it were all Top 3 hits.

I don't really remember whether I heard this song at the time. I certainly wouldn't have understood what it was about at that age. But the Pet Shop Boys were undoubtedly one of the biggest acts around at the time and this wouldn't have struck me as a big stylistic change. Now I'm older I can tell what they're driving at: this is obviously the song of somebody desperate for the affections of a "lover" who exploits them but supports them materially ie, "I love you, you pay my rent" - as the Wikipedia article astutely notes, this phrasing especially hints at the stereotype of a rent-boy. It's difficult to wade through all the layers of irony and detachment in a Tennant/Lowe song and discern where if anywhere our sympathies should lie, but it doesn't come across as a lament as such; not that our protagonist necessarily considers this situation ideal, but he (or possibly she) seems on the face of it to be dealing with it as the reality that's there: "Words mean so little and money less, when you're lying next to me". But of course, this could be merely a brave face.

Musically, the track is towards the more restrained end of their repertoire, although it's a relatively animated vocal performance from Tennant. What I can't tell you, even after all that, is whether I like it or not: this is why they were such a difficult act to approach here.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 26, 28 [as Absolutely Fabulous], 35, 72
Available on: Pop Art: Pet Shop Boys - The Hits

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Caballé 'Barcelona'

Chart Peak: 8


It was just a chance remark, really, when a commenter mentioned that he was ten years old when Now 44 came out. With another birthday coming up (hint, hint) my thoughts turned to the current Now album at the time of my own tenth birthday, which rather symmetrically proves to be Now 10. And there's some minor historical import to it too, as the first album in the series to be given a complete CD release, as opposed to the truncated single-disc versions that had been toyed with before. As you can see though, the running time is still kept down to two hours so it fits comfortably on a double LP. I might get this one done within the month.

Anyway, they've picked a nice subtle track to start with here. Actually, it does seem a bit out of place as an opener - it has grand finale written all over it. Apparently 'Barcelona' was commissioned as a theme song for the 1992 Olympic games, hence the presence of native Barcelonan Caballe. 1987 might have seemed a bit early to be doing that but then again, it seems wise in retrospect since Mercury didn't live to see 1992 itself. This seems to have come as news to whoever placed the advert on YouTube to tell us we could get the latest news about him in The Sun. Certainly, he throws himself wholeheartedly into the idiom, but then that's no surprise from the man behind 'Bohemian Rhapsody': it's the dozens over overdubbed Freddies bellowing "Baar-ceLOna" that really grabs your attention, sounding almost more operatic than the actual opera singer on the record. In fact, when I read that the legendary unreleased, unbootlegged, unheard by anyone not massively off their faces (except George Martin, presumably) Beatles track 'Carnival Of Light' features repetitive shouts of "Barcelona", this is always what it reminds me of.
Still, there's something in here that doesn't totally seem to work; possibly it lies in the slight lack of chemistry between the two leads, or maybe it just seems to fall between two stools - as a pop record it doesn't have the same force as some of the operatic rock Queen used to make, and it obviously doesn't have the same weight as true classical music would. Also, if you don't want to deafen yourself during the loud bits you can't really hear the quiet sections properly.

On a totally irrelevant note, doesn't he look weird without the moustache?

Freddie Mercury also appears on:
Now 9, 25. [This track is repeated on Now 23]
Available on: The Very Best of Freddie Mercury