Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Flying Pickets 'Only You'

Chart Peak: 1 (5 weeks)


As it turns out, there's a big scratch on this track. Which is a pity, but at least there are other ways to hear it nowadays. As Now 2 only covers part of the year, there was no hope of repeating the 11 Number One singles on the first volume, and we only four, carefully rationed with one on each side of the album. And this was the oldest of them, sitting on the top of the chart over Christmas 1983 and into the new year.

'Only You' is (perhaps aptly) Vince Clarke's only chart-topper as a songwriter. It was also the first ever a capella recording to top the singles chart. Unbeknownst to my younger self, the Flying Pickets were a group of politically motivated actors; the exact motivation for performing vocal-only versions of contemporary hits isn't that clear to me, but it doesn't seem to matter when this is so well done. Trying to render an electronic pop song without instruments might be at risk of novelty, but they're smart enough to steer clear of that and recognise 'Only You' as the brilliant song it is, capturing the aching emptiness of the original Yazoo single (and the promo video shot in the semi-abandoned pub only seems to amplify this). If I had to choose, I still think the Yazoo track is slightly the better version, but this is entirely worthy of comparison.

Also appearing on: Now 3
Available on: The Best of the Flying Pickets

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Madness 'Michael Caine'

Chart Peak: 11


A pivotal track in the band's history. Last time Madness cropped up, I mentioned that Mike Barson had left the band shortly afterwards, and this is dramatically illustrated in the video, where he appears only at the start. 'Michael Caine' was the first single from Keep Moving, the album they made while he was serving out his notice, and it sounds very like a band looking for a new direction. In fact, at least once when this record has come up on the radio, I've been asked by someone else in the room whether it really was Madness, so unlike their most famous material does it sound. Of course, the most obvious reason for that is that it's not Suggs on lead vocal, but rather Chas Smash, whom you rarely hear singing on a hit. And whilst long-serving producers Langer & Winstanley were still on board, they've moved towards what was then a contemporary sound, adding the sampled backing vocals and layers of keyboards that now date the record terribly.

The song itself uses the typical Madness trick of tackling a serious subject but hiding it with humour. In this instance, the topic is (I later learnt) IRA informants, hence the paranoia described in the third-person versions and the quiet desperation of the first-person chorus. Seldom can the phrase "There's panic and I hear somebody scream" have been uttered so sweetly. The more jocund elements come in the famous actor's interjections (he famously had to be talked into it by his daughter) - live versions without this part sound decidedly odd. Somewhere in the middle are the sound effects, which relate to the serious content of the lyric. The telephone is so perfectly timed I almost regret mentioning it.

The song proved to be pivotal in their career too: in peaking at 11 it seemed to prove that their run of Top 10 hits was at an end. Partly because of this relative obscurity, this has become one of my favourite Madness songs now, and remains on my MP3 player even after a lot of their more celebrated material has moved on.

And just to ensure that I got my money's worth from buying the Now album, I can confirm that it disappointingly omits Caine's "I think we got it there, don't you?" after the fade-out.

Also appearing on:

Available on: Eight Madness Tracks [MP3 album]

Friday, 29 May 2009

Carmel 'More, More, More'

Chart Peak: 23


A record that really was new to me - unless I'd heard them at the time and forgotten about it, Carmel were an act I knew through flicking through their records. I had gleaned somewhere down the line that they were a group, albeit one named after their lead singer (Carmel McCourt, to be exact) and that this song was not a cover of the one made famous by Andrea True Connection. But I didn't know exactly what to expect.

As it turns out, 'More, More, More' has a certain amount in common with the Matt Bianco track that precedes it in the running order. It too has a distinct jazz-pop flavour and probably could have been written twenty years earlier; or twenty years later, for that matter. However, it's a much more convincing pastiche: there are no conventional drums, which would normally be the dead giveaway in a recording of this era, with the beat coming instead through congas and tambourine. Indeed, the entire arrangement is remarkably sparse, giving the impression of an as-live performance (I have no idea whether it actually was done that way, of course) and the brass even sounds like it could have been recorded on vintage equipment. The performance is excellent too, bursting with confidence and energy.

The only problem is, unfortunately, the song itself, which doesn't really seem to go anywhere. Indeed, it reminds me of one of those old soul records with a Part 2 on the flipside where they're just keeping the groove going... but without the Part 1. This might be why it wasn't quite the hit the compilers must have expected: as the note proclaims, it "Had reached number 25 by 28th February 1984." but in the event it only managed to climb another two positions, failing to match the peak set by 'Bad Day' and indeed they never saw the inside of the Top 40 again. They were very big in France, though.

Available on:

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Matt Bianco 'Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed'

Chart Peak: 15


And just as Now 2 was starting to feel like a hard slog, we at least come upon a less over-familiar record. Indeed, I didn't think I'd heard it before at all, but once I heard it, I thought it wasn't entirely new to me. I remember Matt Bianco mainly for the later line-up that recorded such hits as 'Wap-Bam Boogie' (oddly, put onto YouTube by somebody called "death2hiphopnRnB") but this debut hit is from the original trio (including Basia) when they were trying to sound like a jazz band. Indeed it's part of that whole subset of eighties pop hits that are striving to pastiche earlier music but are now unmistakeably of their time.
Wikipedia says this was the theme tune to children's morning TV in New Zealand. That can't be where I heard it, but I can see it has that vibe about it, and not only in the title. Indeed, one commenter compared it to the theme from Chucklevision.
It's a near-instrumental track, with few actual words other than the title phrase. Where it seems to fall down is the slight mismatch between the improvisational feel of the scat-singing and vamping and the more prepared feel of the production (by Peter Collins, who also did the Nik Kershaw track) which lacks spontaneity and lightness of touch. It's a laugh but not quite fun.

Available on:The Best of Matt Bianco: Platinum Collection

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Thompson Twins 'Hold Me Now'

Chart Peak: 4


They weren't really twins. Kerr-razy! And they weren't even called Thompson!

I do wonder whether they came to regret that name, because the main thing I recall about their career was them appearing on many a TV show having to explain it. Even if they didn't regret it, many a Richard Thompson fan misdirected by record store staff surely did.

Something I didn't remember was how much marimba there is on this track. Once I'd noticed it seemed to dominate it: in fact, it feels like there are a lot of little gimmicks in the production to try and gee it up, or maybe they just didn't know when to stop. They certainly didn't know when to stop repeating the chorus at the end of the record, as if they were determined to make sure you couldn't forget it (if so, the trick worked - it was their biggest-selling UK single). Accomplished as it is, though, it's a record I find it hard to feel strongly about.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 4
Available on: Into the Gap

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Nik Kershaw 'Wouldn't It Be Good?'

Chart Peak: 4


There's a sizeable chapter in Giles Smith's Lost In Music about Nik - or rather Nick - Kershaw, whom he'd vaguely known as a jazz-funk guitarist touring the bars and clubs of Essex in the days before he was groomed for solo stardom. When I first read that just over a decade ago, I was quite surprised, not least because it had never crossed my mind before that he could have been a guitarist; he seemed so inexorably bound with synthpop.

Although I certainly heard 'Wouldn't It Be Good' a lot at the time, I don't think I really took in much of the lyrical content. It certainly didn't become clear until long afterwards that there's supposed to be more than one protagonist singing the verses: perhaps Nik could have clarified this a bit by changing his voice. In fact, perhaps he should have changed his voice anyway, because I don't find this sort of nasal hiccuping sound very appealing, and there was a lot of it around in 1984. I've learnt to appreciate the odder qualities of Andy Partridge's vocal because it projects a personality, but this sounds rather like they're trying to avoid personality at any cost. Many people, even ones who never met him in Colchester, will tell you that Kershaw is a talented musician, but if so he's selling himself quite short here.

In fact, my favourite moment on this track is the very start when it seems to stumble into action over the first couple of notes, adding a hint of humanity to an otherwise quite clinical sounding track. I used to quite like the spacey sound effect that introduces the chorus until I realised it was cribbed from the intro to 'You Haven't Done Nothin'.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 4, 6
Available on: Essential

Monday, 25 May 2009

Queen 'Radio Gaga'

Chart Peak: 2


Worryingly, this blog has now started costing me money: as the image below shows, I have invested the sum of 95p in a copy of Now II (as it's officially called - it remains "Now 2" in the tags for clarity's sake) for no better reason than to blog about it. My hopes of being able to quote from the sleeve notes haven't entirely come to fruition, since they are mostly not all that illuminating: the one for this track tells me merely that it "Charted on 31 January at No.4. Was No.2 the first two weeks of February." and gives the catalogue number for the album it came from. Thanks guys.

At least having the record does enable me to confirm that the version used is the full five minutes and 43, rather than the shorter version from the 7" single. And 'Radio Ga Ga' seems like a song that doesn't need much introduction. Although denied the top chart position by an even bigger hit that we'll come to later on this album, it remains one of the the more familiar Queen songs and it's certainly one that I remember very well from the time, although ironically enough considering the subject matter, I remember the video as much as the song. Of course, back then I didn't realise it was supposed to be a reference to Metropolis but the imagery was striking enough in its own right.

All this seems to hint at one of the many paradoxes that seem to surround Queen: the fact that an act who were so keen to embrace the possibilities of the pop video (and are sometimes even credited with inventing the form, although this is hard to justify) should find themselves having such a big hit with a song of nostalgia for the old way of doing things. All the more ironic, indeed, that this is a track where the band who used to write on their album covers that they hadn't used synthesisers capitulated to the drum machine and programmed basslines, to say nothing of the slightly annoying backing vocals where Roger Taylor sings "Ra-dio" through a Vocoder. None of these things is necessarily bad, but they make a confusing combination. Whilst it sounds rather like a filler shoved in to make for a rhyme, even the song itself seems to acknowledge this with the line "We hardly have to use our ears/Our music changes through the years."

To be fair to Taylor, the song is supposed to be about radio as a whole, not just music broadcasting. But it's still a bit difficult to tell whether the implication is that radio itself has gone wrong or merely that the public have abandoned it. It's just another layer of confusion. So much so that, as with many a Queen record, I can't really tell whether I like it or not.

Also appearing on:
Now 3, 4, 6, 7, 15, 16, 19, 21, 25 [with George Michael], 32, 33, 54 [with Vanguard]
Available on: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Now 34 conclusions

I'm thinking about discontinuing these conclusion posts, because I put off writing this one for so long. Much as I've enjoyed revisiting some of the tracks from 1996, I can't really say I've learnt a huge amount from the experience, except for the factoids I looked up on Wikipedia about individual songs, and if any of that seemed worth posting I posted it at the time. Still, I'm relieved that I wasn't embarrassed by much of the Britpop stuff I liked at the time.

The next album is due to start on Monday. In keeping with my self-imposed rule, it will be from a different decade. In the meantime I'm going to try and post something on the Hit Parade blog. Brace yourselves, etc.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Boyzone 'Coming Home Now'

Chart Peak: 4


I know I said that Cast's chart career had got off to a good start, and relatively speaking it had. But that's as nothing to the rush of hits Boyzone had: indeed, 'Coming Home Now' was in fact the lowest-charting single of their original career, shockingly failing to reach the Top 3.

I'd remembered this as a pretty lame finale to the album, but what I'd forgotten was that it originated on the first Boyzone album, before they'd developed the style we know them for and thus seems to be trying to combine their usual balladry with attempts at swingbeat. Even mid-90s swing by people who were actually devoted to that sort of music hasn't aged very well on the whole, and this sounds like PJ & Duncan on an exceptionally bad day. The only consolation for the listener is that Ronan Keating is probably enjoying it even less than we are.

Also appearing on: Now 30, 31, 33, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 45, 71
Available on: Back Again...No Matter What - The Greatest Hits

Monday, 18 May 2009

Cast 'Walkaway'

Chart Peak: 9


I don't think I still have it, but back in 1996, Polydor sent me a print of the picture used for the cover of this single (relax girls) to try and induce me to buy the thing. I didn't, in the end, because I made do with the album, but the very fact that the marketing budget ran to these lengths is, I suppose, a sign of how successful Cast actually were for a while. To wit, their first ten singles (of which this was the fourth) all entered the Top 20, more than half even reaching the Top 10, then suddenly as the turn of the century neared it all seemed to vanish and they're barely mentioned now.

Cast were as identifiably Liverpudlian a band as Space, but in other respects they were really quite different; although normally grouped among the later Britpop groups, they never seemed to be that fussed about being considered alternative; they just wanted to get on with it. To that end, 'Walkaway' [all one word, I don't know why either] is a simple, Merseybeat-esque ballad that doesn't exactly break new ground lyrically but is remarkably well put together, with the assistance of John Leckie's sure-footed though subtle production. Cast arrived on the record racks with an excellent reputation as a live act, and they don't seem to have needed a lot of fuss to get this down on tape, before doubtless heading to the pub. I'm not going to go so far as to agree with the YouTube uploader who called this "One of the greatest ballads ever", but it's one track that I enjoyed more than I expected to. I noticed a rather pretty bit of string arrangement just after the instrumental break too.

Also appearing on: Now 32, 33, 35, 36, 37, 38, 43
Available on:All Change

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Space 'Female Of The Species'

Chart Peak: 14


I suppose if there's one signifier of how big Britpop was around this time, it's the way that the tracks are spread out all over the album instead of being corralled together.

Despite their other success, Space seem bound to be remembered for their first Top 40 single ('Magic Fly' was of course by a different band) and the song that seems to have attracted the attention of soundtrack compilers, probably because of the convenient cliche in the title. I don't think I ever forgave them. In fact, this is another track that I don't associate with the album, because it was so ubiquitous you ended up not really noticing you'd heard it. That and the fact that my brother actually bought the Space album Spiders, which he later claimed as the worst he'd ever purchased... at least, the worst he'd ever purchased in the expectation it'd be any good.

'Female Of The Species' actually manages to hit two 1990s trends: not just Britpop, but also the lounge music revival. Frontman Tommy Scott apparently chose this style in tribute to his late father's tastes, and whilst it's evidently no more than pastiche it does at least seem to reflect a certain amount of effort, with both the arrangement and the lyric tipping their hats to the old crooners. At the same time it's audibly not the work of the sort of skilled professionals who turned out the records of the pre-rock era, the lyric is clumsy (it rhymes "for me" with "on me"!) the music sounds a bit cheap (and like a lot of records around this time, there's some oddly out-of-place scratching in the mix) and it's all capped by Scott's rather gurning vocal. Also, since we know it's from the 1990s, it does seem a little sexist. It only really comes into its own during a brief breakdown section mid-song when the retro instrumentation gives us a little mellow moment.
I don't hate this record as much as I used to, but I'm not sure whether it's really improved with age or just acquired some nostalgic glow now it's older.

I'd never noticed before, but about one minute into the video a black cat appears to get bored and walk out of shot. I don't blame him.

Also appearing on: Now 35, 36, 39, 41
Available on: Awesome!

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 'Walking on the Milky Way'

Chart Peak: 17


OMC followed by OMD? They must have been doing that on purpose, surely.

In 1996, we couldn't really understand why anybody was still interested in OMD - my brother probably even more so, as he wasn't even born when 'Enola Gay' was in the Top 10 (although this didn't stop either of us liking the Beatles). It had actually only been five years since their last Top Ten hits, but since those five years straddle the time when I came of age musically, they seemed to be the longest five years ever in this way.

Of course, whilst I've just referred to OMD in the plural, by the 1990s the name was just an alias for Andy McCluskey operating with session musicians: this track was co-written by Nigel Ipinson, who was by this time a member of the Stone Roses. Perhaps fittingly for what proved to be the last OMD hit (apart from a remix EP), 'Walking On The Milky Way' considers the subject of lost youth, the familiar observation that when you're young, you have lots of hopes and self-belief, and then when you get older "reality destroys your hope and dignity", and things look a lot more difficult, but you can't recreate your younger days. As it happens, I was a teenager myself when this record came out and am inevitably a bit older now, albeit still a few years younger than McCluskey was at the time. My experience to date hasn't entirely borne him out, but then again I obviously didn't have the self-confidence to form a pioneering synth-pop duo in my teens.

Anyway, this blog isn't really meant to be a place for me to psychoanalyse myself, so let's get back to the song itself: is it any good? Well, I was never fond of the style of their early material (I probably like it more now than I did in 1996) but this single doesn't really sound much like it anyway. The trouble is it doesn't sound much like anything else either; it seems curiously featureless somehow. The chorus is almost catchy but is sunk by the inept production: it should soar as the protagonist recalls the energy of his younger days, but in practice it barely stands out from the verses. And worse still, there's not enough energy or enthusiasm to distract you from the lyric "Man you should have seen us/On the way to Venus".

Also appearing on: Now 3, 4, 8, 20, 25
Available on: Messages: OMD Greatest Hits

Friday, 15 May 2009

OMC 'How Bizarre'

Chart Peak: 5


Well, not very bizarre actually. I suppose the fact that this is (apparently) the highest-charting single by a New Zealand act in the UK is potentially surprising, but not really all that bizarre. Perhaps they're referring to the fact that Pauly Fuemana thinks he can sing; I certainly remember having a good old laugh impersonating that vocal style.

Singing aside, 'How Bizarre' is a fairly amiable bit of fluff, which obviously aims to be a shaggy-dog story but the premise isn't really interesting enough: Pauly and two of the other members of OMC go for a drive in his car, see a poster for a circus, and find out that the elephants have already gone away or something. So when he reaches the punchline "Wanna know the rest? Hey - buy the rights!" I actually don't particularly care whether they tell me the end of the story. The other problem with this joke is that it's barely half-way through the song, so there's a lot more accordion and repetition of the chorus to come before the song finally ends. I can see how this charmed people around the industrialised world, but I don't think I'll be joining in.

Available on: Greatest Ever Nineties

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Everything But The Girl 'Wrong'

Chart Peak: 8


Yes, this is another one that's fallen foul of Warner Music Group, although at least in this case they actually did release the record in the US. Not in Britain, though, where they'd just left for Virgin when their last Blanco Y Negro single, the Todd Terry remix of Missing, became the biggest hit of their career. 'Wrong' was the second Top Ten single from their label debut Walking Wounded and reflects their conversion to dance music, albeit a relatively low-key form thereof. It's an interesting idea to combine the beats of Drum & Bass with the typically mellow sound of the band and the distinctive voice of Tracy Thorn, but in practice something doesn't totally seem to gel: there isn't quite enough drama or tension to make it really count. A bit less good than I remember it really.

Also appearing on: Now 21, 32
Available on: Walking Wounded

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Tina Turner 'On Silent Wings'

Chart Peak: 13


Ah yes, Tina Turner. It felt a bit weird doing Now 10 without her...

'On Silent Wings' was the third of six singles from the album Wildest Dreams, although the version that became the hit is edited down from the six-minute album cut, apparently with some extra overdubs. Even so, it's not what you'd call a concentrated burst of nervous energy.

It's obviously supposed to be a sort of dry-eyed look at the failure of a relationship. Not the panicked reaction, but a sort of resigned recognition that that's how life goes; "You never see it coming, you just go separate ways..." It's perhaps fitting for a veteran performer like Turner, but the trouble with this sort of approach is that it's inherently undramatic, so you have to come up with something pretty special to make it work. The Beatles managed it on 'For No One', but few others seem to have got there. This one ends up feeling slightly aimless, (and that sense is only exacerbated by the video which eventually resorts to setting off fireworks). It goes downhill in the final minute with the sudden arrival of Sting, who makes his first appearance on this blog, who turns up singing along as if there were some extra lyrics left over that Turner forgot to say. Needless to say, they're a bit of a mistmatched pairing and he sounds like a complete afterthought: there's no space in the arrangement for him so he just seems like a DJ singing over the end of the record.

It's not unpleasant by any means, and it gets some small credit for ambition, but it doesn't make a great impact.

Also appearing on: 1, 4, 6, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 32, 44
Available on: The Platinum Collection

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Lighthouse Family 'Ocean Drive'

Chart Peak: 11 (34 in 1995)


Maybe the trouble with the Lighthouse Family wasn't so much that they were actually that bad. They just seemed to be utterly inescapable in the second half of the decade, although their career barely made it into this one.
In fact, I seem to remember hearing 'Ocean Drive' around the time it became their first Top 40 hit in late 1995 and actually thinking it was OK. But this re-release followed their breakthrough hit 'Lifted' and paved the way for what felt like an endless run of indistinguishable, glossy, self-consciously uplifting anthems that all seemed to sell in huge quantities to people who didn't really seem to like music. Was I being a snob here? Well, maybe, but I wasn't making it up.

'Ocean Drive' is, I think, their least bad single, distinguished by a soaring trumpet solo. And whilst it's never going to be my favourite record, in a different universe I might have been able at least to appreciate it as well put together. It suffers a little from the comparison with the above Crowded House track though - there's none of the complexity in this one, so all you get is the platitudes. The sound is too slick, and it never really seems to recognise the darkness of the situation it's trying to talk you out of, so it feels like an empty gesture, just telling you you'll get over it without persuading you.

Also appearing on:
Now 33, 38, 39, 40, 41, 50
Available on: Ocean Drive

Monday, 11 May 2009

Crowded House 'Instinct'

Chart Peak: 12


For possibly the first time in the history of this blog, looking this track up finally prompted me to replace my cassette of the best-of album where this track first appeared with a download. So you can probably guess which way this is going to go.

'Instinct' was one of a few tracks tentatively slated for a fifth Crowded House album, but ultimately became one of the three new tracks on the Recurring Dream best-of, their last recordings with original drummer Paul Hester. For about a decade they were their last recordings of all, since Neil Finn announced around this time that he was folding the band. And on this track, you can almost hear why. Not that it's anything other than good, but it does hint that Finn was looking for a new direction; there are traces of the mildly more modern production sound that he'd explore as a solo artist. Even his vocal is pushed beyond his typical range.

Even after all these years, I've never really been able to grasp what the song is supposed to be about. Parts of the lyric ("Laughing at the stony face of gloom", "Your instinct can't be wrong") sound like they might belong in an upbeat fist-punching anthem, but as usual the music resists this, presenting an oddly bewildered, slightly bleary-eyed confusion. It's this darker side of Crowded House that is often overlooked, rather to the detriment of their reputation, though presumably not their bank balances. 'Instinct' is surprisingly worthwhile for a new song on a best of album, if not up with their finest work: I prefer the other hit from the album, 'Not The Girl You Think You Are' but that never made it to a Now album.

Also appearing on:
Now 21, 22, 23, 26, 35
Available on: Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Joan Osborne 'One Of Us'

Chart Peak: 6


I'm not sure that YouTube is exactly the original single version, but it's the only copy of the record I could find on there that hadn't been forcibly silenced by WMG (even though it was released by a different label). There are a lot of covers on there though, including one by the artist formerly known as Prince. Sometimes this sort of thing might tempt me to give the record a bad review, but fortunately that doesn't apply in this case: I hated it already.

I recalled 'One Of Us' as one of a rank of one-off hits around this time by female singer-songwriters that were supposed to be really thought-provoking but, as the comedian Jim Tavare once put it, made you think, "Who put this rubbish on?" It hasn't improved much with age, although I did learn that this wasn't actually written by Osborne but by Eric Bazillian; he'd previously been a member of The Hooters, whose only British hit 'Satellite' had a similar vaguely religious theme. It's not clear whether this song is supposed to be funny or important but either way it seems to miss the mark completely, raising a series of dull questions in a dull way that invites derision long before the infamous rhyme "Nobody calling on the phone/'Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome". Maybe there's a good song to be written about the idea of God travelling incognito in the human world, but this certainly isn't it. On the positive side, her voice isn't as bad as I remembered it.

Available on: Relish

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Suede 'Trash'

Chart Peak: 3


Suede's first A-side without Bernard Butler: their biggest-selling single, apparently, and the first of five Top 10 singles from their Coming Up. My brother had that album and I spent quite a lot of 1996 making fun of various aspects of the record, from the horrible scrawl on the cover to the frequent lyrical howlers, but above all Brett Anderson's whiny Mockney vocal. And yes, I am aware that I've just written a glowing review of a Blur song, but even I have my limits. My brother used to join in with all this too, but then he's always appreciated music in more dimensions than I have.

The bald fact is that I never really liked Suede: not that I'd ever really listened to them pre-1996, but I looked up them pretentious, self-important, overhyped, whingy and prizing style over content. Despite its status as their great commercial breakthrough, 'Trash' just seemed to comfirm all my prejudices about them: right the way down to the cliche of the title. Not unusually in pop, it presents itself as an anthem for outsiders but gives the distinct impression that it's really only interested in the right type of outsider and if you don't conform to exactly their brand of nonconformism they're going to look down on you. Over the years, I've warmed to the band somewhat, possibly because I'm now more appreciative of The Smiths and David Bowie. But I still don't like this track much. Thirteen years on, the production sounds shrill and tinny: I'd suspect this of being intentional except that the band seem to have agreed with me, as they used a partially re-recorded version on their Singles album.

Also appearing on: Now 35
Available on: Coming Up (European Release)

Friday, 8 May 2009

Blur 'Charmless Man'

Chart Peak: 5


Yes, I've had to fetch the camera again to capture my original CD single of this. Alas it no longer has the gold sticker that sealed the case shut, but I think you can probably grasp the concept from here.

With all due respect to Bon Jovi (ahem) if you'd asked me in 1996 who my favourite band were, the answer would have been Blur. If any pop group ever changed my life, it was them: not only was the first record I ever bought one of theirs, but they introduced me to a lot of music that it might have taken me longer to find out about. There was certainly another rush down to the shop after school when The Great Escape came out.

My own teenage life aside, this was the fourth and final single from that album, and in retrospect seems like the end of an era for Blur. When they played the singles tour in 1999, they took a break after this song. Even listening to the three low-budget B-sides (one of which is even called 'A Song') seems like a trail for the next album; but of course those B-sides aren't on this album so I should probably get round to the point. And the point is that 'Charmless Man' is no less than a great pop record, whether Blur care to admit it or not. They may have been right to feel that there was no further to go in this direction, but that's really because this is the peak of a particular style. It's a Ray-Davies-styled character sketch of an unappealing upper-class twit with a cocaine habit ("He talks at speed/He gets nose bleeds"), the sort of person Damon Albarn must have met a lot of at this time, and possibly even feared becoming; I wonder how Alex James might have felt about it. As with so many great records, the bitterness is blended with the sugar-rush of pure pop, something that Blur seem to have been able to do much more convincingly than a lot of other art-school types, and abetted by the seamless production of Stephen Street. There's even a hook outside the chorus, when the first verse strips down to Albarn's single-finger piano.

The video is quite funny too, and possibly intended as a swipe at the stardom they were beginning to dislike. In fact, it's only the lead vocal that I could single out as a weak point, and that's when I go looking for flaws. I'm glad they chose to draw a line under this record, because a longer career of this sort of thing would have become annoying - but this still stands as a classic of its time.

Also appearing on: Now 28, 29, 32, 33, 36, 37, 42, 43
Available on: Gift Pack 2CD+DVD

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Suggs 'Cecilia'

Chart Peak: 4


It's statistically unlikely that you'll need a link to the original of this, but here it is anyway.

My strongest memory of Suggs's solo career is that in May 1996 (or around that time at least) I was torn between buying his album The Lone Ranger or The Sun Is Often Out by Longpigs. Much to my brother's derision, I ultimately plumped for the latter (but guess what he got for his birthday that year). Whilst I still think I made the right choice, this doesn't necessarily mean I have a complete downer on the one I decided against: if I remember correctly, I actually took it with me when I moved out of the house, but I did have to give it back eventually. It's no masterpiece but there are some decent chunks of Madness-like pop on there (indeed the song '4am' was later recycled on a Madness album) thanks to his renewed collaboration with ex-colleague Mike Barson. And then there's this.

At the time, I actually thought this was quite good. It's certainly a good-natured treatment of Paul Simon's original, which lends itself better to Ska than might have been predicted; I don't even know whether there might have been ska versions of the song before. And, I suppose the extra vocals from Louchie Lou and Michie One add a slight spark of originality. But still, this hasn't aged at all well - it sounds like a bit of a novelty now. It was novel enough for a lot of people though: in a time when almost every hit single entered the charts at its peak position, this managed to leap 33-9 in the second week of release, thanks to an appearance on the televised lottery show if I remember rightly. It went on to peak even higher and sell over half a million copies, and inspiring them to team up again for the less successful 'No More Alcohol'.

Oh, and some people might not forgive me if I neglected to link to this. Naughty Top Of The Pops producers!

Also appearing on:
Now 32
Available on:Platinum Collection

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Belinda Carlisle 'In Too Deep'

Chart Peak: 6


After our little Bon Jovi confessional the other day, I might as well keep going. I don't suppose it's terribly shameful to say that 'Circle In The Sand' made at least some contribution to persuading my ten-year old self that girls might be more interesting than I'd previously assumed. I had less excuse by the time I was of voting age, but there's no denying that it once crossed my mind to buy the seven-inch picture disc of this, with '(We Want) The Same Thing' on the flipside. What was I thinking?

Actually, even when I came to do this review, I thought I remembered this as being a bit better. The lead piano line that I remembered is alright, but slower and less energetic than I remember, and not strong enough to bear the weight of the overproduction, nor even of lyrical howlers like "Thanks for the crash-course/You came riding on your noble horse". A decent vocal, at least, but it really doesn't do the trick. Still a big improvement over Bryan Adams, though.

Also appearing on:
Now 11, 12, 16, 18, 19, 20, 26, 35
Available on: A Woman & A Man

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Bryan Adams 'The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me Is You'

Chart Peak: 6 [no, I'd never heard of it either].

An oddly difficult record to track down: he's only uploaded a live version to his YouTube channel (although there are also some officially-endorsed cover versions) and neither is it on Last.FM. If I didn't know better I'd suspect he was slightly ashamed of it. I certainly wouldn't blame him.

Now, I realise he's an easy target for criticism, but there's a reason: however much one might admire his humanitarian work, this is a truly, deeply awful record by almost any possible measure. It can't even claim the good ol' blue collar appeal of typical Adams work, as it strives to be fashionable, funny and sexy, none of which are moods he's well qualified to portray. The dismissive references to famous fashion brands are awkwardly out of place and the notion that all this is somehow intended as a come-on would be creepy were it not so bizarre. And just to seal the deal, there's also the garish horror of the promo video, which repeatedly shows Adams on the toilet. Blender magazine apparently voted this the 47th worst single ever and if anything, they were a bit on the generous side.

Also appearing on: Now 6 [with Tina Turner], 43, 45 [with Chicane]
Available on: Anthology

Monday, 4 May 2009

Bon Jovi 'Hey God'

Chart Peak: 13


It's tempting to suggest that the very fact of Bon Jovi continuing to release records implies the lack of a God to go shouting "Hey!" at, but that's a pretty cheap shot and besides, I've got to admit that there was a moment circa 1995 when I sort of thought they were good. It didn't last too long, but this was their relatively serious era: 'Hey God' was the fifth and smallest hit from These Days, though curiously the only one to feature on any Now album. I'd like to think it's also the point when I really started to go off them too, if only because it's so overblown and that's a far less appealing quality in a song that's supposed to be taken seriously.

Oh yes, you're supposed to take 'Hey God' very seriously, because it's their attempt at socially-conscious rock. Apparently Richie Sambora was inspired to write it after he saw a homeless person from the window of his limo, and it strives to capture the impotent anger of three characters in difficult circumstances. But however good the intentions, Bon Jovi had apparently forgotten how to sound angry by this point in their career and they were a bit too house-trained for this to sound any more than noodly, particularly since it's six minutes long for no obvious reason.

Also appearing on:
Now 9, 47, 62, 64
Available on: These Days

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Paul Weller 'Peacock Suit'

Chart Peak: 5


Another case where I can remember the first time I heard the song: this time in an unusual live performance on Top Of The Pops. Either then or when they re-ran the performance during the chart run of the single, I was watching it with subtitles which claimed that the first line was "I've got a breakthrough matter", but according to the official lyric sheet it's actually a "grapefruit matter", which is "as sour as shit". Thanks Paul. At first glance the lyric seems like an expression of the rather grumpy phase Weller seemed to be going through at the time, although on closer inspection it's more likely intended as a mocking sketch of a self-regarding dandy, a dedicated follower of fashion if you will. If so, it doesn't entirely convince, possibly because it seems to betray a conflicting back-to-basics urge and the whole thing sounds less considered than a lot of his work - that slightly off-mic "I look real cute!" after the chorus sounds spontaneous, and you rather have to hope that it is.

The performance as a whole is obviously aiming at a certain rough-and-ready charm: it's presumably for this reason that he called in Steve Cradock on second guitar rather than overdubbing the part himself. And on that basis at least, it's a success, an intense run at a rather simple song that belies the underwhelming material. In fact, I've enjoyed listening back to this rather more than I'd expected to, but it remains far from my favourite solo Weller track; I can well imagine that people who didn't like him anyway would rate this among his worst. So it's probably just an accident of timing that this proved to be his biggest chart hit as a solo artist.

Also appearing on: Now 25, 32, 33, 70
Available on:Hit Parade

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Bluetones 'Slight Return'

Chart Peak: 2


For some reason, it really sticks in my mind that one Monday afternoon in January 1996, a few of us trotted down into town after school, and walked into Our Price and used the listening post near the front of the store to check out some of the week's new single releases. I rejected possibilities from Northern Uproar" and Marion, I ultimately plumped for the single in the proper CD case with a picture of bee on the front:

Apart from sounding like it was a very long time ago, that description goes some way to explaining why I was unconcerned about failing to find the official promo video on YouTube (I hardly saw it at the time, surprisingly for such a big hit: it's not actually that good apart from Mark Morriss's silly little jig). In fact the only thing I dislike about this track is the extent to which it seems to have overshadowed all the band's other hits. If they're remembered at all by most people it seems to be as a sort of second-tier Britpop act, and of course the very fact that I started this sentence the way I did, despite the band still being together, seems to tell a story of its own. Perhaps it's because they struggled to replicate the level of success they had with this track, or perhaps that's recursive.

Anyway, if I squint past the albatross status of this song, enough time has now passed to remind me why I liked it so much. Not the lyrics, some of which I couldn't really make out until I bought the Singles album six years later, but the charm with which they're delivered by Mark Morriss, and the jangling twelve-strings of Adam Devlin. But there's something in this that raises this above a mere Byrds pastiche, perhaps the slight hint of mystery about it.

Also appearing on: Now 35
Available on: Expecting To Fly

Friday, 1 May 2009

Oasis 'Wonderwall'

Chart Peak: 2


An even older record than 'Jesus To A Child' (though it outlasted it in the chart), this was originally released as a single in November 1995 and had therefore already been missed from two volumes in the Now series. Indeed, the next Oasis single, 'Don't Look Back In Anger' is on Now 33.

Of course, we can probably attribute this to record company politics. But just as Box Music must have felt they were coming late to this track, I feel it's a bit late for me to start reviewing 'Wonderwall' now. What can I possibly add to the reams of commentary about this track? When I listened to it attentively for the first time in ages, the thing that really caught my ear was how well-produced a record it is. That tends to be a bit of a faint-praise description, but it really struck me how good the acoustic guitars sound at the start of the track. And I've always liked the way the busy percussion helps to keep the energy of the recording up: it's a great flaw of most cover versions that I've heard that they tend to drift into the flat and maudlin. Perhaps this is the closest I'll get to an insight here, regarding my own conflicting feelings about the record, and about Oasis as a whole. I don't think it's the greatest song ever written, and I don't think it's as good as I did in 1995. But maybe I don't like it any less, and not only because I know how much worse the band can get. It doesn't arouse particularly nostalgic feelings in my either, perhaps because it's never really gone away. It just seems to exert a special power of its own, and not only on me: it recently sold its millionth copy, more than 11 years after release, and is at time of writing just outside the iTunes Top 200.

The pedant in me wants to point out that the single version here omits the brief acoustic reprise of 'Supersonic' at the end of the album version. One final observation from the video: stand-in bassist Scott McLeod clearly wasn't hired for his darts-playing ability. We used to have a good old laugh at that.

Also appearing on: Now 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 38, 52, 53, 54, 61, 62
Available on: Stop the Clocks