Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Don McLean 'American Pie' [full length version]

Chart Peak: 12 [2 in 1972]


Somebody suddenly seems to have walked in and said that the album was getting far too silly. For the final track is rather self-consciously serious, and as if to underline the point it's the long 8-minutes-plus version; presumably that's why there's one less track on Disc 2 than Disc 1. This full-length version also appeared on the CD and cassette versions of the re-released single, presumably because they could. At the time it felt like something of a treat to hear such a long song getting played on the radio but nowadays I have to admit to finding it a bit of a chore.

At the time, too, I might have been keener to agree with the sentiment of the song and its exposition of how pop music was useless after the 1960s. Indeed, I remember having an earnest discussion on the uselessness of post-1970 music with my mum in Burger King, which quickly descended into "What Have The Romans Done For Us" territory when she reminded me about the existence of soul music, indie etc. Even though I appreciate the tragedy of Buddy Holly's death all the more now, I find it harder to be impressed by McLean's wordplay or his thesis, though at least this is a well-made record, with a warm, intimate sound to it, and less sickly than his other big hit of the time, 'Vincent'.

Available on: American Pie

Here ends Now 20. All that remains is to embed the playlist for those who wish to draw their own conclusions. There are some good moments but they seem a bit to few and far between for an album with half a year to draw on.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Monty Python 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life'

Chart Peak: 3


I wasn't sure whether to tag this track as an oldie or not - it obviously did date back quite a few years, but it doesn't fit my usual criterion as it had never been a single before. It gets the "from the movies" tag thanks to Life Of Brian, of course, but then again I don't think I was alone among people who liked the song in that I'd never seen the film; I remember it being a big deal when Channel 4 showed it once, but I also remember not being allowed to watch it, although my Mum did make an exception for the scene where somebody writes "ROMANS GO HOME" in grammatically incorrect Latin; perhaps she thought it was educational.

For that matter, I don't think I'd seen much of Monty Python at all then, although I'd obviously heard of them and seen various members of the group in other contexts. Younger readers may wish to recall that there was no such thing as YouTube in 1991 and videos were still pretty cumbersome, so I only saw it when the BBC repeated a few episodes. It was more the sort of thing older kids at school were into at the time. And yet none of this stopped the song becoming a massive hit, although Eric Idle did have to return to the studio to record a slightly sanitised version for airplay, as featured here. The original joke is a simple one, counselling the character to stay optimistic in one of the least hopeful situations imaginable and yet it's endured far beyond its original context: probably not because it's actually funny after the first couple of times but because there's something reassuring about recalling and sharing the original gag. I'm not that surprised that it's also been popular as a football chant.

Of course, credit is also due for the fact that the song has the musical strength to bear repeated plays. Apparently it was Neil Innes who suggested the whistled chorus (one of at least two uncredited contributions he's made to tracks on Now albums) and the richness of the arrangement gives it that odd sense of plausibility that helps to underline the joke. And George Harrison gets a second mention for allowing the film to be made in the first place.

Available on: Back Of The Net! (Classic Football Anthems)

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Slade 'Radio Wall Of Sound'

Chart Peak: 21


The slightly silly mood of the previous track continues with the last hit by the original incarnation of Slade (not counting re-releases of 'Merry Xmas Everybody' of course), which was released to promote the similarly-titled best-of compilation Wall Of Hits; after one more flop single from the collection, Noddy Holder and Jim Lea retired from music, though a rump version of Slade persists to this day. Of course in their real glory days I wasn't around; the first I remember of them was seeing them on Cheggers Plays Pop or some similar show in the early 1980s and my mother being surprised to see them because they'd been a big band so long ago; indeed this is the only Slade hit I can really say I'm old enough to remember from the time it was in the charts.

'Radio Wall Of Sound' is among the few of the band's hits where Lea takes the lead vocal. Apparently he'd already recorded this for a solo project and Holder's voice didn't suit the key, so he's only an (admittedly unmistakeable) backing singer here, though I presume he also contributes guitars. Somewhat less welcomely, perpetual rock-star wannabe Mike Read plays the part of an inane smarmy disc jockey, although you'd have to admit he's very convincing in the role. The very late-80s hard-rock production (Lea again, but imitating the style of big-name American producers) may have helped contribute to the track's success at the time but it does feel very dated now, and in a way seems not entirely to play to the band's natural strengths: on their best singles Slade were convincing hard-rockers with the best of them but there was something charmingly human about the sound they made together that distinguished them from other heavy bands and made them more accessible to non-metallers. I'd class myself as not being a native hard-rock fan and perhaps that's why this isn't exactly my favourite of theirs, and yet I retain some affection for it probably because I fondly recall liking it at the time. With hindsight, I can see why it might have done more for my thirteen-year-old self, but it wasn't a bad way to go out.

Also appearing on: Now 2
Available on: The Slade Box [Box Set]

Friday, 21 January 2011

Voice Of The Beehive 'I Think I Love You'

Chart Peak: 25


In a way, you could say they were ahead of the curve. Apparently this version of the old David Cassidy song was originally recorded for a compilation album of covers called Guilty Pleasures, at least a decade before Sean Rowley trademarked the name. It wasn't to be though, and in the end the track was destined for their second album and minor chart success.

So far so good, but at the end of the day it's still not actually a very good song, and the charm of the Beehives is squandered by the clumsy electronic production and some rather weak singing. It wasn't quite as cliched an idea back then but it wasn't much better of a one either. A pity we couldn't have had another of their self-penned hits instead.

Also appearing on: Now 12
Available on: Love In The Decades: Love In The 90's

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

James 'Sit Down'

Chart Peak: 2 [original version 77 in 1989]


The original version of this track, as released by Rough Trade, was almost their first ever Top 75 hit. Oddly, it didn't initially make the cut for their major-label comeback album Gold Mother, which brought them their first Top 40 hits. Eventually, though, commercial logic prevailed and the re-recording that appears here and on innumerable other compilations spend three weeks behind only Chesney Hawkes. Ultimately it was added to the album too, although it displaced another song, which is always an annoying thing for record companies to do.

The hit version of 'Sit Down' is one of those tracks that's so deeply familiar I find it hard to get purchase on it and get a fresh reaction, or any reaction at all for that matter. They're not a group I ever mustered much affection for; they've never shrugged off the sense of a poor man's U2 for me. I can appreciate this song a bit more as an adult than I could back in 1991, although I'm not sure whether realising that the lyric I'd heard as "those who find themselves religious" is actually "those who find themselves ridiculous" constitutes an improvement though. Even though there's japery in James, a lot of the time I still find them a bit self-important.

In all honesty though, even if I was ever going to like this song I'd be far too tired of it now.

Also appearing on: Now 21, 26, 36, 37, 41, 43
Available on: Epic

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Roxette 'Joyride'

Chart Peak: 4


The album seems to wake up somewhat at this point, and for a change we get an act represented by one of their biggest hits. Roxette were, as I might already mentioned, not an act I was ever fond of, even as the songs lodged themselves indelibly in my memory. There seemed to be something a bit too forced, a bit too gimmicky and greedy about their music.

Twenty years have been surprisingly kind to 'Joyride' though, possibly their goofiest hit. Obviously, that's a particular advantage in this context, amid a lot of rather po-faced rock, but I also think I've grown up a bit and I'm more inclined to laugh along with the song which brings out every silly trick in the book, including that immortal lyric "Now she's telling all her secrets... in a wonderful balloon!" and the whistling middle section. It's the crowning glory when ten seconds from the end Per Gessle shouts "Rox-ETTE!". I wouldn't enjoy hearing this every day and it's definitely too long, but it was cheery enough for me today.

Also appearing on: Now 15, 18, 21, 23, 42
Available on: Hits

Monday, 17 January 2011

INXS 'Shining Star'

Chart Peak: 31


Apparently some Now albums actually contain INXS songs I've heard of. Not this one though. 'Shining Star' was the one and only single from their in-concert album Live Baby Live, although I think this is actually a studio recording. Now there's a practice that's fallen out of favour nowadays.

Actually, even though I'm no fan of the band I have to admit that there's some fairly good bass-playing on this track, and it feels like it might be about to go somewhere interesting at the start. But then it doesn't, and then the sax solo comes in. Even a few minutes after hearing it, I struggle to remember much about it, but it doesn't exactly charm me. Perhaps it's not that surprising it wasn't a bigger hit.

Also appearing on: Now 14, 15, 18, 19, 23
Available on: Live Baby Live

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Scorpions 'Wind Of Change'

Chart Peak: 2 [originally 53]


Side 4 starts in the same downbeat mood as the third. Well, I say "downbeat"; in theory this song was supposed to be uplifting, dealing with the Western world's excitement about the fall of the Berlin wall and the fact that the USSR was collapsing as the song reached its peak position over here. And this despite the fact that Scorpions were apparently the first Western Rock band to play in Moscow, which you'd think would have been enough to put anybody off capitalism for life.

OK, so at least the broader subject matter does distract them from their usual sexist lyrics. But this turgid, constipated-sounding tripe isn't much of an improvement. Reportedly this is the world's biggest-selling single by a German act; Lou Bega was robbed.

Available on: Crazy World

Glass Tiger 'My Town'

Chart Peak: 33


OK, I've got to admit that until this album cropped up I'd never heard of Glass Tiger, and certainly had no idea that they'd managed two Top 40 singles in this country, of which this was already the second. They turn out to have been a Canadian rock group fronted by the Scottish-born Alan Frew. That's still no excuse for him to have come up with this awful pseudo-Caledonian treacle, the sort of thing Simple Minds would have rejected as too overdone.

So corny and sentimental is the longing for "Scotia" that it's hardly a surprise when Rod Stewart turns up halfway through (at least I presume that the version they'll have used here, though there's also one
without him). This is no 'In A Broken Dream,' though.

Available on: No Turning Back: 1985 - 2005

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Marc Cohn 'Walking In Memphis'

Chart Peak: 22 [originally 66]


One of those big airplay hits that turns out to have been a much smaller chart hit than you'd think. And even the success it did have took two attempts, although I remember hearing and preferring 'Silver Thunderbird', the follow-up to the original release.

The song itself has shown up on this blog before in a cover version by Cher, but it's probably this version that more people will remember. At the time I recall liking it more because it seemed sophisticated and the sort of thing I should be keen on, than because I was excited about it directly. I certainly didn't really understand a lot of the references back then: of course I'd heard of Memphis and I knew what country it was in,  I knew about Graceland (thanks to Paul Simon) and who the Reverend Green was, but when he sang that it was "the land of the Delta Blues" I think I thought they were a baseball team or something. I'm a bit more clued-up now on the importance of the city in musical history, and also I have some appreciation of how far Cohn's hometown of Cleveland Ohio is from there, geographically and culturally. I don't know whether I'd say that it entirely captures the spirit of the place, but then again any impression I have of the place is entirely secondhand, and perhaps that's the point. It's a song about a visitor, after all. I thought I'd hate it when I came back to listen to it here, but it's really quite pleasant after all.

Available on: The Very Best of Marc Cohn

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Alison Moyet 'This House'

Chart Peak: 40


One of only two appearances from the former Yazoo singer in the series, presumably because CBS preferred to save her biggest songs for their own Hits series. And somehow we end up dealing with a song not often mentioned, though it is her first hit of the 1990s; the song itself, however, doesn't originate in the decade but is a re-recorded version of a B-side from her 1987 non-album single 'Love Letters' (the original version can be heard here). The decision paid off to the extent that this outcharted the first two singles from her comeback album Hoodoo, though this still remains possibly the least-known phase of her career.

More's the pity, because much as I like some of her earlier solo work, it suffers often from heavy-handed production and a slight lack of personality. Whilst I wouldn't exactly call the soundscape of 'This House' subtle, it's a lot easier on the drum machines and fretless bass and is rightly constructed as a space for her voice to work in. And it's a brilliant voice, but you knew that - what works especially well here is that she was (by her own telling) allowed for the first time to work up to the most powerful parts of the performance rather than going at it full-tilt, which is devastatingly effective in this epic of loss. The wordless start to the chorus sounds as if she's literally speechless, and even the verses are satistfyingly haunting. Though I have wondered whether the opening lyric "Whose sticky hands are these" is a reference to what the protagonist might have been doing in her vanished lover's absence, and that's no joke. She certainly isn't laughing. We never know where he's gone or why, although it doesn't matter: it really doesn't sound like he's coming back.

I don't know, and wouldn't necessarily want to know, whether there's any basis in personal experience for this song, but either way it's in a different universe from the competent but rather anonymous performance of Cathy Dennis and the sort of record that leaves me a bit overawed (hence the late post): there's nothing really complex about it but it's so powerful it hardly seems possible.

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

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Cathy Dennis 'Too Many Walls'

Chart Peak: 17


Apparently not a song about over-indulging in ice cream then. Actually it does sound vaguely familiar, but it's hard to be sure whether I actually remembered the song or whether she just recycled some of this melody in her subsequent writing career.

In truth, Dennis only wrote the words to this song; the tune comes from Anne Dudley, former member of the Art Of Noise known for her orchestral arrangements and film soundtracks. Possibly that's why I get a sense of two writers and one singer who are talented but not really playing to their strengths here. It's a vaguely memorable track but doesn't seem to hit home emotionally.

Also appearing on: Now 16 [D Mob introducing Cathy Dennis], 36
Available on: The Irresistible

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Jason Donovan 'Any Dream Will Do'

Chart Peak: 1 (2 weeks)


One thing I often find quietly impressive about these Now albums is the sequencing. Where the accepted practice for many compilations is to load the biggest hits at the start to grab the attention of the casual browser (and maybe load one or two biggies at the top of the second disc where applicable), here we get a Number One single more or less buried in the middle of Side 3. Admittedly, it's one of those big-selling songs that wouldn't be unanimously liked, but this still shows confidence.

It's fair to say, I think, that not everyone likes either Andrew Lloyd Webber or Jason Donovan, and the combination is enough to put many people off instantly, myself included. It's slightly ironic that a man who was never going to be taken seriously as a pop star because he'd started out as an actor was able to revive his musical career somewhat by returning to acting, but so it was with this returning him to the top of the singles chart for the last time, and arguably setting him up for the sort of part-time singing career he now has. And to be fair to him, his singing is remarkably improved here from the sound Stock Aiken and Waterman were able to get from him even with all the technology at their disposal. Credit where it's due there, but I can't be so enthusiastic about the song itself, though I'll give it some benefit of the doubt in that it might make more sense in context. That doesn't excuse the very cheap-sounding production or the irritating children's choir though. And not for the first time I find myself wondering why every early-90s pop video has a scene in a room full of candles.

Available on: Andrew lloyd Webber - Gold

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Paula Abdul 'Rush Rush'

Chart Peak: 6


They can hardly have known at the time, but another Number 6 hit (and another one featured in that Only Fools And Horses too). We're still in the land of slow songs too, although this is at least a more positive song lyrically, though rather a soppy one. Abdul was never really likely to recapture the success of her first album, but the record company were certainly prepared to invest a good few bob in trying, hence the elaborate video directed by George Lucas (!) and starring Keanu Reeves.

The song itself suggests little expense spared either, clearly designed to make the most out of her admittedly moderate musical talents. Some people might compare it to her former employer Janet Jackson but to me the more obvious comparison is with Kylie Minogue, who's also succeded in combining a small amount of musical ability with other talents and charm to spend a long time in the spotlight. Of course, Abdul wasn't able to remain a popstar as such for as long, so at least one of her intended comeback singles ended up being Minogue's instead. But on this evidence, whilst her lack of continued success isn't a great loss, there's no obvious reason she couldn't still be popular.

Also appearing on: Now 14, 17, 21
Available on: Greatest Hits - Straight Up!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Julian Lennon 'Saltwater'

Chart Peak: 6


It happens that on the same day some people were doubtless unwrapping this album, the track featured in an
Only Fools And Horses Christmas Special. Apparently it was played in full in the original broadcast version, too.

Last time Julian Lennon cropped up on here, I managed to write the entire post without any reference to his parentage: it seemed only fair. This time around it's not really an option though, because (no pun intended!) the younger Lennon sounds like he's realised he's going to get compared to his late father as long as he pursues a musical career and just goes for broke. Indeed, that was rumoured to be George Harrison on uncredited lead guitar. You can well imagine how Harrison would have sympathised with the lyric here, a lament for man's harm to the environment and poverty and the slightly finger-wagging tone would have been unlikely to put him off either. However, a recent update to the song's Wikipedia article confirms that he was unable to contribute in person for practical reasons, but the result is an approved pastiche of his style.

'Saltwater' has a solid, "horizontal" melody of the sort the older Lennon was wont to produce in his later years, but where his sentimentality could be undercut by the right production, this suffers from a morass of slush which seems determined to beat you over the head with its own good intentions, if that's not too much of a mixed metaphor. It's far from the worst John Lennon pastiche to show up on these albums, but it's more 'Free As A Bird' than 'Jealous Guy'.

Also appearing on: Now 4
Available on: Original Hits - Nineties [Explicit]

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Enya 'Caribbean Blue'

Chart Peak: 13


We stay in a bit of a mellow mood for the lead single from her big comback album and, at the time, her biggest hit since 'Orinoco Flow'. At the time, like most 13-year olds I suspect, I paid very little attention to Enya and even though this song was getting played on the radio it wasn't until much later that I associated the song with the title; probably not until over a decade later when a then-colleague gave me all his cassettes because he'd decided to upgrade to a personal CD player. I did tape over most of them and I think I may even have recorded over the best of Enya eventually but at some point I did find myself spooling it through my Walkman; and as a distraction from the working day 'Caribbean Blue' was actually quite effective. It did rather wash over me but I sort of thought that was the point.

I had, if not high hopes, at least some confidence about the thought of listening to this track. And I wouldn't say the hopes were dashed exactly but sitting at home on a comfortable chair I didn't enjoy this one quite so much. Maybe trying too hard to listen to it was to its detriment somehow. It's not one I'd ever have paid money for, at any rate. I don't think she'll starve though.

Also appearing on: Now 23, 33, 59 [Pirates feat. Enya, Shola Ama, Naila Boss & Ishani]
Available on: Shepherd Moons

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Paul Young 'Don't Dream (It's Over)'

Chart Peak: 20


And so we kick off 2011 with the first track on the second disc and, er, it's Paul Young doing a cover version again. Indeed this is the highest-charting reading of the song in the UK, and can just about claim to be Neil Finn's first Top 20 hit as a writer, arriving in that part of the chart a fortnight before Crowded House's own version of 'Fall At Your Feet'.

Even though I'm writing this back in 2010 and without the effect of alcohol, I'm going to be kind here and note that this actually a decent enough version of the song. It does suffer from a certain amount of over-production but then so did the original, and Young obviously did like the song enough to have sung it at the Nelson Mandela concert in 1988 (in preference to promoting one of his own singles, to his credit). Personally I still prefer Finn's voice and he gets some bonus points for doing it first, at least in the sense that Young doesn't add much. But this is pretty good by his standards.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 5
Available on: From Time to Time: the Singles Collection