Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Fine Young Cannibals 'I'm Not The Man I Used To Be'

Chart Peak: 20


No sleevenote this time, as this is one of the three tracks exclusive to the CD version of Now 16. I don't know exactly what the mechanics were of this, whether this was because the record company refused to clear it for all the formats or whether it was intentionally relegated to bonus track status - but it certainly isn't the smallest hit on the album. Indeed, it was a pretty big song at the time and if it doesn't seem to get mentioned much nowadays it's only because it gets overshadowed by other hits from their admittedly meagre output.

It's only become clear to me as I've been studying the Now! albums that the Fine Young Cannibals were actually really rather good. To be sure I enjoyed hearing the songs at the time, but they seem to have more depth to me now. And for once I can be pretty sure it's not the nostalgia talking, because the picture they paint of eighties Britain isn't all that pretty. On this present track, though, the gaze is turned somewhat inward on a song that sounds like a lament for lost youth (although Roland Gift was still under thirty when he recorded this, so I imagine there may be more going on than the obvious). Possibly it's the return of the narrator from 'Johnny Come Home' further down the road to oblivion. It makes for an odd track to put on  a compilation called "Happy Birthday Dad", really, but at least he might appreciate the music, which seems like a precursor to Emeli Sandé's excellent recent hit 'Heaven'.

Aptly enough, this song of weariness was to be their penultimate major hit. They split after dragging one more single from the second album, and then re-emerged with a one-off single and best of album in the mid-1990s. They deserve to be more remembered though.

Also appearing on: Now 5, 6, 14, 15
Available on: Happy Birthday Dad (Digital Version)

Monday, 28 November 2011

Kate Bush 'The Sensual World'

Chart Peak: 12


'The Sensual World', which made Number 12 in September 1989, was Kate's biggest British hit single since 'Running Up That Hill' in 1985.

So... shall I pretend that taking a week to get round to this post is a tribute to Kate Bush's notoriously slow work rate? If so, it'd be an ill-timed one, since she's just released her second album of 2011, albeit that only one of them had new material. That said, there was an eleven-year gap between The Red Shoes and Aerial, which is roughly the same length of time that divides this from 'Wuthering Heights'. Of course, this sporadic release schedule is one reason she features relatively rarely in the Now! series - just the two solo singles - but even when she does she feels as out of place as an act of her commercial stature might reasonably seem. For all its chart success, 'The Sensual World' isn't really a pop song, and was utterly baffling to my 11-year-old ears; not difficult to listen to as an aggressive rock or hip-hop track might be, just hard to understand; especially since I didn't really know what the word "sensual" meant, although I was pretty sure it was something rude. I didn't know (and wouldn't have understood anyway) that the song was originally based on a  speech from James Joyce's Ulysses, although Bush was unable to get permission at the time - she did manage to clear it for the re-recording earlier this year. I didn't know it was derived from a Macedonian folk tune either, but then I didn't know there was such a place as Macedonia, let alone two of them.

Actually reading Ulysses was somewhat more research than I thought necessary for this blog post, though, so I'm just going to look on this as a record. Interestingly, whilst the word "sensual" obviously implies sexuality, and that's certainly implied by the lyric and the breathy vocals, I think Bush is also using the word in a more general sense, as she talks about her character "stepping out from the page" and embracing reality in all its physical and emotional impact. It's obviously possible to read this as somehow autobiographical from somebody whose first hit was adapted from a book, but whether there's any truth in that we're never to know. Either way, it's a heady mix with the twisty melody and those haunting pipes. And yet, it's not the sort of thing that would realistically ever have been a hit single were it not from a legendary act, and it doesn't wholly seem to make sense without some broader context. It's admirable but doesn't stand alone in the same way as her next single, 'This Woman's Work'.

Also appearing on: Now 6, 8 (with Peter Gabriel)
Available on: The Sensual World

Friday, 18 November 2011

Wendy & Lisa 'Waterfall '89'

Chart Peak: 69 [original version: 66 in 1987]


Former Prince henchwomen Wendy and Lisa finally cracked the UK Top 30 with their previous single 'Satisfaction'... The 1989 re-mix of 'Waterfall' is the follow-up, due for release on 30th October.

Yes, it really does say "henchwomen". Supposedly the song is about their departure from Prince's backing group The Revolution, although the exact facts of the matter seem to remain in dispute. What's obviously not in doubt is that for all their obvious talent as musicians and composers, they struggled to sell singles in their own right.

I can't actually find the 7" version of this mix online, so it's just as well I did have the LP to compare with the original version. It does indeed seem to be a shorter version of the 12" mix, and is noticeably more slap-bassy and less screamy-guitary, but it's hard to say whether this makes it sound more or less dated. It does seem oddly lacking in dynamics now and to be honest it doesn't sound like a major hit in either form. Perhaps they're better off concentrating on the soundtracks that are their bread and butter now.

Available on: Wendy And Lisa

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Transvision Vamp 'Born To Be Sold'

Chart Peak: 22

Released on 23rd October 1989, 'Born To Be Sold' is the follow-up to the group's three Top 20 hits so far this year - 'Baby I Don't Care', 'The Only One' and 'Landslide Of Love'.
I guess they were taking a flyer on the possibility that this would follow suit, but it wasn't to be and indeed The Vamp (as nobody actually called them) never made the 20 again. I am of course aware that there are plenty of people (most of them males who had certain hormones in high concentration circa 1989) for whom Wendy James is an uncriticisable figure, but she's not really my type. I generally don't have much time for her as a singer, associating her and the band with overloud thuddy eighties rock.

As it turns out, 'Born To Be Sold' is a slightly different sort of track, with a slower pace that allows James to adopt a whisper rather than a screech. Still not a voice I'd seek out but far better. The lyric is a slightly annoying conceptual one about celebrity. The thought crossed my mind that with the eclectic list of names mentioned, it feels slightly like the opening song in a musical. The production and the wardrobe for the video aside, it feels more contemporary than most music from 1989.

Also appearing on: Now 13, 15
Available on: Velveteen

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Tina Turner 'The Best'

Chart Peak: 5


Tina's biggest British single hit since 'We Don't Need Another Hero' in 1985, 'The Best' was No. 5 for 2 weeks in late September 1989.

Yeah, it's not really called 'Simply The Best', people just think it is. Another thing people might not know about this song is that Bonnie Tyler peaked at 95 with the original of it in early 1988. Compared to that, Tina's version is at least a bit more assured, leaving Tyler's effort sounding a bit like a demo.

I must say, though, that like 'I Want That Man' this track has now lost any attraction it ever had for me, now sounding lost in a pile of cliched lyrics, clattering excess production and Edgar Winter's naff sax solo. The only hint of any kind of spontaneity is that yelp before the last chorus, which sounds so out of place that the first time I heard this on the radio, I thought it was the DJ. Yes, I used to listen to the sort of radio station where they would do that, and I'm not proud of it. I'm sure the people who made this record aren't too proud that it's developed an association with Northern Irish (and Scottish) sectarianism, which led to it recharting last year.

Also appearing on: 1, 4, 6, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 32 34, 44
Available on: I Grew Up In The 80s

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Queen 'Breakthru'

Chart Peak: 7


'Breakthru' was the 2nd of 4 British hits so far in 1989 for Freddie, Brian, Roger and John... It reached No. 7 in July.

As it turned out, they made it to five singles by the end of the year, all drawn from The Miracle, which is the album where they're all merged into that slightly creepy five-eyed monster on the cover. More seriously, it's also the first album they made in the knowledge that Freddie Mercury was terminally ill (though it was of course a secret from the general public at the time). Heard it that context, it's possible to interpret the chorus lyric "Break through these barriers of pain" in a slightly different way from how they'd have sounded at the time, although apparently this song was written primarily by Roger Taylor; it's officially credited a group competition. And it must be said that Mercury still looks in pretty good shape in the video, although he had less than three years to go by then. And while we're on the subject of lyrical misinterpretation, I've only recently realised he's singing "Your face fills my mind" in the first verse and not, as I'd thought for about twenty years, "your face feels like mine".

External facts aside 'Breakthru' is a good potboiler of a song that just doesn't quite sound as good as it should, somehow. I'm resisting the obvious pun here, but it's one those records that always sounds punchier and more convincing in my memory than when I actually listen to it. Perhaps the fault lies in overproduction, which is a common failing of the band's work in this era, and to be fair of many others too. Still, a song it's no hardship to be reminded of.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 15, 19, 21, 25 [with George Michael], 32, 33, 54 [with Vanguard]
Available on: The Miracle

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Wet Wet Wet 'Sweet Surrender'

Chart Peak: 6


'Sweet Surrender' became the 6th hit for Marti, Tommy, Neil & Graeme since 'Wishing I Was Lucky' started their success in 1987... It made No. 6 on 1st October 1989.
I was slightly unsettled to note that the original album version of this song stretches to six minutes, although fortunately this is a truncated single edit of about four and a half minutes. Even that wasn't enough of a cut for TotP, who seem to lose interest about half way though.

I think they might have had a point too. Of course, in an audiovisual medium there's the extra aggravation of Marti Pellow's deeply irritating cheeky-chappie persona, but in sound only the effect is more boring than actively annoying. I thought I remembered this song more than I actually did, but closer inspection suggest I was actually getting it mixed up with 'Angel Eyes'. This is the sound of the band living up, or rather down, to their name with a thoroughly dull song that only hints at some signs of life with the middle-eight, and doesn't really deliver then either. It marked the end of their first run of chart domination, although TV and the movies would come to save them later.

Also appearing on: Now 10, 11, 12, 21, 28, 31, 37, 38
Available on: End Of Part One - Their Greatest Hits

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Beautiful South 'You Keep It All In'

Chart Peak: 8


Following the success of 'Song For Whoever' (No 2 in July), Dave, Dave, Dave, Paul & Sean teamed up with guest vocalist Brianna Corrigan to score a second Top 10 smash with a highest position of No. 8 on 1st October 1989.

Your eyes do not deceive you, the original lineup of The Beautiful South was 60% Daves (Brianna Corrigan was, as noted above, officially a guest musician on the first album, although she was considered a full member of the band for the next two. Although this is one of only two occasions when the band scored consecutive Top 10 hits, it seems like a bit of a forgotten song now. It was always a big favourite of mine, though.

Of course, when I was eleven I couldn't claim to understand what Corrigan and Paul Heaton were arguing about. Even now I don't really get all the references but I can still enjoy the dark domestic comedy; and this is also a great showcase for the fact that the band usually had three singers (Dave Hemingway gets a go towards   the end) and even though they didn't all sing on every track, it lent them a variety that makes you wonder why so many bands use the same vocalist all the time.

What really stands out for me is the music though. The soul influence on the band isn't always noted (though they covered a relatively obscure Bill Withers song as a B-side), but it's clearer here than in most places. It's impressively tight, packing bundles of energy into less than three minutes, the complex twists and turns, the luxuriant arrangement and the massed backing vocals give it a light jollity that contrasts with the uncomfortable lyric. You can hear more of this on the instrumental version that backed some formats of the single. The bass playing is also excellent, despite being by one of the rebellious band members who weren't called Dave.

Also appearing on: Now 15, 18, 22, 27, 28, 32, 35, 36, 41, 42
Available on: Welcome To The Beautiful South

Monday, 7 November 2011

Curiosity Killed The Cat 'Name And Number'

Chart Peak: 14


After three big hits in 1987 - 'Down To Earth', 'Ordinary Day' and 'Misfit' - Curiosity (Ben, Julian, Miggy & Nick) had a rest and then recorded their second album... 'Name And Number' was the first single and it peaked at No. 14 on 1st October 1989.

Sources seem to vary as to exactly what name the band were using at the time of this single, but judging by the sleeve of this album and the images of the single that I've found online, I've titled this post with the felicidal suffix that they eventually dropped.

Of the many sharp-suited pop-soul acts who emerged in this country around the mid-late 1980s, Curiosity were probably the most teen-friendly (unless you count Wet Wet Wet) and one gets the impression they were trying to shrug off some of the boyband reputation with the second album. Though not lyrically groundbreaking (it's the old standby of phoning somebody who doesn't pick up), 'Name And Number' certainly sounds like an attempt to be a bit grittier and funkier than their earlier material. Unfortunately, they're not the easiest band to take seriously and the ploy doesn't totally come off, but it's a catchy enough pop song. It didn't quite work out commercially either: though this was a decent sized hit, they found themselves in the unenviable position of following a Number One album with a No. 29, and no further hits ensued until they did a U-turn, shortened the name and released cover versions.

At least the chorus to this song had a second lease of life - it was of course used on De La Soul's 'Ring Ring Ring', which was probably more lucrative for them internationally than this. It doesn't really justify "Ben VP"s dance remake though.

Also appearing on: Now 9, 10
Available on: True 80s 3 CD SET

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Sydney Youngblood 'If Only I Could'

Chart Peak: 3


Sydney comes from Texas originally, but has lived in Germany for some years... 'If Only I Could', a call for peace that he wrote himself, was his frst hit reaching No.3 for 2 weeks in October 1989.

Well, he didn't write it all by himself - there are three other writers listed, presumably because this track is heavily based on 'Break 4 Love' by Raze. However Youngblood's (or Ford's, as he originally was) contribution is not to be dismissed. He does have a rather rich, warm voice and his lyric has a charming utopianism about it, although the argumentative might suggest that not being able to make the world perfect doesn't mean he can't improve it. Others might counter that making this record is a significant contribution in itself.

Also appearing on: Now 17
Available on: 101 80s Anthems

Friday, 4 November 2011

Deborah Harry 'I Want That Man'

Chart Peak: 13


This is her 2nd big solo hit in Britain - had reached No. 14 by 22nd October 1989... Debbie Harry was, of course, the lead singer of Blondie who had 13 Top 20 hits (including no less than 5 No. 1s) in this country between 1978 & 1982.

To settle the question of nomenclature first, the single was originally credited to Deborah Harry, and is listed as such on the sleeve here, but I've tagged this entry with the name by which she's most commonly known. Actually, it's interesting to look back now and see how little success she had as a solo artist; it's well-known of course that she spent a significant amount of the 1980s distracted by Chris Stein's illness, but even so it's remarkable how few of even the singles she did release were major hits: this is one of only two Top 20s and just two more reached the Top 40. Blondie were obviously very successful in the UK and it's fair to say that Harry was very much the focal point of the band, so it's curious that she seemed to bring so little of the fanbase with her. Perhaps it proves that the band split (and reformed?) at the right time.

It may or may not be coincidence that both the major hits she did manage came from outside songwriters. 'I Want That Man' was penned by Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie of the Thompson Twins, who were at the time a married couple. Despite this (and the fact that Harry herself is obviously a woman) it has a definite "gay anthem" feel about it, which is interesting in that you don't often hear about Blondie as being a big act in the gay clubs, though I'm not sure whether that's because they weren't or just because it's drowned out by Harry's heterosexual male audience. Either way, she camps it up heroically here, but is perhaps somewhat undercut by the stompy stadium-rock production, when you'd think something more high-NRG would suit the target audience better. Perhaps the 12" mix went down better, but in case it didn't EMI opportunistically commissioned some new remixes a decade later in the wake of the Blondie comeback, taking advantage of the lyric "here comes the twenty-first century". Cash-in or not, those seem to avoid falling between two stools better than this original.

Also appearing on: Now 8
Available on: Most Of All - The Best Of

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Erasure 'Drama!'

Chart Peak: 4


'Drama!' was Vince and Andy's 9th big British hit single in the last 3 years... It reached No. 4 on 1st October 1989 and 3 weeks later their album shot in at No. 1.

I've always had a bit of an ambivalent attitude about the use of punctuation marks in song titles. On the one hand I quite like the idea of them, but on the other they often seem to be an attempt to oversell the song itself. I suspect Erasure were aware of this and used the exclamation mark with some sense of irony in this case, but I must admit things don't start brilliantly; when I started watching the video I found myself looking at the cat  and trying to work out what sort of car Vince Clarke was sitting on more than I was able to concentrate on the song.

Things do pick up a bit as the song digs in a bit. I can understand this more as an adult than I would have at the time, as there's a resigned, exasperated quality about it: as much as Andy Bell bemoans the "infinite complexity of love" he ends up acknowledging the "ultimate necessity" of it too. I also like the big massed backing vocals of "GUILTY!" which seem like a precursor to some subsequent Pet Shop Boys material. It still feels a tiny bit unfinished to me, though, as if it could have been even better.

I think it might be a Hillman Avenger, by the way.

Also appearing on Now 09, 10, 13, 14, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 54
Available on: Wild!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Belinda Carlisle 'Leave A Light On'

Chart Peak: 4

Her 4th British smash hit following the success of the 1988 trio 'Heaven Is A Place On Earth', 'I Get Weak' and 'Circle In The Sand' ...Had reached No. 4 by 22nd October 1989.
And so we go from a one-off appearance to a regular star of the series; and curiously enough this is one of four times when she's the second track on the first disc. The sleeve note is not technically wrong in calling this her fourth big UK hit, but of course it doesn't mention the two less popular singles from her previous album, let alone the cash-in re-issue from her former label that scraped the Top 75. Also curiously unmentioned is the guitar solo by George Harrison, which I believe is his only contribution to a main series Now! album: he certainly doesn't appear as a solo artist or as a Beatle.

The start of this comeback hit is probably the closest her solo material ever got to reflecting her punk roots, with a tense guitar part that faintly recalls 'I Got You' by Split Enz. After that we launch back into full-on eighties stadium rock, for this is a track much happier to be of its time than the retro styles of the Tears For Fears opener. This very confident punch does arguably undermine the sentiment of the song a little, as Belinda never sounds like she needs to implore anyone to wait in for her. But then again it is only a song and whilst the effect is a little wearing on the ears now, this a decent pop record that works on its own terms and was unsurprisingly a massive hit. As if to prove the point, hits were soon harder to come by: her next three singles all fell short of the Top 30.

 Also appearing on: Now 11, 12, 18, 19, 20, 26, 34, 35
Available on: Original Hits - Drivetime

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tears For Fears 'Sowing The Seeds Of Love'

Chart Peak: 5


This was the first Tears For Fears single in nearly 4 years and has been described as a "towering and sophisticated pop song with some very deliberate Beatleisms"... It raced into the Top 10 on release, finally peaking at No. 5 on 10th September 1989.
I think Now 16 is the most expensive one I've ever bought, costing me the princely sum of £2 in the PDSA shop last winter. I allowed myself that sort of spend because I also got a nice Thinsulate hat for a bargain price at the same time. It's a handsome vinyl LP, one of my favourite Now covers in fact, although I will have to try and remember to include the extra tracks that are only on the CD version. Now afficionados will also know the other thing that distinguishes 16 from every other album in the series, but I won't spoil it just yet.

Anyway, we kick off with the only ever Now appearance for one of the biggest bands of the first half of the 1980s. One can presume that contractual issues kept the likes of 'Shout' and 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World' off earlier volumes, and after this big comeback hit they struggled somewhat, never troubling the Top 10 again. As the release schedule suggests, the Seeds Of Love album whence this came had a rather troubled gestation, with the founding duo getting through countless musicians (including three different drummers) and several studios to try and get what they wanted. Rarely are classics forged in such circumstances, although it must be said that their effort was rewarded with a somewhat lusher and more full-bodied sound than their earlier work - the original of 'Mad World' does sound decidedly cheap and tinny nowadays. Even so, this is such an obvious attempt at a Beatles pastiche that even I noticed when I was 11; and unfortunately it sounds like the work of people who've never really listened to the Beatles but have heard other people describe them.

It's true that there are several superficial touches that immediately call Magical Mystery Tour to mind: the trumpet solo that sounds like 'Penny Lane', the ostinato reminiscent of 'I Am The Walrus', the big cello section and a fair impersonation of Ringo's "backwards" drum fills, for instance. But at the same time, there's no way anyone could mistake this for the real deal: of course this is partly because of Roland Orzabal's voice (which I admit I've never liked) and partly because of the lyric which tries to encompass both Summer-Of-Love positivity and Lennonesque cynicism and sarcasm. That's a very tough balance to strike and it doesn't really come off here. Incidentally, I once read in an American newspaper that the line "kick out the Style, bring back the Jam" was a critique of Paul Weller (they didn't mention the MC5 parallel) and if true this is obviously  anachronistic to 1967 as well as being the opposite of what you'd expect TFF to think. The most crucial mistake, though, is that this lacks the economy of the best Beatles work: even the 7" edit we get here clocks in at about 5:40, which is not something John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin would have countenanced at their peak (aside from the extended outro to 'Hey Jude', and even that was done to make a point). There's a strong sense that production has been ladled onto this track rather than being integral to it, and the basic performance isn't really as tight as it could have been, a little too blatantly the product of high-tech eighties studios and click-tracks.

I don't want to sound like this is a really bad record, because it isn't, and it's certainly one of the best things they ever did together (also one of the last, until a reunion in the mid-2000s); it's just that when it's so obvious what they were aiming for, it's hard to ignore how far they missed. 'Sowing The Seeds Of Love' sounds more like a precursor to the self-consciously anthemic Oasis songs than a throwback to Sgt. Pepper.

Available on: Mad World: The Collection