Tuesday, 30 April 2013

David Sylvian 'Red Guitar'

Chart Peak: 17


I'm going right to the wire here, posting this on the last day of the second month of writing about Now 3, even though it's only a 30-track album. I thought it was going to be one of the easier ones (Glitter aside) but a lot of delays have got in the way for various reasons.

Anyway, we wind up at the end of Side 4 with the only series appearance by the former lead singer of Japan, an act who seem to have become anomalously big pop stars for such high-minded art rockers. I say "seem" because I know very little of the band, they were around just a little too early to have made an impression on me at the time and seem largely overlooked by 21st-century radio programmers so my knowledge of them is basically 'Ghosts' and a couple of other tracks I have on compilation albums somewhere. My knowledge of Sylvian's solo music, as much as I've always been aware that he's around, pretty much boils down to a few plays of this. It was his biggest solo hit, presumably still aided by the Japan fanbase, but I'm given to understand that it's one of his most commercial recordings anyway. Certainly, it's a song with a conventional pop structure and a recognisable melody, although it has a very sparse arrangement. It is as usual topped off by David Sylvian's distinctive vocal style, which sounds like Bryan Ferry being forced to sing at gunpoint. Now, I know this is supposed to be important and influential music and everything, but I must admit that I find it somewhat unengaging and not much of a gateway to his back catalogue. Perhaps it's even a victim of its own influence, as the experimental elements have been rendered commonplace but it still not a wholly convincing pop song. You never know, it might grow on me in a decade or two.

So, here ends Now 3. But if the audio tracks aren't quite enough, here's my first ever YouTube playlist, a reconstruction of the VHS equivalent of this album. I managed to find all the songs (many of which aren't on the album), though not all the actual videos.

Back next month...

Available on: A Victim Of Stars 1982-2012

Friday, 26 April 2013

Madness 'One Better Day'

Chart Peak: 17


One of a few acts to have appeared on all the first three volumes, a run that ends at this point as they're not on Now 4 (or Now 5 for that matter). 'One Better Day' was also the last Madness single to be released on Stiff records, and indeed one of the last big hits on the original version of that label before it ran out of money a couple of years later; it's presumably for this reason that there was no video budget available and the band had to fund it themselves, and they saved a few bob by using Bette Bright (aka Mrs Suggs) to play the part of the homeless woman. It's good that they bothered though, because there's something rather sweet about the finished clip which amplifies the song's sentiment, a reminder that the poor and dispossessed are still humans with feelings.

In sound only, this is probably the furthest of all their singles from their most famous Madness sound, although it does occur to me that if all the Madness songs you'd ever heard were the ones on Now albums you'd get quite a different impression of them from their best-known songs. The title (buried in a middle-eight) is of course a play on the phrase "seen better days" and there are no laughs to be had here as such, just a sympathetic depiction of life in and out of hostels. Of course, anyone who really knows Madness and their music will realise that the undercurrent of sadness and social commentary has always been there, but rarely did they foreground it as much as here. Though somewhat of its time, the track is brilliantly arranged and the soon-to-depart Mike Barson is particularly impressive on percussion and piano, with that quotation from 'Dancing Queen' (possibly via 'Oliver's Army') providing an additional hook. And even as an agnostic when it comes to saxophone solos, I can't fail to notice Lee Thompson's versatility - his bluesy lead-sax part here is completely different from 'One Step Beyond' but feels totally natural. It's a good record, but it's not what people expected or wanted from Madness, hence the relatively disappointing chart position: their lowest ever peak at the time though each of their next three singles did progressively worse.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 2, 6, 8, 21, 43
Available on: Total Madness

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Art Company 'Susanna'

Chart Peak: 12


Another track I heard for the very first time when I was timing Now 3, so unfortunately I have no hilarious anecdotes about calling them The Fart Company when we were kids or anything. Apparently they were a Dutch act, known in their homeland as VOF de Kunst, who topped the charts in the Netherlands with the original of this song in 1983. After a translation of band name and lyric (and a slight spelling change of the title from 'Suzanne', they somehow took this number into the British Top 20, presumably appealing to people returning from holidays. The version on the album (and presumably the original single) does include that crowd noise and sounds as if the song is already familiar to the audience, who are playing along anticipating the punchlines. Perhaps it was funnier in Dutch, or in the 1980s, but it just leaves me baffled now.

The song was later covered in Spanish by Ricky Martin and in Italian by Adriano Celentano, which I mention as an excuse to post 'Prisencolinensinainciusol'.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Gary Glitter 'Dance Me Up'

Chart Peak: 25


I admit this wasn't a post I was in any hurry to write. In fact, if I'm really honest the knowledge that this song would be coming up was one reason I made the decision more than four years ago not to continue this blog in chronological order: at the very least I wanted to wait until I had my own copy of Now 3 to refer to. At one point I contemplated not posting a YouTube link on this post, though I ultimately decided that would be going too far; the fact that one of my other online hobbies is posting old charts and making up playlists of them which include Glitter's tracks where necessary would have made it pointlessly inconsistent.

Of course the sensible, high-minded thing to do would be to write about the record without taking any account of Glitter's (or, more accurately, Paul Gadd's) crimes, as I've tried to do with other controversial acts. But the reality is that it's almost impossible to do that because we all know about it, and because his arrest effectively removed his music from the airwaves indefinitely. Not that I remember hearing this one on the radio before 1997, indeed it probably didn't get many plays after about 1985, but it's still a surprise to hear his voice now. And it's hard to resist finding unfortunate double meanings in lyrics and song titles (if this title isn't bad enough, the B-side was called 'Too Young To Dance'). There s something faintly disturbing now about hearing him sing "Bring on the dancing girls!", especially if you see the video on YouTube where he's at a Radio 1 Roadshow with actual children dancing on stage.

This song does at least reduce any moral dilemmas about endorsing it by not being any good at all. Producer Mike Leander (who was also responsible for all the Seventies hits, and who died not long before Gadd was arrested) does a serviceable job of aping mid-80s production values, in what must have been one of the last attempts to sell Glitter as a contemporary star before he became the ironic nostalgia act I remember him as. But the song itself is utterly woeful, a mix of clashing and not very strong hooklines with rotten lyrics that can't even do innuendo properly. And Glitter's vocal is surprisingly poor as well, however did he pass the audition for Jesus Christ Superstar? The song succeeded to the extent that it was his last "normal" Top 40 hit (his last ever was of course 'Another Rock N Roll Christmas') and earned him his only appearance in the main now series, but I've just listened to it in full for the second time in my life and I'm not planning a third.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Weather Girls 'It's Raining Men'

Chart Peak: 2


I know reading YouTube comments isn't generally wise, but there's a comment on the Now 3 TV commercial where somebody suggests that it must be the gayest Now album ever, and as the advert flashes through video clips of 'Smalltown Boy', 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' and this, you can kind of see what they mean. If only it had been 'Relax' instead of 'Two Tribes' we'd have had a full set. That said, 'It's Raining Men' obviously doesn't have quite the same relationship with gay culture as those other songs, being fronted by a female duo; a pair of former Sylvester backing singers known as Two Tons Of Fun until this single. The song was co-written by Paul Shafer, later better-known as the bandleader on David Letterman's TV show and possibly not a regular at Studio 54. Indeed I've seen at least one person on a web forum criticise this as an outsider's version of gay culture.

To give credit where it's due, though, it's a strong pop record, though as previous and subsequent versions of the song have proved, it's quite dependent on the vocals and personality of the Weather Girls themselves. They have good voices but they also get credit for entering into the spirit of things, embracing the silliness and  innuendo with gusto. They really make this the camp classic it is, even at the price of encouraging a lot of inferior cover versions. Amazingly, this never even went Top 40 in America.

Available on: 100 Hits Of The '80s

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Thompson Twins 'You Take Me Up'

Chart Peak: 2


Second of the trio's three appearances in the series, though actually their latest song to show up as this song was a hit after 'Doctor Doctor', which appears on Now 4. Unfortunately, we leave them just as they're hinting at becoming interesting then, as the intro hints at a slightly more imaginative arrangement with harmonica and melodica laid over the insistent beat. Things revert to type a bit more once Tom Bailey's vocal starts and we're back into the realms of silly songs sung seriously, although unlike 'Hold Me Now's endless milking of the chorus this one keeps you waiting quite a while. Even when the chorus does arrive it doesn't quite seem to fit with the verses, although it's OK in its own right, and could possibly have done with a more expressive singer than Bailey. I'm sure I remember it showing up in a coffee advert at some point, though a long time on YouTube when I should have been writing this post turned up nothing.

Peaking at 2, this represented the peak of their commercial success although Bailey and his then-partner Allanah Currie kept the band going into the 1990s. She later married one of the KLF.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 4
Available on: Love, Lies And Other Strange Things: Greatest Hits

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Wham! 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go'

Chart Peak: 1 [2 weeks]


At about the 1:14 mark in this video, George Michael is wearing a pink shirt, tight shorts, fingerless gloves and ear-rings and singing "You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day." 14 years later he announced he was gay, whoever would have guessed etc.

'Wake Me Up' was Wham!'s first Number One and marks the start of their hugeness: presumably its placement as track 24 on Now 3 represents an attempt to spread the big songs throughout the album, rather than an attempt to bury the song. It's a turning point in their career too, as they moved away from the political and social commentary of early songs like 'Young Guns' and 'Wham! Rap' in favour of glossier, more straightforward lyrics allied to a Sixties musical pastiche - or at least what George Michael would have thought was a Sixties sound at the time, it's now rather obviously of its time. Despite the presence of a drummer in the video, the drums on the track are synthesised, just as Pepsi and Shirlie are clearly miming to Michael's backing vocal for most of the song. And as much as I realise that the video isn't really part of the remit of this blog (it doesn't even have the excuse of being on the VHS version of Now 3) it's hard not to notice it, because it seemed so much a part of the success of the duo, and seemed so emblematic of the times: even I can remember people wearing those CHOOSE LIFE t-shirts and variations on them, although I don't recall that Andrew Ridgeley's Foreign Legion-style helmet ever took off in the same way. The song and video seem to have fixed most people's idea of what they were, much to Michael's later annoyance but the more pompous and self-regarding his solo career gets the more time I have for daffy little numbers like this one. Not a song I'd go out of my way to listen to, but I can at least admit to its qualities now.

Also appearing on: Now 7
Available on: The Final

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Flying Pickets 'When You're Young And In Love'

Chart Peak: 7


Another song with potentially topical connotations this week, but you'll be pleased to know I'm going to ignore those entirely, not least because I don't think they were really relevant to the success of the single at the time. The second-ever a capella track to appear on a Now! album, it's the follow-up to the first, the 1983 Christmas Number One 'Only You'. Whilst some of the other tracks on their track were similarly daring choices musically (eg 'Psycho Killer' or 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling') and one or two hinted at the group's political origins, the actual second single was a fairly conservative [with a small "c"!] selection, a cover of a song originally recorded by 1960s vocal group Ruby & The Romantics and previously a US hit for both the Marvelettes and Frankie Valli. It's a nice little song, written by Van Mccoy, and this is a good rendition of it but the effect is pleasant rather than important.

Also appearing on: Now 2
Available on: Lost Boys

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Tina Turner 'What's Love Got To Do With It'

Chart Peak: 3


It wouldn't be quite right to say this song was the start of her solo career, but it's perhaps the start of her real solo stardom. After 'Let's Stay Together' had put her back on the map (and granted her a slot on the very first Now album of course), the follow up was a cover of the Lennon/McCartney standard 'Help!' in an odd ballad style, which only made the very bottom rung of the Top 40, and was swiftly forgotten. It was this third single from her comeback album that established her as a star in her own right, not just somebody who got lucky with a cover version. Though this isn't a cover version as would conventionally be understood, this was not Turner's own composition, but a song from jobbing songwriters which had been rejected by Cliff Richard. Bucks Fizz got as far as recording a version but were gazumped by this hit and didn't release it at the time.

It seems fair to say that it's hard to imagine either of those acts singing it now. In its finished incarnation, the song seems a perfect fit for Turner, with its deliberate pace and complex lyrical message. As much as the protagonist is dismissing the appeal of love, you can tell she's trying hard to resist it, even before she admits in the middle eight that she's "thinking of my own protection" and "it scares me to feel this way". To sound convincing in that role means projecting a combination of strength and vulnerability that's none too easy to carry off, but she manages it superbly here - the fact that this might in some way fit her personal history is at best incidental. The production works surprisingly well too, even though obviously of its time now (synthesised harmonica never really caught on) because it sounds as if it knows its place, supporting the singer rather than trying to hit you over the head itself. I don't think I understood all this at the time, but I liked the track a lot then, even trying to learn some of the words; and at the time I had no idea she had any previous career at all, let alone one that stretched into previous decades. In fact, at the age of 44 she was at the time the oldest woman to top the US singles chart, though over here she fought hard in the crowded charts of summer 1984 and had to settle for Number 3, which means this was ultimately outcharted by Warren G's cover version. Writers Britten and Lyle got a lot of repeat business from Turner, most of which proved to be decidedly bland, but at least for these four minutes it worked.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 4, 6, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 32, 34, 44
Available on: Simply The Best

Friday, 5 April 2013

Propaganda 'Dr Mabuse'

Chart Peak: 27


As we get deeper into the second disc, some smaller hits seem to sneak in. The very high-concept debut single from the German electronic pop act was a Top 10 hit in West Germany but failed to match that level of success over here, allegedly because their label ZTT had to concentrate its promotional resources on Frankie Goes To Hollywood. This is apparently also why it took more than a year for a second single to emerge, the genuinely impressive 'Duel' (which would have been a nice addition to Now 6). By that point, though, there were already tensions within the band due to an allegedly unfair record contract and the fact that lead singer Claudia Brucken's husband at the time, Paul Morley, was a co-owner of the label.

I'm sure this track is very clever, and it works well as an excuse for a video based on the Fritz Lang silent movies that made the Mabuse character famous. But listening to it without the benefit of all the pretentious extra-musical, I frankly find myself waiting for the tune to start. Probably the most disappointing track yet.

Available on: Noise And Girls Come Out To Play / A Compact Introduction To Propaganda

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Bananarama 'Robert De Niro's Waiting'

Chart Peak: 3


I can understand that they wouldn't have been able to afford the actual Robert De Niro for the video, but maybe they could have tried to get somebody who looked vaguely like him if they were going to do that idea. But then again, maybe they should have used some pizzas that look like they'd actually been delivered, and weren't little individual ones that they'd bought from Bejam. There again, the second Bananarama-related track in a row (and the second in three to involve Swain and Jolley) is somewhat about unreality. Their early songs mostly seem to be about the desire to glam up and escape the gloominess of early-80s Britain. Perhaps this is why they seemed to lose it a bit musically the more successful they became. At this point they were still fun though, and this is possibly their best single. They even try to do some harmonies.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 (with Lananeeneenoonoo), 15
Available on: Bananarama (Platinum Re-Issue)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Bluebells 'Young At Heart'

Chart Peak: 8

Charted at No. 54 on 19th June - sped to No. 36 the following week.
Including this song when it hadn't gone Top 30 at time of going to press seems confident (especially since the front cover of the album promises "30 Top Thirty Hits") but it was the follow up to a Number 11 hit. In the event the confidence was justified when this swooped into the Top 10 and effectively overshadowed anything else they ever recorded. And whilst I don't normally throw forward to appearances on volumes I haven't yet written about, it seems dishonest to overlook the fact that this single was Number One twenty years ago this week, having been re-issued off the back of a TV advert: it was thus promoted to become the opener of Now 24.

Not bad for what started out as an unimpressive Bananarama album track, co-written by Bobby Bluebell (not his real name) and thus borrowed for his own band's debut album. The Bluebells version is heavily re-written; even more, as it turned out, when violinist Bobby Valentino successfully sued for a share of the writing credits. He seems to have used the proceeds to sue the RnB singer of the same name who appears on Now 61. Anyway, this version is a definite improvement in arrangement and performance, and plays up the gypsy-folk element which had been made trendy a couple of years earlier by Dexys Midnight Runners. It's a bit jollier, and the lyrical changes actually play down slightly the original meaning of the song, which in the Nanas version is clearly about the grown-up child of a divorcing couple. The Bluebells drop the section about not taking sides, and the song becomes more of about nostalgia and growing up, as the narrator wonders aloud why he now feels the love for his parents when as a teenager he only wanted to get away from them. Only the line in the first verse where marrying young "was their only crime" really foregrounds the original intention, but the vibe has its own merit and this is in fact a good single, though so overplayed nowadays that it's only for this sort of thing that I really take the time to listen to it properly.

The band seem to have tired of this success too, splitting not long after. They did however reform to promote the re-release.

Also appearing on: Now 24 [same track]
Available on: Take On Me - 80's The Collection

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Alison Moyet 'Love Resurrection'

Chart Peak: 10


Yes, I managed to resist posting this on Easter Sunday, despite the obvious temptation of the title. Not that this song is really about Easter of course; at the time if I'd thought about it at all I'd have guessed that "we need a love resurrection" was a lyric about the need for people to be more caring about each other and create a more sympathetic society; and the song must really be about that to some extent. Those sort of ideas were especially common in pop at the time, and it's certainly a sentiment that crops up elsewhere on the Alf album. But then again, I must have been a teenager when I started investigating charity shops (a habit that persists to this day) and bought the album on vinyl. Reading the lyric printed in the inner sleeve, I must admit another interpretation did cross my mind, looking at lyrics about a "warm injection" and "I want you to grow in my hand"... and what do you get if you elide the first syllable of the word "resurrection"? Exactly. That sort of innuendo would not, it seems, be out of place with Moyet's sense of humour, and might even contribute to the joy with which she sings the song.

Like most of the album, 'Resurrection' was written by Moyet and producers Swain and Jolley, with whom there was apparently something of a falling out after the album's release, and they never worked together again. Heard as a showcase for her vocal talent, it's a total success, giving her a melody with plenty of scope to sing the heck out of it. And it is catchy, with that vaguely Arabic motif that presumably inspired the Bedouin imagery in the video (although I always suspected it was actually filmed in Eastbourne or somewhere). The production has dated badly though, and it must be said that all the soul is really in Moyet's voice. It was still a good start to her solo career, good enough for it to be a slight disappointment that from this point onward she was co-opted to the rival Hits Album series and crops up only once more on a Now album. So far, anyway.

Also appearing on: Now 20
Available on: Singles

Monday, 1 April 2013

Metapost: comedy songs

I know it's well after midday, but it's still the 1st of April so I thought my latest in the monthly list posts should mark the day in some sense. So here's a partial (in both senses) list of 20 comedy tracks as they've appeared on the main series of Now! albums.
I gave myself some ground rules when looking for material here: mere novelty doesn't cut it (sorry, DJ Otzi), and neither does wit (sorry, Beautiful South et al). Nor would I include the knowingly ridiculous (Shaggy) or the unknowingly so (too many to count). I also excluded old records that were merely revived for their presumed humour value, so no room for Tony Christie or Phil Collins - and if 'Let's Get Ready To Rhumble' shows up on Now 85, that won't belong here either. But speaking of 85, that's the year when we really get started.

The Commentators 'N-N-Nineteen Not Out' (Now 5)
Though some tracks on the first four volumes in the series might seem funny now, I think it's safe to say that this number, tucked away at the end of Side Three, is the first one that was trying to.

Lovebug Starski 'Amityville (House On The Hill)' (Now 7)
Not a full-blown novelty or comedy track but still has enough jokes and silly voices to qualify.

Fat Boys With The Beach Boys 'Wipeout' (Now 10)
Comedy-rap again...

Morris Minor & The Majors 'Stutter Rap (No Sleep Till Bedtime)' (Now 11)
...And yet again. By this point they were threatening to outnumber more serious hip-hop hits.

The Timelords 'Doctorin' The Tardis' (Now 12)
Generally the KLF aren't quite jokey enough to qualify for this list, and this does flirt with mere novelty but on balance I've included it.

Bananarama and LaNaNeeNeeNooNoo 'Help!' (Now 14)
The first of the Comic Relief singles to appear, in which French And Saunders and Kathy Burke serve as backing singers to "The Bananas".

Hale & Pace and the Stonkers 'The Stonk' (Now 19)
And here's the second, with the comedians taking top billing for once, and jokey interjections throughout. It's not actually funny, but it's meant to be.

Vic Reeves and the Wonder Stuff 'Dizzy' (Now 20)
Joke cover versions are a borderline category for this list, I think, this one just about sneaks in even though it's not that funny either.

Monty Python 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life' (Now 20)
And I suppose this one is funniest in its original context, but still identifiable as a comedy song, or at least as a parody, outside that.

Dr Spin 'Tetris' (Now 23)
Also on the border of novelty, but I've decided it's an unfunny joke song. The next track on Now 23 was 'Supermarioland', which I have arbitrarily decided is just a novelty record.

Bjorn Again 'A Little Respect' (Now 23)
And again we're in silly cover territory, but as an answer record to Erasure's Abba covers, this qualifies as a joke by its very existence. Now 23 is clearly one of the sillier albums in the series, they even attempt a joke in the sequencing with Heaven 17 next to East 17.

The BC-52s '(Meet) The Flintstones' (Now 28)
Back to covers, I suppose, but between the fact that this is from a comedy film and the jokey pseudonym, it counts.

Absolutely Fabulous 'Absolutely Fabulous' (Now 28)
Another Comic Relief track, unusually issued in an even-numbered year (we don't get the Right Said Fred song from 1993) and a return for Jennifer Saunders in her Edina guise, backed by a pseudonymous Pet Shop Boys.

Precocious Brats featuring Kevin & Perry 'Big Girl' (Now 45)
And here in the year 2000 is the return of Kathy Burke, alongside Harry Enfield with the title song from their little-remembered (but apparently profitable) movie Kevin And Perry Go Large.

The Cuban Boys 'C vs. I' (Now 45)
Ending the late-90s drought of comedy on Now albums, this finally say commercial release in December 1999 after months of exposure of John Peel's show. The Cubans lean towards KLF-style art pranksterism, but their one hit, based on a website that had done what we'd now call "going viral", fits among the comedy songs.

David Hasselhof 'Jump In My Car' (Now 65)
About as funny as genocide, I know, but it's supposed to be ironic.

The Proclaimers featuring Brian Potter and Andy Pipkin 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' (Now 66)
The return of comedy-led Comic Relief singles, albeit in tandem with pop-star releases. And the debut of an audible Peter Kay, as he's not really on 'Amarillo'.

Geraldine 'The Winner's Song' (Now 71)
And here's Kay again, with a reality-show parody that some were apparently surprised wasn't for charity. Written by Gary Barlow, in the days before he became an X-Factor judge.

Vanessa Jenkins & Bryn West featuring Tom Jones & Robin Gibb '(Barry) Islands In The Stream' (Now 72)
Comic Relief again, and a rare example (here) of established musicians appearing on a comedy song under their own names.

Comic Relief presents Susan Boyle and Geraldine McQueen 'I Know Him So Well' (Now 78)
One last song from the bi-annual fundraiser (getting direct billing for the first time) and one last appearance from Peter Kay as well. He hasn't added to that in 2013, merely helping 'Sit Down' by James back to the Top 75. See you in 2015 then?