Friday, 28 June 2013

Dusty Springfield 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me'

Chart Peak: 1 [1 week in 1966]


As a tribute to the late, great diva Dusty Springfield, we have included 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me'... This timeless ballad was a No. 1 single for Britain's finest soul singer in 1966.

I've mentioned before that Now 42 contains some unusual selections, and it concludes with the most exceptional of all. This is as far as I know the oldest track on a main-series Now album relative to its last chart appearance: comparably old tracks were appearing due to re-issues and even the seven-year-old 'Grease Mega-Mix' on Now 40 coincided with renewed chart success of one of its constituent parts. Presumably this is a case of Ashley Abram or somebody somewhere in the organisation pulling rank just this once, as no other star has been awarded such a tribute appearance before or since, unless they had a posthumous hit; though it does make it all the odder that she didn't make the cut with any of her hits with the Pet Shop Boys. It's also the only example I can recall of a first-person sleeve note.

I'm not totally sure I can agree with the word 'timeless' in that description, though. Even in 1966, when this single snuck a week at the top of the chart between 'Somebody Help Me' and 'Pretty Flamingo' (according to the Record Retailer chart used by modern reference books; it had a second week on the NME chart), it can't have seemed totally up-to-date: other Number One singles that year included 'Paint It, Black', 'Good Vibrations' and 'Eleanor Rigby', all of them much more radical recordings. What 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' is, is a good old-fashioned belter. It's adapted from an Italian chart-topper which Springfield herself discovered and asked her friends Vicki Whickham (who I see was awarded the OBE this month - topical!) and Simon Napier-Bell to supply an English lyric. It's perhaps odd that she didn't approach more experienced wordsmiths (both of them were involved in management, although Napier-Bell had written some music) though it may be that she trusted people who knew her personally to write something she could relate to emotionally. It has been suggested in retrospect that the song relates in some way to her tempestuous love life, which would of course have been complicated further by the fact that she couldn't be open about her sexuality in those days. Whether or not that was the writers' intent, it's hard not to think that her own experience contributed to the power of her vocal performance (the 47th take apparently, such was her perfectionism) and it's that vocal which in all honesty, makes this record the classic it is rather than simply a well-made pop song. The many subsequent covers have all fallen somewhat short, and yes I even include Elvis in that, because it takes an extraordinary performance by an extraordinary talent to keep the rather extreme sentiment from sounding OTT and ridiculous or phony. When she comes in for the big finish and exhorts you to "BELIIIIEVE MEEEE!!!" you actually sort of do.

It's a sign of how strong the competition was that this is only a middling chart-topper for 1966, and that it's some way from being my favourite Dusty track. I can't pretend it's not a highlight of Now 42, and with that big dramatic flourish at the end a glorious closer. But it's only a highlight, not the highlight.

Available on: Just Dusty

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Blur 'Tender'

Chart Peak: 2

The highly anticipated return of Blur comes in the form of the mesmerising 'Tender'... Featuring anthemic support from the London Gospel Community Choir {sic}, the single provides the first taste from Blur's sixth album due for release in March '99.
In early 1999, the magazine Heat was launched amid great fanfare. I didn't buy it, but I was curious enough to flick though a copy of the first issue in Woolworth's and one story near the front caught my eye. In a shock expose of the singles chart, Heat announced that they'd tried and failed to persuade any bookmaker to take a bet on the next three weeks' Number One singles being, in order: '...Baby One More Time' by Britney Spears, 'Tender' by Blur and 'When The Going Gets Tough' by Boyzone. Whilst there was at the time a taboo among bookies about taking bets on the chart performance of charity records, this was taken as proof that the whole thing was a foregone conclusion. There probably was some truth in the original accusation, since this was of course the era of big frontloaded sales and heavy pre-release promotion, with big singles often deliberately scheduled apart.  But Heat overstated their case since, in the event, 'Tender' was no match for even Britney's second-week sales and had to settle for a peak at 2; it did have the consolation of spending more weeks in the Top 10 than their last chart-topper, 'Beetlebum' managed in the entire Top 40. People who bought the second CD got two Number 2 singles for their money, since 'Song 2' - surely the best-known Blur song not to make a Now album - appeared in both sound and video forms. However, given my aversion to multi-format purchases, I made do with CD1, in its annoyingly sealed, ruined when opened, sleeve: perhaps they were hoping people would buy extra copies to listen to and get that Number One single.

As you can see though, my copy remained in fairly good condition because I didn't really play it all that often. Blur were my favourite band in the late 1990s, and I'd enjoyed the swerve in direction they took with the Blur album in 1997, so I was actually quite excited when I first heard news of a sixth album in late 1998. I was even more excited when my dad came home from working on a TV commercial in South Africa and informed me that the ad's directors had been sent a tape of the forthcoming single so they could pitch for the video. In the event, they didn't get the job, but it didn't matter much because the clip that was filmed, at reportedly great expense, was never shown and instead the official promo video is a moody black-and-white live performance. A genuinely live one, dubious singing and all, so it doesn't fully represent the audio track and thus isn't the link at the top of this post. However, it does offer a hint of the aesthetic Blur were going for at this point, supposedly a more honest sound, with Damon Albarn writing about his own emotions rather than the imagined characters and situations with which his earlier lyrics were filled. The trouble was, I didn't really want to hear about his personal life all that much and I was already suspicious of earnestness in pop. Although I persuaded myself I liked 'Tender' the first time I heard it on the radio, and never really considered not buying it, I wasn't sold on it, especially its inordinate length. it's 7:40, and the radio edit was never commercially issued, though it's on the jukebox single and showed up on a covermount CD from Q magazine - even the extensive and expensive Blur 21 box has no room for it. Even here on Now 42 we get the full length version, which might be why there are only 19 tracks on this disc and 21 on the other. It occurs to me in retrospect that this is kind of Blur's 'Hey Jude' and like that song, it's not all bad but it's the work of a band past their prime. Indeed, both songs are the product of a fracturing collaboration: 'Hey Jude' was one of the last McCartney songs John Lennon admitted to liking, and 'Tender' features a chorus written and sung by Graham Coxon, who left the band a couple of years later. Parent album 13 is the band's last studio work to date with his full participation, and ironically it's an album where Coxon is responsible for the poppiest moments whilst Albarn disappears into his own pretentiousness or laziness. In that context, this is actually one of the more melodic tracks and it is a good-sounding record with well-recorded percussion and a surprisingly smooth double-bass line from Alex James of all people, plus the luxuriant backing vocals of the London Community Gospel Choir, which make you wish they'd been given something more exciting to sing than "Oh my baby". It even follows 'Hey Jude' by leaving in a blooper on purpose - at almost exactly the four-minute mark, you can hear the very start of the title word being sung at the wrong moment.

There's a good five-minute single lurking in here, but it's too hidden. It was never the same between me and Blur after this, and I didn't even get round to buying the (largely) post-Coxon album Think Tank until a couple of weeks ago. I only paid £2:99 for it then. 

Also appearing on: Now 28, 29, 32, 33, 34, 36, 37, 43
Available on: 13 (Special Edition)

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Ladysmith Black Mambazo 'Inkanyezi Nezazi (The Star And The Wiseman)'

Chart Peak: 63 [33 in 1997]

Featured in a popular Heinz TV commercial, the haunting accapella strains of 'Inkanyezi Nezazi' made Ladysmith Black Mambazo a household name during the course of 1998. The South African group are also well-known for their collaboration with Paul Simon on the acclaimed Graceland album.
Quick quiz question for you - with which other act contributing to Now 42 did Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaborate on a hit single in 1999? Answer later in this post.
It's obviously not uncommon for a track that appears on a Now album to be a less-than-massive chart hit, although in most cases it's a track released as a single very close to the release date of the compilation, suggesting that bigger sales were expected at time of going to press. This single, however, was re-released in the summer of 1998, before even Now 40 was released, putting this into the smaller category of knowingly-included minor hits. Oddly, that 1998 release was a package of remixes on A&M's dance imprint AM:PM, although this doesn't seem the sort of song that would lend itself to club airplay even with non-vocal parts added.

Presumably the track shows up here in respect of the big sales of a best-of compilation at Christmas 1998, and it's not surprising for a song that's sold albums rather than singles to make an appearance. It still feels incredibly out of place here, though, so culturally distant is it from the typical sound of the British chart. It's not just that they're not singing in English, but the very structure of the song is alien and there are only vocals - but not only singing, the choir use all manner of voice music, with hums and percussive clicks. Whilst I've no grasp of what the song's about (I'm guessing a star and a wiseman are involved somewhere) it's a pleasant listen and a nice change, though I can't fathom what it has to do with baked beans, a food I haven't liked for decades. It's hard to imagine what people who bought this album for Armand Van Helden or the Cartoons would have made of it either.

And the answer to that question? B*Witched. They made the Top 20 together with 'I Shall Be There' in December.

Also appearing on: Now 31 [with China Black]
Available on: Ultimate Collection

Monday, 24 June 2013

All Saints 'War Of Nerves'

Chart Peak: 7


'War Of Nerves' was the last track recorded for All Saints' debut album... Shaznay wrote the lyrics during the weekend of Princess Diana's tragic death in 1997 and says "It brought the subject of death closer to a lot of people who hadn't experienced it".

That weekend was also the weekend when All Saints made their chart debut and nobody noticed: they were a new entry at 4 on the chart dated 6th September 1997, which would normally have been announced on the 1st but for the only time I can recall the Sunday chart show was cancelled entirely that day. In the days before online publication, we didn't get to hear the position until the Wednesday. Presumably the intent of the songwriting wasn't purely self-interested, but by the time this remixed version showed up as the fifth single from the album in late 1998, there were rumours of some disputes within the band. It's certainly not an impression much discouraged by the video, very dark in the literal sense and perhaps metaphorically too. Notably you don't see all four of the band together at any point, and the repeated shots of their faces on the back of a bus implies a certain discomfort with their fame. I suppose it's just about possible that the final shot of that bus in the tunnel is a hint back towards Diana's death as well.

The song itself was surely a single too far from the album, peaking at 7 after three consecutive chart-toppers (fun fact: every follow-up to an All Saints Number One peaked at either 1 or 7) and swiftly being forgotten. I probably hadn't heard it for almost fifteen years, and I hadn't heard it much at the time either, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be quite decent after all. Not an obvious hit at all, but there's something decidedly charming and sad about the melody, and it's swoopingly produced by no less than Cameron McVey. I also hadn't noticed until this week that the title doesn't quite appear in the lyric, she actually sings "Trying to break through this wall of nerves". Maybe the title was an accident, and the fact that it's not in the chorus makes little commercial sense, but I'm starting to wonder whether this is actually my favourite All Saints track. In the 1990s I'd never have thought it possible to have a favourite at all. The fact that they didn't make another record until 2000, a very long gap for such an act, seems to give some credence to the rumours of a fractious relationship.

Also appearing on: Now 38, 39, 40, 41, 47, 65
Available on: All Hits - Special Edition

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Kele Le Roc 'My Love'

Chart Peak: 8

Hailing from the East End of London, 20 year old Kele Le Roc recorded her debut album in los Angeles with a host of internationally reknowned {sic} producers. She recalls "In LA I had so much inspiration - who wouldn't in a place where every day is summer.!"
You may find this curmudgeonly of me, but I don't think I would have. Still, Kelly Biggs (who, like Iggy Pop and David Soul, adopted a surname at odds with her usual musical style) must have thought differently, and she got to work with little-remembered Eighties star Robbie Nevil on this, another of the saccharine ballads that seem bunched together on Side 4 here. The video isn't on YouTube, but as I recall it looked very like it was aimed at the Valentine's market - the single was not actually released until March but I suspect it may have been postponed from the date originally intended. It became her second consecutive single to peak at 8, and later won a MOBO Award for Best Single, but that wasn't enough for the ensuing album to make the Top 40, nor for any more albums to have emerged in the fourteen years since, though she's attempted to relaunch her career on several occasions, and has had other hits in collaboration, one of which even gets her back onto the Now series.

Also appearing on: Now 41
Available on: Everybody's Somebody

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Dru Hill 'These Are The Times'

Chart Peak: 4


The multi-talented quartet Dru Hill are no stranger to success - they have racked up six No.1 singles in the States within just two years... 'These Are The Times' was co-written and co-produced by the legendary "hitmaker" Babyface.
Sadly the note doesn't elaborate on what the multiple talents of the members of Dru Hill might have been. This is one of the very few songs on Now 42 I don't really remember, and by far the biggest hit on here I could say that of. I do remember their previous hit 'How Deep Is Your Love' (not the Bee Gees song) but apart from that they were just background most of the time to me, their run of US hits not being fully replicated over here though this was their fifth Top 40 hit, not counting collaborations. They were a big RnB act just as that sort of music was starting to become mainstream here, and as I'd left school by this point I was rarely in touch with genre fans. I recall them more as a launchpad for lead singer Sisqo's solo career, and would not be able to name any other band members without looking it up - in fact I would have struggled to remember how many of them there were without that sleevenote.

As to the song itself, the fact that Babyface was involved really tells you all you need to know. It's the sort of bland, syrupy ballad that gives blandness a bad name, the sort of things Barry Manilow would reject as lacking grit. The closest we get to an exception is the rather odd lyric where they offer to "swallow you like Reese's Pieces", an analogy which may not have made sense to all the British audience. Their career faltered after this point on both sides of the Atlantic, though they released a comeback album in 2010 and according to their Wikipedia entry they also had their own reality TV show called Keith Sweat's Platinum House. You know your career's passed its prime when your TV show is named after somebody else.

Available on: Anthems R&B [Explicit]

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

911 'A Little Bit More'

Chart Peak: 1 [1 week]

Dr. Hook's 1976 hit 'A Little Bit More' was given the 911 treatment in January '99 and gave the boys their first No1 single... Their current album is a collection of their favourite songs which, according to Jimmy "appeal not just to our fans, but also to music lovers who remember them first time around!"
We'll gloss over the implication in that quote that "911 fans" and "music lovers" were two separate groups of people, shall we? As I said last time, 911 were a band who had a certain charm so I find it hard to dislike them, but do also find it hard to persuade myself that much of their music is any good. By the time of this eleventh single, they (or at least the record company) were clearly desperate for a Number One single; there's an infamous story that when their cover of 'More Than A Woman' was at the top of the midweek charts, they posed for photos with a massive 1, only to be pipped at the post by Spacedust. Evidently somebody at Innocent thought the best thing to do was more covers, so we got a whole album of them and this addition to the barrage of Number One singles in early 1999. The sleeve of Now 42 takes no chances and shows them posing with Casper the Friendly Ghost instead.

Apparently, 'A Little Bit More' was already a cover when Dr Hook did it, having originally been recorded by its author Bobby Gosh. In any version though, it's a pretty hideous song, sounding more like an ode to date rape than the romantic anthem it was probably intended to be. It neither deserves nor gets a good performance from the boys, and the whole thing comes over as a box-ticking exercise. Although it succeeded in topping the chart, it was so late in their career that they had no momentum left, and this was the propenultimate single of their original career. Don't worry, there's a new album coming out in 2014.

Also appearing on: Now 35, 36, 37, 38, 41, 43
Available on: There It Is

Monday, 17 June 2013

Roxette 'Wish I Could Fly'

Chart Peak: 11


Their first release since 1995, Roxette make a welcome return with ballad 'Wish I Could Fly'... One of Europe's most successful bands, over the last ten years Per and Marie have had 18 UK Top 30 hits and sold over 40 million albums worldwide!

Actually, they'd spent one week on the Top 75 with 'June Afternoon' in, er, July 1996, but it was their first major hit in a good while and their last new one here too, though they're still going and released an album as recently as 2011. Like their compatriots Ace Of Base, they seem to have abruptly lost their audience in English-speaking countries - both of them were pretty big in the US for Swedes, but by this point Roxette had lost their record deal over there and this single came out as a one-off without the album even getting a release there.

'Wish I Could Fly' benefits from a luxurious production, with those very 90s-sounding swooping string arrangements, and a big video with enough nudity to attract attention. Unfortunately the song doesn't really go anywhere, though it's a pleasant enough listen and one I like more now than at the time. The chorus oddly reminds me of a slowed-down version of Aswad's 'Shine' and it's not a million miles from their own 'It Must Have Been Love'.

Also appearing on: Now 15, 18, 20, 21, 23
Available on: Have A Nice Day

The Beautiful South 'How Long's A Tear Take To Dry?'

Chart Peak: 12

Following in the footsteps of last year's smash hits 'Perfect Ten' and 'Dumb'. 'How Long's A Tear...' is their latest release - due on 8th March '99... The video for the track features a Scooby-Doo-style cartoon version of the band!
I don't normally bother to quote the part of these sleeve notes where they plug the album the track comes from, but this one is notably inaccurate, attributing the song to their 1990 album Choke - it's actually from 1998's Quench, although the single version is a shorter edit. In fact the version on Now 42 is edited still further, a clean version which cuts the second half of the exchange "Will you be my locksmith tonight?/Will I shite!" entirely. Other versions drop only the last word, if anything at all (in the video, the cartoon Jaqui Abbot's mouth is covered during that line).

As the quote above suggests, the lyric finds Paul Heaton on familiar territory, as one half of a bickering couple. It's one of the lighter examples in the catalogue though, feeling more like sparring than anger (though in the light of today's headlines it might not seem as amusing as it usually would). Heaton being Heaton he can't resist throwing "the flowers smell sweeter, the closer you are to the grave" into the chorus, though the fatalism is also brightened by the music which shows the influence of "rhythm consultant" Norman Cook. It's a funky track, driven by low electric piano and a flute lick vaguely reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron's 'The Bottle'. Maybe closer to the music Heaton enjoys than what he's famous for making.

I was always fond of this one, although as my dad had the album and the B-sides weren't very interesting I never bought it. Enough people did for it to become their last Top 20 single, and maybe with hindsight their last real standout track, though they continued well into this century. 

Also appearing on: Now 15, 16, 18, 22, 27, 28, 32, 35, 36, 41
Available on: Solid Bronze - Great Hits

Friday, 14 June 2013

Terrorvision 'Tequila'

Chart Peak: 2

Party anthem 'Tequila' was a No. 2 hit for Yorkshire band Terrorvision in January this year... A departure from their usual rock style, the single was given a funky re-working by dance outfit Mint Royale.
Yes, to be clear this is the Mint Royale Shot mix: the original version, produced by Edwyn Collins, features an excerpt from the Champs hit of the same title, so at least having a hit with the remix meant they kept all the publishing royalties. As I mentioned on their one previous appearance, Terrorvision had four Top 20 hits out of four from the Regular Urban Survivors album, so they must have been as disappointed as I was when they reappeared in 1998 with the Number 23 hit 'Josephine'. I bought it on pink vinyl, but not many other people did. On the other hand, I didn't buy this one and it went on to become the biggest hit of their career, so maybe it's my fault.

I've never drunk tequila in my life and indeed never been a big fan of drunkenness, so perhaps I wouldn't have liked the song so much had I not been kindly disposed to the people involved already. But as I mentioned before, Terrorvision were fun in a way that most hard-rock bands of the time weren't, and Tony Wright had proved himself an entertaining minor celebrity. Mint Royale had already come to my attention through their remix of Kenickie's 'I Would Fix You' (some fans suggested after 'Tequila' that the remix should have been the A-side) and their own single 'From Rusholme With Love' so I thought we were in good hands here. And they do succeed in making this song sound like a party, picking up the atmosphere and even leaving in some background chatter. What helps for me is that the song is about a man's love-hate relationship with the drink, in the tradition of old folk songs, rather than being a straightforward celebration. It's all very good-natured and whilst it has the same external problems as the previous track; it got overplayed and overshadowed the act's other work, I could never bring myself to dislike this.

Also appearing on: Now 33
Available on: Whales And Dolphins - The Best Of [Explicit]

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Divine Comedy 'National Express'

Chart Peak: 9

If you've only just tuned into the wonderful world of the Divine Comedy, you might like to know that frontman Neil Hannon has friends in high places... After featuring on Robbie Williams' hit single 'No Regrets', he was invited to support him on tour - during which Robbie repayed the favour by proving live backing vocals on 'National Express'.
A cynical person might suspect that Robbie was so addicted to adulation from the crowd he even wanted to muscle in on the support band's set. But to be fair to the guy, it's hard to resist singing along to this song, one that was obviously held back to the third single from the album (which had been released back in August the previous year) because it was the big potential pop hit and could benefit from the quiet January charts, even at the expense of it not being released in the festival season. Never mind, we bought it anyway. Strangely for me, a man rarely reluctant to enter a record shop, I remember sending my brother out to buy the single. I remember specifically telling him to buy CD1, which features the radio edit, so as to reduce duplication. The edit (also featured here) is actually a bit brutal, with a rather abrupt fade just after the three-and-a-half minute mark. However, swearing fans will be pleased to note that it does leave in the word "arse", and I've never encountered a censored version: it's not the strongest swear word ever to appear on a Now album but it does seem to have been left on intentionally.

The song's jolly mood is a bit of an outlier on the Fin De Siecle album which, as the name and the monochrome cover suggest, is one of Hannon's darker albums, albeit that the social commentary is often buried by his typical ironic humour. And 'National Express' itself has signs of bitter experience: a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the joys of low-budget coach travel, you can imagine it's the product of many years when he couldn't afford to get between London and Northern Ireland any other way. In fact, it always seemed a high point of the album, more effective than some of the more obviously serious tracks which fall prey to pretentiousness, excessive length or simple factual errors. In fact, Hannon seems to have lost his way slightly at this point in his career - the success of the single and album got him a major label contract but he seemed uncomfortable with the fame, drifting through image and style changes and starting to lose his songwriting mojo a bit - I didn't like anything I heard from his last set, Bang Goes The Knighthood. This song too became a bit of a victim of its own success, becoming frustratingly overplayed and overshadowing the rest of the catalogue. I'm not sure I've totally got over how tired I got of this.

The third act out of four to collaborate with Tom Jones, too.

Also appearing on: Now 36
Available on: Fin de Siecle

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The All Seeing I featuring Tony Christie 'Walk Like A Panther'

Chart Peak: 10

For the year's wackiest collaboration so far, dance gurus The All Seeing I created something of a "Sheffield Tour-de-force" by enlisting the help of Jarvis Cocker and Tony Christie... It's almost 28 years since Tony made his first big impact on the UK charts with the No.2 hit 'I Did What I Did For Maria'.
Little would we have guessed then that Stereophonics and Tony Christie would go on to have their first (and only) Number One singles only a week apart in 2005. I certainly wouldn't have, because this record was the first time I'd ever heard of Tony Christie at all. That's not completely surprising since he hadn't charted in my lifetime, but he was evidently better-remembered in the North of England, and so Jarvis was called in to write some lyrics for him, apparently borrowing a title from an earlier Christie song - this version was initially known as 'Walk Like A Panther '98' until the release date was postponed to January 1999.

Cocker even took over the vocal for Top Of The Pops when Christie was unavailable (it sounds a bit odd when Christie's recorded backing vocal comes in over him). In many ways there's more Cocker than Christie in the song anyway. Whilst I now recognise the reference in the opening line "Marie has set up home with a man who's half my age...", Marie or Maria being the wife or girlfriend of the protagonist in many Christie songs, who else would write "your existence an insult/ and stains that are suspect cover your clothes"? It certainly wasn't the sort of thing Christie cut his teeth on and he doesn't quite seem to know how to sing it, though he seems game for a laugh and gives it a decent try. Nonetheless, without knowledge of the backstory I just couldn't get the song at all at the time, which seems rather a failing of it. I like it more now, though.

The All Seeing I also appear on: Now 39
Tony Christie also appears on: Now 60, 61
Available on: Pickled Eggs And Sherbet

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Stereophonics 'Just Looking'

Chart Peak: 4


Kelly Jones, Richard Jones (no relation) and Stuart Cable have been playing together since their early teens - originally rehearsing in Stuart's bedroom... Featured in the soundtrack for British comedy This Year's Love, 'Just Looking' peaked at No.4 in the UK charts.
I don't know how many people remember the film nowadays, although it did produce two hit singles (David Gray's title song made the Top 20 when re-released in 2000). However, 'Just Looking' is better known as a single from the album Performance And Cocktails, and is pretty much exactly the point I went off them: having not liked them when I first heard of them, I rather liked quite a few of the singles and bought the first album on vinyl the week it was released. I was not wholly enthused by their next new song, 'The Bartender And The Thief' and although I'd entertained the possibility of buying a second album, by the time it actually came out I wasn't interested enough. Well, I did actually find some low-quality MP3 files of it (remember, this was 1999 so that was more unusual) and on the basis of those I felt justified in my decision.

It probably swung my decision somewhat that they were a band I'd never really warmed to. Even though I thought, and still think, the first album was a good piece of work, it didn't turn me into a fan. That debut's most distinctive feature was that most of the lyrics were derived from the events and people in the band's home town, and having mined that seam so thoroughly on one album Kelly Jones had to look elsewhere for inspiration on subsequent ones. Unfortunately, he never seemed to find much of it, and their career is full of self-consciously "classic" trad-rock that lacks lyrical and musical excitement. In fairness, heard out of context 14 years later, this track isn't as bad as I remembered. I hope that's not only because they made so many worse records after it. There's something rather trite about the lyric though, and the music plays its one card, the burst into a full electric band, fairly early on, so it has nowhere to go after that.

Note for coincidence fans: both The Cardigans and Stereophonics made their next Now appearances in collaboration with Tom Jones.

Also appearing on: Now 43, 45 [with Tom Jones], 48, 49, 51, 56, 60, 68
Available on: Performance And Cocktails

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Cardigans 'Erase/Rewind'

Chart Peak: 7

'Erase/Rewind' is the second single from the Cardigans latest album... Its predecessor 'My Favourite Game' continues to be played on radio stations across the country following its use in a popular car commercial.
Again with the car adverts! Actually, I don't remember that ad, though it might explain the unusual chart performance of 'My Favourite Game', which hung around remarkably long for a non-Top-10 single in the late 1990s. This follow-up took them to the Top 10 positions for the second time, and the last if you ignore their collaboration with Tom Jones later that year. Whilst its initial success was doubtless assisted by their previous hit (and its "banned" video, featured as a CD-ROM extra on one format of this), there's no question that 'Erase/Rewind' was a genuine hit in its own right and a contributor to the big sales of the Gran Turismo album. It's very much part of the trajectory they were on at this point in their career, trying very hard to rid themselves of the twee candyfloss image that they'd created for themselves but which they were evidently tiring of, especially after the huge success of 'Lovefool' took it beyond people who heard the irony.

Over a whole album this rather nihilistic tone is apparently a bit wearing, which is presumably why so many copies of Gran Turismo turn up in charity shops, and why I've never yet bought one. But on its own, this is a brilliant record with a decidedly unfluffy soundscape of tinkling keyboards, rumbling bass and unusually treated acoustic guitars. The reverb on Nina Persson's vocal just adds to the artificial tone and the use of loops and short repetition, as well as the gradual but steady pace, fit the tone of the lyric, which is determined but emotionally cold. It always seemed to me like the protagonist had finally snapped, but had been so beaten down that even when she took control, she was no longer fully human. As I've said before, I have a soft spot for arty music that's also actively poppy, and I couldn't resist this track although I never bought the single either. I was glad to get it when I bought this though.

Their compatriots The Wannadies, also best-known for a song not necessarily typical of their original intention had surely heard this track when they recorded 'Yeah'. Now 12 veteran Sabrina's version is, er, different.

Also appearing on: Now 37, 41, 44 [with Tom Jones]
Available on: Gran Turismo

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Mister Oizo 'Flat Beat'

Chart Peak: 1 [2 weeks]

This quirky dance tune was plugged into the brains of the nation after it featured in the new Levis commercial... The song is identified with the star of the ad - the cheeky yellow puppet Flat Eric
Indeed, the track was seemingly created specifically for the commercial, which was also directed by Quentin Dupiuex (AKA Mr. Oizo) - he got the job off the back of an early video with a proto-Flat Eric character. A single release swiftly followed, making the Top 5 in many European countries and becoming the UK's last instrumental chart-topper to date (ignoring the spoken intro which is oddly moved to the end of the video).

It's fair to say that this isn't a track that it sounds like it would have been a Number One single under any other circumstances, a very minimal electronic track. That's not to say it isn't good, in fact I've always liked it and rather assumed it would have been considered much cooler had it come from an avant-garde composer or even from a dance artist who hadn't had a hit with it. Seen by some as a precursor to electro-house or even dubstep, it's not a record I would know how to dance to but I don't really care. I've never bought a pair of expensive jeans but I'm glad I got to hear this. Also, Flat Eric is cute, especially in the still they used in the CD booklet.

This is possibly the only Now album to feature two tracks by people called Quentin (Norman Cook was born Quentin Leo Cook, though he later changed the name officially) and it's also worth noting that whilst somebody on a message board recently suggested that Now 42 was relatively light on big hits, this is the  fourth consecutive Number One single on the album. Of course the turnover at the top of the chart was very high in early 1999, though as previously noted '...Baby One More Time' had to wait for Now 44 and big hits by B*Witched and the Offspring never showed up at all.

Available on: Flat Beat

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Armand Van Helden featuring Duane Harden 'You Don't Know Me'

Chart Peak: 1 [1 week]


Armand started DJing when he was just 15 years old, playing disco, hip-hop and Latin freestyle all over the world thanks to his father's job with the US Air Force... Between '91 and '93, when his professional career as a DJ and remixer was taking off, his day jobs included working for a law firm and flipping burgers in a diner!
You know what, I don't think burger-flipping is a particularly surprising day-job for an aspiring musician (unless it was Morrissey or somebody); it's a common job that requires relatively little training or commitment.  Anyway, it's a job he was eventually able to get away from, and like Fatboy Slim he had his solo Number One well into his career - indeed, both had topped the chart as remixers before they did so on their own, Van Helden having done so on Tori Amos's 'Professional Widow' in early 1997. Though he'd been releasing records of his own for some years by then, it raised a level of commercial expectation that he defiantly dashed with his next few singles. Reputedly, his record company had a word and the result was this highly commercial comeback single. 'You Don't Know Me' (sometimes written 'U Don't...' but it's definitely 'You' on the UK single cover) is an upbeat house track based on an instrumental section from from 'Dance With You', a 1979 disco hit by Carrie Lucas. Apparently, vocalist Duane Harden was pretty much left to his own devices by Van Helden, who left the studio to get on with something else. Next thing you know, he's on the phone at the end of the Top 40 rundown, with Mark Goodier congratulating him and claiming the next single 'Flowerz' could do even better (it didn't).

Although my brother bought this single at the time (which is how I'm so sure of the spelling), I didn't like it at all then. I rather enjoy it now, despite the obvious lack of originality. Harden's lyric isn't saying much new either, but that no longer bothers me - I can take this as the entertainment it's supposed to be. I even quite like the video, which shows the duo being refused admission to a series of clubs - mainly because (SPOILER WARNING) they don't have the predictable payoff of them finally getting into the best club of all. It does unfortunately draw attention to the one weakness of the track, a slightly lazy fade at the end of the radio edit. But then, I wouldn't have the patience to listen to the full eight minute version either. This'll do.

Available on: Defected Presents For The Love Of House Volume 2

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Fatboy Slim 'Praise You'

Chart Peak: 1

'Praise You' provided man of the moment Norman Cook with his first Number One single as Fatboy Slim... Norman was awarded the '99 Brit for Best British Dance Act - over ten years since he won his first Brit Award as a member of the Housemartins for Best British Newcomer.
Cook's only solo chart topper arrived, funnily enough, as the third single from his second album in this guise. It was one of those cases where it felt like a matter of time before he got a Number One anyway, such was the excitement around the album, and perhaps the record company even chose to hold back this crowd-pleasing single for an opportune time in the spring. It's certainly a song of broader appeal than 'The Rockafeller Skank' and 'Gangsta Trippin', both of which featured highly repetitive vocal samples. 'Praise You', by contrast, has a more conventional song structure and a full vocal, derived from Camille Yarborough's 'Take Yo' Praise', which most people would never have heard before. I'm not accusing Cook of anything here, though, it's not as if he pretended it was him singing; and in this case at least it's clear that he's acted out of affection for the source material, blending it with various other samples and reviving it for a wider and younger audience.

The other thing everybody remembers of this is of course the promo video, directed by and starring Spike Jonze. If anything it seems a little ahead of its time - it looks more at home on YouTube, where we're used to seeing videos shot in public without proper lighting, and where people publicly sharing their own interpretation of a popular song is commonplace. One of the actors who played a dancer posted a sort of making-of video although most of it seems to have been cribbed from a tacky BBC3 I Love 1999 segment. Towards the end there's a brief excerpt of future Cook collaborator David Byrne showing his autocue-reading skills, which are as convincing as you'd expect.

To tell the truth, I'd got a bit tired of this song because it was so ubiquitous for so long, and these days I'm as likely to listen to the flipside 'Sho Nuff', but I still have fundamental affection for this record and it's here that Disc 2 starts to get good.

Also appearing on: Now 40, 41, 43
Available on: Cruel Intentions

Monday, 3 June 2013

Lenny Kravitz 'Fly Away'

Chart Peak: 1 [1 week]

Eight months in the making, the album 5 is Lenny's first record in three years and he says "It was just as exciting as making a record for the first time... I was like a kid with a box of crayons - using all the colours"... 'Fly Away', the soundtrack to the successful Peugeot ad, was Lenny's first UK No.1 in February this year.
His first Number One and his last solo Top 40 hit, though he did "of course" feature on 'Show Me Your Soul' with P. Diddy, Loon and Pharrell Williams, a Number 35 hit in 2004. His previous single peaked at 75, which gives him the unusual distinction of having appeared at opposite ends of the chart with consecutive releases, but does rather strengthen the suspicion that 'Fly Away' owes most of its success to the TV ad. In the USA, where it was used in different commercials, it peaked at 12.

The other reason I tend to suspect that it succeeded mainly off the back of the advert is that it's awful. Now, I freely admit that Kravitz is a musician I've never been keen on, partly because he seems to fancy himself so much but mainly because of what he does: he's the classic jack of all trades, who plays many instruments competently but none with real feeling and has also perfected the art of dabbling in several different styles of music and making them all equally uninteresting. 'Fly Away' is a glam-rock song so formulaic and turgid it makes Oasis sound like Stockhausen, and even Noel Gallagher would bualk at some of the lyrics "Let's go to the stars, to Jupiter or even Mars, it could all be ours" is the worst rhyming-dictionary doggerell. Playing all the instruments himself as well as producing, Kravitz fails to generate any energy or charm - I presume he was using a click-track and following it too closely. I heard this record a lot in 1999 and never once enjoyed it, and time has not been kind.

Also appearing on: Now 24, 26
Available on: 5 [Explicit]

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Robbie Williams 'Strong'

Chart Peak: 4

You can't get a better recommendation for a place in pop's hall of fame than 3 Brit Awards - in February '99 Robbie scooped Brits for Best Video ('Millennium'), Best Song ('Angels') and Best Male Solo Artist... 'Strong' is due for release on March 15th.
Well, that first point is debatable (what about 4 Brit Awards?) but it does neatly link Robbie who holds the records for both Brit Awards and Now appearances. 'Strong' was the opening track and third single from his  enormously popular album I've Been Expecting You, though if the titles suggest bullish confidence, this one at least is undercut by the self-doubt that was - and presumably still is - always part of his stock-in-trade. "You think I'm strong/You're wrong, you're wrong!" he bellows into the anthemic chorus, which is mildly brave but the effect is somewhat spoilt by the fact that he can't think of a better lyric to follow than "I'll sing my song, my song, my song". In the video, intentionally or otherwise, he's shown performing these lines to a huge stadium crowd who sing it straight back at him, not necessarily taking on board the message. There again, it's always hard with him to be sure how much is a real cri de coeur and how much mere grandstanding; the harder-hearted might argue that even the constant insecurity and self-deprecation is itself as self-centred as his more obvious boastfulness.

Certainly, there's a lot of mugging and acting-up in the rather lazy promo video, compiled from tour and home video footage rather than specially shot, though they have at least lined up the lyric "I dance like me Dad" with a shot of him on stage with his father. This may be part of the reason why the song wasn't much of a hit outside the UK, even in countries where he was generally popular, or perhaps the lyrics about "a thousand fags" and "easy lays" didn't fully translate. Maybe people saw through the rather half-baked nature of the song (it's quite simplistic musically too) but his British fans had to buy the CD single anyway for his Brits performance.

Also appearing on: Now 34, 37, 38, 39, 41, 44, 45, 47, 48, 49, 51 (with Nicole Kidman), 52 (with 1 Giant Leap & Maxi Jazz), 54, 55, 56, 59, 60, 62, 63, 65, 66, 74, 75, 77 (with Gary Barlow), 83
Available on: I've Been Expecting You