Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Taffy 'I Love My Radio (Midnight Radio)

Chart Peak: 6

Charted at No. 63 on 6th January, had reached No. 6 by 10th February. Taffy's real name is Kathy Quaye.
Another act generally recognised as a one-hit-wonder, although unlike Steve "Silk" Hurley, Taffy did at least manage a second Top 75 single. This isn't a song I remember from the time, and it's a fairly forgettable Italo-pop hit of the sort that was soon to be overtaken by house music. Kathy Quaye herself is probably British (though some sources claim her as American) but the track was written and produced by Italians; the stage name supposedly derives from a failed attempt to pronounce her real name. Of course, writing a song about how much you love radio to flatter your way to airplay is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and there are many other examples in the Now series. 'I Love My Radio' is most notable for the fact that a special UK radio edit was produced to replace "my midnight radio" with "my deejay's radio" due to the lack of all-night broadcasting in mid-eighties Britain. Perhaps they were worried that it would be seen as advocating pirate radio or something? I suppose it's of some mild linguistic interest that they ended up with the lyric "I love my radio, my deejay's radio", a phrase that a native English speaker probably wouldn't have coined, but I'm clutching at straws to try and make this sound interesting. It's an enjoyable bit of pop fluff, but no more, and anything but memorable.

Available on: I Love My Radio

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Steve "Silk" Hurley 'Jack Your Body'

Chart Peak: 1 [2 weeks]

Charted at No. 18 on 6th January, had sped to No.1 by 20th January where it stayed for 2 weeks.
A minimal note for a minimal track, but it hardly captures the impact this track must have had when it arrived at the top of the chart - the impact surely heightened by the fact that it knocked off 'Reet Petite' of all things. There can scarcely ever have been a greater contrast between consecutive Number One singles: The Prodigy deposing Robson & Jerome just under a year decade later maybe just about beats this. It was the first time house music had topped the UK chart and surely the most sample-based chart-topper to date. Mind you, if anything it looks even more impressive that the single entered the chart as high as the Top 20, since it can't have had much daytime radio play at first. I do remember hearing it on the radio, but that would have been on Capital, a relatively switched-on station in those days, and I'm sure it only forced its way onto the radio because it had been so popular. I wonder whether it's a coincidence that this is one of the tracks dropped from the CD version of the album, since it was obviously a bigger hit than many of the tracks that did cross over, or whether somebody thought the more upmarket potential buyers of a Compact Disc in 1987 wouldn't have been so keen on this one.

It must have been quite a culture shock when it first appeared on TotP - in video form of course, I don't think it really lends itself to live performance - because even this truncated radio edit is so basic and elemental. There's very little instrumentation, just the bubbling bassline (which I now know is the work of a Roland 303, not that I'd have any concept of that at the time), the lead line played on that higher keyboard that only distantly resembles a piano and the relentless beat. The vocal is similarly limited, consisting mostly of snippets from the three-word title phrase, repeated and looped in various ways. Admittedly, this would partly be the result of the limited capacity of samplers in those days, but there is something very bold about the single too, almost as if it's brazenly saying this is all you need to dance to, and anything else would be extraneous. Coincidentally, although I'd thought of that sentence some hours ago, just as I was typing it 'Teenage Kicks' by the Undertones came on, a very different record which John Peel famously said nothing need be subtracted from or added to. In another coincidence, my wife and I were discussing the early work of avant-garde composer Steve Reich, who was manipulating brief vocal clips into all sort of shapes twenty years earlier. It's unlikely that this was an influence on the Chicago House scene, or that any significant proportion of the people who bought this record in 1987 have ever heard of Steve Reich, but it's an interesting comparison and a lesson that different types of music have more in common than it might superficially appear.

Because I was only a child when this single charted, and have never had much understanding of club culture, I don't know much about how this plays out in the history of its subculture, and how original or distinctive it might have seemed when first heard in the clubs. But I do know it was important in taking the sound overground, and soon enough it was everywhere, variations of this becoming the standard sound of dance-pop for a few years at least. Even the former jazz band Matt Bianco were soon at it with the pastiche 'Wap Bam Boogie' in 1988, whilst Les Rhythmes Digitales made a much later explicit homage with 'Jacques Your Body (Make Me Sweat)'; Stuart Price went on to produce crowd-pleasing acts like Take That and the Killers, how mainstream can you get? You can hear traces of this in the early Stock Aitken Waterman sound too, and SAW staffers Harding and Curnow were responsible for remixing Chic's disco classic into 'Jack Le Freak'. Of course it also went on to pave the way for one of my favourite Number Ones of all time, 'Pump Up The Volume', so it'd deserve my gratitude even if I didn't enjoy it in itself. But the track's won me over as an adult, even though I tend to have a hard time with very repetitive music and songs that lack strong melodic content. Perhaps there's something in how elemental this is that cuts to the quick and impresses me - but I can tell you that the reason why I rated this deposing 'Reet Petite' as less dramatic than the Prodigy deposing Robson & Jerome in that first paragraph is because that was a much bigger variation in quality as well as style.

There is a funny little postscript to this story, though you may already know this. It later emerged that this single shouldn't have been a Number One at all, because the 12" version which accounted for a majority of the sales was actually slightly longer than chart rules permitted. It was recognised as a genuine mistake though and the published chart was allowed to stand. At least nobody missed out on topping the chart because of it; it would just have been an extra week each for 'Reet Petite' and for 'I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)', the latter of which officially took over the following week and fortunately doesn't show up here. If I can squeeze in one more coincidence, that was another song John Peel said something memorable about.

Available on: ONE

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Communards 'So Cold The Night'

Chart Peak: 8

Charted at No. 26 on 25th November 1986, had made No. 8 by 16th December. It was the follow-up to 'Don't Leave me This Way', the best-selling single of 1986. For the original version of 'You Are My World' check out Now 6!
That reference is of course because a remixed version of 'You Are My World' was released in early 1987 off the back of their breakthrough success. It didn't do that well, though, and 'So Cold The Night' remains the duo's only self-penned Top 10 hit. It still feels a bit like a cover version though. It doesn't resemble any particular song I know of (the falsetto vocal and parts of the melody faintly resemble 'What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend' by the Special AKA, but not that much); however, the writing doesn't quite seem of a piece with the prevailing style of the time. Even the title is intentionally old-fashioned, and it's a song of longing of a kind you didn't often hear in this era, especially not combined with the rather voyeuristic lyrics that begin and end the song with our protagonist spying on the object of his "affections". At least Jimmy Somerville's vocal brings a vulnerability to the song that makes it sound as much pathetic as threatening.

Again, the track isn't greatly helped by the production, with what's presumably meant to be an exotic Middle-Eastern melody played on synths that make it sound like a cheap home organ. In fact, I just listened to the start of a karaoke version on Spotify and if anything it's actually better-produced than the original. Protip: do not attempt to sing this song at karaoke unless you're Jimmy Somerville. Still, it's at least more distinctive than Curiosity.

Also appearing on: Now 6, 8, 10, 12
Available on: The Collection

Friday, 26 July 2013

Curiosity Killed The Cat 'Down To Earth'

Chart Peak: 3

Charted at No. 70 on 9th December 1986, moved slowly at first but then sped to No.3 by 10th February 1987 where it stayed for 3 weeks.
'Down To Earth' is kind of an apt title actually, you get a sort of culture shock with the segue from early-60s proto-soul to this slickly-produced blue-eyed jazz-funk number. Apparently, when Curiosity first began work on their debut album, Sly and Robbie were the producers, which sounds potentially interesting; but in the event they were replaced by Stewart Levine, who's also credited on two other tracks on Now 9, and lends the track a rather saturated tone with plenty of fretless bass - the sort of thing that was radio friendly between about 1986-8 but sounds curiously unengaging now.

Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot is obviously a good singer, although again the very smoothed-out nature of the arrangement is matched by his vocal, so full of elongated and elided syllables as to obscure not only the words themselves but any curiosity (no pun intended) about them. It's mildly catchy but not unforgettable; but the images it puts in my mind aren't of whatever the song might actually about, they're of a slightly smarmy salesman with overpolished shoes.

Also appearing on: Now 10, 16
Available on: Music Of The Year - 1986/Compilation

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ben E. King 'Stand By Me'

Chart Peak: 1 [4 weeks]

Originally made No. 27 in summer 1961, re-charted at No. 19 on 10th February and "501"-ed its way to the top the following week. It was still firmly at No. 1 in early March.
The otherwise impenetrable verb "501" is of course a reference to the use of this song in a jeans commercial starring Eddie Kidd, although to be honest that's not something I'd have remembered were it not in the sleevenote. I do remember that the song was used in the film of the same name, as the video that got shown at the time was the one made to tie in with the film, showing a 48-year-old King incongruously miming to the vocal he'd recorded half his lifetime ago, while Will Wheaton - before he became the world's most famous Google+ user - shows his dance moves.

A surprisingly small hit on initial release, 'Stand By Me' (written by the ex-Drifter himself with legendary writers and producers Lieber & Stoller) became something of a standard, with both Kenny Lynch and John Lennon having charted versions of the song as well. It's one of those songs that always seemed to have been around and I don't recall being especially surprised to see an oldie do so well at the time - it was in the higher end of the charts around the same time as Freddie Mercury and Boy George's retro covers and the re-issue of 'I Get The Sweetest Feeling'. The sound of early 1987 was, to a great extent, the sound of the past. It does stand out by dint of its understated production, even compared to the simple but boisterous 'Reet Petite'. There aren't a lot of instruments on there, but every one counts. Even the guiro. It makes for a very intimate atmosphere as King calls upon the listener to stand by him and implicitly promises to stand by them too. A song of strength and tenderness that deserves to be listened to more closely than I usually do, but that's the price of success.

I was quite pleased to find that Ben E. King (or Benjamin Nelson, as he was born) is still alive and continued to perform into this century. Of course the recording of  'Stand By Me' has now passed into the public domain, so those writing royalties are all the more important now.

Available on: Stand By Me - 32 Original Recordings

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Freddie Mercury 'The Great Pretender'

Chart Peak: 4

Following the success of 'Love Kills' and 'I Was Born To Love You', Freddie's new solo single is 'The Great Pretender'. The song was originally a hit for the Australian singer Jimmy Parkinson in 1956 and also the Platters later that same year.
So, Side 3 starts with another old song - it's a cover like the Boy George track on Side 2, and it dates back to the 1950s like the Jackie Wilson number back on Side 1. It's nearer in style to Wilson of course, being a doo-wop song; the Platters version is the true original (it was written by their manager Buck Ram) even though Parkinson beat them to the UK chart.

Back in 1987 I wouldn't have known the origin, though I remember it was a song I already knew and recognised as old. I was too young to wonder why he was covering the song at the time, but looking back it is slightly odd - the track wasn't from his solo album in 1985, and nor did it relate to his Barcelona album with Montserrat Caballé later in 1987. In fact, the track didn't show up on an album until 1992's posthumous Freddie Mercury Album (it was re-issued as a single from that album and became a minor hit). With a bit more hindsight though, we know now that it would have been around this time when he discovered he had HIV, although he of course didn't reveal this publicly until the day before his death; his partner Jim Hutton claimed that he was diagnosed around Easter 1987, but presumably he'd suspected for a while. In that context, of course, the song of a man "pretending that I'm doing well" takes on a different poignancy.

Unfortunately, as a record it doesn't entirely work. Mercury was still capable of a belting vocal, but it's a bit of a mismatch with the song itself, which doesn't have the same bombast as a Queen original. He bellows too hard to make it plausible that he ever concealed anything. The production is a bit empty as well, and the effect is rather a hollow exercise.

Also appearing on: Now 10, 23 [both with Montserrat Caballé], 25
Available on: Greatest Hits III

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Berlin 'Take My Breath Away'

Chart Peak: 1

Charted on 21st October 1986 at No. 37, had flown to No. 1 by 4th November. It stayed at the top throughout the month and was still in the British Top 50 in late January 1987. The song was the love theme from the hit movie Top Gun.
When people talk about Giorgio Moroder, it's fair to say that this isn't usually the first song they mention, but he did indeed produce the track, and co-write it with his car mechanic Tom Whitlock. It must be one of his biggest sellers. I suppose the slow, reverberation synthesised bass line does hark back to his days as an innovator of electronic music, but it's somewhat concealed by the washes of fake-string pads and Terri Nunn's vocal, which expresses the sort of emotion that only exists in Eighties power ballads. I'm not sure whether any of the other members of Berlin even contributed to this track, but by the end of 1987 they'd split due to disagreements over their direction; other members apparently thought they were a serious New Wave band and didn't want to carry on in this direction. A Simple Minds-like breakthrough was not to be for them.

Nunn eventually took ownership of the name and tours with a version of the band to this day. According to their website they play the Mid-California State Fair on Thursday, and a new album is in the shops in September. I did actually like this when I was a kid (too young to see the film of course) but I think it was mainly for the squelchy noises. It's aged better than Mental As Anything, I'll give it that.

Available on: Top Gun - Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Expanded Edition)

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Bananarama 'Trick Of The Night'

Chart Peak: 32

Charted at No. 64 on 10th February, had reached No. 32 by 24th February.

Another near-miss Stock Aitken Waterman connection here. The hitmaking trio, who had of course already produced the Nanas' US chart-topping version of 'Venus', were called in to remix this track to appeal to UK buyers. A video was even made for their mix by the journalist Paul Heiney, as part of the forgotten TV series In At The Deep End where presenters were called upon to learn and practice new skills quickly (you can hear part of his voice over in that clip), the sort of thing that would nowadays be called a reality show. I watched that week's episode and it would have been one of the few times I heard the song since even with that publicity it failed to become much of a hit for them. That's presumably why they went further down the SAW route after this. It makes Side 3 a bit of a parade of forgotten numbers.

It's actually Swain and Jolley's original production of 'A Trick Of The Night' (as it's called on the single cover) that features here, which is probably for the best though both sound pretty dated 26 years later. One of the group's more serious songs, it's written as warning to a young man who runs off to the big city and ends up becoming a rentboy - thus the double meaning of the word "trick" (and maybe of the lyric "take it the wrong way" as well), although if this stuff is already happening to him it might be a bit late for warnings? It was hardly explicit enough to prevent airplay but perhaps the downbeat mood was not what people wanted from a band who'd made their name with sillier material (and did, after all, have an extremely silly name). I quite like it now, but I wouldn't claim it's a great lost hit. It's better than many of their bigger hits though.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14 (with Lananeeneenoonoo), 15
Available on: 30 Years Of Bananarama (The Very Best Of)

Friday, 19 July 2013

Pepsi and Shirlie 'Heartache'

Chart Peak: 2

Charted at No. 50 on 13th January 1987, had raced to No. 2 by 3rd February where it stayed for 2 weeks.
As we'd all have known at the time, but younger readers may be less aware, Helen DeMacque and Shirlie Holliman had risen to fame as the backing singers for Wham! and in the context of this blog were last seen in the video for 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' on Now 3. After George Michael disbanded the duo in 1986, hoping to make more "mature" music, the two of them were evidently at something of a loose end and somebody evidently thought they'd be able to spin themselves off into a pop career in their own right. I presume Pete Waterman had some involvement in there somewhere, as this appears on his Hit Factory compilation albums even though he didn't write or produce it. 

They got off to a decent start, or at least a better one than Andrew Ridgely, as this was ironically kept from the top of the chart only by their former boss duetting with Aretha Franklin. A second Top 10 hit followed with 'Goodbye Stranger' but subsequent releases, including a peculiar cover of 'All Right Now' by Free (also the title track of their album) struggled. The trouble was probably that, however important their contributions to the success of Wham!, they didn't quite seem to have the star quality to front an act on their own, and if they were anything special as singers it's been produced out of them here. In addition, the teenage girls who had been fans of George and Andrew weren't all going to be so keen on a female act - this was pre-Spice Girls of course. 'Heartache' is a decent if predictable song, and certainly catchier than the last couple of songs we've had but nothing exceptional and they never got to be big enough stars to claim the best material, or get away without it. 

Eventually, they both retired from active involvement in the music industry, though with occasional reunions and comebacks (they appear as backing singers on Now 45 if we ever get there); somebody has written on Wikipedia "Currently (April 2013) working as a waitress at the Mumbai Palace Indian restaurant in Coventry," but I presume they're referring to Pepsi there as Shirlie is married to one of Spandau Ballet and living in London. 

Available on: All Right Now

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Five Star 'Stay Out Of My Life'

Chart Peak: 9


Charted at No. 24 on 3rd February, had reached No. 9 by 17th February. It is their first hit of 1987 after five successful singles in 1986.

And straight on to the second song I don't remember, though I'm more confident I would have heard it at the time. I remember the seemingly endless run of hits Five Star scored in the second half of the decade, and I'm often surprised how few of the actual songs seem familiar. 'Stay Out Of My Life' isn't one of them, but it does have the distinction of being the only one of their six Top 10 hits written by one of the Pearson siblings (Denise, or Deniece as she was credited at the time). It's also their only appearance in the Now series, and no it's not the one you'd have guessed at all, is it?

What strikes me about the song now is how Jackson-like it is. Obviously, it's no great revelation that Buster Pearson was inspired by the Jackson family to turn his own children into a group, although Five Star obviously included the girls as well as the boys. The style of this track though seems to have kept pace with what Michael and Janet Jackson were doing into the 80s though, and Denise/Deniece has a remarkably Michael-like voice too. Apparently she has subsequently appeared in the Thriller musical. The song's a bit ho-hum though not as poor as I feared.

Available on: The Greatest Hits

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Gap Band 'Big Fun'

Chart Peak: 4
Charted at No. 30 on 9th December 1986. Had reached No. 4 by 15th January 1987, becoming their biggest British hit to date.
And their biggest British hit this remains, at least in chart peak. Yes, the first single from their imaginatively-titled album Gap Band 8 even charted higher than the famous 'Oops Upside Your Head' of sitting-down dance fame, although Charlie Wilson got as high as 2 as a featured vocalist on 'Signs' with Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake. Despite all this success, 'Big Fun' (not to be confused with the later hit by Inner City) is the first track on Now 9 that I don't remember. And I don't only mean that I didn't remember it from the time, but when I bought the album on vinyl a couple of years ago I listened to it, and I've played the cassette a couple of times at work, but this track left no impression on me. In fact, I listened to it last night while I was looking up the YouTube link and I've already forgotten pretty much everything about it.

It's a pretty simplistic club song of the era, reminiscent of some early-80s soul/disco songs by the likes of Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, the Whispers et al that you do still hear, but a less interesting version. I'm willing to believe that it sounded good if you were actually in a club in your CHOOSE LIFE T-shirt and legwarmers but there just doesn't seem to be enough melody or anything for it to appeal outside that context. It's not bad or unpleasant but I'm at a loss to guess how it became such a big hit; my first theory was that it might have been a big hit at New Year parties but that's hard to reconcile with it being Top 30 in early December.

Available on: 101 Soul Anthems

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

UB40 'Rat In Mi Kitchen'

Chart Peak: 12

Charted at No. 31 on 13th January, had reached No. 12 by 27th January. 'Rat' is UB40's 16th British Top 30 single in the last seven years.
Contrary to the claims of my eight-year-old self, they're not actually singing "there's a rat in my kitchen and I'm a kangaroo". After Boy George's reggae cover, it's almost ironic to hear Britain's most successful reggae band not doing a cover version. 'Rat' is also unusual among the group's big hits in that it doesn't feature Ali Campbell as lead singer - it's fronted by trumpeter and rapper Astro, though it was supposedly A. Campbell's real-life kitchen which featured the rodent infestation that gives the song its title. I hope there's a made-for-TV biopic somewhere which dramatises that scene.

Anyway, although the chorus might well have been made up on the spot, the finished song isn't really about any small animals, but about some sort of grass - as in an informant, obviously, not the smokeable sort of grass. Astro threatens to "fix that rat" in the chorus, although the verses are more explicitly violent. It's slightly incongruous against such a bouncy tune, but it's undeniably catchy and it makes a nice change not to hear Ali C's often whiny voice. The single version does sound a little inconclusive somehow, though of course it does fade less than half way through the full track. Perhaps on the album version Herb Alpert's trumpet part is more obvious as well. I never knew it was him just from hearing the edit.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 4, 6, 7, 13, 17, 18, 26, 41, 56
Available on: Triple Best Of

Monday, 15 July 2013

Boy George 'Everything I Own'

Chart Peak: 1 (2 weeks)

Written by David Gates and originally a 1972 Top 40 hit for Bread. Ken Boothe's version topped the chart for three weeks in late 1974. This new recording is George's first solo recording and was released in late February 1987.
George O'Dowd's only solo appearance on a Now album, though he has also appeared as a member of E-Zee Possee, Jesus Love You and of course Culture Club. In fact, of the many high-profile things George has done in his life, his solo career seems one of the least remembered parts, despite the highly successful start; something of a turnaround after the diminishing returns of the later Culture Club material. Things must have seemed to be looking up somewhat, given that he was also fresh out of rehab. But things didn't quite go to plan, follow-up hits were harder to come by, and his records weren't even getting released in the USA.

That said, I suspect the main reason this track isn't better remembered is that it's not actually much cop. It's not a song I'm massively fond of in any incarnation, but at least Ken Boothe's UK pop reggae version benefits from a decent vocal (though he does change the lyric slightly, singing "Anything I own," which I suppose is more realistic). George does get the words right, but in all other respects this feels like a poor imitation of Boothe's version, with a terrifically bland production from Steve Levine. It's about as soulful as the weather forecast. I feel sorry for him as a person but this is a real non-event of a single and I can't really understand why anyone liked it at the time.
By total coincidence this came up as a question on Popmaster today: they played the Bread version and asked the contestant to name either of the singers who'd topped the chart with it. He remembered Ken Boothe but not this version.

Available on: Sold

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Housemartins 'Caravan Of Love'

Chart Peak: 1 (1 week)

Charted at No. 23 on 2nd December 1986, had flown to No.1 by 16th December. It was their third consecutive Top 20 single of the year.
There are quite a few unusual things about this single, none of which are really accounted for in the sleeve note. I suppose they were too busy congratulating themselves on that "flown" joke. It's chiefly notable as the UK's second and - to date - last a cappela Number One single, after the Flying Pickets version of 'Only You'; interesting to note with hindsight that they were so close together in time, and that both were cover versions released in the winter. Indeed, 'Caravan Of Love' was only a week shy of being a Christmas chart topper (as previously mentioned, it had to play second fiddle to the late Jackie Wilson), which makes it an odd record to be writing about during the biggest heatwave for several years.

Of course, the big difference between the Housemartins and the Flying Pickets is that the latter were stylistically consistent, whereas the other Housemartins hits were all self-penned and featured instruments. They weren't strangers to unaccompanied singing though, having occasionally appeared as their own support act under the pseudonym Fish City Five and released a version of 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' on the CD version of their debut album. Had this stayed on top for that extra week it would have been the first religiously-themed Christmas Number One since 1978, though in the event the nation had to wait another four years for Cliff Richard's 'Saviour's Day'. This too is a slight diversion for the band who, unlike Cliff, were not known to be truly religious; though Paul Heaton seems not to have been as fiercely anti-clerical as he later became, his stated aim in the use of Christian imagery was to "take religion away from the right-wing" and reflect the Christian Socialist tradition he obviously felt some sympathy with. He and the rest of the band evidently had a genuine love of gospel music too. 'Caravan Of Love' was originally written and recorded by Isley Jasper Isley, a spin-off group of the members who'd joined the Isley Brothers in the Seventies, after their Motown hits but in time for their groundbreaking funk-rock success: Marvin and Ernie Isley and their brother-in-law Chris Jasper. During their tenure with the group, the Isleys became masters of the cross-genre cover version so it's somehow fitting that the most famous song written by those members went the other way. As sung by Chris Jasper it's a lilting call to evangelisation swamped in treacly 80s production, but the Housemartins obviously strip it down considerably and draw attention to the lyric and Heaton's vocal (easy to forget how good a singer he can be). Presumably buying into the song more as an anthem of togetherness and co-operation rather than one about God, they even sneak in a bit of humour during the call-and-response fade, appearing to sing "He's coming/run for it".

Now, I might be slightly biased here because if there are two acts I particularly associate with my childhood, it's the Housemartins and the Isley Brothers. A Telstar-label Isleys compilation (which featured 'Caravan of Love' as one of  two Isley Jasper Isley tracks) was a regular on my Dad's car stereo back then, and the songs became so familiar to me that I was actually surprised when I grew up and met other people who didn't know them all or even hadn't heard of the Isley Brothers at all. So a combination of the two bands was bound to press all my buttons and indeed it does, as well as the nostalgia I have about hearing this song itself; I also remember the video, which is just as well since it seems to be blocked to UK viewers online. The TotP performance I've linked to up there is notable not only for the band showing their usual glamorous dress sense but also for the fact that the camera operator seems to trip over at about the three-minute mark and they left it in. Anyway, even if the song isn't really as great as I think it is, it's certainly highly distinctive, very different from the rest of what was high in the chart at this time and the rest of the album. That might be one reason why it works for me where the Blow Monkeys don't.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 8, 10
Available on: True Acoustic (3CD Set)

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Blow Monkeys 'It Doesn't Have To Be This Way'

Chart Peak: 5

Charted at No. 27 on 27th January, had sped to No. 5 by 10th February, finally giving the group a second hit to follow 'Digging Your Scene'.
As it turned out, those two songs remained the group's only Top 20 hits, though they also had a Top 10 single with 'Wait' which was credited to Robert Howard (aka Dr Robert, the lead singer) and Kym Mazelle.

An example of the politicised polished neo-soul sound of this era, sometimes called sophistipop, this was the first single from their anti-Thatcher concept album She Was Only A Grocer's Daughter. I presume that title wasn't supposed to sound as snobbish as it seems. Being relatively vague in lyrical content, it was more radio-friendly than much of the rest of the album. Rather too a fault, if anything, because it has a very smooth slick sound that makes it hard to be moved by it. It's catchy enough to be an understandable Top 5 hit, but it doesn't sound much like an insurrection. In all honesty it's a bit too platitudinous to be truly likeable, coming over as a bit self-satisfied and preachy. In fact I'm a bit surprised how little I like it, I always imagined they were better than this. Maybe it's just an unfortunate song choice for their only Now! appearance.

Available on: Halfway to Heaven: The Best of The Blow Monkeys and Dr Robert

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Hot Chocolate 'You Sexy Thing'

Chart Peak: 10 [original version 2 in 1975]

Originally made No. 2 for 3 weeks in late 1975. This new mix charted at No. 56 on 13th January 1987. It had reached No. 10 by 10th February and is the group's 23rd British Top 30 single.
By 1986, DJ and producer Ben Liebrand had already made his lasting mark on music history by producing the pioneering classic that is 'Holiday Rap' by MC Miker G and Deejay Sven, possibly the first act ever to swear on Top Of The Pops. Presumably because he couldn't top this glory, he seems to have spent the rest of the decade trying to remix every record made in the 1970s, from Jeff Wayne's 'Eve Of The War' to the Four Seasons' 'December 63' to Bill Withers' 'Lovely Day' and Ram Jam's version of 'Black Betty'. This is one of his more commercially successful efforts in the UK, issued to promote a hits compilation by the now-defunct act; Errol Brown had already departed for a solo career by this point, although a version of the group continues to tour without him. They're supporting Status Quo this December.

'You Sexy Thing' is a song I've always felt ambivalent and slightly squeamish about. The greatest strength of the original is the skill with which it's arranged and produced (by the late Mickie Most, not somebody you'd necessarily expect to have been a natural at soul or proto-disco). There's a nice steady tempo, a luxurious string arrangement and an interesting effect where the congas seem to be merged with a rhythm guitar part. Unfortunately all these elements are either removed or buried in the remix, which substitutes a stolid drum-machine beat and a repeated ostinato on farty synthesiser. It's not even technically all that good, with the original track seemingly shoehorned in the mix as if he didn't have access to individual parts. All that's left is Errol Brown apparently inventing the word "sextacy" which we could have done without, really. If it had been 'It Started With A Kiss' I'd have been more positive.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 38 [this track]
Available on: The Rest Of The Best Of Hot Chocolate

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Robbie Nevil 'C'est La Vie'

Chart Peak: 3
Robbie Nevil is probably the only singer whose middle name is Scott to make the British Top 10 this year. 'Ce'Est La Vie' originally charted at No. 70 on 16th December 1986 and peaked at No. 3 on 27th January 1987. 
I can neither confirm nor deny that claim, my knowledge of pop stars with the middle name Scott being less than extensive. In fact the only other one I can think of is Scott Walker, who certainly didn't have a Top 10 hit in 1987.  I'd misremembered Nevil as being more producer than singer, though with hindsight I must have been mixing him up with the similarly-coiffured Jellybean; in fact he didn't produce this at all, though he went into production after his hitmaking career was over (and indeed appears on Now 42 in this capacity). He did co-write the song, though apparently before he had a record deal in his own right. The song was originally recorded by Texan gospel singer Beau Williams during a secular phase, so Nevil's own version is effectively a cover.

This version ups the tempo a bit and gives it a slightly more mainstream sound, or at least a 1986-7 version of mainstream, and radio lapped it up despite the fact that Nevil is an uncharismatic singer; in fact, the chorus seems to be handled mainly by the backing singers. The most entertaining part is the more ragged backing vocal where it sounds like everybody who passed by the studio was asked to bellow "That's Life!" with no particular concern for tunefulness. It's a rare spontaneous moment in this otherwise by-rote track. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I'd ever heard the phrase "c'est la vie" and I think I may have made up a joke at the time where I deliberately misheard it has "say lavvy"... at least, I hope that was when I thought of it, it'd be a bit sad if I'd come up with that joke as an adult.

Available on: Top of the Pops: 1986

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Erasure 'Sometimes'

Chart Peak: 2

Charted at No. 68 on 21st October 1986, made No. 2 for Vince and Andy in early December. The follow-up 'It Doesn't Have To Be' has already charted.
I don't want to give the impression that the structure of this blog is any more thought-out than it is, but one advantage I've discovered of it not being in chronological order is that I sometimes get to revisit the same acts over a wider span of time than I otherwise would have done, and on occasion that means that my view of an act changes over the years. It seems to have been the case with Erasure, whom I started out thinking I didn't like at all, but as I've listened to more and more of these albums I feel I've caught up with them a bit and I even have this particular track on my MP3 player, ripped from a cheaply-acquired compilation CD; not this one though, as this is one of the tracks dropped from the CD version of Now 9 (which I haven't got anyway).

I must admit I have no memory at all of 'It Doesn't Have To Be', although I can see it got as high as 12 (actually a relatively low position for Erasure in the late 80s). It wasn't always like that, as Erasure got to the slowest start of any of Vince Clarke's big acts; their first three singles peaked at 55, 100 and 85, so this hit came along at the right time to launch them as a successful act - nearly 27 years on they have become easily the longest partnership of Clarke's career, even if they're no longer a major singles act. Knowing roughly when it was released, I'd falsely believed that this was one of those breakthrough hits helped by the post-Christmas lull, but as the note above makes plain it was actually before that, and was still Top 5 at Christmas, ironically outperforming an Alison Moyet single, though Depeche Mode didn't have anything out at the time.

I realise at this point that I started the first two paragraphs with "I", and this is now the third. But I do remember the song well, even if I didn't quite recall the release date correctly. Somehow, the line "It's not the way you leave your clothes upon the bathroom floor" stuck in my mind, perhaps because it wasn't the sort of thing I was used to hearing about in pop music then; of course it also made more sense to my eight-year-old self than all the lyrics about going to bed together that I didn't really understand then. I couldn't quite figure out the lyric about "sometimes the truth is harder than the pain inside" either, but then again I was used to not understanding songs back then. Looking back, I guess it's about a man going back to a partner who's mistreated him ("it's the broken heart that decides") somebody he possibly doesn't even like that much but is still drawn to because of their sex life. He knows it's not really right but he just can't stop himself. I wouldn't call this emotionally intense, but it's a decent pop song and Flood's production has dated surprisingly well, underpinning the synthpop you'd expect with acoustic guitars and what sound like they might even be real trumpets. Possibly this is why they made their debut Top Of The Pops appearance (miming of course) with no keyboards on stage and Clarke unconvincingly strumming on a steel guitar, anticipating the look George Michael would adopt for his 'Faith' single a year later. Anyway, it's a surprisingly satisfying confection. I do like Erasure sometimes.

Also appearing on: Now 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 54
Available on: The Circus

Monday, 8 July 2013

Simply Red 'The Right Thing'

Chart Peak: 11

Charted at No. 45 on 10th February, had climbed to No. 15 by 24th February. 
A more modern type of soul now, although it goes without saying that Simply Red were heavily influenced by older music, hence the large number of cover versions in their repertoire. At this stage they were still considered at least slightly cool, although I was still getting them mixed up with Red Box (in my defence, Simply Red did actually release a single called 'Open Up The Red Box', which was unnecessarily confusing). That was presumably one of their political songs, but this first single from their second album is aimed firmly at the bedroom. Over a taut funk groove, Mick Hucknall is unsubtle but is beaten by backing singers who chant "Get off your back boy! Get on top now!"

It's pretty well done, but there's something a bit too OTT about it - it's jumping up and down a bit too much to be actually sexy and feels more like a pest that a seducer - maybe the protagonist is just taking his own attractiveness too much for granted. I don't think it's supposed to be threatening, but it's a bit unappealing. A pity, though, with a different lyric it could have been a better song that stood repeated listens, because the chorus is catchy and the band (as they still were at that time) are on good form. It's dated, but not as badly as might have been expected. Maybe it's just my personal dislike for this type of song that puts me off.

Also appearing on: 5, 7, 20, 21, 23, 24, 32, 33
Available on: Men And Women

Friday, 5 July 2013

Mental As Anything 'Live It Up'

Chart Peak: 3

Charted at No. 60 on 3rd February, had raced to No. 8 by 24th February giving Greedy Smith and the boys their first British hit. 'Live It Up' is now one of the biggest-selling singles in Australian pop history.
Coincidentally, there's an element of Fifties pastiche going on in the video to this track (which I saw for the first time yesterday, I hadn't much idea what the band looked like before then) but the production places it firmly within the second half of the Eighties. It's a sound that's not just redolent of its specific era, but one that nobody seems to have pastiched in the years since - people might emulate other elements of the style but it's only ever early-80s production values that get copied.

'Live It Up' was popularised here (and in many other places) by its use in the film Crocodile Dundee, which for once I actually have seen. I'd long assumed that this was a similar situation to '(Don't You) Forget About Me', with a slightly successful act being handed a highly commercial song for the film in an attempt to launch their career internationally. However, it transpires that the song was originally released in Australia as far back as 1985 and was written by lead singer Greedy Smith (not his real name). I suppose it's not a bad song, though a rather inconsequential one - but over a quarter century later it's not enough to avoid being flattened by that horrible production. Even the band sound bored, and with the number of times they must have played this over a click-track to get that perfect sterile sound they probably were. Not the record you'd expect from their admittedly rather dated name. It remains their only Top 75 hit here.

Available on: Essential As Anything

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Jackie Wilson 'Reet Petite'

Chart Peak: 1 (4 weeks) [No. 6 in 1957]


'Reet Petite' was originally a Top 10 hit around Christmas 1957. It re-charted at No. 63 on 25th November 1986 and had rocketed to No. 1 by 23rd December, staying on top for 4 weeks.
I won't claim it's any more than coincidence, but we switch from an album that ends with an oldie to one that starts with one. Now 9 was the first Now album of 1987, and the last to be released in an abbreviated single-CD form. It's been in the queue for this blog for quite a while - I bought my copy on the same day as Now 12, in fact - and finally shows up on the basis that I did Now 10 longer ago than Now 7, if you see what I mean.

One of the most unlikely Christmas Number Ones since people started referring to them, 'Reet Petite' was an exceptionally old track; at just over 29 years it set a new record for longest gap between chart debut and first week at the top. But it was also a very eighties hit inasmuch as it owes its renewed success entirely to a promo video. Of course, by 1986 we were well into the first golden age of the video: they were established enough as an important source of promotion that people were putting real effort (and budgets) into them, but there were still relatively few outlets for them in UK, so the smallish number we got to see tended to make a relatively big impression. Sadly, Jackie Wilson had died a couple of years earlier after a long period in a coma, so any re-release would have relied on a video in any case, but apparently this particular release was a purely opportunistic reaction to the rather cute claymation video which got an airing on a documentary. That would certainly explain why the cover of the single features a video still, as does the rather nice picture disc copy I snapped up a couple of years ago.
As it happened, though, the release did tie in with a bit of a retro-soul revival at this time, with many oldies revived by cover versions or use in adverts. In truth, this song was already a bit retro in 1957, drawing its title from Louis Jordan's 1948 US hit 'Reet, Petite And Gone' and its bold brassy production and Wilson's effervescent vocal recall Louis Prima and other acts from the jazz world. In fact, this is probably closer to the old big bands than to his other big hits 'Higher And Higher' and 'I Get The Sweetest Feeling', both of which were inevitably re-issued after this. It's a bright upbeat love song with no deep message, but Wilson sounds like he's having a whale of a time, rolling his "R"s and savouring every syllable whilst the well-drilled backing musicians provide a joyous accompaniment. Even though the song's twenty years older than I, it was instantly accessible to my younger self (not that I'd likely have paid attention to it without that video) and though I hadn't really thought about the song for a while, I was captivated all over again when I first played Now 9, even finding myself wanting to dance. A timeless classic and one of the greatest ever Now openers. It's also among the most important in pop history, since co-writer Berry Gordy used his proceeds from the record's initial success to set up the record company that became Tamla Motown. It also caught the attention of Van Morrison of course... but it was deliberate when Dexys Midnight Runners had that backdrop of Jocky Wilson, OK?

Available on: Reet Petite (Amazon Edition)

Monday, 1 July 2013

metapost: Happy Canada Day!

I know the day's nearly over now, but while I'm between albums I thought I'd throw in a quick list post. The first of July is Canada Day, and tonight you've missed a performance in Trafalgar Square with the Tragically Hip, among others. It's as good an excuse as any to shoehorn in what I think is a fairly comprehensive list of Canadian acts featured in the series; I'm only counting lead credits and predominantly Canadian acts, so no All Saints or Dragonette. With apologies to Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Barenaked Ladies, Alanis Morrisette and Holy F, here's who made the grade:

Men Without Hats: Now 1
They were from Montreal, so there's even a little bit of French in the song.

Bryan Adams: Now 6 (with Tina Turner), 34, 43
Not that surprising that he's the first Canadian I've found on more than one Now album (I'm counting 'It's Only Love' as one of his), though his small total number of appearances is a bit of a surprise. Even if you also add his lead vocal of Chicane's 'Don't Give Up', his biggest hit is conspicuous by its absence. I'm not complaining.

Glass Tiger: Now 20
It seems a long gap, but I can't think of any Canucks in the other 1980s volumes at all, so this is the surprising third appearance for the nation. The largely forgotten Number 33 hit 'My Town' features an uncredited Rod Stewart, which might be why it's there. 

kd lang: Now 24
I'm listing her ahead of the other Canadian act on Now 24 on alphabetical order, though she also pops up on Now 23 duetting with Roy Orbison. Unsurprisingly she's represented by her big solo hit 'Constant Craving'.

Snow: Now 24
Unusually for a reggae-based rapper, he's a white guy from Canada, hence the stage name. Though he did have other charting singles, he gets a mention here from 'Informer', which landed in the middle of the all-reggae Top 3 in Spring 1993.

Crash Test Dummies: Now 29
The only act other than XTC to have a hit with an XTC song, though that's not what they feature on here. Mmmm, I wonder if you can guess which of their songs it is?

Céline Dion: Now 29
She outdoes Bryan Adams by having two million-selling Number One singles that aren't on Now albums. Instead her only showing is 'The Power Of Love', ironically a cover of another million-selling chart-topper that didn't make it to the Now series. 

Shania Twain: Now 39, 44, 45, 46
Had you forgotten she was Canadian? I believe these songs would have fallen foul of the protectionist Can Con rules, as they were co-written and produced by her then-husband "Mutt" Lange, who is from the US. A comeback album is due in 2013 apparently. 

Bran Van 3000: Now 44
The collective who brought us 'Drinking In LA', perhaps the only Top 3 hit to use the word "Bupkiss". Like several other acts mentioned here, they did have another hit (the Number 40 'Astounded') but were only noticed this once.

Nelly Furtado: Now 48, 50, 64, 65, 66
The most featured Canadian I can find, even ignoring her vocal of Timbaland's 'Give It To Me'. Her return to English-language recording in 2012 didn't add to her tally though.

Sum 41: Now 50, 51
Another of the less obviously Canadian acts to show up. Lead singer Deryck Whibley beats his ex-wife to the series, though her chart career was much longer.

Nickelback: Now 51, 56, 69
Perhaps not the greatest advert for the nation's musical creativity. But all three of their features are Top 10 hits; 'Someday' from 2003 is the one you might be struggling to remember.

Avril Lavigne: Now 67, 68
As previously noted, the former Mrs Whibley is quite a late arrival, five years on from her first hit. It took the Sony/BMG merger and the closure of the Hits series to get her on here, with the endlessly annoying 'Girlfriend' and its power-ballad follow-up.

Feist: Now 68
In singles chart terms, a genuine one-hit wonder thanks to a certain advert. 

Michael Bublé: Now 74, 77
Not an obvious Now act, but he obviously became so big with radio programmers that his first Top 10 hit couldn't be ignored. Only his upbeat singles seem to attract Box Music's attention though.

Justin Bieber: Now 76, 82
You knew this was coming. He actually doubles up on 76, duetting with Sean Kingston and then having his own hit with 'Baby' (which also features Ludacris)

K'Naan: Now 76
Also a one-hit wonder in a solo capacity (he's on a Number 40 hit by Keane), with this World Cup anthem. It wouldn't have occurred to me to pick a Canadian for that job, but maybe that's the point.

Drake: Now 81
Yes, it's Drake Featuring Rihanna, but it's very much his single from his album. 

Carly Ray Jepsen: Now 82
Thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Bieber, the most recent debutant from the land of the maple leaf. And 'Good Time' by her and Owl City appears on Now 83, which is the most recent representation to date. Mind you, the Now 85 tracklisting is due soon, so we could be getting another dose of Bublé.

I can promise now, I won't be listing all the American acts on Thursday.