Monday, 26 August 2013


Maybe not totally ideal for summer, but I'm not going to be doing the next album for about a week (depending on when I decide which one it is, of course) so in the meantime here's something from the inlay of the Now 9 cassette.
Sadly, I don't think the offer is still available in 2013, although a range of official T-shirts and hoodies are available at comparable prices from the official website. They haven't paid me for that mention. They haven't sued me either.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Pretenders 'Hymn To Her'

Chart Peak: 8

The follow-up to 'Don't Get Me Wrong' charted at No. 56 on 9th December 1986 and made No. 8 for 2 weeks in January 1987.
This was a bit of a comeback era for the Pretenders (or at least for Chrissie Hynde, the only original member still in the band at this point). The aforementioned 'Don't Get Me Wrong' had become her/their first Top 10 single in almost five years, and this was the only occasion in their career when they scored back-to-back Top Tens (though the run soon ended with their next single falling short of the Top 80). The former was the song I liked at the time, though I may have been swayed by the old cars in the video. I don't think it's aged all that well since, though, especially the production. This song, apart from its odd title that seems like it was supposed to be a pun, didn't grab my younger self's attention much at all and it wasn't one I expected to like at all now to be honest.

This probably won't be one of the more popular things I say on this blog but I realised quite a few years ago that I don't actually like Hynde's voice; and she's one of those singers who has a very obvious presence that I find it hard to overlook. Some of the early, punchy songs by the original band are still quite enjoyable but a Pretenders power-ballad wasn't something I particularly looked forward to. By those low expectations, 'Hymn To Her' is a mild but pleasant surprise. It's a big statement song about femininity but couched in intimate terms - and sung by a woman too - it steers clear of the worst patronising tendencies, and there's a nice, slightly jangly melody and an energy going on which makes it less heavy going than I thought. The song was written not by a Pretender but by Hynde's old schoolfriend Meg Keene (though Hynde published the song through her company). Apparently the Black Keys later went to the same song. Even Hynde is in good (and relatively subtle) voice on this one. It's a neat ending to Now 9 after a wayward couple of tracks: it also ends the truncated CD version where it follows 'Land Of Confusion'.

Also appearing on: Now 28
Available on: The Best Of / Break Up The Concrete

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Ward Brothers 'Cross That Bridge'

Chart Peak: 32
The first hit for Barnsley's Ward Brothers charted at No. 74 on 6th January and finally peaked at No. 32 in early February.
I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking "the who brothers?" when I first encountered this. Lurking near the end is a track that must rank highly in anyone's list of the most obscure tracks in the series; a single that struggled to a peak outside the Top 30 by an act who never troubled the Top 75 again. It's hard not to suspect that their record company or management were owed a favour somewhere.

Had I stumbled upon that video clip from Top Pop unawares and without my copies of Now 9 to compare it with, I could have mistaken it for a parody. It's not just the suspiciously good stereo sound (which must be a later addition, maybe for a DVD release or something?) but the collection of visual cliches - Dave Ward's spiky bleached mullet and Derek Ward's seal-like keyboard miming (I'm sure you can't really play a keyboard like that, but it's what everyone used to do when they mimed in those days. Perhaps it was some sort of protest?) Only Graham Ward breaks from the formula by actually plugging in his guitar, which most didn't bother with on such shows then. He is flailing around with it though, so he's close.

And the song? I listened to it twice in close succession and I struggled to remember anything about it at all. Is it supposed to be rock? Soul? Dance? Art-school pop? Possibly any or all of those but it's been dragged into a formless void that doesn't really sound like anything particular, despite name producer Don Was. Perhaps it's not the record they intended to make at first, but it doesn't really work as it is. I'm sure they're nice lads but I don't feel it a great loss that, despite the promotional effort they were soon dropped and split. Oddly, they released a comeback album in 1996, possibly the least opportune time for a minor 80s act to re-emerge.

Available on: This Is... 1987

Monday, 12 August 2013

Gary Moore 'Over The Hills And Far Away'

Chart Peak: 20
Charted at No. 37 on 16th December 1986, made No. 20 for two weeks in January 1987.
You can tell it was the 1980s because this was the first of no fewer than five singles from Wild Frontier, an album of only eight tracks. Unlike Genesis, Moore only managed to place three of them in the Top 40, but that's not bad going for a blues-rock singer I suppose. The other dead giveaway as to the song's age comes in the controversial decision to use programmed drums rather than a live musician - something that apparently didn't go down too well with the other people who were playing on the record. Drum machines have their place, to be sure, but Moore's about the last person you'd expect to use them in this context. It doesn't sit too easily with a set of songs that found him rediscovering his Irish roots following the death of Phil Lynott (the album's title song was apparently written for Lynott to sing, but he didn't live to hear it.

'Over The Hills And Far Away' itself is another Moore composition, although it's not especially Celtic in tone. In fact it borrows wholesale the storyline of the country standard 'Long Black Veil' wherein a man is arrested and hanged for a crime he didn't commit because (SPOILER ALERT!) he can't admit that his alibi would be that he was in bed with his best friend's wife. Moore was unquestionably a talented musician, but not a consistently interesting one, and this is the sort of track that prompts more of an approving nod than true excitement.

Also appearing on: Now 5 [with Phil Lynott], 6
Available on:Wild Frontier

Friday, 9 August 2013

Europe 'The Final Countdown'

Chart Peak: 1
Charted at No. 71 on 28th October 1986, became the first Swedish group to top the British chart since Abba when 'The Final Countdown' was No. 1 for 2 weeks in December.
Of course, "first since Abba" seems like a long time ago now, but 1986 was only six years after Abba last topped the chart with 'Super Trouper' - and it was about that long to the next one I can think of, Ace of Base. It is true though, that for all of the success of Swedish producers and songwriters, relatively few have topped the chart in their own names and only in recent weeks has Avicii become the second Swedish act to be credited on two UK Number One singles. Perhaps this single has an even greater place in history as the one and only Number One single from the so-called hair-metal subgenre; Europe were hardly the biggest act operating in this style but somehow time was on their side.

It's by no means uncommon for songwriters to dismiss their biggest hit as a fluke and lead European Joey Tempest insists that the song was written only as a concert opener and was only picked out as a single at the record company's insistence. I don't in all honesty remember enough about the other Europe songs I've heard to know whether it's atypical of their work, but with hindsight it's hard to connect this song with rock music at all. To be sure there's a widdly guitar solo in the middle, but the main part of the song that people remember is the synthesiser intro and with further synth washes throughout the track in 2013 terms it's a lot closer to Icona Pop than Avenged Sevenfold. I presume the lyric about "leaving together" on a journey into space is supposed to fit in with the idea of band and audience embarking on the show together, though the band claim the influence of 'Space Oddity'. That's interesting in context, because of course Bowie's hit came at a time when people were still using the phrase "space age" with a straight face and when space travel was on everyone's mind. By the mid-80s of course we seemed to have got a bit more used to the idea, and reconciled ourselves to the fact that most of us would never go beyond our home planet, which gives the song a bit of a quaint effect. With unfortunate irony, in fact, the single was originally released in Sweden just a couple of weeks after the Challenger disaster put a temporary stop to the US space programme, and for those old enough to comprehend it soured the mood still further. I don't know whether this is the reason why the single didn't make it to British or American shops until much later in the year, but it worked to the song's advantage as it found its niche as a song for Christmas and especially New Year parties; that found its logical conclusion with the release of the woeful remix 'The Final Countdown 2000' in December of 1999. Rumour has it that some initial copies of that single missed one letter "o" from the title on the cover.

Available on: Haynes Ultimate Guide To Classic Rock

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Genesis 'Land Of Confusion'

Chart Peak: 14

Charted at No. 28 on 18th November 1986, sold steadily for a number of weeks before peaking at No. 14 in January 1987. It was the group's third British Top 20 hit in a row since June last year.
The third and highest-charting of the five singles from the Invisible Touch LP, although it probably did gain somewhat from continued sales in the post-Christmas lull. It's still interesting to note that all five of the singles went Top 5 in the US, but 14 was the best any could do back home; I suspect this shows the importance of airplay to the Billboard listing.

One of the more angular tracks from this era of Genesis (and indeed Phil Collins) work, 'Land Of Confusion' aims at some sort of political comment, although it's never made entirely clear whether the setting is in the real world or some sort of dystopia. Apparently, "men of steel, men of power are losing control by the hour" and that's presumed to be a bad thing, so the real danger might be anarchy - and yet later in the song the protagonist promises "my generation's gonna put it right", which sounds a little like a kind of anarchy or vigilantism itself (and is slightly hard to take seriously from the mouth of Phil Collins anyway). Musically it seems slightly torn between the jaggedness of the irregular rhythms and the radio-friendly production which stops the dark stormy atmosphere they're aiming at from entirely coming through; that also means that the nostalgic middle-eight section doesn't contrast as much as it should. I suspect this may also have suffered from the fact that the track would mostly have been constructed from overdubs so they'd have been using click-tracks or programmed beats.

So the track doesn't totally live up to its intentions, but it does have something going for it at least in that it's much less bland than most of what Phil Collins was up to in the mid-80s (faint praise I know) and in the field of apocalyptic songs by bands featuring Mike Rutherford it beats 'Silent Running' by Mike + The Mechanics in my opinion. The immense if slightly naive-sounding chorus is another highlight, and at least we have the comparison of Alcazar's 'This Is The World We Live In' (which samples it) to show how much blander it could have been. The 12" single and its accompanying remix were worth my 99p anyway. Of course the song is also remembered for its video with the Spitting Image puppets of the band (as used on the cover's pastiche of Beatles For Sale) and Chris Barrie reprising the Ronald Reagan impersonation he also did on the 12" of 'Two Tribes'. Oddly, it doesn't appear on the VHS format of Now 9, though it is of course available on DVD these days.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 7, 8, 21, 23, 24
Available on: Invisible Touch

Monday, 5 August 2013

Bon Jovi 'Livin' On A Prayer'

Chart Peak: 4
Charted on 21st October 1986 at No. 40. 'Livin' On A Prayer' became the group's biggest British hits to date when it reached No. 4 in early December as the follow-up to 'You Give Love A Bad Name'
Hello again, rock music.
Over in the US, this was their second consecutive Number One single, unprecedented for a hard rock act. Here they didn't quite make it to the top of the chart (and still haven't, making them among the biggest acts never to have done so) but it was a substantial breakthrough for them. Of course, no less was expected when they called in co-writer Desmond Child to give their third album a more commercial sheen';- he'd previously worked with the shameless Kiss, co-penning their discofied hit 'I Was Made For Lovin' You' so he doesn't seem to be a big fan of the letter "G". 'Livin' On A Prayer' is one of his most enduring contributions and reportedly one of his more heartfelt: the characters Tommy and Gina are rumoured to be based on Child himself and his then-girlfriend Maria Vidal, as heard on Now 6.

There's obviously a lot to dislike about this record, a work of rather phony attitude that many erroneously think is "real" music. But it's a brilliantly clever record, combining elements of metal, classic rock (note the prominent talkbox guitar) and Springsteen-esque social commentary with enough of the edges smoothed off to make it an accessible pop song that was appealing to eight-year olds; though I admit that at the time I preferred 'You Give Love A Bad Name' because it had a louder chorus. They've spent over a quarter of a century since overplaying the same hand, but there's something undeniable about this track that makes resistance seem futile. It doesn't make a difference if it's any good or not.

In a sign of this track's enduring success, the BPI recently started awarding certification for singles and albums automatically based on sales since 1994 (which is the earliest raw data the current chart compilers have). 'Livin' On A Prayer' has been awarded a silver disc, which indicates sales of at least 400,000 copies on download, without ever returning to the Top 40. The single has also spent at least three non-consecutive weeks at the top of the Rock chart this century. I can understand that Bon Jovi fans might resent this track overshadowing the rest of the catalogue, but I'd be more sympathetic if it wasn't so richly deserved.

Also appearing on: Now 34, 47, 62, 64
Available on: Slippery When Wet (Special Edition)

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Westworld 'Sonic Boom Boy'

Chart Peak: 11

Charted at No. 22 on 17th February, had raced to No. 11 by the following week - their first hit single.
Their penultimate hit single too, it turned out, with only a Number 37 follow-up to save them from official one-hot-wonderdom. A visually striking act in the mould of Sigue Sigue Sputnik (whom they apparently supported on tour) Westworld took their name from founding members Derwood (a former member of Generation X) and Elizabeth Westwood. They were one of those acts who were everywhere for a brief moment and then seemed to vanish, their second and third albums not even seeing a release in the UK.

Without wishing to sound mean, you can sort of tell why they weren't in it for the long haul. 'Sonic Boom Boy' is three minutes of retro-futurism with a big chorus and not much else. It's all very slickly packaged and knowing (see the visible cameras and boom mic in the video, a somewhat of-its-time concept) and it's fun while it lasts but it doesn't exactly leave you wanting more. Dare I say it might be of more interest to writers on The Face than normal people? Still, ephemeral thrills are better than no thrills at all.

Pop trivia: actress Rebecca Lacey, later a regular on Casualty, plays a popcorn seller in the video to this song.

Available on: Beat Box Rock'N'Roll' - The Greatest Hits

Friday, 2 August 2013

A-ha 'Manhattan Skyline'

Chart Peak: 13

The follow-up to 'Cry Wolf' charted at No. 17 on 24th February. Their first six British hits have all made the Top 10.
It famously took the Norwegian trio a while to score a significant UK hit, but once they broke through they had a decent run of chart smashes - rather a better one than you'd expect from their three Now appearances, in fact. This track, despite its promisingly high entry, proved to be the song that broke their run of Top 10 singles. Perhaps the teenybopper audience they'd gained at this stage were beginning to tire of them, or something.

Perhaps the song wasn't quite what their fans wanted. In truth 'Manhattan Skyline' is a bit of a mixed bag, combining a soft ballad-like verse (written by keyboard player Magne Furuholmen) with a loud rock chorus (by guitarist Paul Waaktaar). The two elements fit lyrically as a tale of forced separation, but producer Alan Tarney seems slightly out of his depth; neither part sounds quite right in itself, and they don't fit together at all, though neither is the jump cut dramatic enough to work as an effect in its own right. Perhaps he should have stuck with Cliff Richard. I'm usually the last person to advocate an acoustic cover version over an original, but I have to say that Kings Of Convenience win this one.

Still, this is notable as the first taste of rock music on the album, tucked at the end of Side 3.

Also appearing on: Now 9, 63
Available on: 25

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Nick Kamen 'Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever'

Chart Peak: 16

Originally a Top 30 hit for the Four Tops in 1966, this track is Nick's follow-up to 'Each Time You Break My Heart'.
And the retro-soul returns, in cover version form, thanks to Nick Kamen, the young man best known for taking his clothes off in an advert for trousers. Thanks to this and other modelling work, he got a record deal and scored a Top 5 hit with the Madonna outtake 'Each Time You Break My Heart', one of her few writing credits on a song she never released herself. I presume his management sensed the musical climate of the times and decided on a safe cover version to keep the momentum up. It worked on this occasion, although this proved to be the last time he would trouble the Top 39 positions in the UK chart.

Unfortunately, it's a pretty insipid version of the original, with Stewart Levine's production lacking the swing or grit of Motown's version. Kamen's vocal is best described as "competent" and not even in the same league as the earthy tone of Levi Stubbs (in fairness, few singers are). Ironically, Kamen found himself on the opposite side of this equation when his self-penned 1990 single 'I Promised Myself' - only a Number 50 "hit" in the UK, but a big smash in many other countries - was covered by Basshunter.

Available on: Love In The 80's