Saturday, 28 February 2015

Cutting Crew (I Just Died) In Your Arms

Chart Peak: 4
Charted at No. 74 on 12th August, had sped to No. 4 by 16th September to become Cutting Crew's first hit single.
Arguably the two most different tracks on Side Three are right up against each other at the end. One thing Cutting Crew do have in common with Billy Bragg is that neither of them graced the main Now series again, although they're not quite the one-hit wonders you might recall them as: 'I've Been In Love Before' had two runs in the Top 40 and peaked as high as 24.

I must admit that it never occurred to me until now that Cutting Crew could be any nationality other than American, but apparently they were mostly British though ultimately more successful in the USA. This single was recorded there and certainly has every hallmark of being aimed at radio stations in that market: it's almost a textbook example of every mid-80s soft-rock cliche. Keyboard pads, a bit where it goes slightly quiet and builds up again, a "polite" guitar solo exactly where you expect it to be, endless repetitions of the big chorus... in fact only a few minutes after listening to it I'm already struggling to remember the verses but they're not really the point. Singer Nick Van Eede, a man clearly unfamiliar with the concept of "too much information", explains that he had the idea for the song title while having sex with his girlfriend and wrote it down for future use. His girlfriend's reaction to this, or indeed to the chorus lyric "I should have walked away" is not recorded. The record has a remarkable inert quality, as if it's trying to bypass any need for anyone to actually like it and heading straight to being a hit (in fairness it did succeed). Several of the band were successful session musicians and with all due respect to that trade, they sound like session men on this track too.

Available on: The Best Of Cutting Crew

Friday, 27 February 2015

Billy Bragg 'Greetings To The New Brunette'

Chart Peak: 58
His previous single 'Levi Stubbs' Tears' was a Top 30 hit... 'Greetings' was released as the follow-up in late October.
OK, a couple of things to mention early on. Firstly, some discographies list this track as "Billy Bragg with Johnny Marr and Kirsty MacColl" [also how it was listed on the chart] so for consistency with earlier posts I'm continuing to credit them even though they're not mentioned on the sleeve of Now 8. Kirsty MacColl sings a prominent backing vocal towards the end of the track and Johnny Marr, he plays guitar. And as for that video, since it's been copied from VH-1 I have to assume that it's official, even though the combination of stock footage and home movies of Bragg not singing give it an oddly posthumous feel.

Billy Bragg is of course still very much among us but despite his high profile he's never been a consistent singles chart performer so Ashley Abram was taking quite a risk placing this track on the album. It of course didn't pay off as this is one of two singles on Now 8 that missed the Top 50. Interestingly both of them are the only solo appearances in the series by performers who had Top 20 hits that were uncompiled; Bragg can technically claim that his next chart appearance after this was at Number One with 'She's Leaving Home', though inevitably it was Wet Wet Wet's flipside that made it to Now 12. It's a bit of a cliche to say that most of Bragg's best writing deals with the personal rather than the political, but it's not entirely untrue; not least of course because the emotions he's discussing here are eternal. Throughout the song his protagonist addresses the unseen "Shirley" with whom he evidently has a testy but enjoyable relationship - not an over-the-top Burton/Taylor kind of thing, the sort of relationship normal people have. Though Bragg possibly thinks of himself as cleverer than his narrator he still leaves him and Shirley as sympathetic characters and throws in perhaps his most-quoted lyric "How can you lie back and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?" Although this doesn't quite have the same emotional impact as the aforementioned 'Levi Stubbs' Tears', neither does it have the hectoring tone of some of his songs, and the conversational tone of the performance is safely within his limited vocal range. A good song that could even have been a hit were it not for the confusing title; Bragg did eventually give in and re-record the song as 'Shirley' a decade later. If it seems out of place here, at least Bragg is sometimes better enjoyed in smaller doses.

Kirsty MacColl also appears on: Now 10 [with the Pogues], 15, 31
Available on: Must I Paint You a Picture?: The Essential Billy Bragg

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Big Country 'One Great Thing'

Chart Peak: 19
Charted at No. 27 on 16th September, made No. 19 the following week becoming the group's third Top 30 single of 1986.
In contrast to Huey Lewis, Big Country are an act that I do associate with Now albums, because even though they're only actually on four of them those appearances have increased the number of Big Country songs I'm familiar with to a significant extent. 'One Great Thing' sounded only glancingly familiar if that, probably because it was used in beer adverts on the telly at the time (and obviously those weren't scheduled during children's programmes) but it's fairly typical stuff, forceful Celtic rock with a uplifting positive lyrical message. Exactly the sort of thing I tend to regard with suspicion but weirdly I find myself quite liking this one. And I've even played it more than once so it can't just be that it caught me on the right day.

Perhaps ironically, given its seemingly anti-nationalist sentiment, the song was used as part of the Scottish independence campaign after Stuart Adamson's death. The band kept recording into the 1990s and a version continues to exist even now, releasing a new album with Mike Peters from the Alarm on vocals in 2013. Better to remember them this way though.

Also appearing on: Now 2, 4, 7
Available on: The Seer

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Huey Lewis And The News 'Stuck With You'

Chart Peak: 12
Charted at no. 48 on 19th August, this American chart-topper peaked at No. 12 on 30th September.
A one-off appearance for Lewis and his band, which might be why they sound a little out of place somehow. Maybe it's just the arrival of such an obviously American act after so many British groups, but they somehow don't seem to belong in the same reality as the Now albums. Indeed, they only ever had three Top 20 singles in Britain, and two of them were 'The Power Of Love', so they weren't really as big as they seemed, though they had a couple of successful albums.

As much as they always sounded like a polished version of a bar-room band, they also sounded like they knew they were lucky to get where they were and wanted to make sure everyone had fun. To quote one of their own song titles (ironically from 2001) 'We're Not Here For A Long Time. We're Here For A Good Time'. The track has an easy-going one-of-the-guys cheer that's hard to dislike but also hard to think much about. It even sounds charmingly apologetic.

Available on: Greatest Hits: Huey Lewis And The News

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Status Quo 'In The Army Now'

Chart Peak: 2
Quo's twentieth (Yes, twentieth) UK Top 10 hit since 1968 and one of their biggest to date, 'Army' charted at No. 29 on 30th September and had shot to No.2 by 28th October.
I don't think "shot to No.2" is supposed to be an army-based pun but you can't be sure can you? Although Side 3 is obviously supposed to be the "rock" side of the album, there's a bit of a contrast between the different styles. Not that Status Quo don't have a sense of humour - though I think it was less in evidence in the 1980s than it is now - but they're not noted for being subtle or trying to sneak in challenging political ideas. In fact, 'In The Army Now' is an atypically serious song from them, although few in Britain would have noticed that it is in fact a cover of a 1981 single by the Dutch duo Bolland (who were born in South Africa, so there's some connection to the Madness song after all) and if anything the Quo version is a little toned-down in its content: they drop the admittedly dated references to Vietnam for a start. By 2010, they re-recorded an even more pro-military version in collaboration with the actual army, and I'm sure somebody could write a whole thesis about changing attitudes to the armed forces in 21st-century Britain.

The 1986 recording is notable as the biggest Quo hit that deviates from the archetypal sound they discovered in the early 1970s, and a rare example of them covering a song in a style closer to the one it was originally in than to their own. Unfortunately this means it shares the great failing of the Madness track (in that it sounds very dated now) but it's also quite bland and has a pseudo-serious mood it can't live up to, however catchy the chorus is.

When I first started writing this and looked the song up on YouTube, I thought it was actually more interesting than I remembered. It turned out that I'd actually found the video for the 12" mix, which is rather more dramatic and less monotonous. I might have given that version a better review.

Also appearing on: Now 4, 14, 18, 33 (with the Beach Boys), 53
Available on: In The Army Now

Monday, 23 February 2015

Madness '(Waiting For) The Ghost Train'

Chart Peak: 18
Their farewell single after 21 Top 21 hits! 'Ghost Train' features the return of pianist Mike Barson
Well, when the subject crops up of bands who were active in my childhood and used humour and entertaining videos to get some interesting subject matter over... well, you can't not mention Madness so it's good timing for them to turn up here. Good timing doesn't mean they were having a good time though, and by the middle of the decade the strain was starting to show as the singles weren't going Top 10 any more. Barson seems to have been a key figure in keeping the septet into some sort of order and after he'd left the remaining six obviously weren't having so much fun.

So they finally decided to split up, which called for a second best-of collection (Utter Madness
 to follow Complete Madness) and this new single. Tellingly, I have no memory of hearing this at the time at all, and when I did first encounter it (on a boxed set my dad bought at a car boot sale in the mid-90s) I wasn't keen. Over the years I've grown much fonder of it, the only Madness hit written entirely by Suggs (unless you count 'Forever Young', which peaked at 199 in 2010) which is apparently a song about apartheid in South Africa; I'd never have guessed but you can sort of hear it when you're looking out for it, especially in the chorus "It's black and white, don't try to hide" and in the accent with which he sings certain lyrics. Although the track was, like every other hit they had in the 80s, produced by regular collaborators Langer & Winstanley, it does sound decidedly of-its-time, dominated by brittle-sounding drums and synthesisers and a phasing effect that sounds a bit like they were playing about. Arguably they could have put more effort into the structure of the song than messing about with the gimmicks but I suppose they were losing focus a bit. Still, the song is strong enough to shine through and has the advantage of not being as overplayed as the big Madness songs.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 2, 3, 6, 21, 43
Available on: Mad Not Mad

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Housemartins 'Think For A Minute'

Chart Peak:
Charted at No. 47 on 30th September, had progressed nicely to reach No. 18 by 28th October. 'Think' is the group's second Top 20 success following 'Happy Hour'.
Sadly the last time we get to hear from the Housemartins on this blog, it being rather unfortunate that their brief span of success was in the days of only two Now albums per year. I don't have the toilet-shaped picture disc of this single, but I was lucky enough to obtain the original 12" for less than a pound, as pictured to the left.

If their debut album London 0 Hull 4 has a flaw, it's that a lot of the tracks do sound quite similar, and the original album version of 'Think For A Minute' (a title which I always thought should have an exclamation mark in it but doesn't) is a little bit Housemartins-by-numbers with its typical jangly guitars in the same tempo as many of their other songs. I love a jangly guitar, but so long into a running order of similar tracks it sells itself a bit short.

For single release we get an entirely new recording of the song, in an acoustic arrangement. Obviously slowing a song down can have mixed results, though the most common one is boredom. That's not the case here, thanks to the quiet intensity of the playing and Paul Heaton's outstanding vocal - there can't be many vocalists who've been so successful and yet so underappreciated. It concentrates attention on his more recognised talent as a lyricist, in which he's produced a susprisingly compelling song about apathy. A lovely trumpet solo from Guy Barker serves to preclude any monotony. And of course one of the reasons I've always loved the Housemartins is because they temper whatever messages they have with humour, as in the video for this song where drummer Hugh Whittaker mocks his minor role on the track by attempting to dominate the performance. Of course, the fact that he later served time for attacking somebody with an axe makes this slightly less funny now but we didn't know about that in 1986. For an indie band of the era they have some surprisingly good dance moves too, but then their interest in other music is also demonstrated by the affectionate parody B-side 'Rap Around The Clock'.

"Top pop stars or total willie noses?" they ask on the back cover of the 12". I'm voting for the former this time.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 9, 10
Available on: London 0 Hull 4 - Deluxe E Album Set

Friday, 20 February 2015

Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush 'Don't Give Up'

Chart Peak: 9
The follow-up to 'Sledgehammer' went straight into the chart at No. 31 after just one week on release.
Hard to imagine that even in 1986 a new release from one (or even two) established stars entering the Top 40 in release week was really that noteworthy, but I guess they had to make it sound exciting somehow. Presumably they went to press too soon to mention that by its second week, 'Don't Give Up' had progressed to the Top 20 and been joined in the 40 by Kate Bush's solo single 'Experiment IV'. It's fairly well-known now that Peter Gabriel was originally inspired to write this song by images of Depression-era America and so intended the song as a duet with Dolly Parton but she turned it down (Gabriel speculates that she didn't actually know who he was) and forced him to go in another direction.

Tantalising as it is to imagine a Gabriel/Parton duet, his old friend Kate does a more than sterling job. Not only is she obviously a very good singer but the contrast between their two voices accompanies the contrast between their two parts, the despairing man in the verses and the determinedly hopeful woman in the chorus. What saves this from glib sentimentality is the pain in her voice; you know she's not just handing out platitudes, she's struggling herself but they both need each other to keep going. This is accompanied by a relatively minimal soundscape, which fits with the desolate beauty of their situation without suggesting any specific place or time. The most famous element in that production is of course Tony Levin's bass part, which was recorded partly by using one of his daughter's nappies to damp down the strings. One certainly hopes it was a clean nappy.

The resultant track is quite possibly the best on this album, certainly the best in this sort of style (it's harder to compare this with something like 'What Have You Done For Me Lately') but also a song that's not an easy or comfortable listen. Sometimes I don't feel up to it.

Peter Gabriel also appears on: Now 7, 23, 24
Kate Bush also appears on: Now 6, 16
Available on: Hit

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Boris Gardiner 'I Wanna Wake Up With You'

Chart Peak: 1 [3 weeks]
Charted at No. 50 on 22nd July, had rocketed to No. 1 by 19th August where it stayed for 3 weeks. The follow-up 'You're Everything To Me' made the Top 20 in October.
The odd one out among the three chart-topping singles on Now 8 as the only not to show up on a CD spin-off. EDIT 21st of March: That previous sentence was entirely wrong, but I'm not pretending I didn't make the mistake so I've just crossed it out - this is in fact the closing track on Now '86.
Needless to say, when I was eight years old I didn't entirely grasp the implications of the song but I did think this song was the soppiest load of nonsense possible. I must be getting old because I think I've warmed to it a little over the years. Mind you, I think that may be less because of the song itself - which borders on the inane and certainly doesn't have enough to it to justify a four-minute running time - than because I quite like the idea of a man having his first Number One single at the age of 43. It does have a certain sweetness about it, but it'd be very generous to say I actually liked it.

Available on: Reggae Collection [+digital booklet]

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Human League 'Human'

Chart Peak: 8
Charted at No. 19 on 19th August, made No. 8 on 2nd September becoming the group's 11th Top 20 hit in Britain.
Another Jam & Lewis production, though in this case it was also written entirely by the producers with no input from the group themselves, whereas Janet Jackson had contributed to her own single. Although this was recorded immediately after the Jackson album (and therefore before it had been success) the American duo had already made a bit of name for themselves with the likes of SOS Band and Alexander O'Neal so it's obvious why the League would have wanted to work with them. In practice, though, they apparently fell out in the studio, with the group walking out before the production was even finished and largely disowning it. Well, at least until this got to Number One in America anyway.

In the previous post I mentioned the contrast between the heavily programmed production and a human vocal, and whilst this is already an inferior song it could have worked fairly well in a similar production. The trouble is that, as Spin magazine noted at the time, the Human League don't really do that, they're more about emotional detachment and self-conscious straightfacedness. When Phil Oakey croons, "I'm only human," you don't totally believe him. It doesn't help that Joanne Catherall can't decide what accent to use for her brief spoken section either. They certainly made worse records than this but it's a right-place-right-time sort of hit.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 13, 30, 31, 32
Available on: The Best Of

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Janet Jackson 'What Have You Done For Me Lately?'

Chart Peak: 3
Charted on 18th March, moved slowly at first and then raced to No. 3 by 29th April. 'Lately' was followed into the Top 20 by 'Nasty' and 'When I Think Of You'.
Possibly the most noteworthy new arrival on Now 8, the second most successful member of the Jackson family was not an overnight success in the US, let alone here. Her only Top 100 success before this was the unlikely duet with Cliff Richard on 'Two To The Power Of Love', and even that only got to 83. Only when she reportedly defied her father's wishes and started working on her third album with Minneapolis-based producers Jam & Lewis did her fortunes change. Ironically, though, the breakthrough single was inspired by the end of her short-lived marriage to James DeBarge; it seems her father was right about him if nothing else.

This sound became ubiquitous, perhaps too ubiquitous for its own good, but rarely has it sounded as good as it does here, a combination of funk, soul and synthpop that works partly by contrasting Jackson's peppy vocal against the mechanical backing track. There's a twist of humour amid the exasperation and the middle eight comes in at exactly the right moment. It's as close as she and dare I say it anyone in her family ever came to a perfect pop song.

Also appearing on: Now 26, 38, 39, 40, 41, 49, 53 (with Beenie Man)
Available on: Design Of A Decade 1986/1996

Monday, 16 February 2015

Jaki Graham 'Step Right Up'

Chart Peak: 15
Follow-up to 'Set Me Free' and 'Breaking Away' which were both Top 2 hits earlier in 1986.
Oddly appropriate that the notes are about her previous hits because this does sound very like an attempt to write a follow-up to 'Set Me Free'. Even though the lyrical sentiment is kind of the opposite, it's quite similar musically, though inevitably not as good. It's also rather marred by the attempt at a rock production with a jarring guitar overdubbed at the end of the track. Graham does her best but she hasn't been given a lot to work with here.

Also appearing on: Now 5, 6 [with David Grant], 7
Available on: The Very Best Of

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Jermaine Stewart 'We Don't Have To...'

Chart Peak: 2
Charted at No. 68 on 5th August, made No. 2 for 2 weeks from 16th-29th September... Jermaine at one time was a backing singer with Shalamar
Two things to start with: I promise it's a coincidence that this particular song crops up on Valentine's Day; and yes that is how the title is listed on the Now 8 sleeve (and if I remember correctly the original UK single). Evidently even a song about not disrobing was considered too edgy in mid-80s Britain because it implied that you could do so.

Nonetheless, radio seemed unafraid of playing the track and it remains so familiar I was tempted to slip relistening to it for the purposes of this post. As that probably implies, I'm not that keen on the song, because even though I sort of appreciate the sentiment behind it it's too silly to be convincing (unless "cherry wine" is some obscure euphemism I'm unaware of) but not quite silly enough to be funny as a novelty. Apparently the song was interpreted in some quarters as a response to the AIDS crisis, although there's an obvious tragic irony that Jermaine Stewart himself did die as a result of the disease. Producer (and co-writer) Narada Michael Walden has some great funky basslines to his name, including 'Jump To The Beat' and his own 'I Shoulda Loved Ya' but his inspiration seems to have dried up here and the effect it frankly a bit cheap and tacky. I wasn't best pleased that it it returned to the chart in 2011 after it was used in an advert, although that was better than the cover by forgotten reality TV irritant Lil Chris. And even that was better than the Gym Class Heroes song that samples it.

Also appearing on: Now 11, 12
Available on: We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off

Friday, 13 February 2015

Mel And Kim 'Get Fresh At The Weekend (Showing Out)'

Chart Peak: 3
Charted at No. 67 on 16th September, crawled at first but had started to move by 28th October by which time it was No. 24
The debut hit from the sisters and an early Now appearance for a Stock Aitken Waterman production (though certainly not the first) and it seems to be an almost perfect example of the SAW songwriting/production style. Although it's not quite as strident as the follow-up 'Respectable', it's got the same sort of lyrical focus on mild rebellion and hedonism, plus the famous stuttering vocal effect that sounds a bit like they're trying to pack the familiar excitement of a 12" remix into a 7" edit. Conversely, there's very little bass on the track, which was one of Waterman's famous strategies. Annoying as it could get to hear too many records that sounded like this, it is in retrospect one of the best examples of the formula.

Also appearing on: Now 11
Available on: That's The Way It Is - The Best Of Mel & Kim

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Grace Jones 'I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect For You)'

Chart Peak: 56
Grace has co-written and co-produced her new single - released early November.
Another confident inclusion, though it doesn't look like this one went quite as well for them as Swing Out Sister. This was her first single for EMI after her run of reggae-influenced hits on Island, which might explain why it's her Now debut. As well as changing label she also moved to a more disco-pop sound, so her co-producer was the ubiquitous Nile Rodgers. Famously, it was Jones who'd first invited Rodgers and the other members of Chic to the legendary Studio 54 club, but they were refused entry so they went home and wrote 'Le Freak' instead. Despite this old connection, her insistence on contributing to the production apparently led to a rather fraught working relationship. Her co-writer for this and the rest of the album was Bruce Woolley, who'd also co-penned 'Slave To The Rhythm' and 'Video Killed The Radio Star'. It's a good if undramatic song and features a strong performance but it does keep reminding me of 'I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You' by Linda Lewis. Perhaps it reminded the record-buying public too as the single stayed largely on the shelves and the album Inside Story was also her least successful in the UK. It's one of those odd little quirks that this turned out to be her only solo Now appearance. Surprisingly it's not the lowest-charting single on this album either.

Available on: Inside Story

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Cameo 'Word Up'

Chart Peak: 6
'Word Up' charted at No. 50 on 26th August, and became the group's biggest UK hit to date when it made No. 3 on 23rd September.
Side Two starts with what we can safely call the least subtle song on the album, the signature hit from the funk group who'd already existed for over a decade but scored their first US Top 40 with this idiosyncratic take on 80s RnB. Despite the large number of cover versions it's not really that good a song and was utterly confusing to me at the time; I sort of imagined that "Word up" was something like the bat symbol on Gotham City but I wasn't sure what we were supposed to be getting underway.

It's not really about the song though, it's about the groove and the excuse for Larry Blackmon to be ridiculous and show off his bright red codpiece. Even his name is a bit silly, though apparently it's his real one. It's this daft over the top element that makes this version so much better than the more straightforward efforts by Gun, Melanie G and Little Mix.

Also appearing on: Now 6
Available on: Cameo - Universal Masters

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Genesis 'In Too Deep'

Chart Peak: 19
Charted at No. 33 on 26th August, moved steadily to reach No. 19 by 30th September. 'In Too Deep' is featured in the film Mona Lisa.
I've never actually seen Mona Lisa, as I don't think it's especially child-friendly viewing and indeed I was barely aware of it until it got mentioned in tributes to the late Bob Hoskins. I do still vaguely remember the song, which was also released as the second single from the Invisible Touch album, though if you'd asked me even a few years ago I'd have struggled to remember whether it was actually a Genesis track or a solo Phil Collins recording. The song certainly sounds like it was written entirely by Collins and just became part of a Genesis album because that's what he was working on at the time he was offered the soundtrack job.

I was quite surprised a while back when I was listening to this and found myself enjoying it. Although I'm unashamed that I like some Collins-era Genesis like 'Mama', 'Land Of Confusion' etc, this is a rather syrupy song that sounds worse the more I listen to it. I guess there's just something in the melody that appeals to me even behind the dated production, the weak lyrics and some less than brilliant singing.

Although this is the end of Side One on the LP and cassette it somehow gets to be the last track of all on the Now 8 CD.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 7, 9, 21, 23, 24
Available on: The Platinum Collection

Monday, 9 February 2015

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark '(Forever) Live And Die'

Chart Peak: 11
Charted at No. 52 on 2nd September, had reached No. 11 by 30th September. This is the Liverpool group's 9th Top 20 hit in Britain.
Yep, it's another video with grainy monochrome footage of people in jeans and jackets with no ties miming the song! And it's another track where a real live brass section sounds cheap and fake. No mistaking when this is from then. '(Forever) Live And Die' is, though, an unusual entry in the OMD catalogue in that it features the less famous member of the duo, Paul Humphreys, on lead vocal. Indeed, it proved to be his last major hit as part of the act before he left Andy McCluskey to go effectively solo a couple of years later.

Considering the pop-oriented direction into which McCluskey took OMD, one might expect a Humphreys-fronted single to be the opposite, but in fact this is one of their most commercial tracks. Not only is it a straightforward song with a directly emotional lyric, it's actually rather melodic and charming in a way that a lot of their attempts to be crowdpleasing aren't. Although it sounds dated now there's a warmth I can't resist.

Also appearing on: Now 3, 4, 20, 25, 34
Available on: The Pacific Age

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Steve Winwood 'Higher Love'

Chart Peak: 13
'Higher Love' charted at No. 66 on 24th June, had climbed to No. 13 by 22nd July. Steve first sang the lead vocal on a British Top 20 single in December 1965 with the Spencer Davis Group - the song was 'Keep On Running'.

Slightly odd phrasing there, as if there was reason to think the song would progress beyond 13 months later. It didn't, but even this was his highest UK chart position as a solo artist and indeed one of only two Top 20 singles he ever managed  on his own. Perhaps that's slightly surprising, given his record of success in previous groups and the way radio seemed to love him in the mid-to-late 80s; indeed this topped the more airplay-driven US chart, one of singles by British acts with no UK chart-toppers to do so in 1986 (it was even knocked off by another such act, Bananarama, whilst Genesis had famously deposed Peter Gabriel earlier that year).

You might be forgiven for a little deja vu here, if you remember 'Notorious' from the top of this album. The videos are very similar and feature several of the same personnel, including Nile Rodgers and five brass players who are again reduced to sounding like single-finger keyboard playing. This is a better song and Winwood is certainly a far better singer than Simon Le Bon but like most of his output it's so overproduced it's almost painful to listen to. There's a great chorus to be belted out but even Chaka Khan is overpowered by the regimented click track. A bit of a waste of talent, but at least we get the 7" edit instead of the more boring full version.

Despite surely being recorded with the CD format in mind, this is the first Now 8 track not on either of the digital spin-offs, presumably due to Island's unwillingness to licence it. It does of course appear on many other CDs.

Available on: Now That's What I Call 1986

Friday, 6 February 2015

Swing Out Sister 'Breakout'

Chart Peak: 4
Charted at No. 57 on 21st October, had motored to No. 31 by the following week.
Unfortunately, there's only one poor copy of the official video on YouTube, though a better version can be seen here.
'Breakout' seems a confident choice of inclusion on here, as a single by a previously uncharted act which was only a minor hit at time of going to press, but it must have been visibly on an upward trajectory by then. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight it's hard to envisage this song ever not being a hit, but I suppose there have always been a lot of obvious hits that failed; indeed, whilst Swing Out Sister had a second Top 10 hit and a Number One album and have continued to record (though now reduced to a duo) into the 21st century, they haven't become the hitmaking machine that might once have been expected.

'Breakout' is very much an Eighties spin on Sixties pop, apparently a direction encouraged by producer Paul Staveley O'Duffy - who has continued to work with them as producer, musician and co-writer, so they presumably thought he was right - from the trio's jazzy origins. Conversely, O'Duffy was also insistent that the debut album be recorded with live string and brass sections. To his credit he not only used brass but made it sound like the real thing, in contrast to, say, 'Notorious' where live musicians blowing are so processed as to sound like cheap synthesisers. In Mark Cunningham's 1996 book Good Vibrations, O'Duffy recounts that he intentionally used the tattiest most damaged snare drum he could get hold of on this track to make it sound distinctive. All that and Corrine Drewery's idiosyncractic vocal melody make this a rare example of a big hit from this era that had enough polish to sound in place on radio at the time and yet not jarringly dated now. It may not be the most original song ever recorded but it was effervescent enough to stand out then and it still stands out now. Also, I've learnt that Corrine Drewery's mother founded a hedgehog rescue centre which is an admirable fact.

Also appearing on: Now 15
Available on: It's Better To Travel

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Communards 'Don't Leave Me This Way'

Chart Peak: 1 (4 weeks)
Charted at No. 28 on 19th August, had shot to No. 1 by 9th September where it remained for 4 weeks. The previous (1977) hit versions were by Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes and Thelma Houston.
The first of three Number One singles on Now 8, which doesn't seem a lot for a year with only two volumes but there are always contractual concerns (and the last four chart-toppers of the year all ended up on Now 9 anyway). At least this proved to be the biggest single of 1986, something of a crossover success for the policitised synth-pop duo. I'm not sure whether they covered this as a commercial move, or in attempt to make some sort of point by recasting a disco hit into a Hi-NRG one, though the effect seems to have been the same either way. In the longer term, though, because they repeated the formula to only slightly lesser success with 'Never Can Say Goodbye' it wasn't really until I started doing this project and immersing myself more in 80s music that I realised there was actually more to the Communards than cover versions. It took me long enough to find out that "Communards" was an actual word before they named the band after it.

I'm pretty sure that 'Don't Leave Me This Way' is the first record I can remember hating; if it wasn't that, it was the aforementioned 'Never Can Say Goodbye', but I think I remember the offending track being announced as a Number One before I started shouting "WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH". Quite a surprising reaction, but I suppose I was emerging from the childhood stage where I liked everything that was on the radio, or at worst was simply bored by it. I can't remember at all why I was so offended by this of all tracks, when I can't have expressed a preference for the original(s) or anything like that and I didn't mind plenty of other music from that era that was similar in style and production. I'm sure I wouldn't even have known that the Communards were gay at that age, even if I had been the sort of child who would have objected to that and I'd like to think I wasn't. Almost thirty years on, my critique of this song is a more nuanced one - I certainly don't hate it, I wouldn't even say I dislike it, I just find it a bit weak. Obviously I have over the years acquired a preference for the Philly soul style of the Harold Melvin original and the disco style of Thelma Houston's version over the style of this current version, and I find the arrangement here a bit too simplistic and the production too glossy and harsh, maybe a bit too upbeat and celebratory for the mood of the lyric. I don't think it's a good showcase for the soul of Jimmy Somerville's voice either, and it only really catches fire when he's duetting with the contrasting vocal of Sarah Jane Morris (credited on the single sleeve but not here). Perhaps they could have worked that section up into something more interesting in its own right but the rest of the track is a bit dull.

This is the first track from the vinyl/cassette Now 8 not to show up on the CD version, as it had appeared a few weeks earlier on the CD-only release Now '86 [note the apostrophe, distinguishing this from the Now 86 that was released in 2013] alongside four others that would cross over with the main analogue volume.

Also appearing on: Now 6, 9, 10, 12
Available on: The Platinum Collection

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Run D.M.C. 'Walk This Way'

Chart Peak: 8
Charted at No. 37 on 2nd September , had raced to No. 8 for 2 weeks by the end of the month. 'Walk This Way' also featured the group Aerosmith who had the original Seventies American hit.
In fact, the track (and video) only feature Steven Tyler and Joe Perry: apparently the budget didn't run to bringing, er, whoever the other members of Aerosmith were or are. Mind you, in 1986 I wouldn't have been able to name even two members of the group for whom this was the (uncredited) UK singles chart debut. I hadn't even heard of them although they'd had some album success in the 1970s; it seems that the renewed interest from this single spurred them to a bigger comeback and a whole run of big hits in the 80s and 90s, though many of them were ballads and none of them shows up on a main series Now album. Not a great loss, to be honest.

Although we all know that 'Rapper's Delight' had been a Top 10 hit at the back end of 1979, identifiable hip-hop tracks (as distinct from the likes of 'Candy Girl' which have brief rap interludes) are predictably scarce on the early Now albums. Between them the first six volumes had only offered 'White Lines' and, if you're generous, 'Hey You! Rocksteady Crew'; though Now 7 doubled that number with the Real Roxanne and Luvbug Starski's borderline-novelty hit in the middle of Side 4. So 'Walk This Way' still has the feel of a trailblazer, especially coming so early in the running order, just as it was a breakthrough for the genre in America, where it was amazingly the first hip-hop track to make the Top 5. It even outcharted the original there (and here I suppose), helping to make rap music seem more acceptable to a rock audience. Apparently the whole thing was Rick Rubin's idea, based on the fact that he'd heard Run-DMC freestyling over the riff, and you can see why it made sense because, for good or ill, 'Walk This Way' exemplifies a lot of the things that rap and rock have in common: the rebellious image, the emphasis on simple repeatable rhythmic patterns, the macho posturing... it's a stepping stone on the way to some of my favourite rap hits, but also to the awfulness of most rap-metal. In fact, such is its fame as a breakthrough it's hard now to listen to it as a song in its own right, but I can tell it's a job well done.

Also appearing on: Now 39 [vs Jason Nevins]
Available on: It's Like This - The Best Of [Clean]

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Pet Shop Boys 'Suburbia'

Chart Peak: 8

Charted at No. 23 on 30th September, reached No. 8 for 2 weeks in mid-October. 'Suburbia' is the group's 4th Top 20 hit in less than a year.
In contrast to the amount of Duran Duran that I unwillingly have inflicted on me, the PSBs seem like an act who aren't really on enough Now albums. Nine appearances in their own right (plus the one under a pseudonym and their guest appearance with Robbie Williams) hardly seems to scratch the surface of their run of hit singles over nearly 25 years, and you'd think they're exactly the sort of act who'd embrace the concept. Perhaps because of the perspective that writing this blog has given me, I've found myself warming to the duo and even bought a best-of album although the weird twist is that most of my favourite tracks of theirs aren't in the Now series; and I'm not just showing off there, I'm including some of their biggest hits like 'It's A Sin' and 'West End Girls'. In fact the version of the Pet Shop Boys on the Now albums is a version I like less than the one I know from their full chart career.

Back when I was an eight-year old hearing this song, I didn't know what Suburbia was, let alone that I lived in it (Kenton, Middlesex, if you wanted to know). I promise it's not only because of my location that I've never been very fond of this song (after all, Neil Tennant is from a suburb too); it just feels a bit too much of a cliche. Worse, it feels a bit thin as a record, despite the fact that this single version is re-recorded from the original album track. If anything I actually prefer the original B-side 'Paninaro', which was later re-recorded and became a hit in its own right in 1995. That didn't get onto a Now album either.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 10, 11, 15, 18, 20, 26, 28 [as Absolutely Fabulous], 35, 72
Available on: Ultimate [+Video]

Monday, 2 February 2015

Duran Duran 'Notorious'

Starting a new album again here, so as a slight experiment I'm putting this part before any details of the track itself. Now 8 seems a logical enough way to follow Now 38, especially as it's the only one of the first 10 I haven't already done. Fitting in with my album-every-two-months schedule means that the short month of February is a good time to do the shorter 1980s albums. Besides, there are some real gems and a few surprises on here. Now 8 is also notable as the second album in the series to come out on CD, albeit again in a truncated single-disc version. Unlike the Now 4 compact disc, though, the Now 8 CD was drawn entirely from the vinyl and cassette versions so I have tagged the crossover tracks. As you may see from the image accompanying this post, my own copy of the album isn't in the best of condition but it's good enough and all sleevenotes are intact, so let's get going...

Chart Peak: 7
Roared into the chart at No. 14 on 28th October after just one week on release.
Because we're in the era when there were only two Now albums a year (1985-7), it's less obvious than it might have been that Duran Duran were on a bit of a hiatus in the middle of the decade, save for the one-off James Bond theme 'A View To A Kill' on Now 5. 'Notorious' and the parent album of the same name marked their resumption, although by the time the record was finished they were two Taylors short with Roger Taylor in retirement and Andy Taylor estranged: he grudgingly took part in some recording sessions but left amid much acrimony. Some reports have it that he tried to stop the remaining trio using the group name, which would perhaps explain why the single and album covers just say "Duran Notorious". They were able to retain the services of Nile Rodgers as producer and guitarist for these sessions, which should in theory have been a good fit for the funk direction they were aiming at but as usual there's something profoundly unfunky about Duran. Maybe this track suffers particularly from the protracted recording sessions but it feels like there's a fundamental tension between the desire for a smoothly metronomic sound and the human element needed to give the track drive. The hip-hop-influenced repetitions of the title in the chorus certainly stick in the mind but unfortunately they always sound better in my memory than in the finished track. The song is apparently supposed to be quite a bitter one (the "flaky bandit" mentioned in the lyric is supposedly Andy Taylor) but the anger comes through no more convincingly than the funk. I don't want to sound like I have some anti-Duran bias but I've not really enjoyed any of their Now appearances yet, it somehow keeps feeling like a chore.

Also appearing on: Now 1, 2, 3, 5, 13, 14 24, 25, 31
Available on: Notorious