Sunday, 22 March 2015

Now '86 roundup

Since I've just written about the four exclusive songs on Now '86 and tagged the relevant tracks from Now 8, it seemed fitting to put up an index post to link back to the songs I wrote about on Now 7 as well. So here follows the sequence of the apostrophe album, with credit again to A Pop Fan's Dream:

  1. Queen 'A Kind Of Magic'
  2. David Bowie 'Absolute Beginners'
  3. Peter Gabriel 'Sledgehammer'
  4. Pet Shop Boys 'West End Girls'
  5. Level 42 'Lessons In Love'
  6. Communards 'Don't Leave Me This Way'
  7. Diana Ross 'Chain Reaction'
  8. Jermaine Stewart 'We Don't Have To...' [sic]
  9. Gwen Guthrie 'Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent'
  10. Sly Fox 'Let's Go All The Way'
  11. UB40 'Sing Our Own Song'
  12. Tears For Fears 'Everybody Wants To Run The World'
  13. Status Quo 'In The Army Now'
  14. Cutting Crew '(I Just Died) In Your Arms'
  15. Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald 'On My Own'
  16. Boris Gardiner 'I Want To Wake Up With You'
Whether this is a reasonable summary of pop in 1986 is a matter of opinion: it certainly differs from the retrospective double-CDs released in 1993 and 1999, and from the current downloadable Now That's What I Call 1986, but of course corporate changes in the record industry have affected what's available to them, and they were presumably constrained by the need to save some big tracks for the Now 8 CD. Still, they seem to have scraped the first four tracks of Now 7 without much thought, even though Sly Fox and UB40 seem a little out of place in retrospect, especially at the expense of 'Holding Back The Years', 'When The Going Gets Tough' and anything involving Wham! or George Michael. On the positive side, at least there's no Chris De Burgh.
Bearing in mind the relatively high retail price of a CD back then, releasing this compilation as a double CD presumably wasn't considered, though it was only about a year later than Now 10 became the first double Now CD. That's presumably part of the reason why there wasn't a Now '87 at the time, although this album didn't sell particularly well anyway, peaking only at 65 on what was then a combined album chart. Since the CD versions of the early Now albums were combined with the chart runs of their vinyl and tape equivalents we can't really see how much they sold, but I'm guessing the answer is not much, hence their relative scarcity.

Since there's no official playlist for the album I've created my own versions on Spotify and Deezer. No Peter Gabriel but everything else is there.

Available on: Now That's What I Call Music '86

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Tears For Fears 'Everybody Wants To Run The World'

Chart Peak: 5

No, I didn't get the title wrong. As most people will know, Tears For Fears had topped the US chart in 1985 with 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World' (also a massive UK hit) but this is the less remembered re-recording released as the official single for Sport Aid. Big names at the time, TFF had not been directly on Band Aid (though some of the drums on 'Do They Know It's Christmas' are apparently sampled from 'The Hurting') and famously pulled out of Live Aid at the eleventh hour, so they were under pressure from Bob Geldof to contribute something to his latest charity appeal.

Possibly because they were working under duress (and in fairness may not have been given a lot of time for the project) they seem to have made a fairly minimal effort - I'm not sure if it's re-recorded entirely from scratch or just re-vocalled, but the only change to the arrangement is the addition is a very of-its-time brass section. There are no new lyrics save for the two-letter change in the chorus: they simply drop some of the more jarring ones, including the entire second verse which is left instrumental. Their commitment didn't extend to the video, which leaves Midge Ure, Geldof and some celebrity supporters to take their places. It all sounds a bit odd and is not often mentioned these days. In fact, it inadvertently gave Now '86 a minor place in history as for over 25 years it was the only known CD release of this track. This was finally rectified with the latest re-issues of Songs From The Big Chair compiled with assistance from Paul Sinclair of Super Deluxe Edition, who evidently recognised that all the tracks should be available and it is a bit silly to have a Top 5 single unavailable, even if it's not that good. Whilst I'm giving credits, I should also thank A Pop Fan's Dream for posting the details of Now Apostrophe 86.

Also appearing on: Now 16
Available on: Songs From The Big Chair (Deluxe)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Gwen Guthrie 'Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent'

Chart Peak: 5

Only seems like last week I was posting about Gwen Guthrie, probably because it was. Her signature hit is the only one of the four tracks unique to Now Apostrophe 86 that was actually a hit in the second half of 1986, but it was a summer hit so I suppose the inclusion of her later hit on Now 8 makes a bit of sense. Posterity certainly favours this single, particularly since the controversy around the lyric perceived as as demeaning to unemployed people has largely been forgotten. What remains is a solid club soul track written and produced by Guthrie herself, though it does quote from other song that would presumably have been familiar to fans of the genre.

It's actually a relatively minimal track which if anything sounds slightly underproduced, rather a rarity among big hits in this era. It's quite likable and undoubtedly catchy though it's one of those tracks that seems to sound better in my memory than when I'm actually listening to it.

Also appearing on: Now 8
Available on: Gold - '80s Soul

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Diana Ross 'Chain Reaction'

Chart Peak: 1 [3 weeks]

One of the biggest UK hits in the first half of 1986 and one of the most surprising absences from the main Now series - it was even on "home" label EMI - 'Chain Reaction' is one of the many hits in the 1980s written by the Bee Gees but not officially performed by them, though of course they add their usual prominent backing vocals. In fact, the Bee Gees scored only two UK Top 40 hits under their own name in the entire decade, and one of those was actually released in December 1979.

This song was apparently supposed to be some sort of Motown pastiche but while there are obvious elements of the beat, it is more unmistakably the work of Gibb Brothers, as much as 'Islands In The Stream'. It's mostly notable for the rather filthy lyric, which sailed entirely over my seven-year-old head at the time, but contains references to "after-midnight action" and "Your hand goes lower, you taste a little and you swallow slower". I'm not sure I wanted to think about Diana Ross and the Bee Gees having sex and the song doesn't really sound that good nowadays. The single was released twice in the US without making the Top 60 so maybe people in the US didn't want to think about it either.

Also appearing on: Now 21, 22, 44
Available on: Eaten Alive

Monday, 16 March 2015

Pet Shop Boys 'West End Girls'

Chart Peak: 1 [2 weeks]

Well, as there's a bit of March left I thought I might as well wrap up the four songs that appear only on Now '86 (or Now Apostrophe86 as I've taken to calling it) and aren't drawn from Now 7 or Now 8. Three of them are from the first half of the year, so were perhaps considered too old to include on Now 8 - presumably both albums were being planned around the same time though Now '86 hit the shops a couple of weeks earlier - and the follow-up to the fourth is also on the vinyl and cassette Now 8. 'West End Girls' is the oldest of the quartet and was in fact released in October 1985 but topped the chart in January 1986; it later repeated that feat on the Billboard chart, making them one British act who had a US Number One that year and had topped their (or rather our) own chart too.

This version of 'West End Girls' is of course a re-recording of the original version that was produced by Bobby Orlando after Neil Tennant passed him a demo tape while in New York on assignment for Smash Hits. As well as dropping the clumsy lyric about "Joe Stalin", Stephen Hague's new production adds a smoothness that's rather effective in this case, setting a luxuriant backdrop for Tennant's deadpan vocal and complex lyrical ideas. Some elements, particularly the trumpet, are a little reminiscent of 'This Is Not America' by David Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group from earlier in 1985, though this may be coincidental. Even claims that this was the first rap Number One are a little stretched, it's a stylish launch to one of the most successful singles careers in British pop.

Also appearing on: Now 7, 8, 10, 11, 15, 18, 20, 26, 28 [as Absolutely Fabulous], 35, 72
Available on: Please

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Nick Berry 'Every Loser Wins'

Chart Peak: 1 [3 weeks]
Charted at No. 66 on 30th September, had blasted to No.1 by 1th October and was still topping the chart at the beginning of November. By the way, the first Eastenders star to be on a No.1 record was Mrs Pauline Fowler, A.K.A. Wendy Richard who appeared on the 1962 No.1 'Come Outside' by Mike Sarne.
Just to clarify for younger or non-British readers, Nick Berry is an actor who was an early cast member in the popular soap opera Eastenders. This song was heavily promoted on the show itself as part of a storyline in which his character Wicksy was originally the lead singer of a band and then fell out with them and went solo so he ended up in competition with them. Well, something like that anyway: I didn't watch the show at that time (or ever, really) so I mainly became aware of this through the chart success of this song and of its rival 'Something Outa Nothing'[sic] by the actors Laetita Dean and Paul Medford, which peaked at 12 around the same time. Both songs were co-written by MOR veteran Simon May (who had of course also composed the distinctive theme tune) and Stewart and Bradley James.

'Every Loser Wins' is probably the more competent of the two songs, though it does resemble the quiet section from the end of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' stretched out to a full song. It's barely three minutes long but it feels much longer. There's nothing particularly wrong with it and I seem to recall that when I was eight I thought this was what good songwriting was supposed to sound like, but this is really the triumph of competence over the things that make music enjoyable. It's an inevitable but rather unsatisfying end to Now 8 on the analogue formats, though the CD version is reshuffled to end with Genesis instead. It's been a decent album, but Side Four was virtually a wash-out.

Also appearing on: Now 22
Available on: Eastenders - Peggy's Theme

Monday, 9 March 2015

Gwen Guthrie '(They Long To Be) Close To You'

Chart Peak: 25
A hit for the Carpenters in 1970, this Bacharach and David song gave Gwen her second Top 30 hit in Britain following the Top 5 smash 'Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent'.
If you're taking notes - and why wouldn't you be? - this is the fourth song title on Now 8 to start with a bracketed subtitle, with three of the four having shown up on the first disc. Perhaps it was a fashion in 1986. Gwen Guthrie's first hit was an Eighties pop-soul anthem, albeit one that sparked some controversy for its lyrical insistence "You've got to have a JOB if you wanna be with me," which didn't go down well with some unemployed people.

Despite writing that song herself, she stuck to tried and tested material for the follow-up though this (self-produced) rendition is a broad interpretation of the song; she plays about with the lyric and melody like a jazz singer to produce an admirably un-syrupy performance over a club-friendly beat of the era. It's certainly distinctive but it seems to have confused the marketplace a bit and became only a moderate hit. She never had another and sadly died in 1999.

Available on: True Love (3 CD Set)

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Paul Hardcastle 'The Wizard'

Chart Peak: 15
The New Top Of The Pops theme, 'The Wizard', charted at No. 34 on 7th October and had reached no. 15 by 21st October.
"New" is a bit of a relative term here: the theme had been in use since April, so it was already familiar by the time the single hit the shops, which is why after about 40 seconds I expect to hear cheering and David "Kid" Jensen introducing a performance by Level 42. Needless to say, Hardcastle did get to perform the song on the show itself once it charted, getting bonus 80s TotP points by having what seem to be at least seven synthesisers on stage for an obviously mimed performance and being in front of a video wall, though there's a surprising lack of dry ice. Given the advance familiarity of the song it seems slightly odd that it took three weeks to peak but I suppose people might have had trouble linking the title to the theme tune.

29 years later, 'The Wizard' sounds like the sort of thing you might dance to while waiting for house music to be invented. It has the programmed beats and the samples (is that really Vincent Price's laugh from 'Thriller'?) but Hardcastle seems to be playing some sort of jazz-funk over the top of it. I don't actually know whether the song was originally written for a TV theme and stretched out to the three-minute single (then later still to a two-part album version of almost ten minutes) but it sort of feels like it, not really justifying the extended running time with enough variation on the basic theme. In contrast to the more inventive '19' and 'Just For Money', this appeals mainly on a nostalgic level.

Also appearing on: Now 6
Available on: Top of the Pops: 1986

Friday, 6 March 2015

Robert Palmer 'I Didn't Mean To Turn You On'

Chart Peak: 9
Charted at No. 30 on 15th July, had sped to No. 9 by 29th July giving Robert his second Top Ten Hit of 1986
It was a funny old career that Robert Palmer had; enough hits to be considered a major star but not quite as many as you might think, and rarely a consistent run. The hits he did have covered a wide range of genres: soul, rock, funk, jazz, reggae, blues, even yodelling and included more cover versions than you might think. So it is that the third Jam and Lewis song on the album was originally recorded by Cherrelle, with Palmer supposedly covering it as some sort of satire on the unsuitability of the song for a teenage singer, although if this story is true he was misinformed as Cherrelle would have been 24 when her version was released. He also undermines the point slightly with the typical Palmer video as well.

It could be argued that the rather smarmy way Palmer sings the song is authentic to the lyric, but it's not especially enjoyable. Still, the song has a decent groove to it and it's well-produced (by Bernard Edwards, in contrast to the Nile Rodgers contributions elsewhere on here) and as the follow-up to 'Addicted To Love' it was never likely to fail. Yes, Palmer is yet another of the British acts who had a US Number One in 1986 and never managed one back home. This was one of two of his singles to peak at 2 there.

Also appearing on: Now 13, 18 [with UB40], 19, 29
Available on: Gold

Debbie Harry 'French Kissin' In The USA'

Chart Peak: 8
Blondie had five British No. 1's in less than two years between February 1979 and November 1980. This solo single was released in early November.
Slightly surprising that Blondie themselves have never appeared on a main-series Now album. Obviously their initial run of hits was too early (and BMG presumably refused to licence 'Maria' in 1999) but there were several remixed and re-issued hits from the Now era that might have shown up. Anyway they didn't so Debbie Harry is represented only by her two major solo hits.

'French Kissin' In The USA', which apparently lost the second half of its title when actually released in the USA, was not her own composition but was written by comedy writer Chuck Lorre, who later created such sitcoms as Grace Under Fire, Cybil and Two And A Half Men. I don't think the song itself is supposed to be funny but it is presumably meant to be some sort of fluffy pastiche. It doesn't quite work though, possibly because she doesn't have the right sort of voice or because the production (by one of the J.Geils Band who wasn't J.Geils or the lead singer) doesn't really fit. Or maybe the song just isn't any good.

Also appearing on: Now 16
Available on: An 80s Summer

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Doctor And The Medics with Roy Wood 'Waterloo'

Chart Peak: 45
Roy Wood was No.1 with The Move ('Blackberry Way') and with Wizzard ('See My Baby Jive' and 'Angel Fingers'), Doctor And the Medics were No.1 with 'Spirit In The Sky'. 'Waterloo' was originally No.1 and a Eurovision winner for Abba... So this new version should get to No...
To nowhere in the Top 40, as it turned out, making this the third and last non-hit on Now 8. Again, though, the Doctor and his Medics weren't really a one-hit wonder because they'd had a Top 30 hit with 'Burn' as the immediate follow-up to their chart-topping cover version. Still, somebody obviously thought there was demand for more novelty covers from the Seventies and so this version of Abba's Eurovision winner arrives, sung by the group's (female) backing singers The Anadin Brothers. You could argue this was a little ahead of its time, six years before Erasure's Abba-Esque EP, but you could also argue that Erasure put more of their own spin on the track whereas this a fairly straight re-run of the original without the thorough finesse of genuine Abba.

Roy Wood makes his only appearance in the main Now series (though he has of course appeared on several Now Christmas albums) on saxophone here, though he probably attracted more attention in the video. He also provides a tenuous link back to It Bites, since Francis Dunnery's late brother played in Violinski, a spin-off from Electric Light Orchestra and of course Roy Wood was also a member of ELO. The video also features cameo appearances by Lemmy, Captain Sensible and some other people I don't really recognise but they're filmed as if they're famous.

The Medics don't really impress too much with their Now tracks, which feel more like cabaret than something for sound-only. However Andy Partridge produced their earlier single 'The Miracle of the Age' which hints that there was something slightly more interesting going on once upon a time.

Doctor And The Medics also appear on: Now 7
Available on: Keep Thinking It's Tuesday

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

It Bites 'Calling All The Heroes'

Chart Peak: 6
Charted at No. 58 on 8th July, peaked at No. 6 on 19th August. It Bites are the first Cumbrian group ever to make the British Top 10.
As far as I know they remain the only Cumbrians to have a Top 10 single, although British Sea Power have also made the Top 10 album chart. As if exhausted by this attainment, It Bites never made the Top 40 again, despite a sizeable live following and many semi-successful releases.

'Calling All The Heroes' is an odd confection with a swashbuckling prog-rock lyric sung over some sort of synth-pop thing. It has an undeniably memorable chorus, which explains how frontman Francis Dunnery went on to become a successful co-writer; he's done even better as a producer, but then he wasn't responsible for the rather flat sound of this track which feels incredibly dated now. It's really neither one thing nor the other.

Available on: Whole New World (The Virgin Albums 1986-1991)

Monday, 2 March 2015

Kim Wilde 'You Keep Me Hangin' On'

Chart Peak: 2
Originally a Top 10 hit for the Supremes in December 1966, Kim's version charted at No. 36 on 21st October and raced to No. 15 the following week.
So it turns out this is the second consecutive track that's a US Number One by a British act who never topped the domestic chart. Of course it's more remarkable in the case of Wilde because she had so many hits in total, amking her more comparable to the aforementioned likes of Genesis and Bananarama than to Cutting Crew even though it was into 1987 when this topped the US chart.

The original version of this song is a notable work of production, compressing many changes of mood and pace into a brief running time to ratchet up tension. Apparently Kim Wilde and her producing brother Ricki had forgotten this by the time they recorded this cover (they admitted they hadn't heard the song for some time) and they settled for a simplistic version which is supposed to be Hi-NRG-influenced but is mid-NRG at best. The closest this gets to being impressive is the amount of hair she has in the video.

Also appearing on: Now 8, 13, 14, 25
Available on: Another Step