Thursday, 27 March 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music





(#293: 17 December 1983, 4 weeks; 21 January 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: You Can’t Hurry Love (Phil Collins)/Is There Something I Should Know (Duran Duran)/Red, Red Wine (UB40)/Only For Love (Limahl)/Temptation (Heaven 17)/Give It Up (KC & The Sunshine Band)/Double Dutch (Malcolm McLaren)/Total Eclipse Of The Heart (Bonnie Tyler)/Karma Chameleon (Culture Club)/The Safety Dance (Men Without Hats)/Too Shy (Kajagoogoo)/Moonlight Shadow (Mike Oldfield)/Down Under (Men At Work)/Hey You (The Rock Steady Crew) (Rock Steady Crew)/Baby Jane (Rod Stewart)/Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) (Paul Young)/Candy Girl (New Edition)/Big Apple (Kajagoogoo)/Let’s Stay Together (Tina Turner)/(Keep Feeling) Fascination (Human League)/New Song (Howard Jones)/Please Don’t Make Me Cry (UB40)/Tonight I Celebrate My Love (Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack)/They Don’t Know (Tracey Ullman)/Kissing With Confidence (Will Powers)/That’s All (Genesis)/The Love Cats (The Cure)/Waterfront (Simple Minds)/The Sun And The Rain (Madness)/Victims (Culture Club)

Looking at the track listing for the forthcoming Now 87, I note with some dismay that all of the hitherto unknown songs included have entered yesterday’s midweek singles chart. This is not a new phenomenon with Now compilations and its continuation indeed supplants my dismay with disquiet. It is as if the charts have been meticulously plotted so that all of the untried and untested singles will debut at precisely the right moment and hence make next week’s compilation look fresher than fresh. It is as if pop music has been planned to death.

Listening to the first Now volume of all, I also note that we have not really completed the circle begun by Raiders Of The Pop Charts. Instead of finishing where 1983 started, with a thirty-track, TV-advertised double compilation album, it is quite apparent that we have ended up somewhere entirely different; somewhere not quite so shambolically comfortable, and somewhere a lot more disturbing and possibly fatal.

Is that last sentence an overstatement? The overall priority of the Starship Enterprise, you may remember, was to observe history rather than try to change or influence history. With the many TV-advertised compilations featured in this tale between 1972 and 1983, the overall picture is one of a slightly inchoate assemblage of cottage industries and an agreeably sloppy attitude to compiling these collections; it really was a case of working with what you could lease from whatever record companies would be prepared to lease to you, finding unexpected connections and more than occasionally throwing a very welcome curveball. Ronco, K-Tel and Arcade compilations – not to mention things like Don’t Walk – Boogie (a true ancestor of the Now series) - were, broadly speaking, a mess, occasionally a hugely irritating mess, but generally a rather surprisingly fertile one.

My suspicion is, however, that with the dawning of the Now franchise, we witness the beginning of a direct attempt to influence the course of pop music, and maybe even how pop music is made or consumed. The first volume was advertised with a painstakingly irreverent voiceover by one of its featured artists, Tracey Ullman; the subtext was that this was not bargain basement, available at Woolworths and Rumbelows K-Tel time.

The overall aim – or one of them – seems to have been to put the house of the compilation album in order. Although essentially a joint venture between EMI and Virgin, it was Virgin Records who came up with the initial idea (and negotiations for the concept involved Richard Branson himself). The album was advertised by a curious logo; a beaming pig listening over a garden fence to a chicken singing, and proclaiming “Now that’s what I call music!” In fact this was originally a 1920s advertisement for Danpish bacon, but Branson bought a poster of it as a present for Virgin Records’ then managing director (and Branson’s cousin): “He was notoriously grumpy before breakfast and loved his eggs in the morning,” observed Branson, “so I bought him the poster, framed it and had it hung behind his desk!"

Following negotiations, Virgin managed to persuade EMI to come on board with the venture – this was the first time major labels had collaborated on such a large project. Some hits were then leased from CBS, WEA, Polydor, Island and Stiff, but none from Arista, RCA, MCA, Chrysalis, A&M or Phonogram. There was still quite a lot of scepticism as to whether the Now project would work, and some unrest about whether, if popular, the album would hinder the sales of artists’ own albums – one may view the delayed entrance of several major acts on Now II as having waited for the waters to be tested before becoming involved.

But the first Now album was an immediate success; it sold 900,000 copies over the Christmas/New Year period and more or less rendered the TV-dependent labels redundant overnight. Packaged immaculately – some might say suffocatingly – Now 1 seemed to promise proper quality; no sloppy covers pasted together in five minutes, no filler, full, unedited 45 versions. It appeared to legitimise the enterprise of multi-artist compilations, push them into growing up.

And yet listening to it is such a cold, deadening experience. Overwhelmingly, despite the presence of eleven of the eighteen singles to make number one during 1983, it is far too safe a selection of hits, and the absentees imply that we are dealing with the second tier of pop stars, or possibly tier 1a. For the record, neither 1983’s first number one nor its last is included. The first was a hangover from 1982, “Save Your Love” by Renée and Renato, a calamitous confirmation of what happens when camp is taken too seriously, or not seriously enough (it is the missing link between “Welcome Home” and “Barcelona”), and it says something about the nascent Now brand that this would have seemed out of place on any Now album (though would have fitted without complaint onto any K-Tel or Ronco record). The last – another unanticipated novelty – was released too late for inclusion (and wrongfooted certain grave assumptions about Now 1) and appears on Now II. Of the remaining five missing chart-toppers, “Billie Jean,” “Let’s Dance,” “True” and “Every Breath You Take” have already been written about in the context of their parent albums (and their absence here implies that they are just too big to go on Now, since Bowie was, at the time, an EMI act). This means that the one remaining absent number one, Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” will simply not be written about here directly. That, I am sure you will agree, is a tragedy beyond comprehension.

But how can you have a 1983 greatest hits album without “Blue Monday” or anything by Michael Jackson? How much better would any of the C90 cassettes you and I would have filled with our versions of 1983 music have been? And why so safe a track listing – get past Simple Minds, plus atypical songs by Genesis and The Cure, and there is no rock as such – Big Country, U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, even EMI recording artists Iron Maiden – all for the boys, all absent. In fact the record seems to have been scrupulously assembled so as not to frighten or disturb, or even momentarily stir, anyone who buys it or listens to it; “This Is Not A Love Song” by Public Image Ltd, released on Virgin and beyond dispute one of 1983’s greatest singles, was a much bigger hit than many of the songs included here, but you will search for it on this record in vain.

Actually the TV-advertised labels were not quite down the dumper; the late 1983 charts also included three BOGOF compilations; The Hit Squad (Chart-Tracking & Nightclubbing) (Ronco), Superchart ’83 (Telstar) and, a revisit from 1981, Chart Hits ’83 (K-Tel). There is necessarily some overlap between this trio, but they do provide a fuller and less predictable picture of the year’s hit music; if you’re looking at the Now 1 track listing and wondering where such and such a song is, odds are that they are on at least one of these three. But it was a losing battle; in the following year, 1984, Ronco filed for bankruptcy.

In other words, Now 1 was the future. But what kind of future was it trying to create? Remember what I said about the series trying to influence history. At the time of this record’s release, several of its tracks were climbing the chart as singles, and it’s possible that the surprising underperformance of hits like “Waterfront” (peak position #13; not remotely indicative of the song’s true popularity) and “That’s All” (#16) is directly ascribable to their inclusion here. But the record’s attempted coup de theatre was to conclude with “Victims”; the assumption being that, having begun with the year’s first “new” number one, the record would close with the final one. It didn’t work, partly because of Now 1 itself and partly because Colour By Numbers was still a hugely popular, big-selling album, but also in part because, as a single, “Victims” was too complex and involving a song to cross over as effortlessly as the knowing bubblegum of “Karma Chameleon”; there are no real hooks, no easy emotional compromise. It is just too disturbing for that (it peaked in third place in the Christmas singles chart).

And, if pop can sometimes, at its best, prove really disturbing, I also have to say that I cannot imagine a similar enterprise being undertaken even twelve months previously. Leasing problems notwithstanding, what would a Now That’s What I Call 1982 have looked like (and before any smart alecks come on board to point it out, I am fully aware that ten year-specific Now Eighties collections were released many years later, and no, I don’t think the 1982 album would have looked like that at the time)? My feeling is that the pop of 1982 was overall too radical, too disturbing, to act as a comfort blanket for casual supermarket consumers, and that in itself may tell us how things had perhaps lowered slightly in terms of the horizons of the following year’s pop. Did the pig really represent the lazy, sated consumer fully prepared to pay money to buy a new packaging of what was already available; indeed, when some of its content was still new? Or did the pig represent the bloated, indulgent music industry who’d be perfectly happy to sell the public records of a chicken clucking if they took off?

Phil Collins/Genesis

An early indicator of how readily "adventurous" musicians from the seventies were prepared to dress up and dumb down for the unforgiven eighties. The song's imperious beat and encouraging catchy tune, as demonstrated in the Supremes' 1966 top three original, hide a near-suicidal lyric: "But how many heartaches must I stand/Before I find a love to let me live again?" These are words crying out for Orbison at his most tormented, yet Diana Ross at her perkiest is strangely but equally convincing at conveying the song's underlying desperation.

Collins' cover, which in itself is faithfully facsimilied in the mode of a reproduction antique – his vocals aside, the recording might as well have been taken from one of those Hot Hits make-do-and-mend albums - was the only substantial hit single from his second solo album, Hello, I Must Be Going!, by some distance the weakest-selling of his '80s tetralogy, full of interchangeable whining ballads about his first divorce. They do not include songs entitled “You Can’t Take My TV” or “Why I Pay You To Go Out With Fancyman (Why I Not Break His Jaw)?,” despite what the eximious Comstock Carabinieri claimed, but it’s a close call. It's also telling that virtually all of his cover versions come from an idealised 1966 - "Tomorrow Never Knows" on Face Value, "A Groovy Kind Of Love" from Buster - but unfortunately whatever minor merit his "You Can't Hurry Love" might have possessed is utterly nullified by its rather creepy video featuring multiple besuited Collinses, unflatteringly filmed on VT, performing a Blues Brothers tribute, as if the song were just a piece of laughable fluff from his schoolboy years to be sent up. As for “That’s All,” The Cure do a better Beatles on “The Love Cats.”

Duran Duran

PLEASE PLEASE TELL ME NOW!” they demand, in the manner of anxiously psychotic hostage takers. The “Look Of Love”-derived intro heralded an attempt at adding a harder, tougher edge to Duran Duran’s pop – le Bon’s “I KNOW you’re watching me” and “DON’T SAY you’re easy on me” warned listeners that he really was not to be messed around with (actually he sounds not a million miles away from that other renegade Brumrocker Ozzy Osbourne). Hence when le Bon tells of “jungle drums” we receive booming “Poison Arrow” echoes of drum. It’s pretty clear that this is a transitional record and also why it didn’t get included on Seven And The Ragged Tiger; musically the most interesting ingredient is John Taylor’s bass (particularly in the fadeout, under le Bon’s “Every time it passes by”), and while producer Alex Sadkin is always aware of the value of space and silence, and a harmonica strays in from an old career in an old town during the instrumental break (are we really as big as the Beatles?), this is a relatively disappointing piece of work; the ingredients to enable development of their music are all present, but are, at this point, still only perhaps three-quarters baked.

UB40/Bonnie Tyler/Paul Young

One central problem with the Now series, apart from making great pop sound dull, is that sometimes 45 edits are no longer enough. Some songs are now benefiting from their full album length, such that any single edit is like looking at just one corner of a painting rather than the whole thing; otherwise they run the danger of sounding emotionally constipated. The edit of “Total Eclipse” here is (pace what I said above) different from the edit on the original 45 and still unsatisfactory. Then again, “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” is unedited, if a wholly unnecessary inclusion. A very long way indeed from “So Here I Am.”

But those sleigh bells on “Total Eclipse.” One is never too far away from the Beach Boys, or indeed from Dennis Wilson, who slipped into the blue Pacific Ocean, never to resurface, on 28 December 1983.

As regards Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat,” see also Scott Walker’s “Orpheus” from 1966.

Kajagoogoo/Limahl

“Johnnie Ray!” exclaimed Lena as we endured “Only For Love” (“And! Ew-YOU! RrrrrrRECOGNISE!”). Or perhaps a glossier variant on Chris Andrews, whose “Yesterday Man” was re-covered by Robert Wyatt on a very different Virgin Records compilation album in 1975. But one of the major failings of Now 1 is the inclusion of three songs by Kajagoogoo and/or Limahl. Some might say that was five more than was absolutely necessary.

Kajagoogoo were EMI's "priority new act" for 1983. They achieved some useful publicity touring as support to Duran Duran, and Nick Rhodes even co-produced their first single. Their profile was heightened further by an appearance on the Channel 4 series The Other Side Of The Tracks, presented by an expatriate American broadcaster who is currently under a legal cloud, and who was then the partner of lead singer Limahl - just before the Christmas of 1982.

Everything about "Too Shy" betrays the slide rule. It is a ghastly melange of absolute misunderstanding of New Pop; as if the swooning entrance of the keyboards allied to a burbling, harmonically ambiguous bassline could in itself conjure up Level 42, or Japan. When Limahl enters for the first verse, it becomes worse; a tortuous Lexicon Of Love parody ("Try a little harder" with sub-sub-sub-Anne Dudley piano) swiftly followed by dangling Tin Drum/New Gold Dream angles of warbling synth over which Limahl coos "Move a little closer" in the manner of Cheggers Plays Pop host Keith Chegwin, before we reach the chorus which fully reveals Kajagoogoo as the dull, Jamiroquai-presaging jazz-funk drones they secretly always wanted to be - and when Limahl huffily walked out, or was pushed (depending on whom you ask), some six months later, they indulged their sub-Shakatak fantasies freely (“Big Apple,” which set new standards in flaccidity, both musically and lyrically, is perhaps the worst song about New York ever written, from the perspective of people who sound as though they had travelled no further west than Hounslow). The song seems to be about sexual timidity, but faced with Limahl, one is scarcely surprised by his Other's reluctance to "dilate." "Too Shy," however, dilates New Pop to the point of nullity.

There was an album – White Feathers, which peaked at #5 at the end of April, and which, despite including songs entitled “Ergonomics” and “This Car Is Fast” – and two other hit singles that are rather more disturbing than “Too Shy” (“Ooh To Be Ah” might still be one of the most abstract things ever to make our top ten; play against, say, Gabi Delgado’s “History Of A Kiss” and see the connections, while “Hang On Now” is a downbeat ballad sung as though its singer were hanging onto the edge of the world with a turquoise fingernail) – is ultimately no more than placid jazz-funk, even if in Icelandic terms it might be a missing link between Mezzoforte and Björk. I mean, “Magician Man.” Whereas Limahl’s first solo effort (which peaked at an unsurprisingly low #16) is not even interestingly random, like a Dadaist jigsaw puzzle, but merely a ghastly cut-and-paste of 1983 pop elements, none of which fits with each other. As well as equally ghastly and obligatory soulful, passionate and honest backing singers. Honest about what?

Heaven 17/Human League/Tina Turner

From the first second of “Temptation,” you are never in doubt that, unlike Limahl, Heaven 17 know how to structure a great pop record, and they also know that without conflict and pain, there really wouldn’t be much pop music, of any stripe, left. If “Let Me Go” had given notice that the dream wasn’t working, or even coming true, then The Luxury Gap from its cover inwards set about demolishing illusion. The knowledge that it’s all bullshit, that you can travel the world, go crazy with plastic and before day is done you still have to get back, get home, to desolate, semi-derelict Sheffield – such things power the polite screams of “Key To The World “(“I’m Mister Obsolete – DELETE!,” complete with the ironically opulent Earth, Wind and Fire horn section) or “Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry,” or the quietened tragedies of “Come Live With Me” (the song Rod Stewart never sang, but should have done) or the closing “The Best Kept Secret” which sees Glenn Gregory staring out onto an ocean of nothingness which will evidently take forever to fade.

“Temptation” is angry, righteous, arranged with maximal ingenuity by BEF and sometime AMM accomplice John Barker, with a continued, upward, creeping angle of progress between topline chords and underscore rhythm which anticipates what Calvin Harris would do on 18 Months. It is sinister yet ultimately liberating, thanks to the explosive co-lead vocal of NYJO graduate Carol Kenyon.

Both Heaven 17 and the Human League peaked at #2 behind “True” in consecutive weeks; Top Of The Pops proved a challenge. But “Fascination,” Melody Maker’s single of the year for 1983, was the last thing that Phil Oakey’s League did with Martin Rushent, and overall – although there was no telling at the time – the record (still credited to “Human League Red”) serves as a fond farewell to the association, with everybody in the group taking a vocal turn, and Jo Callis’ wobbly guitar-processed-via-synth riff sounds like the missing link between “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Only Shallow.” Meanwhile, Oakey’s deep “hey, hey, hey, HEY” is reminiscent of Larry Graham with Sly and the Family Stone.

But then there is Tina Turner, returned like the grown-up co-protagonist of “Temptation,” and these days she had seen, and how they bled their way slowly into how she sang “Let’s Stay Together” – is my memory fallible, or was the original single credited to “B.E.F. Presents Tina Turner” (it might have been “Ball Of Confusion” from 1982)? In any event, it was the Heaven 17 fanbase who got it into the Top 40, but then perhaps an older demographic helped elevate it into the Top Ten; absent from the charts for a decade, and perhaps from the world from as nearly as long a time, here she was; alive, and in pain, and euphoric, the B.E.F. voices gently ushering her into centre stage, and for once the old times were justified.

KC & The Sunshine Band

Lena commented that “Give It Up” might well have been the “Get Lucky” of its age and I would agree with this. Long, hot summer – no, Weller’s nowhere to be seen here – and a number one song inhabiting that nice middle place where everything just works. Also “Give It Up” was the year’s only number one single without an accompanying video (N.B.: there was a VHS companion to this album which included the otherwise Now-avoiding “I.O.U.” by Freeez and “Never Never” by the Assembly).

The record was an unexpected and brief but highly welcome resurgence of the Miami Sound. Only its discreet synth marks out “Give It Up” as having been recorded in 1982 rather than 1974, and that’s no bad thing. While “That’s The Way (I Like It)” remains KC’s best record because of its underlying sense of approaching menace, “Give It Up” is busily arranged but basically straightforward three-chord bubblegum disco with a terrific good humour which is admirably happy to remain as such. An anachronism in the land of “Just Be Good To Me” and “Hey You (The Rock Steady Crew),” perhaps, but a contented one.

Malcolm McLaren

Worthiness is not the same thing as worth. To seize a music, take it to pieces, expose it to its aesthetic polar opposite and thereby (hopefully) refresh it is not a task to which the adjective "worthy" should be applied. There are places for reverence and respect as long as you don't let them block your future. I could spend the rest of my life revering Spencer's Resurrection at Cookham but simultaneously realise and adore the pelvis-driven imaginings which give that masterpiece its multiple puncta.

As with World Music. If music is truly to be of the world then it must by definition be exposed to "impure" things, it must be acknowledged that the music itself is probably "impure" to begin with. It cannot be adopted or handled with dainty fingers, nervously examining their adrenalin reserves to ensure that they contain adequate nullifying agents of respect. Otherwise any World Music is all middle-distance, respectful, designed never to derange. More of a lead should have been taken from Malcolm McLaren and Trevor Horn.

It is deliberate that, with the Duck Rock project, McLaren set out to combat and nullify what he viewed to be the sterile blandness of New Pop. And how better to attack than to employ its chief architect, Trevor Horn, to arrange and produce? McLaren said he wanted Horn to obtain some "bollocks" in his work, get "a bit of the rough, the spontaneous" into his meticulous productions. It is therefore doubly ironic that Duck Rock is one of the most seamlessly, microscopically put-together things which Horn ever did.

How did they approach this? It was McLaren's ceaseless strivings for a new punk, and his moderately keen ear for developments. He was in America while hip-hop and electro went overground with Flash and Bambaataa, witnessed with amazement kids breakdancing to a modified "Trans-Europe Express," scratching up records like John Cage with a good drummer (a disciple of Karel Appel's COBRA group/philosophy as well as of Debord, McLaren instinctively knew how to insert the art into this sort of thing). His ears wandered vaguely in the direction of Africa, specifically in view of Bambaataa's Zulu Nation and any connections which McLaren could discern (Nigeria's King Sunny Ade and Senegal's Youssou N'Dour had yet to break overground, though the former's Synchro System was, usefully, a minor UK hit at around the time of Duck Rock's release, while the fatally less mischievous Laswell got to N'Dour first). His wits further led him to discern a vague (probably imagined) link between the square dances of the white South and the hip hop culture of the black North - apart from their both being ritual occasions to allow participants to somehow become more "themselves" - the same idea which, of course, prompted Punk into existence. How to marry all of this up?

McLaren and Horn did some field trips to NYC, Tennessee and the South African townships, made some recordings and then returned to London to knock them into shape with what was eventually to become the Art of Noise (indeed, the latter's epoch-beginning Into Battle EP largely originated from Duck Rock outtakes) with some help from Thomas Dolby. Significantly, from NYC, they employed the DJ duo The World's Famous Supreme Team to act as a kind of Greek chorus for the album, turning it into one of their then legendary late night/early morning radio shows.

It's hard to visualise just how radical the first single from the album "Buffalo Gals" seemed when it came right at the death of 1982, right when certain careerist ambulance chasers seemed determined to strip New Pop of all its mischief and sensuality. And how appropriate that both McLaren and Horn should signify a way out. Radio One played it; and their DJs sounded completely baffled but, to their credit, they knew that this was something new and correctly predicted that it would be a gigantic hit. True, to those long familiar with things like Grandmaster Flash's "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel" (which just missed the UK Top 75 about a year previously), this was not exactly something unprecedented, although one could argue that what McLaren and Horn did with it was unprecedented. Certainly square dance cut-ups were not yet on the Zululand template, although downtown Double Dee and Steinski were simultaneously busy preparing their likewise groundbreaking "Lessons." For the other big hit off the album, "Double Dutch," McLaren reversed the template, getting Zulu singers to exalt the praises of NYC skipping contests.

The album itself remains eminently playable. Though the Supreme Team's patter is now a stock template for Radio 1/Kiss DJs, it sounded fresh and spontaneous at the time, sounded like an injection of (s)punk into the barrenness in which post-New Pop pop had marooned itself. And McLaren let no stones lie in his "world tour." From the near-holy murmurings of the introduction "Obatala" effortlessly into the welcoming Supreme Team ("leave your guns at home! Tell me Shirl, how do you manage to stay up until four o'clock in the morning to listen to our show??!?") and the killer opening sequence of "Buffalo Gals," "Double Dutch" and "Merengue," this is a grin-inducing record. On the latter, six clear years before the Lambada came to public prominence, McLaren gleefully romps through the salsa-meets-kwela-meets-Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra like a postmodern Bruce Forsyth, excitedly intoning lines like "nice little cemetarios will be waiting for you!" Even the fact that McLaren's delivery (especially on "Double Dutch") recalls no one so much as the late Harry Corbett of Sooty the Bear fame somehow lends even more humanity and mischief to this record.

And what about "Punk It Up"? In his sleevenotes, McLaren recalls the glee and enthusiasm with which the Zulus entertained his stories about the Sex Pistols, and how enlivening and joyous it is to hear the Zulus singing, "I'm a Sex Pistol man" to top-notch Afrobeat. This seeming disrespect for "other musics" (sics) actually betrays a greater and deeper respect for them than mere Xeroxing and blanding out. The whole thing continues in similar (if slightly more contemplative and ritualistic) mood on side two before bowing out with "Duck For The Oyster," a straightfaced square dance for fiddles and scratch DJs where McLaren manfully fuses both mutually hating though ultimately alike extremes together. Note the parting cry of "Promenade you know where/AND I DON'T CARE" where he performs the final bonding ceremony with Punk and thereby regenerates it.

A shame that no room could be found on the CD for perhaps McLaren and the Supreme Team's greatest moment, "D'Ya Like Scratchin'?" (the B-side of the 12-inch of "Soweto") where the Team's especially demented scratching interacts with proto-Art of Noise beats to almost hysterical levels until McLaren strides in with a straight hoedown version of "Red River Valley" (cf. Scooter's "Fuck the Millennium" to see how this spirit remains propagated even into the present century). But this is a joyous record which superficially doesn't give a fuck but deep down its fuck is much more sincerely given than any "worthy" or "respectful" people I could mention could really offer. Liz Phair quoted “Double Dutch” in her song “Whip-Smart,” while Paul Simon, with whose “The Late Great Johnny Ace” we could close down 1983, was sufficiently intrigued by the record to begin a controversial adventure of his own.

Culture Club/Men At Work

Say something once, why say it again?

Men Without Hats

A classic example of an act wrongfooting its audience with its videos – although the medieval undertow of “The Safety Dance” was really always evident. They were from Montreal, they came, they impacted and they went back into the rest of the world.

Mike Oldfield

A decade after Tubular Bells set the whole thing going, was it deliberate, or a nice accident, that Virgin’s original star should reappear on this record? On TOTP he looked ecstatic, clean-shaven and grinning, perhaps relieved at no longer having to share a chart with Paul Nicholas or David Soul, accompanying Maggie Reilly, erstwhile singer with Glasgow white soul band Cado Belle, with guitars which at times border on the hysterical. All in keeping with a song whose subject matter is the assassination of John Lennon, that other 1980 ghost whom New Pop can’t quite forget.

The Rock Steady Crew

“DIGITAL” beeped the voice, repeatedly, and top B-boy producer Stephen Hague, presumably with Duck Rock on his mind, set about recording this fantastic piece of avant-bubblegum (although it is really “Hang On Sloopy” plus “Looking For The Perfect Beat”). Like “I Can See For Miles,” there is continued build-up (the live turntable scratching = Keith Moon’s cymbals) but no climax or release. Pop, this is your smiling future. At least until you see the video and watch with an increasing rictus grin as the second half turns into a display of American military weaponry. World, this must not be your unsmiling future. But the song was sampled by De La Soul (on “Cool Breeze On The Rocks”) and the nod to Numan at fadeout suggests that somebody else will have the last laugh.

Rod Stewart

All this new-looking design; all these old-looking names. If someone had time-travelled from 1976 to 1983 they’d still recognise Genesis, Mike Oldfield, Tina Turner, Roberta Flack, Bonnie Tyler, KC & The Sunshine Band. If they were really hip they’d remember that Malcolm McLaren was the Pistols’ manager.

And of course Rod, always bloody Rod, haven’t seen you since the seventies Rod. "The situation ain't all that new," croaks Rod, and indeed it isn't; the brought-you-up-from-nothing plot is borrowed from "Don't You Want Me?," the rhythm from Eddy Grant and the resignedly exasperated tone from "Maggie May." A dozen years on from the latter and now it's Rod's turn to tell his ungrateful paramour to sling her hook, though the line "I've said goodbye so many times" indicates that the problem is not one of the semi-hapless Jane's making.

Soaring to number one on the back of a bizarre WEA promotional campaign which included a free beach ball with every copy of the single - oddly this offer was only available at chart return shops - "Baby Jane" is Rod's sixth, and to date last, number one single, and it is the most airless. Revisiting this most purposely forlorn of 1983 hit singles, the overwhelming sensation is one of nullification; despite the presence of Tom Dowd as co-producer (with Rod), this is yet another "big" and seamless production, treble-heavy and metronomically precise, such that no art can hope to breathe or thrive within its consumer-flattering/suffocating bubble-packed surface. However, the bluff "When I Fall In Love" citation does provide an early indication of Rod's eventual (though not permanent) mutation into a hoarse-faced granny-pleasing MoR crooner. Cheryl Cole’s birth song; it’s enough to make me feel sorry for her.

New Edition

The pre-eminent pop producer in 1983 was not Trevor Horn - at least, not the pre-ZTT Horn - but the team of Arthur Baker and John Robie. In striking contrast to the maximalism of ABC and Dollar records, and with a keener ear to the urban ground, Baker and Robie stripped their productions of anything approaching lushness in favour of skittish, deeper beats with a staccato rather than ambulatory perspective applied. There is evidence that the noticeably tougher Horn who emerged with things like Duck Rock, Art of Noise and "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" from mid-1983 onwards was provoked into substantial rethought after experiencing the impact of Baker and Robie's steely futurism. Bambaataa's immensely important "Looking For The Perfect Beat" was the first single to feature digital rather than manual sampling. Records like Freeez's "I.O.U." and Robie's astonishing double whammy of C-Bank's "One More Shot" and Jenny Burton's "Remember What You Like" are beyond-Futurist cut-ups of notions of "song" and "voice"; it is a wonder how, on the latter two singles, Burton manages to retain her elegance and grace while being assaulted from all sides by smashing glass, gunfire, car horns and Corbusier-proportioned beats. And of course there was "Blue Monday," the point where all pop music meets, simultaneously the beginning, suspension and end of time, the supreme seven-and-a-half minute denial of 1983's ruination (because the song is about a ruination) and a record whose importance casts a yellowing shadow on the subsequent quarter-century of pop, a record so vital yet accidental that Baker left his name off the label credits but later owned up to having produced it (Robie is credited with the mix).

But there were also minor ambitions to do a Motown; see the Andromeda Strain Four Tops of Planet Patrol's "Play At Your Own Risk" and "Cheap Thrills" (although Planet Patrol’s eponymous album remains a marvel), and most clearly and depressingly evident in "Candy Girl," strictly speaking a Maurice Starr and Michael Jonzun conception, but produced by Baker and Robie. The song is little more than an electro update of "ABC," Ralph Tresvant was never going to be another Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown's rapping was annoying even at that early stage, and next to the unforced naturalness of Musical Youth it all still seems more than a little contrived, and probably in an unpleasant sense. This underlines the ultimate failure of Now 1; so we couldn’t get Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star on the planet, but here’s somebody who sounds like he USED to sound. And somebody else in the background who will grow up to be somebody extremely unpleasant. What was that about a Georgian market square, and hell?

Howard Jones/Simple Minds

To be written about in the near future, but not here. For now there is Bob Marley’s “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” and there is “Throw off your mental chains.”

Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack

Side three was evidently meant to be the “adult” side, as it closes with UB40’s “Please Don’t Make Me Sleep” followed by this 1975 snooze of a Mathis Collection duet. But the sequencing is beyond awry and the hoped-for demographic much too hopelessly wide. Did anybody like Peabo Bryson AND The Cure? And yet for one week this outsold “Karma Chameleon.” Where’s “Islands In The Stream” when you need it?

Tracey Ullman

The Kirsty MacColl-ness. The punctum pause: “Ba-a-by-y!” He’s bad, but I love him: see “Papa Don’t Preach.” Potential sequel to this song: “Fairytale Of New York.” Did Amy Winehouse hear this record as an infant? It plays like a happy Amy song, complete with the he’s-bad-BUT trademark. More ahead of its time than you imagine. The only woman on the cover, in the centre of a field of men, two of whom appear twice.

Will Powers

It doesn’t say very much about any newness relating to Now 1 that its most outré moment is provided by, of all people, Lynn Goldsmith, with her musical chums, nearly all of whom were around before punk. Terrific in a Tom Tom Club kind of way – it could so easily have fallen over into the Meri Wilson side of that particular fence – and Carly Simon might not have sounded better or more alive than here.

The Cure

I wish I could provide Cap’n Bob with a more positive welcome to TPL but The Cure essentially mucking around with jazz and psychedelia has been so eroded by three decades of radio overplay that it’s completely lost its mischief. No, Pornography was as far as “that” Cure could ever have gone without exploding. But “Let’s Go To Bed” was better pop and none of the Banshees hits or spinoffs (“Dear Prudence,” The Creatures, The Glove) bothers to put in an appearance here. To the record’s loss.

Madness

Their last top ten hit in their original lifetime, and hardly heard now; it plays like a miserablist dilution of 1982’s “Primrose Hill,” and only David Bedford’s strings lift the song out of the morass. Suggs sings like Robert Wyatt hidden behind a muffler, “Wings Of A Dove,” though incongruously jaunty (it made number two but sounded as though the band were beginning to make records to please NME writers), was a bigger hit, no useful sense of liberation or catharsis is communicated, and ultimately we are left with a…

…Hall Of Mirrors

A sense of no risk being taken. A sense of the record not being ambitious, or brave, enough. A “grazing experience” as Lena put it.

But there is more, and it is sinister; I think that the arrival and success of the Now brand constituted the first nail in the coffin of what is generally regarded as the pop single. Think, even, about that “I” in “Now That’s What I Call Music”; who is this “I”? Who’s doing the deciding, the dictating? It might not be as threatening as the “we” of today – “Why we all love Breaking Bad” when one has not even SEEN Breaking Bad – but it was a way for the old, conservative music industry to get back in, having worked New Pop out, and nipping any genuine newness in the bud. It would affect the way people regarded the single – if they are all handily collected, why bother with singles? – and, worse, alter the way in which pop was conceived, listened to, watched and sold. Soon (in 1983 terms) there will come the time when worried record companies will begin to make records in the hope that they will end up on a Now compilation, and a generation before the internet makes its full impact, the consumers will gradually disengage themselves from the form. Before long, TPL will consist of little other than these records, these treated logs, these doctored journals, and solidification and morbidity will set in.

NOW, the British music industry knows exactly what the hell is going on in their own world, and will be damned if they will give it somebody else, somebody new and untested, or an established artist whose career plan won’t particularly be advanced by inclusion on these records. Thatcher had won again in July 1983. Everything, and everybody, was happy. Don’t complain. Don’t DARE complain. Be the worst you can be.

Like I said, Now is the end of something, and this is the fulsome picture of the hell that has now arrived; people pretending to be happy when their souls and their homes have been stolen away, the school choir unity of too many charity records to come, the desecration of gospel that will culminate in Cowell, the central assembly point for people who don’t want subtext, excitement or outrage – or even mild difference – but shiny conveyor belt shite that will fit in the checkout with the Brillo pads and Johnson’s air fresheners.

This music was better when I was nineteen.

But, these days we can no longer see.

3 comments:

Simon said...

Great piece, although (perhaps fittingly) it doesn't make me want to go and listen to the album. I've never bought a NOW compilation. Nothing against compilations, but at the time I would have bought the singles I liked and nothing more.

Meanwhile Heaven 17's Temptation, love that,one of my favourite singles. But it does sort of give us a Michael Jackson moment - I'm thinking they were listening to Can You Feel It? just a little bit. No bad thing, no bad thing at all...

Bob Stanley said...

Another victim of Now 1's play-safe, post-election mentality is possibly The Sun And The Rain by Madness, which would have been their current single and so, you might think, commercially preferable to Wings Of A Dove. But something in the woozy strings, or Suggs's carefree but melancholic delivery, or the opening line ("It's raining again"), or the photo of Madness on the sleeve, peering through the steamed-up window of an old London caff, made this single part of a different, older, non-moneyed world. In spite of Suggs singing "nowhere to go, and nothing I have to do", it sounded like a key to a better world than Britain in 1983.

stardust saint said...

A very sobering but refreshing view of an often untouchable British musical establishment. As an 11 year old at the time, the allure of the NOW franchise was the availability in one place of what was perceived as the best pop of the time. We all now, with hindsight, can see that like the other bastions of pop delivery - TOTP, radio1 et al, the reins were still being held tightly by an older guard. The artwork and advertising appealed and yes, now, signifies the best and worst of the 80s in the UK. But they do still trigger great nostalgia in this collector of pop.

With regards to considering 1983 through the more constructive looking glass, there were some amends made in the release of the NOW 10th anniversary series. Notable inclusions on that release included Altered Images latecomer 'don't talk to me about love', U2's best Coldplay impersonation 'New Years Day', the evergreen Arthur Bakerness of Freeez 'IOU', and Siouxie's 'Prudence'. Indeed, the 1999 millennium series finally succumbed to PIL's 'lovesong' too.
All good things come those that wait.