(#376: 3 December 1988, 3 weeks; 7 January 1989, 1 week)
Track listing: The Only Way Is Up (Yazz and The Plastic Population)/Teardrops (Womack and Womack)/A Little Respect (Erasure)/Harvest For The World (The Christians)/Ordinary Angel (Hue And Cry)/Breakfast In Bed (UB40 with Chrissie Hynde)/She Makes My Day (Robert Palmer)/Hands To Heaven (Breathe)/A Groovy Kind Of Love (Phil Collins)/Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin)/Kiss (The Art Of Noise featuring Tom Jones)/Let’s Stick Together (Bryan Ferry)/You Came (Kim Wilde)/Don’t Make Me Wait (Bomb The Bass)/The Harder I Try (Brother Beyond)/He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (The Hollies)/The Twist (Yo, Twist) (Fat Boys and Chubby Checker)/Wee Rule (Wee Papa Girl Rappers)/Twist And Shout (Salt ‘N’ Pepa)/The Race (Yello)/Big Fun (Inner City featuring Kevin Saunderson)/We Call It Acieeed (D-Mob featuring Gary Haisman)/Burn It Up (The Beatmasters with P.P. Arnold)/Girl You Know It’s True (Milli Vanilli)/Heaven In My Hands (Level 42)/Rush Hour (Jane Wiedlin)/I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) (The Proclaimers)/Secret Garden (T’Pau)/I Want Your Love (Transvision Vamp)/I Don’t Want Your Love (Duran Duran)/Love Is All That Matters (The Human League)/Martha’s Harbour (All About Eve)
The first volume since Now II to deploy Roman numerals, Now XIII was also the last of the series to reach number one, and the conclusion of a story which began some sixteen-and-a-half years previously. Indeed, the newly elastic definition of what constituted a multi-artist album would eventually extend to incorporate film and stage soundtracks, a story which here goes back almost to the very beginning, but it is fair to say that after Now XIII the prolific act “Various Artists” was banished from the main album chart forever.
You may recall that a similar experiment to exclude compilation albums was tried between 1973-6, following which they were covertly reintroduced to the main list. But by the end of 1988 there seemed no turning back; under pressure from record companies distraught that their artists were being prevented from getting to number one with “proper” albums by TV-friendly hits compilations, it was finally decided to institute a separate “Compilations Chart,” which began in the week ending 14 January 1989. Under this new rule, Now XIII and The Hits Album (really Hits 9 subjected to some disastrous re-branding) were immediately transferred from the main chart into the compilation listings.
It is not entirely clear who would or wouldn’t have benefited from these records’ absence; looking at the chart for 7 January 1989, if you discounted the compilations the top album would have been Kylie – which had already been number one. This was followed by greatest hits albums by Bananarama and Fleetwood Mac, while most of the rest of the Top Ten was occupied by albums which had in themselves already topped the chart; the only exception was Push by Bros, 1988’s fourth best-selling album (but never a number one – this may tell you something about an inbuilt fallibility in this exercise), at number seven.
But the Now series has continued to…well, now; Now 91 is due to be released in just over a month, and there is little doubt that most of the seventy-eight volumes which have appeared since the end of 1988 would have easily outsold all competitors (though not all; statistically, for instance, Now 16 is likely to have finished second behind entry #402). So there may be an element of self-denial at work, a refusal to see that, when things come down to what they are, consumers want The Hits, in whatever easily obtainable format.
From this tale’s point of view, the pressing question has of course been: what to do about the Nows from now? By virtue of their mere length and scope, there is no doubt that these albums take a long time to research and review…but the Now pieces are some of this blog’s most popular and regularly revisited. We have thought and talked long and hard about where we go from here; our conclusions you may find in the text below.
From the same perspective, Now XIII does itself feel like the closing of an era; a series which started out as homely, almost DIY, in design and approach is now streamlined, a spacecraft pulling away from the planet into the black holes and red stars of the rest of the universe. Four artists who appeared on Now 1 return here; two with cover versions (as indeed was the case on Now 1) and the other two with what, in this context, sound like words of farewell.
But this is an album which is also acutely aware of its own history, more so than any previous volumes. I hadn’t previously realised how adherent it was to notions of the sixties, whether in material (or in one case an actual record), approach, mentality or (in some cases) the artists themselves.
Despite all of this, Now XIII doesn’t play like an oldies mix on Stylus Records; not only is it more than dimly aware of a future which may imminently come along and swallow it up, but the very nature of its late 1988 “present tense” is poignant, in the sense that almost none of these thirty-two records gets replayed on oldies radio today (not even Absolute 80s, the sterling work of Matthew Rudd’s Forgotten 80s show excepted). Most of it appears to have vanished into the void, or as Lena puts it, “the Fog.”
We wonder whether this is due to the fact that fifteen of these thirty-two records feature the presence of a female voice to the fore (including “Let’s Stick Together”; if we count Anne Dudley’s “la-la-la” on “Kiss,” then fully half the album features women in a prominent role). Added to this, there is the question of what seem from this vantage to be the last breath of “nowness” in pop before “classicism” and “heritage” come in to smother pop, and it may well be a question whose answer is dependent on gender. On “I Want Your Love,” Wendy James is very clear about what she wants, and it’s not the guy’s Marilyn or Dylan memorabilia; hence in these songs there is largely an emphasis on feelings and emotions rather than continually keeping an eye in the rearview mirror and wondering how Chuck or John or Morrissey would have done it. Or, one might suggest, a fundamental difference in how women and men view and use pop music.
From my perspective so much of this record is tied up with memories and experiences in the London of 1988 that the two are difficult to separate. It isn’t universally viewed as one of the great Now volumes, but it is my personal favourite because it conjures up such vivid mental photographs of those times – well, I’ve previously talked here about how inexpensive and easy it was to live, work and have fun in eighties London and there’s no point regurgitating any of that, except to reiterate that – in parallel with the “development” of pop – it was also, I now see, the end of something, to be superseded by the beginning of something less welcome that is now in danger of engulfing the city entirely. The last, ultra-bright burning of a light bulb before it burns off forever.
The record begins with a woman, not alone, in dire straits but not at the end of her tether, and ends with another woman, alone, far away from anything that could be recognised or acknowledged as “the world.”
The Only Way Is Up
“We’ve been broken down
To the lowest turn”
London in the summer of 1988. Some considered that it might as well have been a huge yellow smiley face. There was Acid House, on the verge of adding on all of those extra Es, and there were the clubs, but that was only part of the proud and slightly less messy jigsaw that was London almost twenty-seven summers ago.
I think of the London of mid-1988 and I think of a city still relatively new to us, even though we’d known it and lived in it for three summers, still colourful enough to entice and entrance. I think of sunny weekend mornings in Chelsea, wandering out into the holy trinity of the Chelsea Cinema, Waitrose and Picasso’s Café. Words mingling with sighs of music. Busy summer evenings; the record racks in the old Oxford Street HMV which always seemed to hold so much more music than the CD racks of today, the alluring smell of activity, Leicester Square and its competing burger scents, endless milkshakes, films at the Lumière in St Martin’s Lane or up the Camden Plaza if I were passing that way, repertory matinees at the Everyman in Hampstead, all-nighters with that scabby cat at the Scala in King’s Cross, gigs everywhere, Night Network on London Weekend Television when I staggered back home at three in the morning, newness and nowness lurking and bounding everywhere, the seventy-something lady who ran Groove Records as though it were a pre-war sweetshop, Hampstead Heath, the Royal Parks, the sweetly scented cocoon of the Mall, walking everywhere (for I always walked, hardly ever used public transport, and the Underground then was both cheap and tolerable) – we had to be in the capital, at least during the summer…
“Being on the bottom line
Sure ain’t no fun.”
The music, but the music; the joy of hearing Don Cherry blasting out of pirate jazz stations as I walked down Park Lane of a heated Bank Holiday Monday early evening, “Don’t Believe The Hype” and “Follow The Leader” in the charts (the melting tarmac as the Piccadilly underpass emerged at Knightsbridge), and Christ is that really My Bloody Valentine? “Big Fun” by Inner City EVERYWHERE we turned and if only Virgin hadn’t fucked up the distribution in a crucial week it would have got much further than number eight (that having been said, it was in the charts forever). The dazzling, oozing opacity of “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” and (especially) those garden walls over which Chris Rea climbed to get “On The Beach.” And AR Kane and Jane Siberry and the Cocteau Twins and all of the rest of the visionaries…
Days some were not meant to see
“But if we should be evicted from our home
We’ll just move somewhere else and still carry on.”
So many more promises, some of which were fulfilled and others not. Unhappiness was a foreign body, recognised at a long distance and peremptorily dismissed. Happiness required no definition.
“Hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on
Hold on –
Won’t be long!”
Days others chose not to see
“But with you by my side
I’ll face what is to come”
Such cheek, such glee, from its opening locomotive blast of Goon Show trombones (actually from Sharon Redd’s “Beat The Street”) through its biscuit tin drum machine tattoos, running on the spot but definitely heading somewhere, sounding as though it were recorded for fivepence (which it may well have been) but such svelte moves in its eager Dadaist rush – those Tex Avery vinyl scratches coming from every corner, that not quite bass-less House bassline which obstinately, or merrily, hardly ever changes, the warm and compassionate smile of a lead vocal, the spark, the jump, the glee, the cheek, Double Barrel and Mouldy Old Dough but also Those Were The Days and Mony Mony and YES I’m A Believer…it’s all there to be found and loved…and preserved…the second biggest selling single of its year and goodness did it deserve to the biggest…I suppose you could say that “we” had won…
“Things may be a little hard now
But we’ll find a brighter day”
But…but but…but but but…
“HOLD ON! (Hold on!)
HOLD ON! (Hold on!)”
…and this is where it gets tricky, because Coldcut came out in part from a group called the Jazz Insects and, well, something happened in 1987 and suddenly somebody wasn’t there any more, and I can’t say for a certifiable fact that this record happened because of what happened the year before, but I can say this was somebody I never had the chance to know or even meet, and that when it happened everyone who knew him was hit hard, utterly, mindfuckingly bereft, and then a year later Coldcut come up with this record, a version of an Otis Clay soul song from a few years earlier which says that the only way is up and whatever shit happens I’ll stay with you and stick with you and we’ll rise out of it and keeps begging the listener to hold on, just HOLD ON, stay there, stay here, with me, with us, and I didn’t know any of this at the time, how could I have done, but then when you learn about circumstances and things and you realise just what MIGHT have been behind the making of this happily bouncy orange of a pop record and it screams at you to LIVE because what bloody alternative is there?
“The only way is UP, baby,
For you and me now.”
These days we are meant to see
“I wanna thank you
For loving me this way.”
Sonny and Cher gone wrong. As the album’s sleevenote delicately puts it, this didn’t make number one in 1988 but outsold most of the records which did. It’s one of the oldest of stories; betrayal (“I took a crazy chance”), abandonment, penance (“Next time I’ll be true”) and the unbearable pain of music when it’s only you listening or attempting to dance to it (“She cries on every tune! Every tune! Every tune!”). The record works, I think, because it avoids easy Orbison melodrama and wears its mourning on the most deadpan of sleeves; the two-note keyboard solo (whoever played it; Cecil or Linda or possibly Joel Bryant) is worthy of Pete Shelley on “Boredom.”
The only two songs on this album which appear on other number one albums. Nothing new to say about either except both singers are very keen, to the point of desperation, not to let a relationship split apart.
The Isley Brothers Question
Referenced by no less than three songs on this album; I don’t know whether it’s anything more than coincidence, but this past, in 1988 at least, is the proverbial long road from which there is no return. It’s a real shame that the first Christians album, despite being, at that point, the biggest-selling debut album by an Island Records act, fell just short of number one since it’s one of the most sober and absorbable of eighties Brit soulcialism records, perhaps helped by the group’s long previous history (they had evolved out of Natural High, who had appeared on Opportunity Knocks as far back as 1974). Their “Harvest For The World” was a charity disc, with all proceeds going to various British-based Third World charities, and theirs is a good, gruff and unsentimental reading.
At another end of the triangle were Brother Beyond, SAW’s first shot at producing a boy band (and possibly their response to Bros?). “The Harder I Try” turns on the dime of the introductory drum break to the Isleys’ “This Old Heart Of Mine” but is otherwise strangely old-fashioned; you could imagine White Plains or the Fortunes having a hit with it in 1971, although singer Nathan Moore casts himself as a bewildered, infatuated dumbass; she clearly can’t stand him and indeed at one point laughs at him, but he won’t give up. At least, not until she calls the authorities.
Finally, and maybe most radically, we have Salt ‘N’ Pepa reviving and revising “Twist And Shout.” Theirs is a terrific reading – they howl the chorus with welcome abandon rather than sing it – and they are smart enough to cock a musical eye to “White Lines” along the way. In direct contrast to U2’s hamfisted Crackerjack misreading of “Helter Skelter,” this does feel as though black music is stealing the song right back from the Beatles.
It’s a good question. Whereas it was still in major evidence on Now 12, it now seems to have been squeezed back to a minimum. Hence Hue and Cry sound a little marooned here with their tasteful saxophone and vibraharp, although it’s a fine song with cutting words to which I suspect few consumers chose to listen (“I want a life that’s bigger than me/’Cause I’m crushing myself to death” – some people hadn’t forgotten Heaven 17 – and the succinct “I try to be a daily genius”).
Sonny And Cher Gone Right?
A return match and far more convincing than “I Got You Babe” and I suspect taking its lead more from the 1972 Lorna Bennett reggae cover than Dusty’s ’69 original, although Chrissie is definitely still needed to ward off underlying endemic torpor.
Strange how things turn out. Palmer wrote and produced this very affecting, Style Council-ish tribute to his (then) wife and children (Chuck Findley played the superb trumpet solo, and the parent Heavy Nova album found him apparently ready to embrace middle age, with amiable romps like “Change His Ways” and covers of “It Could Happen To You” and the Gap Band’s “Early In The Morning”) . Despite “Addicted To Love” etc. he was adamant about staying true to his roots and avoiding rock ‘n’ roll nincompoopism. Then in 1991 they broke up. He went on to meet someone new and was rejuvenated. Then he died of a heart attack in a Paris hotel room aged only fifty-four. Sometimes it’s better not to know how things turn out.
The gender thing gets more pronounced the deeper you get into this record. Singer David Glasper does his best Alison Moyet impression and enough people in Britain and the States were conservative enough to let them in for one hit. Bores me to distraction but it was produced by Bob Sargeant, in case you wondered what he went on to do.
The original hit version by the Mindbenders, featuring future 10cc-er Eric Stewart and kept off number one in February 1966 only by Nancy and her boots, with its conflict between strict march tempo (probably derived from "Cathy's Clown") and woozily delirious vocals, was a transitional record, blurring the fade from beat group to disorientated psychedelia - the strawberry ecstasy of that "any time you want to you can turn me on to anything you want to any time at all" is pivotal. But when Phil Collins got to it a generation later, to soundtrack his character's melancholy in the film Buster, a less than merry romp which expected its audience to feel sorry for a bank robber and murderer, he ruthlessly melted it down into AoR Nurofen; there is little, if any, sense of dazzlement or wonder, and the record, from Anne Dudley's elementary, 'phoned-in string chart to its gloomy keyboard and dulled drum thuds, treats transcendence as another item on a wearisome Saturday morning shopping list. A plod ploddy enough to send the charts to sleep, and this record’s most problematic sixties hangover. One concludes that Collins really doesn't care if the world should shatter, but it is so grievously the wrong sort of (not) caring.
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a number two hit in Britain, and I know for a fact that Lena will have a lot more to say about it in her own blog (which is currently resting in early 1974 but will soon be resuming), so I’ll only mention here that (a) McFerrin banned George Bush Snr from using the song in his election campaign; and (b) sometimes the free improvisation circuit can detour onto unexpected, if brightly lit, turnoffs.
Think I Better Cry Now
Occasionally I understand why Paul Morley gets upset about things. Once they were Art Of Noise, and then there was a brouhaha resulting in their leaving ZTT and adding the fatal definite article to their name. It’s not even the record that brought Tom Jones back in from the cold – that was “A Boy From Nowhere” in the late spring of 1987, from the scarcely remembered stage musical Matador – but what better for THE Art Of Noise than to take one of the decade’s best pop songs and trample it into submission with bombast, 1971 rock guitar and chintzy self-quoting, sticking their “Beat Box” and “Moments In Love” tongues out as if neither meant anything? They became Johnny and the Hurricanes with a new plug and special guests.
Saint Etienne’s Words And Music is a determinedly dour affair, its songs mostly addressing the question: whither pop music when you perhaps get too old for it? Are you forever condemned to looking back? The people in Saint Etienne are more or less the same age as me, so the question is relevant. “Over The Border” is half-monologue, half-song where the narrator/singer looks back on how things used to be, how central pop – listening to it, absorbing and assimilating it - was to her life. The music gradually and subtly becomes more modernist and darker; the synthesisers in the closing narrative section loom and pierce like the chill of death. The narrator has grown up, got married and had children, and now she is wondering whether Marc Bolan will mean as much to her now as he once had done. “Over the border,” she murmurs, “I’m getting older/Heaven knows what’s on its way…”
Well, when you get to that stage in life you deal with the prospect of the inevitable in different ways. I am aware that I am now well into the second half of my life, and questions of age and mortality do take on an extra importance. I am also aware that the end, when it comes, may not be pretty. I am not going to go into further personal detail here.
But how does that affect one’s attitude to music? If you have children, it’s easy; you relive the good times through them (as Freddie Mercury will soon recommend) and try to understand how they would all be het up about Zayn Malik, even (or especially) if One Direction’s music does nothing for you. If, like me, you don’t have children (and there are reasons for that, and none of them is your business), then it’s trickier.
Myself, I would reflect that you can now be approaching forty, and therefore middle age, and not even have been alive at the same time as Marc Bolan, whose name I now reckon means nothing to anyone under a certain age other than that weird seventies guy you sometimes see on BBC4. But I also recall Tim Rice’s introduction to the 1981 edition of The Guinness Book Of Hit Singles where he says something about the sheep getting separated from the goats at around the age of eighteen, following which some people – I would guess that means most people - relegate music to a background role in their lives, whereas others remain addicted to it, want to keep up with where it’s going.
I am definitely in the latter category. The past is always there but I don’t choose to tie myself to it. I have to keep going, and I speak as somebody who in his life has had two long-term partners who have been as devoted to music as me.
Nevertheless I do acknowledge that when children come into your life, things change. “You Came” was a top three hit for Kim Wilde – it was a very successful year for her, much helped by the fact that she supported Michael Jackson on his European tour, and the parent (!) album Close is a fine thing indeed with one of the most faithful (!!) of Todd Rundgren covers in the form of the closing “Lucky Guy” – and she sounds more heartfelt than anything she had done since maybe “Child Come Away”; full of unexpected joy and radiant happiness. The song appears to have been written in tribute to brother Ricki Wilde’s then year-old first son – Marty III – and, even as an aunt, Kim sounds suitably beguiled. Reviewing the album in Melody Maker, Caroline Sullivan dismissed it as a dated song which might have been an outtake from Dare. Me? I can think of no higher compliment. Love is here to stay.
The Future Can’t Wait!
For there WAS a future in 1988, and Bomb The Bass were (or was, since it was essentially Tim Simenon) part of it. “Don’t Make Me Wait” is a dynamic pop record, its chorus’ slowly shattering guitar chord sounding like Big Ben melting, and driven by a terrific, driven and sensuous vocal by Lorraine McIntosh, previously of harmless mid-eighties Britfunkers the Cool Notes, which really isn’t that far in purpose and delivery from Wendy James.
“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”
It’s very rare for a song to have three different and separate lives, but that’s what’s happened with “He Ain’t Heavy.” Back in late 1969, it was clearly the case that not only was the dream over, but after the departure of Graham Nash many thought the Hollies were over, or at least irretrievably lost to cabaret and MoR; one of the Beat Boom groups who saw the future ("King Midas In Reverse") and didn't much fancy it, or were afraid of it. That having been said, "He Ain't Heavy" was as elegiac a retreat from the wreckage of that dream as Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" or indeed Crosby, Stills and Nash's own "Long Time Gone," albeit more magnified by its heavily telegraphed lushness, with full orchestra and choir, plaintive harmonica and florid fills on piano (the latter supplied by the session player then still just about known as Reg Dwight) and subject matter of the bloodied survivor attempting to escort, or drag, his friend back into the world of the living (“The Long And Winding Road” unsurprisingly springs to mind). It is melodramatically effective; note Allan Clarke's anguished, suppressed howl on the "If I'm leaning at all" line in the bridge and how Bobby Elliott;s emphatic drum figures slow down the song at the climactic "Does-n't-weigh-me-down" when the protagonist is doing everything to avoid collapsing himself. A superb Abbey Road production by Ron Richards.
It was one of the Hollies' biggest international hits; in Britain it peaked at number three in 1969's troubled autumn. But then in 1988 it quite unexpectedly became the latest beneficiary of the backward-looking advertising ambulance when it was used to soundtrack a very strange advert for Miller Lite beer; the tall, mulleted, bowler-hatted scruff who wanders through the streets of his town helping out, working small miracles and inevitably getting first crack at orders at the bar. The song thuds out of an ancient, cobwebbed puppet band, through ancient, cobwebbed speakers, David Lynch could have directed it and no one would have been surprised.
There was a rival version at the same time by, of all people, Bill Medley, from the soundtrack to, of all films, Rambo III, which skated on the edge of the top 30. But the Hollies' original was lapped up far more readily in Britain and gave the group only their second UK number one, and their first in twenty-three years, with this song and its themes of compassion and cooperation, in the age of devil-take-the hindmost Thatcherism.
The song was actually written by two Americans, Bobby Scott and Bob Russell – the latter was terminally ill with lymphoma – and originally recorded by singer Kelly Gordon - and although its roots go back to the nineteenth-century United Free Church of Scotland (see James Wells’ The Parables Of Jesus) the spectre of Vietnam really couldn’t have been far away from their minds. But – as nobody was then to know – the Hollies’ version topped our charts only seven months before the Hillsborough disaster.
And so in 2012 the song had its third life. An angry charity recording by what was billed as the Justice Collective, involving a largely Northern cast of stars from music, football and comedy (including Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott from the Hollies themselves), became that year’s Christmas number one and was hardly mentioned or played on mainstream radio. No wonder; as devil-take-the-hindmost neoliberalism prepared to devour Britain and the world for good, those in power did not want to know about this song which essentially preaches socialism (everyone helping everyone else) and re-positions it as something not be laughed at or dismissed as “dated” but to be respected and loved. The Hollies’ recording now carries an emotional clout which was not wholly graspable in 1988.
I remember that Chris Tarrant on his Capital Radio breakfast show absolutely hated this record but it has stood up a whole lot better than “Wipeout.” This is in great part due to the generous good humour of Chubby Checker himself, sounding unchanged from 1962 and totally up for it, and the likeable power of the Fat Boys’ own contributions. It’s a proper party record and does anyone else remember that both Chubby and the Fat Boys performed it at the Mandela 70th birthday concert in Wembley?
Def Ears On The Floor!
Oh, the future’s coming all right. London’s very own Wee Papa Girl Rappers – they were twins - go all dancehall in a way which perhaps only the late eighties would have permitted. Bewitching album too with one of the best uses of a George Michael sample in pop (The Beat, The Rhyme, The Noise).
And It Was All Yello
Delighted to have the opportunity to mention Yello here, Switzerland’s own New Pop champions – and with Dieter Meier at least, we are going back to the sixties again (Meier once took an unsuspecting David Niven to a concert by Can; Niven immediately became a fan). “The Rhythm Divine” with Shirley Bassey and Billy Mackenzie from 1987 should have been the big breakthrough hit but then again so should have “Pinball Cha-Cha” from 1982 (the New Mix In One Go version of which was brilliantly utilised here) or “Lost Again” from 1983, let alone “Of Course I’m Lying” from the same album as “The Race” (Flag).
No Mackenzie on “The Race” and you need the whole fourteen-minute twelve-inch edition for the song to make imperfect sense. The race is only happening in the narrator’s head but he is transfixed by the spectacle anyway – he is dreaming of being a great racing driver (“I’m attacking the illusion but the stopping drives me mad”). The Billy McCluskey commentary is hallucinatory, as is the incongruous pedal steel guitar a third of the way in, but it’s essentially “Autobahn” with added sports and Tristan Tzara input. “Room-dah-bee-boom the whippering dong!” Quite.
Inner City and the Future of Now
I briefly mentioned “Big Fun” in the Yazz section and that’s all I need to say about it for now apart from the turquoise and olive green 24 bus, Currie’s Motors (“Nice people to do business with”), Walker’s Bitza Pizza crisps, Sportspages in Cambridge Circus, the Rough Trade shop down the skating spiral staircase in Neal’s Yard, the shadow of the autumn sun coming out from behind the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square, Ornette’s violin crying at the back of “Virgin Beauty,” the bus racing down through Maida Vale and St John’s Wood on a crisp but bright Friday morning, the Acid remix of Kevin Rowland’s “Tonight” and
But there was an album, Paradise, which is among the best of all albums, and that was released in 1989, and it would be beyond remiss for us not to write about it. As “Good Life” – an essential component of 1988 London - turns up on Now 14 we regard this as an excellent and unmissable opportunity and so we propose that we carry on with selected Now albums (and occasionally other multi-artist ones) as a sort of sidebar or appendix to our main story. Not every one of them, though.
Acieeed: The People Have Spoken
“If you thought it was a drug/Now you know you’re wrong.” Spell it out and still the BBC, as it has done throughout the entirety of its ninety-three miserable years, refused to see and was scared off. Number one on the NME singles chart, number three on Gallup, and Radio 1, afraid of the papers as ever, responded by banning it. Children’s television presenters were heard denouncing Paul Rutherford’s great “Get Real” (written and produced by Martin Fry and Mark White) as “evil.” This was, remember, Radio 1 and the BBC in the non-stop hypocritical eighties.
“We Call It Acieeed” is an utterly stupeeed and brilliant pop record. Purists yawned but who cares about them? Danny D from Stoke-on-Trent, with rapping by Gary Haisman from somewhere in Bucks, and “g-g-g-g-g-g-g-get right on one MATEY!” plus a brilliant, two-second long rhythm dropout, leaving only ambiguous chordalities. Inescapable in second-half-of-1988 London but it would probably have made sense anywhere in Britain. This was “now” and so of course oldies radio will now kid you on that it never happened.
Sounds Of The Sixties
As I say, some voices from the sixties returned anyway – P.P. Arnold, the missing link between Steve Marriott and the KLF, was back and proudly and enthusiastically embracing the late eighties present.
You see, this is where Puritanical purism gets you. When the Love Affair casually admitted that Steve Ellis was the only one of their number to appear on “Everlasting Love,” Britain mostly shrugged its shoulders and gave them another eighteen months’ worth of hits. Then again, the two Milli Vanilli fellows were essentially drafted in by Frank Farian – yes, it’s that man again – to front already finished records. Nobody had given a rump about Farian “being” Bobby Farrell in Boney M and none of this stops “Girl You Know It’s True” from being a great pop record (with that “Don’t Look Any Further” breakbeat again), but the media moaned, Rob Pilatus took it all a little too seriously, followed by much too seriously, descending into drugs and crime and taking his own life in 1998, despite Farian having brought them back into the studio to record a comeback album (which has never been released). I wish he hadn’t taken it at all seriously, like the KLF did(n’t).
Off The Level
Staring At The Sun was a number one album on NME, but not on Gallup, and to be frank it was a letdown. The Gould brothers were gone, and there is the feeling that the group are being press-ganged into stadium rock. Hence the Olympic fanfares, the over-congested arrangement and prototype see-me-from-outer-space lyrics of “Heaven In My Hands,” all of which were a very long way indeed from the small glories of their previous work.
Jane Wiedlin proved herself to be a far more likeable solo Go-Go than Belinda; only the one hit (and that was also used as a Capital jingle: “Tarrant in the rush how-er!”) but it is deftly pitched and sung with just the right blend of candour and politesse. The focus begins to switch back to the women.
Cap In Hand
But there were the Proclaimers, of course; their debut television appearance in the spring of 1987 bamboozled every non-Scot who watched it. Like Chas and Dave, the Reid twins believe their own tongue to be capable of communicating to a general audience, and “Letter From America” was a chilling year-closer in 1987. The second album Sunshine On Leith ranged from reflective to vicious – “Cap In Hand” was used as an unofficial “Yes” Scottish referendum anthem last year – but “I’m Gonna Be,” in the very long term a number one single, saw them at their stalwart porage oats best; on the march, devoted to their lover, believing in work, co-operation and salvation. Produced by Pete Wingfield (who also played the organ, with the unmistakeable thwack of Dave Mattacks at the drums).
T’Pau (Slight Return)
“We had a lot of gay fans because of the song ‘Secret Garden,’ which is about being yourself. Who knew? It's an overused phrase but some of our songs are the soundtrack of people's lives.” So said Carol Decker in a 2013 interview and indeed “Secret Garden” is a song about stopping pretending and being honest about who and what you are. Not as hook-dependent as their previous hits, and consequently slightly less of a hit, but it finds Decker and the group in a joyous and confident mood.
If you believed Melody Maker there was this phenomenon called the New Blonde, although the Primitives and Darling Buds hardly fell into the desired category, while Transvision Vamp emphatically and deliberately landed some way away from it. There is a refreshing directness about Wendy James’ brilliant vocal performance – as a piece of acting, it’s unparalleled in 1988 pop – which overrides any implied debt to history (the Eddie Cochran motorik, the closing nod to “Anarchy”) with the desire for pleasure only here and now, not in history or heritage but in life. In other words, they are aware of rock’s past but not scared or cowered by it. More about her and them to follow in 1989.
Astute observers will have noticed that it’s here where the track listing gets a little conceptual. Duran Duran, who back on Now 1 implored “Please, please tell me, Now!,” now sound a little lost. “I Don’t Want Your Love” isn’t a bad song – its rhythmic nod to Prince’s “Hot Thing” proved they still knew what was what – but it is slightly directionless, as though struggling for balance and looking for a diplomatic way out. It sounds very palpably like something from the past, even only seven-and-a-half years after “Planet Earth.”
Whereas the Human League return, from 1986 (it’s on the Crash album and was released as a single to promote the group’s Greatest Hits collection), with a joyful, cascading farewell. It’s fun listening to Phil Oakey doing his best to be Alexander O’Neal and overall provides a most satisfactory, flag-waving conclusion to the last Now album to appear directly in this tale.
Just One Slight Matter
And suddenly, albeit gently, the world is turned on its side and nothing makes sense.
All About Eve were, to put it differently, the Heart of British Goth bands, and in any case they were always far more folk than Goth. They never really impacted on my consciousness in any great form, except I remember one Sunday night on the tube in the early nineties. All of a sudden in came all these Goths, fresh from an All About Eve gig at what was then still called the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town. Some passengers flinched but actually they were among the nicest and politest people I’ve ever seen in a Tube carriage, really knowledgeable and enthusiastic about what they’d just seen.
They weren’t my thing, but “Martha’s Harbour,” their only top ten hit, was their moment and I think they knew it. There was happiness and optimism before but now there is just this watery wilderness, this minor key – and what an irony that an album which features Bryan Ferry should end as so many Ferry and Roxy albums have done, alone, and out at sea (see also American Music Club’s “Last Harbor,” as written about in The Blue In The Air, and all of side two of AR Kane’s incomparable 69). As we leave the era, Julianne Regan wonders whether she should become a stowaway – and if she did, where would she be headed?
But I think “Martha’s Harbour,” like so many other “unconventional” album tracks, actually points to the way things are going to be. Where so much of Now XIII is contented enough with now and tomorrow not to worry about history, or wise enough to use history for its own ends, “Martha’s Harbour” inaugurates the age of classicism, of looking back to rock’s past; it was produced by Paul Samwell-Smith, who used to produce records by Cat Stevens, and Regan’s vocal is Sandy Denny, almost to its core. Henceforth rock will not be able to help but look backwards, to its own history, the record collection as thing in itself. It is as if this harbour leads nowhere but to another dead end, as though the future of popular music has been meticulously plotted. As if pop music has been planned to death.