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NOW 11 – I know you gonna dig this

Now_11Every decade has its game changing year, the year that rocks the music world, the year where, if you’ll pardon the cliché, nothing will ever be the same again. It may be the birth of rock n’ roll in 1956, the flower power of 1967 or the twin-pronged disco-punk revolution of 1977. Some years just define their generation like few others.

1988 is not one of those years. It may have been the year that the charts took on a train-spotters fascination for a certain 12 year old not a million miles away from this keyboard, but it’s hardly remembered for any epoch-making musical movement. Of course there was some great music. The end of year lists may have been dominated by Public Enemy and their album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, but that won’t really concern us here. Neither will The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa or Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. You see, as brilliant, ground-breaking and influential as those albums may have been, there were not even close to troubling the top 40 chart compilers. In fact the public was more interested in buying pretty much the same things they were buying the year before. BadFaith and Tango in the Night were all top selling albums in 1988 despite being a year old. Yet another Cliff Greatest Hits was, astonishingly, the second biggest selling album of the year! He found himself sandwiched between two young upstarts who made their names early on in 1988, but would go on to have wildly different careers: Kylie Minogue and Bros.

Despite all this, and despite me misremembering that Bros’ When Will I Be Famous was on it, NOW 11 somehow manages to be the best album in the series, at least so far. It always held a special allure for me, remaining tantalisingly out of reach, being released at Easter, when all my spare cash went towards the annual school French trip. This allure was not misguided. For sheer pop gold it is unstoppable, but it also manages to balance this with a sprinkling of alternative acts and a single themed side of cutting edge house and hip hop that is utterly wonderful, and remains possibly the finest side of music on a NOW album.

Being released in April gives the compiler the advantage of having the best of the year so far, and also hovering up the remaining cream missed at the end of the previous year. This, inevitably, leads to what football managers refer to as “a nice problem to have”. Track 1, side 1, for instance. As every mix tape enthusiast knows, the first track is the trickiest: hit them hard, fast and where it hurts. So when you have the choice between a massive number one, a couple of months old, from a hot new act, or the biggest act in the country with their (distinctly non-festive) Christmas number one, but which is a tad older, which way do you go? NOW 11 plays the Nick Hornby/High Fidelity mix-tape how-to guide to the letter with a stonking one-two that hits them hard, then takes it UP a notch.

The Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind starts the party, followed by the biggest recent hit on offer, Heaven Is A Place On Earth. (The album’s third chart-topper, Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky, will kick off side three).

Very distracting to a 12 year old boy

Both these tracks are fantastic. Always On My Mind is generally accepted as one of the greatest cover versions of all time, while former Go-Go, Belinda Carlisle, finally got her solo career off the ground a couple of years after it started in the US (helped in no small part by a prolific song writing team including Diane Warren and fellow Go-Go Charlotte Caffey). Heaven Is A Place on Earth is a great pop/rock song which can still make people jump out of their seats with its rousing intro, rock guitar and soppy lyrics.

Pop highs continue, moving from rock to dance with Billy Ocean’s Get Out Of My Dreams. Easily his best song, bafflingly the UK was about the only country it didn’t get to number one (peaking at number 3) despite heavy TV play thanks to its sophisticated animation-meets-real life video, months before the world had heard of Roger Rabbit. Dance continues with less success with Jermaine Stewart’s inoffensive but bland Say It Again, before I lose interest completely with Eddy Grant’s Gimme Me Hope Jo’anna. Reggae has never really been my bag (though I have a fondness for the 60’s/early 70s variety popularised by Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff), but Grant is capable of better than this. Like I Don’t Wanna Dance years previously, this is repetitive to the point of irritating. I’m fully aware that the song is an anti-apartheid anthem and is well-loved. That doesn’t stop it being thoroughly annoying, but it was a massive hit across the world so what do I know. Although it only made number 7 in the UK it, maybe surprisingly, made number one in Spain and, maybe less surprisingly, Holland.

Levis get their plug with the peerless C’mon Everybody from Eddie Cochran (at a little under two minutes it’s one of the shortest songs ever in the series) before the compiling genius of Ashley Abram follows that with rockabilly rebel Morrissey’s first solo single, Suedehead. Whilst The Smiths made only one NOW appearance, Moz solo would prove to be a reliable mainstay of the series, at least until he stopped having top ten hits. Being signed to Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary, rather than The Smiths who were signed to the indie Rough Trade, probably helped. Side one closes out, rather incongruously, with a live version of Elton John’s Candle In The Wind. Now best known as “the Diana song”, and the biggest selling single of all time, it’s rather strange to hear it with its original lyrics. And blow me, if it’s not actually a little bit good. Released as a single to plug a live album recorded in Australia a couple of years before, this is a great performance of a song which, like a lot of Reg’s biggest hits, is susceptible to maudlin. Not here; this is pure emotion and, strangely, far more moving than the later Diana version. Reg’s anguished roar with the last chorus, his voice breaking in the process, is pretty stunning stuff, leaving the listener speechless. Perhaps, the most amazing thing is that it was such a big hit in 1988, when it had failed to make the top ten on its initial release in the 1970s.

Elton John yesterday

Side two replicates Now 10 by turning over a side to soft metal, hard rock and a couple of tracks that didn’t comfortably sit anywhere else on the album. Like Wet Wet Wet, whose Angel Eyes is one of those really annoying songs that you want to hate for being so bloody smug and pleased with itself, but you can’t help but smile when you hear it. It does serve the purpose of being a whole lot better than Johnny Hates Jazz though, who follow the Wets with the uncompromisingly insipid Turn Back The Clock. When people criticise 80s music, Johnny Hates Jazz are what they are talking about. It smells like artificial sweetener, tastes like supermarket own brand Angel Delight, it’s wearing suede brogues and has a Filofax stuffed into the pocket of its black raincoat. And it makes me hate music.

That fact that T’Pau swoop in to ensure your ears won’t be lopped off by the nearest sharp (or blunt for that matter) object somehow makes Johnny Hates Jazz even worse. To be fair to Valentine, it’s a bit of a corker, which sadly sits in the long shadow cast by China In Your Hand. It does confirm my belief that the more famous track may actually be the worst single they released (with the exception of the makes-a-bit-of-sick-in-my-mouth Sex Talk). Any woman who has ever done the bottle of wine on your own, Bridget Jones, All By Myself, sing-a-long, you are really missing a trick with this one. Valentine really is the song of unrequited, woe is me, pissed up self-loathing. Sadly, even being released around the same time as the most depressing ‘holiday’ of the year couldn’t shove it any further up the charts than number 9. And just three singles in, it would be their last top 10 hit.

OK, you can have a drink, but for God’s sake stay off twitter, Carol!

Hot in the City continued Billy Idol’s late 80s revival (all calculated to coincide with the release of a Greatest Hits package, hoovered up by the public, and me, a few months later). Like his previous hit, and NOW appearance, Mony, MonyHot in the City had originally been recorded in the early 80s and failed to make much of an impression, and this was a re-recorded version. Or was it? I’ve discovered, over the years, that it’s a song that exists in many incarnations, and unpicking the history is a bit fraught. The original, single version from 1982 is the most commonly heard. It’s the one with the windy fade-in intro, with the sexy backing singers crooning “stranger, stranger”. It also features Idol’s bellow of “New York!” later in the song.  In 1985, the ‘Exterminator Mix’ of the track appeared on a compilation album entitled Vital Idol, featuring selected songs and remixes from his early work, presumably to cash in on his new success with Rebel Yell and a re-released White Wedding. This version is almost 2 minutes longer, features a much longer intro, each instrument coming separately, has an increased and thoroughly re-worked instrumental break,  and loses the “New York!” in favour of a clumsy record scratch effect. This version has a clear end rather than fading out. The version released in 1988, as evidenced by this rather risqué video, which was allegedly banned by MTV, features a cut down version of this remix, reinstates the “New York!”, and has the abrupt ending. Now it gets more complicated: the version on NOW 11 includes this same cut down remix BUT has the scratch effect rather than the “New York!”, and fades out as per the original recording! I’ve not found this version anywhere else. Every other compilation version I’ve found, on Idol’s own compilations and on loads of 80s compilations, all use the original 1982 version, even if they sometimes bill it as the ’88 (and sometimes ’87!) remix. The version on NOW 11 appears to be utterly unique.

As an alternative to all that train-spottery, there follow two rather good, if rather forgotten tracks, at least by the greater public. Sinead O’Connor is probably thought of as a bit of one hit wonder whose career was kept going by making controversial comments about the Catholic church and the treatment of women. People who think this may be right and it is a fact that she only had one BIG hit (which we will of course address in good time) but she was also far more talented than a mere Prince cover version gave her credit for. Mandinka, her first top 40 hit, would have caused minor ripples throughout polite middle-class living rooms had she appeared on Top of the Pops. In my house it was the sight of a shaven-headed woman, screaming out of her Doc Martens on The Chart Show that caused a fluster and bluster not seen since the days of Boy George sashaying across the nations TV’s in 1982. Mandinka is a storming way to introduce yourself to the public: angry, enigmatic, tuneful, and emotional. Everything good pop should be, but a bit shoutier.

Clint Power?

The Mission would no doubt hate to be called ‘good pop’, but when your lead singer used to be in Dead or Alive, and you would later record a cover of Blondie’s Atomic, maybe you do have a sense of humour. I can’t imagine Wayne Hussey and Pete Burns in the same room, let alone the same band! Tower of Strength will be unfamiliar to many outside the goth and crusty communities (or people who like to hang around record shops on a Saturday afternoons) and that’s understandable. We’re not in Def Leppard territory here; this is the bridge between Led Zeppelin and The Sisters of Mercy. Handily, not being a huge fan of either, I love Tower of Strength’s overblown theatrics (provided by Led Zep’s own John Paul Jones on production knob-twiddling duties) and rate this as The Mission’s best song Obviously the super dedicated fans would no doubt swoon in horror at such a suggestion, like The Cure fans who hate anyone who says The Love Cats is their best song, because it’s so accessible and popular, and you should go and listen to A Forest or Killing An Arab, you ‘pop’ fan. Alternative music fans do have a tendency to take themselves rather too seriously.

Just like Whitesnake, whose tight leather trousers you can smell coming a mile away. You won’t remember Give Me All Your Love, and you’ll be grateful you don’t, but in case you care, it sounds exactly like Fool For Your Lovin’ from 1980, but worse. Now you’ve got that song in your head instead. Sorry.

I swear, you’ll never be so pleased to hear I Should Be So Lucky as you will be listening to NOW 11. I’m fully aware that most people still hate this song. I hated it when I was the audience for it. I was wrong, and everybody else who still hates it is wrong. It’s one of the most perfect pop records of all time and if you disagree with me there’s a comments section at the bottom of this page. But really you shouldn’t be reading this blog, as you clearly hate pop music.

The second of three Stock, Aitken, Waterman tunes on side three is Mel and Kim’s That’s The Way It Is. Not a patch on Respectable, which was snagged by Hits 6 the previous year, this is pretty forgettable, but the pair are still fun enough to make it listenable. Much better is Bananarama’s I Can’t Help It later on side three. For some reason I can’t my finger on, this is right up there with Venus and Only Your Love as my favourite Nanas song. SAW’s influence is really showing now, and would eventually lead to this being Siobhan Fahey’s final Nana appearance, but it’s much ballsier and sexier than the tracks given to Kylie (or what was to come from the girls) and the video is an absolute scorcher too! It’s a great track, woefully underappreciated at the time, and probably still is.

Between the SAW tracks there’s Come Into My Life, by Joyce Sims. A massive hit at the time, it now sounds like a brasher, shoutier version of Sade. I was surprised to discover it was produced by Mantronix, who were a couple of years away from their own chart success, though Got To Have Your Love would prove far more long-lasting than this New York disco crap. And there’s more where that came from too thanks to the return of the never-popular Jellybean. Who Found Who is as massively bland as his track on NOW 10, which I can’t even remember the name of, and really can’t be bothered to back and look up. Seriously, does ANYONE reading this have ANYTHING by Jellybean in their record collection?

Jellybean... insert your own joke here

Look, I’m sorry, but I’ve STILL got no idea who you are

I’ll actually be more surprised if you have anything by Dollar, early 80s “are they/aren’t they” duo (they were… for a bit) who had only mild success. Oddly, they reformed towards the end of the decade, recorded Oh L’Amour, a flop when released as Erasure’s first single, and found themselves back in the top 10, before disappearing as quickly as they had reappeared. On paper the song choice is sound, but David van Day’s voice pales in comparison to Andy Bell’s, and musically it’s identical to the earlier version. Pointless. Van day would later gain infamy by dumping a girlfriend live on TV’s The Wright Stuff, and advertising insurance. Classy fella.

Speaking of classy, Vanessa Paradis provides the first non-English hit on a NOW album. Joe le Taxi is pretty boring and dreary, but that was hardly the point. The point was that Mme Paradis was French, sexy and…um…14. In today’s climate it all seems a bit unsavoury, and, to be fair, it was. Thank goodness she went on to continued success as an adult. She’ll return later in our journey.

Side three finishes with one of the more troubling aspects of the NOW series: the comedy record. Thankfully rare, sadly there are still enough of them dotted throughout the albums to make their presence more than known. The Stutter Rap is skin-crawlingly bad, but, thanks to main man Tony Hawks (not the skateboarder) it’s also witty, clever and astonishingly well produced. It’s an enigma, wrapped in a mystery. The vocals are a wonderful parody of The Beastie Boys, the problem being that they, of course, were themselves a parody anyway. It’s the musical equivalent of Scary Movie spoofing Scream; you’re spoofing a spoof! Despite this, Morris Minor and the Majors snagged a top ten hit and a Saturday night kids show to boot. Sadly, the infinitely superior follow-up, This Is The Chorus (a note perfect spoof of SAW, which featured Queen’s John Deacon as Rick Astley in the video) failed to make the top 40. I can only assume that SAW fans didn’t buy it because it was taking the piss, and everyone else didn’t buy it because it sounded like a SAW track. There’s no justice like pop justice.

Despite this ludicrous oversight by the record buying public, they did somehow manage to buy enough good records to make side four of NOW 11 an absolute joy from start to finish. As we’ve seen on previous editions, themed sides are rarely a success, often resorting to one or two tracks which seem tacked on, or crow barred into the theme, and don’t quite fit. Not so here. Say kids, what time is it…?

It’s time for a house

Bomb the Bass, Coldcut and Beatmasters are the names that leap from the track listing, of course. Beat Dis still stands proudly alongside Pump Up The Volume as a genre-defining track. Amazing considering Tim Simenon created it, allegedly, in his bedroom for £500. Doctorin’ the House would launch the career of Yazz (though I’m still baffled as to who exactly the Plastic Population were) and was an amazing way for the pioneering Coldcut DJs to launch themselves at the public at large. Their contemporaries, the Beatmasters, would join them on an attack on the charts over the next 18 months, drafting in, and making stars of, a succession of guest vocalists including Lisa Stansfield and Betty Boo. For Rok Da House Beatmasters employed London female rap duo The Cookie Crew. Sassy, ballsy and not a little aggressive (like most of their male counterparts) they blazed a trail for successful female rappers in the UK (Salt n’ Pepa were just about to, finally, have a hit with Push It), but would never again reach the heights of the top five. Still sounds great today.

Between Coldcut and Beatmasters are two one off tracks which, while still good, do betray their vintage and have a slight whiff of bandwagon-jumping about them. Krush’s House Arrest was another huge top five hit and proved that this House music malarkey was probably here to stay. One half of the production team behind the track would go on to form Moloko in the late 90s, fact fans. Jack n’ Chill’s The Jack That House Built reminds me of the Italian film producers of the 70s and early 80s (bear with me) that would rip off anything that was commercial and just put familiar words into the titles, like Zombie Holocaust or Alien Contamination. And like both those films, The Jack That House Built is perfectly good entertainment. I’ve been unable to find out anything about Jack n’ Chill though, which simply adds to the fly-by-night nature of the exercise and suggests the sharks were probably moving in on the House scene already.

The greatest side of music in NOW history closes with two excellent, if unexpected, tracks from artists not normally associated with this kind of thing, one of whom manages to pull off a shameless cash-in with their dignity intact. First up is Two Men, A Drum Machine and a Trumpet (surely the best band name on a NOW album ever) the two men in question being Fine Young Cannibals without Roland Gift, who was off trying to be an actor at the time. They were no strangers to dance music and knob twiddling really, so it’s no surprise that Tired of Getting Pushed Around is so good. What is surprising is that it wasn’t more successful, only reaching number 18 when, as we’ve seen, just about any track featuring a House beat and samples would at least go top ten. It could, possibly, be explained by the fact that Tired of Getting Pushed Around is far more laid back, and stripped back, than its contemporaries. Whereas most tracks were layering sample upon sample, often to the point of incoherence (like mixing all your plasticine together to make one amorphous lump, a shade of brown not normally found in nature), Tired… relies on a couple of film dialogue snippets, a guitar thrash, and a light jazz trumpet and bass accompaniment. It’s refreshing, like an after-dinner mint.

Obvious illustration of the point made in the previous paragraph

The coffee course is supplied by Climie Fisher, a pair of successful, and highly respected, songwriters and session musicians who decided they fancied a bit of this fame thing for themselves. They didn’t really look the part, but in the 80s that didn’t really matter. What did matter were the tunes, and by golly they had them coming out of their arses. Rise to the Occasion was originally a slightly bland ballad until some bright spark decided to perk it up a bit with some samples and a House beat. Released as the “Hip Hop remix” (though not credited as such on NOW 11) it quickly found its way into the top ten. Mercenary? Cunning? Cynical? Thrice, yes. Great pop? Undoubtedly. And it was thanks to the success of such a scheming piece of work that would ultimately lead to their finest hour, but you’ll have to wait until NOW 12 for that.

NOW 11, side four, still sounds brilliant all the way through, and even today I think it still stands as the series finest achievement. But of course I’m biased. This was one of the defining periods of my musical education where I was absorbing absolutely everything that crossed my path. Combined with the fact that I know little of the NOW series beyond 1990 and maybe you could argue I’m jumping the gun on that assumption. And you may be right.

I don’t think I’ll find a quarter of a NOW album where every song is still listenable, thrilling and generates that feeling that great, pure pop can create. But I hope I do, because otherwise the remaining 70 odd albums are going to be one hell of a chore.

 

NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC 11

Release date

21st March 1988

Biggest tracks

Always on My Mind – The Pet Shop Boys

Heaven Is A Place On Earth – Belinda Carlisle

I Should Be So Lucky – Kylie Minogue

Beat Dis – Bomb the Bass

Lost gems

Tired of Getting Pushed Around – Two Men, A Drum Machine and a Trumpet

I Can’t Help It – Bananarama

Forgotten tracks

Mandinka – Sinead o’Connor

Tower of Strength – The Mission

Rise to the Occasion – Climie Fisher

Worst Track

Give Me All Your Love – Whitesnake

What’s missing

Got My Mind Set On You  – George Harrison

There Ain’t Nothing Like Shaggin – Tams

 

Track listing

Side one
Always On My Mind Pet Shop Boys
Heaven Is A Place On Earth Belinda Carlisle
Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car Billy Ocean
Say It Again Jermaine Stewart
Gimme Hope Jo’Anna Eddy Grant
C’mon Everybody Eddie Cochran
Suedehead Morrissey
Candle In The Wind Elton John
Side two
Angel Eyes (Home And Away) Wet Wet Wet
Turn Back The Clock Johnny Hates Jazz
Valentine T’Pau
Hot In The City Billy Idol
Mandinka Sinéad O’Connor
Tower Of Strength The Mission
Give Me All Your Love Whitesnake
Side three
I Should Be So Lucky Kylie Minogue
That’s The Way It Is (7” Version) Mel & Kim
Come Into My Life Joyce Sims
Who Found Who Jellybean featuring Elisa Fiorillo
I Can’t Help It Bananarama
Oh L’Amour Dollar
Joe Le Taxi Vanessa Paradis
Stutter Rap (No Sleep Till Bedtime) Morris Minor & The Majors
Side four
Beat Dis Bomb The Bass
Doctorin’ The House Coldcut featuring Yazz & The Plastic Population
House Arrest Krush
The Jack That House Built Jack N Chill
Rock Da House The Beatmasters featuring Cookie Crew
I’m Tired Of Getting Pushed Around Two Men A Drum Machine & A Trumpet
Rise To The Occasion Climie Fisher

 

3 Responses to NOW 11 – I know you gonna dig this

  1. eightiespopkid says:

    The contrast between this album and “Now 10” was immense – the charts of early ’88 were infiltrated with music from indie labels (albeit it all being dance music), lowering the average age of the acts in the Top 40 by a good few years. Radio 1 were left way behind with their obsessing over Bourgeios-Tagg et al. With Bros, Kylie and the like taking over it felt like the post-Live Aid “dinosaur” era and most of the Levi’s/re-issue era was being swept away. Of course the balance would realign itself as the year went on, but at the time this felt like a bit of a sea-change.

    Some things I must disagree with you on:

    Billy Ocean – “Get Outta My Dreams Get Into My Car” was a horrible, horrible record and completely negated the “Stranger Danger” message we were taught about at school. Seriously though, there were rumblings at the time that it would encourage young girls to get into cars with strange men. Yewtree alert!! Billy’s 80s output was very difficult to love – compare these watered-down lite-soul efforts to his pair of late 70s classics “Red Light Spells Danger” and “Love Really Hurts Without You” and all becomes clear.

    Dollar – virtually every single they released from 1981’s “Hand Held In Black And White” through to 1988’s “It’s Nature’s Way” I regard as bona-fide pop classics, especially the quartet of Trevor Horn-produced singles which began the run. Maybe one day we’ll get a career-spanning Greatest Hits to prove this is the case but the four(!) record companies will not talk to each other – presumably there’s no money to be made from such a venture. Of course in recent years David Van Day has reinvented himself as something of a pantomime dame which means stuff like “Give Me Back My Heart” and “Videotheque” will almost certainly remain under the radar forever (unless BBC4’s Top Of The Pops re-runs eventually reach 1982, which at the moment seems unlikely).

    Vanessa Paradis – “Joe Le Taxi” was impossible not to love, surely?

    You’re right though – Jellybean can do one.

  2. Pingback: Now That’s What I Call Music 11 (EMI / Virgin / Polygram, 1988) | A Pop Fan's Dream

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