NOW 15 – Cruel Summer
For the second year in a row, NOW’s summer release would take the season as the inspiration for its cover. Sadly the content is about as anti-summer as it’s possible to get. When I think of summer pop I think of breezy, twangly guitar tunes, repetitive dance beats and swoony ballads. What NOW 15 gives you (at least to start off with) is one of Queen’s worst singles ever and an unlistenable Simple Minds track. In terms of opening moves, NOW 15 stumbles out of the traps like a three legged daschund at a greyhound race. I Want It All stands very far away from I Want To Break Free, whilst Kick It In is at least better than Belfast Child (and suggests The Minds were a year or two ahead of U2 in the obtuse, angular re-invention stakes) but it’s just not very well executed. I vividly remember Danny Wilson guest reviewing the singles in Smash Hits, and saying they would have taken the record back to shops thinking it was scratched. Their single of the week was the theme to the Batman TV series which had been re-released in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman movie. That’s nice.
Pop salvation arrives in the form of the majestic Good Thing by the Fine Young Cannibals. Its 60s vibe (a nostalgic theme runs through many tracks on NOW 15, oddly) was the result of its original appearance being in the underrated film Tin Men, which was set in the Mad Men era Baltimore. It works brilliantly in the song’s favour, as it’s now impossible to date, and is still wonderful.
Almost as underrated as Tin men is Holly Johnson’s solo career. Eschewing Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s raw sex and aggression, his solo debut Blast! is a wonderful pop record, producing the huge hits Love Train and Americanos, which appears here. A supposedly jolly tune, again evoking nostalgia for 50s/60s apple pie America, it is also covered in barely concealed cynicism (“everything’s organised, from crime to leee-zure time”) hidden underneath a killer tune and a chorus which introduced a generation of kids to the joys of Oreos. Transvision Vamp’s Baby, I Don’t Care and INXS’ Mystify are solid, as is Roxette’s The Look, even if it fails to suggest just how big a deal they would become (at least everywhere else in the world; the UK tended to keep them at arm’s length, only allowing It Must have Been Love to break ranks and become a huge hit).
We next get two very odd selections from a couple of dinosaurs, Stevie Nicks and ‘Thumbs Aloft’ Macca. I’d forgotten how odd Rooms on Fire was, or that it was that big a hit. Yes, Fleetwood Mac had been, maybe surprisingly, successful in the late 80s with the album Tango In The Night, but was Nicks really that big a draw to the kids? It only reached number 16 but was a radio mainstay for months, probably saying more about Radio 1 DJs at the time, than what the listeners actually wanted, and remains Nicks’ only significant solo release.
Paul McCartney ceased to be significant as a solo artist around the time of The Frog Chorus, so it was a surprise to see him kicking off side two of NOW 15 not once, but twice! My Brave Face is the first, co-written by Elvis Costello of all people, it appears to be some kind of dirge about the perils of fame (oh woe is me and my millions). It’s not really important, as the man who made more money than God just for fluking a song writing goldmine with Yesterday still continues to churn out this guff on an annual basis, whilst his contemporaries like Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and even, to an extent, The Rolling Stones, continue to evolve and create new, interesting music. McCartney’s guff cloud hangs over Ferry Cross The Mersey. Joining Holly Johnson (also making a second appearance), The Christians and original ferry passenger Gerry Marsden, this charity release was recorded in aid of the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster which had happened earlier in the year, and was produced by the now ubiquitous Stock, Aitken and Waterman. The far more fitting, in my opinion, You’ll Never Walk Alone, had been appropriated for the charity single for the victims of the Bradford City fire in 1985 (and also featured Marsden and McCartney), and this should also not be confused with the dreadfully named Ferry Aid single, a cover of The Beatles’ Let It Be, from 1987, in aid of the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy (also featuring Macca; for Christ’s sake, he gets about). Thankfully they resisted the urge to come up with some awful punning band name this time. Johnson has already covered this track once before, on Frankie’s debut album, and it’s a far better, and emotional, reading than this, a typically empty SAW production, with uninspiring vocal performances, topped by Macca screaming his head off towards the end and trying to pretend the song was his all along.
The Beautiful South make their NOW debut next, with the wonderfully sardonic Song For Whoever, a song which confuses a lot of people, not least Philip Schofield, who in his capacity as presenter of the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party in 1989, picked it as his choice for worst single of the year. The idiot. Kirsty McColl’s lovely version of The Kinks’ Days is next, and an attempt to create a real summer feel is carried on with Danny Wilson’s Second Summer of Love. Their only non-Mary’s Prayer top 40 hit, and probably not very well known, it’s actually pretty good; a nice-foot-tapping number having a pop at the acid/ecstasy/rave generation then clogging up the motorways and charts at the time. It’s like an upbeat Mumford and Sons, so should be a due a revival by the Dalston hipsters soon. But only ironically, of course.
Next comes the big forgotten track on NOW 15, at least by me, but sadly not an undiscovered gem: Cry by Waterfront. This is a truly odd piece which seems to have a slightly dodgy undercurrent. Any song which features like about “I know that you are not a child” and “your Daddy would kill for you” just conjures up images of a teenage girl being seduced by a (much) older man, who gets his jollies then dumps her because “of course, we’ve done nothing wrong but THEY won’t understand that”. The addition of a sleazy, Walk on the Wild Side riffing saxophone just adds to the sleaze. Uncomfortable. These guys were EMI’s big hope for ’89 and Cry was a big hit in the USA, hitting the top 10 (slightly worse in the UK where it only reached number 17) but they never followed it up and didn’t trouble the charts again.
Side two then proceeds to fade into dreary obscurity with hue and Cry’s pleasant but unremarkable Violently and Cliff Richards’ The Best Of Me, a dreadful dirge of a ballad which managed to snag a number two spot thanks to a huge marketing campaign (and massive radio support) due to it being Cliff’s 100th single. Thanks to Jason Donovan’s Sealed With A Kiss, it still didn’t get to number one though, HAH!
Sides three and four are dominated by dance tracks, and a few oddities that wouldn’t fit on the first half, reflecting the charts shifting away from pop to dance, both mainstream and underground varieties. We get the only absolute classic track on the whole compilation with Soul II Soul’s Back To Life, a song which seems to just get better and better with every passing year (back in ’89, I much preferred Keep On Moving or Get A Life). Neneh Cherry’s Manchild still sounds great too, and was a perfect follow-up to Buffalo Stance. Equally confident as it’s predecessor and infused with John Barry-esque strings, I’ve no idea what it’s about but it still sounds brilliant. The video features her young son, who was still, famously, unborn, when she appeared on Top of the Pops for Buffalo Stance.
So with things picking up, it’s inevitable that the quality will dip, and it does quite spectacularly. Former New Edition singer (who had appeared way back on NOW 1) Bobby Brown’s Every Little Step sounds like a discarded B-side hastily promoted to single status in the wake of his enormous, and rapid, success. Unbelievable as it may sound now, Mr Brown was the most successful chart act of 1989, and managed just two weeks of the whole year not to feature in the top 40, and amazing feat, especially when you consider not one of his singles got to number one. Every Little Step is pretty poor compared to earlier hit My Prerogative (or even Don’t Be Cruel) and only features one verse and chorus, repeated throughout. That’s just lazy.
Do You Love What You Feel is the least remembered of Inner City’s four top 20 hits, and with good reason: it’s desperately dull. Is this really the same act that recorded Good Life? Equally forgettable is D-Mob’s irritating It’s Time To Get Funky, a piece of toy town-rap crap that has the nerve to criticise rave culture, after D-Mob made a mint of off We Call It Acieed months before. Somehow this also went down a storm with the same kids who had made the previous single such a hit. At the same time Public Enemy couldn’t buy a top 30 hit. A massive club hit in its day, but horribly dated now, Donna Allen’s Joy and Pain only stuck in my mind because it seemed to be on the Chart Show’s Dance Chart for about two years before it reached the top 10. It’s got that summer ’87 sound down to a tee, so maybe it was that old; cheap production, but with a big chorus that no doubt helped it become a hit, because the rest of it is massively forgettable and generic.
Being generic is not something you could accuse of Gladys Knight, but her long overdue promotion to the ranks of Bond theme chanteuse is just that. It’s not that Licence To Kill is a bad Bond theme (there are plenty worse) it’s just bland and, like a-ha before her, it’s totally infused with the sound of its time. The whole thing is based around the trumpet sting from Goldfinger, so, like many of the worst Bond themes, it sounds like a Bond parody. Add to that the horrible twinkly synth noise all US dance music had at the time, and it becomes impossible to love. Knight’s vocal performance is great though. Equally good vocals come from Natalie Cole on I Miss You Like Crazy. Sadly that song is also horribly bland.
With NOW 15 threatening to stumble into dullsville, it’s left to side four to salvage some dignity, which thankfully it does, with some style, despite it featuring Jive Bunny. The Pet Shop Boys’ It’s Alright may be their least played track, but it’s great. A cover of Sterling Void’s club hit, it failed to match the success of many of their earlier hits, as did other releases from the album Introspective, despite them being among their best work. Then there’s Jive Bunny. Now regarded as a bit of a joke and providing endless material for low rent comics and nostalgia clip shows, were they really that bad? What exactly is so wrong about a couple of producers talking loads of old songs and stringing them together under a dance beat to make a simple four minute party song? And then doing it again? And again? It’s essentially harmless, if not exactly an example of high art. I think people’s opinion of Jive Bunny is just based around the fact they were SO successful and SO omnipotent that summer (and on to Christmas 89) on the radio, that you couldn’t escape it. But people were buying the records! At the time Jive Bunny became only the third act in history (after Gerry and the Pacemakers and Frankie Goes to Hollywood) to have their first three singles go to number one. Even The Beatles didn’t do that. Now, of course, any act with a decent marketing budget can do it, and most do. But back in the 80s that was a big deal. Swing the Mood (based around Glenn Miller’s In The Mood… geddit?) is listenable to a point and at a party would probably still make a few grannies get up for a shuffle. Is it any worse than say, Coldcut’s Beats and Pieces? At least you can sing along to Swing the Mood. We-we-well-well…
More oldie time fun is supplied by a returning Swing Out Sister, channelling Burt Bacharach on the grin-inducing You On My Mind, one of the few songs here that actually takes me back to the summer of ’89. There’s a lovely feelgood feeling to this that once again makes you wonder why they were never able to have sustained success. Bananarama managed to sustain for a good few years, but the tide was starting to turn on them by 1989. What better way to commemorate the sun going down on your career than by re-recording a song about how crap the summer is. Cruel Summer ’89 would be their last top 20 single, sadly, and it’s a sad epitaph to their career. One of their best early songs, it was re-recorded with new member Jacqui, and slathered with SAW production, limping its way to number 19. If you like the original steer clear of this; it’s bloody awful.
The rest of NOW 15 is thankfully much better, and contains the best tracks on the whole album, a rarity when side four is so often the dumping ground. De La Soul’s anti-drug anthem Say No Go may not have won them any fans from the hardcore rap community, but they were a real breath of fresh air for the slightly awkward kids who were never taken seriously when they said they liked Public Enemy (yes, I’m talking about me). I mean, who samples Hall and Oates and hopes to retain their credibility? These guys didn’t give a stuff. Real innovators and the songs are still charming, witty and damn good to dance to. Fatboy Slim was still using his real name, Norman Cook, when he released Blame It On The Bassline (a double A-side backed by his version of Billy Bragg’s Won’t Talk About It) with vocals provided by the ludicrously named MC Wildski. The track would later appear on Cook’s Beats International album, Let Them Eat Bingo, along with the smash Dub Be Good To Me, but the version on NOW 15 fades out about 45 seconds early. Another cracking, fun, rap tune with heavy sampling (mainly from the Jackson 5, you wouldn’t get away with that nowadays without the lawyers coming a knocking) it’s refreshing to hear two fun rap tracks back to back. So how about three? Luckily Rebel MC is just crazy enough to pull it off. Introduced to the world by producers Double Trouble, Just Keep Rockin’ is another sample-heavy dance track, with fun running through it like a stick of rock. I don’t think rap was ever this much fun again, so I really love this snapshot of when it wasn’t all about beating 5-0, girls and bling. If I was as rich as some of these rappers I’d be going on about fun stuff, like buying a kitten or building a funfair in my back yard, rather than how hard life is in the ghetto that I wouldn’t been seen dead in now I’m rich and famous.
I’m sure Robert Smith has a funfair in his back garden, but he has to wear a hair net just in case he gets his barnet caught in the workings of the waltzers. Quite why the NOW compilers decided to place The Cure directly after all that jollity, and closing the album to boot, I’m not entirely sure. Lullaby remains one of my favourite Cure tracks and can probably still give kids the willies (I will test this theory once my own are old enough to experiment on) but to finish off a summer compilation? Maybe it’s the grit in the oyster that NOW 15 needs, but that would suggest that NOW 15 is an oyster. It’s more of a limpet. Even “The Kid” seems to be struggling to drum up enthusiasm for this one.
Oddly filled with nostalgic tracks and sugary blandness, when it pops it’s superb, but it’s not exactly memorable. This may explain why, in my teenage years, it was the album that signalled my defection (briefly) to the Hits series, and the far better Hits 10. Two albums in and 1989 is shaping up to be NOW’s most disappointing year so far. There’s nothing new on offer here at all, it’s just regurgitating what’s gone before. It sounds ridiculous but the refreshing track here is Kick It In. It’s completely unlistenable, but at least it’s different.
There are three number ones on NOW 15, but I bet most readers would be hard pressed to remember which tracks they are, that’s how forgettable most of this is. Side four rescues it from being a complete dead loss, but things need shaking up. Would NOW 16 provide that? If it was going to, it would have to do it the hard way, as NOW 16 was to become the only album in the series to contain not one single, solitary number one hit…
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC 15
14th August 1989
Back To Life – Soul II Soul
Good Thing – Fine Young Cannibals
The continued absence of Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue is telling. Both signed to PWL, maybe Pete Waterman didn’t want NOW appearances to take away from their own album sales?
Another PWL absentee was the one hit wonder that was I’d Rather Jack by The Reynolds Girls. Maybe NOW didn’t want to include a song which criticised the kind of artists who still constituted a large proportion of their roll call.
|I Want It All||Queen|
|Kick It In||Simple Minds|
|Good Thing||Fine Young Cannibals|
|Baby I Don’t Care||Transvision Vamp|
|Rooms On Fire||Stevie Nicks|
|My Brave Face||Paul McCartney|
|Ferry Cross The Mersey||Gerry Marsden/Paul McCartney/
Holly Johnson/The Christians
|Song For Whoever||The Beautiful South|
|The Second Summer Of Love||Danny Wilson|
|Violently (7″ Version)||Hue And Cry|
|The Best Of Me||Cliff Richard|
|Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)||Soul II Soul Featuring Caron Wheeler|
|Every Little Step||Bobby Brown|
|Do You Love What You Feel (Duane Bradley Remix)||Inner City|
|It’s Time To Get Funky||D-Mob & LRS|
|Joy And Pain||Donna Allen|
|Licence To Kill||Gladys Knight|
|Miss You Like Crazy||Natalie Cole|
|It’s Alright||Pet Shop Boys|
|Swing The Mood (Medley)||Jive Bunny & The Master Mixers|
|You On My Mind||Swing Out Sister|
|Cruel Summer ’89||Bananarama|
|Say No Go||De La Soul|
|Blame It On The Bassline||Norman Cook & MC Wildski|
|Just Keep Rockin’||Double Trouble & The Rebel MC|