NOW 16 – Not The Man You Used To Be
NOW 16 signals the end of an era. Not only was it the last NOW album of the 80s, the decade of its birth, but it was also the last NOW album I owned. 1989 proved to be, pretty much, the end of my love affair with chart music. I’d been dabbling with big brother’s records for a while, but his imminent departure out on his own would mean I’d have to start buying my own copy of the NME now, and my meagre pocket money was not going to stretch to that, Smash Hits AND saving for NOW albums. Something had to give, and it proved to be all things pop that bit the dust.
Looked back from a remove of two and a half decades, NOW 16 confirms a lot of what had been happening over the previous couple of years: dance music was now very much part of the mainstream; Stock, Aitken, Waterman had half the charts sewn up; pop bands were being replaced by pretty-boy ‘manufactured’ acts; and any attempt to create something meaningful would result in the kind of overblown, overwrought and over-long musical pot-pourri that produces the likes of Sowing The Seeds Of Love. Amazingly, opening the compilation in a near full version (just 30 seconds shy of the album version, but still much more than they’d play on the radio), it’s a huge, expensive mess, but I still love it, because it’s a huge, expensive mess, and it’s easily the most interesting song on NOW 16. The rest of the album is mostly a display of pop blandness at its most beige, and was indicative of the severe lack of ‘top chart hits’ EMI, Virgin and Polygram produced in ‘89, but also how dreadful the public’s tastes had gotten.
With the exception of Tears for Fears, side one is fairly ordinary, without being particularly bad. Belinda Carlisle’s Leave A Light On is strating to demonstrate her lack of variety (or rather that of her writers); Erasure’s Drama is good, but not a classic; and Debbie Harry’s I Want That Man similarly pales in comparison to the best of Blondie, or even French Kissing in the USA.
“What about Sydney Youngblood?” absolutely no one cries. If Only I Could is a sickly sweet “can’t we all just get alone” ode to world peace with a weedy, hand-clap-heavy, dance beat nicked from Raze’s Break 4 Love, with added funky wah-wah AND Spanish guitar, for no reason other than they had to add something to make it more interesting. It didn’t work.
Fondly remembered, but pretty dated is the return of Curiosity Killed The Cat with Name and Number. It’s much better than their earlier stuff; it’s got a neat line in synthesised saxophone and provided the inspiration for a De La Soul song, so not all bad. But people only ever remember the chorus, which everyone my age knows verbatim, and it goes on forever. The Beautiful South and Wet Wet Wet both provide lesser-loved tracks, with You Keep It All In and Sweet Surrender, the latter of which sounds like it was written for some god-awful US teen drama.
Side two does not improve things immediately, but eventually springs a few surprises. Queen’s Breakthru is among their weaker efforts (though conversely, is one of the better singles off of The Miracle album), but that is followed by the only true ‘classic’ track on NOW 16: Tina Turner’s The Best. It’s not a favourite of mine, but it’s the closest thing we have to a legendary, iconic song here and I don’t think you have to like a classic to appreciate that it is one. To this day, there are people who can’t hear it without doing Ms Bullock’s crazy horse/Tommy Cooper impression dance.
Far from classic is Transvision Vamp’s Born To Be Sold, a forerunner of the ‘list’ song that would become ubiquitous in 1990 (Madonna’s Vogue, The Beloved’s Hello etc). It’s pleasant, nostalgic and different to the raucous, scream-a-thons that made them stars (alright, made Wendy James a star). It also demonstrates that Ms James did not have the best of voices, and this single was the start of their relatively swift decline. Oddity number one appears with the long forgotten Wendy and Lisa with Waterfall ’89, the ‘89 indicating this was a remix of an ‘87 track about their leaving The Revolution, Prince’s old backing band. Released as a follow up to the chart-dodging Lolly, Lolly, and minor hit Satisfaction, Waterfall also failed to reach the top 40. It’s a good tune, though different to the funky grooves of those other singles, and worth a listen.
A top 40 hit was probably the least that was expected of Kate Bush, whose The Sensual World appears here to baffle and confuse unsuspecting teenage listeners. I’d forgotten how good this was even if it doesn’t scale the wondrous heights of her classic work. Certainly, only she could have created it and that, in my book, makes it worthwhile.
Oddity number two comes from the fact that NOW 16 was the subject of some format fiddling. The CD version contained three bonus tracks dotted across, and the first of these appears mid-way through side two, with the Fine Young Cannibals and the wonderful I’m Not The Man I’m Used To Be. I think this qualifies as the best track on the album; I’ve always loved this and never really understood why. It’s fairly basic, even monotonous, melody-wise, but somehow that works in its favour. The thoughtful lyrics seem to resonate with me much more now perhaps than they did all those years ago. It would sadly prove to be The Cannibals’ final chart hit, bar one minor, greatest hits-flogging new track, The Flame in 1996.
Also disappearing over the pop horizon was Then Jericho. Sugarbox is the kind of overblown balladry that gave rock a bad name back in the 80s. A million miles better than the likes of Whitesnake, it may be, but it’s still got that stadium pomposity, massive orchestrations and barely-concealed naughtiness of the title. Their collaboration with Belinda Carlisle, What Does It Take?, was much better, but failed to make much of a dent on the charts. Also saying farewell to NOW was Living in a Box, whose final hit (and joint best-seller with their eponymous debut single) really sounds like they’re taking the piss. Always good pop song writers, Room In Your Heart sounds like a parody of the kind of heart-tugging ballads so popular at the time. It’s completely beige and inoffensive bar the bizarre ‘other-worldly’ opening, but once we hit the third chorus and Richard Darbyshire is bellowing his head off like a man possessed, you know we’ve entered a whole new realm of scariness altogether. It’s probably the same realm where Richard Marx lurks, awaiting unsuspecting teenage girls to bump off and dump in the river. But that was the other song he sung. Right Here Waiting is the song he sings AFTER he’s bumped them off, and he’s sitting in his bedroom crying over a photo of them, slowly rocking back and forth.
Bizarrely, things don’t immediately pick up on the start of side three, and these things normally do. By now, this was established as the opening of the dance (and pop pick n mix) party. Technically, yes, Milli Vanilli were a dance act, but Girl I’m Gonna Miss You is a dreary, 2 am, “this one’s for the ladies” sad sack track and is an awful way to start the second half of the collection. Given that the track listing (and programming) of a NOW album involved a certain amount of brinkmanship, you have to wonder what favours were done by ‘Vanilli’s’ people to get them such a prominent spot on the album with a wholly inappropriate song. Thank god for the Rebel MC, returning with Street Tuff. A much bigger hit than Just keep Rockin’, I’m not sure it’s as good though, sounding much more chart friendly and commercial than the earlier track. Still good fun though.
Bobby Brown’s dominance of 1989 continued with On Our Own, one of the oldest tracks on show, hailing from July. It sounds like exactly what it is, an old, unreleased track, dusted off and given a new verse about the Ghostbusters thanks to its inclusion in that summers’ Ghostbusters II (along with Brown himself, who pocketed a cool half mill for opening a door and asking Dan Aykroyd for an autograph). One of his better tunes, it has dated horribly and anyone not around in 89 will wonder what all the fuss about Brown was all about. Technotronic’s Pump Up The Jam on the other hand is one of those tracks that you know would be a hit pretty much whenever it was released in the past 25 years. While not the most nutritious of jams, it’s pop reduced to its bare bones, being almost an alchemic as 2 Unlimited’s No Limits, while never being quite as irritating.
The second bonus track on the CD is L’il Louis’ truly odd French Kiss. What begins as a bassy, sexy, stripped down dance track descends into pure filth around the 90 second mark with the arrival of a lady who certainly sounds as if she is enjoying herself. I still vividly recall first hearing this track in the family car one Sunday evening on the top 40 chart show. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed me or my mum; dad took it in his stride, declared it “a load of crap” and calmly switched to radio 2 with little fuss, returning to the charts a few minutes later. I’ve no idea how many times it was played on Radio 1 but it can’t have been many. To hear it on a NOW album is a truly disturbing experience (especially on a packed commuter train, as I did this morning, wondering if anyone else can hear it).
Sanity is restored, to an extent, with Adeva’s I Thank You, which is a huge disappointment following on from her barnstorming Respect from NOW 14. D-Mob’s only just-about-listenable track, Come On And Get My Love is up next, made palatable by the astonishing voice of a then just 20 year old Cathy Dennis, but the voice sounds at least ten years older than that. Briefly a star in her own right, Dennis is now best known as a writer of other people’s massive hits, including Kylie’s legendary Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. Come On And Get My Love would be nothing without her contribution, which says a lot about her talent. Two cool, late night tunes finish off side three, with De La Soul’s lovely Eye Know, and Inner City’s Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’, a brief return to form for them before they slid into obscurity.
The final side of NOW 16 is possibly the best example of everything that was wrong with pop, circa 1989. The last side was often used a dumping ground for the cast offs and filler tracks, and on NOW 16 it’s no different. Two tracks stand out: Shakespeare’s Sister’s wonderful You’re History was a brilliant breath of fresh air on its original release. Now surpassed by the massive success of Stay a few years later, it shouldn’t be forgotten how exciting this sounded. To think this was from someone who was in Bananarama, and who was this crazy falsetto-bawling woman in the background? It’s got the now-familiar Sister’s oddness sprinkled all over it and I still love it. The other stand out is Neneh Cherry’s Kisses On The Wind, which severely underperformed on its original release, reaching just number 20. I find this truly odd, as it’s on a par with her previous singles. A sexy, hot summer tune it seems a tad out of place on this winter release, but its quality cannot be denied.
So what of the rest of side four? Well, there’s a double dose of SAW, with Big Fun’s Can’t Shake the Feeling, which no one remembers, and an unholy alliance with Cliff which resulted in the god-awful I Just Don’t Have The Heart, in which The English Elvis (pfft) continues a loveless relationship and strings the ‘partner’ along because he hasn’t got the balls to tell them he doesn’t love them anymore, if ever. The bastard. Former SAW poster boys, Brother Beyond attempted a comeback without the axis of evil, with Drive On, which reached the dizzy heights of number 39 (and was the final CD only track, at least with this one you can understand why it was only included on the CD). Jimmy Somerville’s Comment Te Dire Adieu (a tentative first solo single, duetting with June Miles-Kingston) just sounds odd. Singing in French is perfectly fine if you’re French. When you’re a wee Scottish guy who looks like a potato it’s a tad off-putting.
The final few tracks pick up the quality a bit, even if they are now all but forgotten. There have been worse cover versions in the NOW series so far, but Oh Well by…err… Oh Well is certainly among the strangest. Who thought a cover of a bluesy Fleetwood Mac weirdy-beardy track from 1969, given a dance beat, would be a good idea? Well, a German producer did, roping in some UK musicians to assist him. To be fair, the track has been covered several times, by the likes of Joe Jackson, Tom Petty and Steve Marriott, but never like this. Euro-dance-tastic, but not camp, it’s a truly once in a lifetime experience, as proved by the failure to follow it up with a similar sounding version of Radar Love. It’s got a certain charm to it but smells of the end of the end of the 80s.
Redhead Kingpin (and the FBI)’s Do the Right Thing seems to be looking forward, rather than back, and sits in a strange middle ground between De La Soul and Public Enemy. Not featuring in the Spike Lee film of the same name (from no doubt where the title came from) it WAS featured in the film People Under The Stairs! It was their only UK hit but still has a certain something that conjures up a late 80s vibe. Unlike Fresh 4 featuring Lizz E (!), whose dreadful cover version of Wishing on a Star finishes off the album and is possibly the worst closing song of the series. Whilst it features that weird, ubiquitous hollow waste bin drum sound which seemed to feature on every other dance track for a couple of years, this also features an awful, out of tune vocal performance and layer upon layer of noises. There’s no melody, just odd trumpet noises, dolphin (or bird) noises, whistles; anything they could slap over it to cover up the singing, which is also passed through about 6 echo chambers at the same time. And I haven’t even mentioned the dreadful Cockney rap that appears out of nowhere towards the end. An absolute, sorry mess.
And that was the end of the eighties.
Just a week before NOW 16 hit the shops, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays both appeared on the same, epoch-making, earth-shattering edition of Top Of The Pops. At least it was for my generation. The odd alternative act may have snuck into the charts before, but since new wave died out in the early 80s, the charts were definitely pop’s domain. Soul II Soul and Inner City had breathed fresh new life into British dance music, and De La Soul and Public Enemy was doing it across the pond. I think it’s telling that the TV ad focusses on the dance tracks rather than the pop stars.
The mainstream of 1989 was in a sorry state, leaving NOW in a state itself, so much so that the revived Hits series (now rebranded as Monster Hits) had nicked all the number ones from the second half of the year, including Black Box’s Ride on Time and Lisa Stansfield’s All Around the World. They even managed to snaffle a Madonna track (Cherish) for inclusion. NOW 16, by comparison, looked out of date. Y’know, for kids.
1990 was around the corner, bringing with it a fresh approach from the compilers. It was time for NOW to follow the public and embrace the left field like never before. It may be another half decade before ‘indie’ dominated the charts, but for now, and for NOW, 1990 would signal a change of style, mood and attitude. Sadly, it would be doing it without me…
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC 16
2nd December 1989
The Best – Tina Turner
Sowing The Seeds Of Love – Tears for Fears
Waterfall ‘89 – Wendy and Lisa (youtube only has the original version unfortunately)
Personal Jesus – Depeche Mode
You can’t really blame the compilers for failing to include Stone Roses’ Fools Gold or Happy Mondays’ Hallelujah as both were released far too late for consideration.
|Sowing The Seeds Of Love||Tears For Fears|
|Leave A Light On||Belinda Carlisle|
|I Want That Man||Deborah Harry|
|If Only I Could||Sydney Youngblood|
|Name And Number||Curiosity Killed The Cat|
|You Keep It All In||The Beautiful South|
|Sweet Surrender||Wet Wet Wet|
|The Best||Tina Turner|
|Born To Be Sold||Transvision Vamp|
|Waterfall ’89||Wendy & Lisa|
|The Sensual World||Kate Bush|
|I’m Not The Man I Used To Be||Fine Young Cannibals (CD Only)|
|Room In Your Heart||Living In A Box|
|Right Here Waiting||Richard Marx|
|Girl I’m Gonna Miss You||Milli Vanilli|
|Street Tuff||The Rebel MC & Double Trouble|
|On Our Own||Bobby Brown|
|Pump Up The Jam||Technotronic featuring Felly|
|French Kiss||Lil Louis (CD Only)|
|I Thank You||Adeva|
|C’mon And Get My Love||D-Mob & Cathy Dennis|
|Eye Know||De La Soul|
|Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’||Inner City|
|Can’t Shake The Feeling||Big Fun|
|I Just Don’t Have The Heart||Cliff Richard|
|Comment Te Dire Adieu||Jimmy Somerville Featuring June Miles Kingston|
|Drive On||Brother Beyond (CD Only)|
|You’re History||Shakespeare’s Sister|
|Oh Well||Oh Well|
|Kisses On The Wind||Neneh Cherry|
|Do The Right Thing||Redhead Kingpin|
|Wishing On A Star||Fresh Four ft Lizz E|