NOW! 18 – The pompatus of love
In some ways the much-derided (by smart arses like me), and often ignored (by everyone else) re-vamp of the NOW design is nice and simple. No one was calling the albums by their full name, so why bother putting the whole title on the cover? They barely bothered with NOW 17, but retained the iconic balls for one last round. Also, the series had been going for so long now, surely everyone had given up on the numbering by now? The latest release would be just another NOW album, people will flock to buy it anyway, it doesn’t matter what number it is. We’ll keep the number, but we’ll hide it on the sleeve, like a game, or like some cryptic cigarette ad. With NOW 18, the balls were chopped off in their prime and replaced by what I can only compare to old pub wallpaper, with the word NOW! emblazoned across the front (note also the addition of the kiddie-friendly but otherwise useless exclamation mark). It’s breathtakingly dreadful. Even as a teenager I knew this was a horrible design, mainly because it looks cheap and generic. Add some band photos down the side and it’s not a million miles away from the rip-off Out Now! series Chrysalis and MCA records briefly released in the mid 80s.
This might be excusable if NOW 18 bestrode the charts like a sales statistic behemoth (whatever one of them might look like) but it doesn’t, and I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s me or the music. This blog was a direct result of me wondering if pop music got bad or did I just get old. The question I forgot to ask myself was, do we only like the pop music from when we were kids? Does every generation think their music was the best?
NOW 18 is certainly not short on number ones; side one kicks off with three in a row, and features a further three later on. The Beautiful South’s A Little Time, Steve Miller Band’s The Joker and Reg Dwight’s first UK number one, Sacrifice, represent probably the lowest key opening to a NOW album so far. Strange that they re-brand, presumably, to appeal more to a hip, happening teenage market (it’s unlikely many who bought the first NOW were still buying them by this stage), and then they choose to open the album with some of the most insipid, turgid, beige-sounding songs of the year. The Joker in particular, featured in a Levis ad, so a nailed on number one, really perplexes me now. What was it about this song (apart from its ubiquity on the TV) that made it so popular, particularly when it failed to score on its original release in the 70s? Lest we forget this is the song that stopped Deee-Lite’s Groove Is In The Heart from reaching number one. Elton John’s song is a mystery too, since Sacrifice and it’s double A side brother, the much better, Healing Hands, had BOTH been released as singles the year before, and neither had charted!
The dirge doesn’t stop there. It Must have Been Love isn’t a bad ballad (and I was sure it had been a chart-topper but it stopped at number 3), but following on from Baldy Reg (still in hat-wearing rather than bad weave mode) just demonstrates why you shouldn’t pack all your smooch songs too close together. Four songs in and NOW 18 is making me reconsider whether this blog will ever get finished. A lively horn section and a small orchestra jerk me back into action. Sadly it’s courtesy of Phil Collins’ Something Happened On The Way To Heaven, surely one of the worst song titles of all time. The song’s alright, nothing special, but I’m probably giving it an easier ride because of what came before it. Collins somehow manages to snag himself a prime location as the first artist name on the cover, a spot normally reserved for the coveted side one, track one artist.
Just as side one is starting to feel like a complete washout, NOW 18’s first forgotten gem arrives. Last year Wilson Phillips’ Hold On got itself a bit of a mini revival thanks to the awful Bridesmaids movie (a film whose best scene features a group of ladies in wedding dresses suffering explosive diarrhoea…), but listening to it again here it still generates that “I haven’t heard this for years” feeling. Given they are the daughters of various Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas, it shouldn’t surprise that they can hold a cracking pop tune. It’s ridiculously uplifting and nice in a fun way rather than being nice because it’s not dreadful.
The mood then drops immediately, but to be fair, it is for one of the best songs on the album, if not the whole of the 90s: Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor. Given its release date, this really should have featured on NOW 17, and one can only suspect it was held back so as not to affect sales of Ms O’Connor’s album (which sold very well, thank you very much). As breathtakingly good as the song is, it brings to a close the least inspiring side of NOW I’ve experienced thus far.
And things don’t improve on the flipside either, at least not at first. Thanks to the movie Ghost, Unchained Melody found itself vying with The Joker for the title of Biggest Selling Re-release of 1990. The Righteous Brothers were victorious, becoming the biggest selling single of the whole year into the bargain. I’ve always found this endlessly popular (and endlessly covered) song to be a bit of a slog and in the Righteous Brothers discography I’ve always preferred You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and the less well-known Ebb Tide, both of which were released as a double A-side later in the year, but performed less well.
An act whose chart career seemed to end almost at the same time as the the 80s was Belinda Carlisle. Her chart placings had been steadily declining since she burst onto the scene at the tail end of 1987, with successive singles registering lower and lower, so it was a bit of a surprise that the fifth (FIFTH!) single from her Runaway Horses album would not only be a hit, but would be her biggest hit since Heaven Is A Place on Earth. It’s not that much of a surprise though when you learn that single was the car- flogging We Want The Same Thing. Now regarded as one of her best-loved songs, the single version was a radical reworking of the version on the album, at least that’s what Wikipedia says. Not having a copy of the album to hand I can’t verify this, and the interwebs are no help either, offering only this, more famous version. It follows the template of Heaven to a tee, and is a brilliant pop single as a result. A number six finish seems a bit harsh now for such a great pop nugget, but the charts were much tougher in those days.
Sadly, the charts weren’t quite tough enough to prevent Status Quo’s Anniversary Waltz from reaching number two! Obviously conceived to try and cash in on the success of Jive Bunny the previous year, The Quo take a three-chord-wander their way through a succession of 50s rock n’ roll standards with all the enthusiasm of a pub band on a wet Tuesday night. Dreadful. Much better is INXS’ Suicide Blonde. The first new single after the massive success of the Kick album, this was always going to be a tricky prospect. Luckily, it still sounds pretty damn good, though that harmonica does have a tendency to wow and irritate in equal measure. INXS takes us into a cul-de-sac of ‘indie’ tunes, but with baggy imploding as quickly as it started, it’s left to two old hands and one doomed new act to provide our left-field choices this time around.
Public Image Limited’s (PiL) Don’t Ask Me is the big “huh?” on NOW 18. Never a big hit (and PiL were never more than critically-acclaimed rather than chart successes) it is a pretty good tune. Not as good as This Is Not A Love Song or Rise, this does strike me as filler for a NOW album. Were Virgin really trying to sell PiL to the kids of the early 90s? One band that definitely was successfully sold back to the kids was Talk Talk. Never as successful as they should have been, a greatest hits album led to a couple of top 20 hits with It’s My Life (on show here) becoming their biggest ever hit, 6 years after its original release. Such a brilliant track, it opened up the band to whole new audience (myself included) who had not been aware of them. Listened to now it’s easy to spot Talk Talk’s influence over so much of the alternative scene in the intervening years, it’s shameful it took a contract-fulfilling compilation to get them noticed in their own country.
The La’s also never got their dues and are more widely regarded as one hit wonders. Due to its ubiquity, it may be hard to fathom that There She Goes only reached the dizzy heights of number 18 and remains their only top 40 single. Despite it being a wonderful piece of jaunty pop fluff (allegedly about heroin addiction) I’ll gladly never hear it again. If you like it, I implore you to buy their debut (and to date, only studio) album. There at least five songs on it better than this.
Side two then finishes itself off with the seemingly obligatory inclusions for Tina Turner’s Be Gentle With Me Baby (kind of like The First Cut Is The Deepest by way of Stay With Me Baby) and Robert palmer and UB40’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, which is playful if not exactly good. Palmer helps a lot.
Perhaps reflecting the shift in sales to CD’s, there seems to be a definite attempt to theme the halves of the albums now, with, usually, sides three and four given over to dance music, as is the case here. This reflects the charts at the time, but it’s telling that five of the number ones on NOW 18 were on the first half, in with all the rock and pop, while the second half, almost exclusively dance-orientated features just the one, which we’ll come to in a moment. The Pet Shop Boys return with So Hard, and ‘proper’ bands get a brief look in thanks to the wonderful remix of The Cure’s already wonderful Close To Me, and the dreadful Ben Liebrand remix of Sting’s already dreadful An Englishman In New York. There’s also the jaw-droppingly simple but effective remix treatment given to Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, which still impresses.
Producer-led dance was taking over though: Fascinating Rhythm from Bass-o-matic (which I always thought was a great name for a washing machine) sounded great in 1990, but sounds awfully generic now. It’s probably no fault of the song, but the endless, pointless samples are over the top and irritate enormously. Soul II Soul’s Missing You is pretty ropey stuff compared to their 1989 vintage, despite the presence of Kym Mazelle on vocals. This should have made for a stronger vocal than Carol Wheeler, but somehow it ends up sounding even weedier. Also disappointing is Neneh Cherry’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin; a self-conscious attempt to re-write Prince’s awesome Sign o’ The Times, it fails completely. Cherry’s vocal is fine, and the subject is laudable, but it feels contrived and cheap. Blue Pearl’s Little Brother is only here in anticipation of it being as big a hit as its predecessor, Naked In The Rain. Not a chance, but it’s not as bad as I remember considering it’s a very difficult song to remember.
Side four feels like it will be the proper party side, kicking off with Kylie’s Step Back In Time (a change in chart fortunes no doubt prompting her re-appearance, two years after I Should Be So Lucky appeared on NOW 11). Kim Appleby’s Don’t Worry is one of the best songs on NOW 18. Lyrically it’s about getting over a bloke, but everyone knew it was really about the tragic death of her sister, Mel. For a floor-filler it’s genuinely moving stuff. The public agreed pushing it to a number two slot that, sadly, subsequent releases couldn’t match. It was produced by Ken from Bros, fact fans!
Next we get two absolute jokes of tunes. Technotronic’s Megamix (I can’t believe that’s the title, but that’s how it’s credited… just Megamix) is one of the most shameless rip-offs I’ve ever heard from the music industry. Having sold the public the same song four times (only Rocking Over The Beat showed any sign of variety) they then cut all four together, along with a fifth, unidentified track, and sell it back to the kids again! It’s like KFC taking all your left over bones and bits of skin, re-heating them and then selling them back to you as “Spicy Scraps” or something. And given that all the songs are bloody identical, it couldn’t have been too much of a chore to mix them all together. One point of mild interest comes from the fact that MC Eric (pfft) is rapping a different lyric from This Beat is Technotronic. Meh.
Next comes the gobsmackingly awful Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Polka Yellow Dot Bikini from Bombalurina (aka Timmy Mallett, crazy name, crazy guy). You all know this, don’t you? Bloody awful… number one all summer… novelty crap… Well, I’m shocked to report that you are wrong. All of you. It’s actually pretty good. I don’t mean in a Pet Sounds/ The Queen Is Dead sense of the word good. We’re not talking about topping a Q magazine list of the greatest number ones of all time. I mean, it’s good in a good, fun pop song kind of way. On NOW 12 there was some discussion (in my head) of the KLF’s Timelords project and how it was a cynical attempt to ‘create’ a number one record. They succeeded. I see Bombalurina as an attempt to use the same principles but to create, not a deliberately bad record but, a good fun pop record. It samples The Incredible Bongo Band, Holly Johnson, Gil Scott Heron and that “ah yeah” heard on every record in 1990. Mallett can’t sing but holds the whole thing together. And let’s not forget, the song is not some great work of art to start with; it’s pop fluff, Mallet just updated it, retaining the fun (an aspect of pop that was slowly being eradicated) and having a massive hit into the bargain. And all power to him. The man was one of the greatest kids TV presenters ever and by all accounts is a thoroughly decent gent. I’ll not hear a word said against him.
Fun pop continues with Betty Boo’s wonderful Where Are You Baby?, which is still brilliant, and Dirty Cash from The Adventures of Stevie V. Not a favourite of mine back in 1990, listened to now (for the first time in two decades) it’s actually rather splendid. Dark, moody and still danceable, it’s just a shame about the incongruous rap that appears halfway through. It’s completely out of place, but luckily, quite short.
The whole thing finishes off with a couple of smoochers. That old Scottish rapper McHammer deconstruction of The Chi-Lites’ Have You Seen Her? deserves little mention, but Jimmy Somerville’s To Love Somebody is rather special. Giving his best vocal performance for years, it somehow manages to make white-boy reggae listenable again. Compared to UB40 this feels a lot more heartfelt and honest. But it’s another notch on the cover version/re-release bedpost, taking NOW 18’s total to a whopping 16 songs! It’s a pleasant end to the album but one which is indicative of the album’s underwhelming whole.
In NOW 18’s defence (a bit) 1990 was far from a banner year for pop music, and was definitely a transitional year. Stock, Aitken and waterman were on their way out, with ‘purer’ dance music coming to the fore, mainly from Europe. It wasn’t all good, far from it, but it was to become the dominant sound of the charts and arguably still is today. It should be no surprise to learn that NOW only had two regular releases in 1990, but there were three NOW Dance releases (I may come to NOW Dance at a later date). Indie took a bath, and it would be a few more years before it would re-emerge in any meaningful way in the NOW universe. The notable absence is rap. While the charts today are happy to mix hip hop with chart regulars, the record buyers of 1990 were notably unsure, and after a few fruitful years, it too seemed to be on the wane in the mainstream.
NOW 18 is a fair reflection of its cover: shouting from the rooftops about good it is, and how big its hits are, just like the Hits Album used to, but just like Hits, it flatters to deceive. There is some absolute class on show here, but it’s suffocated by old songs, insipid ballads, poor programming and a lack of innovation. Ironic given its ‘innovative’ new look.
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC 18
19th November 1990
Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor
It Must have Been Love – Roxette
Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers
Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini – Bombalurina (seriously… try it again)
King of Wishful Thinking – Go West
Kinky Afro – Happy Mondays
The elephant on the room is the best single of 1990…
Groove is in the Heart – Deee Lite, which had sadly snapped up for The Hit Pack, the latest incarnation of the Hits series.
|A Little Time||The Beautiful South|
|The Joker||Steve Miller Band|
|It Must Have Been Love||Roxette|
|Something Happened On The Way To Heaven||Phil Collins|
|Hold On (Single Edit)||Wilson Phillips|
|Nothing Compares 2 U||Sinéad O’Connor|
|Unchained Melody||The Righteous Brothers|
|(We Want) The Same Thing||Belinda Carlisle|
|Anniversary Waltz (Part One)||Status Quo|
|Don’t Ask Me||Public Image Ltd|
|It’s My Life||Talk Talk|
|There She Goes||The La’s|
|Be Tender With Me Baby||Tina Turner|
|I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight||Robert Palmer Featuring UB40|
|So Hard||Pet Shop Boys|
|Missing You||Soul II Soul Featuring Kym Mazelle|
|Tom’s Diner||DNA featuring Suzanne Vega|
|An Englishman In New York||Sting|
|Close To Me||The Cure|
|I’ve Got You Under My Skin||Neneh Cherry|
|Little Brother||Blue Pearl|
|Step Back In Time||Kylie Minogue|
|Don’t Worry||Kim Appleby|
|Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini||Bombalurina|
|Where Are You Baby||Betty Boo|
|Dirty Cash (Money Talks)||The Adventures Of Stevie V|
|Have You Seen Her||M C Hammer|
|To Love Somebody||Jimmy Somerville|