NOW! 19 – Not quite the time of your life
1991 was to prove to be a game changing year for NOW. Hits was now dead in the water and to celebrate NOW would unveil an exciting, sexy new look. That, however, would have to wait, as the year began with a continuation of the dreadful pub wallpaper, shouty brash styling of its predecessor, but at least NOW 19 is a huge improvement. Oddly, although it contains five number ones, I suspect many people would struggle to remember them from the track listing, and would probably misidentify a couple of songs as chart-toppers that weren’t.
The advert, which chooses to highlight some odd selections, mentions six number ones. I wonder if they are cheekily including The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, which was a number one in 1965, but only number 3 on it’s 1990 re-release.
We start with one of the ones that DID hit the top spot at the time, with the peerless The Clash and their denim-flogging Should I Stay or Should I Go. A brilliant song, no doubt, but should such an old song (from an advert no less) be opening the album? What used to be the prime slot of a NOW album, usually reserved for the biggest track available, it was increasingly being used as brinkmanship and devoted to artists the labels wanted to plug the most. The fact that The Clash was licensed from WEA for inclusion makes this doubly strange as none of the NOW labels benefit from additional sales. Maybe it was considered a big enough hit to warrant a negotiation with WEA to get it front and centre.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the rest of side one is almost exclusively dance orientated. But none of this is as odd as the second track, a tune I’ve spent 20 years trying to decide if I like or not, and I’m still not sure. Much like Candy Flip’s Strawberry Fields Forever, Scritti Politti’s take on the Fab Four’s She’s a Woman (a lesser known mop-top track, being the B-side to I Feel Fine) is a ridiculously contemporary take on a Beatles’ track, so over-produced, bleeding-edge and, frankly, camp, that you wonder if it’s not all some elaborate joke at the listeners’ expense. Add in everyone’s favourite homophobic rapper, Shabba Ranks (making his UK chart debut), and you have the perfect punchline. Seeing Green Gartside in the video looking like Richard Madeley doing his Ali G impression, wearing a very hot-looking tracksuit and baseball cap (right way round, thankfully) is something to behold. It’s not a bad track, not by a long shot; it’s just so wonderfully odd. I’ve had my doubts before about how seriously The Politti’s take themselves (see NOW 12) so I’m happy to assume that, like The Beautiful South, they’re happy for people to take their songs how they hear them and not sneer at them for ‘not getting it’. It’s one of the lowest charting tracks on NOW 19, reaching only number 20.
Just two songs in and we next get one of the best songs on the album with You Got the Love. The track has a massively convoluted genesis which I won’t delve into here, but needless to say the vocal is old (around 1986) and this arrangement was a re-working of a previous bootleg release (1989). Even this 1991 release appears in various different guises. The one on NOW 19 is the one I remember from the charts at the time, but has subtle differences to the one more commonly played on the radio now and heard on 90’s compilations (the track has been remixed and re-released so many times, it’s impossible to know which version you’re going to get).
So things are shaping up nicely, a drop must be due, surely? Well, not yet there isn’t. The KLF’s 3AM Eternal is next, somehow managing to sound like a perfect fusion of rap, dance and rock and simultaneously sound like it’s sending it all up. That’s followed by C and C Music Factory with Gonna Make You Sweat (still a pop-tastic floor-filler) and Nomad’s I Wanna Give You Devotion. In NOW 19’s only sop to the alternative scene we get EMF’s I Believe, a fine follow up to megahit Unbelievable, and 808 State’s In Your Face, probably the hardest track featured on a NOW album. It’s the kind of thing that people say isn’t music, it’s just noise. It’s not quite as teeth-shattering as Cubik from the previous year, but it gives the bass a good rattling. Amazingly this was a top ten hit. Good, because it’s great.
Side one has been pretty damn good, it has to be said, but it saves the best until last, with, in my opinion anyway, the best track featured in the whole series, Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. It’s simply one of the most perfect records released in my lifetime: a subtle sample, a wonderful vocal, great lyrics, and more atmosphere than the best of Russ Abbott’s parties. It still gives me chills and stops me doing whatever I’m doing when I hear it. It’s so perfect it’s hard to believe it’s actually on a pop compilation and had it not been for this blog I would never have known that it appeared on a NOW album. It reached a sorry number 13 in the charts, a fact I feel the country as a whole should hang its collective head in shame for. Its inclusion does however cement in history a moment of BBC craziness which has been long forgotten. As the single was released at the height of the Gulf War (part 1) Auntie took it upon itself to ban, edit and rename a whole list of songs and artists (including the Happy Mondays, whose track Loose Fit lost a line about blowing up an air force base and wiping out your race; they didn’t have a problem with the lines about getting stoned though). As such Massive Attack were persuaded, through their record company, to lose the ‘Attack’ or risk not getting any airplay, unfortunately making them Massive, and sounding like any number of generic Belgian DJs then cluttering up the lower reaches of the chart. It’s under that name that they appear here.
So, as good as side one is, it’s inevitable that it would have a bad and evil twin. Side two is that twin. Well, to be fair, it’s more that the bad ones are SO bad, they taint the rest of the side. The only track on side two I would choose to listen to is Kylie’s What Do I Have To Do?, part of her sexy re-invention phase. It’s one of the weaker efforts from this period, paling in comparison to Shocked or Better The Devil You Know. Of the rest, Kim Appleby’s G.L.A.D. is fun without scoring as highly as Don’t Worry. Wiggle It, from 2 in a Room, just sounds creepy (and I could have sworn was released a couple of years later than 1991). McHammer’s Pray is poor and only here because if he had a single out it had to be included to make up for the fact that NOW missed out on U Can’t Touch This.
Vanilla Ice and Hale and Pace (featuring Brian May!) slug it out for worst track on the album. I hadn’t heard either Play That Funky Music or The Stonk since 1991 and a bloody good thing too. If any excuses can be made for these, at least Vanilla Ice’s was never meant to be anything other than a pocket-money grabbing, quick buck follow-up to Ice Ice Baby. The Stonk has no such excuse. I hate the idea that charity records, and particularly Comic Relief records, are allowed to be rubbish because the music isn’t the point. Don’t release a record then! Release a comedy video instead, release a book, do a comedy telethon (oh, for the days when Comic Relief actually featured comedy rather than just Children in Need with swearing). The Stonk is a foul, festering boil of a song. Badly written and with little talent on show, either comedically or musically, it is possibly the worst comedy record of all time. It’s certainly the worst one to get to number one. You bloody idiots.
Side two does finish off with a few interesting tracks (no doubt considered mere filler by the compilers of the day). Jesus Loves You was Boy George’s return to the charts, and Bow Down Mister is nowhere near as awful as I remember it from back in the day. In fact its hymn to Hare Krishna actually sounds much more worthwhile now. Enigma’s Sadness Part 1 is one of the oddest number ones we’ve seen so far, mixing monks, pan pipes and a dance beat. I’ve never liked it, for I blame it for introducing us to the endless stream of compilations of Pan Pipe Moods, Chill Out Moods, Moods Moods and Moods. If I want to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit played on pan pipes I’ll go back to University thanks.
The final track of side two is the real curve ball though, and perhaps best sums up how ephemeral the charts were becoming: Only You by Praise. Ring any bells? It didn’t with me, even though it was a top 5 single. No? Was featured in a car advert? Maybe that’s jogged a few memories. As soon as you hear the opening, ghostly female moan bouncing from one speaker to the other you’ll recognise it. In a similar vein to Sadness, but much more atmospheric, better produced and likely to still sound contemporary for many years, this is a tune ripe for rediscovery. Or is it an embarrassing mix of would-be spiritualism, dolphin noises and with a whiff of the Ikea catalogue about it. It’s one or the other.
The decision to top load the album with the dance tracks (with the odd exception of The Clash) does the job of making NOW seem trendy again and down with the kids. What it conversely does it make the second half incredibly dreary by comparison, filled as it is, once again, with old timers, covers and re-issues. A quick glance at the line up for sides 3 and 4 turns up just two tracks I’d choose to listen to, and one of them is Chris Rea!
We are definitely in black and chrome dinner party mode to start things off. Oleta Adams’ Get Here shows off her vocal skills admirably but it is a boring bank advert soundtrack (actually I think Royal Mail ended up using it in a TV commercial, with crushing inevitability). Rick Astley’s Cry For Help was an admirable attempt to demonstrate he could still operate without SAW pulling the strings (he grew his hair long and everything) and it’s nice, if uneventful. The public, of course, wanted the funny little dance, so this would be his last major hit. The cheese is supplied by Robert Palmer, this time wasting his talents on a dreary cover of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me and I Want You, combining the two songs to no noticeable effect.
Next is a bunch of old tracks: I’ve Had The Time of My Life gets the reissue treatment following Dirty Dancing’s TV premiere (!). Berlin’s Take My Breath Away had similarly gone stratospheric following Top Gun’s TV debut, but luckily that wasn’t included for a second time. The Righteous Brothers record company had followed up Unchained Melody (the best-selling track of 1990) with the infinitely better You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling to keep the Greatest Hits album sales ticking over. This was a double A side release with the even better, but less well-known Ebb Tide. The radio only ever played the more famous track though. Shame.
Seal then pops up to tell you the world is doomed in Crazy. I never quite understood why we have to get crazy in order to survive, but there you go.
Finally a good song arrives. It’s still a little on the maudlin side, but Banderas deserve to be better remembered than they are, at least if This Is Your Life is any kind of evidence. It hasn’t aged that well, but its left-field and dancey approach to the ‘state of the planet’ song so popular at the time is far more appealing than Seal’s diatribe. It’s one of the lesser known tracks on here and needs a wider audience.
It’s followed by a song I swear I had never heard before in my life, this despite the fact it reached number six at a time when I still had a vague passing interest in what was in the top ten: The Postman Song by Stevie B. It is bloody awful and genuinely sounds like it could have been a massive hit at any point in the past 20 years (I suppose that’s some kind of compliment but it’s not meant to be). Lyrically naive, as if written by a child, it’s also musically bland (horrible electronic piano abounds), over produced (quite odd considering how sparse it is) with far too much echo on the trying-too-hard vocal. Mr B (probably no relation to Derek or Radio 1 DJ Emma) clearly fancies himself as a successor to Jacko, but that rhotacism does creep in occasionally, making his cries of “because I love you” sound like Kim Jong Il in Team America. So ronery.
Side four, thankfully starts off well, with two solid songs. Chris Rea’s Auberge has always been a song I’ve had a fondness for because I’m a sucker for a good horn section (ooh, cheeky). No idea what it’s about but his gravelly voice suits it perfectly and I remember there was an amusing video which helped a lot too. Chris Issak’s Blue Hotel is the long-forgotten follow up to his massive Wicked Game. As good as that song was I’ve always preferred this. This kind of stuff was so rare at the time it was refreshing to hear someone who wasn’t ashamed of being considered old fashioned (Harry Connick Jr was breaking at the same time with his crooner revival). The charts were full of old songs at the time anyway, like Free’s All Right Now, clogging up the top 5 like so much swallowed chewing gum. Never understood the attraction of this sweaty slice of 70s cheese and that hasn’t changed with age.
The rest of side four returns to NOW standard and meanders its way home with the off-cuts, forgotten tracks and artists that needed a push (sometimes off the roster). And Queen.
While INXS didn’t really need a push, the album X wasn’t selling as well as anticipated. Disappear was a weak track and the chart position it reached reflected this. Falling by the wayside for a second time was Belinda Carlisle, with the dull Summer Rain. Also rans in attendance also include The Railway Children (the odd Every Beat of My Heart drifts between Aztec Camera, House of Love and Johnny Hates Jazz without coming close to any of them, not even the latter) and Thunder (one of those bands, like Runrig and Wildhearts, who always seem more popular than their record sales suggest, failing to score big hits but selling out Wembley for a week).
But the strangest song is saved for last: Queen’s Innuendo. It’s probably their most successful attempt to recreate the template for Bohemian Rhapsody (something they’d been trying to do since 1975) but that does not make it any good. It ain’t. In fact it’s one of their worst singles ever, so quite why it became only their second number one after Rhapsody is completely beyond me. Radio 1 certainly helped. The old guard were still holding court but were faltering and most (DLT especially) just seemed to doing whatever the hell they liked by this stage. I remember Simon Bates, who had the mid-morning show, was going to give the record its first airing. Not only did he play the whole song (all six and a half minutes) with a reverential silence unheard of other records, he then declared it a masterpiece and played the whole thing again! It’s no masterpiece: it sounds like the darker cousin of their 1989 minor chart fancier, The Miracle, with an added Spanish guitar and castanets wig-out halfway through, and a truly odd rock opera interlude. It’s the kind of thing Muse aspire to now, but at least you think they are aware of their own ridiculousness. At least I do.
A few years earlier, Innuendo would have opened a NOW album, but Queen (number one or not) were not relevant to the NOW buyers anymore. Despite the abundance of re-releases on show, dance music now dominated the teenager’s music choice. NOW, the charts and Radio 1 were going to have to adapt to the new order.
The other thing to change, for NOW, would be look of the thing. The new 90s look needed a refresh and after just two outings the brash, gaudy look (along with the exclamation mark) would be ditched in favour of something far more refined, stylish and NOW.
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC 19
25th March 1991
Should I Stay or Should I Go – The Clash
You Got The Love – The Source feat. Candi Stanton
Unfinished Sympathy – Massive
Crazy – Seal
The Stonk – Hale & Pace and The Stonkers
Play That Funky Music – Vanilla Ice
Grease Megamix – John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John
Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter – Iron Maiden
Hippy Chick – Soho
|Should I Stay or should I Go||The Clash|
|She’s A Woman||Scritti Politti feat. Shabba Ranks|
|You Got The Love||The Source feat. Candi Stanton|
|3 a.m. Eternal||The KLF feat. The Children Of The Revolution|
|Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)||C+C Music Factory pts. Freedom Williams|
|(I Wanna Give You) Devotion||Nomad feat. MC Mikee Freedom|
|In Yer Face||808 State|
|Unfinished Sympathy||Massive Attack|
|Pray||M C Hammer|
|What Do I Have To Do (7 Mix)||Kylie Minogue|
|The Stonk||Hale & Pace & The Stonkers|
|Wiggle It||2 In A Room|
|Play That Funky Music||Vanilla Ice|
|Bow Down Mister||Jesus Loves You|
|Sadness Part 1||Enigma|
|Get Here||Oleta Adams|
|Cry For Help||Rick Astley|
|Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You (Medley)||Robert Palmer|
|(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life||Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes|
|You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’||The Righteous Brothers|
|This Is Your Life||Banderas|
|Because I Love You (The Postman Song)||Stevie B|
|Blue Hotel||Chris Isaak|
|All Right Now||Free|
|Summer Rain||Belinda Carlisle|
|Every Beat Of The Heart||The Railway Children|
|Love Walked In||Thunder|
Note: NOW 19 was the first album not to have an accompanying VHS release.