NOW 20 – Giant Floating Letters in Space
One of the fun things about this blog is the amount of misremembering I’ve been doing; you know that weird feeling you get when you are utterly convinced of something from your past despite all the evidence to the contrary. Like me thinking the NOW pig lasted for years rather than just three albums, that Bros’ I Owe You Nothing was on NOW 11, or that NOW 16 was any good. The biggest mis-memory (if that’s a real word) on my journey so far is the 1990s changing of the guard at Radio 1, that glorious time when Matthew Bannister came in and did away with the Smashie and Nicey brigade. He decided that the station that’s y’know, for kids, should really appeal to, y’know, kids and it was time for The Hairy Cornflake to pack up his Quack Quack Oops and Batesy should concentrate on his video certificate introductions (which are there to help you make the right choice, thanks for listening). Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been building up to it for quite a while, the first mention coming way back on NOW 8, and the inclusion of Queen’s Innuendo as the last track on NOW 19 seemed to perfectly dovetail in my mind with the changing of the guard over at NOW Towers as well, with the GIANT FLOATING PERSPEX LETTERS IN SPACE replacing whatever you called that abomination that had adorned the previous two covers.
But it transpires I was wrong. TWO YEARS wrong. It wasn’t until 1993 that the axe was swung and Radio 1 changed forever. So, for at least another two years, the charts, and consequently NOW, would continue to lead strange pot pourri lives, despite the best efforts of Belgian techno producers eyeing the charts like so many Bond villains eye killer missiles.
NOW 20 is nothing if not eclectic. Dance is not as prominent as it had been on the previous few releases, there’s some absolute corking tunes, and there’s no Bryan Adams. This may not seem like a big deal to younger viewers, but 1991 saw the Canadian axe man take the number one slot hostage for four months. Yes, MONTHS. As a Warner Brothers release it would have needed licensing, but for whatever reason it was not included (maybe they were aware that by Christmas that year how utterly sick of the thing the public were, a trick sadly not repeated with Wet Wet Wet’s Love is All Around a few years later). So for once the Christmas NOW release would not feature the biggest hit from its release window and not one person cared.
As with the previous couple of releases, the opening is a bit of a surprise given the calibre of acts on show, but it’s great to have Vic Reeves and the Wonder Stuff kicking things off with their spirited version of Dizzy. As a huge fan of both at the time this was one of the best singles of the year as far as I was concerned and it’s still a great party record. It is however not the best version of the song with that honour falling to Kurt Russell. Yes, that Kurt Russell.
NOW stalwart Belinda Carlisle contributes Live Your Life Be Free, coming soon to a cruise liner advert near you. The song I mean, not Ms Carlisle. It’s an odd beast; repetitive, with a throat ripping vocal which Carlisle is clearly not enjoying and a strange, seconds-long, hip-hop breakdown towards the end for no apparent reason other than to make it sound a bit more immediate. A bit like U2’s The Fly. The song which finally ended Bryan Adams top spot occupation it divided listeners more than probably any song of the period. It’s difficult to imagine the commotion this thing caused on release. U2 had become every Dad’s favourite band, and The Joshua Tree was almost as ubiquitous as Brothers in Arms had been a few years previously. Then The Fly happened. I think the fact that it pissed off so many Dad’s made it more appealing to teenagers than it would have been otherwise. It certainly did for me. It doesn’t sound like much else that was around at the time (though their time in Berlin had obviously been spent listening to a great deal of Industrial music). It could be argued (as I have done) that the seeds had been sown for this kind of thing with Simple Minds’ Kick It In back on NOW 15, but U2 made it commercially successful and, more importantly, listenable. It heralded a gear change for the then biggest band in the world and would prompt similar about-turns from acts like INXS in the coming years. Reinvention for the 90s became de rigeur.
Except possibly for the Pet Shop Boys. They decided to once again prove themselves as masters of the cover version with their wonderfully wry mash up of U2’s pompous Where The Streets Have No Name and the standard Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. If this had come out after The Fly you could have made a case for it being a brilliant pastiche of U2’s new direction (also arguing from the benefit of hindsight that it looks forward to the ridiculousness of the Pop-era of Discothèque and The Edge’s Village People moustache). But it came out six months before, making it the oldest track on the album. It had, however, been double A-sided with How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously, a critique of pop stars jumping on the charity/humanitarianism bandwagon at the drop of a cowboy hat. The Pet Shop Boys themselves are no strangers to this kind of thing themselves of course, but Bono is a particularly loathsome example, worthy of their ire.
All that silliness if followed by Erasure’s brilliant Love To Hate You, probably my favourite track of theirs, but one which never seems to get its dues. OMD’s Sailing on the Seven Seas marked something of a comeback for them and continues the knob twiddling mini-theme. It was a huge hit but listened to now it’s pretty weak tea, with a pink wafer on the side. Andy McClusky would apparently become disillusioned with the pop industry shortly afterwards and decided to get his revenge by creating Atomic Kitten.
Then it gets weird. Simple Red’s Something Got Me Started contains the most chilling intro to a song I’ve ever heard, especially if you know how about the randy exploits of the ginger-bonced one (or you would if your parents bought the News of the World as mine did). It’s not a bad tune for Hucknall, but it’s still Hucknall, and that’s still an issue. Lisa Stansfield is far more palatable (and like Hucknall, a buy-in from the currently AWOL Hits stable). Change is a beautiful song, and I rate it far higher than the all-conquering All Around The World, but it makes the fatal error of being low-key with a less memorable chorus. She acts now. Been in Miss Marple and everything.
(At the time of writing, I’ve just seen her on The One Show. I don’t know what she was plugging because it was The One Show and I’d rather pour concrete into my eyeballs than actually pay it any attention.)
Also lovely on the ears is Zoe’s Sunshine On A Rainy Day. The echoed drums and incessant hi-hat date it slightly, but it’s one of those irresistible “punch the air and sing along” tunes, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Less lovely are the next two tracks, as NOW 20 goes all sexy. Well, not sexy exactly. Just um… sex, really. Just talking about sex isn’t particularly sexy, is it? As with the earlier Push It, on NOW 12, what was once considered sexy and daring now comes across as crass and sleazy, and sadly for Salt n’ Pepa once again, Let’s Talk About Sex is a bit like a kid who has learned a new swear word. There’s none of their former sass and attitude on show here. I’m not sure if Color Me Badd ever had attitude as such, but they certainly had suits based a packet of Opal Fruits. Frankly they look a child grooming gang. They hit number one with the foul I Wanna Sex You Up, and they all must be in their late 20s, if not older, singing a song that would only have ever appealed to teenage girls who probably felt equally threatened and excited at the same time by those green suits, styled facial hair and Vanilla Ice quiffs. It just turns my stomach. Have a listen to Faith No More’s Edge of the World and tell me that’s not an intentional sound-a-like.
Oddly, the other ‘sex’ song on offer here, Prince’s Gett Off is bumped a track further on, to make way for the oddly inoffensive Kenny Thomas. You might remember he had a couple of hits, but don’t worry if you don’t; you are missing nothing. Gett Off itself is pure filth, but you already knew that. Prince knows it too which is probably why he wrote it. The man just has so much sex coursing through his body he has to channel it somehow. Rozalla’s Faith In The Power of Love is not as well known, or as good as, Everybody’s Free. She played at my work’s Christmas party a few years back performing all (both) her hits. I don’t think many people knew who she was.
And then… Holy shit…
The intro is misleading, probably you haven’t heard it very often. Oddly, the exact same intro was heard on Jesus Jones’ bizarre cover version of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile a year later. But once that deceptive few seconds have passed there is no denying what you are listening to. You could almost Name That Tune in one. It’s cheap, nasty, repetitive and nausea inducing. It’s the musical equivalent of a four year old bouncing on your head and feeding you Tootie Frooties, whilst a mysterious black suit and shades sporting gentleman injects heroin into your ankle. Your brain gets confused; the signals are all distorted and crossed. Am I angry? I want to die but this is soothing, this is warm, this is pop. You submit, just momentarily, and that’s it. You’re caught, like a fly in a web, you can do nothing but struggle. But struggling only makes its grip tighter. So you resign yourself. Wait. Maybe the end will be painless. You half hope it won’t be, and it will be so quick you won’t feel anything at all. Your head is being torn off by a big fluffy kitten; it strips your limbs from your torso one by one, like a team of ants with tiny scissors. And as you finally go into convulsions, your brain can’t quite shut off the incessant noise. A few more seconds more as you finally fade away into nothingness. Then, relief. You catch the final beat and it disappears, echoing away into the distance. It’s over. You made it. You listened to an entire 2 Unlimited track. Then, horror, as you realise it wasn’t No Limits and you still have to deal with that another day…
Side two rounds off, thankfully, with 3 very listenable tracks. Moby’s Go is a one trick pony, taking a sample from the Twin Peaks soundtrack, adding someone shouting “Go! Yeah!” and occasionally “alright”, but it is good at what it does. As are The KLF, this time appearing as The JAMMS, with Its Grim Up North. A brilliant attempt to get any old crap into the charts, this runs off a list of northern towns and cities over a heavy industrial noise-based musical arrangement. The whole thing is, once again, a massive joke, and no doubt a pun on the then emerging industrial music scene coming out of Europe), even finishing with a synthesised version of Jerusalem mixed with a cacophony of noise. I love it.
One trick pony samples continue with PM Dawn’s massive Set Adrift on Memory Bliss, which would be extremely dull without its Spandau Ballet nugget. That sample makes the tune memorable and listenable. This idea of building a whole track out of one seconds long sample from somewhere else would eventually become a goldmine for lazy producers, with many people not knowing that tunes like Groove Is In The Heart, then later monsters like Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, would be nothing without those snippets of genius from elsewhere.
So, the first half has been quite a mixed bag, and part two struggles to fill a whole CD with enough tracks and as a result includes a few rum suspects indeed. Things start blandly with Paul Young’s long forgotten cover of Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. Young hadn’t darkened a NOW album for a while but the single did manage to broach the top 20. Recorded as the token ‘unreleased’ track on his greatest hits album, it’s no doubt included to increase sales of that album, though quite why NOW would want to plug the Greatest Hits of an artist on a rival label is unclear (Young was signed to CBS at the time). Perhaps some negotiation was involved to get other artists included? If you want those you have to take this too?
Also unclear, to me at least, was the success of Enya, whose dreamy soundscapes I’ve never understood. But at least her Caribbean Blue is in good company (relatively) sitting alongside such dull ballads as Paula Abdul’s Rush Rush and Mark Cohn’s Walking in Memphis. Cathy Dennis and Alison Moyet also contribute tunes no one remembers either. Any Dream Will Do demonstrates how weak Jason Donovan’s voice was when removed from the SAW production grinder, and then there’s Glass Tiger’s My Town. I saw this in the track listing and had absolutely no idea what it sounded like, but recognised it instantly as soon as it started. A rugby club anthem in the making with guest vocalist Rod Stewart, this was a favourite of the old guard Radio 1 DJs at the time, but not with the public, as it only limped to number 33. The Canadian diet rockers only had one other top 40 hit, in 1986, with the aptly titled Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone. We can’t make any promises, guys.
Then there’s the perennial problem of Julian Lennon. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for the older Lennon Jr because he had to work a lot harder for himself (younger Lennon Jr, Sean, was always daddy’s favourite) and Julian has been picked up, dropped, praised, ridiculed, loved and despised perhaps more than any other rock star spawn. I’ve no idea why his 1989 single Now You’re In Heaven wasn’t a hit, but I suspect its scary ventriloquist doll video kept it off the telly, and the lack of a proper chorus kept it off the radio. With Saltwater, the track up for display here, he took the easy option and finally caved in to do what everyone wanted him to do: he ripped off his dad. And, it pains me to say, the results are absolutely tragic. It makes so many mistakes it’s almost a test case in bad song writing. Lennon was, it’s fair to say, a committed environmentalist who has used huge amounts of his own cash to fund projects and causes; that doesn’t mean we want a heart-tugging, guffaw-inducing song about how everything makes you cry. With the ‘worthy’ box tick, let’s move onto the lyrics: rhyming ‘crying’ with ‘dying’ is as hackneyed as using sub-George Harrison guitar noodling for your instrumental break. Oh you did that too. Harrison did in fact scribble some chords for Lennon but declined to actually appear on the record making him the only Beatle to maintain a modicum of dignity come the 90s. Anyone familiar with The Rutles will recognise Saltwater under a different title, Cheese and Onions, just with nonsense lyrics of a different kind. “What will life think of me the day that I die?”, he asks. Sadly this will be the soundtrack to the epitaphs, which will no doubt contain the phrase “failed to reach the heights of his superstar father”, which is a genuine shame. Saltwater, however, is just shameful.
Shameful heart-tugging kicks off the final terror that is side four of NOW 20. The Scorpions are probably now more famous in the age of the interwebs for their dubious 70s album covers (NSFW) than for their music. The sexist German rock that made them millionaires with drink and drug problems was forgotten as they attempted to dethrone Bryan Adams from number one, with a hymn to the newly reunified fatherland. It comes across as a little odd, to say the least. This kind of thing had not troubled the upper reaches of the charts for a few years, so why this struck a chord in 1991 is anyone’s guess. It was stuck behind Adams for weeks so the record company even launched a press campaign to get people to buy it and topple the Robin Hood botherer, but to no avail. Thank Christ, because it’s bloody awful. Yes, even worse than Bryan Adams.
It does set the tone for the rest of the side though, being the usual odds and sods that don’t fit neatly anywhere else, but with a definite lean towards your Dad’s side of the market (maybe manoeuvring itself into a potential last minute Christmas gift for Dad for a change). There’s two good songs still to come. James’ Sit Down, finally a hit on its 47th re-release, is the sound of 1990s student common rooms and indie discos. It’s still a good tune despite that sentence, though far from their best. Also great is the surprise return of Voice of the Beehive. I hinted on NOW 12 that they would return but I’m sure many would have struggled to remember what with. Their cover of I Think I Love You is fun pop, just what they did best. It doesn’t pull up any trees, but is a perfectly fine cover version of a throwaway bubble-gum pop hit, that puts a smile on your face and doesn’t outstay its welcome. In pure pop terms, I suppose Roxette’s Joyride delivers too, but it’s not very memorable and hasn’t aged well.
The rest of the side is frankly shocking. INXS toss away the live-album-flogging Shining Star, surely little more than a B-side beefed up to single status to help shift Live Baby Live (where it appears as a studio track in the middle of a concert album!). There’s the basis of a song here, but we only get one verse and one chorus, yet it still lasts over three minutes. Slade’s final top 40 hit (bar endless re-entries for Merry Xmas Everybody) has the indignity of featuring Mike Smash, sorry, Mike Reid making an appearance doing a dreadful American DJ accent. Radio Wall of Sound is utter bilge with only Noddy’s bellowing over the chorus to rescue it. He hated the thing apparently.
Monty Python’s Always Look On The Brightside of Life got a re-release thanks to Simon Mayo continually playing it on the Radio 1 breakfast show after hearing it at a Tottenham football match. It probably helped that there was a Monty Python compilation album that needed flogging too. You all know this so I’ll just leave you to consider how on earth the most chillingly bittersweet comedy moments in cinema history has now been reduced to Eric Idle’s pension plan, and a cheap gag to roll out for the Royal Variety performance. Of sole interest is the fact that NOW 20 includes the radio version (not commercially released) which features a re-recorded outro by Idle. That might make it worth one more listen if you can be bothered.
NOW 20 contains 35 tracks, the most in the series so far. What is odd is that it could have had at least two more but for the fact they decided to close the album with a song lasting a ball-busting eight and a half minutes! And it’s not even a good song. Well, it’s one of those that people say they like, and occasionally drunkenly bellow out at karaoke (always forgetting how long the bloody thing is and getting bored halfway through). I hate American Pie. I hate its pomposity. I hate its length. I hate the slow intro, the jaunty middle and the ridiculously protracted ending. I hate Don McLean’s stupid stars and stripes thumb. I hate the fact that Don McLean has the same name as a 70s comedian and Summertime Special stalwart. I hate Madonna’s cover version, I hate that it’s never explained what the bolloclks lyrics are all about. (Yes, I know it’s about Buddy Holly, but how? Why? Where?). And I hate the fact it got re-released in a full version for no good reason in 1991, reached number 12 and ended up on NOW 20.
So the second half of NOW 20 has hit a quite stunning low. But no one cares. No one cares either that NOW 20 was the last NOW album with an accompanying VHS release. All anyone cares about when it comes to NOW 20 is it was the first album to feature the still-going GIANT PERSPEX LETTERS… IN SPAAAAAACE!!!! Design. And in a single stroke any sense of innovation, charm and individuality that the series had was lost forever.
I’m fully aware that for anyone buying a NOW album between 1991 and today this is what a NOW album looks like; that doesn’t make it right. Maybe Don McLean was right after all: 23rd November 1991, the release day for NOW 20, really was the day the music died. Moving into 1992, my NOW odyssey is getting harder.
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC 20
18th November 1991
Dizzy – Vic Reeves & The Wonderstuff
The Fly – U2
Wind of Change – Scorpions
I Wanna Sex You Up – Color Me Badd
Get Ready For This – 2 Unlimited
There’s No Other Way – Blur
I’m Too Sexy– Right Said Fred
More Than Words – Extreme
NB: Last NOW release to have an accompanying VHS release
|Dizzy||Vic Reeves & The Wonderstuff|
|Live Your Life Be Free||Belinda Carlisle|
|Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)||Pet Shop Boys|
|Love To Hate You||Erasure|
|Sailing On The Seven Seas||Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark|
|Something Got Me Started||Simply Red|
|Sunshine On A Rainy Day||Zoe|
|Let’s Talk About Sex||Salt ‘N’ Pepa|
|I Wanna Sex You Up||Color Me Badd|
|Best Of You||Kenny Thomas|
|Gett Off||Prince & The New Power Generation|
|Faith (In The Power Of Love)||Rozalla|
|Get Ready For This||2 Unlimited|
|It’s Grim Up North (Part 1)||The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu|
|Set Adrift On Memory Bliss||PM Dawn|
|Don’t Dream It’s Over||Paul Young|
|Rush, Rush||Paula Abdul|
|Any Dream Will Do||Jason Donovan|
|Too Many Walls||Cathy Dennis|
|This House||Alison Moyet|
|Walking In Memphis||Marc Cohen|
|My Town||Glass Tiger|
|Wind Of Change||Scorpions|
|I Think I Love You||Voice Of The Beehive|
|Radio Wall Of Sound||Slade|
|Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life||Monty Python|
|American Pie (Part I)||Don McLean|