NOW 21 – It’s got an ‘ology. A V-I-B-E-ology
Like 1988 before it, 1992 is not one of those banner years in the annuls of music. Flipping through the ‘1992 in music’ page on Wikipedia turns up such nuggets as Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love got married, Kylie parted company with Pete Waterman and Billy Idol punched a woman in the face. Three of pops darkest days I’m sure you’ll agree. Musically it is devoid of much worth commenting on. 1992 did see the release of Hiphoprisy Is The Greatest Luxury, Sugar’s Copper Blue and Take That and Party, but it also begat The Bodyguard soundtrack, still one of the biggest selling albums of all time. You idiots. The accepted wisdom is that 1992 (and to some extent, 1993) are the dark hinterlands between the grunge ‘explosion’, which generated just three top ten hits, and 1994’s birth of Britpop (copyright 6Music for the whole of this year), which ruined everything. And judging by NOW 21, those sorts of people who get asked to discuss the merits of Right Side Fred versus The Breeders on BBC Four filler shows are absolutely right: 1992 smells worse than teen spirit.
NOW 21 is the last NOW album I have any experience of in the real world. Whilst I was now fully ensconced in a world of John Peel, the NME and whatever my now-moved out brother was sticking on C90s for me, a friend of mine had NOW 21 on CD and insisted on putting it on whenever I was at his house. I hated it at the time, and was only interested in the Jesus and Mary Chain track mainly because it seemed so out of place. It wasn’t a patch on the JAMC stuff I was listening to at home, but I just couldn’t understand why Far Gone and Out was on it. My mate didn’t care and insisted on only playing Bohemian Rhapsody and Mr Big’s Be With You. I never did keep in touch with him when I left school. Can’t think why.
NOW 21 is top heavy with number ones, but sadly shoots its wad too early. It begins with Bohemian Rhapsody, re-released the previous Christmas as a tribute to the death of Freddie Mercury, making it the only song to score a Christmas number one twice, in the same version. You know this back to front so there’s little point in me discussing it further.
We Wet Wet’s Goodnight Girl does warrant a bit of further discussion. Like With a Little Help From My Friends, this is probably long forgotten as a Wets’ number one, but top spot it did reach. No idea why though. It’s a trite, piano-based soufflé of a song which features no drums whatsoever. That’s a no-no in my book. It also has, to my ears at least, some rather suspect lyrics: “I won’t tell a soul, I won’t tell at all, Do they have to know about my Goodnight Girl”… make of that what you will.
Far more wholesome, if nonetheless bonkers, is the triumphant return of Shakespeare’s Sister. Stay is just so wonderfully hat stand that you can’t help but love it. I’m sure most of those who pushed it to number one are the same kind of people who made Babybird’s You’re Gorgeous a hit, i.e. people who don’t really listen to music. Of course, Stay makes no sense without its video, which makes the fact it was so popular even more amusing. I wonder what cultural historians of the future will make of this one.
They’ll have far more fun dissecting that one than they will explaining the continued success of Simply Red, who offer us Stars this time round. That’s preceded by the albums token “song from a hit movie”, with the Temptations My Girl, and followed by The KLF’s Justified and Ancient, a re-recording of the final track from their White Room album, with new vocals from Tammy Wynette. As a fan of the original album version, I’m not keen on this, and see it as the KLF taking their joke to the extreme where it becomes irritating rather than amusing. The fact that it was in the running for the Christmas number one in 1991 was probably the point. The KLF will, amazingly, feature again later.
Madness provide the third re-release on side one. It Must Be Love is great, obviously, but it does make you start to wonder if there was anything new that was good about at the time. The fact that Genesis could score top ten hits in 1992 probably means the answer is no. I Can’t Dance is one of those songs that was probably more successful as a result of its (admittedly, through gritted teeth) amusing video, taking the piss out of Levi commercials, than it was for the inherent merits of the song itself. Julia Fordham’s Love Moves in Mysterious Ways is, possibly, the token act being plugged on side one. A fairly forgettable piano-based dirge, it’s not particularly memorable even given Fordham’s slightly odd vocal recalling Beverly Craven’s much better Promise Me, with hints of the heavy breathy type of singer that would become popular when Mariah Carey started selling millions. I’m amazed more X Factor finalists haven’t given this a pop; it’s right up their street as an example of fragile yet strong singing. Oooo-oooh.
The next half does get better, eventually, but takes its time getting there. Crowded House’s Weather With You is always embedded in my mind thanks to an impromptu sing-along on the last day of school, when someone decided it was a perfect way to say our goodbyes to everyone, whilst I was writing sub-Pixies lyrics in everyone’s ‘Farewell Journals’ or whatever the hell they called them.
Deeply Dippy, the final number one on the album, has survived pretty well, I think. It’s a cracking pop tune which never seems to get any respect. If Ian Dury had written and performed that exact same song, everyone would say it was a masterpiece. I think it’s almost a masterpiece, with only the slightly weedy brass section holding it back.
The afore-mentioned Mr Big is next with their horribly hand-clappy sing-a-long-a-barnyard Be With You. An unbelievable hit at a time when grunge was supposed to be ruling the charts, this recalls the worst of the likes of John Cougar Mellancamp and other US country-rock acts that you only know the names of if you ever watched America’s Top Ten. We Brits can conjure up our own insipidness though, thanks to Everything but the Girl, once again scoring a surprise hit with a cover version a few years before they had their trip-hop renaissance which they were working on at the same time as Tracey Thorn was providing vocals for Massive Attack. Honest. Just as forgettable is Roxette’s Church Of Your Heart. You know this is a duffer because the bloke sings it.
I said things got better. Well not quite yet. Bryan May’s Driven By You stinks up the speakers next. With this May makes his second appearance on a NOW album. Just like he did on NOW 19. Christ. Driven By You, younger viewers may not know, was especially written for a Ford car commercial (no doubt to one up Vauxhall who had been having great success using the riff from Eric Clapton’s Layla for a few years). In the ad, it sort of worked, as a Top Gear, petrol-head, greasy overalls theme to shots of jets, R and D departments, Transit vans and the like. As a song, it fails miserably mainly because May seems to have forgotten to change the lyrics from ‘everything WE do’ to ‘everything I do’ for huge sections of the thing, even confusing matters by saying ‘we’ and ‘I’ in the same sentence. So is he singing to Anita Dobson about how together, everything they do is driven by her? Or is he suggesting that the Ford Corporation of America are responsible for the continued married bliss they share? I’m none the wiser.
So, to the good stuff, and there’s very little. The Wonder Stuff appear for the second NOW in succession with the jolly Welcome to the Cheap Seats (with uncredited Kirsty McColl on backing vocals).The incongruous Far Gone and Out follows it, to the bafflement of a nation of teenage NOW buyers. It’s C-grade Jesus and Mary Chain (as was most of the album, Honey’s Dead), but it’s still miles better than most of the crap on offer here. JAMC were on a Warners subsidiary, so one can only assume this was a potential sop to grunge, having failed to snag a Nirvana or Pearl Jam track for inclusion. I’m speculating wildly here, but you have to but this makes no sense at all.
James’ Born of Frustration is a bit more at home, its rallying warble still sounds great. It’s better than Sit Down anyway (though most James singles are). The first half finishes off with one of the rare appearances for The Cure. High sounds like pretty much every Cure song, with that twangly guitar, lyrics tumbling from Robert Smith’s gob, and mention of a cat. Textbook stuff.
Textbook could also describe the running order of CD 2. Apart from the now standard ditching of some odds and ends at the finale, and one hilarious hand grenade of a track, it’s dance all the way, kicking off with Shanice’s I Love Your Smile. Even a cold hearted cynic like me can appreciate how nice this is, but that’s also its problem: it’s sickeningly nice. And you hum it for hours afterwards. The Pasadena’s cover of I’m Doing Fine follows, bringing banality to the niceness of Shanice to produce a horribly soul-less version of the soul classic. I never got on with these guys at the time, finding their reappropriation of soul legends for their own ends cheap and tacky. My opinion has not changed.
Next up, one of Kylie’s forgotten hits, despite it reaching number 2 at the time. Like The Pasadena’s, Give Me Just A Little Bit More Time is a drab soul cover with uninspired SAW production (without the A this time) and a horribly strained vocal from Ms Minogue, who by the year’s end, would be finally stepping out from under the Hit factory’s wing. On this evidence, not a moment too soon. The cover versions continue with East Side Beat’s Ride Like The Wind. It’s a surprisingly listenable track, sounding every inch the forefather of the likes of D:Ream and similar chart botherers who would go on to litter the charts (and NOW albums) in the coming years. It’s an Italian DJ re-working a Christopher Cross non-hit (in the UK at least) from 1979. The original is a late era disco track from the time when everyone was releasing disco records (i.e. when they got rubbish). ESB’s version adds a slightly ballsier vocal and more bass, but essential they aren’t that different.
That’s followed by the Fisher Price hard house of 2 Unlimited with the forgettable Twilight Zone, which doesn’t even sample the Theme from The Twilight Zone. Idiots.
Thankfully, all that nastiness is firmly blown away by the musical equivalent of a photobomb thanks to the compiler dropping KLF’s America (What Time Is Love) into the mix and showing everyone else on the record how to produce ball-busting dance music. Yes, it’s another cover version on a side filled with them, but at least it does something different to the original chart version (which in itself is only one of various versions of the track). Featuring the riff from Ace of Spades and the singer from Deep Purple, along with a hellish choir, a ludicrous prologue…you need to hear the full 9 minute version to appreciate this tune’s almighty power, but even the truncated radio version here is enough to satisfy. It’s also crying out for someone more talented than me to mash it up with Neil Diamond’s America.
We continue with two pretty good tunes: Civilles and Coles’ Deeper Love sounds like the kind of thing that would have inspired a fair few people. It’s got some swing to its standard house beat and a really good sassy vocal to add some grit to this particular oyster, not sure about that protracted ending though. It’s not one I particularly liked in the day, but sounds pretty good now. As does Opus III A Fine Day. What both these tracks have is the inability to date them. Deeper Love could be from anywhere between 1987 and 1995. A Fine Day, too, is fairly impossible to pin down. I was genuinely surprised to see it on this album, thinking it at least a year younger than 1992. This has turned up on at least two Pete Waterman compilations even though he had bugger all to with it, other than it was released by his PWL label.
Erasure’s Breath of Life seems a little out of place in this kind of company, and it’s clear from their lowly position midway through CD2 that their star was starting to wane for the record company. Including them was still obligatory because they were still having top 10 hits (and would continue to do so for another decade) and it’s a great tune, it’s just unfortunate that former album openers now found themselves in the pick n mix bin, next to McHammer, stinking up the charts with the god-awful Addams Groove. Produced to promote the Addams Family movie, it desecrates the original famous theme, but at least has the grace to bury it in the mix so much you can barely hear it. By this point he’d dropped the Mc, so this was credited as just Hammer on the single, which would prove to be his last top 10 hit, with only one further single (something called Do Not Pass Me By, hopefully a cover of the Ringo Starr composition) even breaching the top 40. And no one cared. The pop-rap vibe continues with Salt n’ Pepa’s Expression. Clearly inspired (i.e. ripping off) Madonna’s Express Yourself, this is all about getting the sisters to do it for themselves and “believe in me”. I’m not quite sure how “come on and work your body” fits into this proto-Girl Power theme, but there you go. It’s not aimed at me so I’m not meant to get it. By this point any innovation S n P may have once showed has long gone, and they are now sounding like almost every other ‘new jack’ R n’ B act starting to occupy the UK charts at the time. Like Ce Ce Penniston who followed up the wonderful Finally, with the bland and by-the-numbers We Got A Love Thang (god, even typing that made me cringe). Meh.
The next track is thankfully odd enough, if not necessarily any good, to elicit some interest: Paula Abdul’s Vibeology. It’s a little strange that such an odd thing would turn out to be her best track since Straight Up. I suspect it’s the result of some studio off cuts that didn’t quite make a whole song, being handed over to a producer to slap together. It’s a world away from the dreary ballads she seemed to have made her stock in trade, and pointed to a new direction she could have taken. If Madonna had recorded this, it would still be the subject of academic studies. As it is it’s left as a curious mix of sex, funk, juvenile humour, schoolgirl excitement and Paula’s Bart Simpson impression (“Let’s do it!”). I like it but I’m not sure why, as it’s not good in any sense of the word as I understand it.
The final dancey track is Alison Limerick’s Make It On My Own. This is one of those tracks that seemed to be forever laying in the ‘fun’ pubs and would be wine bars of my home town, at the time when I was first experimenting with fake IDs. It’s very good and worth having a new listen to.
But it’s all downhill from there: Tina Turner’s Way of the World starts off sounding like Let’s Stay Together… just like Be Tender With Me Baby did on NOW 18! It’s as a beige as a newly refurbished flat on Homes Under the Hammer, and just as mercenary. Ms Bullock had ceased to be relevant to NOW and its listeners for a while now so her inclusion with a number 13 hit, from 5 months previous, that barely anyone remembered at the time, let alone now, seems like unnecessary padding. At least Curtis Stigers’ I Wonder Why was a big hit. Its inclusion is at least understandable, even if the song is all kinds of wrong. Lounge-jazz sax invades this penthouse ballad with all the subtlety of a thrown brick and with even less charm. It sounds like the theme to a long forgotten yuppie soap opera about people who stare out of their high rise apartment windows across a city that doesn’t understand them anymore, high paid jobs they hate but which they can’t live without and relationships so convoluted you end up marrying yourself. Twice. Stigers has a very strange voice too, like he’s got a permanent bit of phlegm vibrating in the back of his throat he’s long since given up trying to dislodge. Listened to on headphones, there’s a constant rattle in the background that convinces you your Sennheisers are bust. Again.
NOW 21 breathes its last with one of the most insipid ballads, in a long history of insipid ballads, which the series has served up so far. Diana Ross’ When You Tell Me That You Love Me sounds like it was released in the early 80s, like it was a rejected song from a Lloyd Webber musical. She sounds like an X Factor finalist rather than one of the most successful soul singers we’ve ever had, and with its pointless key change, synthesised orchestra and choir filled finale, it has all the charm and heart of a Michael Bay movie. This managed to hold off KLF in the battle for Christmas number 1991, but its huge sentimentality was no match for the death of a national treasure. According to Wikipedia it missed the top shot by only a couple of hundred units. Ross tried to rectify this a decade later by re-recording it with Westlife, of all people, but that also stalled at number two. Oops.
So, is the perceived wisdom right? Is 1992 a dark, post-apocalyptic wasteland of pop nothingness? On this evidence, the answer is definitely yes. NOW 21 isn’t the whole story of the year (it’s not even the whole NOW story of the year) but as a snapshot of where things were it seems the public loved their cover versions, corny love songs and re-releases. But, there’s nothing resembling grunge here and no sign of the great British backlash to come, so what exactly are all these commentators banging on about on 6Music at the moment? 1992 is simply shaping up to be one of those forgettable years. Isn’t it?
Yes, that is the then voice of the Official Top 40, Mark “Goodie Bags’ Goodier, replacing ‘The Kid’ as the voice of NOW, where he remains to this day.
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC 21
13th April 1992
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Stay – Shakespeare’s Sister
Addams Groove – Hammer
Everybody In The Place – The Prodigy
God Gave Rock n Roll To You – KISS
Movin’ On Up – Primal Scream
|Goodnight Girl||Wet Wet Wet|
|My Girl||The Temptations|
|Justified And Ancient||The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette|
|It Must Be Love||Madness|
|I Can’t Dance||Genesis|
|(Love Moves In) Mysterious Ways||Julia Fordham|
|Weather With You||Crowded House|
|Deeply Dippy||Right Said Fred|
|To Be With You||Mr Big|
|Love Is Strange||Everything But The Girl|
|Church Of Your Heart||Roxette|
|Driven By You||Brian May|
|Welcome To The Cheap Seats||The Wonder Stuff|
|Far Gone And Out||The Jesus & Mary Chain|
|Born Of Frustration||James|
|I Love Your Smile (Driza Bone Remix)||Shanice|
|I’m Doing Fine Now||The Pasadenas|
|Give Me Just A Little More Time||Kylie Minogue|
|Ride Like The Wind||East Side Beat|
|Twilight Zone||2 Unlimited|
|America: What Time Is Love?||The KLF featuring The Children Of The Revolution|
|A Deeper Love||Clivilles & Cole|
|It’s A Fine Day||Opus III|
|Breath Of Life||Erasure|
|Expression||Salt ‘N’ Pepa|
|We Got A Love Thang||Ce Ce Peniston|
|Make It On My Own||Alison Limerick|
|Way Of The World||Tina Turner|
|I Wonder Why||Curtis Stigers|
|When You Tell Me That You Love Me||Diana Ross|