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NOW 14 – On and off and on again

Now_141989 was a year of major upheaval for NOW. They’d been turfed out of the official album charts into the compilation top 20, a chart no one ever saw, referenced or cared about. It looked like they’d seen off their biggest rival, the Hits Album series, whose disastrous rebrand around Christmas 1988 had seen sales plummet, whilst NOW’s corresponding NOW 13 had gone on to be one of the biggest selling albums of the year. (Hits would not die quickly however, but a series of rebrands, reboots and revisions would mean it was never a serious competitor again.)

Although they probably never noticed, or cared, NOWs 12 and 13 had been pretty dreadful, at least looked at from a distance of 25 years as I’m smugly doing now. Honestly, could these people not see that two and a half decades later their obsession with Jellybean and Johnny Hates Jazz was going to look ridiculous? This is why I should be running a major record label, rather than being all picky and sarcastic about them from the comfort of my computer.

NOW 14 feels much fresher, more exciting, than the turgid NOW 13. Ballads are few and far between, and a couple of tracks qualify as outright classics. There are also a couple of huge hits that have certain “huh?” factor about them. Cover versions abound again, but at least this time they are interesting and, more importantly, good. This may also be the first NOW album to feature a shockingly blatant piece of product placement. I was never entirely sure what was going on with that cover though. Any ideas?

As usual, the opening to a NOW album is pretty good. Marc Almond’s brilliantly overblown cover of Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart (duetting with Gene Pitney, who despite rumours to the contrary was NOT the original artists to record it; that honour falls to David and Jonathan (?)) was perhaps a surprise hit, but history tells us it was an appearance on Terry Wogan’s chat show what won it, and sent hordes of baby boomers to Our Price to buy it. When you think of the crap that Wogan has plugged on his Radio 2 show over the years and turned into hits this kind of lets him off the hook. The nostalgia continues with Phil Collins’ Two Hearts, the second track to be released from the Buster soundtrack, a film where he gave a reasonable performance as an actor portraying a vicious East End gangster with a heart of gold (and probably loved his dear old mum). Two Hearts was an even bigger hit than its predecessor, A Groovy Kind Of Love. Well, it was everywhere except in the UK. Although an original composition, it shamelessly riffs on 60s Motown, sounding exactly like his earlier cover of You Can’t Hurry Love, a fact acknowledged in the video for this, where he again plays every member of a band. It’s a pop song you dearly want to hate but can’t. Unlike Erasure’s Stop! Which is a fantastic pop song which, had it not been released at Christmas, would have easily been a huge number one.

Surprisingly not a number one was Bananarama’s Help! The band never had a number one in the UK, not even with this charity record at a time when anything charity related would be top of the charts in pre-orders alone. Backed by French and Saunders (and Kathy Burke) as Lananeeneenoonoo, a good natured pastiche of the band they’d performed on their TV show, Help! Is a reasonably shoddy treatment of a great song, with humour that doesn’t translate without the video, and even then it’s not particularly funny.

Consider my ribs thoroughly untickled

Hue and Cry’s Looking for Linda is much better, a nice surprise given it’s a song (I think) about an alcoholic woman fleeing an abusive relationship. Yeah, go pop! It does signal the inevitable drift towards the centre of the record, which continues with Yazz’s lovely, dreamy Fine Time. Her last top ten single, it’s very far removed from the Hi-NRG dance of her earlier hits, and it shows there was more to her than smiling and punching the air. Sadly, the public wanted her smiling and punching the air. Kim Wilde’s late 80s comeback continues with the anonymous Four Letter Word, before the side ends with the still amazing Stop from Sam Brown. The first time two different songs with the same title have appeared on the same NOW album, fact fans.

Side two is again an attempt to collect together rock tunes, so of course it starts with Roy Orbison. You Got It is still pretty good, though to be fair, The Big O could sing Crazy Frog and make it sound great. Fine Young Cannibals returned in style with She Drives Me Crazy, a song that has now, very rightly, achieved legendary status, and another song on NOW 14 that you won’t believe didn’t get to number one. Like INXS’ Need You Tonight, which the foolish British record buying public needed TWO attempts to get it into the charts; it had originally stalled on number 58 when released in 1987. In one of the sloppiest errors on a NOW album ever, the end of the song (“You’re one of my kind”) is rather ignobly chopped off chopped off and the anticipation of the payoff is replaced by the introduction of Status Quo’s horrible Burning Bridges (On and Off and On Again). I’ll never understand why this track was such a big hit, but it’s becoming clear to me that the 80s record buyer would buy any old crap with a dreary, repetitive chorus that sounded like something from the terraces at Stamford Bridge. Interestingly, the song would gain a second life, in 1994, as a football chant, when the famously Spurs-supporting band took a big sack of Old Trafford cash to re-record the song with different lyrics for Manchester United, scoring a number one in the process. Unforgiveable.

Status Quo

I never thought I’d say it, but thank God for Then Jericho. Big Area was one of only two top twenty hits the band had (The Motive (Living Without You) being the other), and frankly, they should have been massive, managing to combine hard rock, pop and stadium sized tracks to surprisingly good effect, the best bits of Big Country, U2, Simple Minds and countless other bands they often get confused with (Cutting Crew, The Alarm). They had an added touch of glamorous sex appeal from lead man Mark Shaw, whose ego got the better of him (hey, sleeping with Belinda Carlisle will do that to the best of men) and he left the band in the lurch for a (no doubt) hefty solo contract with EMI. Where for art they now? The Butlins nostalgia tour and Shaw sometimes performs in an 80s ‘supergroup’ that includes Tony Hadley, Paul Young and Fish!

(As a side note, while preparing this review I happened to catch a dreadful piece of TV about talent shows, which featured clips from Reborn in the USA, a show where 80s pop stars were sent on a tour of the States to try and revive their careers. Mark Shaw was one of the participants and was, undeniably, an arse. It seemed his only ally was one Tony Hadley, so maybe their supergroup fortunes were forged on that fateful and, for Shaw at least, truncated road trip.)

Morrissey’s Last Of The International Playboys seems thoroughly out of place in this testosterone-fuelled, denim-clad company (though I’m sure many would argue he could challenge Mark Shaw in a “being an arse” competition). It’s a song I loved as a kid but now sounds very Second Division in Moz’s discography. Poison were always a bit Second Division in everything, and Every Rose Has It’s Thorn is an utterly dire attempt at a rock/country knock off of Guns n’ Roses.

The first half of NOW 14 closes with possibly the most forgotten number one in the series so far. Even telling you it was Simple Minds’ only number one will not nudge your brain any. Belfast Child is, frankly, odd. This song has no business being a single, let alone a chart-topper. It’s trite, depressing, mawkish, of questionable judgement and, for the first half, almost listenable. I just don’t get it; maybe someone who bought it can enlighten me.

Thankfully, side three brings back some fun to proceedings, providing our dance tunes for this episode. Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance is still great, and Inner City’s Good Life sounds a lot better to my ears now than it did back in the day. I wasn’t a huge hit in 1989, but it’s aged well and still sounds surprisingly contemporary. Sadly, I can’t say the same for S-Express’ Hey Music Lover which is still good fun, but is let down by cheap 80s production far removed from the slickness of Theme from S-Express or even Superfly Guy (which failed to appear on a NOW album, sadly). Quite what Living In A Box are doing mixed up on this side is anyone’s guess, but here they are. Blow The House Down is a good, efficient, pop-dance track but is instantly forgotten long before it finishes. Thankfully this would be the last appearance for the Paul Weller imposter, as The Style Council sign off with their farewell single, Promised Land. No, I didn’t remember it either.

Two brilliant, and very different, songs follow. Adeva’s stunning cover of Respect is up first, and it is bound to polarise opinion. Made famous (but not originally recorded) by Aretha Franklin, I must confess I hated this back then, really despising it. I now feel I was too hasty. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s cover versions which just replicate the original song. Adeva’s version of Respect is as different from Aretha’s version, as Aretha’s version is different from Otis Redding’s version. It certainly doesn’t replicate anything, though I’m not sure exactly what it does do, but it’s one of the most radical cover versions I’ve heard for a good long while. As brave as Scissor Sister’s version of Comfortably Numb, but without the camp theatrical winks, this is an artist saying “I’ve got the balls to take this classic track, and do it MY way, and screw you all!” It’s got a bit of a strange time signature and no melody, Adeva changes the lyrics, scats over parts of it… Bar the late 80s tinny drums this would be considered a classic. I love it.

I also love Tone Loc’s Wild Thing. Not a big hit in the UK (it only reached number 21) it still kills with its drumbeat and sparse guitar stab melody (mostly stolen from Van Halen’s Jamie’s Cryin’), it also manages a nice line in self-depreciation: in two verses, Mr Loc fails to do the wild thing. The song feels like a humorous jibe at some of his contemporaries’ obsession with sex, but probably ended up becoming a template rather than a warning.

Some wild things, yesterday

Side three finishes rather oddly with Natalie Cole’s dreadful, turgid I Live For Your Love, which I hadn’t heard since I bought this album 24 years ago. It features a rather strained vocal performance from the talented Ms Cole, and is nothing to write home about. On the CD version of NOW 14, I Live For Your Love provides the stepping stone from the dance tracks into the balladry to follow, another indicator of the programming more for CDs than just the album and cassette versions.

The biggest track on NOW 14 is not very well remembered now, but in 1989 Robin Beck’s The First Time was huge (or at least it was when it came out in late 1988). You may be struggling to remember it now, so why not have a sit down and pour yourself a brand-leading cola beverage and have a think. NOW 14 even provides you with a handy little advert next to Ms Beck’s mugshot for said fizzy, brown, tooth-rotting liquid. Having been played in Coke ads relentlessly for six months prior to release (and it seemed for months afterwards too!), I’m not sure it was necessary for NOW to include the product logo in the inner sleeve to remind listeners where it was from, but then it’s more likely it was Coke’s decision rather than NOW’s: “You want one of the biggest, most globally recognised songs of the year? Fine, but stick this half inch ad in your sleeve or no dice” was probably the conversation had between two fat men in pinstripe suits smoking cigars. It doesn’t matter whether The First Time is any good or not, but for the record it’s not. The fact that Ms Beck would never have another single (or even release an album in the UK) leads me to suspect she may have had a sex change and become a global superstar all over again, as Beck, though that may be a lie.

Robin Beck

Another track impossible not to include was Paula Abdul’s Straight Up. Now best known as a Simon Cowell hand puppet, Abdul had been THE go to choreography for the great and the good in the 80s (including Whitney and Madge). Straight Up was a surprisingly edgy debut single which still sounds great, and was wildly different to most mainstream pop-dance at the time. It had only just been released at the time of NOW 14’s appearance in the shops, so this was THE hot track on the album, so why it was buried away here god only knows. She never successfully followed through on this though, becoming a less-popular Gloria Estefan (flitting between forgettable pop and dreary ballads; come to think of it, pretty much like Jon Bon Jovi too). There was Opposite Attract, which we’ll come to on a later album, but we all know that MC Scat Cat was the true star of that one.

Sam Fox’s I Only Want To Be With You is a Stock, Aitken, Waterman-produced abomination which warrants no further coverage here. But it does lead us into the pop-dumping ground of the remainder of side four. The biggest surprise here is, again, Brother Beyond. As with their appearance on NOW 13, I was shocked at how un-dreadful Be My Twin is. It’s teenage pop for sure, but it’s a bit more sophisticated, and shows a lot more pop nous, than the over-produced TV pop the kids get served up nowadays. What I’ve realised about Brother Beyond is, although the guiding hand of SAW hangs over their shoulder (the Hit Factory viewing them as a Bros sized meal ticket), they wrote all their own material. Be My Twin is therefore more reminiscent of, say, The Blow Monkeys than Bananarama, and as a result has aged much better. It’s a shame that they are now considered boy band has-beens as they, on this showing at least, had far more to offer than the Brothers Goss (and Ken). One of the band is now a massively successful writer, working with the likes of Adele, and won an Ivor Novello for Will Young’s Leave Right Now. What’s Matt Goss written recently, apart from his housing benefit application?

Those perennial writers Climie Fisher return for the last time with the disappointing Love Like A River. It seems odd that the same pens that write Love Changes Everything could also write this, but you can’t win them all. It would appear their star was fading faster than anticipated. Duran Duran’s star had faded more than most, and All She Wants Is would prove to be their last top ten hit for a long while (they would manage just two more over the next two decades). A truly great song that sounded unlike anything else they’d ever done, and, to be honest, anything else tearing up the charts at the time. Looked at with modern ears (if you can look at something with your ears) you could argue it pointed the way to the likes of Curve and Nine Inch Nails, with its crunching guitar and industrial beat. Duran Duran, the forefathers of Industrial? I’m sure they’d rather that title than ‘the band The Killers wish they were’.

The Duranies appearance on Celebrity Masterchef did not go well

80s survivors Level 42 are still hanging around with Tracie, a jolly but uninspiring midlife crisis ditty, before we reach the bitter end of NOW 14, Michael Ball’s Love Changes Everything. No relation to Climie Fisher’s epic pop anthem, the title was pilfered by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his latest blockbuster West End show, Aspects of Love. Despite the song being one of his biggest chart hits, the show itself was a huge flop, remembered more for the fact that Sir Roger Moore was meant to be in it, but pulled out at the last minute. All is, of course a massive star (if you like that kind of thing; personally I’d rather do something unpleasant to my private area than ‘take in a show’) and a huge talent, but this song is so dull you can almost hear Ball sighing “really, this is the best you can do, Webber?” at some of the lyrics. He doesn’t sound as if he’s particularly interested in the song at all, or even bothering to make an effort, perhaps a result of having to reign in a big theatrical voice in the confides of a tiny recording booth. It’s a sorry end to NOW 14. Show tunes have no place on pop compilations (but this won’t be the last) and makes you forget the hard work the album had already put in to try and make up for the poor quality of its predecessors.

NOW 14 to an extent, does redeem the series, but the same nagging doubts remain. What is pop doing? Where is it going?

Two more NOW’s in 1989 would attempt to answer those questions and neither gets any closer to answering them. Speaking of answers… it’s supposed to be an art gallery



Release date

20th March 1989

Biggest tracks

The First Time – Robin Beck

Need You Tonight – INXS

Somethings Gotten Hold Of My Heart – Marc Almond and Gene Pitney

Lost gems

Respect – Adeva

Be My Twin – Brother Beyond

Forgotten tracks

Fine Time – Yazz

Promised Land – The Style Council

What’s missing?

Angel of Harlem –U2

Especially For You – Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan

My Prerogative – Bobby Brown

I Don’t want A Lover – Texas

Track listing

Side one
Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart Marc Almond & Gene Pitney
Two Hearts Phil Collins
Stop! Erasure
Help! Bananarama
Looking For Linda Hue And Cry
Fine Time Yazz
Four Letter Word Kim Wilde
Stop Sam Brown
Side two
You Got It Roy Orbison
She Drives Me Crazy Fine Young Cannibals
Need You Tonight INXS
Burning Bridges (On And Off And On Again) Status Quo
Big Area Then Jericho
The Last Of The Famous International Playboys Morrissey
Every Rose Has Its Thorn Poison
Belfast Child Simple Minds
Side three
Buffalo Stance Neneh Cherry
Good Life Inner City
Hey Music Lover S-Express
Blow The House Down Living In A Box
Promised Land The Style Council
Respect Adeva
Wild Thing Tone Loc
I Live For Your Love Natalie Cole
Side four
First Time Robin Beck
Straight Up Paula Abdul
I Only Want To Be With You Samantha Fox
Be My Twin Brother Beyond
Love Like A River Climie Fisher
All She Wants Is Duran Duran
Tracie Level 42
Love Changes Everything Michael Ball







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A personal journey through 30 years of Now!