Wednesday, January 14, 2009

At selected branches of Martin

Yeah. While other blogs and music writing outlets have been celebrating the fiftieth birthday of Motown, we're commemorating a chart pop compilation series. We're not that proud.

Whenever the public at large are given cause to reflect on a piece of British pop culture ephemera from a shared growing up past – the end of Smash Hits or Top Of The Pops, say – the default setting is to ignore how it changed from our youth to that of today’s youth and lionise the way that it left such an indelible mark almost as if it’s always been like that. Even aware of all the arguments about the lack of social awareness and recognition of modern pop music in a post-TOTP world, we’re hesitant about joining the calls to bring it back because we’re recalling the party atmosphere of the Michael Hurll era rather than the public wake atmosphere of Andi Peters’, and we all know which would be easier for a cash strapped BBC to organise, especially as hiring Cotton and Yates for the Christmas shows smacked of returning to the scene of the crime.

In the case of the Now That’s What I Call Music compilations and their twenty-fifth anniversary such selectivism would be impossible. It was always straight ahead crassly populist; a cherrypicking of the hits since the last volume then, the same now. Maybe one could get nostalgic about the blithely matter of fact sleevenotes for each entry, or when the artwork was based on more than stylised balloons, or perhaps even the pig (“Philip Oakeeee!”), but the content is presented the same now as it was then, ubercommerciality and chart quirks treated just the same, nothing more than a snapshot of the previous two or three months.

And you can see that in the actual tracklisting for the reissued Now! 1, which does indeed have the pig/flower poster reproduced on the back. There's Total Eclipse of the Heart, Karma Chameleon and The Love Cats, but for the most part it's thoroughly disjointed. Why, it's almost as if Ashley Abram never envisaged 1980s nostalgia cheap thrills twenty five years in the future. So we meet Duran Duran heading over the crest of popularity's hill and others (Human League, Madness) comfortably heading down the other side, artists who really turned out to be not much up from brazen chancers - Kajagoogoo, Howard Jones, Men At Work - and tracks that nobody would put on even the most desperate 1983 compilation now, either for being too hackneyed (Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack's Tonight I Celebrate My Love, Mike Oldfield's Moonlight Shadow, Genesis' That's All, a solo Limahl) or too of their time - The Rock Steady Crew, Double Dutch, the fabulously bizarre while simultaneously none more American 80s MOR sounding Kissing With Confidence by Will Powers, a song which includes co-writer credits for Nile Rodgers, Todd Rundgren and Steve Winwood and with Carly Simon on uncredited vocals. Plus Culture Club's then new Victims is appended to the end, the sleevenotes famously venturing it would be "certain No.1 by the time you have this LP" (it wasn't).

In other ways, it's a fascinating document suited for far more than hen parties wearing deely boppers. Here's Tina Turner's first single back from the brink with BEF, who also turn up in their Heaven 17 day job with the simultaneously of its era and forward looking Temptation. Here's UB40's Red Red Wine, the single with which they took the leap from socially conscious heavy dub/roots experimentalists to wine bar soundtracking covers act. New Edition, an end in themselves but arguably the beginning of much more in the long run. Tracey Ullman, when you could still have a parallel career as TV comedian and semi-serious Stiff Records solo artist, tackling Kirsty Maccoll's unimpeachable They Don't Know, the sort of song no TV star with pop aspirations would be let anywhere near, or indeed desire to go towards, now. But ultimately this is what became of early 1980s pop as it shrugged off its desire to investigate and invent largely in favour of freeze-dried production and appearing on whichever variety show was coming from the Palladium on ITV at the time. Let this act as a signpost to stop, La Roux.

Next week, we take the contemporary musical temperature of further Now! anniversaries. It's the pig one!

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