Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Now then

To conclude our extended qualifications on the ability of the Now! series to capture a moment no matter what its quality, we had a look at the compilations from as near as possible to its fifth, tenth and fifteenth anniversaries. Not the twentieth, as even by our 00s-cauterising standards 2003 is too recent to properly make something out of in retro nostalgia terms and even then the attraction of Joe Budden and D-Side palls.

Fifth anniversary

The last Now! number one before compilations were harvested off to their own chart and there's a curious duality going on. On the one hand, in those Levi's/inception of Q times there's a rush of elder statesmen and stateswomen with Womack & Womack, UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, Robert Palmer, Phil Collins, Art of Noise featuring Tom Jones, Bryan Ferry and the summarily advert-aided Hollies on Disc 1 alone, plus 38 year old Bobby McFerrin standing out like a sore thumb before Trevor, Anne and JJ met Tom. And then disc two kicks off with Chubby Checker! And there's the other part, as all this new music from American youths and British DJs starts flocking into the mainstream too, as the track here is the Fat Boys' The Twist reworking, and if that's understandably not what you were strictly after the whole thing opens with the Coldcut-produced The Only Way Is Up and showcases Bomb The Bass, Wee Papa Girl Rappers, Salt n Pepa and, er, Milli Vanilli, plus a none more Vicks-friendly segue of Yello, Inner City, D-Mob and Beatmasters. Changes are afoot which not even a slew of AOR - the Christians' version of Harvest For The World, Hue & Cry, Breathe's ever dreary Hands To Heaven, Level 42, T'Pau - can stop. The compilers even get clever towards the end, following Transvision Vamp's snottiness by committee I Want Your Love with the now slimmed down Duran Duran's explosion in a Fairlight factory I Don't Want Your Love followed by the Human League's not particularly dignified Love Is All That Matters, which didn't even make the top 40. And it all closes with Martha's Harbour, to throw a bone to just about everyone. Verdict: there's a revolution happening, but we'll just idle away over here with our CDs and basic rediscoveries while you work it all out.

Tenth anniversary

Actually, things evidently didn't get better that quickly, as five years on Now is starting with UB40's version of (I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You, followed by the Pet Shop Boys' version of Go West, followed by Frankie Goes To Hollywood's actual Relax (a best of was out, see). And from then it's into... well, when we covered the 1992 Christmas chart last month we noted the preponderance of novelties and covers, as if there was a recession on or something, and 1993 was clearly the year of Eurobeat. Stakka Bo is a shot across the bows, but when Disc 2 opens with Cappella, Haddaway, 2 Unlimited, Culture Beat and last vestige of rave The Goodmen, with Urban Cookie Collective, Captain Hollywood Project and 80s jazz vocalist chancing her arm Juliet Roberts following soon behind, you realise this isn't really a period in post-rave dance music's evolution, Open Up or no Open Up, that many would be proud of, although you know as well as we do that come the mid to late 2010s scores of self-consciously 'wacky' 21 year olds will be telling the BBC entertainment section that "I discovered all that early 90s music in my parents' attic, I really think it was inventive, happy music and it's not given the credit it deserves..." (Mind you, the 80s revival hasn't bothered with Sade/Matt Bianco/Working week jazz-pop, so there's hope yet) The presence of SWV and Eternal suggests the R&B girls are about to arrive, and there's some Brits with guitars attempting to make the leap in the form of the Levellers, James and, good lord, Radiohead's Creep - shame this isn't number 25, we'd have had to consider Kingmaker - but in a period when pop hadn't yet seen the potential in proper boy bands and guitars weren't being let back in the club yet it seems full of passing fads like Chaka Demus & Pliers (ah, the summer of reggae, if that's what you really must call it), the Spin Doctors (the 90s' least fondly remembered hitmakers?) and the Shola Ama of 1993, Lena Fiagbe. Plus, the whole month of release saw I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) at number one, and if that's not indicative of confused times we don't know what is.

Fifteenth anniversary

So somewhere along the way marketing arrived, and with CD:UK having just started the dancers and stage school kids are appearing, Billie and 911 opening disc two. Yet extraordinary how potent cheap music is, and by 1998 dance music was pretty cheap. And successful, which is why we have a whole host of chancers, from T-Spoon's easy column inches Sex On The Beach to Deetah to Touch And Go (Would You...?, a favourite of the people who put music behind home improvement shows to this day), plus Sash! - 39th in the 2008 album sales list, his best of, nearly selling 300,000 copies - and The Tamperer's non-chimney related hit If You Buy This Record Your Life Will Be Better. Here Gangster Trippin' and Music Sounds Better With You seem like the 1812 Overture. Plenty of R&B influenced stuff too, UB40 are back, and a good period for the sort of light radio pop of the type that flits by the listener without their hardly noticing. Jennifer Paige was never going to be more than a one hit wonder, the Meredith Brooks of that year, and Alisha's Attic always seem to be coming and going but it's alarming how little Lutricia McNeal made an impact despite three top ten singles, rising without trace and disappearing quietly. Space probably don't even remember covering We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, but here it is. The overwhelming thought is it all seems very sandpapered off and acceptable, not necessarily a bad thing in itself but it was all settling for "will this do, Robbie our liege?" a little.

And Mel B and Missy Elliott's I Want You Back is, B's shot at gossamer soul singing aside, much better than you remember it.

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