Trevor Horn is one of British music’s most important figures. Leave aside the fact that he produced Do They Know It’s Christmas and (as will be explored in the NOW 13 essay) worked on one of the best ‘catalogue’ songs of the era, and leave aside also the fact that he sung the first song on Music Television (MTV): Video Killed the Radio Star by his band, The Buggles. Trevor Horn invented the eighties.
Let me explain by way of ‘Frankie’, a group of guys from Liverpool who dominated 1984. Holly Johnson was the voice of the three big songs of the year, all from the expansive double-LP Welcome to the Pleasuredome (good title…). He has said that he wanted to write a song about war, a song about love and a song about sex. Two Tribes (‘score no more!’) was the war song, and The Power of Love (‘a force from above’, later in an advert for John Lewis which must have topped up his pension) was the love song.
The song about sex was so big that it returned to the charts in 1993, appearing on NOW 26. In the discography of Hit Singles, its longevity was astonishing for a child (me) who knew the song existed but wasn’t alive when it came out. The I Love the 80s shows that clogged up Channel 4 in the 2000s – always featuring Bucks Fizz, Andrew Collins and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, without fail – give a good idea of the culture of the time. This was Thatcher’s Britain, with a bit of Scouse homosexuality.
The Big Bang happened in 1986, which led to capitalism and loadsamoney and Blair, but before that came the end of whatever had come before it. Long books have been written about Thatcherism, so go and read them, but part of the story comes from pop music. In fact, a large part of story comes from pop music, in particular Smash Hits! magazine.
At one stage a million people (1 with six 0s after it) bought a copy, so they could read the lyrics of their favourite songs. The magazine was aimed at kids, so what would they have made of: ‘Relax, don’t do it/ When you wanna go to it…When you wanna come…HUUUH!’? Then the sound of the band jumping into a swimming pool.
Mike Read famously pulled the song from his BBC Radio 1 show and didn’t play it, possibly because of all the talk about ‘shooting in the right direction’ and the obviously four-to-the-floor motorik beat, but maybe he was scared of the future. (You can hear Mike Read on United DJs, a start-up radio station staffed by DJs from the past including Dave ‘Hairy Cornflake’ Lee Travis.)
Tom Watkins was at the epicentre of Frankie. In his memoir Let’s Make Lots of Money, the man who helped design Frankie’s image writes about how amazing it was to be in the Frankie camp. Trevor Horn sculpted Relax (‘cascading synths…like pink neon’) and the great writer Paul Morley – an NME journalist who was a huge fan of Joy Division and long paragraph-long sentences – took it upon himself to promote the group as ‘a multi-pronged assault on the media and Middle England.’
Controversy sells, and Tom writes that as well as being ‘a big boot up the arse’ of the music industry, Frankie were also ‘a giant pink phallus being waved in the face of the moral majority’. Then Holly Johnson’s voice came through, ‘leering, swaggering, cocksure’, a perfect marriage of the product and the packaging. I’d argue this matched The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and, to a lesser extent, Blur and Oasis; the voice, the haircuts, the attitude, the tunes, the artwork on the albums. Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a perfect pop package, and the defining pop cultural moment of 1984…before Band Aid, which annoyingly kept The Power of Love from the top at Christmas.
NOW 2 has a glut of evergreen pop classics from the first part of 1984: Radio Ga Ga (Queen), Wouldn’t It Be Good (Nik Kershaw), Michael Caine (Madness) and Break My Stride (Matthew Wilder) all sound confident and big. The theme tune to the TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Joe Fagin’s song That’s Livin’ Alright, was lodged in British consciousness and remains a fun ditty even though the TV show, a sort of Only Fools and Horses for people from the North-East of England, is only repeated on digital channels.
Notable on NOW 2 are the huge popstars on the second side of the second tape: David Bowie (Modern Love), Paul McCartney (Pipes of Peace), Culture Club (It’s a Miracle), Slade (Run Runaway), Duran Duran (New Moon on Monday) and The Rolling Stones (Undercover of the Night). Two of those acts would move into ‘heritage’ categories, putting out new music as an excuse to play the hits. David Bowie would spend the rest of the 1980s not reaching the heights of Let’s Dance, the album which spawned Modern Love, instead starring in two movies (Labyrinth and Absolute Beginners) and releasing an awful album called Never Let Me Down. Paul McCartney would also star in movies, having retired from playing live shows after the shooting of his friend John Lennon in 1980. Duran Duran would record the theme to A View to a Kill, the James Bond movie, and Slade would pop up once a year around December to remind everyone what Christian holiday it was.
Forgotten names include Matt Bianco (Get Out of Your Lazy Bed), Snowy White (Bird of Paradise), Re-Flex (The Politics of Dancing) Carmel (More More More) and Julia & Company (Breaking Down). Listeners of a certain vintage will recall (Feels Like) Heaven by Fiction Factory, Wishful Thinking by China Crisis and Hyperactive! by David Bowie’s erstwhile keyboard player Thomas Dolby, a huge hit thanks to its crazy music video and addictive (hyperactive) bass part. Professor Dolby is now in academia, and published a book about pop music in 2016 called The Speed of Sound, with a focus on music and technology.
Other fantastic synth-led pop songs on NOW 2 come from Howard Jones (What is Love?), Nena (99 Red Balloons), Cyndi Lauper (Girls Just Wanna Have Fun) and Eurythmics (Here Comes the Rain Again). On the catalogue side, there are two innovative covers: Tracey Ullman interprets the Madness song My Girl as My Guy’s Mad at Me, and a capella group The Flying Pickets take Yazoo’s Only You and breathe fresh life into it.
A very white compilation on which Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate – I Gave You My Heart (Didn’t I) – is the only non-write act also includes What Difference Does It Make, the first of many hits from the decade’s definitive independent band, The Smiths, which comes three tracks after Relax. Both bands would be defunct by the end of the decade, though both Holly Johnson and Morrissey are still present in popular culture, one causing more controversy than the other. And it’s not Holly any more!