In 2018, Lionel Richie doesn’t need money. He does need to sell concert tickets and so he accepted the job of ‘heritage act’ on American Idol. Thus he dishes out platitudes knowing that he, Lionel from Tuskegee, Oklahoma, wrote Easy, Night Shift, Say You Say Me and Hello.
The last of these appears on NOW 4. It ends on an A major chord, the same one that the song modulates to on the line ‘is it me you’re looking for?’ This switch in tonality elevates the song, which is about having strong feelings for someone, to tell them ‘time and time again how much I care…I just got to let you know’. It has a gorgeous melody, to match the yearning of the lyric: ‘Are you somewhere feeling lonely?…Tell me how to win your heart cos I haven’t got a clue…’ How many guys were prompted to ‘start by saying “I love you”’ to a girl when they heard Lionel croon? Then there was the video, with the blind girl and the clay. But it’s all about the key change.
In the MTV era, there were very few black faces. Famously David Bowie told the channel that he would pull his videos unless they ran Michael Jackson’s. Michael promptly became the biggest star the world has ever seen and will ever see. Before the fragmentation of media and the proliferation of satellite communications, Michael Jackson had the most eyeballs on him at any one era in human history. No wonder he was dependant on drugs to function, leaving a trail of open questions on his death in June 2009. He was 50.
NOW 4 includes the only song credited to Michael Jackson explicitly, though his voice is sampled on later NOW compilations and his influence is found in most pop music of the last thirty years. Farewell My Summer Love was a non-album track released by Motown in 1984 (Thriller came out on Epic). Indeed, Jacko is uncredited on Rockwell’s song Somebody’s Watching Me, one of those songs sampled by a dance producer in the 2000s.
Black performers used to play the Chitlin Circuit, writing black material for black fans. When the music industry realised they could make money off of black culture, they developed white avatars. This explains the success of The Beatles (who took Chuck Berry to the masses), Vanilla Ice (who cleaned up Bronx hiphop) and Eminem, who really was as good as his black fellow rappers.
Soul music is different. Ray Charles is the king, and he was accepted in Nashville because music is music, whatever the colour. Brother Ray was brilliantly portrayed by Jamie Foxx in a biopic, while James Brown was played by Chadwick Boseman in the movie Get On Up. Funk and soul, which is all about dancing and moving in the sheets or outside it, was a black creation that white boys started to appreciate. Given the choice, you would take James Brown over Cilla Black.
Other popular acts nestle on NOW 4. Culture Club had the much-mocked The War Song (‘war is stupid’); Elton John released an anti-racism song Passengers (‘wanna get on!’) while his football team Watford FC completed their second season in the top tier, still under his ownership; Heaven 17 had another hit with Sunset Now, and Nik Kershaw was Human Racing. Feargal Sharkey launched his post-Undertones career with Listen to Your Father, which stalled at 23. Curiously, it was released on the Zarjazz imprint, run by members of Madness, but Sharkey then jumped to the major label because Suggs and friends did not hold him under contract. Madness!!
In catalogue, the mighty Status Quo dipped into Dion’s catalogue with a version of The Wanderer (‘around around around’). It had three chords, like all the other Quo songs. Quo will return shortly in the next essay in a big way as they rock all over the world in summer 1985. The Kane Gang took a version of the magnificent gospel-soul track Respect Yourself by the Staple Singers to the top 40 in 1984, a track that Mavis Staples is still performing around the world as she approaches her eightieth birthday in 2019.
The songs included on NOW 4 that still play on rock radio today include U2’s Martin Luther King tribute Pride (‘In the Naaaaaaaaaaame of Love’) and Missing You, the power ballad by John Waite that still stands up in 2018. Less heard but still performed live when he tours is Warning Sign by Nick Heyward and Shout to the Top! (note the punctuation!), the Paul Weller song which he released with The Style Council. With her life being told on the London stage today, it’s a good time to be reminded of Tina Turner’s track Private Dancer, written by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, the perfect ‘ebony and ivory’ match.
Speaking of that song, its writer Paul McCartney starts the set with a ‘special dance mix’ of his gorgeous pop song No More Lonely Nights (‘day and night you’re always there’), produced by not-yet-Sir George Martin I suppose Paul was hip in 1984, but didn’t tour, instead writing and starring in movies like Give My Regards to Broad Street. The soundtrack featured songs from his first band, including The Long and Winding Road (with added sax!!), For No One, Good Day Sunshine and the song that started life as Scrambled Eggs and is about troubles being ‘so far away’ (he plays Yesterday in F-sharp, half a tone up from the original version, on the film soundtrack). The subject of his song Hey Jude, Julian Lennon, had a very synth-heavy hit with Too Late for Goodbyes, which joins Thompson Twins (Doctor! Doctor!) on side two of the first record or tape.
Hollywood influences the charts further, thanks to Blockbuster season 1984. The NeverEnding Story theme from Limahl is track four of the first disc or tape, while side four begins with the evergreen theme to Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr. Following him are UB40 (If It Happens Again), The Pointer Sisters (Jump (For My Love)), Level 42 (Hot Water) and Eurythmics, with a song called Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four).
Bizarrely, NOW 4 was released on CD containing tracks not on the tape or vinyl, and also released on video with the same format. This meant tracks like Together in Electric Dreams, the fabulous collaboration between Phil Oakey of The Human League and the masterful inventor of white boy disco Giorgio Moroder, appears on all three formats, but Radio Ga Ga by Queen only appears on the CD because the analogue formats of NOW 4 go for It’s a Hard Life. Ditto Locomotion by OMD, found on the CD in place of Tesla Girls.
The compact disc was developed in Japan along with the Discman, the shiny new format and product that was being pushed in 1984 to consumers just in time for Christmas. No more tape spooling! No more accidental destruction of the tape! You can eat toast off a CD! (And also do class A narcotics!!)
Note well that The Reflex, Locomotion by OMD, Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do With It and the Phil Collins smash Against All Odds appeared on NOW 3, and you remember Radio Ga Ga was on NOW 2. Consider this compilation a sort of NOW 1984, which is the type of marketing NOW has been forced to do to exploit its catalogue. Look at NOWmusic.com to see how many compilations there are; there is even NOW…Running 2018.
Find out some of the tracks that would be on NOW 2018 in the NOW 99 and 100 essays, published here in July.