NOW 5: Scritti Politti – The Word ‘Girl’

One of the best books about pop music is Rip It Up, which came out in the mid-2000s. Simon Reynolds chronicled the post-punk environment, introducing an eighteen-year-old ingenue (me) to a cast of misfits and characters including Genesis P-Orridge and Cosi Fan Tutti of Throbbing Gristle, Barney Sumner and Peter Hook of Joy Division/ New Order and Green Gartside.

Green’s story is almost incredible. A squatter in North London who fell in love with Michael Jackson, Green was one of the oddest popstars to have a song on NOW 5, from 1985. The Event of the Year will be discussed in the next essay, but as 1984 ticked into 1985, Michael Jackson was still about.

In fact, the King of Pop co-wrote We Are the World, America’s contribution to the Ethiopian famine efforts, with Lionel Richie (see NOW 4 essay). MTV still played his videos on repeat – and why not, when they were of the calibre of Beat It, Thriller and Billie Jean – and thanks to the channel popstars could get into American homes through the cable wires as well as the radio.

Catalogue on NOW 5 includes Love Don’t Live Her Anymore, covered by Jimmy Nail from the hit TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet; Get It On (Bang a Gong) from Duran Duran spin-off band The Power Station; and Every Time You Go Away (‘you take a piece of meat with you’??), the Daryl Hall song taken to the very top of the US charts by Paul Young. This proves that British acts are very good at selling back what America likes. I wonder what Paul bought with the money…

The most interesting track on the compilation comes from one of the year’s big movies, and it isn’t Duran Duran’s theme song to A View to a Kill (produced by Bernard Edwards of Chic). Eddie Murphy was everywhere for about four years in the 1980s: he was a 21-year-old featured player on Saturday Night Live, then outgrew the show so quickly he graduated to Hollywood and Beverley Hills Cop. Harold Faltermeyer’s theme tune, which was ruined by a Crazy Frog in the 2000s, was called Axel F, after Eddie’s lead character. Go hum the melody yourself now…

Innovative pop-soul comes from Simply Red, with Money’s Too Tight (To Mention), and Jaki Graham, whose Round and Around was part of the introduction of a British soul vocalist who is back (BACK! BACK!) with a new album in 2018. Beverley Knight recorded a version in 2012, which is perfect: a Wolverhampton singer recording a Birmingham-born chanteuse.

In an appearance on BBC Radio 2 with Michael Ball, where the host describes her as ‘the Queen of Soul’ and became famous though TV show Crackerjack (I’ll ask mum and dad…), Jaki said she had been gigging for a decade before she was famous, by which time she had a baby toddler: ‘I was elevated but I was grounded straight away.’ She then sang the classic song Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, which was her breakthrough hit. If you want to hear her in the flesh, she plays Manchester on June 2 as part of the Irlam festival. It’s headlined by Go West and The Stranglers, and also features the soul-pop quintet Five Star.

At the toppermost of the poppermost, Kool & the Gang took Cherish almost to the very top of the Billboard charts in the US, stuck behind ‘I want my MTV!’ and Money for Nothing by Dire Straits. It did hit the top in Canada. Conversely, forgotten gems include Magic Touch by Loose Ends (also back BACK BACK!!), Feel So Real by Steve Arrington and Icing on the Cake by future Robbie Williams collaborator and Duran Duran reject Stephen ‘Tintin’ Duffy. He would later record as Duffy and put out a magical song called Sugar High, which I urge you to listen to now.

Even Paul Weller rode the soooooooooul train, ditching punk for white-boy soul of The Style Council. Walls Come Tumbling Down was a big single, which the band performed at Wembley Stadium on July 7 1985 (see the next essay). Punk is present on NOW 5 with an Irish band called U2 with the song The Unforgettable Fire, and The Damned’s song The Shadow of Love, whose keyboard player Captain Sensible had gone the pop route with the amazing Happy Talk, later sampled on the song Dream by Dizzee Rascal.

Fine Young Cannibals introduced themselves with Johnny Come Home, a top 10 hit. Dead or Alive followed You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) with the Stock-Aitken-Waterman production In Too Deep (not the Genesis song!). Then came The Commentators aka satirist Rory Bremner, whom I once saw on the London Underground. The song followed the familiar parodic approach in pop music: Paul Hardcastle had a massive hit with 19, about the average age of American GIs in the Vietnam War. Instead, on N-N-Nineteen Not Out, TV impressionist Rory lampooned Richie Benaud’s Australian twang and Jim Laker, who once took 19 wickets in a single match, to emphasise the terrible batting average of England captain David Gower. In 1985, cricket was still on normal TV; today, Sky Sports have paid big money for live coverage, another aspect of modern English life that doesn’t feel right.

As for the song, it’s about a minute too long, unlike The Word ‘Girl’, which lollops along with a reggae groove. It posits the question: what if Bob Marley wrote a tune for Michael Jackson? The chorus is poppy and fun, and the chords shift impressively. It seems impossible that a guy who used to squat in properties in North London (not far from where I’m writing this essay, actually…) could turn out this slice of perfect pop. ‘There’s a word for what you do,’ Green sighs, adding: ‘Oh how your flesh and blood became the word’. It’s an overlooked gem, and it deserves its place in the Playlist.

To paraphrase Ross Noble’s great skit, I know what you’re saying. GET TO LIVE AID!!


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