On the podcast element of this series – soundcloud.com/jonny_brick – Fraser McAlpine successfully convinced me to change the playlist entrant. I am inducting 100 songs from 100 NOW compilations into a playlist of pop from 1983 to the present day, and I thought Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel was a shoo-in. It has a Claymation video produced by Nick Park and the team at Aardman, who went on to make the ‘cracking’ Wallace and Gromit clay cartoons, and was a hit music video on MTV. It also has great woodwind.
But Fraser correctly changed my mind. The Housemartins are, to him, the second-best independent group of the era behind The Smiths. Led by Paul Heaton and Dave Rotheray, and featuring Stan Cullimore and Norman ‘Quentin’ Cook, the band formed in Hull, East Yorkshire, as a politically-minded pop group. The band developed a sound summarised as ‘Left Wing Gospel’. Cook said the band rules were ‘no hats and no drugs’.
In his biography of the Beautiful South (of whom more in a later essay), Mike Pattenden chronicles the band that would become the BS. The Housemartins began as dole-queuing buskers in Hull, where Heaton had moved as it offered him ‘a complete blank slate’ where he could find a house and pay £10 a week in rent.
Their hits collection, culled from two albums (London 0 Hull 4 and The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death), was called Now That’s What I Call Quite Good, in homage to the NOW series. Why this never made them an automatic selection just because of that fact I will never know, so Fraser is again shrewd and correct.
As to the song Happy Hour it’s one of my favourites, and if you scroll to the very bottom of my Soundcloud page, you can hear my a capella cover from about six years ago! The band themselves loved an a capella cover, and their versions of Lean On Me and Joy Joy Joy are worth seeking out. They had a number one hit with the Isley Brothers song Caravan of Love, which was my first exposure to the band. I knew the voice of Paul Heaton from the Beautiful South, and I knew Norman Cook from many projects which I’ll explore in this series of essays.
Happy Hour, writes Pattenden, was originally titled French England and was ‘an impossibly catchy song about London office workers’. Released on the indie label Go! Discs, it hit number 3 in the pop charts behind Wham! and Madonna. It was ‘the highest chart placing for a band from Hull ever’. The video includes some Claymation, dancing and sense of bonhomie. It’s set in a pub, too!
NOW 7 came out in spring 1986, again before I was born. Songs which are never heard in 2018 on any form of music radio except ‘Where are they now?’ segments include Sing Our Own Song by UB40, Camouflage by Stan Ridgway, Too Good to be Forgotten by Amazulu and Set Me Free by (her again!) Jaki Graham (new album out mid-June).
Catalogue is here too: Spirit in the Sky was a Norman Greenbaum three-chord marvel taken to the top of the charts by Doctor and the Medics (then later by Gareth Gates for Comic Relief), and the great Shocking Blue song Venus was given to the pop trio Bananarama, whose career was masterminded by three blokes called Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Remember the names…
Big names from 1986 include David Bowie, who acted in a Julien Temple film called Absolute Beginners and sang the title track. Rick Wakeman, who had played piano on Life on Mars?, took the piano part here too, which explains it going into different avenues and alleyways. It’s a very Eighties Bowie song, with the opening minute full of ‘ba-bah’s. Temple says that Absolut Vodka was everywhere in 1985, which explains the popularity of the word ‘absolutely’. Bowie was as pleased when he finished the song as he had been when he finished “Heroes”, and it marked the end of his third great period (the first being the Ziggy-Aladdin Sane era, the second the Berlin years).
Elsewhere on NOW 7 we have Midge Ure (Call of the Wild), Queen (A Kind of Magic), a-ha (Hunting High and Low), Big Country (Look Away), Simple Minds (All the Things She Said) and Level 42. I love their song Lessons In Love, a funky pop song driven by Mark King’s bass. They never go away and are always found on 80s Festival bills such as Chilfest in the Chiltern Hills, England. In 2018, Chilfest runs on July 6 and 7, and stars Tony Hadley, Marc Almond, Go West, Johnny Hates Jazz and Kim Wilde among many others.
Evergreen songs from 1986 include The Lady in Red by Chris De Burgh, one of those ‘he’ll never have to work again’ songs that helped someone win Stars in their Eyes, a Saturday night karaoke contest in the 1990s where the catchphrase ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…’ preceded a glamorous transformation into that act. I am sure someone would have been Phil Collins, whose band Genesis (whom Peter Gabriel ditched a long time before) are on NOW 7 with Invisible Touch, an American number one hit with a killer key change.
Neil Tennant would have been recreated too, but the chosen song would not have been Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), one of the Pet Shop Boys’ first songs which defined their sound. Chris Lowe put together a synth track which underscored Neil’s words about life and love and stuff, which here include ‘I’ve had enough of scheming and messing around with jerks’ and ‘You can tell I’m educated I studied at the Sorbonne…I could have been a don’. Literate pop music; nobody does it better than PSB, still going in 2018 with no sign of going away either.
Side 1 Disc 1 Track 3 is Let’s Go All the Way, a synthy one-hit wonder by Sly Fox that had a good video. Flip the tape and you have Brilliant Mind by Furniture, written by the future journalist Jim Irvin. The second tape/disc begins with the effervescent The Edge of Heaven by Wham!, who were about to split in 1986, and ends with the syrupy duet On My Own by Patti LaBelle (from Live Aid!) and Michael McDonald (from the Doobie Brothers!). It was written by two of the best: Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, a former couple who first gave the song to Burt’s familiar singer Dionne Warwick. America goes wild for this sort of balladry, so they bought enough copies to take it to number one; it stalled at two in the UK.
The fourth side of NOW 7 is the black side. Billy Ocean’s When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going would be another Comic Relief song for Boyzone in 1999. The Real Roxanne with Hitman Howie Tee took (Bang Zoom) Let’s Go Go into the charts. It’s hiphop from Brooklyn and was part of a series of rap records to do with Roxanne, an imaginary girl who on the song Roxanne, Roxanne turned down the advances of rap crew UTFO. The Real Roxannes song, which hit number 11 in the UK, sounds amazing and ahead of its time by at least two years.
Lovebug Starski had another rap hit with Amityville (The House on the Hill); Midnight Star, from Kentucky, had another groovy funk-pop tune with Headlines, which included the annoying whistle sound effect that was everywhere from about 1985 to 1992. Perhaps it was a preset on one of those affordable synthesisers everyone was buying…