I don’t want this series to turn into an appreciation of Jaki Graham, but she is here again with Step Right Up. In fact, NOW 8 was released in time for Christmas 1986 and it would have made an amazing present, even without the track chosen for the NOW playlist, which invented a genre.
In 1986, rap and rock were two distinct genres. The former was performed by black guys, usually from New York, while the latter was the music of rebellion. Then came The Beastie Boys, three kids from New York who were white but had fun with the music of their black mates. They eventually supported Madonna, another lady from New York, but fell foul of the unwritten law that performers couldn’t be too offensive, even if their aim was comedic. Their giant phalluses upset a lot of people because it was 1985. In the DJ booth alongside the band was Rick Rubin, one of the most important figures in popular music.
A sort of Zelig, a guy who was always there at every major breakthrough or notable event in history, Rick now lives in Shangri-La, California. He ran Def Jam Records in the 1980s, which he started in his college dorm room (Facebook style!) with Russell Simmons, to promote local hiphop acts like Run-DMC and LL Cool J, who were the breakthrough acts of the era because they took the sound of the streets to the studio, radio and television.
Walk This Way, which got to number 8 in the UK, is a rare moment in this playlist of 100 songs where I include catalogue, or cover versions. Aerosmith had put out Walk This Way in 1975, and it was a hit a year later. Ten years on, the band were no-hopers lost in drug addictions, and their key duo, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, were known as the Toxic Twins.
DMC himself explained to Livewire’s Youtube channel that the group used to love rapping over the rock song and its brilliant riff at block parties. It was an amazing ‘break’, the instrumental section that was looped over and over to provide a bed for their lyrics. DMC says that Rick, bobbing his head, said: ‘Hey guys, you know what would be a great idea? Do the record over, the way those guys did it.’ He made the rappers listen to the original lyrics and got them to sing the ‘gibberish’, as DMC calls it, themselves.
Rick then took their version to Aerosmith – or was it the Rolling Stones, gasped DMC – but the rappers didn’t want the song put out. ‘Always be open to try something new,’ DMC says to camera, ‘because it might not just change your life, it might change the world!’ The rock station in Boston played the new version, which prompted an 80/20 split in opinion from listeners. ‘The overwhelming 80% made the rock stations play that version,’ DMC says, while black rap stations were playing Aerosmith. It wasn’t a sample; it was a revolution. Thirty years on, it remains a way in for young kids learning about rock and rap. Limp Bizkit (for good or ill) would not exist without Walk This Way. Maybe Eminem wouldn’t have existed either…
How about these hits from 1986: Notorious (Duran Duran) was another Chic production; Suburbia was another hit for Pet Shop Boys; Word Up (Cameo) and Higher Love (Steve Winwood) remain radio staples, and the whole step key change on Stuck With You by Huey Lewis and the News never fails to get old.
In catalogue, Kim Wilde takes on the Supremes song You Keep Me Hanging On and Gwen Guthrie takes on the Bacharach & David smash (They Long to Be) Close to You, proving that Motown and Brill Building pop had a life in 1986. As did Swedish pop: Doctor & the Medics team up with Roy Wood from Wizzard on a note-for-note cover of Waterloo by ABBA, who are yet to come back into fashion having split up in 1982. Benny and Bjorn wrote the musical Chess with Tim Rice, which has just come back to the London stage with Michael Ball. More of Michael and ABBA and Sir Tim later…
I didn’t realise In the Army Now, a 1986 hit for the Quo, was previously a Norwegian number one for Bolland and Bolland, two brothers called Rob and Ferdi. I also didn’t know that Paul Hardcastle released other songs: The Wizard is on NOW 8 and was used heavily on Top of the Pops to soundtrack the chart rundown every week. It’s the funky bass-led tune that sounds like 1986. It’s all about that bass, bout that bass…
(Fun fact 1: Paul’s youngest son is the chairman of the Romford, Essex branch of the Young Conservatives. Last year he was 19, n-n-n-n-nineteen.)
Evergreen songs abound on NOW 8: Disc 2 (ie side 3) begins with Don’t Give Up, the anthem from Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, and ends with (I Just) Died in Your Arms – check the brackets! – by Cutting Crew. French Kissin’ in the USA gave Deborah Harry of Blondie a solo hit, thanks to pen of Chuck Lorre – yes, THAT Chuck Lorre, who went on to never have to work again because he ran Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. I wonder what he’s done with the money…
The power of new BBC TV serial drama (or soap opera) Eastenders is evident on Every Loser Wins by Nick Berry. Fraser McAlpine explained on the podcast (found at www.soundcloud.com/jonny_brick) that Nick’s character Simon Wicks sang it during the series with his band, The Banned, because they were not allowed into The Queen Victoria pub. Only the Communards and their smart cover of Don’t Leave Me This Way (originally by Harold Melvin and his Bluenotes) outsold it in 1986, though Every Loser Wins was awarded an Ivor Novello.
Fun fact 2: co-writer Simon May wrote the theme tune for Eastenders, so the famous drum bit is his fault. The theme was turned into the song Anyone Can Fall In Love by the great Don Black. Since looking him up on the Internet, I have discovered that unlike Time Rice and Elton John and Ray Davies and James Galway and Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney and Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey and George Martin and Ringo Starr, Don Black is not a Knight of the British Empire. I have started the campaign, which has support from both Tim Rice and Imogen Lloyd Webber, daughter of Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber (I don’t get the hyphen either).
Incidentally 1986 saw the debut of some show about some phantom and some opera. Musical theatre was changed forever, but the kids were still rapping and rocking!