NOW 9: Bon Jovi – Livin’ on a Prayer

I think I’ve only done karaoke three times: Sunday Morning by Maroon 5 in Edinburgh in 2010; Summer of ’69 in East London, 2012; The Universal by Blur at Greg Tinker’s 30th in 2016. My friend Chris Imlach’s karaoke song is Livin’ on a Prayer, the incredible poodle-rock classic from Jon Bongiovo and friends.

Steve Wright has a feature on Friday afternoons on BBC Radio 2 called Serious Jockin’ (‘with no G’), where he shows off his skills as a DJ. I am sure he’d drop Livin’ on a Prayer and other songs which also have no G. On NOW 9, released in spring 1987, it is hard to look beyond Bon Jovi’s song as the playlist choice, when I am picking a song that is culturally, lyrically and/or musically significant. It’s mainly because of Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange.

The man who made English rockers Def Leppard ‘a thing’ in the US also scattered magic dust on Bon Jovi’s album Slippery When Wet. He would go on to make his wife Shania Twain the world’s biggest female star of the late 1990s not called Britney. Mutt’s sound also helped the likes of AC/DC, The Boomtown Rats (I didn’t know Rat Trap was a Lange production), Bryan Adams, The Cars, Michael Bolton, The Corrs (their number one song Breathless was one of his, and it makes sense now I know as it’s basically a Shania Twain song) and Billy Ocean. Amazingly, Lange has also worked with Muse on their 2015 album Drones.

Common to all these artists is a prominence in the vocal. You can hear every word that is sung, and the chorus are often astonishing. Man! I Feel Like a Woman and Highway to Hell still fill dancefloors in 2018, while Everything I Do (I Do It For You) is one of the world’s most successful pop songs. Mutt Lange touches Trevor Horn levels of greatness, having had hits for forty years and cementing a rock sound that has remained consistent even within both technological advances and, as I will discuss, the passage of rock from youth movement to heritage industry.

But what about the key change in Livin’ on a Prayer? No wonder Tommy and Gina want to be together and ‘make it, I swear’…

Other big songs from 1987 on NOW 9 include The Right Thing by Simply Red, Manhattan Skyline by a-ha and The Final Countdown by Europe. With Herb ‘Little Spanish Flea’ Alpert on trumpet, UB40 had Rat in Mi Kitchen, and Erasure scored another hit with the classic melancholic Sometimes, a Vince Clarke masterpiece.

The movies of 1986 and 1987 also had an effect on the charts. The theme from Top Gun is still a staple on love-song radio, and still tops up Giorgio Moroder’s pension, and Take My Breath Away remains the true sound of the year. Or maybe it was Jack Your Body by Steve “Silk” Hurley, the first Chicago house track to make it big? I’ll return to house music when it becomes the global pop sound in a few compilations’ time.

Whenever Live It Up by Australian band Mental As Anything comes on the radio, I turn it up. It was used in Crocodile Dundee, which I’ve never seen, but I know the catchphrase ‘call that a knife?’ Well done to Greedy Smith, who never had to work again after the success of his song. I also love The Blow Monkeys, or at least the two tracks of their that still get radio play. Digging Your Scene is amazing, as is their top 5 single It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way. Still on the road and still led by Dr Robert (real name Bruce Howard), their music sounds like a house party in 1987: Champers and blinis and money.

The synth-led sound of pop, with some fake horns, reaches an apogee in Stay Out of my Life, a great pop song from 5 Star, who were basically The Jackson Five for the MTV era; they ought to have been called The Pearson Five, since their members were Deniece (who wrote this), Doris, Lorraine, Delroy and Stedman. 5 Star are surely due a reappraisal, as they had 15 hits and five top albums and won the Best British Group award at the BRITs.

Lost in three decades of time, however, are Heartache by former Wham! backing singers Pepsi & Shirlie, Trick of the Night by Bananarama, Sonic Boom Boy by Westworld, Cross That Bridge by Ward Brothers and I Love my Radio (Midnight Radio) by Taffy. The last of these is a pop song from 1987, so imagine it first then listen to it: slightly off-key vocals, guitars that twang and synths that bloop. Catchy, all the same…

There is an alarming amount of catalogue. Nick Kamen was a jeans model who became a pop star for ten minutes, and his cover of the Temptations song Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever is there on NOW 9. It’s perfectly fine, like Boy George’s light-reggae of David Gates’s song Everything I Own, a hit originally for soft-rockers Bread. Elswehre, Freddie Mercury puts his own spin on The Great Pretender and the Housemartins had a number one with Caravan of Love. Ben E King’s Stand By Me was used in an advert and a new generation fell in love with it, and Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson was turned into a Claymation video. Another superb video helped Genesis have a hit with Land of Confusion: the team behind satirical puppet-based TV show Spitting Image provided rubber masks for the song’s video. So we had a clay Jackie and rubbery Phil Collins…Whatever next: holograms?

Hot Chocolate came back into the chart with You Sexy Thing thanks to a remix that kicked off a Best Of album. The band are still beloved and heard on the radio, even though the singer Errol Brown passed away in 2015; Brown won the Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music (and films set in Sheffield about stripping steelworkers) in 2004.

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