My mum says she has no recollection of pop music at the turn of 1988, which is my fault entirely. What with me coming along early in the year, the radio was background music. It was 95.8 Capital FM: Chris Tarrant at Breakfast, Neil Fox doing the charts and the deep voice of Paul Phear. Howard Hughes, who used to read the news, is now on BBC Radio Berkshire, while I bumped into Pat Sharp (woo! woo!) the other week on a train home.
The songs that commercial radio stations like Capital were playing included the 1987 Christmas number one. It’s catalogue, but an awesome version of catalogue. Always On My Mind was given the Pet Shop Boys treatment as Willie Nelson and Elvis gained a rival for the quintessential version of the song. The synths and chord changes, inventions of Chris Lowe, are spine-tingling.
Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, meanwhile, are among the most successful songwriters in British popular music, with Pete Waterman their hype man who had no say in the production of the tracks but who loved Motown and classical music. Yet because of that success, the trio known as SAW are among the most reviled songwriters in British popular music. Mike Stock’s memoir is worth a read (I found a copy in Wimbledon library and read it in one sitting), particularly because he trashes Waterman, whose own memoir was called I Wish I Was Me (terrible title, not a great book).
I Should Be So Lucky was the eighth song put out on the label PWL (named after Waterman, who also presented The Hitman and Her show on TV). The song was the trio’s fourth number one after You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) and Respectable, the Mel and Kim song which took the Bananarama sound and gave it to two young black girls.
The third was Never Gonna Give You Up. Before Rickrolling took the world wide web by storm, and before his recent career renaissance, Rick Astley was the key exponent of the SAW sound, which seemed to mix classical music with disco and added synthesiser flourishes. Rick would have a six-week number one with his flawless debut single (‘never gonna GIVE!’) and follow it up with seven top 10 hits, including Together Forever which, like Never Gonna Give You Up, was a US number one.
In fact, Kylie kept Together Forever off the top of the UK charts, since I Should Be So Lucky held firm for four weeks in spring 1988. SAW went on an incredible run in 1989 which saw their productions top the charts in 15 of the 52 weeks of the year. Only Jive Bunny came anywhere close, with a total of nine weeks at number one. (More of the Bunny later.)
Kylie Minogue’s best song may be I Should Be So Lucky. Speaking about the song as part of a three-part career retrospective on BBC Radio 2, Kylie said that as time goes by, ‘more and more people appreciate the brilliance’ of the Hit Factory, which was what SAW termed their own sound as.
Having come from TV soap opera, she ‘slipped into the way SAW worked. I didn’t really ask questions. I did what I was told.’ That included singing a song written while she was in waiting room to sing a song for SAW after she had flown in from Australia. Her first number one began an astonishing run of 13 top 10 hits, the first 11 going top 5. Kylie told her version of events in the second part of the retrospective: ‘Apparently Pete had forgotten to say “Charlene from Neighbours is waiting and she needs a song”, and one of the guys said “She should be so lucky!” I remember being so nervous, and then we got on a plane and went home. We didn’t know if we had a song, and it turned out we did!’
The Kylie era of pop seems extraordinary now: only the likes of Take That, Westlife, Boyzone, Britney Spears and One Direction would repeat it. All five of those acts, like Kylie, were the fronts for a set of songs given to them by a manager or impresario like Nigel Martin-Smith (Take That), Louis Walsh (Westlife and Boyzone) and Simon Cowell (One Direction). I would guess that, when one compares Best Ofs, only Kylie and her SAW-written tracks can compete with Gary Barlow’s middle-of-the-road originals (more of which later).
Back in a time before Take That, 1988 was the era of Matt and Luke Goss (and Craig). Bros were the other huge pop act of the year, with five top 5 hits of their own just in 1988 – and three in 1989 after Craig left, after he grew tired of the circus and moved into the back room to become very rich as an executive. Bros are absent from NOW 11, and do not appear at all on any of the 1988 or 1989 compilations.
In their place come the usual roster of popstars from the late 1980s: Jermaine Stewart (Say It Again), T’Pau (Valentine), Billy Idol (Hot in the City) and Johnny Hates Jazz (Turn Back the Clock). SAW are there again on Disc 2 with That’s the Way It Is (Mel & Kim) and I Can’t Help It (Bananarama).
Coldcut, who produced The Only Way is Up, were given top billing on Doctorin’ the House, which featured Yazz and the Plastic Population. The ‘fourth side’ points to the underground going overground: Beat Dis (Bomb the Bass), House Arrest (Krush) The Jack That House Built (Jack’n’Chill) and Rok da House (Beatmasters ft. The Cookie Crew) are all on NOW 11, and all sound like 1988 in the best possible way. Check out the 808s, and the samples, and the sense of exploration which M/A/A/R/S had set in motion.
One track on the compilation has had a book written about it. The comedian Tony Hawks has played the Moldovans at tennis and gone round Ireland with a fridge in other titles, but his best book is about his one-hit wonder Stutter Rap (No Sleep til Bedtime). Released as Morris Minor and the Majors, Hawks pastiched the Beastie Boys with a fun tune about stuttering. In his book One Hit Wonderland he went around the world meeting other people who had had only one hit.
The likes of Eddy Grant (Gimme Hope Jo’anna is on NOW 11), Sinead O’Connor (Mandinka) and Whitesnake (Give Me All Your Love) did not have just the one hit. Belinda Carlisle had several, including the massive chart-topper Heaven is a Place on Earth, while Billy Ocean teamed up with Mutt Lange (see NOW 9) for Get Outta My Dreams (Get Into My Car), an American number one.
Vanessa Paradis, the future Mrs Johnny Depp, was a teenage chanteuse who sang about Joe le Taxi entirely in French (‘y va pas partout…son saxo jaune connait toutes les rues par couer’ means ‘he doesn’t go everywhere, his yellow saxophone knows every road by heart’). The song also references the bandleader Xavier Cugat, and even as people in the UK bought it with no idea of who Senor Cugat was, it made Joe Le Taxi a fun song to sing in karaoke and mime wind instruments to. Vanessa also played the song on Top of the Pops, which helped her cause.
Aside from Always on my Mind, catalogue includes Oh L’Amour, the cover of the hit by Erasure that gave the duo Dollar their last hit song. C’mon Everybody by Eddie Cochran was used to promote Levi’s Jeans. Thanks to his live tour that year, Elton John was in the charts with Candle in the Wind, his ode to ‘Norma Jean’ aka Marilyn Monroe. Chris Difford is credited as a co-writer on Angel Eyes (Home and Away) by Wet Wet Wet after noticing that his friend Marti Pellow stole an entire verse of one of his songs.
In October 2011, the pop critic Peter Robinson wrote about his favourite album, or at least ‘the first ten songs’ from NOW 11. To Peter, the whole compilation ‘lurches unapologetically, almost defiantly, from genre to genre’. It took him back to a time when the TV ad for Um Bongo was large in popular culture.
He mentions two top 10 hits on NOW 11 by Joyce Sims (Come into My Life) and Jellybean ft Elisa Fiorillo (Who Found Who), which are now ‘referenced so rarely they might as well have never existed…I could taste the Um Bongo’. He eventually broke down in tears, aware that life is fleeting. As with NOW 25 for me, NOW 11 was Peter’s first NOW, ‘the time in my life when I first discovered music and chose to completely submerge myself in it’; the NOW albums ‘indulged my desire to grab as much as possible in one go.’ Peter’s essay can be read in full here.