NOW 12: The Timelords – Doctorin’ the Tardis

I would love to meet Bill Drummond. He’s one of pop music’s most significant figures, but you might not recognise him walking down the street. He used to be a manager, then became a popstar, then retreated back into the shadows, writing journalism and books and popping up now and again on nostalgia shows.

His band the KLF (aka the JAMs) were the best-selling band in Europe in 1991. For the BRIT Awards 1992, they shared the Best British Group Award with Simply Red. Mick Hucknall, however, never burned a million pounds, performed with Extreme Noise Terror or left a dead sheep with a note ‘I died for ewe’ as a statement to the British music industry. I’ll explore Bill and the KLF in the NOW 19 essay, but context is needed for Doctorin’ the Tardis.

John Higgs wrote a book trying to make sense of the band with the subtitle Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. But before the KLF came The Timelords, who hit number one with a song performed by a car which sampled Gary Glitter and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. ‘YOU WHAT?’ indeed…

Higgs writes that Drummond and his musical partner Jimmy Cauty ‘accidentally produced a hit single…It was a novelty record. It started with a desire to make a credible dance record’ based on the Doctor Who theme. This was pre-2000, pre-Russell T Davies and pre-Jodie Whittaker as a woman Doctor. Drummond called the song ‘a very British thing’, mixing the ‘glitter beat’ of glam rock with the innovators of electronic music.

Within a month, and with no airplay whatsoever, the song had somehow got to number one. This can be attributed to a video featuring the car (Ford Timelord) and knock-off Daleks which evaded copyright. Gary Glitter, yet to be disgraced for horrible crimes, had his moment again on Top of the Pops; ‘he donned a silver cape and hammed it up for all he was worth’ and made the cover of NME.

NOW 12, if you find it, is as rare as finding a KLF single at a car boot sale. In 1992, all existing copies knocking around any record companies or in shops were ordered to be destroyed. The KLF was dead. But more on that story later…

Elsewhere on NOW 12, there is a lot of catalogue. Wet Wet Wet do Ringo Starr’s big hit With a Little Help from My Friends, which was released as a charity single; Maxi Priest gives a reggae version of Cat Stevens’ Wild World and Natalie Cole records the Bruce Springsteen number Pink Cadillac. Tiffany took her version of I Think We’re Alone Now right to the top of the hit parade on both sides of the Atlantic. Those four songs span the end of the sixties and the end of the seventies, but familiarity bred record sales.

Glenn Medeiros took a song written by Gerry Goffin (Carole King’s late ex-husband and songwriting partner) to the top of the UK charts, a cover of the George Benson hit Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You. Funk is represented by James Brown, whose Payback Mix (Part One) revitalised an old 70s tune that was sampled by En Vogue and Mary J Blige among others. These include Massive Attack, who used it on their massive song Protection.

More fun was Theme from S’Express, which sampled fourteen songs to become something completely new. If you put the song on today, with its amazing count-in (UNO! DOS! TRES! QUATRO!) and horn stabs being joined by a whispered vocal of ‘S! Express!’ you will be blown away every time. It’s one of the songs of the year, and really ought to be in the playlist. Credit goes to the two producers Mark Moore and Pascal Gabriel; the latter co-wrote Here With Me for Dido and a great Kylie Minogue song called Your Love.

More interestingly still on NOW 12 is a dance version of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme by Will Downing, from an album which hit the UK top twenty and went gold. The song closes the second side of disc or tape 2. The piece was written by Coltrane as a sort of jazz hymn to the Creator.

Will may be forgotten today, but Salt N Pepa are not. John Mulaney referenced the group in his 2018 Saturday Night Live monologue, while Push It is still played on radio. Car Wash by Rose Royce keeps popping up on TV and in clubs, with its infectious dance beat, and fitted into the dance culture of 1988 which also brought hits for Jermaine Jackson (Get Lucky), Hazell Dean (Who’s Leaving Who) and The Communards (There’s More to Love).

The Communards, of course, included the not-yet-Reverend Richard Coles, and showcased the voice of Jimmy Sommerville, an openly gay white soul boy. Scritti Politti were led by similarly white soul boy Green Gartside, as we have discovered, and their song Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy) makes the first side of Disc 1. Green is sandwiched between Elton John (I Don’t Wanna Go On with You Like That) and Phil Collins, a sort of white-boy meat in a Live Aid sandwich.

Along with fellow NOW 12 track Circles in the Sand by Belinda Carlisle, In The Air Tonight remains a staple of ‘late night love’ radio, and of course came back into pop culture thanks to the Twenty-Year Cycle when a well-known chocolatier hired a gorilla to advertise a chocolate bar to the drumbeat of the bit before the final chorus of In The Air Tonight, which still prompts air drumming today.

The big names of the late eighties are all here too: Aswad (Give a Little Love), Hothouse Flowers (Don’t Go), Johnny Hates Jazz (Heart of Gold) and T’Pau (I Will Be With You). Three decades on, it’s still thrilling to see the great Everyday Is Like Sunday by the now less-than-thrilling Stephen Patrick Morrissey on a compilation, on the same side of vinyl as evergreen pop hits like Mary’s Prayer by Danny Wilson and the gorgeous, key-change-laden Don’t Call Me Baby by Voice of the Beehive.

And who’s this, coming back for more? It’s Bananarama, with a song called I Want You Back, from the SAW stable. The Ivor Novello award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically went to Climie Fisher – named after the two songwriters Simon Climie and Rob Fisher – for a song that Rod Stewart turned down. Love Changes Everything reached number 2 in the UK charts.

Another soft-rock radio staple is These Dreams, the huge US number one hit by Heart that sounds like 1986. Indeed, it was re-released after their ballad Alone had done so well in the UK. If you haven’t seen Heart’s version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, which reduces Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to tears at the latter’s Kennedy Center honours while President Obama and Yo-Yo Ma look on, treat yourself. It’s the definitive version of the song and is almost overpowering. Wait until you see what happens for the finale section…

But it’s not Doctorin’ The Tardis, is it?

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