In 2017 the data scientist Armand Leroi presented a show called The Secret Science of Pop on BBC Four. Having begun by showing the Kraftwerk song Autobahn being turned into I Feel Love by Giorgio Moroder, there is then a montage taking in REM, David Bowie, Britney Spears, Lorde, Elvis Presley and New Order. ‘Pop should be a science of diversity and change, competition and conflict,’ Professor Leroi intones. Then Trevor Horn comes into the story, as the Buggle will produce the hit that the data comes up with, to see whether a formula can bring success to an existing demo.
We met Trevor in the NOW 2 essay when Frankie said Relax. Trevor pushed the needle, especially with his work with ABC (Poison Arrow, The Look of Love, When Smokey Sings). He also produced Seal’s greatest songs (Prayer For the Dying, Kiss From a Rose) and worked with Yes on Owner of a Lonely Heart, which was enormous. His discography also includes Malcolm McLaren, LeAnn Rimes (Can’t Fight the Moonlight is a Trevor Horn production), Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys, Robbie Williams (on an album called Reality Killed the Video Star that nods to the great Buggles song Video Killed the Radio Star), Paul McCartney, Simple Minds, Belle & Sebastian (he worked on one of my favourite songs, I’m a Cuckoo) and the Godley & Crème song Cry, whose video invented the ‘morphing’ concept that Michael Jackson used on Black or White.
Trevor Horn has a great claim, as well as ‘inventing the eighties’ as I wrote, to be one of British pop’s great figures, but don’t ask him if there is a formula for what he does. ‘It’s like getting five balls into a hole. You try to get the third one in and the first two pop out!’ he says, bewildered by trying to explain pop music and how it works.
The TV show then cuts to some scientists combing through data from pop history. Over 17,000 songs are analysed for tempo, pitch and keys, as well as looking at their structure. It’s akin to those musicological papers which go through lyrics explaining how pop is more selfish, which conclude that there’s more mentions of ‘I’ and ‘me’ over time. In fact, in May 2018 it was agreed that pop is becoming more depressing. We have gone for Lust For Life to ‘hello from the other side’…
Prof Leroi maps the revolutionary points in pop: the rise of The Beatles, the Stones and beat music (‘fewer harmonies’ and ‘aggression’); the rise of electronica, punk (less revolutionary in musical terms as ‘only about 68 songs charted’) and ‘a tidal wave of disco’ in the late 1970s to disrupt a ‘half-asleep’ Britain. The ‘rhythmic intensity’ of disco was provided mostly by The Chic Organisation and the Brothers Gibb.
Then, in the digital era, came the acid house craze of the late 1980s, which was ‘the greatest revolution of the all’ because you didn’t need a human to make your ideas live. From there came the current fervour for rap and hiphop, which started with Run DMC and Vanilla Ice, to take two examples.
But what makes a hit a hit? ‘The results are not very promising…We can’t predict it!’ The one signal is that a song that is a hit is ‘close to the average. The most average song is the most successful song. This is ‘depressing’ to the data scientist and to Trevor Horn. (Unlike Rod Stewart etc, Trevor Horn is not knighted but should be next in line.)
There is nothing average about the version of Kiss that hit number 5 in autumn 1988, the biggest hit for the combined talents of arranger Anne Dudley and producer Trevor Horn (helped by PR merchant Paul Morley). Prince wrote a song with only funky guitars and a falsetto voice on the track, with some references to American soap Dynasty and a chorus with the words ‘particular’ and ‘compatible’ in it. Kiss is one of my mum’s favourite songs, but she prefers the Tom Jones version. It was her ringtone back when you could buy pop songs as ringtones (remember, in 2004?), so I always think of mum when I hear the Art of Noise version of Kiss.
Since 1988, Tom Jones has put out an album of collaborations called Reload, which included at least five top songs: Sexbomb, Mama Told Me Not to Come, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Burning Down the House and a version of the Portishead song All Mine with horns. Reload is worth rediscovering as it brought Tom back in a big way. I was lucky enough to see him in Las Vegas just before the renaissance. He was impressed that people from ‘oh, Watford!’ had come over to hear him croon and do his old sixties hits.
Tom was an enormous star in the 1960s and 1970s, with his own TV show and two enormous number ones: his debut It’s Not Unusual from 1965 and the soppy Green Green Grass of Home over Christmas 1966. He recorded the Bond theme Thunderball and has a great back catalogue including What’s New Pussycat, Delilah and She’s a Lady. He also knew Elvis Presley, which he mentioned eight or twelve times during a stint on the BBC TV talent show (and vehicle for him, Will.i.am and Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs to sell gig tickets) The Voice UK.
Between 1977 and 1987, he didn’t have a hit on the pop charts, retreating to country music and losing his manager to cancer. His son and new manager Mark revitalised his career, and Tom returned in 1987 with the number two song A Boy From Nowhere. Then he teamed up with Horn, Dudley and fellow noisenik Jonathan ‘JJ’ Jeczalik to croon his way through the Prince song that had only come out in 1986. His next big hit after Kiss was If I Only Knew (‘what I should do to make you make you love me’), produced by Trevor Horn.
To stop artists complaining that they were being kept off number one by a compilation (invariably featuring one of their songs!), the Charts Company created a Compilations chart, one which is still in existence today. NOW XIII, the first compilation chart number one, has the usual mix of old and new. The old comes from a remix of Let’s Stick Together by Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music and Fat Boys teaming up with Chubby Checker for a version of the biggest selling song of all time. Their version was called The Twist (Yo, Twist). This must have been fun alongside the bodypopping and robots of dancefloors in 1988.
The Isley Brothers are represented twice in cover versions: Salt N Pepa do Twist and Shout, while The Christians do Harvest for the World. SAW were still around too, producing The Harder I Try for Brother Beyond which sampled (you guessed it) The Isley Brothers song This Old Heart of Mine.
Phil Collins had A Groovy Kind of Love thanks to the film Buster, where the song featured as prominently as he did and got to number one on both sides of the pond. Carole Bayer Sager was one of its writers, and it was originally a ‘terrific two’ in summer 1966 in both the US and UK. The orchestra was conducted by Anne Dudley, which rescues the song for me, which still gets played on ‘Mellow Magic’ playlists because it’s a soppy song about love that rhymes ‘feeling blue’ and ‘all I have to do’. The sixties!
The song that replaced it at the top of the charts also benefitted from a sync. The Hollies song He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother was used to sell beer, which in turn helped sell the song. I like the a capella cover by The Housemartins from a BBC Radio session, and The Justice Collective took it to the top again at Christmas 2012, when a group of mostly Liverpudlian musicians raised money for the Hillsborough disaster campaign (#JFT96).
To prove that the compilations are not just thrown together, I Want Your Love by Transvision Vamp is placed next to Duran Duran’s I Don’t Want Your Love. Some of the best pop of the decade is on NOW XIII: The Only Way is Up (Yazz and the Plastic Population) had five weeks at number one thanks to the brilliance of producers Coldcut; Erasure just wanted A Little Respect on a song Wheatus would take back into the Top 10 after the year 2000; without irony, The Proclaimers song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was voted one of the greatest one-hit wonders in American music by VH1. Try not to sing it, I dare you…
Yello, meanwhile, took an instrumental called The Race to number seven. Yello are two Swiss blokes called Boris and Dieter, and made a lot of money with their song Oh Yeah, which was never a hit despite being in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in one of my favourite scenes (‘The 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California…It is his love, it is his passion…’ ‘It is his fault he didn’t lock the garage’). A quick mention for Rush Hour by Jane Wiedlin, since the song inspired the ‘Tarrant in the Rush Hour’ jingle that dominated my childhood (all will be explained in a later essay…)
Another band who made a lot of money were Milli Vanilli. We live in a time of fake news, but Milli were fake music. A white guy called Frank Farian recorded all the parts, or recruited another singer to overdub better versions, then got two black guys called Fab and Rob to dance and lipsync. When their fakery was discovered, they had to give their awards back, so songs like Girl You Know It’s True, included on NOW XIII, are curios. A biopic of the duo was released in 2016.
In his memoir The Soundtrack of my Life, the music mogul Clive Davis wrote: ‘Not one single person from Arista in the US ever met Rob and Fab [Milli Vanilli] until five months after the album had released.’ It had gone double platinum in that time, which is two million copies. The ‘free single’ had been given to the label from Germany, and helped the album sell six million units but the two front guys were not getting paid as much as Frank Farian.
To Davis the duo were ‘a pure pop concoction that somehow caught on’ and he scorned their arrogance in interviews. He and Arista, he repeats, did not know the vocalists did not sing on the album! He even suggests Farian should have made Mill Vanilli an animated band, like The Archies. Eventually money was donated to charity but ‘the attorneys made a fortune [and] the fans kept their Milli Vanilli records’, since only 1% of them were returned when Arista gave them the chance to get a refund. ‘They can’t deny that the songs hooked them,’ says the man who at the time was making Whitney Houston the biggest popstar not called Madonna in the world. Davis would go on to discover and develop Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson and Kenny G.
Culturally significant songs make tape 2 of the compilation. We Call It Acieed (‘acieeeeeeeeeeeed’) by D-Mob ft Gary Haisman sounded fun but was meant to be listened to after ingesting a large amount of MDMA. Inner City’s song Big Fun, with vocals by Kevin Saunderson, also filled the raves of summer 1988, with its throbbing synth lines helping thousands of kids dance the night and morning away, somewhere in a field just off the M25 motorway around London. To paraphrase the Human League hit Love Is All That Matters, in rave culture love was all around.
The two best songs for me, musically and lyrically, are by black acts not called Milli or Vanilli. Bobby McFerrin is the only person to take jazz a capella into the pop charts, thanks to his magnificent Don’t Worry Be Happy (‘the landlord say the rent is late, he might have to litigate but don’t worry! Be happy!’). Like I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), this is an earworm which you can bellow drunkenly or soberly, defiance in the face of hardship. Bobby is still around, and he keeps twisting pop into new shapes. There is nobody like him, and I don’t think Pitch Perfect, Glee or Pentatonix would exist as cultural entities without Bobby McFerrin blazing a chest-thumping trail (seriously, Youtube him…).
Finally, Womack and Womack released the amazing pop song Teardrops in 1988; that’s Linda and Cecil, not Bobby. The song came out on Island Records, a label which kept bringing great artists to the public. One of them was The Art of Noise, via Trevor Horn’s ZTT label. How about that…