Of the 37 tracks on NOW 16, issued at Christmas 1989, only nine are heard with any regularity today. What does this mean? Was the music in the mainstream really so bad that it only existed at that moment? Or was the good stuff going on in the underground, with rave culture about to pop up and independent music on records like Creation and 4AD grabbing the attention of record buyers?
The big hits in the UK in 1989 included a catalogue song, Do They Know It’s Christmas, produced by Stock Aitken Waterman.
The compilation opens with the huge Sowing the Seeds of Love, a Beatles pastiche from Tears for Fears, one of the nine songs still heard in 2018.
Having had Song for Whoever on NOW 15, The Beautiful South cement their status as one of the UK’s finest independent acts with You Keep It All In, which features the band’s three vocalists: Brianne Corrigan and Dave Rotheray take the intonation of the title (‘you know your problem? You keep it all in!) while Paul Heaton sings the verses with all the kitchen-sink goodness of an Alan Bennett or a Dennis Potter (‘that’s sweet!’). It is one of my favourite ever songs, probably because of how prominent the flute is.
The best song of 1989 with the word ‘best’ in the title is not called Simply the Best but, simply, The Best. Tina Turner’s karaoke anthem was originally put out by Bonnie Tyler but was only a hit in Norway; given to Tina, it went top 5 in the UK, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Finland, Canada, Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway. It climbed to 15 in the US, in spite of that magnificent key change (a ‘Eurovision’ key change from F to G, up a whole step).
By 1989, Kate Bush had earned the right to do as she wished. She had had three huge hits from The Hounds of Love, her 1985 release, and followed it up with The Sensual World, which was inspired by Macedonian folk music and included uilleann pipes and the word ‘Machiavellian’. Nobody has ever taken pop music so far into art music, not even Lady Gaga, and Kate Bush will go down as one of British pop’s finest artists.
The first disc also includes Sweet Surrender, a pastiche of Motown by Wet Wet Wet, and the Erasure song Drama! (note the punctuation again!). The only tracks on the second disc any casual music fan will know are Street Tuff, the marvellous song from Rebel MC & Double Trouble, and Pump Up the Jam by Technotronic, which had an irresistible groove. Right Here Waiting, the enormous US number 1 for Richard Marx, closes the first disc. Richard is still active, especially on social media where he recently found himself in a war of words with a former newspaper editor who now presents breakfast TV as a sort of malevolent British version of Donald Trump. (His surname rhymes with Borgen.)
Eye Know, the Steely Dan-sampling tune from De La Soul, is my Playlist choice here, though I wanted to put Kate Bush in (she’ll go in later on…). De La Soul are still active thirty years after Three Feet High and Rising, and they will also return in a later playlist entry in a supporting role. The combination of the whistling from Sittin on the Dock of the Bay and the sample of Peg by Steely Dan (‘I know I love you better!’) is terrific, while the song is anchored by a drum loop and two-chord guitar progression. It remains a fine, timeless piece of pop music, and offered a nice counterpoint to Ice Cube and Dr Dre and Eazy E who wanted to f— the police.
Before ‘reality rap’ broke into the mainstream in the 1990s, pop music in the UK had familiar faces, all present and correct on NOW 16. Points to you if you remember hits by Belinda Carlisle (Leave a Light On), Deborah Harry (I Want That Man), Nenah Cherry (Kisses on the Wind), Fine Young Cannibals (I’m Not the Man I Used to Be) Transvision Vamp (Born to be Sold, which sounds like a lost Blondie song) and Curiosity Killed the Cat (Name and Number). Queen appear with the synth-driven Breakthru, in which Freddie Mercury bangs on about waking up and thinking about someone, singing in a very American rock way ‘If I could only reach you that would really be a breakthrough…’
Prince had a US chart-topper with Batdance, but on NOW 16 it’s his backing singers Wendy and Lisa who appear with Waterfall. It’s a terrific song with a great chorus (‘watch out when you’re heading for the waterfall). I have never heard it on the radio, but we hear the classic Prince songs all the time. Call it Paisley Park soul.
Other tunes lost to time include Room In Your Heart by Living in a Box, Sugar Box by Then Jericho and C’mon & Get My Love by D-mob and Cathy Dennis. We’ll meet Cathy again later on, but when Pete Waterman asked Kylie Minogue what her third album should sound like, she pointed to C’mon & Get My Love. Pete Waterman stole the chorus and turned it into Better The Devil You Know. He thinks he got away with it…
On Our Own by Bobby Brown featured in Ghostbusters II (as can be deduced in Bobby’s rap after the second chorus) and is notable for having been written by the superstar team of Daryl Simmons, Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds and Antonio ‘L.A.’ Reid. Babyface plays keyboards and LA does the drums. The three would never have to work again when, in June 1992, Boyz II Men took their song End of the Road to the top of the US charts, where it was the top-selling single of the year and spent 13 weeks at number one.
House music is still filling the clubs: If Only I Could by Sydney Youngblood, French Kiss by Lil Louis and the euphoric strains of I Thank You by Adeva are glorious, while Inner City are pluggling away with Whatcha Gonna Do With my Lovin’. Again incongruously, Cliff Richard is on a NOW compilation, here singing I Just Don’t Have the Heart, which is a Stock-Aitken-Waterman production that sounds like a song Jason Donovan rejected; ditto Drive On by Brother Beyond, where the band asks ‘Do you have a love that drives you on?’ to a familiar SAW backing track which, after two years of it, would have palled a little. Meanwhile Siobhan Fahey from Bananarama had teamed up with Marcella Detroit to form Shakespears Sister (of whom more later); their track You’re History was co-produced by Jimmy Iovine and features Marcella shrieking and Siobhan purring.
Proving that Jimmy Somerville was unafraid to experiment with pop, his cover of Comment te dire adieu took the Francoise Hardy original (co-written by Serge Gainsbourg) and took it into the clubs with help from June Miles-Kingston, a fascinating figure who sung backing vocals, played drums and directed short films. More reinvention comes from Oh Well, released under the bandname Oh Well, which took Fleetwood Mac’s famous blues number and twisted it into a sort of Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. Fraser McAlpine calls this ‘the Swiss Army Knife approach’, seeing which old styles of music can fit into the new one. The 808 stabs seem incongruous, and it sounds like 1989.
Two interesting, prescient songs close NOW 16. Fresh Four’s version of the Rose Royce ballad Wishing on a Star slows down the famous Funky Drummer beat and points to the Bristol sound of hiphop over slushy beats, while Do The Right Thing by Redhead Kingpin and the FBI is an example of the New Jack Swing sound. It was inspired by the Spike Lee agitprop film but was left out of the movie, instead appearing in a horror movie called The People Under the Stairs.
The New Jack Swing sound would figure heavily in pop music in the 1990s.