One Christmas I was gifted Paint The Sky With Stars, the collection of Enya’s big hits. I had always loved Anywhere Is by the kooky Irish ‘new age’ singer (which I discovered on a NOW compilation) but I knew nothing about her. I did know she had had a hit with Orinoco Flow that went ‘sail away, sail away, sail away’. Her Best Of is full of tunes: Only If has a great beat; The Celts was brilliant before The Fugees nicked it for their version of Ready Or Not; Book of Days sweeps along majestically with some timpani at the end for good measure.
NOW 19 had included a massive hit inspired by Gregorian chanting from the Middle Ages. Sadeness (sic) by Enigma placed a looped drumbeat underneath Latin chants, and that isn’t Latin as in Despacito or Lambada. Now, with a place in the market secure, Enya could dominate the genre known as New Age. It’s the kind of music you meditate to, which would be on a ‘Songs To Fall Asleep To’ playlist in 2018.
Enya’s songs do the job: she has one trick, which is to build a sonic cathedral, layering instruments and voice to create a mood rather than a pop song. Caribbean Blue does this in a waltz time signature (ONE two three ONE two three), with a plinky-plonk riff giving way to layers of Enya intoning syllables in vocalese (‘ah ah’ and so forth). I almost don’t want to know what she’s singing, because the atmosphere is so marvellous. The strings dominate in parts, while there is a majestic key change. It reminds me of Walking in the Air from the film The Snowman.
There is no evidence whatsoever on NOW 20 of the grunge subculture slowly transforming independent music in 1991. Smells Like Teen Spirit was everywhere, as Kurt Cobain tapped into Generation X like no other musician, with added hooks and melodies. Instead we get a mishmash of old and new.
Catalogue starts on CD1 with Dizzy, a number one by The Wonder Stuff and comedian Vic Reeves, and a mashup of U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name and Andy Williams’ Can’t Take My Eyes Off You done the Pet Shop Boys way (straight, rather than for laughs or archness). On CD2 Paul Young covers Don’t Dream It’s Over, Voice of the Beehive do David Cassidy’s I Think I Love You and P.M. Dawn twist True by Spandau Ballet into Set Adrift on Memory Bliss, which is still gorgeous thanks to the a capella opening harmonies.
Thanks to Simon Mayo’s Radio 1 breakfast show, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life was a hit song for the Monty Python team. For no discernible reason, American Pie was also a hit again for Don McLean, who toured Britain in 2018, in one gig jokingly commenting to an audience member going to the loo: ‘You’ll miss American Pie!!’
The power of radio play was evident in Marc Cohn’s hit Walking in Memphis (‘saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue’), which Bob Harris heard, loved, played and led to the odd situation of Marc coming to the UK, turning on the radio in his hotel room and hearing his song before he had even sung a note in Britain. The internet would do this for acts in the 2000s, but this was impressive, and very analogue, in 1991. Radio 1 had just become 1 FM, having been on medium wave (where Five Live remains today) since 1967.
Ladies were found in numbers on the radio. Lisa Stansfield purred Change, a song that sounds like 1991 but which would work as a sultry piano ballad or chanson (including the sax solo in the middle!), and Zoe twirled Sunshine on a Rainy Day, which begins with Indian table drums and includes a wiggedy-wiggedy guitar solo.
Acts with guitars who were not called Nirvana also had success. James wanted the listener to ‘sit down next to me’ in a song that has for the last year been a chant heard at Anfield in honour of ‘Mo Salah, la la, the Egyptian King’. Canadian band Glass Tiger had some help from an uncredited Roderick ‘Rod’ Stewart (hear him clearly in the second verse) on My Town, while Scorpions brought rock from Germany with the ballad Wind of Change, which would have been number one if not for… (The answer is later in this piece.)
Remember 2 Unlimited, whom I said I’d introduce in the NOW 19 essay? Well here they are with Get Ready For This, a thumping instrumental that is still great to do a Zumba routine to. Go was the first time many people heard of Richard Melville aka bald-headed Buddhist Moby. If you remember Kenny Thomas, whose third top 20 hit came with Best of You, you really know your New Jack Swing. The drum loop bears the hallmarks of Teddy Riley’s influence on pop: Teddy produced r’n’b band Guy, then worked on the best songs on Dangerous, the 1991 release by Michael Jackson.
Prince allowed Gett Off, a filthy song about sex which namechecked Rick James and compared Prince to The Big Dipper constellation, onto NOW 20. Salt-N-Pepa sang ‘Let’s talk about sex, baby’ in an evergreen song that is played as often as Push It. Female sexuality existed in pop, and I am sure S-N-P were an influence on The Spice Girls. Showing a good sense of playlisting, the compiler of NOW 20 places I Wanna Sex You Up immediately afterwards.
Color Me Badd copy New Kids on the Block, the dominant pop force in America of 1990-1992, and headed to number one with a song that smells of Eau de 1991. Strangely their song only got to number 2 in the US, with the next two songs (I Adore Mi Amor and All 4 Love) both reaching the top. They were from Oklahoma, like Garth Brooks, who was also taking over America in 1991 with his precision-engineered country music.
S-N-P, meanwhile, was held at two behind the same act who prevented Scorpions from reaching the top: Bryan Adams. 1991 was the year of Everything I Do (I Do It For You).
If you’ve never heard the song, it’s a six-minute ballad about undying love that kept selling throughout August, September and October. Nothing could dislodge it from the top, and the ‘Groover from Vancouver’ still holds the record for the longest-running number one hit in Britain. Drake and Wet Wet Wet both ended up one week short of it, and the new rules that mean 150 streams per ‘sale’ become 300 streams per ‘sale’ after ten active weeks seem to point to it never happening again. Happily Bryan has had hits since then, playing Wembley Arena in May 2018. His setlist included Run to You, Heaven, Summer of ’69 and, of course, Everything I Do (I Do It For You), but check out his recent album which was produced by Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra.
Big hits of the latter half of the year come from Simply Red (Something Got Me Started), Erasure (Love to Hate You, one of their best), Roxette (Joyride), INXS (Shining Star), Paula Abdul (Rush Rush) and U2. Their number one hit The Fly, which (pub trivia fans!!) toppled Bryan Adams, is grounded in a dirty riff, and the track combines the talents of the band and producer Danny Lanois, who set out their vision for the Achtung Baby LP.
There was a documentary about the album which is worth a watch, and it makes Bono look like a good musician, something the world hasn’t seen much of in the last thirty years. It’s a crazy album that included the equally majestic Mysterious Ways, Even Better Than the Real Thing and One, Bono’s attempt at doing a John Lennon.
Fascinatingly, Julian Lennnon’s attempt at doing a John Lennon is also on NOW 20, a song called Saltwater that opens with the line ‘we are a rock revolving around a golden sun’. Jason Donovan had a number one with Any Dream Will Do, meaning that Bono, Eric Idle and Andrew Lloyd-Webber (who wrote the music for the track which appears in his musical about Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, from the Bible) have songs on NOW 20. As does Cathy Dennis, with Too Many Walls, but more on her in a later essay…