Over summer 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery in London, there will be a celebration of the most iconographic popstar of all time.
At the end of 1991, I was three years old. Michael Jackson was, incredibly, only 33 (though he looked younger!) when he put out Dangerous, aided by the world’s best producers and writers. Babyface gave him Gone Too Soon and Teddy Riley helped him out with Remember the Time
Black or White became a Slash-assisted number one in the US and UK, which hammered the ‘event’ video which featured, in order: Macauley Culkin (‘DAD, this is the BEST PART!’), dancing Native Americans, Michael going ‘HUUUUUH!’ several times, lions growling, African tribespeople, Eastern-themed movements, horses jumping over a camera, Michael reading ‘the Saturday Sun’ on a highway that appears to be in India, some Cassocks kicking their legs around Michael while snow falls, Michael stepping out of a ball of fire on a green screen behind him, babies picking up a snowglobe while sitting on top of the world, Macauley Culkin miming to Bill Bottrell’s rap (‘it’s a turf war on a global scale’), Michael at the top of the Statue of Liberty with other landmarks behind him, and the famous ‘morphing sequence’ at the end with people of all creeds blending into one another. All this to distract us that Michael is looking very, very white. John Landis, the Hollywood director, was in charge. It remains a great video and great song.
Michael Jackson died in summer 2009, having already left the realms of Earth some time before Black or White. It’s not on NOW 21, which rounds up the best music of the first few months of 1992. In fact, those months were dominated by the passing of Freddie Mercury of AIDS-related causes. Bohemian Rhapsody shot back up to number one, 16 years after it did so for the first time. It was about to be included in the movie Wayne’s World, which hit popular culture at the exact moment heavy guitars were back in a big way. Schwiiiing! Most excellent! ‘No way! Way! No way!’ Oh yes, she WILL be mine! NOW 22 would contain Everything About You, a track featured in the film that launched the brief career of inoffensive Californian rock band Ugly Kid Joe.
The first side of NOW 21 is made up of catalogue and ballads. My Girl by The Temptations is as powerful a song as Bohemian Rhapsody, while the Madness cover of Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love became a top 10 hit all over again to become the band’s first song to do so since 1983. The big album of both 1991 and 1992 was Stars by Simply Red, and the title track is right in the middle of the first side of the first cassette tape (and of the road, as in ‘middle-of-the-road pop’).
Side A also includes Justified & Ancient, where The KLF got country singer Tammy Wynette to sing about ‘driving ice cream vans’, and Goodnight Girl, a song without drums sung by the ponytailed Marti Pellow and backed by gorgeous harmonies from Wet Wet Wet. It is probably the most minimal number one aside from Caravan of Love by the Housemartins (just voices) and Adele’s Someone Like You (just piano and voice). It was another number one and, with its magnificent middle eight, remains their finest original song. More on their best-selling song later in the series.
The other huge chart-toppers of early 1992 were by, respectively, two girls and two guys. Stay by Shakespears Sister, which outsold every other song in Britain for eight whole weeks thanks to Marcella Detroit’s soaring vocal and Siobhan Fahey’s growling. Marcella hits an extraordinary note before the final chorus, and the song is still played on commercial radio today. Likewise Deeply Dippy, the second number one from Right Said Fred, led by the openly gay Richard Fairbrass. Like I’m Too Sexy, which took over the US in February 1992 and spent three weeks at the top, Deeply Dippy is a bit of fun, led by a strummed acoustic guitar and lyrics about Superman and Lois Lane; it sounds a bit like Hi Ho Silver Lining, and must have been a great pub singalong back in 1992. Fairbrass has had to work again, indeed penning the official single for the CONIFA World Football Cup in 2018.
In fact, like the off-kilter Welcome to the Cheap Seats by The Wonder Stuff, Deeply Dippy sounds jubilant. It isn’t grunge, which was slowly taking over pop culture with the rise of Nirvana, assisted by a tabloid- and music press-friendly couple, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Nirvana followed Smells Like Teen Spirit with Lithium and In Bloom, both absent from NOW 21 in favour of the wonderful To Be With You by Mr Big (a US number one and their only UK top 20 hit, making it a pure one-hit wonder) and the startling Weather With You by Crowded House. The harmonies of Neil and Tim Finn, coupled with their love of the Beatles, gave them a long run of hits in the UK, 12 throughout the 1990s.
Catalogue, as ever, is scattered throughout a NOW compilation. The married couple Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, of Everything But The Girl, revived the fifties standard Love is Strange (sung by Wings, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers). The Pasadenas reinvented the old song I’m Doing Fine Now, while Kylie Minogue offered a straight cover of Chairman of the Board’s Give Me Just a Little More Time. It was one of her last singles on PWL before becoming an independent artist. More on that later. No more is to be said on MC Hammer’s Addams Groove, which ran over the end credits of the Hollywood movie version of the TV show The Addams Family.
East Side Beat brought back the ‘yacht-rock’ classic Ride Like the Wind, realising it caught the ‘euphoric house’ moment. Illegal raves were still popular in 1992, with kids up all night to get lucky on dangerous drugs. They would have been dancing to Make It on my Own by Alison Limerick, It’s a Fine Day by Opus III (a number 5 hit and another pure one-hit wonder) and the Eurotrance of Twilight Zone by 2 Unlimited. This featured a cool rap from Ray, a chorus sung by Anita and a thudding synth riff that would take over Europe in the 1990s by stealth. This formula would bring 2 Unlimited 13 top 20 hits, 8 of which went top 10 and one (guess which…) to number one.
Even more popular in the clubs of New York were Clivilles and Cole, who also traded as C&C Music Factory. Their two biggest hits were Gonna Make You Sweat (‘EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!’) and Things That Make You Go Hmmm…, which I loved as a kid. A Deeper Love was later turned into a smash for Aretha Franklin, as we will discover.
Here is a paragraph containing the usual suspects of the NOW series. Genesis, with I Can’t Dance; Roxette, with Church of your Heart; Brian May, with Driven By You; James, with Born of Frustration; The Cure, with High; Erasure, with Breath of Life; Paula Abdul, with Vibeology; Tina Turner, with Way of the World.
Three acts seldom seen, if ever again, are Julia Fordham, who hit the top 20 with (Love Moves in) Mysterious Ways, which sounds like a ballad from 1992, all the way down to echoey drums, and Curtis Stigers. Very active on social media, Curtis had a couple of sax-assisted hits in the early 1990s, including I Wonder Why, a top 10 in the US and UK. Often in London, he is back in the UK in July for the Henley Festival, and will be lynched if he doesn’t play one of his two hits. He is a great interpreter of song.
Likewise Diana Ross, who is still alive (she’s 75 next year, only 14 years older than her late friend Michael Jackson) but need never work again. After her second wave of hits, courtesy of Chic’s production, she returned with an ‘adult contemporary’ song co-written by Albert Hammond. It was stuck at two behind Bohemian Rhapsody, despite its Vegas-tastic final minute (key change!) and it closes a mixed bag of a NOW compilation.
The playlist choice is one of the sunniest songs ever written. Narada Michael Walden spoke to Si and Bri of the Sodajerker on Songwriting podcast about writing How Will I Know, Who’s Zoomin’ Who, We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off, Sweetness (one of my favourite songs by TV soap star Michelle Gayle, which is a future NOW compilation) and I Love Your Smile. Narada’s discussion is amazing, the duo complimenting the hitmaker on the ‘tremendous optimism’ of his catalogue.
I Love Your Smile was a ‘terrific two’ in both the UK (stuck behind Stay) and the States (stuck behind Jacko), sung by eighteen-year-old Shanice Wilson from Pittsburgh. ‘What’s a hit? Listen to the radio and listen to the beat,’ said the song’s writer, who likes bells. ‘You gotta put things together cos you really want to have a hit record!’ I Love Your Smile, with an astonishing bridge (‘time came and showed me your direction’) and that four-note bell-like riff, kicks off CD 2, and if you don’t smile as you listen to an innocent tale of Shanice dreaming of a boy when she is supposed to be listening to her teacher, you need medicine.
Branford Marsalis is uncredited on the sax, though Shanice does sing ‘Go Branford go…’ He was also uncredited on Englishman in New York, and I hope he got more than a session fee for contributing the key elements of both. By the end of 1992, Kenny G had taken the sax to the upper reaches of the album charts (and probably bought several mansions in which to play his sax), while Michael Jackson was about to spend a few years mired in lawsuits and unproven allegations.
As for Shanice, who turned 45 this May, she is a mother of two who also played Eponine in a production of Les Miserables on Broadway. Her last album came out in 2006. She still has a great smile.