Fraser McAlpine saw my point on the podcast when we discussed the Playlist entrant from NOW 22, which emerged in summer 1992, when I was heading off to big school (Quainton Hall, Harrow). Fraser preferred En Vogue’s My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) but I argued that to get Kate Bush into the Playlist, you had to include Utah Saints (‘You! You! Utah SAINTS!’), which threw everything into the mix on their song Something Good. As Stefon from Saturday Night Live would say, this song has EVERYTHING: Kate Bush’s song Cloudbusting (‘know that something good is gonna happen’), a catchy piano-led hook, funky guitars, awesome breakbeats, lovely atmospheric harmonies and production tricks, and the Jewish Dracula, Sidney Applebaum.
It is a clever use of catalogue, and I am sure Kate got some nappy money to help her bring up little Bertie. His birth accounted for the lack of music between 1989 and 1993 from ‘the Blessed Kate’, whose silence since then was referenced by BBC DJ Mark Radcliffe in his late-night Radio 2 show before she did return in 2005 with a top five hit about Elvis Presley called King of the Mountain. Kate turns 60 in July 2018, which seems impossible because she is frozen in time as a teenager who writhed to Wuthering Heights back when there were only three TV channels in Britain. Happy birthday, (Dame) Kate Bush.
The big American hit on the compilation is Save the Best for Last by Vanessa Williams, a sweeping ballad that opens with the line ‘Sometimes the snow comes down in June’ and, to laughs of songwriters everywhere, rhymes it with ‘sometimes the sun goes round the moon’. The big British hit was catalogue. 1992 saw ABBA come back into pop culture after being so mercilessly lampooned by Alan Partridge on his ‘chat show’ Knowing Me Knowing You (‘AHAAA!’). Erasure covered four ABBA songs including Take a Chance On Me (the NOW 22 selection), Lay All Your Love On Me, Voulez-Vous and SOS. Kudos to the independent label Mute, who put out all their fabulous pop songs in the 1980s and 1990s and supported their ABBA-esque EP.
Old NOW favourites return with some great songs. Briana and Dave duet on Bell-Bottomed Tear, another hit from The Beautiful South and the last one with Briana singing lead vocal. Crowded House sing about Four Seasons in One Day on one of their most McCartney-esque ditties. Curtis Stigers took his wedding song You’re All That Matters To Me, which has one of the year’s best choruses, to the top ten and a thousand wedding video montages (‘I make mistakes like any man/ But I try to love you best I can’). Amongst all this Wilson Phillips charted with You Won’t See Me Cry, their only other UK top 20 hit aside from Hold On; this one was written by Glen Ballard who, having written Man in the Mirror, need not have worked another day in his life. He nonetheless helped Alanis Morrisette never have to work again by producing Jagged Little Pill (more later). Shakespears Sister appear with I Don’t Care, their third and final top ten track which uses harmonics on the guitar and this time has Siobhan Fahey on lead vocals.
Catalogue comes from Take That, with It Only Takes a Minute set to a thumping four-to-the-floor beat and sung by Gary Barlow, and Roy Orbison, with his posthumous hit I Drove All Night, produced by Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra. Joe Cocker went the full Ray Charles on his interpretation of Unchain My Heart, while Nick Berry starred in the ITV serial drama Heartbeat and took a cover of the Buddy Holly song of that name into the charts. He stalled at two behind the ABBA-esque EP, but fellow TV star Jimmy Nail went one better with his song Ain’t No Doubt.
That song is compelling, to use a word I don’t much care for. It seems to be modelled on the track Dangerous by Michael Jackson, where Michael narrated the story in the verse then broke into song for the bridge and chorus. Ain’t No Doubt was co-written by Guy Pratt, sometime bassist for Pink Floyd, Madonna and Michael Jackson himself whose memoir My Bass and Other Animals is one of the best books I have ever read, and also co-written by Charlie Dore. Charlie seems like a maven of pop culture and the arts in Britain. She wrote songs, acted, had hit records under her own name and founded a comedy club which helped launch the career of Jo Brand, Harry Hill and Mark Lamarr. (Fun fact: the female voice doing the ‘I don’t want nobody else bit’ is named Sylvia Mason-James, a longtime backing vocalist for Pet Shop Boys.)
Incognito turn Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing into a euphoric house track. KWS take a cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Please Don’t Go into the clubs and all the way to number one. CeCe Peniston’s feelings couldn’t describe how ‘Finally it’s happened to me!’ This song has soundtracked hen nights since 1992, and she never has to work again. Her last hit song was in 1998, but CeCe has just released a song called Hot, which is really funky.
Since it’s 1992, dance music is still hot, all over the radio and high up the charts. SL2’s mighty On a Ragga Tip successfully moves reggae into the house genre, The Shamen gave the world LSI (Love Sex Intelligence) and The Orb had their first hit with Blue Room, which closes CD1. Ambient music, pioneered by them and Aphex Twin, would inveigle its way into public consciousness fully two decades after Brian Eno had ‘invented’ it.
Grebo music would fall away after a brief rise, which was supported by the NME desperately looking for a UK answer to grunge (which would come in 1993 in a big way). This support brought popularity to bands like Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, the duo who recorded under the names Jim Bob and Fruitbat. Their song Do Re Me So Far So Good came from a number one album called 1992 – The Love Album (which contained the top ten hit Only Living Boy in New Cross). They were an indie band who had been signed to Rough Trade, the label which put out The Smiths albums in the 1980s. Their guitarist Johnny Marr appears as part of Electronic, which featured half of New Order, on the song Disappointed.
Prince returns with Thunder. He would change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, or squiggle, and become The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, under which moniker he would have his only UK number one, the thrilling The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, still one of the best pop songs of the 1990s, certainly the best use of falsetto since the Brothers Gibb back in the late 1970s.
Other contenders include Rhythm is a Dancer, by Snap, which Bastille would reinvent in the 2010s, Friday I’m In Love by The Cure, Hazard by Richard Marx (a mysterious country song that sounds like 1992) and The Days of Pearly Spencer by Marc Almond, which sounds like nothing else on the compilation. I would also suggest Even Better Than The Real Thing by U2, which features more brilliance from the band and their producer, Danny Lanois, who does not get enough credit for pushing U2’s sound on in the Achtung Baby era. Brian Eno would return for Zooropa in 1993, assisted by Flood, of whom more later when I discuss the band’s fourth great era. (First era: Punks. From Live Aid to 1991: American tourists. 1990s: Forward-thinking stadium rockers. 2000 to present: Anthemic lighter-waving rockers without whom Coldplay would still be playing 200-capacity clubs.)
Elton John is on the compilation’s second CD twice: new song The One (‘like freedom fields where wild horses run’) was a top ten hit drenched in piano that looked forward to what Elton would create for the soundtrack to the Disney film The Lion King, while old song Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me is a duet with George Michael, who famously introduces Elton with ‘Ladies and gentlemen Mr ELTON JOHN!’ A gay kid from Bushey united with a gay kid from Pinner, two places I know very well from childhood and which probably meant I had some reference points in my love for pop music. A plaque now stands on Bushey Meads school, where George met Andrew Ridgeley and conceived Wham! They had 9 top ten hits in the 1980s, then George went solo and became Britain’s most troubled popstar.
Two divas (not including George, haaa!) also make NOW 22. Diana Ross returns with One Shining Moment, while Annie Lennox asks Why in a song that came from the album Diva. This has become an anthem for Annie (not Dame Annie?!) in her campaign against AIDS and poverty. Simon Fuller was Annie’s agent, and he will become very important in British pop from about 1996 onwards.