NOW 23: George Michael – Too Funky

The last few months of 1992 belonged to Whitney Houston. The Bodyguard became the blockbuster of the year, helped by casting an innocent Whitney as the movie’s lead and giving her I Will Always Love You. Dolly Parton let them have it – she had sung it in a movie herself, called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas – and she used that money to improve Dollywood, the theme park in Tennessee she had opened in 1986.

Michael Jackson also kept having hits throughout the year. Remember the Time had a blockbuster video with Eddie Murphy, basketball player Magic Johnson and Iman, wife of David Bowie, who at this time was in a rare creative slump. In the Closet saw Michael gallivanting around with Naomi Campbell. Jam was the album’s massive opening track, which he planned to perform in the 2009 This Is It series of concerts. Who Is It was Billie Jean, Part Two, and Heal The World was his John Lennon moment, a song about making the world ‘a better place for you and for me’ which featured a massive choir and an enormous key change. Only Whitney kept Heal the World from the top spot.

Naturally Whitney and Michael are nowhere near NOW 23. A third singer who made millions in the 1990s was a Brit. He was our Michael and Whitney rolled into one, with an artistry unlike any other British popstar, especially one who had come from the teen-pop world. His catalogue includes covers of Nina Simone, David Bowie and Amy Winehouse, as well as his own ballads of the highest order and a massive American number one which pastiched American rock’n’roll and made him a star over there.

Come 1990, George Michael did not promote his album Listen Without Prejudice: Volume 1. Nor did he appear in the music videos. He purposely withdrew from the public eye, instead fighting a losing battle with his record label who, quite correctly, argued that he was not fulfilling his end of the bargain. The label puts out your music, spends money to promote it and allows the artist to talk about the art. George gave no interviews, hoping that the work would promote itself. It did, going multi-platinum thanks to Freedom ’90, in whose video he burned the leather jacket from the video for Faith.

It was Too Funky, which didn’t appear on Listen Without Prejudice: Volume 1, that caught the public’s imagination greater than any of the other singles on the album. When the album was reissued in 2017, Channel 4 screened a brilliant documentary which is worth viewing for the frankness with which George (who had since died, over Christmas 2016) spoke. Praying for Time was the first single and a US number one, but four songs didn’t even make the UK top 20: Waiting for that Day, Freedom ’90, Heal the Pain (a Paul McCartney pastiche) and Cowboys and Angels.

George went to court in 1992 and lost the case in 1994, as the court held that Sony did not push ‘restraint of trade’ on George as an artist. Perhaps the public turned on him, a multi-millionaire who would quietly give millions to charity and local causes, when he wrote SLAVE on his cheek. In the documentary, which gave about ten minutes to the battle, it does appear a very silly thing to do.

Far smarter was to get lots of hot, sexy girls to parade about in the video to his slinky song Too Funky. Beginning like ABBA’s Dancing Queen with a piano glissando, it updates the song for the house era. It is George Michael doing New Jack Swing, by now a prominent influence on pop music. The song was a standalone single whose royalties went to the AIDS awareness project Red Hot + Dance, which included songs by Lisa Stansfield, EMF and Madonna, many of them remixes of existing songs. George does appear in the video as its ‘director’, and models include a very young Tyra Banks, Linda Evangelista and Eva Herzigova. This was the era of the supermodel, and of glossy magazines.

In her memoir I’m Not with the Band, Sylvia Patterson recalls interviewing George for Smash Hits magazine which, at the time George released the album Faith, was selling a million copies per issue. The magazine was, to Sylvia, ‘a teen-pop version of Private Eye edited by [surreal comic] Spike Milligan in a particularly juvenile mood’. George was one of the most quotable stars but seemed ‘stubbly ‘n’ moody’ and serious to Sylvia, ‘detached’ and telling her: ‘I want to go down in history…I’m hoping to get bored of chasing success or status.’ He made the legal textbooks, as well as the pop charts, in the 1990s.

So apart from George, who else was on NOW 23 and releasing music in 1992? Simply Red (For Your Babies), Richard Marx (Take This Heart, never heard today), Genesis (Jesus He Knows Me, about televangelism), INXS (Baby Don’t Cry), Go West (Faithful, again never heard today), Crowded House (It’s Only Natural), Erasure (Who Needs Love Like That) and, of course, Roxette (How Do You Do!).

Enya had another top ten hit with Book of Days, which took the Caribbean Blue template, put it in 4/4 and pushed the tempo a little bit. Vanessa Paradis had a hit in English called Be My Baby, but not that one. It was written by a man called Leonard Kravitz. A true one-hit wonder came from Charles & Eddie with Would I Lie To You, although Charles seemed to do all the work and Eddie sang ‘oh yeah!’ in the chorus. Tasmin Archer had one more top 20 hit after Sleeping Satellite, a song I always found tremendous and now find more impressive since Fraser McAlpine pointed out on the podcast that it is an update of the Sound of Philadelphia, which it is.

The other big number one, Whitney aside, in the second half of 1992 was Just Another Day by Jon Secada. Born Juan Secada in Havana, he moved to the States as a kid and grew up a pop fan in Miami. Armed with a Master’s degree in Jazz Vocal Performance, he got a job singing backing vocals for Gloria Estefan, as part of the Miami Sound Machine (a musical about her life opens in London, having impressed in New York, in summer 2019). He had five hits from his debut album, which was produced by Gloria’s husband Emilio (they have been married 40 years this year!). The album’s opening track is Just Another Day, one of the best Latin pop songs ever written which includes a drum loop, massed voices on the chorus and brilliant sustaining of notes by the lead vocalist who is in despair at being away from his beloved.

There is a high amount of catalogue: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker and (Take a Little) Piece of my Heart by Erma Franklin are on NOW 23, as is a solo Brian May version of the Queen song Too Much Love with Kill You. The late Freddie Mercury, with Barcelona, appears at the end of Disc 2 to mark both his passing and the fact that every time someone talked about that summer’s Olympic Games, they would burst into song to announce the city it was taking place in.

Arrested Development twisted Everyday People by Sly and the Family Stone into People Everyday, adding some ‘woah’s and ‘yeah’s to create a contemporary anthem. Undercover took the ‘yacht-rock’ goodness of Andrew Gold’s Never Let It Slip Away and set it to a house music vibe that copies KWS’s Please Don’t Go almost to the letter. Rage put some synths and drum loops drums onto a version of the Bryan Adams song Run to You, once again confirming Fraser McAlpine’s ‘Swiss army knife’ theory: what if we put Song A into Genre B to get Catalogue Song C? It turns out a synth-heavy version of a rock song was what people wanted. We will meet this phenomenon again later.

Roy Orbison’s classic Crying was reinvigorated by the extraordinary and uncategorizable k.d. lang, who started off as country, came out as gay and promptly became her own genre as a fine interpreter of songs. Her version of Neil Young’s Helpless, featured in the movie Away From Her, is the definitive version, while she also tackled After the Gold Rush to impressive effect.

The UK album charts are broken. Every week the top 40 contains ABBA, Oasis and Bob Marley, because new music fans are going to the most-discussed pop, rock and reggae acts from catalogue. I have no idea why there is no catalogue album chart, but there should be for greatest hits sets and albums which came out over 18 months from the chart date. Produced by Errol Brown from Hot Chocolate and featuring the sax of national treasure Courtney Pine, Iron Lion Zion still sounds amazing and might be my favourite Bob Marley song. But is it catalogue if it first appeared posthumously? Iron Lion Zion was a hit 12 years after Bob died, since it appeared for the first time on a 4-CD box set Songs of Freedom. His album Legend is rarely out of the Top 50; ditto ABBA Gold and Time Flies by Oasis.

Two songs that are definitely catalogue are A Little Respect, performed by ABBA tribute band Bjorn Again on their Erasure-ish EP, and Don’t You Want Me by The Farm, featuring Liverpool fans Peter Hooton and Tony Evans, the latter of whom writes books about football in the 1980s. Hooton had written All Together Now, a smorgaspop song that put a lyric about football on the battlefields over the chords from the Canon by Pachelbel (a top banger).

Sticking with footie, Simple Minds allowed Alive and Kicking to be employed to advertise ‘a whole new ball game’. Sky Sports bought exclusive rights to the new Premier League of English football (I’ve written a whole book about football if you want to try…) and the song became a hit again when it was released alongside Love Song. Temptation by Heaven 17 became a top five hit when it was remixed by Brothers in Rhythm, who added some Balaeric beats to it. My discography says the band never played live until 1997, only existing in the studio. It adds a fun fact: the vocalist doing the chorus is named Carol Kenyon.

Because it is still 1992, the summer was (and NOW 23 is) full of anthems. Bizarre Inc employed Angie Brown to bring their synth-stabbing song I’m Gonna Get You to life, with a hook that would burrow into the most opaque head: ‘WHY waste your time, you know you’re gonna be mine! I’m gonna get you, YES I AM!’

When they weren’t on a rave, the kids were playing Super Mario Brothers on a Nintendo console. MC Mario (of course) and the Ambassdors of Funk – aka DJ Simon Harris, who had a hit in 1988 with Bass (How Low Can You Go) that I own on vinyl – put the famous ‘YEAH! WOO!’ underneath the theme music for the game. You only need to listen to the song once in your life. The Shamen took Ebenezer Goode, which unashamedly sang ‘Es are good’ in the chorus, to number one.

Both tracks again prove that a fun or funny version of a trend is the one that defines it for the masses. Consider Vanilla Ice and rap, The Darkness and rock and Babylon Zoo with whatever it is they were aping. Also consider Achy Breaky Heart, which is on NOW 23, the song that led to people line-dancing their way to fitness and made Miley Cyrus’s dad Billy Ray a megastar. It’s barely country, but it was the biggest country hit of 1992 (aside from I Will Always Love You, a country song reinvented as r’n’b).

Track six of CD2 is a song called House of Love by East 17. UK male vocal harmony groups like the lads from Walthamstow, East London, would dominate pop for ten years. Track 12 is Dancing Queen by ABBA, still the finest pop song ever. As discussed earlier, 1992 was the year ABBA reappeared in pop culture. Like the Beatles, they took a few years to recapture the mood of the public after splitting up, but since 1992 the world has been ABBA-tastic.

In 2018, with a museum dedicated to the band pulling in the crowds in Sweden, an immersive exhibition running throughout summer on London’s South Bank, a sequel to the movie Mamma Mia out just in time for the summer holiday season and a documentary coming over Christmas which will feature the first new music from the quartet in almost four decades (FOUR DECADES!), the ABBA legacy shows no signs at all of abating. All four members are still alive, and need never work again.

East 17, on the other hand, do.

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