I bet you that I cry during the composition of this essay, which makes it 25 out of 100 essays trying to pick one track that musically, lyrically, culturally and personally stands above all the other tracks of any given NOW compilation.
My life changed when I heard this tape. Looking back 25 years to summer 1993, when I was learning how to count, spell and socialise (and how to sit still and shut up), I realise that listening to NOW 25 is a formative moment in my life. There are several of them, which I’ll tell you about over a bottle of fruity cider, but I think this is the second. (The first is when I went up on stage with Sooty.)
Mum bought the NOW 25 cassette. I listened to it when I wasn’t tuned in to Capital FM (see the NOW 11 essay), and some of my favourite bands to this day are on this compilation. I’ll tell in future essays about my addiction to the Top 40, but I think a lifetime of musical fandom coincided with the act of becoming conscious of the Now That’s What I Call Music series.
I don’t think I was odd, but then I had nobody to share my fun. The Internet didn’t exist, and a five-year-old me would not have been able to navigate it, so I would put NOW 25 on and fall asleep to it (I still fall asleep with the radio on, usually music). It was my private passion, though everybody knew I loved pop. I don’t remember anticipating NOW cassettes each April, July or November; they just emerged. I think I believed mum was buying them for the school run – she told me she was definitely buying them for the car, not for me as a young pop fan – and she was probably grateful that I immersed myself in them while she attended to my brother, Rich, who was a toddler in summer 1993, which is a weird sentence to write when he’s 30 next year. I cannot thank mum enough for buying NOW 25, which gave me a love for all genres of music at the age of five.
Summer 1993, for me, was probably about summer camp and a trip to the US, but I don’t remember it. Far clearer is every song (except one, for some reason) on NOW 25. Only I Want You by Utah Saints does not immediately ring a bell when I see it written down; I recognised the soul-pop of This I Swear by the forgotten Richard Darbyshire, the frontman of Living in a Box. I have just discovered this fact in one of three ‘OH WOW, Thanks Internet’ moments that came to me as I worked on this essay.
25 years have elapsed since the release of Dreams by Gabrielle, her debut single and number one, since 4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry yelled ‘HEY-YAY-YEAH-YAY-EH…What’s going on?’ on the perversely titled What’s Up, and since Inner Circle used ‘a-la-la-la-long’ in their song Sweat (‘till you can’t sweat no more’). The reggae revival continued into summer 1993, with Chaka Demus and Pliers singing Tease Me and Shabba Ranks teaming up with Maxi Priest on the groovy Housecall.
Lulu wrote Tina Turner’s hit I Don’t Wanna Fight, and with the benefit of musical hindsight that is feasible. Just imagine Lulu hitting those notes in a song that sounds like 1993. A song that sounds like the future is All That She Wants (‘is another baby’). It was written by Denniz Pop, a Swede who worked in the Cheiron (‘SHAY-ron’) studios. A young pop apprentice named Martin Sandberg took the stage name Max Martin, who would become one of the most important figures in popular music. He ate up the pop wisdom of Denniz, who died in his thirties but left behind a series of Ace of Base songs, one of which will be inducted shortly.
Catalogue on NOW 25 includes a version of Shout, the Isley Brothers song which was covered by the Beatles, by Louchie Lou and Michie One. Dannii Minogue took This Is It, written by Van ‘The Hustle ‘McCoy’, to the top ten, while Kim Wilde performed a ladies night disco version of the Bee Gees song If I Can’t Have You. Tony Mortimer brought some ‘east end boys’ charm to West End Girls, giving Neil Tennant a welcome pension top-up. I love the mystery of Dream of Me, by the act listed here as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a song which samples Love’s Theme by Barry White. There is also a remix of Living on My Own, with Freddie Mercury returning to the charts posthumously with a song I always found funny because it mentions ‘monkey business’ and ‘rumpy-pumpy’.
Also having another run at the charts was I Will Survive, one of the best b-sides of all time and the song with which Gloria Gaynor will fill dancefloors well into this century. I had to check, but she is still alive, turning 70 next year. Her last new music came in 2002, while her big number one from 1979 is in the Library of Congress (alongside De La Soul, as per an earlier essay in this series).
Lena Fiagbe has been completely forgotten in the last two decades. Her mystical song You Come From Earth is urgent and sits in sixth place on CD1. It also got big support on Radio 1 but stiffed at number 69. To have a song not even make the top 40 is a failure on the part of the promo team and the record company. Far better served were Kingmaker, who were also supported by Radio 1 DJs. Their track Ten Years Asleep quotes the 0898 premium rate phone number, mentions nightbuses and breakfast television and has a chorus that makes it into your head in the Britpop way. This is summer 1993, a full year before Oasis exploded.
Juliet Roberts did better, with her song Caught in the Middle, which took a great soul vocalist, gave her the line ‘my heart beats like a drum’ and made it sound euphoric. Not as euphoric as the vocalist on The Ultimate High by The Time Frequency, named Mary Kiani. They’re from Scotland (OH WOW moment number two), and they are currently on a summer tour of the country. Joey Lawrence, a child actor whose incredibly poppy (and awfully 1993-sounding) song Nothin’ My Love Can’t Fix is on NOW 25, was (OH WOW moment number three) the voice of Oliver, the animated cat in Oliver & Company.
NOW 25 was the first album I remember falling in love with but I am a singles guy purely because of the NOW series. Tribal Dance by 2 Unlimited kicks off the second disc. It’s a better song than No Limit. No Ordinary Love by Sade is a brilliant and smooth song which I have always loved, while U R the Best Thing was the first we heard of D:Ream, on whom more shortly.
Jesus Jones close the second side with Zeroes and Ones, with an angry sounding synth part and lyrics about Jacob, which must have meant the biblical figure. That follows the druggy I Want You by Utah Saints, with heavily treated vocals. That used to amuse me but now it is unlistenable. My ears must have changed.
Break from the Old Routine by Oui 3 deserves an essay to itself. It is the only ever pop song to rhyme ‘dust settle’ with ‘Popocatapetl’, the Mexican volcano, while it also mentions General Custer and his last stand to rhyme with ‘lack the lustre’. My young ears also heard the words ‘credentials’, ‘retrospect’ and ‘post mortem’ over a funky loop and a divine bass riff.
Paul Weller’s solo career had started very well, and his second LP was previewed with the brilliant opening track. Sunflower was a song I liked because of its elastic riff and rambunctious final minute. Wild Wood would win awards and Weller would turn into ‘the Modfather’, thanks to his purloining of the best bits of British rock between 1968 and 1975 such as The Small Faces and The Who. He turned 60 in May 2018 and isn’t slowing down.
I wanted to induct Regret by New Order, which the writer David Quantick called the best song of the 1990s. Peter Hook’s bassline, Stephen Morris’ programmed drums and Barney Sumner’s almost-there vocal really resonated with me, although I admire rather than love the band’s earlier electronic stuff. Instead, while discussing NOW 25 with Chris Imlach for the podcast element of this series, which you can hear at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick, he argued successfully for a song whose video I watched as a small child.
Michael Stipe, in a hat, stands on a car in the middle of a freeway while people stuck in a traffic jam open the doors and walk. Everybody hurts sometimes, he sings; ‘take comfort in your friends’. He also quotes David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust, who once sang ‘You’re not alone!!’
I write this the week that two cultural figures have taken their own lives. Both are around the age of my mum and dad, which has brought on the prickles of tears I predicted in the first sentence of this essay. Now that’s what I call now.