I found NOW 26 on CD in an Oxfam for about £3 and bought it on the spot. Had someone been given it back in Christmas 1993?
Take That are on it, with Pray, the first of their three number ones in 1993; Relight My Fire and Babe were the other two, with Mr Blobby denying Babe the Christmas number one that year. It/ He was an eight-foot TV character with an irritating voice from Noel’s House Party, the top Saturday evening BBC show, and thus perfect for Simon Cowell to create a pop music vehicle for him/it. Let’s not speak of him/it again…Blobby, not Cowell. Happily, Gary Barlow would replace Simon Cowell for The X Factor in 2011 and 2012, so water passed under the bridge over a period of 18 years.
The first three songs on NOW 26 are catalogue. UB40 give the world their take on the Elvis Presley song I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, sounding a lot like 1993. Pet Shop Boys deliver Go West by the Village People with a majestic key change and a fun, colourful video. Frankie says Relax again and still sound fresh, thanks to Trevor Horn’s incredible production. Later on, Tina Turner gives us her Disco Inferno, the track that David Brent would dance to on The Office a few years later, while Go West take Smokey Robinson’s The Tracks of my Tears. They do a good job of it and remind us why Motown was so great. Points off for the compiler of NOW 26 for not putting the band Go West next to the track Go West.
A big number one in 1993 came from DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Will Smith has just recorded the official song for the 2018 World Cup but 25 years ago he was still trying to prove he was more than a ditzy, crazy guy from Bel Air who would hang out with Uncle Phil, Carlton and the cool butler Geoffrey. Will would go on to star in several movies in which he saved the world (not unlike Tom Cruise, for reasons that may prove to be Scientological), but back in the day he just wanted to hear the crowd go Boom Shake the Room. I always loved the verse where he stutters, while I have since found out that Jazzy Jeff is one of the world’s foremost hiphop DJs. Both men wowed crowds in 2017 when they played in Blackpool for the Livewire festival at the suggestion of LL Cool J (them getting back together, not to play in Blackpool).
The female vocal harmony group was in vogue (or en vogue) in the early 1990s. Two of them are back to back on NOW 26: Eternal, who were formed as a British En Vogue, debuted with Stay, an amazing song that introduced sisters Easther and Vernie, Kelle Bryan and Louise Nurding to the pop world. Louise will figure in many NOW compilations as the one chosen to break as a solo act, after the quartet became a trio in 1995. SWV, or Sisters With Voices, recruited a very young Pharrell Williams to sing their name on Right Here (Human Nature Radio Mix). The song is so called because a remix of the slinky r’n’b track sampled the track from Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. I have always loved that song too, especially the second verse. Pharrell will reappear in a big way in about 2001.
Belinda Carlisle returned with a punchy song comparing love to a Big Scary Animal, while Spin Doctors made an impression with their biggest (but not only!) hit Two Princes, the one that goes ‘just go ahead now!’ in the chorus and should really be called Just Go Ahead Now. Incredibly all four members of the band are credited on the writing of the song, which is the same arrangement U2 and Coldplay came up to. Even more incredibly, the original lineup is still going today, and they put out new material in 2013.
The genre known as grebo pushed The Levellers to mainstream acceptance, and they are on NOW 26 with the droneful This Garden. Far poppier is Laid by James, the song which contains the filthy lyric about the woman being in a certain position on this bed which is ‘on fire with passionate love’. I prefer the cosmic Distant Sun by Crowded House, another effortless pop song, and the acerbic, anti-consumerist Here We Go by Stakka Bo, which talks about ‘the temple of consumption’. Those temples had my dad’s shops in them, so is it ironic that I like the song?
My original choice for the playlist was One Night in Heaven by M People, which gave us the first chance to hear the voice of Heather Small matched with the beats of Mike Pickering, who had been a top DJ in Manchester. Heather is one of many fine voices heard on NOW 26, including Gabrielle (Going Nowhere), Lisa Stansfield (So Natural), Lena Fiagbe (Gotta Get It Right, which was the breakthrough hit for her as she hit the top 40 this time around) and Juliet Roberts (Free Love). and Dina Carroll’s string-assisted song Don’t Be a Stranger was once my favourite song ever, and still sounds magnificent, even if she ‘really shouldn’t be here tonight’.
Closing the set was Janet Jackson, with her ballad That’s the Way Love Goes, an eight-week US number one produced by the mighty team of Jam & Lewis, who made Rhythm Nation and many other fabulous hits for Janet. The song’s verse doesn’t come in until 75 seconds into the track, and Janet sounds like Diana Ross. 1993 was not a great year for her brother who, having toured his Dangerous album around the world, was accused of child molestation and never really recovered. Janet became a mum to son Eissa in January 2017.
The clubs were still full of techno and house music from the likes of 2 Unlimited (Maximum Overdrive), Leftfield (who were helped by John Lydon, the former Sex Pistol, on the shouty Open Up) and Urban Cookie Collection (Feels Like Heaven). I bow to Italodisco, the trance music coming out of Italy from the likes of Cappella, whose awesome U Got 2 Let The Music kicks off Disc 2 of NOW 26. That just missed the number one spot, as did the evergreen club smash What Is Love by Haddaway (the guy’s name was Nester Haddaway and he had four top 10 hits). Culture Beat went one place better than the pair of them with Mr Vain, with a four-week residency at number one in September 1993.
NOW 26 is also the first we hear of Jamiroquai, with their politically aware funk Too Young to Die, and Bjork, who enlists the arrangements of British composer David Arnold to beef up her mighty song Play Dead. Only Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell can claim to marry art music and record sales with public perception and adoration, and a fool would not mention Bjork among the most captivating performers to be on a NOW compilation.
1993 was also the year grunge solidified its hold on youth culture. The third incarnation of Lollapalooza had Primus, Alice in Chains, Tool, Dinosaur Jr and Rage Against the Machine rocking out, while in Britain the big three headliners at the Reading Festival were Porno for Pyros (led by Perry Farrell, founder of Lollapalooza), The The and New Order. Rage Against the Machine and Dinosaur Jr were high up the bill. On the Melody Maker stage, Blur are top of the Saturday bill playing songs from their unreleased forthcoming album, of which more shortly, while the mighty Big Star (never on a NOW) headlined the stage on Sunday while New Order played the likes of Regret on the main stage.
Just before Blur were a group from Oxford whose debut album Pablo Honey had made a little splash. With the powerful guitar of Jonny Greenwood and wailing vocals of Thom Yorke, Radiohead were another band who looked to America for inspiration. In September 1992, they had released their debut single in which Thom, who had a lazy eye, wailed about being a ‘creep…a weirdo…I don’t belong here’. He lifted his vocal for the ‘she loves to run’ part in the middle from The Air That I Breathe, which had been a huge hit for The Hollies. Albert Hammond (whose son will pop up later on) is still around, but co-writer Mike Hazlewood passed away in 2001.
Chris successfully argued for Creep to make the playlist. I wanted to choose a song from OK Computer, but following the rule that discovery is more important than development, I induct Creep. Oddly, the band hate the song, rarely performing their big American hit. Will Thom Yorke play it in his solo shows now Radiohead are seemingly on indefinite hiatus?