NOW 27: Ace of Base – The Sign

In 1994 the British government passed an Act of Parliament that decreed that members of the public could not gather in large fields to listen to electronic music made up of ‘repetitive beats’. Thus the era of the illegal rave was over, and the superclub era, imported from Ibiza and the Balaeric Islands, began.

I was six years old in 1994. My raves were legal, and mostly consisted of me listening to NOW cassettes in my bedroom in Hertfordshire. NOW 27, celebrating the music from spring 1994, is as always a curate’s egg. There is one catalogue song out of 38, which is unprecedented: Twist and Shout by Chaka Demus and Pliers is the only old song twisted into new shapes, and the British public made it the bestselling single for two weeks in January as they dieted in the new year. (Yep, reggae made it into 1994, with the addition of Bitty McLean, whose song Here I Stand is on NOW 27.)

Does the proliferation of original music on NOW compilations mean anything at all? It means new songs were added to catalogues of the big labels, while independent bands were being signed here and there to cash in on the Generation X market of kids born to people who had been born after wartime. Thus a 40-year-old parent could listen to Moving on Up by M People while their 15-year-old kid explored the guitar rock movement that would spill over into the mainstream in a big way by the end of the year. After all, raving was a criminal offence now but listening to heavy rock music in a field was not.

The likes of Smashing Pumpkins filled the gap vacated by Nirvana, who ceased to exist in April 1994. Disarm has a real strings section on it, though the song is ruined by Billy Corgan’s voice, which is an acquired taste. There would be no raving either to the ballads of Phil Collins (Everyday, which I love), Joe Roberts (Lover, which is a lovely soul track with a great bridge), Richard Marx (Now and Forever) and Wendy Moten, who was born in Memphis. Today Wendy is a backing singer operating in Nashville. She sang with country star Tim McGraw on his recent tour. Her own hit song Come In Out of the Rain has her hit Whitneyesque top notes and has a key change. I wish people would sing this instead of wall-to-wall Whitney on TV talent shows.

In the ‘why change the winning formula’ category, NOW 26’s acts return: Gabrielle (Because of You), 2 Unlimited (Let the Beat Control Your Body), Urban Cookie Collective (Sail Away), Juliet Roberts (I Want You), Cappella (Move on Baby), Culture Beat (Anything) and Meat Loaf are all back. Meat (real name Marvin) had closed CD1 of NOW 26 with I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), a number one in 1993 with an overblown video. He followed it up with Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through, also from Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell…

Also fighting for acts who made a lot of money from albums in the 1970s were the brothers Gibb. Barry Gibb brought out his falsetto for For Whom The Bell Tolls, while Robin takes the chorus which is saturated in echo, then comes a guitar solo which just doesn’t sound like 1994. This was the era of rap poking through, thanks to Will Smith being the Fresh Prince. K7 feeds fans of this style of sound, a rapper who had a hit with Come Baby Come. The fact he is a solo act and that K7 is not a group is news to me (again, I cannot have read the inlay notes closely enough as a child). There’s also rap from Credit to the Nation, with the buoyant, whistling hook of Teenage Sensation, which sounds like 1994, and I Like to Move It.

This song, by Reel II Reel and the Mad Stuntman, would have another life when used in the kids film Madagascar. The rapper’s real name is Mark Quashie who, like Haddaway, is from the Caribbean. Incredibly, he had six other top 40 hits, including the magnificent Go On Move, which is a very similar song indeed and includes some fun scatting. The Mad Stuntman is still moving, moving it, and put out the album Unleashed in 2016.

There are two ‘new age’ songs on NOW 27. Return to Innocence from Enigma intoned words like ‘love’ and ‘devotion’ and used a wordless chant as a chorus. Deep Forest wowed my young mind with Sweet Lullaby, another song made up of foreign syllables that didn’t cohere to any recognisable words, with added panpipes. Research tells me it is a Beagu lullaby found in the Solomon Islands in 1970. It’s about an orphan and his brother grieving for lost parents.

British soul was big in 1994, with the likes of Carleen Anderson (Nervous Breakdown) and Shara Nelson (Uptight) having hits. Dina Carroll covered The Perfect Year but I don’t think it’s catalogue, as the UK stage version of the show Sunset Boulevard made its debut around the time Dina put out her pop version. The song has music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and words by Christopher Hampton (aka Mr Phantom of the Opera) and Don Black, who was not honoured with a knighthood in June 2018 (maybe in December, Don). 1994 was a perfect year for me, as I enjoyed moving from 5+ to 6+ at school, learning how to multiply integers and spell words of many syllables. I loved football and swimming, and listening to Capital FM.

Boyband pop was still huge and Take That had their fourth number one with Everything Changes. East 17 had the pounding It’s Alright and the group EYC (Express Yourself Clearly…looks like I did read the inlay booklet after all) were an American group who did well with UK teens, prancing about and looking sexy. If Right Said Fred count as a boyband, then they returned with Wonderman. It stiffed at 55 and their career ended, apart from a bizarre, pub-singsong called You’re My Mate that went to 18 in 2001.

Like Right Said Fred, Doop only had one number one hit. But Doop, by Doop, was a pure one-hit wonder, rising to the top in March 1994 thanks to an incredible music video selling a Dutch dance remix of swing music. It means I can include Peter Garnefski and Frederik Ridderhof in a list of producers who have topped the UK charts. Another man is Peter Cunnah.

In 1993, when Things Can Only Get Better was initially released, Tony Blair was still Shadow Home Secretary. Brian Cox was not yet a professor of physics at the University of Manchester; instead, he was in D:Ream, playing keyboards to earn money while he studied for his PhD. The words ‘Things can only get better now I’ve found you’ would surely be ones he sang when he and the team at CERN chanced upon the Higgs boson (or ‘God particle’) two decades later. In 1997, the song was used to inspire the Labour Party to power, but in 1994 it was a chart-topping song that got folk in clubs shouting. I loved the song and still do; the British public kept buying it to make it a four-week number one. Do you reckon Peter Cunnah ever had to work again? I wonder what his knowledge of particle physics is like…

I wanted Cornflake Girl by Tori Amos as a personal pick for the playlist. I could have chosen Good As Gold (Stupid as Mud), a theme tune for a sitcom that was never written starring Paul Heaton as a Northern songwriter getting pissed in Europe’s pubs (something he did anyway). I could have chosen Linger by The Cranberries in honour of the late singer Dolores O’Riordan, another song I loved since I first heard it, swept away by the arrangement and the chorus. Chris Imlach wanted Rocks by Primal Scream, which is 99% a Rolling Stones song and is all but catalogue. (The Stones even had a song called Rocks!)

I haven’t inducted Disc 1 track 1 for a while, but that isn’t the main reason for choosing The Sign by Ace of Base, which was America’s biggest song in 1994 and had another life when it was used in Pitch Perfect.

Swedish pop may be the current pop lingua franca. In spite of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and Adele, the bestselling pop of the 2010s has been made by a handful of Swedes and musicians influenced by Swedes; indeed, Coldplay used Swedish pair Stargate for their big stadium-conquering songs of their recent years. Before them came the Cheiron studio guys, who included Carl Falk, Rami Yacoub and ‘Max’ Martin Sandberg.

Look at any massive pop album since 1994 and either Max Martin or Lukasz ‘Dr Luke’ Gottwald will certainly be there. The Swedes see pop like a maths problem, and Max Martin is the best pop mathematician of this century. The charts don’t lie. Only Paul McCartney has had more American top 10 hits, and Max Martin is 50 the year Paul turns 79. I’d wanted to do Paul’s catalogue by the time he was 80. My Max Martin musical (more in essay 44) might well be finished before Max turns 50.

Max learned a lot from Denniz Pop, who was mentioned in the last essay. Jon Seabrook writes at length about the Cheiron studio in his essential book The Song Machine, which goes behind the scenes to document how hits get made. (Clue: writers camps with guys who work on hooks and tracks separately, like an assembly line. It takes between four and five people to write a hit in 2018.)

Thanks to the lessons learned at the altar of Denniz Pop in songs like The Sign, Max Martin has been behind 22 number ones. I will mention most, if not all, of them in this series. He is the most important, most successful and most reticent songwriter of the digital era. He need never work again, but he will.


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