NOW 29: Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry – 7 Seconds

My playlist choice picked itself. If I were stranded on a desert island and only had eight records with me, 7 Seconds would be one of them. The others would be Mr Jones by Counting Crows, God Only Knows by The Beach Boys (obvious, but it’s brilliant), Falling Slowly from the film Once, something by the Beatles (can’t decide, will cross that footbridge when I come to it), Time Spent in Los Angeles by Dawes, something with a violin in it (probably Mozart) and the last song I had fallen in love with at the time of desertion.

If I had to save one if they were all floating away, I’d pick Mr Jones, which was never on a NOW (though Counting Crows were). This NOW series is being written 25 years after Counting Crows put out their debut album, August and Everything After, in October 1993. Adam Duritz, who suffers from mental health disorders but loves country and singer-songwriter music, is a hero whom I would love to meet, so if anyone reading this wants to be philanthropic, I am all ears.

In any case, I feel no hesitation about picking Neneh Cherry again, this time singing the chorus to a song about universal brotherhood, which in 1994 seemed a world away. Africa as a continent is full of newly independent nations. Senegal, where Youssou has been active in politics, plays in the World Cup 2018 against Colombia, Poland and Japan; my friend Kiran is out there (and in Tanzania) doing some work in a nation that gave the world, well, ‘world music’.

I call it Babel FM, a polyglottal collection of non-Western tongues written about in the magazine Songlines. They include Swahili, Buntu, Wolof, Inuit, Yoruba, Urdu, Gujrati, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, even ‘Hopelandic’, the nonsense language popularised by Sigur Ros. I studied classical languages at undergraduate level (so did the likes of Marcus Mumford and Chris Martin, and look how well they’ve done, mum!), and studied Hebrew as a Jewish kid who had his barmitzvah and read the Old Testament in the original script. I also learned French from the age of four, but I couldn’t understand the second, French verse of 7 Seconds until I was much older.

Youssou is basically saying that the divisions of race and creed should one day not exist and everyone’s eyes will be opened wide. Neneh’s verse talks of a ‘battle’, possibly of equality. ‘When a child is born into this world, it has no concept of the tone of skin it’s living in’ is a great line, while the chorus gives space to the line about being ‘seven seconds away…I’ll be waiting’. Seven seconds refers to the first seconds of a child’s life, including that of Neneh’s kids whom she had had with Cameron McVey (Mabel would come along in 1996), her husband and a co-writer of 7 Seconds along with the producer Jonny Dollar. He passed away through cancer in 2009 aged 45. We are still waiting for racial equality, but it’ll come, even if it’s not in my lifetime.

I am always pleased when a song not in the English language becomes a hit (unless it is Gangnam Style) as it shows music is a more universal language than any other. No other song in the Wolof language (the language of the first verse of 7 Seconds) has been a UK hit to my knowledge, and Youssou is one of Africa’s most acclaimed musicians, often appearing at the WOMAD festival for world music. The day I wrote this essay was the day I first heard Angelique Kidjo’s take on Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads. Kidjo is from Benin and recorded a version of Remain In Light. It sounds like the original and yet even more original than the original. I wonder if David Byrne, who wrote the song, will bow to it as the definitive version.

In 1994, once again, catalogue is in abundance, with the first three tracks of NOW 29 being covers of songs by Eddy Grant, Peter Frampton and, in a case of catalogue eating itself, Cyndi Lauper doing a version of her own song but calling it Hey Now (Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), a version I prefer as it is less shrill. Pato Banton gets UB40 to help cover Baby Come Back, a number one, while Big Mountain spot that you can turn Baby I Love Your Way into a reggae song. Compliments on Your Kiss, by Red Dragon, and Gal Wine by Chaka Demus and Pliers sit nicely on Disc 2 to show that reggae is still a very active cause. As it should be: Island Records was founded by Chris Blackwell to promote Jamaican music around the world and was sold to a major label in 1989. Thus reggae music could be promoted by more money, which created a market into which the likes of Chaka Demus and Pliers could slide. Bob Marley’s Best Of has never left public consciousness since it was released on CD.

More catalogue came from Brand New Heavies, who put a dance beat underneath a straight cover of Maria Muldaur’s track which includes the lyric ‘send your camels to bed’. Celine Dion emoted her way through a very straight cover of Jennifer Rush’s The Power of Love, while New Order put out a new mix of True Faith. Music Relief record a version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, with the money going to help Rwandan victims of the recent slaughter. Key guests include Aswad, Apache Indian, CJ Lewis (the first voice we hear), Roachford, Peter Cunnah from D:Ream, Paul Carrack and Omar.

Also there, dancing in the video, are Ultimate Kaos, who were formed by Simon Cowell, who was dating Sinitta and enlisted the boys as her backing dancers. Another act pitched as a new Jackson Five, their lead singer was Haydon Eshun, who was nine years old when he sung the infectious Some Girls. He has since played Michael Jackson in London’s West End in Thriller Live. Another song I like, despite R Kelly’s well-documented indiscretions, is She’s Got That Vibe, his attempt at New Jack Swing, which in 1994 was still the dominant pop sound apart from soppy ballads like Without You by Mariah Carey (not on NOW 28 or NOW 29).

Girls & Boys had been on NOW 28, and Parklife became their second top ten hit (only reaching number ten, but I suppose fans just bought the album), as their hold on British pop music continued with each single they released from the album Parklife. Oasis also make their first appearance on a NOW compilation with a song about Cigarettes & Alcohol that is 89% T-Rex’s Get It On. Massive Attack make their first appearance too, with Sly, as do cult treasures Sparks, with an arch, wry song called When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”.

Two more fun songs that will remind people of 1994 are Incredible, by M-Beat and featuring General Levy rapping indecipherable patois over a jungle (‘is massive’) beat, and Trouble by Shampoo. The tale of two girls who go out all night but miss the last train so get caught driving with no licence by the police is anchored by a heck of a riff and a double helping of attitude. It is almost a perfect pop song. We’d hear that in pop music in 1996 with the rise of five girls who must have had this song on repeat for months.

After a summer of getting mashed (I was six, so the only mashing I did was potatoes, with cottage cheese!), Whigfield were beneficiaries of Love is All Around’s deletion, and the crazy pop song from Denmark (there would be more of those in the 1990s) spent four weeks of its own at the top. Writer-producer Larry Pignagnoli need never have worked again. Baby Come Back ruled over November, but in between those songs comes Sure by Take That, one of Barlow’s best, though Mark and Robbie also have writing credits.

Another Night by MC Sar and Real McCoy was a typical Eurodance track that repeated the formula of a bloke rapping the verse and a lady singing the chorus. Corona’s Rhythm of the Night still gets me dancing after 25 years thanks to a pulsing trance riff and an amazing vocal. Narada Michael Walden wrote Sweetness for Michelle Gayle, another one of his optimistic pop songs in the vein of I Love Your Smile with added ‘shoop shoop’s.

I always loved many of the songs on Disc 1, or rather tape 1 as we had the cassette of NOW 29. Sophie B Hawkins sang Right Beside You, which is a remarkable piece of pop music that takes its listener on a journey. Lisa Loeb took Stay (I Missed You) into the charts, with a video featuring her nerdy glasses and directed by Ethan Hawke. I think it was the first time I heard the word ‘naïve’ in a song. As for Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm by Crash Test Dummies, a pure one-hit wonder because their other two hits went into the top 40 but not the top 20, it remains a funny curio. The chords ‘lurched’ just like one of the characters in the song, which may be the only top ten hit to include a wordless, hummed chorus. Mmmm…

The rest of Disc 1 contains some mighty acts: The Rolling Stones put out Voodoo Lounge in 1994, which included the song Love is Strong; REM followed up the monster Automatic for the People with an album called Monster, whose first single was the bizarrely titled What’s the Frequency, Kenneth (I didn’t know what Benzedrine was, but I know I loved the sound the guitars made); The Cranberries matched their chart position with Linger and landed at 14 with Zombie; Robert Palmer brought sophistication and elegance to NOW 29 with Know By Now, which he wrote and produced and was his first self-penned top 40 song for five years. Reissued and climbing to number three was the magnificent Bond theme We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong, meaning one of the greatest popular musicians of the twentieth century can be found following Crash Test Dummies and Lisa Loeb.

Disc 2 begins with a boyband who would end 1994 with the Christmas number one. Around the World had some soulful vocals from Brian and a rapped bridge from Tony, who then shouted out ‘to the north, to the south, to the east, to the west’, teaching six-year-old me the navigational points on a compass in a pop-soul manner. Tom Watkins, the manager of East 17, wanted to break an openly gay boyband, 2wo Third3, but people were into Irish boybands at the time and the band had a brief career. Their track I Want the World closes Disc 2, but whatever happened to 2wo Third3?

You will know many songs written by Biff Stannard, one of the four members of 2wo Third3 who wrote and produced I Want the World (after I messaged him on Twitter @Biffco to check his role in the song). Biff’s hits include Around the World for East 17, as well as Suddenly Monday, a lost classic sung by Melanie C of the Spice Girls, who were still 18 months away from being unleashed on a world that didn’t know they wanted to zig-a-zig-ahh. In 2018, Biff has worked on albums by Kylie Minogue and Gabrielle. He must never be able to work again, but he still has songs to write and give to the world. I will induct one of his very shortly.

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