Pop music today reflects its era. In the ‘me too’ era, a lot is made of girls getting fair treatment. They don’t, but they should.
The Spice Girls were a project that were three years in the making. Simon Fuller was the manager of Annie Lennox who wanted to launch a girl group (female vocal harmony group) to market. Recruiting five girls, he called them Touch, before working on the brand and giving them the famous five names-cum-stereotypes to make each of them stand out.
Four of the five have had a solo number one which has featured on a NOW compilation. The fifth (who has also been on many a NOW) is far more famous than any of the others – one other is as rich as her through marriage – and runs a fashion empire while acting as mother to four children she has had with the star of the era, some footballer called David from Leytonstone.
Ginger Spice aka Geri Horner nee Halliwell is also a mother and wife to another rich man, the chap who runs the Formula 1 racing team Red Bull. Sporty is often on BBC Radio 2, while Scary Spice has been a TV talent show judge. Baby Spice has gone into broadcasting with her lovely voice and face.
Before all of that came Wannabe, the monster song of 1996. If you were a boy, you wanted to be their friend; if you were a girl, as my friend Francesca was, you pestered mum and dad for CDs, tapes, gig tickets, tickets for Spiceworld: The Movie and everything that gave you ‘girl power’. As a moment in pop culture, Wannabe kicked off thirty months, more or less, of Spicemania. It brought number one hits, famous TV performances, tabloid headlines and, as much as Madonna before them, changed the world. All because they really really really wanted to zig-a-zig-ahh.
Elsewhere on NOW 34, from summer 1996, Peter Andre showed up for the first time with a song that sounds very 1996 and came to prominence thanks to a video where his abs should have as much of a feature as Bubbler Ranx. He would have two number one songs, one of which was not Mysterious Girl.
British rock was present and correct thanks to Dodgy (Good Enough), Cast (Walkaway), Suede (Trash), Ocean Colour Scene (The Day We Caught the Train) and Oasis (Wonderwall, which has suffered death by a thousand buskers). Blur are represented in the song Blurred by Pianoman, which samples Girls & Boys in a song tailored to the dancefloors of the age.
Elsewhere on NOW 34, elder statesmen like Paul Weller (Peacock Suit), Belinda Carlisle (In Too Deep), Bon Jovi (Hey God, a sombre lyric with some Bon Jovian guitars), OMD (Walking on the Milky Way), Bryan Adams (The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me is You) and Suggs (Cecilia, a Simon & Garfunkel song) jostle with new acts like Joan Osborne (One of Us), OMC (How Bizarre) and Gina G.
Gina G merits a paragraph, since Ooh Ahh… Just a Little Bit was a modest hit thanks to its status as the UK’s 1996 Eurovision entry. We used to be good at Eurovision but haven’t won it since 1997. Instead we are good at dancing. The Macarena remains one of the biggest ever hits in American chart history, thanks to a four-month run at the top of the Hot 100, and in the UK it was everywhere during the summer of 1996, going gold in the UK and four-times platinum in the States with over 4m people paying money to get some ‘heeeey Macarena!’ into their dull lives. It was number one in 12 other places but was stuck behind Wannabe in the UK, becoming another ‘terrific two’.
Catalogue songs on NOW 34 included Robbie Williams’ first solo single, Freedom, the one where he wanted to be Liam Gallagher rather than a guy from a pop band. It is his weakest release, and he would omit it from his first solo album (more on which shortly). Disc 2 began with a song by the chap who wrote that song: in 1996 George Michael returned after six years away with Older, the first single from which was the monster hit Jesus to a Child. Drenched in reverb, it remains one of the most mysterious number ones of the decade and is just about the only track of the era that can displace Wonderwall as the opening track of one of the CDs.
Further down the tracklisting come fun dance songs by Maxi Priest featuring Shaggy (That Girl), Reel 2 Real (Jazz It Up), a version of Bamboleo by Gypsy Kings by Umboza (Sunshine) and Todd Terry, who enlisted soul divas Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown for the ace Keep on Jumpin’, which reminds me of Club Classics on Heart 106.2 (to give its London frequency of the tie). No pop banger could rival the big number one from German-born Mark Morrison, whose debut single was Return of the Mack; did we miss him the first time?
The other cultural phenomenon of 1996 was a Danny Boyle film about scumbags in Leith, Scotland. Irvine Welsh’s book Trainspotting had been transformed into a cinematic portrait of Britain in the 1990s, where hopelessness and drugs were the order of the day. Mention of the movie Trainspotting makes the average person think of two songs: Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, which soundtracked the ‘chase sequence’ through the centre of Edinburgh, and Born Slippy, by Underworld. Lads and girls who acted like lads yelled ‘lager, lager!’ while on a massive night out dancing to the likes of JX (There’s Nothing I Won’t Do), Livin Joy (Don’t Stop Movin’) and Wink, whose Higher State of Consciousness was remixed. The late Robert Miles gave the world an instrumental he called Children, which remains one of the best tunes on the compilation.
The second CD is a weird amalgam of every genre that was big at the time. I mentioned all the British rock, but Blur are their own genre, and their song Charmless Man sits between Suggs and Suede. It’s about the only pop song that rhymes ‘beaujolais’ with ‘Ronnie Kray’, and stands up twenty years later. Over on commercial-driven radio, Ocean Drive by Lighthouse Family was a regular fixture thanks to the sweet voice of Tunde, and Louise was Naked between Livin Joy and Mark Morrison.
Perhaps the most curious track on the entire set is California Love. For an eight-year-old who did not have elder siblings or cousins to educate him on gangsta rap, the 2Pac vs Biggie Smalls feud did not cross my radar. 2Pac and Dr Dre starred in a little blockbuster on screen, which dominated music video channels like MTV and VH1. The song itself sampled Roger Troutman from Zapp & Roger, who had co-written West Coast Poplock and written Dance Floor, the latter featuring the line ‘shake it, shake it baby’. Radio DJ Bobby Bones has used the Zapp & Roger song Tell Me Something Good as the title for his ‘good deed’ feature on his long-running US radio show, and the act deserve critical appraisal.
California Love, meanwhile, was brilliant because it opened with the chorus, kicked off with Dr Dre singing ‘let me welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West’, had a huge riff running through it and contained two of the dominant rappers of the era. 2Pac is no longer with us, shot dead at the age of 25, which seems a scandalous waste of life.
Dr Dre has since become a millionaire thanks to selling his Beats by Dre headphones brand to Jimmy Iovine at Apple Music. Fans have stopped clamouring for a fourth solo record from the former NWA member, whose huge album The Chronic is one of the canonical texts of LA rap. Dre’s last hit as the main artist on a track came with the massive The Next Episode from the 2001 album; the song hit number 3 in 2000 around the time his protégé Marshall Mathers was selling squillions as Eminem. Like many acts, Dre has no need for a hit to stay relevant.
The Spice Girls, however, would go on to appear on several NOW compilations as the dominant act of the era. 20 years on, barely a week goes by without rumours of a Spice Girls reunion with three, four or five of the girls. Perhaps they could go on tour with Oasis for the Ultimate 90s tour. If not, and Noel has categorically denied that he will play or record with his brother again (‘he’s a man with a fork in a world of soup’), there’s always the likes of Eternal, Boyzone, Take That or any number of pop acts from the 1990s.