NOW 36: Placebo – Nancy Boy

By 1997, the Spice Girls were having so many hits it was impossible to put them all on Now That’s What I Call Music compilations. Their third number one was Two Become One, about sex, and their fourth was a double A-side. NOW 36 kicks off with Mama, a song Biff Stannard says he still gets people coming up to him and praising.

Looking at Disc 1, the teenybopper era is in full swing thanks to the Spice Girls getting pre-teens buying music: Peter Andre co-wrote his second number one, Natural; Damage enlisted Jam & Lewis to write Love Guaranteed; East 17 brought in a choir for Hey Child; Boyzone were inspired by The Lion King and Ronan sang about seeing ‘the rain fall in Africa’ on their number one song A Different Beat, which sounds like 1997. Backstreet Boys put out their first album, which included Anywhere For You, including vocals by a 14-year-old Nick Carter. The Swedes who would write their world-conquering hits couldn’t join them soon enough.

Eternal sang the tender Don’t You Love Me about kids being abused to become their twelfth top 20 hit according to the inlay booklet, which gives thanks to 21 different record labels for licencing their tracks to the compilation. They include indie labels Gut, Telstar, XL, Zomba (which would have a very good period between 1998 and 2002), Mushroom and Big Life.

Big chart-toppers from the first few months of 1997 showed the eclecticism and variety of the music that hit big in the Spice Era. Not on NOW 36 is the remix of Tori Amos’s track Professional Widow (‘gotta be big!’) or Ain’t Nobody by LL Cool J. We do have Don’t Speak, which introduced the voice of Gwen Stefani in a big way and had a brilliant vibe to it. U2 came back with another addendum to their stadium sound, this time with Discotheque, produced by Flood and mixed by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent, who is one of the unsung heroes of British pop. If it’s been a hit, more often than not Spike has mixed it to make it sound radio- and commercial friendly.

An anomaly among teenyboppers are, once again, the Bee Gees with their song Alone. It had been two decades since the disco boom and the fiftysomething brothers were an uncomfortable juxtaposition beside Horny by Mark Morrison, which you only need to hear once before returning to Return of the Mack. The four dance tracks that close NOW 36 by Sash! (Encore Une Fois), DJ Quicksilver (Bellissima), BBE (Flash) and Amen UK (Passion) are far more indicative of popular culture than three talented brothers still putting out new music so they had an excuse to tour the old stuff (and what old stuff it was…)

Elsewhere in dance music, Prodigy followed Firestarter with Breathe, another track featuring the vocal of Keith Flint from the US number one album The Fat of the Land. The Chemical Brothers had their own second number one with Block Rockin’ Beats, which is a sensational suite of electronic music that is the monolithic dance track of the era and their best piece of music. Both acts, whose first number ones were missing from NOW 35, would reappear on future NOW compilations and became ‘stadium dance music’ acts who did well at festivals like Glastonbury and Reading.

There is also White Town’s Your Woman, which was discovered by Radio 1 DJ (and personal hero) Mark Radcliffe, who ensure Jyoti Mishra never needed to work again with a pure one-hit wonder. Like Edwyn Collins’ track A Girl Like You, it conjured a mood and was fascinating to hear on the radio alongside the likes of The Blueboy (Remember Me), Robert Miles (One & One, with the vocals of Maria Nayler and lyrics by Billy Steinberg and Rick Nowels, two hit songwriters of some repute) and the eerie Spinning The Wheel by George Michael who was, said the booklet, ‘England’s top vocal artiste’.

George provided a remix of the song to NOW 36, pointing to his forthcoming direction as an act who took the sounds of the clubs and put his warblings over it. In 1997, he was still a straight man, with the public at large unaware of Anselmo, his late partner who died of AIDS-related illnesses. It was a track which spoke to queer young people that was Chris Imlach’s playlist choice, one to which I assented.

Nancy Boy was a song that made little sense to me as a cis heterosexual white male who identified as such (that sentence could not have been written in 1997!) but spoke to a generation of kids unsure of who they were. Brian Molko, who wore lipstick and dresses, was the spokesman for that tribe, with Nancy Boy their theme song. ‘A song this rude,’ said Brian, ‘should not be number four in the charts.’ Whenever they tour (now a duo with a live band), Placebo play big venues to a crowd that has taken them to their hearts. They are still going, and I prefer less histrionic performances from Brian as on songs like You Don’t Care About Us, The Bitter End and Special Needs. They also covered 20th Century Boy at the BRIT Awards with David Bowie, who was a fan.

There is very little catalogue here: Remember Me by The Blueboy twists the old Marlena Shaw song into fun new shapes, while Gabrielle delivers a great take on Walk On By, the Dionne Warwick song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Cathy Dennis, more of whom in a later essay as promised, has another stab at pop success with a cover of Waterloo Sunset, which charted at 11 and was her 11th top 40 hit. A child called Kavana was being sold as a pretty face who could also sing; the world did not need his take on I Can Make You Feel Good by Shalamar. It probably did need yet another mix of You Got the Love, this one updated for a post-acid house crowd.

Space are on NOW 36 with their fourth top 20 hit Dark Clouds, which equalled the position of Female of the Species. They would have three more top 20 smashes, which is seven more than most bands of the era did. As record labels hunted for the next big guitar band, and the music press built up any act who shouted like the Gallaghers (like Gay Dad), melodies would take you into the charts and onto NOW compilations.

Cast are here too, with Free Me, while Mansun pop up with Wide Open Space, a symphonic rock song that sounded a bit like Blur, whose song Beetlebum was a big number one in 1997 as they shed their cockernee image and went serious with their self-titled album about addiction and stuff. What Do You Want From Me by Monaco (‘sha la la la la’ goes the chorus) sounds so much like New Order that if Peter Hook were not on bass (David Potts plays the role of Barney Sumner), he could have sued. That’s what happens when you have a signature sound.

Texas also had a signature sound thanks to the voice of Sharleen Spiteri. They had had hits in the early part of the 1990s but they put together a sensational run starting with Say What You Want. Neil Hannon appears as The Divine Comedy with the song Everybody Knows (Except You), which is based on a C major scale. Don’t Marry Her was a very rude song on their album but the Beautiful South cleaned it up for the single, which was another massive song and their 14th top 40 hit. Alicia’s Attic, two daughters of the renowned sixties singer Brian Poole from the Tremeloes, had a few hits from their debut Alisha Rules the World, and Indestructible was the third.

All four are great pop songs which stand up today. In 1997, meanwhile, PJ and Duncan had become Ant & Dec, singing an anodyne song called Shout, which does anything but. Both Ant and Dec are millionaires, while Neil Hannon has just worked on a musical based on the TV show Father Ted while putting out albums only he can write (his catalogue is one of the best and nobody ever covers his songs!). Shelly Poole of Alisha’s Attic married Ally from Texas and formed the Americana roots band Red Sky July. Her sister Karen is partly responsible for pop bangers like Misfit by Amy Studt (never knew that…) Red Blooded Woman, Wow and Chocolate, all for Kylie Minogue (never knew that…), and the magnificent Lola’s Theme by The Shapeshifters (an amazing song, and I never knew she wrote it!). It’s just the family business…

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