I’m going to take a while to get to the point, but this is a discussion of pop archetypes.
An archetype is a ‘perfect or typical specimen; an original model or prototype; one of the inherited mental images postulated by Jung; a recurring symbol or motif in literature.’ (Thank you, Collins!)
Archetypical popstars are those who lead where others follow; you can imitate, but you cannot be that star. For instance, Michael Jackson took a bit of James Brown and Diana Ross (both archetypes) to create his own template which has been followed by hundreds of acts, including Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Ne-Yo.
Madonna will always be Madonna, despite Lady Gaga being technically a better singer and performer. Prince will be Prince, but have you seen how Janelle Monae is taking his template and reinventing it for a post-Prince era? Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, George Michael…the list of archetypes goes on and on.
Adele? She’s just Shirley Bassey from Tottenham. Arctic Monkeys? The Clash wrote great music, too. Wolf Alice make me think of Debbie Harry and Blondie, though they do have a claim to be Britain’s best rock group currently not to be from Sheffield.
Beyonce? Tina Turner was a black woman with a big voice and a super set of songs. Amy Winehouse? The Jewish Dinah Washington. I can go on but I won’t, except to say that Ed Sheeran is a solo singer-songwriter in the territory of Elton John, Kendrick Lamar is reaching James Brown levels of cultural and musical importance, and Foo Fighters will be the world’s biggest stadium act when The Rolling Stones really (really) can’t go on.
Which brings us to the best of them all. I can argue that Gary Barlow is today’s Paul McCartney, Stormzy is the politically aware George Harrison and John Lennon’s snarkiness and artiness is best displayed by the likes of Lily Allen, Plan B and Liam Gallagher. So who is Ringo?
After interviewing Take That for Smash Hits magazine, Sylvia Patterson came back to the office to say that they were ‘absolutely useless…but there’s something about that Robbie.’
It’s very difficult to dislike Robbie Williams today. A father, performer and singer of the unofficial national anthem (Angels), Robbie became very famous as one-fifth of a male vocal harmony group who danced a bit. Robbie took lead vocals on Everything Changes and Could It Be Magic, before tiring of the grind (literally!) of Take That and striking out on his own with a cover of a tune, funnily enough, by an archetype. A guitar-friendly version of Freedom ’90, by George Michael, was apt: the song is about leaving the past, where ‘I was every little hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy’, and moving forwards into the next phase of a career.
Robbie currently lives in an enormous house in Kensington, in the posh bit of London, which film director Michael Winner used to own. When he died, Robbie bought it and spent three years renovating it. His neighbour is Jimmy Page, who objected to some of the developments and does not have a ‘whole lotta love’ for Robbie. In fact, as I started writing this essay, Robbie has just received the decision in his favour, with The Sun reporting that he’s not even based there any more. Instead, it can be rented ‘for up to £40,000 a week. The grounds…already boast a pool, gym and cinema.’ Through the keyhole indeed…
Robbie moved back to the UK after a long stint in Los Angeles and has put out new albums steadily and to diminishing returns since 1997. His first album, Life Thru a Lens (ugh, look at the spelling) is now 21 years old. It includes the big hits Let Me Entertain You (still his best song for the energy he exudes in it), Lazy Days, Angels, South of the Border and Old Before I Die, the track chosen by the compilers (and initially by me for the playlist until Chris Imlach disagreed correctly) for inclusion on NOW 37. It’s hard to believe for a man with so many chart-topping albums that Life Thru (ugh) a Lens didn’t chart in the Top 10 initially but this was likely due to an event that happened a month before the release of the album in September 1997, of which more next time.
NOW 37 was issued in July 1997. It begins correctly with MMMBop, the Hanson smash that meant they never have to work again. They do, taking their fans on a cruise once a year, putting out new music every few years and ensuring that their twelve children are well fed. (Yes, the three little brothers have grown up to have 12 children. Taylor has five, the eldest called Penny, which brings new meaning to their song Penny and Me.). If someone you know has never heard MMMBop, put it on for them and watch their face explode. It’s a heck of a pop song, produced in a remixed form by The Dust Brothers, who worked on Beck’s amazing 1990s work.
I was nine in spring 1997, learning about British history with Mr Peter Jones, basic chemistry with Josh Jones (RIP, one of the nicest men I’ve ever encountered) and geography with Sandra Clare. My formative years were spent at Quainton Hall School, Harrow, a school that fed kids to great secondary schools in the area. The charts were still a big part of my life, to such an extent that one family friend remembers how I would be annoyed to be busy on Sunday afternoons.
Chart stars in 1997 included 911 (The Journey), Boyzone (Isn’t It a Wonder, with a half-step key change), Texas (Halo, magnificent), Sheryl Crow (A Change Would Do You Good), Wet Wet Wet (If I Never See You Again), U2 (the underrated Staring at the Sun) and No Doubt, who follow up Don’t Speak with Just a Girl, whose sound Pink would turn into gold in the 2000s. George Michael gave another dance remix to NOW, this time of his anti-fame lament Star People (‘maybe your daddy didn’t love you enough’).
Noelrock stars still having their moment include Supergrass (Sun Hits the Sky), Blur (On Your Own), Cast (Guiding Star) and Ocean Colour Scene (100 Mile High City). John Squire left The Stone Roses to form The Seahorses, who had a hit with Love is the Law, and the Verve reformed after various addictions had scuppered their first incarnation.
Bittersweet Symphony is a morose cautionary tale: the song (‘you’re a slave to money then you die’), with its famous video of singer Richard Ashcroft walking moodily down a street, was based on a string arrangement of the Rolling Stones song The Last Time arranged by Andrew Loog Oldham that Oldham claimed and won full copyright for. Ashcroft thus receives no money for Bittersweet Symphony, with full copyright going to Jagger & Richards, who wrote The Last Time. Richard often performs an acoustic version of the song in his own arrangement.
Two interesting things to note about NOW 37 are the proliferation of music of black origin edging towards Disc 1 and the huge slew of massive dance anthems.
In the former category, En Vogue had an enormous hit both sides of the Atlantic with Don’t Let Go (Love) that remains one of the titanic r’n’b songs of the era. In spite of his indiscretions, and thanks to the movie Space Jam, R Kelly had a number one song with I Believe I Can Fly, which is a gospel song disguised as r’n’b. It was knocked off number one by Blood on the Dance Floor, the lead single from Michael Jackson’s new History in the Mix compilation.
In rap music, Coolio enlisted 40 Thevz for a song called C U When U Get There which sampled the Canon by Pachelbel (fair game for sampling as it was released some time at the end of the seventeenth century), while Warren G met up with Ron Isley for Smokin’ Me Out, which took the funk of the Isley Brothers and added some ‘reality rap’ (aka gangsta rap) which resonated with kids in the UK.
Tim Westwood, host of the Radio 1 Rap Show, was the man who turned millions onto the sounds of Biggie and 2Pac and the rappers they hung out with. Biggie died in 1997 and his tribute song, I’ll Be Missing You, by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans (not on a NOW), spent six weeks at the top broken only by Oasis’ comeback single, the pointlessly long and dull D’You Know What I Mean. Guys whom Westwood called ‘my main man’ included Shawn Carter, who appears with fellow New Yorker Foxy Brown at the end of Disc 1 on the track I’ll Be under his rap name Jay-Z. He would go on to own paintings by Picasso and marry a member of r’n’b band Destiny’s Child; Foxy (real name Inga Marchand) would spend time in jail for fighting some nail technicians.
More New Yorkers, in the form of Fun Lovin’ Criminals, sampled Quentin Tarantino movies on their retro-sounding rap song Scooby Snacks (‘Are you cool?’) which combined Huey Morgan’s drawl and a pulverising riff that ran through the song and became the basis for the chorus melody. I think ‘Scooby Snacks’ are drugs; my research says Valium, which would be useful to give you energy to go ‘robbing banks’.
Former Prince backing singer Rosie Gaines hit commercial radio with Closer Than Close and Ultra Nate did the same with Free, a track that would nowadays be called ‘empowering’ but is just a great pop song with a heck of a beat. Eternal were already a pop act of some repute but with gospel/r’n’b singer-songwriter Bebe Winans and a massive key change, they took I Wanna Be The Only One to the top of the charts. Every time I turned on Heart 106.2 I heard one of these three songs or Something Goin’ On, the collaboration between Todd Terry and not one but two amazing singers, Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown.
For some reason Damage thought it best to cover Wonderful Tonight (a song Chris Imlach absolutely detests) while Shola Ama covered the Randy Crawford hit You Might Need Somebody. In dance, The Course brought back Ain’t Nobody, the Rufus & Chaka Khan classic. Also in catalogue, N-Tyce, marketed as a sort of Spice Girls and described as ‘bubbly’ in the inlay booklet, covered a song called Hey DJ! (Play That Song) but did not impress the market, who were still buying Spice Girls songs like Who Do You Think You Are, the Comic Relief single of 1997 from their second album Spiceworld. They would be movie stars by the end of the year.
As for the dance anthems, No Mercy shook their Latino hips to Where Do You Go, a ‘terrific two’, and Sash! used the bellowing Rodriguez on their track Ecuador. Orbital took the TV theme The Saint and turned it into a club hit, while Diddy (not Puff Daddy) closed the disc with Give Me Love. Nightmare by Brainbug sounds like a nightmare, so don’t put it on if you’re going to bed!
And so to another archetype: ABBA. Swedish musicians today live two generations removed from Benny and Bjorn, who wrote a catalogue of some repute. I’ve already dwelt on ABBA back in the essay where Dancing Queen featured. Chris Imlach successfully argued for a playlist entry comprising another a Swedish pop act made up of ladies and guys, and I have no problem selecting Lovefool over Old Before I Die. Neither The Cardigans or Robbie, however, are archetypes.
Radiohead are, and their six-minute top three hit Paranoid Android sounded like nothing else at the time. The two best songwriters in pop music history, and two multimillionaire archetypes, are also on NOW 37. Paul McCartney is there with Young Boy, a song that he could have knocked out in ten minutes before picking up his knighthood (he is listed as ‘Sir Paul’ in the inlay booklet). Max Martin appears as a co-writer of Quit Playing Games (With My Heart), as the Swedes have been teamed up with the Backstreet Boys. Marvel at the middle eight (‘Baaaby baby!’) and stay for the rest of Max’s catalogue.