Because NOW 38 came out over Christmas 1997, Britain was still reeling from the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. There are eight diamonds next to the listing of Candle in the Wind 1997 in the discography, because it sold over 4m copies, making it the biggest-selling single in British history. I preferred Something About the Way You Look Tonight, a terrific tune that stands up with Elton’s best, that was the second track on the disc and the single that had been planned for late 1997.
Rock music, like baroque classical music, is now the heritage music industry. Elton is about to retire (for the last time!) to spend time with his husband and kids. Elton was a rock star in the era of the rock star (Jagger and Richards, Hendrix, Joplin, Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, Liam Gallagher) and I think Radiohead were the last great rock band.
Their third album OK Computer almost caused them to break up, so fraught was its production. The 12 tracks on it, from the hypnotic No Surprises to the clanging Paranoid Android, have been endlessly written about mostly (surprise surprise) by white men like me! A classically trained musician on guitar (Jonny Greenwood), his brother Colin and their friend Ed, plus the drumming of Philip Selway and the lyrics and vocals of Thom Yorke came together to form an avant-garde forward-thinking rock group in the tradition of progressive rock and twelve-tone classical composers like Gorecki and Messaien.
Somehow, helped by the major-label money of Parlophone Records, Radiohead became the biggest indie-minded band in the UK, with OK Computer producing hit singles and vast critical acclaim. They were no longer ‘the band that did Creep’. Then came Kid A, an album with no singles, few if any shoutalongs and a lot of question marks and they returned to being ‘the band that did Creep’ even though they very seldom performed Creep.
As artists, Radiohead have a right to do whatever they want, and their last three records (In Rainbows, The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool) have been self-released, difficult records. In Rainbows is one of my favourite long-players of this century. I purchased the mp3s through the honesty box system where fans like me could have the music for anything as low as one penny, and it soundtracked many nights at university in Edinburgh in 2007 and 2008. Thom Yorke gave one album away for free via a BitTorrent link. Live, the band’s power is rivalled only by the likes of Lorde, LCD Soundsystem, Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire, (non-UK) acts who mix the tuneful and euphoric, and orchestras like the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and the all-black Chineke! ensemble. In an age of Instagram filters, art-rock has its place: it’s called BBC 6Music, or as I nickname it, ‘BBC Radio Peel’.
All this to say that Karma Police by Radiohead was in contention for being the playlist pick from NOW 38 before Chris Imlach pushed for Bitch by Meredith Brooks. Her Twitter biography quotes the chorus: ‘Bitch, Lover, Child, Mother, Sinner, Saint and so much more’. As of June 13 2018 (the day after she turned sixty – SIXTY!), Bitch has had 48 million plays on Spotify. (Karma Police has 116 million, the most of any track on OK Computer, but who’s counting…)
We are eighteen years into the new millennium. I would like it, just for this millennium, for women to fully control the world. Just for 1000 years and see what happens. The Lilith Fair movement of American folk music shone a light on great female voices, and a 1998 compilation collects the likes of Indigo Girls, Lisa Loeb, Patty Griffin, Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega, Joan Osborne and The Cardigans. Meredith is there too.
NOW 38 begins with Spice Up Your Life, the Spice Girls’ attempt to cover the Latin American market, co-written by Biff Stannard. The compilation includes a new song from Eternal (the ballad Angel of Mine), catalogue from Janet Jackson (Got Till It’s Gone, sampling Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell and featuring a rap by Q-Tip and production from Jam & Lewis) and The Brand New Heavies (You’ve Got a Friend by Carole King). Then comes the debut single from All Saints, the mighty stall-setter-outer I Know Where It’s At, another single by Louise (Arms Around the World) and the monster dance anthem Freed From Desire by Gala (aka Will Grigg’s on Fire if you are a fan of Wigan Athletic or Northern Ireland circa 2016). Tina Moore’s Never Gonna Let You Go and the Texas tune Black Eyed Boy (magnificent again, this time with strings) round up the songs sung by ladies on the compilation. Humorously, an American DJ called Bobby Bones wants to start a radio show that plays all women, all the time, in protest of the shockingly little airplay female artists get on American country radio. Good luck to him!
Blokes on NOW 38 include Hanson with Where’s the Love (it would come twelve times in the next twenty years…), Boyzone with their number one song from the Mr Bean movie Picture of You (co-written by Elliot Kennedy), Backstreet Boys with another Max Martin classic As Long As You Love Me, Lighthouse Family with Raincloud (reliable pop-soul) and 911 with Party People…Friday Night (co-written by Elliot Kennedy). The Latino pop icon Ricky Martin shook his hips to Maria, his worldwide smash hit that sits alongside the sambatastic Samba De Janeiro by Bellini (you’ll know it when you hear it).
Oasis, who torched their career with the overlong Be Here Now, had another top ten with the six-minute dirge Stand By Me, which sits on Disc 2 in between The Drugs Don’t Work, the massive number one for The Verve which this time had nothing to do with The Rolling Stones, and the simply massive swells of the six-minute All You Good Good People by Embrace. Wil Malone conducts the orchestra and the band get a production credit.
The song doesn’t mean very much but it sounds great, which sums up a lot of British guitar rock not by Radiohead in 1998. Exhibits in the case for the prosecution include I’m So Lonely by Cast (soft, introspective, similar to Walkaway), Better Day by Ocean Colour Scene (soft, introspective), A Life Less Ordinary by Ash (full of fuzzy guitar, introspective) and Lazy Days by Robbie Williams, written by Robbie with Guy Chambers and featuring lyrics about having ‘a jolly good time’.
Faithless were building on Insomnia with Don’t Leave, a ‘hard mix’ of which is included on NOW 38. It begins with electric guitars and sounds like a conventional rock song that is sung by Rollo, whose sister will feature in future compilations (her name is Dido). It also segues very well from All You Good Good People. Disc 1 Track 1 was a huge song by Chumbawumba called Tubthumping, about getting up again after being knocked down, even after drinking whiskey, vodka, lager and cider while ‘pissing the night away’. Thanks to Tony Blair and his New Labour government, Cool Britannia was a marketing angle and Brits were producing great(ish) art and great(ish) music.
Also thriving was British cinema, thanks to the likes of The Full Monty, about steelworkers stripping to You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate (which was remixed for 1998), and the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. The Bond theme was reworked by Moby, who is about to crash into the charts in a big way with Play, an album from which every song was taken and used in an advert. Trainspotting had another life on home video and PF Project used Ewan McGregor’s famous ‘Choose Life’ speech from the film on their dance track of the same name. Elsewhere, the clubs were full of the sounds of Sash! (Stay) and DJ Quicksilver (Free), while Dario G sampled the Dream Academy song Life in a Northern Town on their tune Sunchyme, which had one of the videos of the year.
There is shockingly little non-UK music on NOW 38; even Rod Stewart pops up on the N-Trance remix of Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, while George Michael plays it straight with the gorgeous ballad You Have Been Loved, co-written with David Austin. As if to make a point, the evergreen Yesterday is covered by Wet Wet Wet, the band who ten years earlier had covered With a Little Help from My Friends.
America churned out gangsta rap like Phenomenon by LL Cool J (a big number one thanks to its silky sample and produced by Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs) and emotive rock like Janie Don’t Take Your Love to Town by Jon Bon Jovi. Male vocal harmony groups like Boyz II Men also stayed active, and they close NOW 38 with their song 4 Seasons of Loneliness, written and produced by the ever-mighty Jam & Lewis. Peter Andre appears as a compiler’s joke with his song Lonely, co-written by the just-as-mighty Wayne Hector. I only point the writers out so you know who really had the success in the era of NOW.