I call myself a songwriter, through a lack of anything else to call myself. I’m a writer, broadcaster and journalist, and I edit and proofread text for money, but really I write songs. That is what I think I’m best at and what I want to be known for when I shuffle off to leave my catalogue behind, which will hopefully keep my estate in good order. I hope you, reader, hear some of my tunes in the next few decades or else this sentence won’t work.
There are several ways to write a song, especially one that becomes a hit. There’s so much to think about: genre, intro, general structure, verses, choruses, tension and release, instrumentation, orchestration, rhythmic variation, catchiness, how it ends… The best way to have a hit is to break the rules or, as I learned very early on in this NOW series, tweak existing ideas just a little bit.
Sometimes, though, all you need is a loop.
We will hear from Daft Punk later in this series but Thomas Bangalter struck gold the first time with Music Sounds Better with You, released as Stardust around the time he and his mate Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo were bringing Gallic house to clubs in the form of ‘the robots’. On Music Sounds Better with You a drum loop is joined by powerful vocals before cutting out midway through the track and coming back in. Try not to tap your toe to Music Sounds Better with You or go ‘BOW! BOW!’ with the two synth stabs. I could put this track on loop for an hour and not shut it off; it is the first sign that Daft Punk were the second coming of Steely Dan or CHIC. They deserve to be spoken about in the same sentence.
I wrote much of this essay with the song on loop, to distract from the fact that Tell Me Ma by Sham Rock closes NOW 41. This is to the compilation what the TV show Mrs Brown’s Boys is to most BBC TV comedy; Stardust are the W1A or Twenty Twelve or Outnumbered or The Thick of It, and Daft Punk are a cross between Blackadder and Brass Eye. Almost as woeful but at least with tongue in cheek is Sex on the Beach by T-Spoon, a terrific two. Bizarrely one of their members, says the inlay booklet, is called Shamrock!!
Eight or nine songs join Tell Me Ma (traditional arranged, or trad. arr., a prolific folk music composer who never has to work again!) as catalogue on the compilation. Everything’s Gonna Be Alright by Sweetbox takes its descending chords from J.S. Bach’s Air on a G String (the ‘happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ advertising campaign also samples this), while Relax by Deetah is based on Why Worry by Dire Straits, who are on a NOW for the first time.
Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers loop the opening strings from You Only Live Twice by John Barry for a song that mentions ‘liposuction’ and ‘Lent’. Millennium was a monster number one in 1998 for Robbie, who was enjoying his post-Angels run of hits that continued until about 2004. Robbie is on NOW 41 twice, once on each disc. He is on Disc 2 with No Regrets, one of his best songs which he wrote with Guy and enlisted Neil Tennant, without credit, to sing backing vocals. It was Robbie and not Neil – who set the Eisenstein movie Battleship Potemkin to music in the 2000s – who opened the 2018 World Cup. He did not do No Regrets and took his paycheque with glee.
Straight covers come from Space, who do We Gotta Get Out of This Place by the Animals as their career in the limelight winds down, and 911, who bring the Bee Gees back again on More Than a Woman. Phil Collins offer a pointless cover of the Cyndi Lauper hit True Colors (he is better covering Motown), The Corrs introduce themselves to Britain with a version of Dreams by Fleetwood Mac with added tin whistle and fellow Irishers Boyzone have a number one, complete with Stephen Gately’s ‘chicka-chah-HUH-HUH’, with the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman song No Matter What, from the musical Whistle Down the Wind.
Manic Street Preachers, who were not on a NOW throughout their consistent nineties period, toppled the song from the number one spot with If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next. Also never on a NOW were several other number ones from 1998. Deeper Underground by Jamiroquai was in the film Godzilla and had a great video of Jay Kay surfing on cinema seats. The sexy cover of US r’n’b anthem Freak Me by Another Level may have been deemed unsafe for younger ears – even when it was cleaned up so that ‘your love is like whipped cream’ became ‘I love the taste of whipped cream’ – but Bootie Call by All Saints was more than fine. The band will play the hits in Hyde Park in September 2018 as part of a bill that includes the Manics, Carrie Underwood, Lenny Kravitz (Leonard. Kravitz.) while the three number ones from B*Witched in 2008 – C’est La Vie, Rollercoaster and To You I Belong – are all better than Tell Me Ma by Sham Rock.
Spacedust, with their track Gym and Tonic, essentially had a hit song with a dance instruction tape that I hated at the time. It was based on a loop provided by Bangalter who could not clear the sample of Jane Fonda’s workout video for commercial use. The popularity of Up and Down by the Vengaboys was down to much the same thing and is their first appearance on a NOW. Why Britain was so into keeping fit I don’t know, but possibly the threat of the world ending in the year 2000 drove them to gyms.
Disc 2 includes another Sash! tune called Move Mania and another magnificent Alisha’s Attic tune called The Incidentals, which has an amazing chorus and penultimate chord that wowed ten-year-old me. It got to number 13, the fifth single of theirs to go to either 12, 13 or 14 (odd…). Perhaps they are the best act never to have a top ten smash. Embrace had several, including My Weakness If None of your Business, which charted at nine, and the Beautiful South had another one too. Perfect 10 brought back the male-female duet that was such a hit on A Little Time (in 1990!); it is a delight 20 years on to hear Paul and Jacqui reprise their signature duet on tour. Since reuniting in 2014 they have put out three albums, the last of which was called Crooked Calypso.
U2 added an old B-side, Sweetest Thing, to their Best Of 1980-1990 album; Bono had written it back in 1987 to apologise to his wife that he had been working on The Joshua Tree and a decade on, a single-shot music video by Kevin Godley featured Bono and his wife in a carriage in Dublin, with elephants and Boyzone joining the fun. Elsewhere in the category ‘Bands from the Eighties trying to stay relevant in 1998) are UB40 with their soporific ska song Come Back Darling (don’t) and, reforming for a VH1 acoustic show, Culture Club put out new music in the form of I Just Wanna Be Loved.
Having lost songwriter Tony Mortimer (‘anyone who reads the newspapers will know’ this, says the inlay in a time before Mail Online), East 17 recorded as E-17 and turned into a generic boyband with Each Time. Elsewhere, R’n’B-inflected pop was on the up, with Kele Le Roc’s Little Bit of Lovin’, Finally Found by The Honeyz (note the ‘z’), Home Alone by R Kelly (whose indiscretions have been well advertised recently) and Keith Murray (who might know them), Someone Loves You Honey by (her again) Lutricia McNeal and another Jam & Lewis special, Every Time by Janet Jackson. Janet co-wrote with them and deserves credit with defining a sound that steadily evolved, like Madonna’s but without any controversy because Janet could sing and dance better.
Also on NOW 41 was the mighty Crush by Jennifer Paige, whose opening line rhymes ‘kiss’ with ‘scientist’, and the first solo number one by a Spice Girl: I Want You Back by Melanie B (‘the M to the E-L-B, you know me!), featuring the great Missy Elliot who was not yet getting her freak on. The song with the opening line ‘Love is blind as far as the eye can see’ gave the band another chart-topper, number six (or seven if both Mama and Who Do You Think You Are are counted separately). This is odd, because Too Much was number one at the start of 1998 and Melanie B was there at the beginning of October. Odd, but better than Tell Me Ma by Shamrock.
Zomba Records put out Tell Me Ma and Up and Down. That label would benefit hugely from what was about to happen in global pop, as 1998 became 1999…