Big news in the world of NOW before I dip into NOW 42: America finally caught on when Virgin launched their own US version of Now That’s What I Call Music, which in 1998 consisted of a single disc which caught up on American music from recent months (Say You’ll Be There, MMMBop, As Long As You Love Me, Together Again) and British acts (Karma Police, Say You’ll Be There, Never Ever). Also prominent was The Way by Fastball, never on a NOW in the UK but on of my favourite songs. NOW 66 is the next in the series over there; NOW 65 came out in February, still as a single disc, and led with Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato and Camila Cabello.
The big number one in November and December 1998 was Believe by Cher, a magical song that was credited to six writers including Brian Higgins, who will prove to be a key figure in British pop in the 2000s with his Xenomania stable of writers. The contemporary hit song of 2018 follows the Xenomania model pioneered by Higgins and friends including Miranda Cooper: it’s a sort of brains’ trust where a group of five or six people come together to create some sounds. One guy may take the verse, another the chorus loop, another looking for samples, a fourth to find the melody within the song and the fifth to put the lyric together. Sometimes groups of people work on different bits, it all gets thrown together and you get something like Biology by Girls Aloud. Believe doesn’t sound like the work of six writers and gave Cher has last hit song.
And yet I never really loved the song, perhaps because of overexposure and because my ears were not attuned to autotune. Instead, I loved the loop and beat of Praise You by Fatboy Slim, the fourth enormous hit from You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. At the time Norman Cook was engaged to be married to Zoe Ball, the Radio 1 DJ. They have since divorced and Norman’s beloved Brighton & Hove Albion have returned to the top tier. The football team used to play with SKINT on the front, which was the indie label Fatboy Slim released music on. The video to Praise You was deliberately low budget and featured a rat-tailed Spike Jonze busting some ‘beboy moves’ to bemused folk in an American mall. It cohered, and helped propel Praise You, based on a sample of Take Yo Praise by a spoken-word artist Camille Yarbrough, to number one.
Every week between December 19 1998 and February 27 1999, the era covered by NOW 42, a different song was at number one. They included a song sung by Isaac Hayes as Chef from South Park (Chocolate Salty Balls), one by punky-poppers The Offspring (Pretty Fly for a White Guy) and (I will argue this) Blondie’s best song, Maria. Praise You was knocked off number one by a catalogue song sung by 911.
Also topping the charts and on NOW 42: Lenny (Leonard) Kravitz with the four-chord marvel (A-C-G-D) called Fly Away which sounds great; the astonishing house track U Don’t Know Me, which teamed vocalist Duane Harden and producer Armand Van Helden; Flat Beat by Mr Oizo, pushed to number one in April 1999 by a yellow puppet named Eric, who nodded his head to the squelchy bass of the track in the music video; Goodbye, the soppy song by the Spice Girls, had helped Victoria Beckham and her band score their own hattrick, with their third Christmas number one in a row; a cover of Billy Ocean’s When the Going Gets Tough that the world didn’t need helped Boyzone raise money for Comic Relief.
B*Witched had their fourth number one with a wet song Blame It on the Weatherman, which is absent from NOW 42. If I ever meet one of the band I’ll ask them why their record company stopped them appearing on the compilations. Elsewhere in the world of teenpop, young record buyers were snapping up Billie Piper (Honey to the Bee), Steps (Better Best Forgotten), the Honeyz (End of the Line), a child called Justin (Over You) and All Saints (a slow-roller of a song called War of Nerves). Various Artists follow up their number one with an ABBA-inspired medley, Thank ABBA for the Music, based on a TV special: Steps sang Take a Chance on Me and other acts including Tina Cousins helped. Tina herself is on NOW 42 with Killin’ Time, as is Robbie Williams whose song Strong kicks off Disc 2 (‘the pause button’s broke on my video’ is a line that could only have been written in 1998, just before DVD players came in). Steps, meanwhile, took their version of a Bee Gees song, Tragedy, to number one, complete with the hands-to-the-head dance moves. Praise You replaced it at the top.
The first gig I ever went to has a fun story. I used to listen to the Capital FM Breakfast Show, which one day was giving away tickets to see The Corrs at Wembley Arena. Chris Tarrant played three short clips of their songs and I, a ten-year-old Corrs fan, knew them all. I rang up and got through, then got put to air. I correctly spoke all three clips after a nice chat with Chris Tarrant, who I think was amazed I was ten and probably thought mum had helped me out, and won four tickets to the gig and travel in a limo!! I live four miles from Wembley so the journey was short and fun. Unfortunately I was in the car on the way to school so no recording exists in my possession, though I would record subsequent appearances on local and national radio.
All this is to say that What Can I Do by The Corrs is very prominent on NOW 42, the eighth track on Disc 1 just before Big Big World by the Swedish act Emilia, a song which you will remember if you know it (‘I’m a big big girl…) In adult pop Everything But the Girl return with a re-release of a 1984 track Tender Blue, which is both tender and blue but nowhere near as big as Missing. Tender is the seven-minute track that Blur took to number one, while Roxette sing Wish I Could Fly as they attempted to stay relevant while fellow Swedes The Cardigans have yet another hit with Erase/Rewind (‘cos I’m changing my mind’). Ace of Base fly the Swedish flag in the year the nation won Eurovision once again with Take Me to Your Heaven (key change!), as their Motown-inflected tune Always Have, Always Will effortlessly became their tenth top 20 hit. Fun fact: the song was co-written by Australian writer Mike Chapman, whose heyday was the 1970s helping The Sweet and Suzi Quatro have tons of hits, though he also wrote Mickey for Toni Basil and some of Blondie’s classics. I wonder how big his house is…
I also loved the euphoria of National Express, a song about long-distance coach travel from the mind of Neil Hannon aka The Divine Comedy. When I saw him/them in 2006, I bellowed along to the song. I can’t remember if The Beautiful South played How Long’s a Tear Take to Dry when I caught them just before they split up for good in 2004, but it remains one of my favourite ten of their songs. Jarvis Cocker of Pulp wrote Walk like a Panther, which was a hit for All Seeing I and Jarvis’s fellow Sheffield-born singer Tony Christie; it’s a song based on a loop with Tony muttering about salmon, lions and eagles in the chorus.
The passing of Dusty Springfield was marked with You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a track that has all the emotional elements of an Adele song. There was catalogue elsewhere on the compilation: Danish band Cartoons brought a sense of enthusiasm to Witch Doctor, the song from the 1950s that went ‘ooh eeh ooh ah ah ting tang wallah-wallah bing bang’; Blockster plundered the Bee Gees for You Should Be…, which remixed You Should Be Dancing; Deetah rapped over a version of La Isla Bonita by Madonna called El Paradiso Rico, which I loved at the time; A+ rapped over the first bars of (my main man) Ludwig Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; Emmie covered More Than This by Roxy Music; 911 gave Britain a pointless cover of A Little Bit More, which had been a hit for Dr Hook in 1976.
As Noelrock moves into ‘bedwetter music’, as Alan McGee called the sounds of Coldplay, Welsh rockers Stereophonics appear on NOW for the first time with the ace Just Looking. Terrovision had their biggest hit in 1998 with a song about Tequila, remixed by Neil Claxton of Mint Royale. If it comes on at an indie club night, it still sounds terrific; the singer of the song, Tony Wright, is now on tour as part of a country-influenced duo. Meanwhile, the Vengabus was coming and everyone was jumping as The Vengaboys honked their horn and had a smash with We Like to Party.
Dru Hill had a huge hit singing Wild Wild West with Will Smith and here they are on NOW 42 with These Are the Times, before going back to Peter Andre Land. Mention here to Sash! who teamed up with Dr Alban, who had hits in the early 1990s, on Colour the World, on which Dr A raps about skin colour to a pulsing beat.
Also here are Ladysmith Black Mambazo with Inkanyezi Nezazi, a nativity song that was a top 40 hit over Christmas 1998. I missed it, as I was still listening to Capital FM’s chart which mixed sales and airplay. In the next essay I’ll tell you why life as a pop fan changed for me simply by switching charts.