As a gift at the end of 1998 – fine, let’s call it a Chrismukkah gift – I got a karaoke machine. Pop in a cassette, plug in the mic and bosh. Better still, pop in a blank TK cassette, press PLAY/RECORD on the left deck and PLAY on the right deck, and record your own version of your favourite song. I had discovered the joys of home taping.
I still have tons of tapes from the years 1999 to 2003, which I would edit and re-edit and re-re-edit and take on holidays, my own compilations which I think I called My Awesome Compilation. The first song I ever recorded off the radio was Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson. The second was (Not the) Greatest Rapper by 1000 Clowns, which scraped into the top 40 and was never on a NOW. By this stage I had switched to Mark Goodier and the Radio 1 chart, leaving Dr Fox and the PEPSI chart (based on sales and airplay, not just sales) behind.
Because I was in no way a chart nerd who 20 years later would embark on a long project to document my love of pop music through the NOW series, I definitely cannot go back to the books in which I logged the charts, like a nerd, which were now Official. I can do so while listening to the chart dated June 15 2018, presented officially for the first time by Scott Mills, who was on Radio 1 back in 1999 and is one of the most consummate broadcasters in Britain.
Because I am now 30 years old, I am at least double the age that most chart fans should be; pop is a young man’s game. Most popstars of 2018 were barely out of nappies in summer 1999, when NOW 43 launched onto the world and I went on a great family holiday to California to discover the joys of KYXY 96.5, a station that played all soft-rock, all the time.
It is impossible to imagine a world without the following songs, which are all on this marvellous compilation: Bring It All Back by S Club 7, co-written by Elliot Kennedy for another Simon Fuller project who fronted the TV show Miami 7; Boom Boom Boom Boom by The Vengaboys (‘MAKE SOME NOISE!’); Turn Around by Phats & Small (Phats aka Ben Ofoedu married Scott’s fellow broadcaster Vanessa Feltz!); Red Alert by Basement Jaxx, which still sounds like nothing else from 1999 aside from their own work; the UK’s 1999 Eurovision entry Say It Again by Precious, written by Paul Varney and containing a massive ‘Eurovision’ key change, going up a step from E-flat to F; and the enormous Sweet Like Chocolate by Shanks & Bigfoot, with a great animated video and a song which brought the ‘two-step’ sound to pop music. And all those are on Disc 1.
Disc 2 starts with the number one spoken word hit under director Baz Luhrmann’s name but it ought to be credited in some way to Lee Perry, who speaks the prose of Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young (written by Mary Schmich but misattributed to writer Kurt Vonnegut). As part of his Popular series on UK number one hits on FreakyTrigger.com, Tom Ewing gives this a 1/10 rating and lists five annoying things about it: delivery, timing, insipidity, the loop, its very existence (‘a viral video in waiting’) and how ‘every piece of advice comes with a caveat’. It is also ironic in the extreme, and I am convinced by Tom’s argument, which you can read here.
Backstreet Boys, with a Max Martin song called I Want It That Way, had their first number one at the ninth attempt. It would remain their sole chart-topper in the UK; in the US, they never topped the all-genre Hot 100, though I Want It That Way was a ten-week Adult Contemporary number one, even if the band say they never want to hear the girl agree with how the band ‘want it that way’. In the UK, 911 followed up A Little Bit More with a pointless cover of Private Number, the Booker T Jones and William Bell co-write that at least turned me on to one of the most blissful love songs ever written (‘Baby baby baby, you can have my private number’). The guest vocalist, uncredited, is listed in the credits as Natalie Jordan, so I hope she bought something nice with her session fee.
Texas provide In Our Lifetime, another marvellous pop song with a pentatonic riff running through it (hear it before Sharleen comes in), and Supergrass return with the power-pop of Pumping On Your Stereo (or is it ‘humping’?). The video is a fantastic Hammer & Tongs-directed production full of massive felt instruments. Also in guitar rock, Cast return with Beat Mama, James put out the keyboard-tastic I Know What I’m Here For and Gomez release the title track from their ‘all genres to all people’ Album of the Year, Bring It On.
Pick a Part That’s New by Stereophonics, with the band driving Minis in the video, was one of the first songs I recorded on the karaoke machine and remains my favourite song of theirs thanks to a great instrumental bit in the middle and a killer chorus that Noel Gallagher would have been writing if he wasn’t counting his money. Kelly Jones is a very underrated rock frontman but in 1999, before the drab trilogy of Mr Writer, Have a Nice Day and Handbags & Gladrags (Kelley went the Full Noel), the band were Wales’ most exciting rock’n’roll group (sorry Manics!).
Canada’s greatest rocker was still Bryan Adams, whose song Cloud Number Nine follows a song by an act with whom he would top the chart in 2000, Chicane, who enlisted Maire Brennan of Clannad (as she is credited) to sing a new version of the renowned Clannad song Harry’s Game. Now that’s what I call chillout…I remember that 9pm (Till I Come) by ATB (thanks to the inlay booklet for printing his name, Andre Tanneberger) had charted on import sales alone, which meant that even with no official release club DJs were buying copies in from the continent to play in the clubs. It was no surprise that the track was a number one.
I maintain Lovestruck is the best song Madness have done, I think, aside from their obvious massive hits that combined ska and pop magic. I once walked past Suggs in Soho and almost thanked him purely for Lovestruck, or maybe I just wanted directions and I knew he’d know, but he was drinking (natch) and I walked past. Staying with the drinking theme, Ooh La La by The Wiseguys, from the Budweiser toads commercial (‘Bud. WEIS. ERRRR’), was a flute-propelled terrific two. (The booklet says ‘it’s when it means ‘its’; I quit a job over my employer making that error once…)
NOW 43 ends with three dance anthems: Synth & Strings by Yomanda, Better Off Alone by the ‘collective of top Dutch DJs and producers’ DJ Jurgen and Alice Deejay (more synths, less strings) and To Be In Love, by Masters at Work with the vocals of India. A 12-minute version of the track exists, which I got lost in while writing this essay. Thanks ‘Masters’, aka ‘Little’ Louis Vega and Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez, who produced a definitive club sound in the late 1990s that was also used by Shanks & Bigfoot on their song Sweet Like Chocolate, which is found on NOW 44.
The Chemical Brothers have another club and chart hit with Hey Boy Hey Girl, which still sounds enormous, as does Right Here Right Now by Fatboy Slim, which also has a phenomenal video by Hammer & Tongs which you’ll know if you’ve seen it. Blur’s song Coffee & TV, sung by Graham Coxon (though credited as ‘Song: Albarn. Music: Albarn/Coxon/James/Rowntree. Words: Coxon) has yet another great Hammer & Tongs video. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll never look at a milk carton the same way again.
(Scott has just announced a new number one after One Kiss by Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s eight-week run at the top ends. It’s Jess Glynne who, totting up all her featured vocals and solo cuts, has the most number ones by any solo British female. The song is awful and not a patch on her first: Rather Be.)
May 1999 saw the first of hundreds of songs by Westlife; Swear It Again is not on a NOW. Louis Walsh had switched his attention to Westlife from Boyzone, whose last number one is a wet cover of You Needed Me (written by Randy Goodrum, sung by Anne Murray, with the first line ‘I cried a tear’). Tom Ewing notes in his essay on the track: ‘It’s basically a Ronan spotlight number…it feels like priming the audience for the imminent solo career’, of which more shortly.
Culture Club continue their comeback with Your Kisses Are Charity, and Fierce take a song called Dayz Like That (with a z) announce themselves as ‘serious contenders in the British r’n’b market’ (quoth the booklet). Dina Carroll’s Without Love is a huge dance-pop song with a syncopated chorus that ought not to have stalled at 13, while the phenomenal Beverley Knight had the biggest of her seven top 40 hits with The Greatest Day, which ought not to have stalled at 14.
Beverley and Dina have ‘the voice’ in the era of weedy vocalists like Geri Halliwell (Look at Me), Adam Rickitt aka Nicky Tilsley in Coronation Steet (I Breathe Again, written by the hot production duo Jewels & Stone) and Lolly (Viva La Radio, so sickly it will make you violently ill if you are over 11 years old). NOW 43 puts Martine McCutcheon (Tiffany from EastEnders) on Disc 1 Track 1. The song is wetter than spring 1999 and was the result of a year in development after Tiffany was written out of the show. I have never put on EastEnders by choice, but I am aware how long its cultural shadow remains 30 years after it first aired to offer a Southern version of Coronation Street.
Dan Wilson would have one of the biggest hits of recorded time with Someone Like You, which he co-wrote with Adele. Back in 1998 and 1999, his song Secret Smile by his band Semisonic shot to number 13 thanks to a silky riff and a great sense of melody. Dan has rotated between performing for himself and writing for others. Thanks to Someone Like You, he need never work again, but why do obviously awesome songs seem to stall outside the top ten?
Successful songwriters do not necessarily want to be big stars in front of the camera, to play the fame game. They just want to write hits, mostly tucked away in a writers’ room, then let the songs travel the world while they stay home and write more hits. Joel Pott, once of Athlete, Iain Archer, once of Snow Patrol, and Johnny McDaid, currently of Snow Patrol, are three hitmakers who moved into the back room and have respectively helped George Ezra, Jake Bugg and Ed Sheeran create product for their well-received albums. Linda Perry took her massive hat, tossed it in the cupboard and ended up writing hits like Beautiful for Christina Aguilera and Get the Party Started for Pink. The brilliance of those two tracks is that you can imagine the gal from What’s Up singing them.
Gregg Alexander need never work again having written You Get What You Give, which is a perfect pop song. It was the introduction to his talent for finding a memorable hook, or ten in the same song. The intro to the song is utterly extraordinary: piano part, whoosh, a tambourine rattling, a grunt from Gregg, a syncopated guitar part, an ooh from Gregg, more whooshing, a woah from Gregg and then the best count-in in all of pop. And then comes the intro proper with competing hooks and Gregg yelling over the top. 33 magical seconds that remain Gregg’s lasting contribution to popular music, in spite of writing hits for Ronan Keating and for the film Begin Again and, in the song’s final verse, putting ‘Beck and Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson’ together at last.
Gregg’s band New Radicals came and went, leaving one magnificent album called Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too (the favourite of my friend JP) featuring the pure one-hit wonder You Get What You Give. The song should really have been called You Got the Music In You, but such is Gregg’s brilliance that he drops the line in as a lyrical hook that recurs near the end of the song.
I will fight anyone, through the medium of pop, who says this is not the best of all the great songs on NOW 43. It is certainly better than Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).