The back of the inlay booklet for NOW 54, released in spring 2003, enables fans to ‘get your official NOW! mono and polyphonic ringtones’. I used to watch the music video channel The Hits on TV, and every other advert was for ringtones, since it became a chance for pop songs to chime in public whenever someone called your phone. I never had a pop song ringtone. Did you? Why?!
We’ve met Brian Higgins before, as one of the writers of Believe by Cher. Entrusted with the debut single by new quintet Girls Aloud, his Xenomania team worked some magic and came up with 2003’s most memorable single. 15 years on there is no doubt that Sound of the Underground is one of the era’s greatest pop songs: the staccato vocals, amazing bridge, surf guitar chorus, a set of lyrics full of ‘disco dancing’ and ‘chain reaction running through my brain’, all five girls singing particular lines, a wind machine-assisted video, the mighty ending…
Girls Aloud were one of many stars to emerge through TV talent shows, in this case Popstars: The Rivals. Pete Waterman put together a boyband called One True Voice, while Louis Walsh (oddly for a boyband mogul) concocted a girl group. The pair went up against each other for Christmas number one 2002 and, because Sacred Trust is one of the Bee Gees’ lesser efforts and was an odd choice of cover, Girls Aloud won.
Also making waves at the same time as Girls Aloud (Nadine, Nicola, Sarah, Kimberley and of course Cheryl) was Bollywood music, with the rise in British Asian culture through movies like Bend It Like Beckham and TV shows like The Kumars at Number 42, whose cast helped Gareth Gates to raise money for Comic Relief with the official single, a cover of Spirit in the Sky by Doctor and the Medics. Panjabi MC’s ace Mundian To Bach Ke sounds timeless; there had never been anything like it in the charts, and it remains the high point of British Asian pop in the 2000s.
Disc 1 has five bits of catalogue. Richard X strikes gold again with a mashup of Being Boiled by The Human League and Rufus & Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody, calling it Being Nobody and using the talents of Liberty X. Room 5 borrow Oliver Cheatham’s song Get Down Saturday Night, rename it Make Luv, stick it in a deodorant advert and reap the rewards; the week it topped the charts, Clocks by Coldplay entered at number nine, and three weeks later it would deny Madonna a number one with American Life. The old soul track Love, Need and Want You inspires Dilemma, a cracking slow jam that paired Nelly (him again) and Kelly Rowland, the one from Destiny’s Child who isn’t Beyonce. Nelly doesn’t get enough credit for his run of hits in the 2000s, so I am giving it to him!
The Neptunes get plenty of credit, especially for nudging Justin Timberlake on a path to superstardom. His album Justified should be credited to The Neptunes Presents JT, thanks to smooth hits such as Like I Love You, which takes every magical technique from Pharrell and Chad and sticks it in a four-minute pop song: we have ‘hey!’ stabs, syncopated guitars, polyrhythmic drum patterns, a chorus full of chords and a guest rap from their friend Clipse. They would top this with the next single release, discussed in the next essay.
Both Nelly and Justin are two-timers on NOW 54 thanks to their own duet Work It, a filthy song about dancing girls that they co-wrote. Justin has grown up!! Meanwhile Stargate have another hit, this time producing the Beenie Man song Street Life (Swedish pop plus dancehall rapper equals hit), while I loved Pain Killer by Turin Brakes, a band beloved by Dermot O’Leary on Radio 2 who are now a great independent act. As pop cannibalises garage and two-step, Jamieson moves into the top five with True, a marvellous garage-pop song.
The mighty Junior Senior are fondly recalled, 15 years on, with their massive hit Move Your Feet, whose video was sublime; follow-up Rhythm Bandits was even better! Here It Comes Again by Melanie C is interesting because it is co-written by Marius De Vries, who worked on the soundtrack to the movie Moulin Rouge and helped Rufus Wainwright and David Gray have hit albums thanks to his magic production dust. Year 3000 was a hit for the Jonas Brothers in the States a few years after Busted took their song about ‘triple-breasted women’ and outselling Michael Jackson into the charts.
Again, it’s a load of fun for young kids to bash about to. Is it a coincidence in 2003 the hugely successful film School of Rock was seen by millions. The film, now a music, is about a teacher who educates kids about the power of rock’n’roll; the teach is played, in his finest role, by Jack Black from the band Tenacious D, the record shop in the movie High Fidelity and from the Foo Fighters music video Learn to Fly (never on a NOW, along with the D’s mighty Tribute, which was on Kerrang’s music video channel for a whole year).
Disc 2 has seven bits of catalogue ranging from straight covers (DJ Sammy doing Boys of Summer by Don Henley, Ronan Keating and Lulu doing We’ve Got Tonight by Bob Seger, Erasure doing Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel) to reinventions, as on Big Yellow Taxi, the first NOW appearance for Counting Crows but not for the song’s writer Joni Mitchell, as it was sampled on Got Til It’s Gone by Janet Jackson (see NOW 38). Counting Crows, who celebrate 25 years together in 2018, enlist Vanessa Carlton, who appeared on NOW 53 with her smash A Thousand Miles. Queen’s track Flash is remixed by Vanguard, and Can You Dig It by The Mock Turtles, written by actor Steve Coogan’s brother Martin, was remixed by Fatboy Slim.
The seventh, and best use of catalogue, is Hey Ma, which nicks the chord progression from Easy by The Commodores and means Lionel Richie gets yet more money off of that song’s exploitation. Lionel doesn’t get enough credit for his role in popular music; he is almost the American Paul McCartney, though I am not sure why Lionel became a TV talent show judge in the 2010s.
Speaking to Tom Lamont in a June 2018 piece on NOW for the Observer, Clara Amfo revealed that NOW 54 was her favourite NOW, thanks to the presence of two great songs with two great videos: Hey Ma by Camron and 03 Bonnie & Clyde, the first collaboration between Beyonce and Jay-Z which features Prince, thanks to an interpolation of his track If I Was Your Girlfriend, Tupac, whose song Me and My Girlfriend is used, and Kanye West, who produced it. Fun fact: it was kept off number one by David Sneddon, on whom more in about 500 words’ time.
Clara remembered 2003’s corny hiphop and R&B club nights’ and how NOW compilations ‘made you think you were getting the very best of the chart at the time’. They also helped her be a compiler of mixtapes, ‘basically my job at school’. Now a DJ who briefly presented the Top 40 chart, Clara is enthused about whatever she plays from 10am on BBC Radio 1, and has since met Beyonce and Jay-Z. She would also be a marvellous TV talent show judge thanks to her omnipresent smile which you can hear emanating from her broadcasting. She has one of the best jobs in the world, as the host of The Live Lounge.
Liam Gallagher would make a terrific judge too. He would sell a lot of records off the back of it. Noel Gallagher had been approached to replace Simon Cowell on The X Factor but he sensibly turned it down to concentrate on counting his money after Oasis split. Liam’s song Songbird is a pretty tune with two chords in it that looks forward to his solo career, which is thriving in 2018; his former partner Nicole Appleton had another hit with her sister Natalie in Don’t Worry, which is on Disc 1 next to the track Love Doesn’t Have to Hurt, which somehow found its way from a writers’ room containing Tom Kelly, Billy Steinberg and Susanna Hoffs to the laps of Atomic Kitten.
Blue sing U Make Me Wanna, S Club 7 sing Alive but are credited as S Club (as Paul had left) and Sugababes are Stronger, singing a self-empowerment anthem which the band co-wrote. Robbie Williams returns as if he has never been away with a song its co-writer Guy Chambers describes as being influenced by Fatboy Slim and Moby; Feel was performed in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Opening Ceremony and is one of Rob’s best vocal performances, as well as being one of the last acts of his Imperial Phase.
Daniel Bedingfield has his second number one with the soppy ballad If You’re Not The One, which was displaced at the top by The Cheeky Girls. Only kidding, it was Lose Yourself by Eminem, the evergreen rap track from the movie 8 Mile, the year’s other box office smash. The Cheeky Girls rose to fame on Pop Idol, with a charming dance that astonished the judging panel. Will Young, Gareth Gates and Darius all became stars as a result of the show, as did Zoe Birkett, whose song Treat Me Like a Lady joins Darius’s song Rushes on Disc 1. All four Pop Idol stars mentioned in that sentence have gone on to the stage in, respectively, Cabaret, Dirty Dancing, From Here to Eternity and The Bodyguard. Talent does not expire. I think The Cheeky Girls have done pantomime…
Over on the BBC, I tuned into Fame Academy which also produced its share of stars who, unlike Pop Idol contestants, also wrote their own songs. Three such songs are on NOW 54: David Sneddon won the show and gave the world a sub-Gary Barlow piece of muck which rhymed ‘angel’ with ‘angel’ called Stop Living The Lie; Sinead Quinn offered the magnificent I Can’t Break Down about staying strong and holding on, with a mighty chorus; Ainslie Henderson sang Keep Me a Secret, co-written with Sinead, about illicit love. I saw him later in the decade playing a set in Edinburgh in a tiny café and was told by a friend not to mention Fame Academy. He seemed a nice chap and in 2018 is a renowned animation filmmaker. Fellow TV talent show contestant Kym Marsh from Hear’Say launches her solo career on NOW 54 with Cry, an anodyne bit of Swedish pop which she sings well.
Massive Attack have finally followed up Protection on their fourth album 100th Window, though only 3D remains from the original trio. Sinead O’Connor writes and sings on Special Cases, which closes NOW 54 and follows another track by Richard Ashcroft called Science of Silence. The former drug addict sings about how ‘we are on a rock’, as if he has just worked out which planet he lives on. I preferred his early, funny songs about drugs not working.
Not on NOW 54 is a song kept off number one by Girls Aloud: Danger High Voltage! by Electric Six featuring Jack White, who was Mr Rock in the 2000s but is nowhere near a NOW. Thus listeners will not have heard the magical sounds of Fell In Love with a Girl, Seven Nation Army or Hotel Yorba, which is their loss. Also absent are both Beautiful (written by Linda ‘4 Non Blondes’ Perry) and Dirrty, two number ones for Christina Aguilera which dominated the world in 2002 and 2003.
I have no idea where T.A.T.U. are. In January 2003, a time before Youtube and before social media, two Russian girls were part of a manufactured duo whose songs were sung in breathy vocals and accompanied by pornographic videos which weren’t really right for the children. Thanks to a mind-numbing chorus, All The Things She Said leapt to number one to replace David Sneddon and hold the superior Stole, by Kelly Rowland, off the top. The track Sneddon had knocked off number one, in a victory for Fame Academy over Popstars, is one of the finest pop songs of the century, which I hope is the correct choice for the playlist.