Curtis Jackson is not as epochal as Dr Dre or Eminem but reaped the rewards and became a genuine global star with their guidance. As Eminem was counting his money from 8 Mile and working towards his 2004 album Encore, he was unleashing 50 Cent onto the world. A drawling gold-toothed rapper who famously survived being shot, ‘Fiddy’ provided the song of the summer of 2003 whose video showed him being ‘concocted’ in a lab by Eminem and Dre.
In Da Club remains a titanic rap song of the era, a match for any of Eminem’s stuff, although it charted at four behind Delta Goodrem, a slow jam by Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J and, at number one, Gareth Gates. In Da Club hung around the top 20 for 14 weeks, never rising higher than three and at that stage sharing the top five with Madonna, Robbie Williams (whose song Come Undone leads Disc 2 of NOW 55), Blur (with their sombre Out of Time) and Room 5’s Make Luv. 15 years on, I know which one I’d put on in a DJ set, and it’s not Madonna.
The other big song of summer 2003 was a remix to Ignition by R Kelly, whom you may be aware has done some questionable things in his private life. Nonetheless his final number one is bulletproof, and Loneliness by Tomcraft could not stand its ground. Both songs are on Disc 1 and are part of an eclectic set that takes in dancehall, rap, pop, Xenomania, novelty kids songs, trance, UK garage, bhangra, melodic trance, deep trance, a song written by Rick Astley and one of the finest pop songs of the era (not the one written by Astley).
I’ll begin with Cry Me a River. When Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears split up in 2003, Justin was pouring his heart out to his producer Timbaland. ‘He’s from Tennessee, I’m from Virginia and immediately we bonded over being from the South,’ Tim wrote in his memoir The Emperor of Sound. ‘I could see he was visibly angry. But he wanted to work.’ When Justin sang the first two lines of what became Cry Me a River, ‘it was one of those synergistic, serendipitous moments.’ Tim constructed a sound field of shushing and knuckles cracking. The magic of that session rivalled that of Aaliyah’s best moments, writes Tim, who says Justin ‘laid his lyrics down in practically one take’.
Combined with a video acting out the end of a relationship, Justin, who in 2003 was only 22 years old, became a global solo megastar with this song, one of four hits from Justified. Incredibly, he has only put out four solo collections in a career which has included philanthropy, entrepreneurship (he famously bought Myspace) and acting in movies by the likes of David Fincher and Woody Allen. In 2018 his album Man of the Woods was timed to come out the week of his Superbowl Half-Time performance.
Justin kept the debut album from the era’s top singles band, Girls Aloud, off the top of the charts. Their second song No Good Advice, another Xenomania classic, was also a ‘terrific two’, victim of the remix to Ignition. One True Voice’s chart career stalled after their second single bombed; who remembers the awfully bracketed Shakespeare’s (Way With Words), or that it was written by Rick Astley? Imagine if they had won Popstars: The Rivals… Javine, who just missed out on joining Girls Aloud, launched her own solo career with Real Things, while Kym Marsh’s second solo single was a funky pop song called Come On Over, which could have been by any one of the Spice Girls. T.A.T.U.’s Not Gonna Get Us was more of the same: high-octane pop music with a great chorus.
With the demise of S Club 7, who released their final single Say Goodbye (written by Cathy Dennis) in summer 2003, S Club Juniors became S Club 8 and released Fool No More, which is not a match for any of S Club 7’s tunes and is more of a dance routine than a song. Ditto one of the most irritating songs on any NOW compilation, The Fast Food Song by Fast Food Rockers, a kindergarten chant based on three eating establishments with some awful verses tacked on. Every independent musician must have despaired on hearing this junk; how can that be a hit and not their tender acoustic jam?! Mike Stock has a blemish on his copy book, though he writes about it fondly in his memoir. Thank goodness for the doomy pop of Evanescence, whose member David Hodges tells a great story about the tenacity of the band, which he was actually kicked out of before the song he co-wrote went to number one and kept Fast Food Rockers off the top. Happily David has had many more hits since then.
The summer tunes of 2003 include the marvellous No Letting Go by Wayne Wonder, from Jamaica, and Bhangra Knights ft Husan, which was on a car advert. The likes of Lisa Maffia (All Over, hugely indebted to the US r’n’b sound) and Lisa Scott-Lee (Lately, a boring dance-pop song) enjoyed the last glimmers of their moments in the sun, the former emerging from So Solid Crew and the latter trying to build her own solo career from Steps. Emma Bunton’s woeful song Free Me, which she released as Emma, is too breezy for an era of dance-pop; Melanie C’s On The Horizon (co-written with Gregg Alexander and Rick Nowels) is far better, because it has more horns and a more singable tune, as well as another bulletproof middle eight by two of the best pop writers of all time. You Get What You Give plus Heaven is a Place on Earth equals hit song.
Meanwhile, Appleton hired Marius de Vries for a bouncy song called Everything Eventually, which All Saints could have had a hit with. Both Shaznay and Mel from the band were launching solo career of their own. TV talent stars Darius with Incredible (What I Meant to Say), David Sneddon with Don’t Let Go and Sinead Quinn with What You Need Is tried to keep their chart run going. Daniel Bedingfield had hit fourth top five hit with I Can’t Read You, while Busted had their first number one with You Said No, a great pop-punk song that rises and falls in all the right places.
Helped by Karen Poole from Alisha’s Attic, Amy Studt sang about being a Misfit and Ronan Keating had The Long Goodbye, which was cut by US country act Brooks & Dunn, who are humungous over there and unknown over here because we were too busy listening to Boyzone while America were being sold Brooks & Dunn. Louis Walsh, once again, knew that Ronan’s fans would buy country.
In alternative music, Irish lads The Thrills leapt out of radios in summer 2003 with Big Sur, a song which shimmered with Californian sun thanks to immaculate production; it namechecked The Monkees in the first verse and had an irresistible chorus. I have recorded it as part of the 100 songs from 100 NOWs, but I could also have picked the acoustic pop of Just The Way I’m Feeling by Feeder. Like Stereophonics, their drummer committed suicide but like the Welsh band they were heard on Virgin Radio which, having ditched The Hits, I turned on every afternoon for a year as I studied for GCSEs (I took three in 2003 and eight in 2004), enjoying wall-to-wall rock from the likes of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Snow Patrol and Keane, of whom more later.
I also heard a lot of Coldplay, whose song God Put a Smile Upon Your Face is found on Disc 2. At this point they were a very good independent rock band and were yet to rise to stadiums. Sting set the standard for the band, who copied The Police in selling hatloads of albums in the UK then in the US. Once more Sting’s back catalogue is sampled, here on Shape by Sugababes, which is based on his song Shape of My Heart, one of his finest that is driven by an acoustic guitar riff from Dominic Miller, whom I once met because Dad knows Sting.
Here is a list of songs on Disc 1 that filled clubs around Europe in summer 2003: Fly on the Wings of Love by XTM & DJ Chucky, with the high-pitched vocals of Annia, which took the Olsen Brothers’ Eurovision winner from 2000 and put a stupid wind solo on it; Satisfaction by Benny Benassi, with its synthesised vocal and massive trance riff accompanied by a pornographic video; Deepest Blue by Deepest Blue, some blissful trance that has melodic heft; Sunlight by DJ Sammy; Damaged by Plummet; The Night by Scooter; and Nothing But You by Paul van Dyk, one of many superstar DJs who benefitted from the ‘indoor raves’ of the turn of the millennium.
Nelly’s Hot In Herre was a hit all over again for Tiga, another fab DJ, who enlisted the then unknown Jake Shears, whose voice would blare out of radios as the bloke off of Scissor Sisters. Jay-Z teamed up with the Neptunes on Excuse Me Miss, a typically cool track (I preferred IZZO, which spelt out his nickname Hova, as in Jehovah, as in god). Mariah Carey followed in a duet with Cam’Ron called (Boy) I Need You, and Ashanti and Ja-Rule followed them with Mesmerize. How interesting that NOW 55 ends with three fantastic ‘urban’ artists who, by summer 2003, were making huge inroads into popular music in the UK. This was no longer a time for Spice Girls members or S Club 7, but urban pop and forward-thinking sounds from Xenomania.
And, as we will learn in the next essay, for Beyonce.