With the utter ruination of the physical sales market, musicians needed alternative streams of revenue. Happily, the large-scale music festival was growing in popularity due to baby boomers needing to have places to go to celebrate 50th and 60th birthdays, stadium bands wanting to play in fields more often and the guitar-rock revival helping ticket sales at Download, Glastonbury, Isle of Wight, Reading and Leeds and V Festival.
I had no desire to go to a music festival as a teenager; I preferred, and still prefer, indoor showers and actual beds. In early 2006, having accepted an offer to study at Edinburgh University dependent on grades, I was eking out the rest of my secondary education and working towards a Grade 8 exam in the violin. I had woken up to the fact that if I practiced I could enjoy it and went through the grades with the help of two great teachers, Lydia McLean and Fiona Jones. Mrs Jones remains one of the finest of many fab teachers I had – Penny French, David Brown and David Green for English, Tony Lazar and Alan Woolley for Latin, the mighty DJ Critchley for Greek – and I would have loved to become a teacher were it not for children. Thus I try to write and broadcast, with a bit of songwriting on the side.
How odd, then, that I did not actively listen to violinists like Kreisler, Nigel Kennedy and Menuhin, preferring the guitar-rock of Oasis, Coldplay and Sondre Lerche, who has never been on a NOW despite releasing a steady glut of albums over the last 18 years. I’ve met him and he’s a great guy, following his muse, separating from his wife and popping over to the UK during every album cycle.
At the time, young guys were not into Sondre Lerche but the likes of Fall Out Boy, named after the sidekick to Simpsons character Radioactive Man; their debut hit Sugar We’re Goin Down introduced the world to songwriter-bassist Pete Wentz and vocalist Patrick Stump. The band are still going today, as are Gorillaz, whose song Dirty Harry remains an astonishing piece of pop music that was heavily rotated on Radio 1 at the end of 2005.
My old Classics teacher Nick Pollock (once sung about on a school trip as being ‘only 24, but yet to score’ to the tune of Volare) was shocked that I knew the music of his friends Nizlopi who took a song about driving a JCB right to the very top of the UK charts, above even Gorillaz. Their young teenage roadie, Ed Sheeran, must have picked up some tips about crowd control which can only mean Nizlopi (who turned down several approaches from major labels) are responsible for Ed Sheeran’s career.
Disc 1 of NOW 63 has seven acts who emerged via TV talent shows and six pieces of catalogue. See the Day by Girls Aloud and A Night to Remember by Liberty X intersect that Venn diagram, with respectively a soppy Dee C Lee song and a funky Shalamar number. Shayne Ward won the The X Factor in 2005, a show that had replaced Pop Idol, and had a number one with the self-empowerment song called That’s My Goal, while Andy Abraham was a guy who took out bins who eventually represented the UK at Eurovision and had a big hit with Hang Up.
Kelly Clarkson followed Since U Been Gone with a brilliant ballad Because of You, one of the best of the decade, written by David and Ben from Evanescence. The key change (in the MIDDLE of the final chorus), the vocal, the atmosphere and the piano are all perfect. This song will endure for decades and may be Kelly’s signature song as she moves into the Streisand phase of her career.
Will Young’s All Time Love does much the same, with an understated vocal over the top of a piano line and strings arranged by Anne Dudley of The Art of Noise (surely Dame Anne in future years). Well done to its writer Jamie Hartman, who has since written a song called Human for Rag’N’Bone Man. Unwittingly, I have seen Jamie perform live; he is the frontman of a band called Ben’s Brother, a fact that makes me overjoyed to learn that you can work on both sides of the room, in the back and out front. I sent him a message on Twitter instantly.
The seventh piece of catalogue is It’s Chico Time by Chico, which is another song that Jamie Hartman must tear his hair out at. How can he write emotionally driven pop songs like Let Me Out and All Time Love while some berk with a grin that looked good on The X Factor puts out a song that says ‘you can get delirious if you take life too serious…It’s Chico Time!’? It’s a catchphrase rather than a song, but it proved that Simon Cowell, who knew folk would click DOWNLOAD and buy into Chico, is a genius.
When it was reported that No Tomorrow by Orson had sold the fewest copies of any song to get to number one in the UK, many hands were wrung. Not because it’s a bad song – it’s great and has a killer chorus – but because the physical aspect of going to a shop, be it Virgin, HMV, Boots the chemist or Woolworth’s, had been overtaken by clicking DOWNLOAD. How could a new artist be launched if they were just one of hundreds who were uploading music onto Myspace, like four lads from Sheffield called Arctic Monkeys whose enormous number one I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor is missing from NOW 63. Instead, we have James from Busted’s new band Son of Dork, whose song Ticket Outta Loserville found its way into his off-West End musical called Loserville.
The answer, of course, apart from old-fashioned gigging, was through television.
Sony had the bright idea (the title of Orson’s album) of selling their technology via an advert full of colourful bouncing rubber balls; the song that was used to soundtrack the advert was an electronic pop song called Heartbeats slowed down and played on an acoustic guitar by Swedish performer Jose Gonzalez. Once you saw the advert, you didn’t forget it; how on earth had the director and team got permission to shut off streets (and they really did bounce, because they hit cars and poles), then film it all?!
Adverts had helped, and would continue to help, acts have big hits – remember the Levi’s campaigns of the 1990s? – and I am sure Jose doesn’t regret being the guy chosen to benefit from the Sony advert. His catalogue as a solo artist and in the band Junip, is marvellous, and British fans can hear him play, along with a 20-piece ensemble, in September at the Royal Albert Hall. Fun fact: Jose abandoned a PhD in Biochemistry to pursue music.
There is the usual eclecticism on NOW 63, best represented in Heartbeats by an acoustic version of a dance-pop song, the final track on Disc 2. Elsewhere on the compilation are many returning acts: Liz McClarnon (covering the Barbra Streisand song Woman In Love for no reason), The Shapeshifters (Incredible), McFly (the punchy I Wanna Hold You), Westlife (Amazing, which is their attempt at heavy metal…nope, it’s a ballad), Sugababes (the self-empowerment song Ugly, written by Dallas Austin), Simon Webbe (the gorgeous No Worries, that sounds a bit like Lean On Me by Bill Withers), Friday Hill (One More Night Alone, which is sung abysmally but sounds great), Robbie Williams (Advertising Space, one of his weakest singles) and Rihanna, with the rocksteady groove of If It’s Lovin’ That You Want.
Over on Virgin Radio, U2 (All Because of You), Goldfrapp (Ride a White Horse, which follows NOW 63’s Ooh La La as a perfect electropop pair), Coldplay (Talk, which sampled Computer Love by Kraftwerk), Embrace (the soppy Nature’s Law), Richard Ashcroft (Break the Night with Colour, which only uses the white notes of the piano) and Kaiser Chiefs (The Modern Way, ‘faking it every day’) were on heavy rotation.
A smattering of new stars came to market with hits in late 2005 and early 2006, not least The Feeling, whose song Sewn was a magnificent debut. They were hotly tipped by the Sound of 2006 poll, which was led by Leeds-based jazz-pop singer Corinne Bailey Rae, whose debut single Put Your Record On kicks off NOW 63 and remains a fine pop song. Also high on the critical list was Kubb, a hot sexy guy whose song Grow is way down the list on Disc 2. Missing for the moment are Plan B, Chris Brown and Guillemots, while Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were gaining plaudits on independent weblogs like Pitchfork and nowhere near a NOW.
I enjoy the appearance of Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile, an act to whom I was alerted by Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 2 show, on Sleep by Texas. I loved Analogue (All I Want) by the Norwegian Beatles, a-ha, whose song Summer Moved On from 2000 was even better but not on a NOW. For a third time, You Got the Love was remixed and it was this version that Florence Welch used when she had a hit cover of the song in the 2010s.
As 2005 became 2006 the world was dancing to My Humps by Black Eyed Peas, which is 99% Milkshake by Kelis, which makes Will.i.am – whom I will always refer to as Will.je.suis thanks to a funny caption on French TV – a two-timer as he guests on the awful Beep by Pussycat Dolls, so called because they have to beep out risqué words. I would have put the ‘BOING’ from Re-Rewind in, on a song that borrows from the strings before the final chorus of Evil Woman by Electric Light Orchestra.
Other bits of catalogue come from many different shades of the musical spectrum: Leo Sayer’s song Thunder In My Heart is remixed and retitled Thunder In My Heart Again by Meck, who took it to number one; two Dutch blokes called Hi_Tack (note the underscore), one of whom was DJ Jean from The Launch, take one line from Say Say Say by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson (‘all alone I sit home by the phone waiting for ya, baby), stick a beat underneath it and have a hit; similarly the theme to TV show Baywatch, I’ll Be Ready, was mixed by Sunblock.
Dead or Alive benefitted from the late Pete Burns appearing on a celebrity version of Big Brother which drove curious viewers to download You Spin Me Round. Also in the house was Samuel Preston, singer/songwriter in The Ordinary Boys, whose first album Over the Counter Culture produced a couple of hits. If he decided that going into the house would help his band have bigger hits, it worked. Boys Will Be Boys went top three, but ultimately his disastrous marriage to fellow housemate Chantelle (met in January, engaged in April, married in August, divorced the next June) led to an equally disastrous TV appearance when he walked out of the recording of Never Mind the Buzzcocks when host Simon Amstell read passages from Chantelle’s memoir. Preston, as he was known, has written songs for Cher, Olly Murs and Enrique Iglesias but, after an awful fall in 2017, is unable to play guitar.
NOW 63 was dedicated to Chris Blair, ‘Abbey Road legend, mastering engineer, NOW 22 to NOW 61’. I hope the NOW 100 celebrations make clear that a whole team don’t just throw NOW compilations together.