Ten summers ago in 2008, England had failed to qualify for a major tournament and football was a sideshow for me. I stayed up in Edinburgh, enjoying June and July before the madness of August. I was based in the Marchmont area of the city where the Scottish authors Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith had spent many hours writing and walking.
In May 2008 I had founded the Arts section of Fresh Air and was gearing up for a fab year adding to my portfolio, hosting two shows a week (an arts magazine and a creative arts hour) but, by October, I had disagreed with the new committee and resigned, frustrated that I could not do an overnight broadcast about the American election. It remains one of my biggest regrets that I did not stand for the position of Manager, following in the steps of my friends Tim and Tallah.
I suppose by default I listened to less music in 2009 than 2008, but I still listened to many Fresh Air shows and monitored its playlist. The song that seemed to blast out of every car and radio station was a two-chord marvel by The Ting Tings. I wonder what Julian de Martino and Katie White bought with all the money they earned from That’s Not My Name, an update of Mickey by Toni Basil that became another song (like Mambo Number 5) to mention the names of many girls. It clocks in at a magnificent five minutes ten seconds and is perfect on a sunny day.
Uncredited on one of the tracks, Calvin Harris is a two-timer: Wiley’s foe Dizzee Rascal’s summer anthem Dance Wiv Me lists him as a featured artist, but In My Arms by Kylie Minogue only has him in the production and writing credits, which he shares with our old mate Biff Stannard. Another top hit in the UK was Wearing My Rolex, as grime star Wiley broke for pop stardom with a quite slight club banger that was more dance-pop than grime. Placed after it is You Wot by DJ Q and MC Bonez, a song that sounded like pirate radio made into a pop product and is more a catchphrase than a song,
Stargate are still busy, three-timing on NOW 70. They produced the trilogy of Closer for Ne-Yo, Take a Bow for Rihanna (written by Ne-Yo) and With You for Chris Brown, who like R Kelly has had a questionable life away from the stage and the studio. The guys who wrote Umbrella are called into action by Mariah Carey, who sings Touch My Body and proves she has her finger on the pulse of r’n’b-driven pop music.
While Simon Cowell gave UK fans Leona Lewis, who is on NOW 70 with the well-sung ballad Better In Time, in the US Jordin Sparks took the title of American Idol. Her song No Air, a favourite of Adeel Amini’s as revealed on the podcast element of this project, was a duet with Chris Brown, a two-timer on NOW 70 whose career at the time was all about the music. The inlay booklet notes that he had already sold out the O2 Arena (surely not all 16,000 seats…).
Usher, an elder statesman whose first hits were a decade before those of Chris Brown, sang about Love in this Club, featuring rapper Young Jeezy, while Timbaland had enlisted Keri Hilson and Nicole Scherzinger on Scream. I thought Usher, who named his son Usher as his dad had named him Usher, had never attracted any controversy but I have just read about a nasty infection of which Usher is now clear. He only turns 40 in October 2018, and has just split from his second wife. There is still time for a third act in his career.
Xenomania have a new person to write for, though Girls Aloud take the weird Can’t Speak French into the charts; Gabriella Cilmi is best known for being namechecked on an early Ed Sheeran single, but her song Sweet About Me has three chords and is possibly an attempt by Xenomania to keep it simple. Another new act is fronted by Danny O’Donoghue, who would be a TV talent show judge within a few years; his band The Script had better songs than We Cry, but there is a whiff of what Ed Sheeran was going to do with its melody-driven chorus and half-rapped verses.
Elsewhere, some usual suspects are on NOW 70: Taio Cruz (I Can Be), Scouting For Girls (Heartbeat, almost a pastiche of their own sound but with a heck of a chorus), Sugababes (Denial), Duffy (Warwick Avenue, (an Eg White co-write which is even better than Mercy), The Hoosiers (Cops & Robbers) and Britney Spears (Break The Ice). Alphabeat top Fascination with 10,000 Nights, which is placed just before That’s Not My Time and follows a track called S.O.S. by three brothers: Kevin, Joe and Nick Jonas have their website, jonasbrothersuk.com, listed in the inlay booklet, which notes that their TV show on The Disney Channel has ‘become a big hit’. The song itself sounds like The Disney Channel: music to leap about to. The line ‘my heart’s in two and I can’t find the other half’ is a proper lyric wasted on a preteen pop song.
The traditional way to launch an act is as follows: write a good song, put it on the radio, perform it on TV, get people to download it, build a fanbase, support a top act, have another good song, repeat until rich. There are a few new names on NOW 70 who tried to do this, with varying degrees of success. Sam Sparro is as high as track 4 on Disc 1 with the addictive Black & Gold, one of the year’s best singles, while Sara Bareilles had her marvellous Love Song all over Radio 1 all year. She has since moved into writing for musical theatre, with her show The Waitress opening on Broadway.
So has Dan Gillespie Sells of The Feeling, whose Broadway-meets-power-pop song Turn It Up is on NOW 70. It changes keys midway through the first verse and has elements of ABBA, Meatloaf and McCartney, a perfect synthesis of music from the 1970s, which befits a band who used to play covers at a ski chalet on the continent. Dan has written Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a hit on the London West End about a boy who liked to wear dresses.
There has not yet been a jukebox musical of Paul Weller songs, but I would hope it includes Have You Made Up Your Mind, which for some reason sits on NOW 70 beside Violet Hill by Coldplay, the first single from an album they made with Brian Eno and Markus Dravs called Viva La Vida (more of this in the next essay). Kanye West, who previously drafted in Chris Martin, guested on Estelle’s huge number one American Boy, which is track 1 on Disc 1; London-based rapper Ironik takes Kanye’s trick of speeding up an old song and rapping over it on Stay With Me, in this case Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good).
On the Internet, bands could break overnight and infiltrate culture. Arcade Fire did so in around 2003, and Bon Iver would do so in 2007 with his song Skinny Love (he would later work with Kanye West). In 2008, there were stories about stories about Black Kids, a quartet from Florida whose debut EP was so exciting that a bidding war ensued, won by Mercury Records. The band’s brilliant I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You was reworked by Bernard Butler and, in a less scuzzy form than the demo, became a big hit for the band which they couldn’t follow up. As in finance, the music blog bubble burst over summer 2008, as every new band was hyped to eternity. The Arctic Monkeys, meanwhile, went to the desert in Los Angeles and made an album called Humbug with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, part of their path to becoming the UK’s biggest rock band of this century (don’t say Muse).
How were people dancing their cares away as the financial system moved towards failure? With drum’n’bass, as on the enormous Propane Nightmares by Pendulum, or rap (Low by Flo Rida ft T-Pain) or Eurotrance (All I Ever Wanted, another hit for Basshunter, and Jumping All Over the World, another hit for Scooter). Other dance hits included Discolights (Ultrabeat vs Darren Styles), Watch Out (Alex Gaudino ft Shena, which borrows the trumpets from Pigbag’s old eighties classic and the voice of the song The Weekend by Michael Gray – thanks inlay booklet) and Cry For You, by Swedish popstar September. For a third time, Fragma’s Toca Me hits the clubs, this time in a 2008 remix of Toca’s Miracle. Like Something Good or You Got the Love, some club songs are evergreen, the dance music version of a song like Bohemian Rhapsody.
I also find it sweet that The Kooks recorded their second album Konk, and songs like Always Where I Need To Be, in a studio belonging to Ray Davies of The Kinks; their moment, however, had passed.
In 2017, as part of Adeel Amini’s PressPlayOK podcast, I spoke to Neil Claxton aka Mint Royale. I was able to tell him how much I loved Don’t Falter, a song he produced in 1999 with vocals by Lauren Laverve, and ask about having a number one single. His remix of Singin’ In the Rain, from 2005, was used by the breakdancing George Sampson on Britain’s Got Talent, Simon Cowell’s latest wheeze. A song from the 1950s updated for the digital era, soundtracking a child falling over on television? That’s pop.