Did EDM Kill Avicii? A GQ Magazine headline caught my eye in July 2018. The essay by William Ralston told the tale of Tim Bergling, a shy Swede who made critically and commercially successful dance music in the 2010s. On April 20 2018 the man known by his stage name Avicii died. Like David Guetta and Calvin Harris, he was one of many superstar DJs as, 15 years after Britain had gone wild in superclubs, America caught on to ‘repetitive beats’. (They had done the same with grunge, 15 years after punk, but that is a facile comparison as punk was invented in New York.)
NOW 81 is not Aviici’s first appearance on a NOW, but it is his breakthrough with the Nina Simone sampling Levels, the song that bangs on about how ‘sometimes I get a good feeling’ which also influenced the song Good Feeling by Flo Rida (also on NOW 81). Levels, in particular, still sounds sublime, and kicked open the door that David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia were already kicking. Calvin Harris had been kicking it in the UK for a few years and burst through to become richer than most of Dumfries.
The GQ piece notes that Avicii, or Tim, hated letting his fans down and always tried to perform. He drank and took drugs but knew his money would help other people earn a living so stayed on the relentless treadmill of the 9-to-5 (in his case 9pm to 5am). Here is the shocking quote from the piece, by his fellow DJ Kaskade: ‘This whole industry is designed to destroy. Managers, business managers, agents, attorneys: they are all focussed in working you because that is how they make a living.’ Avicii’s death, bluntly, may have brought the EDM era to a halt, but the world is already moving on to trap and hiphop, as shown by the awesome live shows of Kendrick Lamar, Stormzy and Drake.
NOW 81 marks spring 2012, which continues Simon Cowell’s Imperial Phase. He is as famous as the acts his show produced, if not more; maybe that was the whole point. One Direction’s second single was another superb Swedish smash, One Thing, though Messers Falk, Kotecha and Yacoub never reveal the ‘thing’ (I think it’s a personality). Olly Murs, whose song Dance With Me Tonight was everywhere in early 2012, also appears, as does Alexandra Burke on a duet with Erick Morillo called Elephant.
Another Syco act, Labrinth, is included on Disc 1 with Last Time. I heard his song Earthquake (on NOW 80) a lot in 2011, the year I moved back to Watford after five years mostly spent in cold, windy Edinburgh. Earthquake was the soundtrack to the ad breaks on X Factor, which we watched as a family; having not watched TV in five years, now I found myself stuck in front of it with both mum and Grandma and Grandpa, whose two-week stay at mum’s house (it was no longer mine, I just knew I wouldn’t be kicked out) lasted fourteen weeks as their new flat was unsurprisingly delayed. It was lovely to have them around, especially as Grandpa Malcolm’s health declined in the next two years.
We enjoyed watching Scouser Marcus Collins, whose cover of Seven Nation Army finally brought The White Stripes to a NOW series; Marcus was delivering the cover by the Postmodern Jukebox, who were one of many acts gaining an online fanbase with quirky covers of pop and rock songs. The other piece of catalogue came from the winners, four girls of the same height called Leighanne, Jade, Perrie and Jesy (my favourite, even though she was the only one in jeggings rather than shorts). Little Mix gave the world their take on Damien Rice’s Cannonball, that was pointless to everyone but Damien’s accountant. The key change is both predictable and wearisome, as Simon Cowell ruins another rock classic, having already had Matt Cardle butcher Many of Horror (Mon the Biff).
Disc 1 also includes songs by former Idol or X Factor contestants. Kelly Clarkson has a huge hit called Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You), co-written by songwriter’s songwriter Ali Tamposi and produced by Greg Kurstin, while JLS were on brand with Proud, a ballad on which all four bandmembers have writing credits. Away from Cowellpop, Alyssa Reid is perfect for Louis Walsh to comment on her age – ‘Yer only NINETEEN!’ – and she came from Canada with the song Alone Again, a take on the Heart power ballad Alone (never on a NOW) featuring Jump Smokers. If you ever saw an X Factor act with a guy rapping and a girl singing, you get the gist of Alone Again.
Come 2012, I was gainfully employed putting puzzles into national newspapers (and getting paid for doing so, despite having arguments about servers and headphones and Facebook) and was listening to a lot of BBC 6Music, which was on at a very low volume in the office. The alternative music station included the likes of Django Django and De La Soul on its playlist and DJs included past members of Elbow, Pulp and Catatonia. On commercial radio and on Radio 1 and 2, the main name was Adele. Well, two Adeles, the one from Tottenham and Adele Emeli Sande, a Scottish neuroscience graduate who moved into pop music and dominated 2012.
Every Londoner remembers that she performed at both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympiad, but the song that was played most on UK radio was Next To Me, a simple three-chord number that mixed pop and gospel and was a tender song about a girl who had her guy beside her. I particularly like my made-up Scottish folk singer, Sandy Emily, who can do a mean version of the song (‘Sitting at yer taaaable’).
The big song of the start of 2012 was based on a glockenspiel riff that sounded like a nursery rhyme, accompanied by a Youtube-friendly video of a guy (Gotye, born in Belgium, grew up in Australia) and a girl (Kimbra, from New Zealand) whose body paint matched the wall they were in front of. The song still sounds brilliant, one of the decade’s best, and has the same idiosyncrasy as many top pop songs by arty types like Roxy Music, Pet Shop Boys and White Town. You know what it is when you hear it, but you can’t describe it other than saying: ‘It’s Roxy Music, Pet Shop Boys, White Town, Gotye’. A genre on his own, Gotye (real name Wouter De Backer) is still performing and in January 2018 mounted a show in Australia centred around the old instrument the ondioline.
I think the key to the success of Somebody That I Used to Know is the chorus, which shifts up in pitch from the verses: ‘You didn’t have to cut me out…’ The man is vulnerable after he sings the chorus, feeling ‘so rough’ when he realises the object of his affections is somebody from the past. The eerie vocal, almost whispered, in the verses tell a similar story: ‘Now and then I think of when we were together…’ Kimbra comes in an octave higher with her own melody and complaints, before changing the melody on the line ‘I don’t want to live that way’, a bridge to the chorus that Gotye’s part replaced with another verse. The structure of the song is weird, as is the instrumentation.
The song hit big for precisely that reason: it was different. Music to dance to, in 2012, meant Electronic Dance Music like Avicii and Calvin Harris and also like the song that Adeel Amini pushed for playlist inclusion. featuring Sia. Sia Furler had been writing hits for other people but stepped to the front again on an enormous club and radio hit that sounds like 2012, because it is produced by David Guetta. Titanium has massive synths that help underscore how Sia is ‘bulletproof’. It’s a self-empowerment anthem with added glowsticks. Flo Rida pulls the same trick with Wild Ones, as Sia sings the hook on a song she wrote. She now lives in a very big house in Hollywood.
Elsewhere we have 2011’s big acts. Ed from Suffolk gets fellow ginger-haired chap Rupert Grint to appear in the video to a song called Lego House, inspired by Ed’s love of the Danish building blocks; Coldplay’s big radio hit was Paradise, their second US number one, on which Brian Eno has another credit; Katy Perry returns with The One That Got Away, while Jessie J has a US number one with Domino. Both Messi and Ronaldo, whom regular readers working their way through this 100-essay project will know are my terms for Max Martin and Dr Luke, co-wrote them both. I prefer Domino and have recorded it as part of the 100 Songs from 100 NOWs series which can be found at soundcloud.com/jonny_brick.
Rizzle Kicks two-time with both When I Was a Youngster and Mama Do The Hump, a one-chord marvel whose video stars the punchable face of James Corden; Pixie Lott also two-times with her own Kiss The Stars (EDM-by-numbers) and a duet with Tinchy Stryder called Bright Lights (Good Life), on which she has swallowed Lady Gaga’s voice.
Gaga (Marry The Night, passable), Jessie J (two-timing with a self-empowerment ballad called Who You Are, which helped a lot of girls grow up), Lana Del Rey (Born to Die, dull) and Florence + The Machine (Shake It Off, still needs singing lessons) all show up to the NOW 81 party, and joining them on the dancefloor in their tuxedos is Sean Paul, whose song She Doesn’t Mind was written by Shellback and Benny Blanco.
Taio Cruz’s song Troublemaker has a lyric that compares a girl’s figure to a bottle of Coke – one way of getting brands to sponsor you is to sing about them favourably – and it was written by Steve Angello, Rami Yacoub and Carl Falk in a sort of Swedish songwriter supergroup. Steve Angello two-times thanks to Antidote, a Swedish House Mafia tune produced with Australian duo Knife Party which contains a brilliant drop at 30 seconds in a time when ‘the drop’ was still new to many clubbers. To be fair to Party Rock Anthem, ‘the drop’ is the best bit in the song, but why produce three minutes of rubbish for one second of fun? Maybe that’s the point of life…
Lloyd turns up to the party with Andre 3000 and Lil Wayne on the charming Dedication to my Ex (Miss That); Andre is played by a dog in the video to the song! There is so much talent at this party, and I wonder if LMFAO (whose song Sexy and I Know It is on NOW 81) would bring Berry Gordy too… Will.je.suis brings the best guests: Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez appear on an absurd song called T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever) and sing the line ‘You can go hard or you can go home’. They don’t need the money; did they lose a bet? Dappy brings Brian May of Queen, who by now had finished his PhD thesis on dust clouds, on the song Rockstar which pays tribute to rockstars who died aged 27.
Dappy (real name Costadinos Contostavlos) is still alive, aged 31, but has had trouble with the law: he carried a knife in 2005, pushed a taxi driver in 2007, spat at two women in 2008, and in 2013 was given a suspended sentence for assault, which he breached by slapping people in both 2014 and 2015. In 2017 he brandished a knife during a domestic row which led to a one-month prison stay on remand. ‘Na-na-nye’ has been lucky to avoid doing ta-ta-time, so maybe he can chaperone Professor May to the party.
Also coming to the party are Stooshe, who have help from Travie McCoy on the excellent Love Me, which has a heck of a chorus and whose album version replaces the word ‘love’ with another four-letter word; Travie two-times with Get Yourself Back Home, another Gym Class Heroes hit featuring vocals from Neon Hitch that sounds like a Benny Blanco co-write (it is!); Cover Drive are allowed in thanks to their sweet dance-pop song Twilight; and rapper Chiddy Bang is welcome with an infectious groove named after Ray Charles, since he had ‘shades on, dancing to my song’. Thus he is educating pop fans (and partygoers) on Brother Ray, one of the most significant popular musicians of the twentieth century for his ability to convince white folk to listen to black artists.
Finally reaching her Imperial Phase is Rihanna, who two-times with her own bouncy You Da One – Ester Dean plus Dr Luke equals hit – and Drake’s song Take Care. Here is a conversation between two musicians inspired by Drake:
Rapper A: ‘ey
Rapper B: yo
Repeat for eternity.
In 2011, Drake was still new and interesting and I love the groove on Take Care, which has a proper melody and lyrical heft too (both man and woman want to look after each other), which Drake seemed to mislay in about 2015 when he smelt the money in non-melodic dance music that took over from the EDM sound. Well done him.
Starting their own stupid party in the foyer outside the ballroom are Senor Worldwide and Chris Brown on the horrific International Lover. To quote the ace movie Mean Girls: none for Gretchen Wieners, bye!
Away from the party, Paul Mealor wrote a piece of music to soundtrack, as per the inlay booklet, words ‘taken from and/or inspired by poems, letters and prayers provided by some of the Military Wives’ who sung in a choir pulled together by bespectacled National Treasure Gareth Malone, who once taught a load of kids from a local school in South Oxhey to sing in a concert at my old school a mile up the road. Singing is an essential aspect of human existence and Gareth has been helping skeptics to open their lungs and mouths for a long time now. It seems apt that he had the 2011 Christmas number one, at which point Simon Cowell had got the message and was enabling the X Factor winner to hit the top a few weeks before Christmas week.
An era drew to a close with NOW 81 as Ashley Abram compiled his final NOW. One of the most significant figures in British music, he could walk down the street unrecognised. He told a BBC Radio 2 documentary about how record companies would hold their big acts off NOW compilations. CBS Records did not like music by Bruce Springsteen to have a different context from the original album. Queen, meanwhile, always wanted to be placed as track 1 of side 1 as well as being in any advertising for the compilation. In a list of people to place on a Now That’s What I Call NOW personnel, Ashley Abram is Side 1 of Disc 1.