Summer 2012 was important for someone who grew up in London. After seven years of chuntering, of redeveloping East London, of wondering what would go wrong, the Summer Olympic Games arrived and brought a glow of optimism to the city. The Opening Ceremony may be the single most brilliant piece of theatre I have seen, a magnificent global TV event that, for me, peaked with the bit with Sir Tim Berners-Lee announcing: ‘This is for everyone’. The show inspired a song I haven’t yet written which says this slogan in several languages, a global anthem that I still need to write, hopefully before Tokyo 2020.
The Games themselves were fab. I was at indoor volleyball, beach volleyball and water polo (the glamorous events) while the BBC offered complete coverage of the Games. The joy of being ‘self-employed’ meant I could immerse myself in the coverage; I had left the job in Camden which was unsatisfying and dull (and I had accidentally kicked a football in a colleague’s face, which cannot have helped though I maintain it was an accident) to work on a book. While I slaved I realised that footballers were earning millions for being skilled in the right environment to earn those millions. I had gotten back into Premier League football, but why did I not follow my local team, Watford FC?
I decided to write a book based on 11 questions about the modern game and worked on it throughout summer. As I did so, I heard the following songs on the radio which make it onto NOW 82: Whistle by Flo Rida; Where Have You Been by Rihanna (with production from Calvin Harris and Dr Luke and a melody from Ester Dean); Payphone by Maroon 5 ft Wiz Khalifa (Shellback and Benny Blanco co-wrote it, Shellback produced it, Adam Levine showed up at the studio to pick up a massive cheque); Part of Me by Katy Perry (Max and Luke, another number one for them on both sides of the Atlantic); and Call Me Maybe by a young Canadian called Carly Rae Jepsen.
I asked my good friend Iain Richards, who still loves Carly after six years, why he was so attracted to the song, which Adeel and I chose instantly as the playlist entrant from NOW 82. It was the UK’s best-selling single for four weeks and was the US number one for nine weeks, one more than Somebody That I Used To Know. ‘It’s the perfect pop song,’ said Iain, who has heard a few and helped me pick tracks for the NOW playlist from NOW 91 to NOW 99. He continues:
‘Carly Rae Jepsen is on my wall. My first memories of her obviously stem from the global hit Call Me Maybe. The first time I heard it was whilst watching the music video. I then saw it grow into the Despacito or the One Dance of its time.
‘Entering the UK charts, she knocked superstar names like Chris Brown and Katy Perry off their pegs and the following week it continued by maintaining the number 1 spot from her mentor Justin Bieber. As good a tune as Boyfriend by the Biebs, Call Me Maybe got everyone singing.
‘After one or two listens, you knew the chorus; after one or two interviews, you loved the girl behind the voice. There’s a range of talents that went into making this song as big as it was. The low budget music video was cheesy and lovable, the song was very memorable and very catchy, with an uplifting mood, and Carly had the star power and the incredible voice.
‘The same can be said of Gangnam Style and What Does The Fox Say but they were much worse and much more annoying.’
The song took nine months to write and is full of hooks written with Josh Ramsay and Tavish Crowe, who I hope bought some nice property with the Call Me Maybe money. Carly’s second album E.mo.tion would be written with super Swedes, who also worked with Taylor Swift (not on NOW 82 but she’s coming). Jack Antonoff went on to write with Pink, Lorde and Taylor, but announced himself with his band fun and Janelle Monae, the modern incarnation of Prince. Nate Ruess delivers a wonderful vocal on a song that pulls back in the instrumentation for the chorus but offers a magnificent chant: ‘Tonight we are young/ So let’s set the world on fire, we can burn brighter than the sun!’ It’s bulletproof, went to number one in the US for six weeks and the UK for one week, and is track 1 on Disc 1, compiled by Jenny Fisher, who must have read the lever arch file left to her by Ashley Abram.
In other songwriter news, Wayne Hector co-writes Sparks for Cover Drive and Picking Up the Pieces for Paloma Faith, her first time on a NOW. Dr Luke helps Marina & the Diamonds be a Primadonna, while Stargate are on hand to co-write R.I.P., a track by Rita Ora and Tinie Tempah, produced by Chase & Status (were they on secondment to the Stargate studio?). Swedish House Mafia release a song called Greyhound (about the dog or the bus?), Ed from Suffolk’s latest release from the album + is Small Bump, with a gorgeous chorus, and Train’s song Drive By rhymes ‘move me’ with ‘groove me’ and ‘sue me’ and was all over the radio in summer 2012. Ditto Only The Horses, a fun tune from Scissor Sisters, releasing their fourth album Magic Hour which the inlay booklet claims says is produced by Calvin Harris; one track on that album is co-written with rapper Azealia Banks.
It seemed as if Azealia torched her career very quickly. The full tragic tale will be told some day, but a promising singer whose song 212 (featuring Lazy Jay) was lewd, crude and exciting remains her lasting contribution to pop music, though as I write she put out a new song only two days ago. She was forced to release a full-length album in 2014 without a label. It was critically acclaimed and included 212, which came out fully two-and-a-half years before. Never mind Waiting for Godot, how about Waiting for Azealia?
Elsewhere I Won’t Give Up, a song that sounded a bit like Annie’s Song by John Denver, led to another appearance by the great Jason Mraz. Another silky male voice comes from Alex Clare from Golders Green, North London (yes, ladies, he’s Jewish), whose song Too Close was all over TV and radio as it was on an advert for Microsoft. The track was co-produced by a man called Diplo, another EDM celebrity who was familiar with sonic texture and mood and could take the listener on a journey.
Plan B (to quote a funny Youtube clip, ‘What is planbuk? What is buk tho?!’) returned to hiphop with iLL Manors, an album based on life in Forest Gate, East London; the lead single is on Disc 2 and is led by a cello riff. Ben Drew’s dad is in the music business and for two days I worked for him, for no money and with no joy. In unconnected news, Paul Ballance had abandoned his son Ben Ballance-Drew when he was a child.
Other blokes on Disc 2 include B.O.B. with the fun So Good, co-written by Ryan Tedder; Sway, a British rapper called Derek, whose song Level Up brought the underground overground; Taio Cruz used RedOne and Senor Worldwide to help create There She Goes; Labrinth borrowed the old Charles Wright song Express Yourself (the one NWA sampled) and rapped over it; and The Wanted continued their run of hits with Chasing The Sun, written by Example. New band Lawson, sold as a boyband, appear with When She Was Mine, apparently (thanks inlay booklet) about singer Andy Brown’s former girlfriend Mollie from The Saturdays, whose latest hit 30 Days is on NOW 82.
I love Princess of China, a smart pop song with Brian Eno’s fingerprints by Coldplay and Rihanna (a duet) which samples Takk by Sigur Ros. I am less keen on Starships by Nicki Minaj, which combines every pop trick in one song, as befits a song written by Nicki with RedOne, Carl Falk, Rami Yacoub and Wayne Hector. Breaking Starships into its constituent parts we have a guitar-led hook followed by Nicki rapping about going to the beach, then comes a sung melody about loving to dance, then comes a bulletproof chorus that can only be written by Swedes which is repeated, then comes ‘the drop’ and RedOne’s contribution, a wild siren with pitch-shifted vocals. Verse two stars with singing (‘I owe that’) and moves into rap which quotes Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and changes the rhythm of the delivery, then comes an abridged recap of the singing bit and the chorus. Then the breakdown, then the chorus, with the vocals prominent the first time, then the breakdown to the final bars. Sensational, apart from the breakdown.
It may be one of the best songs of this decade to land as a ‘terrific two’. Number ones from spring 2012 included Turn Up the Music by Chris Brown, who still had a career despite hitting Rihanna in the face; Young by Tulisa, which could have been by any female singer and is purely product for Tulisa to sing on The X Factor, on which she was a judge in 2012; and Call My Name, a Calvin Harris song by Cheryl (no longer Cheryl Cole), which could have been by any female singer and is purely product for Cheryl to sing on The X Factor, on whose US edition she had flopped spectacularly in 2011, returning to help Gary Barlow ‘pick’ contestants for the 2012 UK edition.
Astonishingly, there are no Simon Cowell acts on NOW 82, apart from Labrinth who was not a product of one of his shows. Instead we have some brilliant, original acts. Feel The Love introduced two British stars who ape the ‘Producer plus Singer’ formula. John Newman sings 21 words (‘You know I said it’s true, I can feel the love, can you feel it too? I can feel it ah’) while Rudimental build an unstoppable series of beats behind it designed to keep people partying. It worked and became their first number one.
David Guetta, meanwhile, two-times again as he keeps earning money with songs like LaserLight, credited to Jessie J featuring Monsieur Guetta, and Turn Me On, an enormous song credited to Monsieur Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj, which is the superior of the two songs. Fun fact: David’s real first name is Pierre (Peter Dickson voice: PIERRE GUETTAAAA!) Another club banger from 2012 was Hot Right Now by DJ Fresh, with the vocals of Rita Ora, which I never liked but gets my tush shaking. Calvin Harris outdoes his mate and appears for a fourth time on NOW 82 with Ne-Yo on Let’s Go, which features ‘the drop’ at the 51-second mark.
Usher joins Ne-Yo as ‘soulful black guy singing dance-pop’ with his song Scream which is written by, would you believe it, Shellback, Savan Kotecha and Max Martin. ‘If you wanna scream YEAH, let me know and I’ll take you there!’ Simple and effective, the IKEA version of pop. That year’s Eurovision Song Contest was won by Sweden’s Loreen with the song Euphoria, another dance-pop song. It is the first Eurovision winner in a long time to be on a NOW; 2000’s winner featured in a dance version, but I loved both Fairytale (Alexander Rybak, Norway, 2009) and Satellite (Lena, Germany, 2010), both never on a NOW but available on the Contest’s own CD compilation.
I attended the 2011 Contest in Germany, which was won by a fluffy ballad by two non-Azeri performers who took it to Baku, Azerbaijan. Sweden did pop best and would host the Contest in 2013, which was won by (I had to look this up) Denmark. The UK, of course, sent well-known musician (whose heyday was 1968) Englebert Humperdinck, who came second last and only scored points from Estonia, Ireland, Belgium and Latvia. Russia famously came second with some ‘Babushki’, grandmas.
Will.je.suis, whose judging on The Voice UK had impressed millions in late 2011, had yet another number one with This Is Love, co-produced by two of Swedish House Mafia and co-written, would you believe it, by Max Martin! Vocalist Eva Simons also contributed to the writing process on a song that sounds like pop in 2012 to the extent that she also asks people if they can ‘feel the love’.
Conor Maynard was the latest star to leap out of the online world and into the charts, with his debut single Can’t Say No. He was pitched as a British Justin Bieber; the Canadian version returned with a hard-edged song called Boyfriend, which he wrote with Mike Posner. It’s a nifty song with a great acoustic guitar lick and a great vocal. If only Bieber would stop pratting about with monkeys and girlfriends – the day I wrote this essay it was reported he was engaged to Stephen Baldwin’s daughter Hailey – he would be the biggest star in the world.
The proliferation of African sounds on pop radio in the UK has been welcome. D’Banj was one of the breakthrough acts with his song Oliver Twist. Other black performers populated playlists: Stooshe’s magnificent pop song Black Heart is electrifying, while My Kind of Love by Emeli Sande was understated. Looking back, however, it unleashed a genre I call ‘Sound Of Pop’, as in an act whose music is produced to appeal to a wide range of fans after a promotion on the BBC Sound Of polls: the songs are a little bit pop, a little bit dance, a little bit urban, a big load of blah. I would have this problem with Sam Smith, Rag ‘N’ Bone Man and James Bay, who all won critical approval before they even put out their debut album. The Sound of 2012 was Michael Kiwanuka, a soulful chap whose album Home Again was terrific but had no singles included on a NOW. Stooshe were on the longlist for the poll, in which 184 tastemakers voted for their tips; Skrillex, A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean did well, as did Azealia Banks.
At the end of NOW 82 comes Sing, written by Gary Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber in honour of Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. In the sixty years Good Queen Bess has been on the throne, pop has moved from orchestras to beat groups to confessional singer-songwriter to new-wave rock groups to vocal harmony groups to stadium buskers.
Since 1952, Britain has led the way in the creative arts, producing world-renowned actors, singers, comics, stagehands, directors, producers, solo performers and Jedward (who are Irish but found fame on British TV). Britain has talent and I am privileged to live in an era where I can enjoy it.