‘Grab every single one of your friends/ And start a Mumford band…You just stomp your feet, and you clap your hands…Woah!’
Key of Awesome perform parodies of pop songs and put them on Youtube. That one tickled me back in 2012, after a raft of songs from folk-pop acts who obviously traded on the Mumford & Sons dollar. Students like me who were in Edinburgh between September and December 2006 were in the city at the same time as a young Marcus Mumford. He would sometimes show up to Latin 1C and at all times write songs. I used to nod at him when he came out of Greek 1A and I went in for Greek 1C. I knew he would play his songs at a pub near the catered accommodation at Edinburgh University; one was called White Blank Page, which made the tracklisting of the debut Mumford & Sons album Sigh No More.
By 2013 Marcus and his waistcoats were global stars thanks to the second Mumford & Sons album, Babel, more of the same. The band headlined Glastonbury that summer, in a year which began with me still friends with my evil compadre who was making it difficult for me to function as a proper human being. I had a job over Christmas 2012 which took me to Victoria for three five-hour shifts a week at £6 an hour. I would get in at 11am, clock off at 4.30pm (I was shooed out the door) and had to listen to women (and they were all women) taking bookings for theatre shows. My role was to assist in marketing, including writing search-engine-friendly text with keywords. All my money went on a therapist.
I remember staring at Microsoft Excel, computing the prices of shows offered by rival ticket merchants and wanting to leap out the window (impossible as they were barred). I would get a soup every day and wander aimlessly around London after I was released from my agony, passing Buckingham Palace and wondering what I was going to do with my time on earth. To add insult, when I quoted the company a figure of £100 a week to do the job as a freelancer at the end of the three-month ‘trial’, there was no negotiation and I was sent on my way. I wonder if they wanted to get rid of me anyway, even though they were nice enough to employ me for three months, pay me in full and on time, and grant me tickets to five shows including Top Hat.
I went to top hat with a girl I’ll call M, whom I met online and was into marketing and culture like me. M was one of many single ladies whose finger I didn’t put a ring on, including one who remains a friend and admitted recently that she fancies girls rather than guys. It was good to meet new people, even if it would not get beyond the initial stages, and I enjoyed working for a company which seemed to be run sensibly. They were sold on in 2016 and I hold no grudges. Running a small business is hard, and I was never anything more than ‘a trial’ and a hired hand parachuted in. Like an employee, I suppose, but in a freelance role. I don’t even remember signing a contract of employment.
I was that desperate for work, but not so desperate I would work for an app like Uber or Deliveroo. I was also working on a book about modern football, which I planned to finish in three years and release research in the form of ‘volumes’ every year. The end of the 2012/3 season saw Watford FC lose a match at Wembley Stadium to Crystal Palace and the release of ‘Volume One’. My local team were now ‘my team’ and I enjoyed football as a fan. I was a writer who wanted to write and also a songwriter, though I didn’t write many songs at all with my buddy around.
I did still listen to music and many good tunes are on NOW 84, issued over spring 2013. As Marcus kicked open the door, sundry ‘Mumford bands’ popped up with music full of ‘hey!’ I heard one musician describe it witheringly as ‘heycore’. The Lumineers are quoted in the Key of Awesome song (‘three cheers for The Lumineers!’) but they are far better than a mere Mumford-aping band; their rootsy music had a wide audience with the song Ho Hey, a ‘tremendous three’ on the US Hot 100 written by Wesley Schultz.
Rock, such as it was in 2013, was enjoying a periodic rise on NOW compilations to rival those in the middle of the previous two decades. Biffy Clyro (Black Chandelier, their best chorus), Ben Howard (Only Love, tenderly sung) and Pink (Try, written by busbee and a great self-empowerment song filed more under rock than pop) all flew the flag. Pink two-times with Nate Ruess from fun on the song Just Give Me a Reason, a great ballad that never did it for me but is a great pop song all the same with a proper melody.
As for Diamonds by Sia – sorry, Rihanna, who sings over the demo – it is one of Sia’s (sorry, Rihanna’s) best, a Transatlantic number one with a mighty melody. Diamonds, Titanium – is there no hard substance Sia cannot write a song about? She wrote one called Radioactive with Greg Kurstin, with which Rita Ora had a hit by singing over the demo.
Elsewhere in rock, Fall Out Boy return to a NOW with the awfully titled My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up). Lawson (Standing in the Dark) and McFly (the twee Love Is Easy) also prove guitars can make a noise in 2013, and new band Bastille were all over the radio with a song about Pompeii, which used the Roman town buried by (my main volcano) Vesuvius’s eruption in AD 79 as a metaphor for something. The song was mixed by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent, and the recording of the song is as powerful as the song itself.
TV syncs brought hits in late 2012. An appearance on a stop-motion TV advert gave Fleetwood Mac a NOW appearance under their own name with Everywhere. Thanks to a famous John Lewis advert starring a Snowman, Gabrielle Aplin’s cover of The Power of Love (the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song, not Huey Lewis or Jennifer Rush) helped send many feet to the store to spend money at Christmas 2012. Gabrielle sang one of her own, Please Don’t Say You Love Me, on Disc 2.
Popstars of the era keep up their runs of hits. One Direction appear twice: Little Things was written by Ed from Suffolk, complete with mention of ‘a cup of tea’ in the second verse; and a mashup of One Way of Another by Blondie and Teenage Kicks by The Undertones, the 2013 Comic Relief single. Little Mix return with the hard-edged DNA, Ke$ha has a massive hit with Die Young (another song about seizing the day), Ellie Goulding was setting off Explosions and Emeli Sande put out the lush ballad Clown.
Once again UK grime’s two warring forefathers are together on a NOW. Dizzee Rascal returns to his pirate radio roots on Bassline Junkie but ruins it by banging on about a ‘dirty stinking bass’, while Wiley gets Chipmunk (who ‘met Wiley at 14’) and Ms D to help him on Reload, which is outstanding and far better than the average club banger; it even mentions Oxide & Neutrino from the days of garage. Wiley two-times as a featured artist on Animal, a Conor Maynard song with a bouncy bass running through it.
Devlin continued his run with Rewind, co-written by and featuring a stunning singer called Diane Birch, whose song Fools I loved at the time. I also love Not Giving In, another Rudimental song featuring John Newman and Alex Clare, who deliver a self-empowerment lyric over a stunning production, and White Noise by Disclosure and AlunaGeorge, a duo who were one of the acts listed as The Sound of 2013, finishing second behind Haim, three sisters from California. CHVRCHES, Laura Mvula and Angel Haze made it an almost all-female top five, with only the bloke from AlunaGeorge getting in the way. Also on the longlist of 15 were Abel Tesfaye, whom we will meet soon in his guise of The Weeknd, and A*M*E, who would sing on a number one hit from 2013. But which one? Find out in the next essay.
I love the pure pop of Brigit Mendler, which references the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Latch by Disclosure, featuring the vocals of Sam Smith. I was in the car, pulling off the M1 at junction five, I think. What a wonderful song, I thought, and I was not surprised that Latch was an extraordinarily big song for two teenagers and a fat lad called Sam. I cannot believe it was not a number one song; I cannot believe it was never a top ten song, peaking at 11 and doing better in the US when it hit seven. What on earth were we doing not making this a number one?!
Will.je.suis put out another awful song called Scream & Shout, this time roping in Britney Spears, who was about to begin her four years in Vegas. Naturally people went wild and downloaded it all the way to the top. Taylor Swift was Max Martin’s current musical project; I Knew You Were Trouble is a smart pop song which moves from section to section with grace as Taylor tells her story of love and stuff. The verses are perky, the chorus is roomy and the post-chorus ‘oh’ section makes a concession to the dance-pop that dominated the charts in early 2013.
Disc 2 is a time capsule of what people were dancing to and downloading at the time. Avicii had the first of two number ones with I Can Be The One, with vocals by Nicky Romero, and Bingo Players also hit the top with a song called Get Up (Rattle) with Far East Movement. The song that came in between them was released by an independent hiphop artist named Ben Haggerty, who recorded as Macklemore. Along with Ryan Lewis on production and Wanz singing how thrift shopping was ‘awesome’, Thrift Shop went all the way to number one. I remember being on a tube train when I heard the song for the first time on the NPR Music podcast All Songs Considered, hosted by geeks Robin Hilton and ‘NPRobin’ Robin Hilton; Thrift Shops which breaks all laws on pop hits of the time by starting with a long intro and leading with an instrumental hook followed by the chorus. All the same, it is magnificent.
You can guess my feelings on songs by Senor Worldwide (Don’t Stop the Party, featuring TJR) and Adam from Dumfries (Drinking from the Bottle, Calvin Harris’s next hit with vocals from Tinie Tempah).
The Saturdays feature Sean Paul on the charming What About Us, the band’s first number one at the 12th attempt and yet another for Sean Paul. It sounds like early 2013, full of synths and processed vocals from Rochelle, Mollie, Frankie, Una and Vanessa. Girls Aloud returned for a final flourish in late 2012, in the same way that The Jacksons toured the world just after Michael Jackson had released Thriller; Cheryl (or Michael) are the big cheese in the fondue. Something New was brash and big (and better than What About Us), on which the girls sang about being ‘leaders of the pack’. In truth, it was Xenomania who led the pack, with Wayne Hector co-writing a song from the second Best Of from the Girls that doubled as the year’s Children In Need single.
Other ladies releasing tunes were Nicole Scherzinger (Boomerang), Christina Perri (A Thousand Years, a better title than her last hit) and Alicia Keys, with the self-empowerment song Girl On Fire that marked the popstar’s return after giving birth to her son Egypt. Alicia would also pop up on The Voice in the US in 2016, another proper singer who can sing and I would listen to her advice; Bob Dylan even namechecked her on his song Thunder on the Mountain (never on a NOW).
The winner of the 2012 X Factor took his winner’s song to number one, tattooed James Arthur delivering a smart version of the Shontelle song Impossible. The cheeky contestant from way back in 2009, Olly Murs, returned with a marvellous pop song featuring Flo Rida blethering on about being a Troublemaker. It sits perfectly alongside another returning pop hero, Peter from Hawaii aka Bruno Mars with the electrifying Locked Out Of Heaven, a near-perfect rush of adrenaline that seemed to be on the radio for years.
However awful my friend made my life in 2013, it was nothing compared with the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989. Justice had been fought to reopen the enquiry into the deaths, due to crushing at an FA Cup Semi-Final, and The Justice Collective came together to take the 2012 Christmas Number One with a cover of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. It was produced by Guy Chambers, who played piano. Scouse musicians included Peter Hooton of The Farm, Rebecca Ferguson, Melanie C, Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes To Hollywood (who thus two-times on a NOW at the age of 53), Dave McCabe of The Zutons, John Power of Cast and The La’s and Merseybeat legend Gerry Marsden. Paul Heaton, Shane McGowan, Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze, Robbie Williams and Beverley Knight also appeared, as did Liverpool’s most famous living musician, returning to a NOW: Sir James Paul McCartney.