NOW 94: Viola Beach – Boys That Sing

It’s tough to explain what being in a band is like unless you have been in it. Though I know several groups (one of whom has just come onto the coffee shop’s speakers as I edit this piece!), I admit that I am not much of a team player, for reasons of nature and nurture, though that will change as I write more songs with other people (hit me up @jonnybrick if you write too!).

I admire anyone who is part of a group of people pursuing a common cause, be it in a school, hospital or business. In rock music, transferring energy through melody and lyric is a magnetic feeling and many are still attracted to it, although not as many as the time before Snapchat and Youtube. Some do it because they fancy travelling, playing music on every continent; others are content to make it a hobby, something to pass empty evenings and weekends, playing covers and adding joy to local folk.

Viola Beach were kids who, like so many others in 2016, were going around Europe playing gigs. One winter day they were in Sweden and fell to their deaths. Their final gig was on February 12 2016; the website Setlist.fm lists nine songs which they played including Boys That Sing, the single; the previous month they had played Radio X, the station for blokes in London, and played both KOKO, the massive venue in Camden Town and Nambucca, which had been a haunt for countless indie bands and acts including Frank Turner. Frank who writes about the Nambucca spirit in his memoir, which is a primer in how to become an independently minded rock musician. Viola Beach were well on the way and it remains a travesty that they died before they could get there, though their debut album was a posthumous number one when it was released.

When they headlined Glastonbury in 2016, Chris Martin told the crowd of thousands that they were substituting their cover of “Heroes” by David Bowie. His voice cracking, he tells the story of Viola Beach, ‘a band that just got signed and were on their first tour of the world’. Reminded of how they got their start before they became Coldplay, the band decided to ‘let them headline Glastonbury for a song’. Coldplay performed Boys That Sing as a virtual duet, with the band’s parts doubled and the music video played onscreen before Chris Martin took the second verse. It was a tremendous gesture which must have given solace to the band’s families. Chris Martin, who became ‘too successful’ in about 2004, will step into Bono’s shoes whenever U2’s frontman can rock no more. U2 are the archetype, Coldplay the second coming. The band’s Up&Up (with no space!) closes Disc 1 of NOW 94 in tribute to their headline set and is placed immediately after Boys That Sing.

The sound Viola Beach made was similar to the likes of Bombay Bicycle Club, Two Door Cinema Club and Foals: jerky guitar-led pop with a strong sense of melody and arms-round-shoulders choruses. Guitar music was still a soundtrack for youngsters, but they were more likely to have their generation’s version of the guitar: the smartphone with websites like Youtube (for videos), Spotify (for music) and Instagram (for photos). The world was in their pockets so why did they need to go to a club, shopping mall or cinema to meet people when they could continue their Snapchat streaks, browse ASOS (As Seen On Screen) or fire up Netflix?

Truly this was a different age to the one I grew up in, with MSN Messenger, slow broadband speeds and John Peel on the radio. Now everyone was John Peel, investigating the music of today and yesterday. Record labels had less money with which to develop talent, while the end of 2016 saw a trend for people whose popularity had come via Youtube release items full of words on paper. Authors tore their hair out: so all I have to do, they thought, is blether on about make-up, do silly challenges, prank my friends and confess my deepest secrets and only then can I get a book deal?

As you can tell, at 30 I have figured out much about the world (I have so much more to discover and I’ll never learn it all!!) but I do know that a hit is a hit when it has insistent hooks, some form of backbeat and, sometimes, a good salesman selling the heck out of it.

NOW 94, celebrating the music of summer 2016, contains another host of faces ‘selling’ their product, devised in writers’ rooms or production studios, which will be played on the car radio, in people’s earbuds or in a live space. Some of these faces wanted you to have a good time, not least Max Martin, whose 22nd number one was sung by a chap who sung some of his second. The marketing campaign for the movie Trolls centred around the early release of the movie’s theme, Can’t Stop the Feeling, sung by Justin Timberlake. It contained a brilliant bridge, a sweet chorus, some falsetto vocals and, on the line ‘got this feeling in my body’, Hook B in the final half-minute.

Taylor Swift wrote This Is What You Came For under a Swedish-sounding pseudonym and those are her vocals poking out of Calvin Harris’s number one hit, featuring Rihanna. Her song Bad Blood (not on a NOW) topped the charts in 2016 and 1989 would go on to win the Album of the Year GRAMMY at the start of 2016, as planned. (Adele famously beat Beyonce in 2017, with both of them too big for a NOW.)

Rihanna, meanwhile, passed on Cheap Thrills, a song about not ‘needing dollar bills to have fun’ written by Sia. The Australian singer put out a whole album of rejected songs, This Is Acting, and had an enormous hit with Cheap Thrills, a duet with Sean Paul, who by that stage had had 21 UK top 40 hits, which he seems to have done by stealth. Hair, on which he sang with Little Mix, was number 22 and sounds like a quirky album track elevated to the status of ‘fourth single on an album’, which it was.

We should have sent Sean Paul out to fight for the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. Eventually, and with much controversy and absenteeism from young people, it was decided by popular vote that Britain should leave the EU. I don’t know if that brought back my evil friend, but it certainly didn’t help my mood. I remember uttering the four-letter word Hugh Grant utters several times at the start of Four Weddings and a Funeral when discovering the news, and summer 2016 was dominated by the Brexit shenanigans. And, of course, the death of Prince in April at 57 years of age. He will go down as pop music’s greatest, most demanding entertainer, excelling even James Brown.

The music on NOW 94 helped those in mourning of Prince (never on a NOW as a lead act but sampled on occasion) and mollify people who voted to remain and who had to accept the consequences of the stupid referendum that divided a nation. Years & Years included Tove Lo on the brilliant Desire; Clean Bandit had another hit with Tears, featuring X Factor winner Louisa Johnson who, as of July 2018, is no longer signed to Simon Cowell’s label; The Chainsmokers had another hit, featuring the vocals of Daya, with Don’t Let Me Down, which was annoying but not even their most annoying song of the year.

The old dance trio who each had one name are back together on NOW 94. Sigma and Kygo respectively enlist Take That on the euphoric (all their tracks are euphoric!) Cry and Irish rock band Kodaline on Raging. Sigala two-time with tunes that call on two musical heroes: Say You Do enlists Imani Williams and DJ Fresh on a song with a tropical feel which interpolates the hook of the Mariah Carey song Always Be My Baby, giving Say You Do a total of ten writers; Give Me Your Love is a terrifyingly good song featuring both John Newman and Nile Rodgers.

Dance bangers from the middle of 2016 included Sex by Cheat Codes, on which Kris Kross Amsterdam wanted to talk about sex, quoting Salt N Pepa’s famous song. Dua Lipa, meanwhile (and I will get to her at length eventually), was Hotter than Hell and Selena Gomez sang Kill Em With Kindness, a t-shirt slogan of a song. Tinie Tempah had Wizkid for company on Mamacita.

Jonas Blue return with an original composition, Perfect Strangers, with JP Cooper, who gained plaudits when I spoke to Lauren Housley in June 2018; they had both been on the same circuit in their early days. Having signed to a major label, this was their way of ‘testing’ JP Cooper in the market. Meghan Trainor, who had been launched so well in 2014, had a big hit with No, which I didn’t like at the time but have come round to; LA Reid, her boss, sent Meghan her album back and told her to write a hit, meaning that No is a hit inspired by the word ‘no’!

I took to another hit song much more quickly: I remember being in the car (it was a hire car because I’d sold mine in 2015) listening to Radio 1 and This Girl came on. Credited to Kungs vs Cookin’ on 3 Burners (WITH NO G!!), I immediately thought that this would be a UK number one. I was right, but then any idiot with ears could have said the same thing.

As someone who worked from home, I smiled at the Fifth Harmony (featuring Ty Dolla $ign) song Work From Home, with its idiotic ‘work, work, work’ hook. As someone who likes cake and the ocean, I went wild for the funky Cake by the Ocean by DNCE, the band formed by Joe Jonas; his brother Nick had also enlisted Tove Lo on his song Close. Equally bouncy was Good Grief, the return single from Bastille, and We Don’t Talk Anymore, by Charlie Puth featuring Selena Gomez, which I recorded as part of the 100 Songs from 100 NOWs series.

Max Martin has yet another hat-trick with two familiar faces. Just Like Fire by Pink was from the Tim Burton movie Alice Through the Looking Glass, while Dangerous Woman and Into You are both songs by Ariana Grande. It’s hard being a popstar, as evidenced by the penpic of Ariana who ‘released her second fragrance, launched her debut makeup collection…and launched her debut fashion line’ as well as put out her third album. She is now engaged to be married to comedian Pete Davidson; will she choose a Max Martin song for her first dance?

It’s a good NOW for fans of photogenic gentlemen: Shawn Mendes is on with Treat You Better, while the fourth single from Justin Bieber’s album Purpose is Company. The act who ought to have won The X Factor in 2015, the ever-smiling Reggie ‘n’ Bollie, had their first single New Girl hit the charts. Calum Scott won hearts on the 2015 version of Britain’s Got Talent – a more reliable ratings winner for Cowell than The X Factor which in 2016 was limping towards its 13th series – and put out what Peter Robinson of Popjustice calls a ‘sad lad’ cover of NOW playlist entrant Dancing On My Own by Max Martin’s mate Robyn.

Good news too for fans of will.je.suis, who has writing help from Charli XCX and drafts in Pia Mia to sing Boys & Girls, which samples a Kylie Minogue track and sees will.je.suis move with the times and use a less subtle beat on one of his best songs in years. If you are wondering if David Guetta is on NOW 94, he is: Zara Larsson pops up on This One’s For You, which sees Guetta chasing the tropical house trend and, though the song is fine, his Imperial Phase is over.

The teenager Desiigner bought a beat, rapped over it on Panda and obtained the patronage of Kanye West, who included a full minute of the track on his latest artistic statement, The Life of Pablo, launched at a fashion show. His Imperial Phase was over, reduced to being mentioned in the penpics; I miss the old Kanye, to quote the egomaniacal rapper.

Even Craig David was more popular on NOW compilations than Kanye: Craig two-times with a solo song One More Time (which threw back to his heyday with The Artful Dodger, a sound Disclosure had brought back into the charts) and a duet with Blonde on Nothing Like This. He spent most of summer mixing his DJ sets with touring his UK number one album Following My Intuition.

More fun was Don’t Mind by Kent Jones, a song with a chorus that included the word ‘hello’ in French, Japanese, Spanish and Haitian creole (Sak pase? N’ap boule means ‘What’s up? All good!’) that leapt out of the radio. Less fun was the moaning I Hate U, I Love U by rapper Gnash featuring Olivia O’Brien on the chorus; I prefer the ode Odi et Amo by (my main man) Catullus, which says the same thing. I could certainly empathise with Galantis, whose massed choir sang that they had No Money.

2016 also saw a businessman from New York take the Republican nomination for the US President. I was glued to three or four US talkshows, cycling through the videos uploaded onto Youtube before I settled down to work. I had started a new job that I don’t particularly want to talk about – the guy who took me on didn’t particularly want me to talk about it, or even give me any work to make the job worthwhile – but it led to me driving up to Sunderland the day I launched my book to the world.

At some point (okay I’ll talk about it), I had 200 books in Watford, 56 books in Wimbledon and no paid work for weeks. I was more angry that I hadn’t had as much work as I thought, since I had told the eBook business to take their books and shove them, and I was paying £1050 a month for the flat, which I moved out of because they raised it to £1100 without due cause. I’ll tell you more about my next place of residence in the next essay.

The point I was going to make was that Donald Trump appeared on Saturday Night Live and danced to Hotline Bling by Drake, which is on NOW 94. More on Mr Trump and Aubrey from Canada, amusingly lumped together, in the next essay; what a shame Viola Beach could not write songs about Donald J Trump.

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