Now That's What I Call John's Reviews: Now 10

Smash Hits.

Readers of a certain age may remember the indispensable pop magazine that would hit the newspaper shelves on a fortnightly basis. It featured interviews with the cream of the pop charts, lyrics to the biggest hits (with details such as 'Oh yeah, ooh hoo hoo – repeat x 3), and frequent pot shots against crumbly old fogies who were too past it to make it to number one. For fogies, read anyone over the age of 30, which would make me some geriatric old codger who's misplaced his false teeth again.

Anyhow, what's this got to do with Now 10? Two things. One, the magazine had reached a pinnacle of success that it teamed up with the Now That's What I Call Music brand to release its own Now Smash Hits compilation of the 1980s. It was a curio stopgap that did its best to smooth over the fact that there were only two main Now releases that year. The Summer charts were brilliantly represented by Hits 6, one of the best and most successful of the rival brand. Six number ones, plenty of Top 10 hits – the public lapped it up, propelling it to pole position for five weeks.

The second thing is that by now, I began buying Smash Hits on a regular basis. The first one I bought was in the Spring of 1987 (with The Cure on the front). With my interest in pop and rock, Smash Hits was right up my street. It was also useful for spotting imminent arrivals of the next Now album. It was quite a long wait in 1987, with a neon logo Now 10 sign eventually surfacing in November (if memory serves me well, it was the issue with the cover of the Ubiquitous Philip Schofield gurning on a motorbike – even back then, there was no getting away from the man).

Now 10 is aptly packed full of smash hits, and alongside its rival Hits 7, captures the ultimate snapshot of life in the Autumn pop charts of 1987. The number one division is spread fairly evenly between both parties, with Now 10 losing out to Hits 7 with the biggies, You Win Again and Never Gonna Give You Up. Now 10, on the other hand, manages to nab its paws on M/A/R/R/S' Pump Up The Volume, Los Lobos' La Bamba and the current chart topper China In Your Hand by T'Pau.

Pump Up The Volume would have made for a far better album opener, which is where Now 10 does come unstuck a little. The Nows usually kick off with a Number One smash to instantly grab the listener's attention. Instead, Now 10 goes for the more left-field choice of Barcelona by Freddie Mercury and his opera chum, Montserrat Caballe. It's actually the sort of song that would have made for a better album finale, with its swooping balladry and dramatic operatic crescendo. The compilers would evidently learn from this, when the song reappears on a future Now, and incidentally, it's not the last of this batch that will turn up for a second time in the future.

Now 10 continues the low-key slow burn with the Pet Shop Boys' Rent. While it's the latest track to be released from their excellent Actually album, again, it's a bit of an odd choice, given that It's A Sin and What Have I Done To Deserve This were far bigger hits. The first two tracks take a bit of a gamble in that they're more up to date, but may not strike it as big in the pop charts as predicted.

The Communards' perky interpretation of Gloria Gaynor's Never Can Say Goodbye ups the tempo, and continues the tradition of Somerville & Coles only scoring huge hits with cover versions. Next up is the aforementioned Pump Up The Volume, which paves the way for things to come. It's one of the very few housey singles on the album, with subsequent Nows redressing the balance.

Another track to get not one but two Now placings is Labour Of Love by Hue and Cry. I've got a lot of time for their music, with their jazzy, brassy ditties contrasting well with their topical, and sometimes biting lyrics. Labour Of Love is a good example of this, a great anti-Thatcher riposte, with Pat Kane's Sinatra-esque vocals proving to be the icing on the cake. Steven Dante's vocals are also of the highest order, but they're a bit wasted on the dull Jellybean composition, The Real Thing. It's the sort of bland background music that you'd hear in a yuppie bistro, occasionally piping up over snorting laughs and discussions over how much money is in the bank to splash out on the latest state-of-the-art cordless telephone the size of a breezeblock.

One of the breakout acts of 1987 was the still-don't-understand-why-they-were-called-that Johnny Hates Jazz. They could only make the one hit album, although they scored a fair few hits from Turn Back The Clock, one of which was I Don't Want To Be A Hero. Two things that I remember about this – one was lead singer's Clark Datchler's bizarre punching the air action when performing this on Top Of The Pops. The other continues the long-standing tradition of Datchler including an OTT “No!” in every single one of his songs. No wonder they never made it beyond the one album – when asked to sign a contract for the next LP, he probably cried out “No!”

The first side is signed off by the lesser-known Style Council track, Wanted an ironic title given that this wasn't what the record buying public were after. The track barely scraped into the Top 20, hinting that Paul Weller's post-Jam project had had its day. I quite like it – its pleasant enough, with a tinge of danceable soul funk, but if a song needs a peppy subtitle like 'Waiter, There's A Soup In My Flies', it's not encouraging news.

Side 2 of Now 10 is what would normally be classed as the heavy side. Seven songs from rock bands – I say normally, but on this occasion, the rock ballad side is nearer the mark. T'Pau's China In Your Hand kicks off the side, and it's an odd mix of power ballad and baroque classical, but the track holds up well because of this. Carol Decker's powerful vocals cap the thing off with aplomb – no matter what a certain tax-dodging boyband frontman may think.

The vocals keep a comin' with Heart's signature tune, Alone. Ann Wilson's full-blooded singing contrasts nicely with sister Nancy's harmony in the chorus. It's a bit too sappy for some tastes, but the song's a sure-fire choice for downcast singletons on karaoke night.

Oh jeez. Kiss are up next. High on money-making imagery, low on good songs, Kiss have never been a favourite of mine. Crazy Crazy Nights sums up my aversion in a rotten three minutes. Shouty vocals swamp a flimsy but gormless dirge. More to the point, it takes itself so damn seriously – it's a curiously joyless attempt at heavy metal, and is the sort of thing that only appeals to people who think they like heavy metal, but actually don't.

Billy Idol's live version of Mony Mony is far better, a fun romp through the Tommy James And The Shondells Number One from 1968. Meanwhile, Whitesnake's cover version is – uh – of their own song from 1982. It's been re-recorded for their monster 1987 album, and proved to do far better in the charts with this souped up version.

It's onto another ballad, and is one of those rarities that time forgot. The Alarm's Rain In The Summertime is doing its best to be a fist-in-the-air, cigarette lighter anthem, but it's a bit too melancholy and low-key for it to work. Which probably explains its lowly position and brief visit to chartland.

Marillion's Sugar Mice is my favourite of the ballads, and is a brave choice in that it's quite a long track for a Now, clocking in at nearly six minutes. It's taken from the much-recommended Clutching At Straws album, which deals with themes of alcoholism and isolation. Sugar Mice dives right into the mire of the effects that booze has on a family man, with the song's protagonist repeating “Your daddy took a rain-check”. It's poignant, full of typically illustrative lyrical imagery and is sung with genuine sincerity by Fish. Should have had a higher chart placing.

Before things get too downbeat, let's scoot off to Side 3. Wet Wet Wet oblige with Sweet Little Mystery, a likeable slab of blue-eyed soul from perma-grin Marti Pellow and his chums. Despite the lyrical hoo-ha (or should that be who-ha, given that the lyrics allegedly borrow from an old Van Morrison track), it's a catchy, fun song. I also really like Curiosity Killed The Cat's Misfit, which was a reissue of their 1986 debut. It fared far better this time, making the Top 10. Another simple but effective tune with lyrics that celebrate the odd man or woman out. And in a world where conformity always seems to be the watchword, there's a worthy message in the lyrics.

Continuing the fun pop ride are Los Lobos, who provide the third and final number one of the album, La Bamba. The title track of the 1987 movie, it's an unpretentious, enjoyable version of Ritchie Valens' timeless classic. The Fat Boys try the same trick with their inimitable take on The Surfaris' Wipeout. They nearly succeed in nabbing the top spot, but despite the guest cameos from The Beach Boys, they are kept on the silver podium at Number Two.

Love In The First Degree is peak SAW-style Bananarama, although whether this is a blessing or curse depends on your point of view. For me, it's the pop equivalent of watching the freshly painted walls of a paint factory dry. Over the sounds of a cheap, tinny, Fisher Price keyboard, the Nanas intone the hastily scribbled lyrics with all the enthusiasm of bored supermarket cashiers. It's like listening to a trio of sat-navs – no emotion whatsoever.

Smash Hits would have had a field day with ageing crooner Cliff Richard, who's up next. This is alarming, given that he was 46 when My Pretty One was released. My 46th birthday is only a few months away at the time of typing this tosh, which depresses the hell out of me. It's a weird track that sounds a bit like an ad jingle for a breakfast cereal, sung by Clifford in his unmistakeable quavery warble.

Even odder is Hey Matthew by Karel Fialka. Karel's son, Matthew is sung to by his father over a childlike backing track, with Fialka Jr popping up to note on what he's seen on the telly. It's a veritable who's who of TV classics, including Terrahawks, Tom and Jerry, He-Man, Daffy Duck, Road Runner and The A Team. Jan Hammer's Crockett's Theme rounds off the side, and is one of those many tracks to accompany a telly advert – from what I remember, it was for a credit card. I recall that a young chap started to rock out to the track while waiting at the cash dispenser kiosk for his money. He should have used the dough for some dance lessons.

Rivalry between the Now and Hits albums meant that the same track couldn't normally be used on both selections. Nina Simone, however, bucks the trend for the second time (following Ghostbusters on Now 4 and Hits 1) with My Baby Just Cares For Me, a welcome bit of nostalgia that ran along the same lines as Jackie Wilson's classics with an accompanying plasticine stop-motion video. The public clearly wanted to step back in time, as the song blasted its way into the Top 10.

The Circus is one of those Erasure songs that tends to get overlooked in the band's repertoire. Shame, since it's actually one of their best, the dreamy wurlitzer circus music adding a sinister edge to this plaintive slow mover. Likewise, The Housemartins' Build is a wilfully downbeat track that tends to get forgotten, but it's another corker. Paul Heaton sings it particularly well. Little did fans like me know that this would be one of the last times that The Housemartins would grace the charts.

Level 42's It's Over is a strange one in that it's a break-up song, but one that's told from the point of view of the singer doing the dumping rather than the other way round, as is normally the case. It's a suitably bleak and melancholy track, which is ironic given that the protagonist is such a rotter.

ABC add a touch of razzmatazz with their tribute to Smokey Robinson. When Smokey Sings does its best to recall the slick pop of 1982's Lexicon Of Love, and it succeeds rather well, with Martin Fry reeling off a list of Smokey platitudes against a lush backdrop of strings, bongos and cooing backing voices. One of the things that I like about Now 10 is that many of the choices aren't your archetypal 100 Hits Of The '80s compilation songs. Tracks like Hourglass by Squeeze tend to be overlooked in favour of the more familiar big hitters, which is a shame, since the penultimate track is a great little song. Thanks to past Nows, it's possible to get your hands on tracks that would otherwise be quite hard to find.

The final track is another one that took a punt, but little did the Now team know of the extent of its popularity. A Fairy Tale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl has become one of those enduringly popular Christmas staples, so it's really weird playing this last song on one of the sunniest days of the year so far.

Now 10, despite the odd clunker, holds up well. It's got a good cross-section of big hits and more obscure oddities that make the brand such a vital one. Luckily, the wait until the next Now wouldn't be as long, with a certain Now 11 advert making the pages of Smash Hits in the March of 1988...