It's going so well.
Your self-made business is on the up. Or you just got a pay rise and promotion at work. Lady Luck is smiling down on you and it looks like you can do no wrong.
Or so you think. Because suddenly, the ground's been cut from under your feet. There's now another self-made business which has just opened its doors opposite yours. Some smug newbie at work is now getting all the attention and praise, leaving you fuming at this rival newcomer. Lady Luck's smile may still be there, but only because you've metaphorically slipped on a banana skin to speedily skid from here to Brisbane.
That's the problem facing the Now That's What I Call Music team in the later part of 1984. With three huge sellers tucked under its belt, the Now series could do no wrong. But all of a sudden, there's now a fresh-faced competitor on the scene.
The Hits Album.
The Hits Album runs along the same lines as the Now series by gathering together 32 tracks from the 1984 pop charts. Whereas Virgin and EMI are in charge of the Now series, the Hits series is under the thumb of the CBS and WEA labels. The Hits crew play sneaky tactics by releasing their debut album a week before the next thrilling instalment of the Now series. The outcome? The Hits Album comfortably takes its place at the top of the charts, leaving Now 4 clutching the runner-up prize.
Fair play though, the first Hits Album is very good, containing a slew of classics that will cater for all tastes, whether it's soul (the brilliant Just Be Good To Me by The SOS Band), pop (Wham fans must have been delighted at the inclusion of both Freedom and George Michael's Careless Whisper) or rock (Yay! Jump by Van Halen!). It's a strong start for the series, even if the cover design is a bit tacky, resembling the album equivalent of a box of washing up powder from 1957.
The release of the first Hits LP poses a number of problems for the Now series. The competition for one thing. The Now and Hits series are now locked in a seven-year chart feud to see which side can reach the top of the charts. It's a battle that I'll prattle about over the course of these Now reviews – you'll have to wait and see who wins.
Out of this, there's also the scramble to gather as many Number Ones for each opposing side as possible. The first Hits Album gets the upper hand here, clocking in three chart toppers in the form of the Wham and George Michael numbers, as well as Chaka Khan's stellar I Feel For You (one of the highlights of the LP). Now 4, on the other hand, can only muster one Number One single, and even then, Lionel Richie's last dance saloon, Hello, reached pole position back in March 1984. In terms of up-to-date Autumn/Winter 1984 chart hits, that's yonks ago.
Which leads me on to another problem facing the Now crew. Because the rival companies of CBS and WEA have first dibs on their own record label choices of chart hits, the Now peoples have more of a limited pool of chart resources. Whereas previous Nows included CBS and WEA label tracks, there aren't any on Now 4. Which means big names such as Wham and George, Howard Jones, and Paul Young are now choosing to eat out at the Hits restaurant rather than the Now locale.
That leaves more of a gaping hole, and while the two albums do dovetail with the same artists from time to time, there's still the issue of which album gets which track. In the case of The Thompson Twins, it's a case of mixed blessings. While Hits 1 nabs its paws on the more up-to-date track, Sister Of Mercy, it's still the smaller, lesser-known hit. Now 4's choice of Doctor Doctor is the better and well-known choice, but again, it was released in the early part of 1984 – even before Now 3's selection of You Take Me Up. Neither side wins or loses here, but with the choice of the Michael Jackson cut, the Hits emerges the victor with the excellent Thriller. Now 4, on the other hand, makes do with a re-release of a MORish1970s track called Farewell My Summer Love, which sounds out of place among the more contemporary 1980s stuff. You can tell that the Now team were eager to include Jacko, even if it meant opting for an inferior track that just happened to be on a neutral Motown label.
In the middle of a compilation war crisis, who ya gonna call?
Ray Parker Jr's perennial favourite was a high flyer in the charts, thanks to the release of the timeless movie. Both compilation series snapped up the tune, with Now 4 mysteriously adding a subtitle of Searchin' For The Spirit. Never mind the spirit, I'm still searchin' for the origins of this mysterious extra bit of naming. Was it an unofficial alternative title? A typo on the part of the Now cover crew? It's a mystery that's even more elusive than the presence of an actual ghost.
Let's have a look at what Now 4 has got. It's still got a fair amount of well-known names in its contacts book, but unfortunately, some of these are having off days. The album mysteriously begins with No More Lonely Nights by Paul McCartney. I always thought that this would be the smoochy ballad version before I heard the album, but in fact, it's a disco remix assembled by producer Arthur Baker. It's an odd choice – not bad especially – but for a song that's been heard as a whispery slow number, it's jarring to hear those brassy horns and pounding drum machine beats pumping away on the record player. I can picture Macca doing a stupid, wacky, thumbs aloft boogie on the dancefloor.
Previous golden boys Culture Club are back, although The War Song clearly marks the beginning of the end of their 1980s success with humdrum lyrics (War is stupid, people are stupid, John Bensalhia is stupid, etc etc) and a bizarre middle bit featuring fire and brimstone screaming from guest singer Clare Torry. The Great Gig In The Sky it ain't. Elton John's Passengers represents his Now debut, but it's still uninspiring stuff, with some clunky football terrace bellowing drowning the tune out. Plus, Jacko's Farewell My Summer Love – step forward again.
Other returning acts may not have hit the charts as highly as before, but they are still strong offerings. Tina Turner's Private Dancer is a nicely broody Side 2 closer from the pen of Mark Knopfler about a woman making ends meet by uh... dancing for money (good guitar solo from Jeff Beck, an' all). The Style Council's Shout To The Top is a classy deal, marrying a catchy tune and call to arms lyrics. The Human League's Phil Oakey teams up with legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, and if Together In Electric Dreams sounds a bit Eurovision in places, it's a nice, peppy track. I also quite like UB40's brass-heavy If It Happens Again – they may not be the most trendy of bands, but there's no denying that they had a way with a tune.
For some listeners, the random song selection for each side may be a bit off-putting. Whereas some of the previous albums included themed sides (eg: the political, topical Side 2 of Now 3 or the new wavey Side 3 of Now 2 – look at that! Mirror image!), there's no real coherent theme for any of the sides of Now 4. Side 3 admittedly starts on a heavier, rockier note. Queen provide the majestic balladry of It's A Hard Life. Good old Status Quo cover Dion's The Wanderer, conjuring up images of that video in which they drive past surprised everyday shoppers and pedestrians. Big Country continue to impress with one of their heaviest offerings, East Of Eden. And then there's the entrance of U2, already in over-earnest pompous mode with Pride (In The Name Of Love).
However, after these four, it's back to the pop pick 'n' mix. See? No pattern. Not that it bothers me that much – as long as the choons are listenable, then it's not a problem. Actually, there's some good stuff here. Madness make a cameo appearance as they help out flop-haired Undertones warbler Feargal Sharkey with the bouncy Listen To Your Father. OMD get all dancey with Tesla Girls.
Kim Wilde makes her debut, and although The Second Time wasn't a massive hit, it's by turns catchy and hilarious. Kim complains about her fella's lack of interest in you-know-what, resulting in the classic lyric “Don't wanna know about your sea green curtains”. No sane bloke would ever start babbling about his poxy curtains in that scenario in the first place, but what makes it so amusing is the random colour of sea green. Maybe it was a popular choice of curtain colour in the mid-80s, but I don't think I've ever seen a room theme of sea green, apart from reruns on UK Gold. Nik Kershaw's eerie Human Racing likewise, wasn't as big a hit as previous offerings, but its off-kilter, mechanical drone-like beat creates an ominous close to the side in style.
For me, that's where the strength of Now 4 lies. While some of the song selections weren't massive hits at the time, they make for refreshing alternatives to the usual ones chosen for today's 1980s compilations. Many of these choices are also rather good. The last four Side 3 tracks are fine examples, but then there's Nick Heyward's funky Warning Sign, Heaven 17's catchy Sunset Now, and also Malcolm McLaren's unique take on Madam Butterfly – one third mad opera warbling, one third McLaren mumbling, one third soulful vocal workouts. It's got a lovely chorus, too.
Madam Butterfly's spookiness does fit in well with the more ominous sounding selections on the last side. Maybe it's because it kicks off with Ghostbusters that many of Side 4's songs sound more creepy in tone. Those slightly unnerving trumpets blaring in unison on UB40's If It Happens Again. The mechanical, Orwellian soundscape of the Eurythmics' Sexcrime (1984). The jerky paranoia of Rockwell's first class Somebody's Watching Me. I'm also a fan of Level 42's music – not the trendiest of bands, but then who gives a damn about trendy? Hot Water is presented here in darker, faster, remixed form (compared to the slightly slower take on their True Colours LP), and is another highlight of the album. But don't fret – Eugene Wilde's here to take down the spooky atmos with the closing last dance smoocher, Gotta Get You Home Tonight, which gently rounds off the album in soulful style.
For all the problems that faced Now 4, it's still certainly worth a spin, containing some great, lesser-known gems that actually deserved to be bigger hits. Ironically, despite playing second fiddle to Hits 1, Now 4 ultimately had the last laugh in that its rare CD (the first of the Nows to be released on shiny disc) would go on to become a collector's item. Check out the eBay listings – it's worth a fortune!
Maybe Lady Luck's still smiling on this Now entry.