1985 takes a bit of time for Now That's What I Call Music to come back all guns blazing. For the three people who stayed awake to read my last bit of babble on Now 4, you'll know that The Hits Album left the rival compilation series on the runner-up podium. After kicking off 1984 with a massive Number One success, 1985 is looking comparatively chilly for our Now hero.
Matters aren't helped by the next Hits album scuttling to the top of the album charts. Hits 2 capitalises quickly on its predecessor's success, compiling a run of mostly excellent chart hits from the early part of 1985. While Now 2 had won the top spot in the early Spring season album charts in 1984, this time around, a possible Now 5 is nowhere to be seen.
Furthermore, there's another rival in town. The Chrysalis label has brought out its very own collection of pop ditties. It even has the gall to mimic the Now series by calling the compilation Out Now! Meanwhile, the Now pig has presumably locked itself into an underground bunker, gorging itself on crisps and cans of beer.
But a plan for comeback is needed, and needed fast. The first stage is to issue an offshoot of the series, bringing together 20 12” mixes of the most popular dancefloor hits around. Entitled Now Dance, it's successful enough to spawn its own sequels over the next few years on a sporadic basis. The front cover of a scantily clad missus in various poses in a bed doesn't look like she's in the mood for dancing though.
Phase one complete, it's time for the release of Now 5 in the Summer of 1985. Having bided its time, the Now series has found that all good things come to those who wait. The album restores the compilation series to its Number One status, where it remains for five weeks in August and September.
Which is a bit of an achievement, considering that you need a pair of sunglasses to look at the front cover without flinching. It's a garish, gaudy maelstrom of purple and yellow, featuring the Now pig in a summer shirt of many logos. It could well be a parody of the archetypal lobster-coloured British tourist abroad. You know the sort I mean. The type that insists on pub crawling all the British-themed bars, bellowing jingoistic songs to baffled locals and wolfing down enough fried breakfasts to give a Four In A Bed contestant the shakes.
Despite this retina-attacking eyesore, Now 5 evidently proved popular with buyers. This time, the Now team has an advantage in that there's no rival Hits or Out Now compilation on the scene, which means that anything goes with available record labels. Now 5 includes a selection of rival record company choices such as CBS, Atlantic and WEA, meaning that no artist is off limits. One of these provides the album's lone Number One single, Frankie by Sister Sledge.
The problem is that the cupboard's fairly bare with respect to choosing Number One songs. Two of them were selected for the Now Dance LP (Phyllis Nelson's smoocher, Move Closer and Paul Hardcastle's 19), while the other choices were charity single 'efforts'. The mid-80s were the apex of the traditional charity song. Over-earnest pop stars and celebrities donned massive, galumphing Cyberman headphones to huddle around a microphone while pulling gurning, constipated faces to prove how serious they were about the cause. This was then followed by an ensemble drearily chiming in with the main chorus (while usually swaying from side to side like they were recording the song on a boat in high seas). All I can picture when hearing these well-meaning but musically inept charidee dirges is Krusty The Clown's We're Sending Our Love Down The Well.
While Frankie can only say Number One, Now 5 does make a good job of categorising the singles at its disposal. Side One contains the pop tunes. Side Two goes for the classic and modern rockers. Side Three is the dancey one. While the oddballs, curios and odds and ends are saved for Side Four. It's the most comprehensive pigeonholing of hits yet, and paves the way for future compilations.
James Bond kicks off the album, or Duran Duran any rate. A View To A Kill combines the usual Duran sound with the established big orchestra style of John Barry. It conjures up images of the late, great Roger Moore doing battle for the last time as Bond with both Grace Jones and Christopher Walken (apparently playing Roger Taylor from Queen).
More popcorn is needed for Beverly Hills Cop, with Harold Faltermeyer's Axel F. If you've never seen the movie, you may recognise the instrumental from the prom video episode of Friends (in which a moustachioed Ross attempts to play the tune on his tinny keyboard) or Scream 4 (Dewey's mobile ringtone). By now, the Now albums started to feature some extra blurb about each of the acts. Fact fans will be delighted to learn that Harold Faltermeyer is 5'11” tall (only two inches taller than me). Remember that for your next pub quiz.
Bridging these movie songs is one of the finest of the album. Scritti Politti's own brand of sophisticated pop stands the test of time extremely well, with The Word Girl being their biggest hit. This catchy, funky, reggae-tinged classic kicked off their superb Cupid & Psyche '85 album, which is well worth a listen. Another great band from the '80s was Fine Young Cannibals in which singer Roland Gift teamed up with ex-Beat members David Steele and Andy Cox. Johnny Come Home is an instantly infectious piece of jazz funk-tinged pop, sung with great soulful gusto by Gift (who gets alarmingly close to the camera in the accompanying video).
The next two tracks are lesser-remembered follow-ups to big hits, but are still listenable. Dead Or Alive's In Too Deep does suffer from dated plastic SAW production, but it sticks in the mind very easily. Stephen 'TinTin' Duffy's Icing On The Cake is more of a grower, but it becomes a slick slice of prime '80s pop – even if the track sounds like the record's got stuck at the beginning.
Side One slows the pace with two smoochy but dull numbers. Kool And The Gang's Cherish is one of those dancefloor couple huddles, but it's miles away from the classic Jungle Boogie. Paul Young's Every Time You Go Away is sung well, but it's a bit too generic for my tastes, although an army of mulleted masses enjoyed it at a snoozy Prince's Trust gig in 1986.
The odd thing about Side Two is that while it includes some of the more traditional rock acts on the album, the overall ambience is quite mellow. Marillion, for example. Better known for their heavier brand of prog rock, it's ironic that their best-performing singles are ballads (stay tuned for the next one in Now 6). Kayleigh is their highest charting song, narrowly missing out on pole chart position, but it's one of the better selections on this side. More chill-out time comes from David Bowie, who teams up with jazz legend, Pat Metheny to produce the underrated This Is Not America. Not one of Bowie's better-known tracks, it's still good stuff.
Other cuts are more familiar, although they fall into the dreary camp. Bryan Ferry scored a chart renaissance with Slave To Love, but I've always found this one a bit soulless for my liking. It's the point at which his Mr Smoothie act became just that bit too slick. Simple Minds' Don't You Forget About Me meanwhile, settles for being turgid stadium rock.
Having said that, these are masterpieces when compared to The Power Station's awful version of T-Rex's Get It On. A mix of Duran Duran, Chic and Robert Palmer, The Power Station did come up with a perfectly acceptable stab at rock funk with Some Like It Hot. But their take on Get It On stinks more than a case full of rotten eggs. Another track to sound like the record's been either badly scratched or warped (to be fair, my copy of Now 5 is actually pretty badly warped), it's sung in angry growl by Palmer, who sounds more like he's having a furious go at a restaurant manager for bringing an undercooked chicken burger to his table.
The late, great Walter Becker (from one of my favourite bands, Steely Dan) pops up to produce China Crisis' weedy Black Man Ray, although it's nowhere near as good as the Dan's classics from the 1970s and early 1980s. Phil Collins rounds off the return to mellow with One More Night, presumably leaving Genesis purists spluttering their Dandelion and Burdock as far as Jupiter.
It's time to get the party started on Side Three, which is probably the most successful of the album. Well, apart from Rory Bremner's feeble take on Paul Hardcastle's 19. N-N-N-Nineteen Not Out by The Commentators is one of those goofy novelty records (another staple of the 1980s), and is no more than Bremner mimicking cricket commentators to the backing track of Hardcastle's signature tune. It's unlikely to bowl even the easiest pleased of comedy fans over.
Sister Sledge's Frankie kicks off the side, and if it lacks the Chic style of their 1979 era, it's still a fun song, bringing back memories of the Sledge girls pestering some old fart in a baseball cap in the video. Mai Tai's History follows this up, and while the production screams out mid-80s with its drum synths and blaring keyboards, it's still a worthy Now entry.
Amazingly, Simply Red's cover of The Valentine Brothers' Money's Too Tight To Mention isn't half bad, and in these troubled cash-strapped economic times, the point of the song still stands. Steve Arrington's dulcet tones grace Feel So Real, a perfectly acceptable dance groove. Even though it sounds like someone's playing snooker or pool in the background.
Jaki Graham would become a regular Now mainstay for the mid-80s, and following her duet with David Grant (ex-Linx), Could It Be I'm Falling In Love, Round And Around is a fine bit of dreamy soul. While Loose Ends don't get talked about so much (Magic Touch is pretty cool, though), at least they're more likely to be known than The Conway Brothers. Turn It Up is the only hit from this enigmatic bunch, mixing jokey comedy vocals (“Young man, could you pleeeeeeease turn it up?” says one of the Conways impersonating an old git in the intro) and heavy dance rhythms. Odd but curiously enjoyable.
Like Now 4, Now 5's final side has a subtly ominous edge, which begins with the sighing melodrama of U2's The Unforgettable Fire. I prefer this to the previous choice of Pride (In The Name Of Love). Even if it's still a tad over-earnest, its creepy musical backdrop creates a lot of atmosphere, right down to those eerie closing violins. The Style Council's Walls Come Tumbling Down starts with some sinister gameshow organ sounds, but quickly settles down into a brassy call to political arms. “You don't have to take this crap!” snarls Paul Weller in the first line, and I can't help but think that in 2018, this message is even more relevant than ever, considering the sorry state of today's greedy political amateurs.
Right. Let's skip over Katrina And The Waves' Walking On Sunshine (because it irritates the heck out of me) and move on to the far better Out In The Fields by Gary Moore with his old Thin Lizzy chum Phil Lynott. A pounding, fast-paced rocker, it's sadly the last the charts would hear from Lynott before his untimely passing in early 1986. The Damned's Shadow Of Love is one of those oft-forgotten tracks, but its moody, bleak atmosphere keeps it nicely in line with the darker edge of this side. Even Howard Jones' Life In One Day has that over-cheery fixed grin creepiness, complete with whistling keyboard motifs and cooing backing vocals.
The last track is probably the most bizarre. Jimmy Nail has his first stab at chart glory with his – um – interesting version of Rose Royce's Love Don't Live Here Anymore. What was once a gentle, soulful ballad now sounds like melodramatic background music for the final act of some gritty crime drama. Full of menacing keyboard work and thumping drumming from Queen's Roger Taylor (the real deal this time, not Walken), the track and the album conclude in harrowing fashion with one last blood-curdling scream of “Anymoooooooooorrrrrrreeeeeeee!!!!!” from Nail, which slowly fades away into the ether.
Now 5 luckily restored the chart status quo (not the band) for the compilation series, and as we'll see, the pendulum was about to swing the other way for the Hits series. Alas, the same couldn't be said for the cover pig, who presumably remained on holiday. More sophisticated covers were on the way, and in the next one, a jacket is definitely required...