29th May 1986. Fairthorne Manor.
It's a sunny half-term Thursday, and I'm on one of those week-long school residential beanos. As someone who can just about accomplish the task of walking in a straight line, the various sporting activities on offer at Fairthorne haven't been the easiest to achieve. Canoeing. Aerial runway. Worst of all, abseiling – a half hour of pure terror for an 11-year-old who hates heights. Apparently, Australia could hear the screams and smell the fear.
But on this day, it's the first time that I come into contact with a Now That's What I Call Music album. The day before my class heads back to normality, there's a party, and the organisers have stuck on the second tape of Now 6 on the stereo.
Curiously, I'm not so impressed – mainly because I haven't heard of that many of the songs. Who's the crazy woman shrieking fire and brimstone about cities falling into dust? Who's that laid-back guy twanging about a lost weekend? When I have heard of the songs, I'm sighing at the dreariness of it all – Ultravox man muses on whether he's a sailor or a butcher or a candlestick maker, while Madness officially lose the plot with their tedious ode to Uncle Sam. For a bloke who's due to become a big fan of the Now series, it's not the most auspicious of introductions.
Fast forward to 17th October 2018. Bensalhia Manor.
It's an amazingly sunny Wednesday, despite the laughable clickbait news drivel warnings of weather Armageddon. As a 44-year-old who still hates heights, luckily the most arduous task today is to type out some tosh on Now 6 from a chair that's only a couple of feet above the ground.
The big question is, have I changed my opinion on the album's Side Three? The sleeve blurb is inviting me to 'Feel The Quality', a somewhat boastful assumption. It's revelling in its own new stylish cover art, which makes a marked change to Now 5's multi-coloured eyesore. From now on, the Now albums will incorporate the logo into an everyday item or scenario, whether it's a bag, office block or swimming pool. Now 6 wears a snug leather jacket with the logo emblazoned into the material. It's possibly been pinched from either The Fonz or Christopher Eccleston's Doctor, but the artwork for Now 6 is the first to provide a simple but stylishly effective front cover.
Record buyers were quick to agree, since Now 6 won the battle of the compilation charts. While the rival Hits 3 boasts a strong line-up, it's hindered by a clumsy Side Three that includes some odd choices. The Cars' Drive had previously appeared on the first Hits LP, so it's a bit of a swizz to include it only two albums later. Meanwhile, Paul Young's Every Time You Go Away had already been featured on Now 5 (so had Sister Sledge's Frankie, come to think of it). The biggest head-scratcher is the inclusion of Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time, which had been a hit the previous year! So it was left to Now 6 to hold on to the top spot this year, which it did for some time.
But like that old adage of not judging a book by its cover, is the track listing for Now 6 any good? It gets off to a cracking start with Queen's One Vision. Buoyed by a stage-stealing turn at Live Aid, Queen began their next phase of chart domination with the teaser from their next excellent album, A Kind Of Magic. It's punchy, fast-paced rock, and makes for an instant attention grabber for Now 6. One Vision is also one of those tracks to make the most of those drunken, slow-down sound effects that makes you think that the record's being played at the wrong speed (see also Shine A Little Love by ELO or Iceberg by 10cc).
After such a big impact, Nik Kershaw's When A Heart Beats falls a little flat by comparison. For those who prefer hits on the monster side, a problem with Now 6 is that there aren't so many of these. Perhaps the pickings from late 1985 were on the slim side (and it can't have helped that Hits 3 poached the likes of a-ha's Take On Me or Jennifer Rush's Power Of Love), but curiously, a fair few Now 6 tracks miss the Top 20 (and in one or two cases, miss the Top 40 completely). The Now team were taking what they thought was a safe punt with Kershaw (he'd had plenty of chart hogging hits in 1984), but his comeback single proved to be a bit of a damp squib.
The other side of this argument is whether the Top Tens and Number Ones are more deserving of their position. The next two Now 6 tracks reached Number One, but me, personally, I find them a bit anaemic. Feargal Sharkey's A Good Heart leaves behind his new wavey days for good, as he warbles his way through this big, brash slice of 1980s power pop. Despite the production values, I've always found the actual song a bit weak (despite the catchy chorus), which is the same issue I've got with the Eurythmics' There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart). Both perfectly pleasant songs, and in the Eurythmics' case, there's the bonus of a cameo from Stevie Wonder (more from him later), but I've never felt a mad rush to locate them on my iPod.
Another example of my complete disinterest is another Simple Minds song. I'd not been especially impressed by their Now 5 offering, Don't You Forget About Me, and the same goes for the earnestly dreary Alive And Kicking. Tailor made for the big stadium arenas, it's a stage shared by Bryan Adams who's embroiled in a shouting contest with his chum Tina Turner on It's Only Love. It's a close call as to who actually wins this battle of the screams. I've been too busy trying to work out the outcome of this, that I've actually forgotten that there's no real tune to speak of.
It's left to Gary Moore and Marillion to quieten things down a bit. Empty Rooms is another instance of a track that wasn't a particularly big hit, but in its own quiet way, it's one of the more effective offerings on this side, a slow-burning ballad with some strong guitar work from the former Thin Lizzy axeman. Lavender, alas, isn't quite in the same league as Kayleigh in the second of the Now ballad trilogy, only conjuring up images of a laryngitis-stricken Fish pointing to the lyrics on a TOTP blackboard with a big stick.
Side Two begins on a quieter note with Elton John pouring his heart out to Russian missus, Nikita. Like the previous side's bigger hits, Nikita was a Top 3 smash, but it's never really grabbed my attention. It's bland MOR by Elton's standards, and is only marked out by an instrumental break that sounds like the 1980s theme tune for Antiques Roadshow.
Mayhem Majeka worshipper Kate Bush restores a bit of wonder to proceedings with the ethereal Running Up That Hill. The sparse keyboards, pounding drumbeat and Kate's uniquely eerie vocals add up to a winning combination. The song was used for that mid-1980s BBC kids' drama called Running Scared, which was proof that the Beeb had more of a handle on producing gripping, challenging children's' drama shows back in the '80s (see also Codename Icarus).
Level 42's Something About You isn't one of their best by any means, but it's still streets ahead of some of the other stuff on Now 6. The LP from which it was taken, World Machine, is packed to the decks with much better songs (I'll nominate Lying Still, Coup D'Etat and A Physical Presence for starters), but the track proved to be their breakthrough hit, reaching the Top 10.
Tina Turner, having snaffled a pack of throat sweets from her earlier shoutathon with Bryan Adams, pops up again to holler the Mad Max soundtrack song, We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome). The song's accompanied by one of those creepy children's choirs at the end, which mars what's otherwise a decent tune. Possibly, Claire & Friends were warming up for their 1986 chartbuster.
Now 6 is another of those compilations that uses one act more than once. We've just had Tina Turner claiming her second track, while UB40 are on next in their first of two showings. Don't Break My Heart is the better of the pair on offer, and works because it's so downbeat. Like Running Up That Hill, the song's sparse arrangement works to its advantage, with that mournful drum machine fading up in volume like a modern day train slowly limping to a platform bursting at the seams with angry passengers. Ali Campbell also underplays the vocals in what's one of his best turns at the mic – compared to the later duet with Chrissie Hynde, it's a classic case of chalk and cheese.
Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin hurl china plates at each other for Separate Lives, a drippy power ballad, before clearing the crockery for Sir Clifford of Richard. She's So Beautiful is an odd one in that it's generally reliant on Stevie Wonder, who pops up to provide backing instruments and vocals. Cliff and Stevie don't really make the most obvious of teams. Maybe Stevie agreed to play on Cliff's latest record after popping over for a cup of tea and a jam bun. It's one of the most contemporary sounding in a Cliff Catalogue full of granny-style Christmas caterwauling and generic balladry. But sometimes even Cliff realises that he has to get with the times, whether he's teaming up with SAW or trundling around on roller skates while resembling a cross between Quasimodo and Billie Jean King.
Side Three takes me back to those 1986 days of Fairthorne. It kicks off the loose theme of extra-curricular music projects with Arcadia's Election Day. Arcadia is actually three fifths of Duran Duran, and while the project was only around for less than a year, Election Day is top dollar. Boasting slick musicianship, a catchy chorus and some funky guitar chords, Election Day also features a cameo from Grace Jones who's yelling away like Billy-O in the background. Possibly, she's just had a visit from a giant Russell Harty and is trying to ward him off.
Chrissie Hynde takes time off from The Pretenders to duet with UB40 in the second of their Now 6 songs. A tepid cover of Sonny And Cher's I Got You Babe, it isn't a patch on Don't Break My Heart, with the end result sounding more like a Little And Large parody. The Pretenders were big news at the same time as The Beat (great band responsible for the likes of Mirror In The Bathroom, Hands Off... She's Mine and Too Nice To Talk To). Two of these, Andy Cox and David Steele went on to form Fine Young Cannibals with Roland Gift, although mysteriously Blue was a flop, just hanging outside the gates of the Top 40. Possibly this anti-Tory classic was too much for some to swallow, but this funky, passionate track remains relevant in 2018 – even more so than it did in 1985, actually.
Midge Ure's dreaming of being something else (wouldn't the frontrunner of Ultravox do?) in If I Was, but my opinion hasn't changed since 1986. It's still as interesting as browsing through a door handle catalogue. However, one of my favourites is the Siouxsie And The Banshees track, Cities In Dust. A driving, energetic and off-kilter (by chart standards, anyhoo) slice of great pop, Cities In Dust deserved to score much higher.
Uncle Sam by Madness also saw a feeble chart placing, although in this case, it's justified. Easily one of their weakest songs, Uncle Sam was the strongest indicator yet that the Nutty Boys' well of ideas had run dry. The parent album Mad Not Mad was as far removed from the glory days of Absolutely and Seven as you could get, with dated, galumphing drum machines and equally carbon dated 1985 production values.
Lost Weekend is a curio from Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, a decent bit of jangly guitar rock. Not a sizeable hit by any means, ditto Jimmy Somerville's first foray into his new project, The Communards. You Are My World is a departure from the angry electro sounds of his time with Bronski Beat, looking instead to a more classical approach. Somerville's new musical partner in crime is vicar-to-be, Richard Coles, and his classically trained piano skills mark out the track, which would be a bigger hit a year and a half down the line.
It's all abaaaahhht the maaahneee on Side Four as Paul Hardcastle ropes in Bob Hoskins and Laurence Olivier for this unlikely follow-up to 19. Just For Money follows the same pattern as 19, with spoken dialogue telling a story in between cooing female vocals. The single didn't reach the lofty heights of the earlier Number One, so the next choice cut from Hardcastle was a straight-ahead disco number. Don't Waste My Time was a bigger hit, and would end up on Hits 4 in the Spring of 1986.
Break out those oversized shoulder pad jackets and put on those shades! It's Miami Vice time, as Jan Hammer provides the theme tune to this quintessentially 1985 telly programme. At one of the shorter tracks, it's memorable for that strange drum sound, which sounds like Jan's using a biscuit tin as a snare drum.
Two culty dance numbers are up next. Maria Vidal's Body Rock is the better of the two, with the singer using those powerful session vocals (used for the likes of Alice Cooper) to add a bit of class to this catchy dancefloor hummer. Baltimora's Tarzan Boy is a bit too novelty, but it's still danceable enough with a chorus that just won't leave your brain. Not even if you ask it to politely pack its bags.
Mai Tai return with their follow-up to History, Body And Soul. It runs on the same lines as their earlier hit, which may explain why they never troubled the charts again (the song's funky enough though), while Cameo introduce their signature drum machine pop/whistling bird sound on Single Life.
Smooching off the dancefloor side this time is a cover of Mated, which was originally made by Todd Rundgren's part-time band, Utopia. David Grant and Jaki Graham add a bit of extra pizzazz and vocal passion to the track, making for a suitably romantic way to sign off the album.
It's a funny one, Now 6. My 44-year-old self preferred it to that young, speccy, shy chap in 1986. While it's not the first Now that I'd dig out from my musty record collection, it still contains enough good pop gems to propel it above the average. I'll still be feeling the quality for one of my all-time favourite Nows coming up very soon!