Being a family man leaves little time for telly these days. Food to cook. Milk to prepare. Nappies to change. Clothes to wash. Stories to read. The list goes on. Not that I'm complaining. Staring at the gogglebox all day isn't the most rewarding way to spend my time.
Besides which, the TV pickings at the mo are pretty slim. At the time of writing, it's the usual dreary Saturday night battle between histrionic karaoke singers and Z-list celebrities galumphing around a tacky studio (apparently designed by Ronald McDonald). The soaps have all lost the plot. Plus, the usual reality telly nonsense. One of these days, I wouldn't be surprised if there will be a programme in which 10 contestants battle it out to go to the loo in the fastest time. Give it three years, tops.
But when I get the chance, revisiting the old Top Of The Pops editions from the '70s and '80s is a lot of fun. At the moment, the show's in 1986, the year in which I started getting into chart music in a big way. A big part of this is down to getting my very first Now That's What I Call Music album. I'd see the chart hits on TV, enjoy them, but buying each single with pocket money wasn't exactly feasible. But when I saw Now 7 being advertised on TV, I realised that this was a great value for money way of getting my hands on some of the best chart music around. My 12th birthday was coming up, and so it was a real treat to unwrap the lavishly packaged double cassette that September.
Maybe it's nostalgia talking, but Now 7 remains one of my all-time favourites of the compilation series. If Now 6 wasn't quite perfect, Now 7 gets everything practically right. Because there was no release in the Spring (leaving the very good Hits 4 to claim pole position in the charts), there's more than enough material to choose from. Now 7 also gets the balance just right between the classic 1986 favourites and some of the lesser-known gems.
I remember slotting the first tape into my fellow birthday present (ah, the days of the Walkman), and turning up the volume to hear this quiet reedy refrain. Not a good idea, since my eardrums are then blasted into pate by the distinctive horns of Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer at top whack.
1986 was the big year for the former Genesis frontman, with his So album selling in droves. Sledgehammer is well remembered for its unique stop-motion animation video which throws everything it can at you. A clay Gabriel on a big dipper. Dancing headless chickens. Moving furniture. It's one of the most striking pop promos of the decade, but the song itself is an instant classic too – catchy, striding, and also, fun. Not wishing to sound like an old fogey (too late), but where's the fun in pop these days? It's all autotune and forgettable cash cows for greedy record moguls.
The second song also proved that it was possible to comment on a serious contemporary topic without resorting to po-faced tedium. UB40's Sing Our Own Song tackles the subject of apartheid, but mixes it in with a dancey, anthemic call to arms. It's one of the group's best, and is also the first of two Now 7 tracks to feature Jaki Graham (who's on backup vocal duties here).
Sly Fox is one of those pop acts filed under the 'One Hit Wonder' bracket. Perhaps Let's Go All The Way was too hard an act to follow. The flashy video was an MTV favourite, using every video effect under the sun to contrast with two youngsters smashing toy weapons. The lyrical content is interesting – anti-war or an all-out attack on the greedy capitalist attitudes of the 1980s? “Rich man, poor man, living in fantasy,” croon the duo against the strident booming drum sounds. With lines like “Presidential party, no one wants to dance,” it's an unsung classic that's still grimly relevant today. Shame no more was heard from Sly Fox, since on the strength of this track, they clearly had more to offer.
Lessons In Love carries on the big surge in popularity for Level 42, with the distinctive Mark King bassline blending in seamlessly with a chugging, catchy rhythm. The rhythm also plays a big part in the first appearance on a Now album from the Pet Shop Boys. Former Smash Hits editor Neil Tennant gets to put his money where his mouth is – in this case, literally, with the greed-baiting Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money). Another track that doesn't sound out of place in the 'In it for ourselves' landscape of 2018, the biting lyrical boasts are perfectly married to a relentless mechanical drumbeat. Tennant's deadpan vocal delivery is the ideal narrator for the bragging of a fictional greedy moneybags. We might see this pop duo crop up again on future Now's, and deservedly so.
Pete Wylie's Sinful is a good instance of the appeal of Now 7, in that it spans many musical styles. We've had funk, strident electro-pop, reggae, and now the fusion of 1960s Wall Of Sound and Goth Opera.
From there, it's on to the country-tinged ballad of a PFC of the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. The Marine meets “a big marine” called Camouflage, who actually turns out to have died in combat. Miraculously, Camouflage managed to save the life of a young marine caught in a barrage. Stan Ridgway's lyrics paint the perfect story of this enigmatic marine.
Continuing the eclectic theme of the first side, Now 7 rounds off with the bizarre meeting between The Art Of Noise and Max Headroom. Max was an AI character on Channel 4. With a head that looked like it had been placed in a vice and a tendency to stutter, he proved popular enough to record his own song. The Art Of Noise also have a nice line in eclecticism, having teamed up with guitar twanger Duane Eddy, before moving on to create an off-kilter backdrop for Max's inability to get to sleep. Soothing vocals jostle with Max's feverish musings about tea and non-rhyming poetry.
Mind you, if Max had wanted to get some sleep, all he had to do was flip the record to the first track on Side Two. Perennial dancefloor smoocher for the Saga generation, The Lady In Red by Chris De Burgh manages to still sound both boring and creepy at the same time, which I guess is some kind of accomplishment.
Side Two contains a few more tracks that would have appealed to your mums and dads at the time, although luckily, these are better than Chris' sinister dirge. David Bowie spent 1986 on a couple of film projects, the best known of which is his unforgettable turn as Jareth in Labyrinth. The lesser known one, Absolute Beginners, still earned the legend a sizeable hit in early 1986 with its title theme. It's longer than most of the songs, exceeding the five minute, but then where would it be without that blistering saxophone solo at the end?
Like their former frontman, Genesis enjoyed a productive 1986. Invisible Touch completed their transition from prog rock hippies into more accessible, straight-ahead stadium rockers. While the Genesis purists may have sneered at the synthy drums and the easy-to-digest three-odd minute mark, the record buying public at large wanted more, and propelled the parent album to Number One.
Blimey, what's this? Simple Minds in Good Song shocker! I've not been too generous to their previous Now appearances, but All The Things She Said is actually not half bad. There's less emphasis on big shouty singalong stadium rock here. Instead, the band take on a more subtle approach with some cool key changes and some nifty piano and keyboard work.
Yay! It's The Housemartins! I was a big fan of theirs as a kid, and their zippy political pop stands up remarkably well 32 years on. Happy Hour sets out their stall, with a fast-paced, catchy tune that masks a caustic attack on greedy yuppies leering and posturing in the bar. That's why I liked them – despite the chirpy surface of the songs, there was intelligent and well-observed commentary bubbling under.
Big Country is another band I've got time for, and Look Away is probably my favourite of their catalogue, a pounding rocker with an infectious chorus that you'll end up humming on the bus to work, in the street to the shops, or in the kitchen while cooking dinner.
Furniture's Brilliant Mind is one of those hard-to-find tracks that only the Now albums can provide. It's a coiled spring slow-burner of a song that gradually ramps up the drama from a steady, quietly paced beat to a frantic skirmish between saxophone and jangly guitar, topped off with some distinctive vocals from Jim Irvin. Marvellous. Midge Ure's Call Of The Wild is a bit of a comedown after this forgotten gem, but it does boast some wonderfully moody drum work to fade out the side.
Side Three is a bumper pack of nine songs, including a bonus track that I'll discuss further on. With the Hits series leaving the reins to the Now peoples for the Summer, this meant that Wham could put in an appearance. Which is just as well, since The Edge Of Heaven was their final farewell to fans, and Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, it quickly raced to the top of the charts. It's one of four Number Ones on the album, and also one of the rival record company songs. While the CBS, WEA and RCA tracks are normally off limits, the lack of a Summer Hits Album means these are fair game again for the Now series.
BTW, talking of Summer, the Now series has also produced its very own seasonal albums between Nows 6 and 7. The Christmas Album features all the usual hoary chestnuts (Slade, Wizzard, Band Aid etc). The far more palatable Summer Album features many a sunny classic from the likes of The Young Rascals, The Lovin' Spoonful and The Isley Brothers. Worth tracking down.
OK, where was I? Ah, I've remembered – unlike poor old Owen Paul, who was once left looking puzzled while forgetting to mime along to My Favourite Waste Of Time on Pebble Mill At One or some other daytime magazine show or something. It's a track that's been heavily featured on TOTP, and features a backing band full of mullets to rival Owen's very own 1980s barnet.
Up next are three cover versions, which work to varying degrees. The most successful is Amazulu's Too Good To Be Forgotten, which is so sunny you need to wear shades while wearing it. It's a faithful recreation of The Chi-Lites classic that manages to stamp that uniquely Amazulu sound on it at the same time. First class.
The other two revisit 1970. I liked Doctor And The Medics' take on Spirit In The Sky at the time, but now... take away the crazy clothes and make-up, and you're left with a very ordinary reading of the Norman Greenbaum Number One. Meanwhile, Shocking Blue's Venus is pepped up by Bananarama, who are now acolytes of the Stock Aitken Waterman camp. Depending on your preference of the original, girl-next-door, real instruments and songwriting incarnation of the Nanas or the vamped up SAW puppets, this is either a smart move or a terrible mistake. Still, there's no arguing with the chart statistics, since they will enjoy plenty of Top 20 hits from now till the end of the 1980s.
It's so long to Jay Aston and hello to Shelley Preston as Bucks Fizz enter their New Beginning. It's a big, bold statement of a song with some mightily impressive tribal drumming and chanting. Actually, the Fizz have come up with some pretty decent songs in their time. My Camera Never Lies and If You Can't Stand The Heat are two very good examples of an underrated repertoire, and you can comfortably add New Beginning to that list.
What's the difference between the album and remixed versions of a-ha's Hunting High And Low? My cloth ears can pick out a different snare drum sound that sounds a bit more organic on the 7” version, along with a dramatic orchestra replacing the fake sounding button on Mags' synthesiser. Simply Red's Holding Back The Years also differs a little from the LP version, but it's still a classic weepie that instantly conjures up images of Del alone in the Nags Head hired room in the aftermath of Rodney's and Cassandra's wedding.
Bonus track time! Which falls to Queen's A Kind Of Magic. I'm not sure why the Now team listed this one as an extra. Possibly there wasn't enough room to fit in an extra picture on the gatefold inner sleeve. Maybe there were too many good tracks to choose from during the Spring and Summer of 1986. Whatever the reason, A Kind Of Magic is still a welcome addition to what's already a jam-packed album full of goodies.
Go and get stuffed. No, that's not an insult to you, faithful reader. That's what everyone in the playground called Billy Ocean's triumphant climb to Number One. When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going was on one of those Noel Edmonds programmes, where the Deal Or No Deal one quickly misinterpreted the lyric as “Go and get stuffed”, to the subsequent sniggers of schoolkids in Arunside Primary School.
You can't misinterpret Set-Set-Set-Me-Free! The best of Jaki Graham's repertoire, this perfect slab of pop is another to have cropped up frequently on the TOTP repeats. For some reason, the studio performance seems to feature Lulu's younger sister on backing vocals. It's a track that's again aged well, and the same goes for the excellent Nu Shooz track, I Can't Wait. In fact, with its off-kilter dog barking refrain and dancey beats, it's a track that's ahead of its time in some ways, pre-empting the 1990s style dance songs. Incidentally, I'd recommend Nu Shooz's Poolside album, which contains more great tracks such as Point Of No Return and Secret Message.
The Real Roxanne and Hitman Howie Tee's Bang! Zoom! Let's Go Go carries on the unorthodox feel, and again feels a bit ahead of its time. Combining a commanding rap from Roxanne, a hypnotic, metallic beat, and samples from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, there's nothing quite like it. I like it a lot.
From Bugs Bunny to Amityville (The House On The Hill), with Lovebug Starski. Again, it's not everyday that you get a pot pourri of hip hop and cameo appearances from a Boris Karloff-esque butler, Dracula, and Kirk, Spock and Scotty from Star Trek. But this is Now 7, a place where we've had Bugs Bunny, Max Headroom and a singing dog, so anything goes.
Midnight Starr's Headlines is a more conventional dance track, but it's still a lot of fun, with some cod-weather reporting and a funky scratchy beat. Aurra's You And Me Tonight follows the same lines as the previous compilation's Separate Lives, except with more value added funk. Maybe there's a happy ending for the bickering couple in the song. Who knows? Unlike the luckless pondering of a life On My Own from two outstanding vocal talents, Patti LaBelle and Michael Mc Donald.
Now 7 sees the compilation series at a peak. Like the front cover, it's got bags of classic 1980s tracks and some unsung heroes that are that bit harder to find. It boasts a wide range of musical styles that make this a quintessential 'Something For Everyone' Now. It's as good as it sounds as it did when I celebrated my 12th birthday in 1986.