Never let it be said that my blog babblings ain't topical.
At the time of writing, BBC4 is keeping up the fond memories of 1986 TOTP with repeats from late Summer and early Autumn. Many of the songs can be found on the latest thrilling Now That's What I Call Music instalment.
Depending on your musical tastes, Now 8 omits a number of memorable TOTP acts. Some of these are for the wrong reasons – the frankly terrifying Modern Talking's Brother Louie (comprising a pair of creosoted mullets whispering a clunky Eurovision reject) is hilarious in its robotic awfulness. There's also the glut of EastEnders-related chart entries. Anita Dobson's generic words-to-music Anyone Can Fall In Love is the first of many TOTP performances for the fledgling soap, but it certainly won't be the last.
The ongoing battle between Hits and Now is another cause for this. Hits 5 has sneakily been released a couple of weeks before Now 8, and as a result, has managed to reach the coveted Number One spot. It's also poached the likes of Rod Stewart's Every Beat Of My Heart and Bruce Hornsby's The Way It Is, which is no real loss. Even with these two examples of AOR rock sleepy dust, Hits 5 is still a worthy buy, containing classics such as You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon or long-forgotten gems such as Anotherloverholenyohead by Prince. Now 8 ain't too shabby either.
On the glass half empty side though, three of the 32 choices didn't make the Top 40 at all. Maybe that's why the 'Feel The Quality' slogan has been removed – it's a suitably Wintry cover instead of what looks like liquid chrome. Whether or not these flops bear merit after 32 years – well, I'll come to these, but for now let's scuttle back to the start with No-No-Notorious-Notorious-Notorious.
Duran Duran's big comeback single was chosen as the coveted first track of the album. Now a trio, Duran Duran's sound had become that much more funky. With Chic legend Nile Rodgers on production duties, this is no surprise. Talking of Chic, we'll be hearing more from both Nile and bassist Bernard Edwards further down the line. Rodgers adds a stamp of class to Notorious, although this wasn't enough to get the track into the Top 5, which stalled at Number 8 instead.
If Duran Duran's star was fading, then the Pet Shop Boys' was on the rise. Suburbia restored the duo to the Top 10 in style, with its biting lyrics of suburban tedium leading to rampaging riots (heard in the dramatic middle bit with shouts, screams and police sirens). Like many great musicians, the Pet Shop Boys' outwardly poppy tunes hid a darker message at the core, and Suburbia is one of the pair's best examples.
Now 8 contains its fair share of cover versions, two of which are up next. The merits of these depend on whether the act can actually bring something new to the table. Run DMC rap their way through Walk This Way, but also include the band responsible for the 1975 track, Aerosmith. The result is a fusion of contemporary rap and heavy metal – the single served as a comeback for Aerosmith, who would enjoy a chart renaissance in the late 1980s. Don't Leave Me This Way had already been covered twice in 1977. Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and then Thelma Houston achieved chart success in the early part of that year, but The Communards achieved that elusive Number One spot with their take. Rather than a straightforward like-for-like cover, at least Jimmy and Richard try and add new innovations. It's now a duet between Somerville and guest singer Sarah-Jane Morris. There's a typically example of Coles' classically trained piano skills. Best of all, there's the “Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” bridge that takes you into the chorus.
One of my favourites of the album is Breakout by Swing Out Sister. Their own unique brand of jazz-influenced pop is well worth tracking down, on both the parent album of Breakout, It's Better To Travel, and 1992's Get In Touch With Yourself (which spawned their own cover of Am I The Same Girl). The brassy hook and distinctive electronic beat draws you into the song, where Corrine Drewery's silky smooth vocals keep you well and truly hooked. A keeper of a song, and a good example of a much underrated band who deserved much bigger chart success.
Nile's back, although this time he's on guitar duties for Steve Winwood's Higher Love. While Spencer Davis Group purists may find the track a bit too slick, there's no arguing with the quality of the song, Winwood's vocals, Rodgers' typically deft guitar work, and some stellar background vocals from Chaka Khan.
OMD's Forever Live And Die is one of those tracks that time forgot in the big old landscape of 1986. It's quite hummable though, in a cold, strident kind of way – the middle brass of the instrumental break warms it up for a bit. We won't be hearing from OMD for a while, until Now 20 when Sailing On The Seven Seas proves to be a big chart comeback. Genesis are left to sign off the side with In Too Deep (featured on the Mona Lisa movie soundtrack). Like many of the band's slow numbers from the 1980s, it's hard to tell where Genesis ends and Phil Collins' solo career begins.
The dance side has moved around from side to side over the years (and it'll continue to do so in the future). For now, it's landed on the second side, where it kicks off with the unmistakeable drum sound of Cameo. I can tell it's Cameo, since the drum intro sounds exactly like the one for Single Life, only two Nows ago. Word Up was their biggest hit, and save for a couple of minor follow-up chart entries, their last.
Grace Jones' next song's chart position isn't perfect. Far from it, it's one of the three that failed to break the Top 40. Maybe it's the chilly musical landscape that made it hard for the public to warm to, with Jones sounding ill at ease in her awkward vocal turn. Having said that, I quite like it in its own unusual way – it's the third Nile Rodgers-linked track. He's back on production duties again, and adds a funky sheen, not to mention one of the first mentions of “Yo!” which is bellowed at frequent intervals on the track.
One of the most prolific production teams are up next, although Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend) is the only Stock Aitken & Waterman track on Now 8. Despite sounding like the theme tune from another SAW spectacular (the 'Living Legend' theme tune to the Roland Rat Show), Mel and Kim's debut is a lot of fun. They'd go one better the following Spring when Respectable sped to the top.
Maybe it's my foggy memory, but I seem to recall that there was some Whitehouse-style hoo-haa over Jermaine Stewart's We Don't Have To. Which is ironic, given that the song's all about developing a meaningful relationship before hopping into the sack. It's a strong tune though, with some excellently soulful vocals from Stewart. Jaki Graham continues her run of 1986 success with Step Right Up, although there seem to be two different versions of this track doing the rounds. This is the better of the two, with a more organic feel than the tinny, plastic version that I heard on one of those box set '80s compilations.
Jam and Lewis time. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced a string of great 1980s tracks, and What Have You Done For Me Lately by Janet Jackson is one of the best. Sparsely arranged but massively danceable, Jackson proved that she had what it took when it came to following in her brother's footsteps. The accompanying album Control is well worth a spin, with many great moments including Let's Wait A While, Funny How Time Flies, and her crowning glory, When I Think Of You.
If the Jam/Lewis production fitted Janet Jackson's songs like hand in glove, the same can't be said for The Human League. Human isn't a bad song, but it feels like the League are only playing cameo roles in a Jam/Lewis special. Sometimes, it's all about the marriage of singer/band and producer, and in this case, the strident '80s production of Human lacks the charm and warmth of earlier Human League works.
Lacking any kind of pizazz is the closing track, Boris Gardiner's smoothie reggae number, I Want To Wake Up With You – an appropriate title for such a snoozy song that never goes anywhere. It plods along amiably enough, Boris sings it perfectly competently, but the track feels like an aimless plod into the land of nowhere. The accompanying video was a no-expenses-spared epic of Boris stalking a woman at the local railway station and in the local park. Although at least the trains seemed to run on time in 1986.
Peter Gabriel's Don't Give Up kicks off the third side in sombre style. It's a marked contrast to the ebullient soul of Sledgehammer, a mournful tale of a man's unemployment woes placing unnecessary stress on his relationship. Gabriel cleverly tells a story of two sides by roping in his old Games Without Frontiers backing vocal buddy Kate Bush to provide reassurance. Brilliantly arranged, sincerely sung, and featuring a killer bass line from Tony Levin, it's a fine example of Gabriel at the top of his game in 1986.
The Housemartins' Think For A Minute carries on the political misery of the mid-1980s, although as with many of these songs, you can comfortably apply them to the landscape of the 2010s too. The 7” version of the track, like Jaki Graham's Step Right Up, feels a bit more back to basics than the album version. Meanwhile, Madness' farewell parting shot (although they'd be back next decade), (Waiting For) The Ghost Train tackled the subject of apartheid in South Africa. While it was a worthy attempt at clawing back some dignity after the Mad Not Mad debacle, Ghost Train could only manage an average Number 18 performance.
Making their own comeback, Status Quo unleashed one of their biggest hits, In The Army Now, on the public. Actually, new bassist John 'Rhino' Edwards used to be good pals with my wife's uncle. Along with new drummer Jeff Rich, the Quo enjoyed a productive 1986 with other hits include Rollin' Home (not their 1976 Blue For You track), Red Sky and Dreamin'.
Huey Lewis And The News' mediocre Stuck With You was another steady chart performer, as was Big Country's shouty One Great Thing (with one of those cheesy vox pops videos in which members of the public bellow the chorus). Billy Bragg's Greetings To The New Brunette, alas didn't make the Top 40, although it's a worthy curio on the album, complete with lovely backing vocals by Kirsty MacColl. Cutting Crew's (I Just) Died In Your Arms was a Top 5 smash, however, and one of those Now 8 bands to enjoy very fleeting chart success. More on this in a mo.
Switching back to cover versions, Kim Wilde's You Keep Me Hangin' On is as far removed from the Diana Ross & The Supremes version as you can get. A strident, hi-tech (1980s hi-tech, anyway) chunk of keyboard melodrama, Kim's take on the song propelled her back to the charts. After a few years of Top 10 exile, You Keep Me Hangin' On, Wilde-style was a chart renaissance of sorts, kicking off plenty of big hits such as You Came and Another Step.
It Bites seem to be cropping up on TOTP a lot at the moment. Their excellent parent album The Big Lad In The Windmill will always be 'John's Failed Decorating Music', since I played it a lot while attempting to decorate my former flat. The end results looked like the walls had measles, but hey ho. Calling All The Heroes was the only big hit for the Cumbria band, which is a shame. It's a curious mix of prog, scarf-waving anthem, and '80s pop, but its eclectic nature holds a lot of appeal. The Windmill album is well worth a listen, containing other greats such as Whole New World and All In Red.
Just when you thought that you'd heard the last of the flops, along comes Waterloo for you to face. Doctor And The Medics threw everything it could at their version of the ABBA classic, including a spoof Eurovision video introduced by Katie Boyle, and a cameo from Wizzard/Move/ELO legend, Roy Wood. But the tinsel and glitter couldn't hide a dull trudge through the 1974 chart topper. It's no surprise that this pale imitation didn't even come close to pole position.
Debbie Harry's French Kissin' In The USA is also lacking that certain something. It's a melancholic sounding attempt at funk, complete with equally mournful saxophone solo. But there's nothing there to light the spark that had caught alight with Debbie's earlier hits with Blondie. But morose-sounding dance is more suited to Robert Palmer, with his underrated I Didn't Mean To Turn You On. Nile Rodgers' Chic buddy, Bernard Edwards produced this classy bit of 1980s funk, and in an odd way, I prefer it to its better-known big brother, Addicted To Love.
What's that? The Wizard? Cue evil laughter. Timely coinciding with the TOTP repeats is Paul Hardcastle's new theme, one of the most memorable that can hold its head high with greats such as Whole Lotta Love and Yellow Pearl. Viewers of a certain age will recognise old Catweazle himself, Geoffrey Bayldon, on sinister-sounding vocal duties.
Gwen Guthrie's version of (They Long To Be) Close To You is weird, since it barely sounds like Burt Bacharach's and Hal David's original vision. It's perfectly danceable, but not the sort of thing that you can imagine Karen Carpenter bopping along to. Bizarre, although not quite as bizarre as an EastEnders track making Number One. Nick Berry's Wicksy was a popular character at the time, but all the same, how did such a disposable ballad like Every Loser Wins get to the top of the pile? Still, Letitia Dean's and Paul J Medford's Something Outta Nothing sums up the current poor quality of EastEnders scripts doing the rounds in 2018. Look out for this in future TOTP reruns.
Now 8 was another chart-topping success for the series, despite the three flops. After a couple of years without a Spring release, this was about to change with the release of Now 9, which I'll be burbling on about in the near future...