Old is the new new.
Forget your new-fangled gizmos, innovations and trend-setting youths, there's always a place for old in society. Lavishly packaged vinyl continues to hold its own against convenient but soulless downloads. Past fashions continue to be worn in today's image-conscious society. Antique shops also hold many a quirky bargain for collectors – while providing endless TV appearances and voice-overs for that posh bloke with the bow tie who used to present Bargain Hunt.
It's a trend that applies to the latest thrilling instalment in the Now That's What I Call Music series. As I'm typing this latest wealth of waffle, Now 9 is again timely coinciding with those excellent TOTP repeats on BBC4, so I'm hoping that many of the songs that I'll discuss will strike a chord with the three people who tune into this blog.
Now 9 is a curious mix of old and new. While some of the bright young things of 1987 stake their claim, a fair chunk of the album looks to the past for inspiration. Songs from the past are either re-released, remixed or covered to varying degrees of success.
The album kick-starts this trend with the hugely successful re-release of Jackie Wilson's Reet Petite, a jolly ditty that dates all the way back to 1957. Sadly Wilson passed away in early 1984, so his TOTP appearances are represented by a stop-motion clay model in a video that I used to think was clever stuff. These days – maybe it's my old age cynicism kicking in – I find the promo a wee bit clumsy, and more to the point, creepy. Clay model Jackie suffers every indignity under the sun: his head detaches itself from his body and rolls down both arms; his eyes look like they're going to pop out of their sockets; and he regresses back to being a crying baby. It's chilling. About the only mercy is that the video doesn't include the full version as included on the album.
Mental As Anything's Live It Up isn't hampered by any such freaky nonsense, but it's already another example of a song that isn't brand new. Originally released in the Spring of 1985, it took nearly two years to break the UK Top 10. It's a fun, optimistic tune that has no other aim but to try and lift everyone's spirits. And in a gloomy world full of Brexit and Tories and Trump, what's so terrible about that?
The first, all-new Now 9 track is claimed by Simply Red, as Mick Hucknall grasps the concept of the single entendre in The Right Thing. It's a really catchy, soul-tinged number, but it's not the sort of thing you'd perform at karaoke without getting some funny looks. Two Now newbies board the bus next, although it's a one-stop journey for one of them. Erasure will be sticking around for the long haul, with Sometimes marked out by Andy Bell's distinctive quavery warble and a random trumpet solo (played by a guy wheeled out on to TOTP like he'd taken a wrong turning from the local cabaret). Alas, poor old Robbie Nevil would do well to take on board the message of his only big hit in the UK. C'est La Vie actually holds out a lot of promise for the future, with a solid, hummable groove, but in this case, lightning only struck the once. Maybe it's the hair.
Back in time to 1975, as DJ Ben Liebrand raids his disco hall record box, and fishes out a copy of Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing. If lightning didn't strike twice for Robbie, it does for this dancefloor classic with a return to the Top 10 – even if the 1987 version has dated more than its 1975 older brother.
The Blow Monkeys' fashions may have also dated a little, but their music is still as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1987. The parent album of the funky It Doesn't Have To Be This Way was called She Was Only A Grocer's Daughter. Replace Grocer with Vicar today, and realise that little has changed in the grim political landscape. The Housemartins were also celebrated for their politically-tinged pop, but on this occasion, they've gone all Flying Pickets with an a capella version of Caravan Of Love. I must admit that while it's a nice enough novelty, it still pales in comparison to the fantastic original by Isley Jasper Isley, which still sounds as fresh as it did in 1985.
The covers keep on coming with Boy George's Everything I Own. Again, the original (Ken Boothe, back in 1974) did it much better, but George's cover still propelled him back into the charts after a downbeat year. The ironic thing about the covers on this album is that the next band, UB40, are better known for their interpretations of other songs. Breakfast In Bed. I Got You Babe. Red Red Wine. Can't Help Falling In Love. Etc. And yet here, Rat In Mi Kitchen is all their own work. It's actually one of my favourites from the '40, and going all political again, it's another attack on those nasty old Tories who have metaphorically chewed their way into the kitchen to scoff all the food.
Right! Enough of politics grumbling! Time to party. And who better than to get it started than The Gap Band? I always think that later SAW pop puppets Big Fun should have done a song called Gap Band, but it wasn't meant to be. The Gap Band are best known for their 1980 smash Oops Upside Your Head, but their Big Fun hit of late '86/early '87 was another massive hit. Winter time causes the public to buy the songs that make them feel like Summer's here, and this bit of Gap Band class proved the point in style.
Five Star make a rare appearance on a Now album (apart from Now Dance '86, it's the only time they do so, to my knowledge), and Stay Out Of My Life is an atypically moody slow-burner. The thematic misery continues as former Wham henchwomen Pepsi And Shirlie complain of a Heartache. Catchy enough, but alas, save for another Top 10er with Goodbye Stranger, chart heartache was prescribed for the duo after 1987.
Bananarama didn't look too happy either when they had to film a promo video for their weak Trick Of The Night song. Those of a certain age may recall a TV programme called In At The Deep End, in which the two presenters Paul Heiney and Chris Serle were challenged with taking on new and uncharted tasks. In this case, Heiney was assigned to film a video for Trick Of The Night, and from what I remembered, this involved the Nanas striding grumpily around some godforsaken back street dive while battling through lots of dry ice on a freezing cold night. I don't think it was enough to propel the single any higher than a measly Number 32 position.
While Berlin's Take My Breath Away had reached Number One way back in the Autumn of 1986, alas, there wasn't enough room for it on Now 8. It's sure to get misty-eyed 40 and 50-somethings swaying from side to side as they remember scarpering to the cinema to see Top Gun. Not sure why the lead singer looks as if she's dipped her hair in a vat of oil in the accompanying video though.
More blasts from the past arrive at the start of Side Three. Freddie Mercury takes some time out from Queen with a melancholic cover of the Platters' Great Pretender. If you didn't know better, it sounds like Queen have covered the song, which is a pretty apt description of the legendary frontman himself. The genuine article of Stand By Me by Ben E King is up next. While cover versions have come and terrible amateur choir versions have gone (the way of the dodo), Ben's original remains unbeatable, using that powerful soulful voice to great effect. The song whizzed all the way to Number One (to tie in with the release of the movie of the same name).
Like Swing Out Sister on the previous Now album, Curiosity Killed The Cat produced their own brand of jazz-tinged soul. Actually, it's a shame that the two never duetted – Corrine Drewery's and Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot's vocals would have worked well together. Down To Earth was the breakthrough hit for Curiosity, and it's a snappily confident slab of catchy pop, reminding a fictional missus that she's got too big for her boots.
Side Three of Now 9 does like to mix the styles. If The Communards' chilly So Cold The Night is an ethereal lullaby (complete with Jimmy Somerville achieving the piercingly high pitches that very few male vocalists can reach), Steve 'Silk' Hurley's Jack Your Body paves the way for the house music invasion of the late '80s.
The next two acts don't spring quite so quickly to mind when discussing 1980s pop. Taffy – whose name is actually Katherine Quaye, as the Now 9 sleeve notes helpfully tell us – is known for her Top 10 hit, I Love My Radio, a throwaway bit of disco pop fluff (accompanied by a cheapo video filmed at her local car dealer's, by the looks of things). Whether Taffy actually got married to her radio, I don't know. The reception would have been excellent, I'm sure.
Right. Back again. The other short-lived pop personage to follow Mrs Radio is Nick Kamen, a chap who used to be in a mid-80s jeans advert. Following a perfectly acceptable chart hit called Each Time You Break My Heart, the follow-up, a cover of The Four Tops' Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, is a bowl of bland, served up with a side salad of bland. Actually, Bryan Ferry covered the track on his These Foolish Things LP in 1973, but made the song his own, singing it in the panicked style of a man who had just seen a ghost. Kamen's version is a slickly produced but soulless take on the song, and has nothing new to add at all.
At least a-ha's Manhattan Skyline tries to do something different. While you may think that this is a gentle ballad crooned by Morten Harket, the chorus has different ideas. The song suddenly changes tack, into a jerky bit of power pop, as Harket's vocals become considerably shoutier, barking over the sounds of Mags' squeaky keyboard sounds, which sounds like aliens have invaded a-ha's recording studio. It's an eclectic melding of styles, but maybe it was a bit too rich for some tastes, as it failed to enter the Top 10. To be honest, I don't think that a-ha were that bothered about being throwaway teenybop idols anyway – Manhattan Skyline is a commendable attempt at trying something different with the usual pop formula.
Unlike other Nows which have used each of the four sides to bring together a certain genre (dance, pop, etc), Now 9 has, so far, been comparatively free and easy. Side Four, on the other hand, has more of a rocky edge. It kicks off with Sonic Boom Boy by Westworld. What happened to them? By the sounds of Sonic Boom Boy, a fast-paced, hummable bit of rockabilly, Westworld had a promising career ahead of them. But with only a couple more minor hits to go, Westworld's chart domination wasn't quite so wild – Silvermac is well worth a listen, if you ever come across it, though.
Bon Jovi, on the other hand, managed to achieve massive chart success and then some. Livin' On A Prayer is one of their biggest hits, even though it's basically heavy metal for people who don't actually like heavy metal. Genesis had the same problem by 1986, being too poppy for those who expected 24-minute lumps of prog. Land Of Confusion is a perfectly competent track though, with its stock boosted by a memorable Spitting Image video.
It's time for the battle of the poodle haircuts. First up is Europe, who achieved chart domination with The Final Countdown. While their cuddly toy dog hairdos and leather jackets have all the trappings of heavy metal, Europe's sound on their Number One is more power pop than head-banging thrash. Cheesy as hell, but fun. Gary Moore's Over The Hills And Far Away is more serious, a Celtic-tinged stomper marked out by a Chieftain-style melody and some seriously cool drumming (the beat of which does threaten to break into the theme tune of Going For Gold). But if you saw the recent TOTP edition with Moore, his keyboard player's crazy barnet wins the poodle haircut battle by a country mile.
The Ward Brothers may be one of the most obscure Now acts to ever grace the album series. Cross That Bridge is a strange one, trying to strive for so many kinds of musical style (soul, funk, pop), and never quite attaining any of these. At least The Pretenders sign off the album in style with the soothing Hymn To Her, one of the best offerings of Now 9.
Although it contains the odd clanger, I enjoyed Now 9 a lot. I'm sure that those tuning into the current run of TOTP repeats will rush back to their musty record shelves for a couple of hours' Now 9 pop nostalgia. It did very well in the charts, taking the Number One Easter slot in 1987. The Now series hadn't issued an album at Easter time for three years, incidentally, but in 1987, it was swings and roundabouts. The Hits Album series would fill the gap where a Now should be in the Summer of '87 with the excellent Hits 6. For now, fans of the Now would have to wait until the Winter season for the next in the series...