“The last train left an hour ago,
They were singing ‘all aboard’
All bound for Mu Mu Land,
Then someone starting screaming ‘turn up the strobe'”.
Spring 1992: the Hits series appeared to be dead in the water. It was time for the Now team to consolidate its position as king of the pop compilations. For the first time since 1989, the compilers would return to three releases per year – tapping into the Easter, summer and Christmas markets. Now 21 was released on 14 April. I purchased it a week later. The memory: an all-night house party and then straight to work. I lasted three hours before bailing out to The Square. Burger King followed by Virgin. Carwash hair.
Box Music Limited made the decision to front-load the album with heavy hitters. Therefore we start with three consecutive #1 singles that, between them, ruled the roost for 17 weeks. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was a natural choice of reissue after Freddie Mercury’s death. It holds a unique place in chart history; a Christmas number one in both 1975 and 1991. The song consists of six sections: introduction, ballad, guitar solo, opera, hard rock and finale. This format, with abrupt changes in style, tone and tempo, was groundbreaking at the time. The initial path trodden by My Fairy King and The March of the Black Queen was now in full flight. It’s followed by Wet Wet Wet’s lush string-laden ballad Goodnight Girl and Stay, Shakespear’s Sister startling example of vocal interplay. The latter spent eight weeks at the top and was still there when Now 21 went to print.
The Temptations’ My Girl proved that there was still a market for 1960s soul tunes once they were used in a film or a television advertisement. A #2 smash and would surely have gone one better if it weren’t for such strong competition. Simply Red’s Stars album blared out of every shop and taxi that winter. The title track is a sparkling gem and was probably their most confident four minutes to date. Meanwhile The KLF continued to cause chaos: Justified And Ancient refers to their pseudonym and earlier incarnation – The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (The JAMs). Their original recording of the track had its roots in their debut LP 1987: What The Fuck Is Going On? and was initially the closing number on The White Room. Vocals by Black Steel. Make way for the Queen of Country, Tammy Wynette, as the song is transformed into a funky and upbeat slice of subverted pop. It made #2 on New Year’s Day 1992. Make mine a 99.
Divine Madness was a fine retrospective of the Nutty Boys’ singles which meant that their 1982 cover of Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love would find itself back in the charts that spring. Also making their presence felt after a five year absence were Genesis and the cleverly-constructed I Can’t Dance. Julia Fordham’s (Love Moves In) Mysterious Ways had nothing to do with U2; it’s a pleasant piano-led weepie that featured on The Butcher’s Wife. Weather With You is about the effect a person has on their surroundings. Deep house. The brassy Deeply Dippy made it a 2 – 3 – 1 run for Right Said Fred and the parent LP became a fixture in our summer hang out house. Mr Big’s over sentimental To Be With You is hackneyed singalong tripe while Everything But The Girl’s take on Love Is Strange is too cloying to be memorable. This unremarkable run continues with Roxette’s rare misfire Church Of Your Heart and Brian May’s clichéd rocker Driven By You.
The first disc redeems itself at this point with a cracking indie sequence. The Wonderstuff make their second successive appearance with the insanely buoyant Welcome To The Cheap Seats. They would rock Féile ’92 later on in the summer. The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Far Gone And Out was not quite vintage Reid but it’s short and sharp with a chugging guitar. James had finally come good in 1990 after a number of false starts; the driving and confident Born Of Frustration continued the momentum. Seven begat Laid; the Simple Minds sound was complete. Lastly it’s The Cure. Disintegration was supposed to be their swansong, the Prayer Tour the final chance to see them live. Not so, High emerged in March with a new album – Wish – on the horizon. High is a mini-treasure, frisky and coquettish like Catch’s older brother. Never stop.
“When I see you sky as I kite
As high as I might
I can’t get that high
The how you move
The way you burst the clouds
It makes me want to try”.
Teenage kicks or teenage riot? Shanice Nelson teamed up with producer Narada Michael Walden for I Love Your Smile, pure new jack swing. It’s followed by The Pasadenas unremarkable take on New York City’s I’m Doing Fine Now and Kylie Minogue’s unexpected reworking of Give Me Just A Little More Thing; The Chairman Of The Board hit from 1970 is given a sparkling update for the 90s. The cover versions continue as East Side Beat transform Christopher Cross’ Ride Like The Wind into a mutant AOR house nightmare. I told you that 2 Unlimited would return – Twilight Zone is fast and frantic; one trick pony ravers. Thankfully the disc is rescued by The KLF appearing for the second time [just like Culture Club and UB40 on Now That’s What I Call Music]. America: What Time Is Love? was a progressive remake of their original 1990 anthem – harder, heavier and more guitars. Epic with a fantastic orchestral breakdown.
The jams stay hot with Clivillés and Cole’s busy A Deeper Love. It made me sweat and go hmmm. Opus III’s It’s A Fine Day is wonderful; seizing Jane’s 1983 acappella and remodeling it into a wistful dancefloor anthem. Kirsty Hawkshaw shaved her head and sang; her father Alan “Grange Hill” was a KPM library heavyweight in the 1970s. Erasure’s run of hits would continue with Breath Of Life; on first listen, a plain hamburger in a cluster of fillet steaks. Give it time as it sucks you in to its powerful synth heart. Also making an appearance is MC Hammer [or just plain Hammer] with the lame Addams Groove while Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Expression just comes across as going through the motions – admirable call-to-arms shout for individuality notwithstanding.
Ce Ce Peniston’s We Got A Love Thang doesn’t really grab me and just as the disc threatens to drift into dullness, along comes Paula Abdul with the soulsaver Vibeology. Shades of Prince and a proper cut-up funk style; this is a real gem and her finest moment. Next up is Alison Limerick’s thoughtful late-night soul Make It On My Own; some quality beats here to keep the late revival going. Unfortunately that’s as good as it gets. The closing trio turns out to be the biggest snoozefest that the series had unleashed. Tina Turner’s tame Be Tender With Me Baby is followed by Curtis Stigers’ overblown I Wonder Why. Last and probably least is Diana Ross and the charmless When You Tell Me That You Love Me. It’s a damp squib but the summer would see a revitalised brand.
The KLF – Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)
Erasure – Breath Of Life
The Cure – High
The KLF featuring The Children Of The Revolution – America: What Time Is Love?
Lest we forget
Paula Abdul – Vibeology
Missing tracks and other thoughts
Grunge exploded in the few months between the last Now and this one. Nirvana were booked to play at Dublin’s McGonagles in December 1991 but cancelled at the eleventh hour. I went to a lot of house parties in that era and Nevermind was blasted out at every single one of them. Now 21 is an average entry in the series that has quite a few middling moments. Here is my wish list.
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit. A shoe-in.
Happy Mondays – Judge Fudge. Twisted melons.
Primal Scream – Movin’ On Up. Dixie Narco lead.
Inspiral Carpets – Dragging Me Down. New direction.
Charlatans – Weirdo. From the underrated Between 10th and 11th. This quintet could have slotted in before the closing indie sequence on disc 1.
Shaft – Roobarb And Custard. Green dog + pink cat + childhood memories = rave classic.
Prodigy – Everybody In The Place. Going from strength to strength.