Mar 16

Return To 1994 – Part Four

In conversation with the witty and articulate (it says here) author of Does That Make Sense? at the weekend, he commented that this particular chart retrospective was an intriguing one in that he barely recognised any of the songs I’d written about so far. This wasn’t from the point of view of a casual music listener either, he had worked for music radio stations for well over a decade and a half. It was just that the songs from this period had dropped out of his mind completely.

In a sense he is not wrong, as I’ve always had this inkling that by and large 1994 was an “off” year for genuine musical classics. It is not that many of the songs on the charts were bad records, they were certainly popular enough at the time and were bought by many happy music fans, but simply that the number of records from that period which went on to become acknowledged pop classics – destined to be played and remembered from that point on – were pretty thin on the ground to be frank. Thinking back to last Christmas when I did the festive chart of 1995 and reminisced about million sellers and some of the biggest selling records of all time, this chart feels like a barren landscape in comparison. Memories aplenty, but classics few.

Back in my own music radio days I used to be charged with the broadcast of the post-breakfast Classic 9 at 9 schedule stalwart, featuring a handful of songs selected from a particular year in chart history. It was with a sense of dread that I would pick up the music log in the morning and discover that I would be spending the next 40 minutes spinning the garbage of 1994. “Remember this?”, I would say – convinced that nobody tuned in actually would. That said, there are one or two memorable musical moments lurking within the Top 10, even if their true significance was not apparent until a couple of years later. Time to find out.

10: Suede – Stay Together

We start with a record that has quite an intriguing tale, for the expectation and hype surrounding its release is quite different from the way history remembers it. If you read the archive chart commentary I linked to earlier, you will start to understand why. When ‘Stay Together’ was released, reviewers and listeners were all but united in their view that this was the band’s masterpiece. Their first new recording since the release of acclaimed debut album ‘Suede’, ‘Stay Together’ was viewed as the single their talents had been working towards, a towering and soaring epic that was the ultimate marriage of Brett Anderson’s vocals and Bernard Butler’s virtuoso guitar work.

The single was “ultimate” in one sense anyway, for it marked the final schism in the relationship between the guitarist and charismatic frontman. Within weeks Butler had left Suede and they were facing up the release of second album ‘Dog Man Star’ without what most viewed as the defining element of their sound. Hence the gap between the contemporary view of the single and subsequent critical analysis. At the time it was indeed Suede’s biggest hit ever, an instant Top 3 smash and a chart height they would only return to one more time. It was the biggest single of the moment and garlanded with praise and appreciation. Put simply, many were prepared to forgive them if this record turned out to be the greatest record they ever made. Brett Anderson and indeed the rest of Suede now profess to hate the track and regard it as a genuine low point in their lives and careers. Whether that is truly due to its musical credentials or simply because it conjures up for them memories of a rather unpleasant time for them personally is never explicitly stated, but on their ‘Lost In TV’ DVD retrospective the commentary track for ‘Stay Together’ features the band noisily exiting the studio rather than staying to watch it again.

Was ‘Stay Together’ the masterpiece it was hailed as at the time, or was it as Anderson later commented, a classic case of hype dictating success? Click the title above to hear it for yourselves.

9: Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart/Sting – All For Love

Or “Laryngitis inc” as I christened it at the time, the notion of uniting three of the most gravelly voiced stars in rock surely the kind of idea that comes after a late night drinking session rather than during moments of sober reflection. One of the few all-star celebrity collaborations that doesn’t wind up being less than the sum of its parts, ‘All For Love’ was an Adams/Lange/Kamen penned song that featured on the soundtrack of the Walt Disney remake of ‘The Three Musketeers’, a film worth checking out if only to stare in astonishment at Keifer Sutherland’s beard and moustache combination. Despite maybe lacking just a little in terms of melody, the song was a Number 2 smash hit and gave both Sting and Stewart their biggest chart hits for some considerable time. Just try to resist the temptation to clear your throat while listening to it.

8: Cappella – Move On Baby

Wondering just where the token club hit of the week was in this chart? Wonder no more as there are actually a couple in here. Cappella was the creation of Italian producer Gianfranco Bortolotti who used the moniker for a series of records he released from the late 80s onwards. Although starting out as a Hi-NRG act, Cappella soon began hitting paydirt with a series of Eurodance hits. After ‘U Got 2 Know’ and ‘U Got 2 Let The Music’ had been smashes in 1993, Cappella kicked off their 1994 account with this identikit hit single which raced to Number 7 in short order. By this time the group were being fronted for promotional purposes by British duo Rodney Bishop and Kelly Overett although the latter was hired more as a dancer than a singer – a fact never more obvious when the Top Of The Pops rules at the time required her to sing ‘Move On Baby’ for their TV performance in a voice that sounded nothing like Ann-Marie Smith who had actually performed on the record. Not that anyone cared at the time. ‘Move On Baby’ was frantic, mindless, floor-filling dance music. It could hardly fail no matter who the singer was.

Now tracking it down online is a bit of a struggle as the only version listed for streaming is an odd acapella version from an old compilation of similar tracks. Hence (and sadly not for the last time in this Top 10) we have to fall back on a video:

7: Elton John and RuPaul – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

Make no mistake. This record is a :picard: moment.

picard-facepalm1There have indeed been moments in Elton John’s career when you just want to grab him by the lapels (or other extremities) and shout “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING” very loudly in his face. This single is one of them.

The occasion was the release of his 1993 ‘Duets’ album which as the title suggests, saw the star team up with a variety of showbiz friends on a series of double-headed tracks. The first single released was a seasonal rendition of ‘True Love’ with the added novelty of his teaming up for the first time since 1976 with Kiki Dee, their duet on ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ that year for a long time his only brush with a Number One single. What possessed him then to subsequently remake that very classic in such a brutal manner is something of a mystery. To add insult to injury the new version of ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ wasn’t even performed with a proper singer, the track now reduced to a camp comedy record thanks to the vocal contribution of American drag star RuPaul who was experiencing unexplained levels of celebrity at the time. Produced by none other than Giorgio Moroder who really should have known better, the much loved disco classic was torn to shreds by what surely must be the un-worthiest cover version in history – reduced to the level of a plastic techno track and performed by a pouting Queen whose singing talents were dubious to say the least (that’s RuPaul, not Elton before anyone wonders).

The Elton/RuPaul double act had legs beyond this single too as the pair were booked to host the 1994 Brit Awards around the time of its release, peppering the ceremony with as many gay jokes as they could physically manage. “I have never seen so many helmets” mused the American star when the Pet Shop Boys pitched up to perform ‘Go West’ with a choir of miners. “Somehow I think you jest” grinned Elton with all the comic timing of a lettuce.

Something tells me that licensing issues are restricting the online availability of the ‘Duets’ album as it is suspiciously absent from Elton John’s catalogue on all jukebox services. Make do instead with the performance by Elton and “Miss” RuPaul from the 1994 Brits ceremony. This may ruin your week though, be warned.

6: 2 Unlimited – Let The Beat Control Your Body

Or maybe this will ruin it. The ninth in what seemed like a million hit singles for 2 Unlimited in the mid-90s, this one having the distinction of marking the first anniversary of Number One smash hit ‘No Limit’. By this time it had been decided that the UK was ready for Ray Slijngaard’s rapping skills and the singles being released were the full vocal versions rather than the stripped down instrumental mixes that had been promoted here up to now. As we’ve stumbled across before, 2 Unlimited’s catalogue is more or less completely absent online leaving us to resort to another YouTube embed.

5: D:Ream – Things Can Only Get Better

For those of us who had been fans from the start, it seemed as if D:Ream were never going to become stars. ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ had been first released in January 1993 and had given the duo of Peter Cunnah and Al Mackenzie their first Top 40 hit, introducing the nation to what appeared to be a winning combination of dance beats and enormously catchy pop records. Mysteriously though the records failed to catch fire. ‘Things’ bombed out at Number 24 and although ‘U R The Best Thing’ made Number 19 the pair spent the year releasing a succession of singles that arrived in the Top 30 and then vanished again in short order. The breakthrough finally came early the following year, ironically after Mackenzie had tired of making underappreciated pop music and quit the group to make “proper” dance records. Now reduced to essentially Cunnah as a solo act, D:Ream had supported Take That on tour to a rapturous reaction and so reactivated ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ in a slightly beefier remix that amplified its credentials as a pop anthem. A timely release in the first weeks of 1994 meant the single had a clear path to the top of the charts, the single enjoying a comfortable four week run to establish itself firmly as one of the biggest hits of the year. It took a year, but the D:Ream project was finally off and running although for long term fans like me it was a bittersweet moment. Rather than enjoying the pleasure of a Number One record, I was more inclined to accost buyers of the single and demand to know where they were a year ago.

History naturally now records the track as becoming an unofficial anthem for the 1997 Labour Party election campaign, an event which saw the group perform at election rallies and for yet another re-release of the single to make Number 19 in the aftermath of the election. Sadly this also meant the record label electing to release a Greatest Hits collection rather than the third D:Ream album which was sat in the can waiting for a release date. To this day the recordings have never seen the light of day.

4: Toni Braxton – Breathe Again

The second single (‘Another Sad Love Song’ had come first in September 1993) but first actual hit in the UK for the American soul star. Her musical career had begun in the late 80s as a member of family group The Braxtons, but when the first single from the five sisters bombed in the States they were swiftly dropped and Toni signed as a solo artist instead. With a deep register that was reminiscent of Anita Baker she was handed a ready made portfolio of intense, soulful ballads for her self-titled debut album and after a stuttering start in the UK she made a breakthrough in early 1994 with this sultry track. In another fun example of British and US tastes diverging to a quite alarming degree in the 1990s, Toni Braxton’s later singles wound up as UK hits in radically remixed dance versions rather than their slowed down equivalents to which America was in thrall. This divide was most famously seen in 1996 with her award-winning hit ‘Un-break My Heart’ which topped the US charts as a mellow ballad but instead became a huge seller here in a souped up Frankie Knuckles floor filling remake. Back to ‘Breathe Again’ though, and the single had peaked at Number 2 in early February and was still languishing in the Top 5 a month later as part of a leisurely burnout.

3: Enigma – Return To Innocence

Apparently it is all the fault of London Underground. Whilst riding the tube one day during a trip to London, Romanian producer Michael Cretu was lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the train and woke up with the same mellow beat in his head. Along with fellow producers David Farstein and Frank Peterson he went on to create Enigma whose debut album ‘MCMXC AD’ was released in late 1990. The ethereal and hypnotic mix of Greogrian chants and club beats somehow tapped a vein in audiences worldwide and the album sold in its millions to become far and away the biggest New Age album the industry had ever seen. Its most famous single ‘Sadness Part 1’ topped the charts here in early 1991 and put Enigma on the musical map of the decade for good.

Thus anticipation was at fever pitch for the follow-up album ‘The Cross Of Changes’ when it hit the stores in early 1994. To their eternal credit Cretu and team resisted the temptation to revisit the same old formula and so instead produced an album that stirred in elements from a far wider range of sources. The lead single was ‘Return To Innocence’, based not as most people assumed on a Native American chant but on an aboriginal Taiwanese chant lifted from a CD that happened to come into Cretu’s possession. Coupled with a heavily disguised Led Zeppelin drum beat, the single once more weaved its magic on audiences all over the world with ‘Return To Innocence’ storming to Number 3 in the UK in fairly short order. The sampled chanting at the start of the track would later be the subject of a series of lawsuits when it transpired that far from being a public domain recording as had been assumed, the CD of ‘Jubilant Drinking Song’ had been taken from a commercial release by two Taiwanese singers who had recorded the track in Paris in 1988. As a result the two Amis singers to this day receive 100% of the royalties for ‘Return To Innocence’.

It is hard to put into words just how ubiquitous the first two Enigma albums were during the start of the decade. As a chilled out first year student I must have lulled myself to sleep countless times to the tape of ‘MCMXC AD’ to the extent that I can’t play it now without the entire album playing several bars ahead in my consciousness. It is the same story for ‘The Cross Of Changes’. Don’t ask me how, but despite not hearing the tape for a decade and a half, I sampled some of its tracks online whilst researching this piece and found myself recognising every beat, every musical phrase and every single lyric. Enigma was theoretically as far removed from the musical mainstream as it was possible to get and yet this single is somehow the defining sound of this particular chart countdown. Don’t bother wondering just how they sold so many copies. Somehow it was if it was genetically coded into us all.

2: Ace Of Base – The Sign

Every so often the tastes of the American public have the capacity to surprise. This is apparent at the time of writing with the very British Taio Cruz currently sitting pretty at the Top of the Hot 100. In 1993 the unexpected transatlantic success was Swedish pop group Ace Of Base who had quite rightly captivated Europe that summer with a breezy combination of pop and dub-reggae on smash hit single ‘All That She Wants’ but who surprised even themselves when American radio embraced them joyfully too.

Ace Of Base had been signed to Arista records in the USA, but legendary label boss Clive Davis was concerned that in spite of the massive success of ‘All That She Wants’ their debut album ‘Happy Nation’ did not contain anything he felt would be a follow-up hit. The group were swiftly ordered back to the studio to produce some new tracks to freshen the disc up – ‘The Sign’ emerging from these sessions to become the title track of the newly repackaged American version of the ‘Happy Nation’ album. It could well be that Davis was correct, for although ‘All That She Wants’ had been a Number One single in the UK, the darker follow-up ‘Wheel Of Fortune’ had made a mere Number 20 whilst the title track from their album had missed the Top 40 altogether. The Diane Warren-penned ‘The Sign’ changed all that and contemporaneously with its journey to the top of the American charts it charged into the runners up slot in Britain to remove from Ace Of Base the dreaded one hit wonder tag that had been hovering over their heads.

Ace Of Base’s British hit tally continued until the end of the decade, and with the group refusing to rest on their laurels and constantly evolving their sound it meant they produced along the way some of the most memorable Scando-pop singles of the era, veering from the outright Eurodance of ‘Beautiful Life’ to the glorious Motown stomp of ‘Always Have, Always Will’. In February 1994 ‘The Sign’ was a single about setting the past aside, moving on from the bad times and reaching forward with hope. As someone battling at the time with a crippling depression that left me on the edge of a breakdown I simply could not get enough of the song and its sentiment. I wish the same could be said for We7 who don’t appear to have any Ace Of Base songs save for ‘All That She Wants’ in their catalogue. They are safe and sound on Spotify though.

1: Mariah Carey – Without You

There are naturally very few things that all music writers agree on, but you would be hard pressed to find much deviation from a consensus that ‘Without You’ is one of the finest pop singles ever made. Written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger for their 1970 album ‘No Dice’, the track became a worldwide smash hit two years later thanks to a version by American singer Harry Nilsson which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Essentially ‘Without You’ invented the power ballad, combining an understated piano and strings arrangement with the singers impassioned, almost gut-wrenching rendition of the song. This was a man reaching into the very depths of his soul to convey his longing and heartbreak and emotionally it was nearly impossible to resist him.

Such was the esteem that ‘Without You’ was held that for a long time the song was considered almost untouchable. It didn’t help that it was such a difficult song to sing, the power and emotion of Nilsson’s version coming from the sheer range of his voice. Only the most powerful pair of lungs could even hope to compete. Enter then Mariah Carey whose five-octave vocal range meant that she was virtually the only modern day singer who could even begin to contemplate taking the song on.

The third single from her ‘Music Box’ album, her version of ‘Without You’ by a strange coincidence was released just as Harry Nilsson himself passed away and so effectively served as the perfect tribute to the man whose voice had soundtracked the falling in love and heartbreak of so many different generations of music fans. Done wrong this single could have been a disaster but somehow the power of the song shone through. Carey’s inability to control her vocal hysterics has meant she has ruined countless songs in the past but on ‘Without You’ she pitches it perfectly and makes the song her own. It didn’t need covering at all, the definitive version already existed for sure, but the Mariah Carey single did enough to justify its own existence and then some.

After three and a half years of trying, the song finally gave Mariah Carey one of the few honours that had eluded her so far – a UK Number One single and one which entered at the top upon release and retained a stranglehold for a full four weeks. This particular week was its third and at the time it showed little sign of shifting any time soon – much to the chagrin of Ace of Base who were locked at Number 2 and denied their own second chart-topper. For all her success with original songs it remains a curious quirk of Mariah Carey’s UK career that her only Number One hits are two cover versions – this single and a lazy 2000 collaboration with Westlife on ‘Against All Odds’.

febpackshot

So that then was the UK Top 40 show from February 27th 1994, even if it did take two weeks for us to get there – and you can hear as much as possible of the whole thing thanks to the Spotify (34 out of 40) and We7 (33 out of 40) playlists. As much of a snapshot in time as the records the chart contains, the rest of the tape features the hallmarks of a Radio One schedule in a state of nervous transition. A trail for Steve Wright In The Morning (which almost proved to be a career killer) is followed by the first ten minutes of Bob Harris introducing a series of long lost Jimi Hendrix sessions retrieved from the archives.

Incidentally if song by song nostalgia is your thing then you could do far worse than to check out a feature running on online pop culture fanzine Freaky Trigger. Creator Tom Ewing is currently midway through a project called Popular which aims to document every single Number One record dating all the way back to 1952. Tom’s approach to music writing is dramatically different to mine as where I take time to point out the reasons to appreciate a piece of music, he will acidly and expertly point out its flaws and stop to wonder why people bothered. Popular makes for some fascinating reading – the project has reached mid 1987 at the time of writing, so check it out when you can. In the meantime I’m off to spin the nostalgia wheel again sometime in April.

Mar 11

Return To 1994 – Part Three

Making the news in the first week of March 1994 – well, there was actually only one story dominating headlines.

image With one newspaper headline the names of Fred and Rosemary West and Cromwell Street would forever be linked as a small scale police operation into rape allegations swiftly turned into a macabre dismantling of the house in Gloucester where the pair murdered their victims and hid their bodies in walls, cellars and patios. Headlines were also made at the end of February 1994 by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean who had come out of competitive retirement to go for Gold one last time at the Winter Olympics, ultimately winning just a bronze medal in the Ice Dance with their ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’ routine.

Muscally, we’ve hit the Top 40 of this particular chart. Time to wheel out both the good and the bad…

20: SWV – Downtown

Sisters With Voices, as the acronym would have you believe – a three piece New Jill Swing group who benefitted from the fairy dust sprinkled by producer Teddy Riley who along with Jam and Lewis had an almost unbreakable stranglehold on American R&B at the time. SWV’s big UK breakthrough had come the previous summer when an inspired remix of early single ‘Right Here’ which combined it with the melody of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ (a mash up before the concept had even been invented I guess) had stormed the Top 10. ‘Downtown’ was a somewhat belated follow-up, the fourth single to be released from debut album ‘It’s About Time’ which itself didn’t actually sell that many copies on these shores. Although the version streamed online appears to be the original album version, this single release was a slightly remixed take on the song, turning the laid back album track into a floor-filler and one which also stirred in lines from ‘Freak Me’ by Silk – the legendary R&B song that Another Level would take to Number One before the end of the decade.

19: Level 42 – Forever Now

This was the lead single and title track from Level 42’s 1994 album, a collection of songs which would ultimately wind up being the final studio album from the veteran pop act. By this stage in their career Level 42 were by and large playing to the gallery, and so ‘Forever Now’ is for all the world a single frozen in time from a decade earlier, drenched in chirpy trumpets, funk basslines and the wine bar harmonies that King and Lindup made uniquely their own. The recording of the album marked the return to the fold of Phil Gould for the first time since 1986s ‘Running In The Family’ and the end result was a rather more satisfying body of work and as it turned out a fitting swansong for the work of Level 42 as a whole. The single marched into the Top 20 and out again with an efficiency that suggested it was a record whose appeal was restricted to fans alone – did anyone really try to pretend otherwise? Having many friends who were (and I guess still are) rabid Level 42 fans I’ve always worked to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of their work. Make no mistake though, they called it a day at just the right time. The musical world was moving on and it was time for the band to do so as well.

18: Inspiral Carpets – I Want You

For those schooled on memories of the gentler side of the Inspiral Carpets repertoire – hits such as ‘This Is How It Feels’ or even ‘Dragging Me Down’, the presence of ‘I Want You’ in their opus comes like a bolt from the blue. Possibly the loudest, angriest track Clint and the boys ever released, the song was released as a swift follow-up to January hit single ‘Saturn 5’ and was the second single to be lifted from their third album ‘Devil Hopping’ which would arrive in the shops a couple of weeks after this chart was announced. What made this single special however was the novelty of their special guest star, because the single version of ‘I Want You’ features a vocal by no less a figure than Mark E Smith of The Fall. It is truly the most extraordinary duet in indie history, as true to form Smith appears to have turned up at the studio with his own song in his head and rather than directly participating simply embarks on a companion monologue to Tom Hingley’s sung vocals, shouting “I think you should remember who’s side you are on” through a distorted microphone at regular intervals. It was truly the most breathtakingly bizarre collaboration most of us had ever heard at that stage, and the effect was only added to when both Smith and the Carpets turned up together to perform the track in front of a somewhat nonplussed studio audience. Shamefully the Top 40 show chose to play the Smith-less album version of the single, denying me the chance to relive the moment until I dug it out online but rest assured the version linked to above and playlisted below is the single mix that remains to this day something of a showstopper.

17: Wendy Moten – Come In Out Of The Rain

A slick American radio ballad from one hit wonder Wendy Moten who got her big break after appearing onstage with Michael Bolton at a benefit concert. The uplifting ‘Come In Out Of The Rain’ is a song that was clearly designed to show off her prowess of a singer but on reflection actually has the opposite effect. The problem is that for the most part the song is beyond her, requiring a measure of emotion and power that she just cannot sustain. Come the climax of the ballad she can do little more than bellow the lyrics as loud as possible, with absolutely no tremolo or control. It is the kind of singing trap that X Factor contestants and the like fall into when they are handed material that is just out of reach. Contestants on a talent show we can give a free pass to. For a highly produced singer whose records are being promoted internationally there is surely no valid excuse. Such critiques aside, the single reached Number 8 in February 1994 but is little heard these days outside of the tracklistings of “Best Of the 90s That Don’t Cost Very Much To Licence” budget compilations.

16: Beck – Loser

A watershed moment here, presenting the UK chart debut of slacker generation hero Beck as he charges into the British charts with a single that had featured as a Top Of The Pops exclusive a week before. ‘Loser’ remains one of his finest singles to this day, a defiant anti-folk stoner anthem sung by the star in a Bob Dylan-esque drawl. To this day it remains one of Beck’s biggest ever singles (perhaps unjustly so) with only 1997 single ‘The New Pollution’ edging it out with a Number 14 peak. From my own personal view, the single inspires memories of one of the most spectacular political schisms of my student career after my colleagues on the student radio station developed a love of its B-side, the “lounge” version of ‘MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack’ in which Beck performs the song that led to his discovery as if he is channelling the ghost of Dean Martin. The campus radio station was in the middle of its first ever four week FM broadcast at the time and the Bailrigg FM management, ever mindful of the fact that it was their names on the licence, became nervous about the constant airing of a track espousing the joys of smoking crack and threatened removal from the airwaves of anyone playing the single. When a select band of the more high profile presenters rebelled against this musical censorship and aired it in constant rotation they had to resort to gouging the station’s only CD copy with a pair of keys to render all but Track 1 unplayable. Fight for the power kids, and don’t worry if you upset someone who went on to become technology manager of a satellite TV company in Malaysia. It is worth it in the long run, although as I recall he never did make good on his promise to replace the disc once the Easter holidays were over.

15: Meat Loaf – Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through

Even speaking as an unashamed and unreconstructed Meat Loaf fan, I have this theory that most of his best songs don’t really work in isolation as singles. With the odd notable exception he’s not a man known for hit songs, but as the singer behind the Bat Out Of Hell trio of concept albums. Despite this, at the end of 1993 he did produce one of the aforementioned notable exceptions in the shape of the lead single from ‘Bat II’, namely ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ which spent seven weeks at Number One and became the biggest selling single of 1993 in this country. In spite of this, following it up with another large hit was not automatically a certainty.

‘Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through’ was an obvious choice for a second single as it was a track fans had been waiting for him to sing for over a decade. The song was one of a number originally penned by Jim Steinman for the planned follow up to the original ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ album, a project which was shelved when Meat’s voice gave out on him at the end of the 70s. The song finally found its way onto Steinman’s own “solo” album with an uncredited Rory Dodd on vocals instead, his version reaching Number 52 in the summer of 1981. Hence when the track found its way onto the finally recorded volume 2 of the concept, there was a sense of closure about it, Meat Loaf finally singing the famous song that was always written for him in the first place.

Look truth be told, it is not the greatest single he would ever release either. Even by Steinman’s standards the lyrics reach quite extraordinary depths of ludicrousness: “the angels had guitars even before they had wings” and whoever decided the track needed a squealing saxophone solo in the middle needs shooting. Still, ‘Dreams…’ does have one small moment of historical significance, thanks to the video which not only features Meat Loaf in drag as a fortune teller but also a teenaged and then virtually unknown Angelina Jolie as the runaway in search of solace.

14: Cranberries – Linger

The early 90s saw a number of hot British (or in this case, Irish) bands start their careers being totally ignored by domestic audiences and only finding stardom after a surprise American hit. Radiohead in 1993 were one and a year later came The Cranberries who had first released ‘Linger’ earlier the previous year to little impact, the gentle lilting ballad crawling to a brief Number 74 chart appearance in February 1993. The transformation in the fortunes of both the song and the band came at the end of that year when somehow miraculously ‘Linger’ became an American Top 10 to propel Dolores and the Hogan brothers to almost instant stardom. A domestic re-release of the track followed in early 1994 and thanks to the cachet of its Stateside success ‘Linger’ finally became the British (and Irish for that matter) hit single it always should have been. The Cranberries were stars at last, although given that this directly resulted in that hideous Eurodance remake of ‘Zombie’ a year or so later, this should really be seen as a double edged sword.

13: Celine Dion – The Power Of Love

I remember the sharp intake of breath that the release of this single caused. ‘The Power Of Love’ was at the time a much admired and fondly remembered single in the minds of British audiences, thanks entirely to original co-writer Jennifer Rush’s lavish rendition which had reached Number One in 1985 and which was at the time the biggest selling single by a female artist ever. As far as America was concerned however the song was pretty much unknown, Rush’s version having flopped and a remake by Laura Branigan having merely grazed the Top 40 there in 1987. With Celine Dion well on her way to becoming the biggest selling artist on the planet in the early 1990s it kind of made perfect sense for her to take the song on and just possibly turn it into the American hit it never had been to that point.

Hence those of us of a certain age viewed the release of the Celine Dion remake of ‘The Power Of Love’ with a great deal of suspicion. We knew the song intimately in what surely was already the definitive version. Any new attempt to perform it was almost certainly going to be a disappointment. That said, the single certainly did the trick for the Canadian warbler. Save for her 1992 duet with Peabo Bryson on ‘Beauty And The Beast’ she was a virtual unknown in this country with all her subsequent singles (including global smash ‘Where Does My Heart Beat Now’) missing the Top 40 altogether. ‘The Power Of Love’ finally put her on the map on these shores, marching its way to Number 4 in mid-January and setting the stage for megahit Number One smash ‘Think Twice’ a year later. The production was naturally as horrible and as overblown as you might expect and ground the understated synthesised beauty of the Jennifer Rush version into the dirt with some ill-advised bombastic rock guitars that strangled all the life and emotion out of the song. For good or ill, the huge worldwide sales of Celine Dion’s ‘The Power Of Love’ mean it has ended up as the definitive version to all but us children of the 80s. Disturbingly when listening to Jennifer Rush these days I find myself anticipating the crunching guitar chords in the bridge that were the defining moment of David Foster’s production of the Dion version. I hate myself for that.

12: Reel 2 Real featuring The Mad Stuntman – I Like To Move It

A mysteriously popular dancehall hit which dominated charts and clubs all over Europe during 1994 and which can quite possibly be considered as one of the last true ragga hits before the genre mutated into jungle during the course of the year. Reel 2 Real was a pseudonym for producer Erick Morillo and ‘I Like To Move It’ actually began life as a latin house track before vocals from Mark “The Mad Stuntman” Quashie were added. More Reel 2 Real hits followed during the next couple of years before Morillo started to fear the money he was accumulating was actually damaging his creativity, and he swiftly abandoned the project to move back underground and recreate himself as a much in demand live DJ instead.

11: Smashing Pumpkins – Disarm

Sometimes it is worth persevering with even the dowdiest chart to uncover a particular gem. I didn’t really have my eye on the more “alternative” scene at the time so I confess to forgetting just what it was that propelled the Smashing Pumpkins from chart also-rans to the very cusp of the Top 10. Notoriously and quite properly one of their most famous singles, ‘Disarm’ was the third track to be lifted from the Pumpkins’ breakthrough album ‘Siamese Dream’ and their first proper hit of any kind on these shores. 1996 single ‘Tonight Tonight’ would go Top 10 for real and give them their biggest ever hit, but in terms of ambition, presence and songwriting brilliance ‘Disarm’ has to rank as one of Billy Corgan’s finest moments on record. The presence of the song in the charts caused a minor kerfuffle during this week when Top Of The Pops passed on a chance to air the song despite it being the highest new entry of the week, owing to the blood-soaked lyrics and in particular the line “cut that little child” from the first verse. Happily the Radio One Top 40 show played it in full and unexpurgated. As it should be.

So that was 20-11 and we have a good strike rate for songs that are still available to listen or to buy. Click the links for each song to hear them in turn, or go straight to the We7 and Spotify playlists. Top 10 on the way soon…

Mar 03

Return To 1994 – Part Two

February 1994. I was a third year student at university, living in room D210 in Lonsdale Annexe on the Lancaster University campus and steadily running out of time to actually study properly for the degree I was supposedly doing.

I was also actively and diligently posting the then current incarnation of “James Masterton’s Chart Analysis” to usenet every week, postings which with a bit of hard work are possible to dig up from the Google Groups archive. Sadly for whatever reason the posting for this chart in particular doesn’t seem to exist in the online archives (although I do have it safe in my own), so the best I can is link to this piece from the week before. We may revisit some of the bolder predictions it contains later on.

30: FKW – Jingo

FKW? France, King and Waterman since you ask, the result of Pete Waterman gathering his remaining PWL staffers together after the departure of co-producers Mike Stock and Matt Aitken and attempting to prove he could still make hit records with the best of them. The trio released a handful of club tracks from mid 1993 onwards but this was the only one to reach the Top 40. One of the more enduring ethnic rhythm tracks in popular music history ‘Jingo’ began life as ‘Jin-go-lo-ba’ by Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji in 1959 before being popularised under its more familiar title by Santana in 1971. The FKW club version was no less than the third to reach the UK Top 40 in a little over a decade, following on from remakes by Candido in 1980 and Jellybean in 1988. As befits its status as a little known club track from the early 90s, streaming copies are hard to come by – but it is amazing what you can find on YouTube if you look hard enough isn’t it?

29: Atlantic Ocean – Waterfall

Another early trance record, this the first in a handful of hit singles for Atlantic Ocean, the trading name of Dutch producers Rene van der Weyde and Lex Van Coeverden. ‘Waterfall’ would climb to Number 22 and was followed into the charts by ‘Body In Motion’ which reached the Top 20 later that summer. ‘Waterfall’ had a longevity all of its own and was reactivated in a new set of mixes in late 1996, a release which beat its original chart peak when it landed at Number 21. The track is missing from Spotify and only on We7 as a 30 second preview, but I’ve included it on the playlist for completeness.

28: Aretha Franklin – A Deeper Love

The last (for now) Top 10 hit for the Queen Of Soul took a rather tortuous route to the top end of the charts all over the world. ‘A Deeper Love’ began life as the b-side of Clivilles and Cole’s (aka C&C Music Factory) club remake of ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ in early 1992. When it swiftly became clear that the original song on the flip was more popular than the rather naff cover on the front, ‘A Deeper Love’ was swiftly re-released as a single in its own right. The rack, at the time with Deborah Cooper on lead vocals, swiftly reached Number 15 in March 1992 to match the peak of ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ just five weeks earlier. Two years later the song was back, this time a hit on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to this version by Aretha Franklin which she performed as part of the “Sister Act 2” film soundtrack. Once more produced by Clivilles and Cole the single went a long way towards reinventing Aretha Franklin as a dance diva, a path she could have easily followed to an even bigger career revival. Somehow you got the feeling she just couldn’t be bothered.

27: K7 – Come Baby Come

The one and only UK hit single for rapper K7, member of Latin freestylers TKA and who had a short run of personal success with his solitary solo album in 1993. Mixing in some not too unpleasant jazz elements, ‘Come Baby Come’ made the Top 20 in the USA and charged its way to a Top 3 placing on these shores in early 1994.

26: EYC – The Way You Work It

What is it with all the initials all of a sudden? EYC stood for Express Yourself Clearly and were a three-piece R&B boy band from America who found British audiences to be far more receptive towards their sound than those back at home who pretty much ignored them. ‘The Way You Work It’ was the second of their six Top 40 hits and followed hard on the heels of ‘Feelin’ Alright’ which had peaked at Number 16 in December 1993. A new entry here this week, ‘The Way You Work It’ would eventually scramble its way to a Number 14 peak. Their debut album followed a month later. Judge their overall impact on popular culture by the fact that their songs are missing from online libraries save for some rather dodge karaoke versions. Instead let’s got for a video embed, clearly sourced from a very old promo tape complete with burned in timecodes.

25: Cypress Hill – Insane In The Brain

A second bite at the cherry for Cypress Hill’s most notorious and most quotable single. ‘Insane In The Brain’ had already been a chart hit for the group in the UK previous, hitting Number 32 in the summer of 1993. After follow-up releases ‘When the Shit Goes Down’ and ‘I Ain’t Going Out Like That’ crept into the Top 20 it was decided to give their most famous single another go, just in time for the trio’s arrival in the country for a series of concert dates. Truth be told the tactic was only partially successful and ‘Insane In The Brain’ peaked at Number 21 second time around, beating its original run but never quite cementing its status as supposedly their best record. Never mind, it still remains as diverting as ever. In truth, did Cypress Hill ever record anything as good as this again?

24: Gabrielle – Because Of You

Still riding the wave of success generated by her sensational debut back in 1993 with the Number One single ‘Dreams’, this was Gabrielle’s fourth single and the final one lifted from her debut album ‘Find Your Way’. This was its peak chart position, a little disappointing given the easy Top 10 success of her first two singles but at the very least an improvement on its immediate predecessor ‘I Wish’ which had only crept to Number 26. She would return in 1996 sans eyepatch with a set of songs that in many ways were even better than her first and would still be having hits well into the 21st century.

23: Barbara Tucker – Beautiful People

Although never the biggest name on the scene, Barbara Tucker remains to this day one of the better regarded dance divas of her era. It was perhaps her background in dance and choreography that gave her the edge, something which meant she always brought something more to a live performance than just standing on stage and belting out a tune. ‘Beautiful People’ was her first ever chart single and arrived here this week as a new entry although it failed to progress any further up the charts. Little heard since, it remains a shining example of the mid-90s garage house sound, the production by Kenny Gonzalez and Little Louie Vega achieving the miracle of still sounding fresh even to 21st century ears, although it was the CJ Mackintosh club edit that was the most popular mix here, so that is the one playlisted on both services.

22: Elvis Costello – Sulky Girl

Elvis Costello’s first chart hit for three years attracted more than the usual level of attention upon release. This was largely thanks to the collection of musicians performing on ‘Sulky Girl’ and indeed many of the tracks on its parent album ‘Brutal Youth’. Their names? Nick Lowe, Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve – despite not being directly credited on the record this was an Attractions reunion in all but name, their first appearance together on record since the ‘Blood and Chocolate’ album in 1986. The resulting publicity helped ‘Sulky Girl’ to this chart debut just outside the Top 20, at a stroke Costello’s biggest hit single since ‘Good Year For The Roses’ went Top 10 in October 1981. The ‘Brutal Youth’ album was a similar success, landing at Number 2 to become his highest charting album since ‘Get Happy’ in 1980.

21: Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Two Tribes

To round off this section, time for the token re-release of this particular chart. The single that had spent the summer of 1984 at Number One was back on the chart ten years later as part of a re-release program that had begun the previous year in support of the Greatest Hits collection ‘Bang’. ‘Two Tribes’ was no less than the fourth old FGTH single to reappear following the release of the hits collection but sadly for purists this new version was in the form of a rather grotty sounding remix by Fluke which lacked something of the sparkle of the original version, although this did not stop the single reaching Number 16 in late January. Funnily enough the obsession with remixing Frankie singles returned again six years later when another cluster of re-releases stormed back into the charts, one of which just happened to be ‘Two Tribes’ which again hit Number 17 this time thanks to Rob Searle’s magic fingers.

Part two over then and that was, less exciting somehow wasn’t it? Still, we live in hope for the Top 20. We7 and Spotify playlists are now updated for your delectation should the need to remind yourself just how ‘Come Baby Come’ sounded again overwhelm you.

Mar 02

Return To 1994 – Part One

I feel another chart retrospective coming on, courtesy of the altogether too large collection of Top 40 recordings that live under the bed. This one however should be an interesting challenge.

I’ve always worked on the philosophy that your emotional reaction to a piece of music is coloured by how it soundtracked the events of your life when you first heard it; the people you knew, the places you were living and the parties you attended. This tape in particular is one I don’t think I’ve dared listen to since the day it was first recorded, simply because it coincided with the worst, lowest period in my adult life to date. This isn’t going to be a whiny self-absorbed public soul-cleansing session, but I know my take on much of the music that follows is going to be coloured by memories of the only time in my life when I came close to playing in the fast lane of the M6.

Not sleeping properly can do that to you.

Time to wind the clock back and play the tape for the Top 40 show of Sunday February 27th 1994 as we and 9 million other listeners (it is claimed) join the stars to hear the brand new chart. Cue Bruno who starts the show by playing a track from the Number One album which just happens to be ‘Music Box’ by Mariah Carey. This is not a good sign.

40: Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince – Can’t Wait To Be With You

Now I know this is supposed to be a rundown of the music rather than a review of the chart show itself, but it is fun to note that the show gets off to an inauspicious start as the CD for the very first song skips and skates for 30 seconds before the producer gives up, plays a trail and gets Bruno to try again with a replacement disc.

Once the song gets underway we can appreciate it properly, one of the last original chart hits for Jeff Tones and a pre-megastardom Will Smith. The final Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince album ‘Code Red’ coincided with Smith’s run as the title character in the TV sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and this added mainstream exposure almost certainly contributed to the duo’s most consistent run of hits of their recording career. ‘Can’t Wait To Be With You’ was a typically funky pop-rap track that was based heavily on the Luther Vandross track ‘Never Too Much’ and should in theory have been a huge chart smash. Number 29 was all it managed sadly. Solo chart stardom (and a battle with some aliens) for Will Smith was just three years away.

39: Haddaway – I Miss You

Who would have thought it. The “thy third single from the album shalt be a ballad” commandment of pop music applied to Eurodisco stars as well. Famous for the global smash ‘What Is Love’ in the summer of 1993, Haddaway went on to mine a string of singles from his self-titled debut album in the wake of that huge first hit. After ‘Life’ came the slushy ballad ‘I Miss You’ which was actually released as his Christmas single but which did not properly catch fire until January when it became a new year sleeper hit. Peaking at Number 9 in late January 1994, this chart position marked the final embers of its slow Top 40 burnout.

38: Deep Forest – Sweet Lullaby

Deep Forest were two Frenchmen, Eric Mouquet and Michel Sanchez whose idea of mixing world music with club beats propelled them to a modest level of European success in 1994 when the mixing of ethnic music with drum machines became a minor chart craze. Their most famous UK hit was this track, ‘Sweet Lullaby’ which was based on a lullaby from the Solomon Islands called ‘Rorogwela’ and set to a laid back house rhythm. Somehow it didn’t matter that the lyrics of the song were impenetrable to European ears, the track conjured up such a magical atmosphere that it found a ready and willing audience, one which in this country at least propelled it all the way to Number 10. Three more Top 40 entries would follow for the duo who continued to record and release albums until well into the 21st century.

37: Crowded House – Locked Out

It took a while for Britain to catch on to just how good Crowded House were. Although early classic ‘Don’t Dream Its Over’ was a minor Top 30 hit in the summer of 1987 it took a Paul Young cover of the song in 1991 to bring the work of the Finn brothers to mainstream attention. When ‘Weather With You’ went Top 10 in the spring of 1992 they were finally off and running and a string of pleasing but admittedly never more than mid-table hits followed. ‘Locked Out’ was one such track, a Number 12 hit from early February and a single lifted from 1993 album ‘Together Alone’ which saw the group return to their native New Zealand for the first time in years. ‘Locked Out’ found its way onto the soundtrack of the film ‘Reality Bites’ later in 1994 to further cement its place in cultural history, even if it remains one of their lesser remembered offerings.

36: Motley Crue – Hooligans Holiday

The one and only chart single to be lifted from Motley Crue’s self-titled 1994 album, a rare oddity in the long and storied history of the rock group as it marked their only release with a totally different lead singer. Following a series of rows during attempts to record a follow-up to 1989 album ‘Dr Feelgood’ lead singer Vince Neil quit the group, leaving them scrambling to recruit a replacement almost in secret lest their label declare them in breach of contract. The Scream singer John Corabi was selected to perform vocal duties and so minor Top 40 entry ‘Hooligan’s Holiday’ marks his one and only chart appearance with the band. The album itself was something of a sales disaster, the absence of their charismatic lead singer adding to the fact that in the five years since the last Crue album tastes in rock music had shifted dramatically and their own brand of hardcore hair metal was seen as embarrassingly passé. By the time of 1997s ‘Generation Swine’ Vince Neil was back in the fold and setting them back on the right path although his attempts to sing songs that had been written for Corabi’s dramatically different register were at times interesting to say the least.

35: Sting – Nothing ‘Bout Me

Make no bones about it, 1993 album ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’ marked Sting’s creative and commercial peak as a solo artist, the LP showered with critical acclaim and awards, selling millions worldwide, forming the soundtrack to an entire year for many student friends of mine and spawning no less than six hit singles along the way. The chirpy ‘Nothing ‘Bout Me’ which closed the album was the final one of these, creeping to Number 32 in early 1994 as one final throw of the dice to squeeze some more sales out of the platter. Really it was little more than a footnote in the promotional campaign for one of the most famous releases of its era, an album which contained soon to be classics such as ‘Seven Days’, ‘Fields Of Gold’ (as made even more famous by Eva Cassidy) and most notably ‘Shape Of My Heart’ which almost a decade later famously became the basis of near simultaneous hit singles for Craig David and the Sugababes.

As is the case for these chart shows from the early 90s, the three hour Top 40 show at this point has to be randomly interrupted by a 90 second news summary. Lead story: A fire at a “London sex cinema” with police hunting a man seen fleeing the scene with a petrol can. Who knew that used tissues burned so easily?

34: Funkdoobiest – Bow Wow Wow

These guys were (and indeed still are) Puerto Rican rappers from Los Angeles whose career took off in the early 1990s thanks to the enthusiastic patronage of Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs who produced their first two albums. This was the second of their two minor chart entries in 1993 and 1994 and the follow up to the Little Richard sampling ‘Wopbabalubop’ which had crept into the lower end of the Top 40 the previous year. Although no further hits followed this one, the group released two more albums during the 1990s and reformed only last year for a comeback release ‘The Golden B-Boys’. (Track is absent from We7 but is on Spotify if you are really that desperate to remind yourself what it sounded like).

33: Proclaimers – Let’s Get Married

Maybe not the most famous Proclaimers single ever, but one which returned the Reid brothers to the charts for the first time since 1990. The lead single from their third album ‘Hit The Highway’, itself their first studio recording since 1988 it peaked at Number 21 in mid February and served as a pleasant reminder that no matter how unfashionable the pair may have always been, they retained the knack of turning out a catchy tune that would be all over the radio in an instant and a chart hit against what appeared to be insurmountable odds. I’m glad the 21st century saw them properly elevated to national treasures, aren’t you?

32: Michael Bolton – Soul Of My Soul

Looking back at it now, the ongoing success of Michael Bolton in the early 90s seems ever so slightly bizarre. In the midst of an era when dance music was supposed to be ruling all, the man with the big nose and thinning mullet bellowed and howled his way through an ever blander series of soul and rock singles to a constant level of acclaim from what we can only presume were hormonally challenged housewives. Bolton was in short what would these days be Radio 2 core act although in a era when the aforementioned network still played Frank Sinatra records in daytime it was left to Radio One to give him the mainstream validation he apparently deserved. ‘Soul Of My Soul’ was typical of him, a by the numbers MOR ballad lifted from his 1993 album ‘The One Thing’ although its chart success was limited and this Number 32 placing this week represented its ultimate peak. His hits continued until the end of the decade, 1997 single ‘The Best Of Love’ representing his final UK chart entry.

31: Jam and Spoon – Right In The Night (Fall In Love With Music)

Finally to end this segment we hit the good stuff, for in February 1994 I simply could not get enough of this record and was convinced it was destined to be massive. Arguably the high point of the work the German trance duo put out in the 1990s, ‘Right In The Night’ was a club epic, based heavily on the melody from classical piece ‘Leyenda’ and featuring a warm and enveloping vocal from Croatian singer Plavka. Even without the aid of recreational substances this single manages to envelop your senses within seconds and in the right frame of mind can transport you mentally to a different plane altogether. Maybe this is the emotional reaction I was talking about at the start, the one record that during a particular personal low was an escape route to a slightly better frame of mind.

One of those records for which the seven-inch edit seemed inadequate, ‘Right In The Night’ is seen to this day as one of the most seminal trance records ever made and an acknowledged classic of its genre. Yet for all of that it didn’t really catch fire in the UK at first, stalling here at Number 31 upon its first UK release. It wasn’t until the steamy hot summer of 1995 that the single took off and was reactivated to ultimately peak at Number 10. I may have some bad, bad memories of February 1994 but ‘Right In The Night’ somehow cuts through all of that to be one of my favourite ones.

So far so good then, and if you want to listen to any of the tracks featured above either click on the links or check out the We7 and Spotify playlists which I’m pleased to note have a near 100% strike rate of these singles so far although I’ve a feeling we may come unstuck with FKW coming next…

Feb 18

Absolutely Incredible Football

DISCLAIMER: Just for a change I’m writing about a matter with which I’m directly involved in a professional capacity. For the avoidance of doubt, the following represents my own views and not those of talkSPORT or its management.

Today's lineup! on TwitpicThere have probably been more unexpected radio announcements, but it is hard to recall exactly when. The news last week that national rock music station Absolute Radio had grabbed one of the rights packages for live Premier League football over the next few seasons raised more than a few eyebrows across both the broadcast and sporting industries. What on earth could a music station want with some very expensive (reports put the deal in the region of £2.3 million) sporting rights?

I have to confess to a knowing smile of recognition as in the competitive world of American radio, such deals are far from uncommon. Radio commentary rights to NFL matches are one of the most sought after commodities in American broadcasting, with just one radio station in each market granted the exclusive rights to broadcast their team’s matches live. With the large audiences that are all but guaranteed, it is not uncommon for FM music stations to outbid their AM sports counterparts and break their own formats for several hours on a Sunday afternoon just for a chance at grabbing the lucrative advertising revenue. It leads to the strange situation of leading market sports stations having to talk all week about the fortunes of their local side before flipping the switch to syndicated programming whilst the team is actually in action, knowing that there is just no way the fans of the side are going to stick with them whilst they talk about other things.

In the UK music radio has had a fractious relationship with sport over the years. Many years ago the coverage of the local football team was an integral, nay essential, part of the format of any local station – a testament to its value in showing the regulators that coverage of local action was an important element of their schedules. Just over a decade ago things began to change and radio stations began to evaluate the cost of resourcing such extensive sporting coverage against the audience benefits it actually brought in. Back in the mid-90s as I have mentioned before, I worked at the heart of the Bradford City and Huddersfield Town coverage on The Pulse, coverage which to our general surprise was unceremoniously axed at the end of the 96/97 season. The radio station, it was announced, was pulling out of its sports coverage entirely.

As the man who was instead going to anchor the new music and updates programme that would replace the live sport on Saturday afternoons I clearly had to be brought onside, so my bosses sat me down one morning and explained the situation. They noted that it all came down to numbers. During the week and over the rest of the weekend we were competing head to head with the biggest radio station in the area – at the time Radio 2 – and matching them step for step. By switching format at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon we were essentially conceding the battle and instead taking on the likes of BBC Leeds and BBC Five Live, both of which managed tiny audiences in comparison. Common sense dictated that we were better served playing to our strengths, playing music on a Saturday afternoon but also paying due attention to the fortunes of our local sporting sides. It was the challenge of making this work which was to be handed to me.

Not for the first time I was handed the bare bones of a format and made it my own, creating what I hoped was the lively and informative Super Scoreboard show, one which incidentally was such a priority that I even got to use the station’s forthcoming new jingle package a full month before it was rolled out to the rest of the schedule. As disappointed as we all were that the lavish full match commentary service (complete by then with an FM/AM split so we covered both teams in full) was no more, the switch to music paid off. RAJAR figures a year later showed that between 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon my show was the most listened to in the area. I hold this up as the only time in my career I’ve singlehandedly propelled a timeslot to Number One, so please forgive the indulgence if I bang on about it.

Super Scoreboard came to an end in September 1999, in the same week that my own tenure on the station did. Having bought the group of stations to which The Pulse belonged, talkSPORT colossus Kelvin McKenzie strode into the office that summer to review his new purchases. When he discovered that a radio station serving an area with a Premier League team did not offer live commentary on their matches he was outraged and ordered the managers to get it sorted pronto. The old arguments about the fact we were a music station and that was what our audience wanted went out the window,  “you can never have too much sport” was his bellowed mantra – one which was promptly printed out and pinned on the newsroom wall in tribute to the diktats of the new regime.

What then of Absolute Radio and their unexpected foray into the world of live Saturday afternoon Premier League rights? The logic here seems to be that they are chasing audience and exposure any way they can get it. Their enforced rebranding from Virgin to Absolute has in spite of the best efforts of all involved been a disaster. Whilst some slippage of audience was perhaps inevitable in the wake of the rebrand, with some less attentive listeners no longer sure what it is they are listening to, the audience that vanished almost overnight when they changed their name simply hasn’t come back. Losing close on a million listeners over the last year and a half, Absolute Radio has slipped to a distant third in the ranks of national commercial radio stations.

Hence the Premier League acquisition, which they clearly hope will work for them in the same way the NFL works for the FM music stations in American markets. At the slight risk of inconveniencing their usual music-loving audience, they now have a reason for new listeners to find them on the dial and to tune over, not only in the short term they hope, but by being exposed to promotions and trails for the rest of their output potentially remaining with the station when the match is over. It is a gamble, true enough, but with a million and a half listeners and falling, it is one the radio station needs to take.

Absolute’s awarding of the “Saturday afternoon second pick” package, the one that talkSPORT have owned for the last three seasons, led to much speculation in the media about just where the remaining rights would end up, particularly when the Premier League announced that they had gone to a second round of tenders. The Daily Mail’s often mischievous sports diarist Charlie Sale suggested that both talkSPORT and Five Live “need the Premier League rights to make their stations work”, a statement which is actually patent nonsense, at least from the commercial station’s point of view. talkSPORT’s Saturday afternoon coverage worked perfectly well for eight years without Premier League rights and indeed as welcome as the chance to commentate on the matches themselves was, with consequent benefits to the audience figures, many listeners actually bemoaned the loss of the more comprehensive updates coverage with which we had previously filled the timeslot. You can’t please all of the people all of the time after all.

Happily it is now possible to report the result of the final round of bidding and from the point of view of myself and my colleagues the fantastic news that talkSPORT from next season will have not one but two of the Premier League commentary packages, with the right to broadcast live games on both Saturday evenings and Sunday lunchtimes. The Sunday package also includes the occasional fixtures played on Wednesday evening, meaning that some weeks during the season there will be no less than three live Premier League matches on the station. For those tracking the history of sports broadcasting this is perhaps an even more significant moment than the revelation three and a half years ago that the BBCs monopoly on football coverage had been broken after seventy years. Whereas before the two radio stations were competing head to head for an audience for the 3pm games, commercial radio now has a free run at an exclusive audience. Want to hear national radio commentary on the matches played at those times? talkSPORT is the only place to be.

For the audience, the variety on offer can only be a good thing. I’ve never really been a fan of the BBC style of commentary which with every passing year sounds more tired, more stuck in the past, overwhelmed with a desperate need for neutrality and reflecting little of the passion that the true fan feels for the game. Their archaic staffing structure which means two commentators share the match calling duties and do one quarter of the game each doesn’t help either, although I’m told that these days this is less a matter of practicality and tradition as a way of sating the inflated egos of the commentators who would otherwise sulk if they didn’t personally participate in the broadcast of some of the bigger games. Over the past three years I’ve tried to play my part in steering the talkSPORT coverage in a livelier, pacier and altogether more entertaining direction – most of the time on a tiny fraction of the resources available to our rivals but I’m glad to say surrounded by a team of people who are just as talented as their Broadcasting House counterparts. Whether we succeeded or not is down to the views of the individual listener, but it is a matter of record that the Saturday afternoon show has steadily climbed in the ratings to last quarter record its best figures in the history of the station. I’m very pleased to have played a part in that.

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Next season the path is clear for Absolute Radio to come to the table with their own ideas for Saturday afternoon, ones which I sincerely hope continue our good work in persuading listeners away from the BBC and forcing them to shake up their ideas a little. The dedicated radio listener and football fan now has good reason to tune in to three different radio stations – two of them commercial. It is a huge boost for the sector and one which will be welcomed throughout the industry. From news that came as a total shock to many arrives the dawn of an exciting new era in sports broadcasting in this country. I can’t wait for next summer, can you?

Feb 13

JACK your memory

I love my internet radio. The fact that this grey box on the bedside table can give me access to the output of just about any radio station I choose across the world is nothing short of a joy, and never more so when amongst the inevitable dross you come across one that you want to sample for an extended period.

My current fascination is the JACK-FM format that you can find in many American and Canadian markets (and indeed one or two in this country to a certain extent), with my current favourite randomly being KJAQ in Seattle. The format originated with and indeed has to be licenced from a Canadian company. The idea is to stand current radio thinking on its head, moving away from a tightly formatted and limited number of songs in heavy rotation and instead embracing the notion of “playing what we want”, with the station output being selected from a playlist of as many as 1000 different songs spanning a variety of eras. The JACK-FM format calls for the stations to be more or less presenter-free (at least at first), the only between song continuity being provided by a sardonic voiceover which acts as the voice of the titular “Jack”.

The format has had mixed results across America, becoming a raging success in some markets and all but collapsing the audience of other stations that have flipped to Jack and then switched back in a panic not long afterwards. For the music lover a Jack station is a voyage of discovery, the chance to hear songs that you never get to hear on the radio normally and with 1000 songs in the database, very little chance of regular repetition.

A recent session sat in bed listening to KJAQ threw up two songs in particular which were in their own different way quite unexpected treats – and yes, you would never expect to hear either of them played on any UK radio station.

First out of the hat was The Promise by When In Rome which has for years been one of my favourite long-lost hits.

The group hailed from Manchester, formed out of the ashes of Beau Leisure, an early 80s outfit that numbered future Swing Out Sister singer Corinne Drewery amongst their number. Now reduced to a duo of Clive Farrington and Andrew Mann, When In Rome were signed by 10 Records in the UK and released ‘The Promise’ as their first single. As the video above shows, the single was a lavish romantic epic, the impassioned echoing chorus sitting in stark contrast to the low key whispered verses which precede it. The guy in the song is in all honesty a bit of a loser, reaching out hopelessly to the object of his dreams in the vain hope that she will notice that he can be the romantic and personal salvation she is searching for and almost obsessively stating the song’s titular promise “I’ll make you fall for me”. It is either a song of innocent devotion or the ode of a stalker, depending on your point of view.

Released in 1988, the record bombed totally in Britain, despite the odd bit of Radio One airplay. Unexpectedly the 12-inch version became a club hit in America, prompting Virgin records to release the song properly in the States. Whilst remaining complete unknowns in their home country, When In Rome found themselves the proud owners of a Billboard Top 20 hit, ‘The Promise’ peaking at Number 11 in the summer of 1988.

When In Rome weren’t the only flop UK act of the time who had instead found a welcome berth on US pop radio with London trio Breathe also briefly finding themselves at the vanguard of an unexpected British invasion of the US charts. Whilst ‘Hands To Heaven’ subsequently rode the coattails of its Stateside smash hit status to grab a spot in the Top 10 back home, When In Rome weren’t so lucky. Despite an opportunistic January 1989 re-release of ‘The Promise’, the single could only limp to Number 58 and with subsequent American hits from their self-titled album having failed to emerge the label simply gave them up as a bad job.

‘The Promise’ re-emerged just a few years ago when it found its way onto the soundtrack of “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004 but despite this it remains a song that is pretty much unknown to British ears. Having heard it when it was first released, I’d always loved it and in the pre-digital age always longed to own a copy myself – an ambition I realised when I picked up a German “best of the 80s” import in Bradford HMV in 1998. Film soundtracks notwithstanding, it is a song you never ever hear anywhere which is why having it pop up on the KJAQ playlist was such an unexpected delight.

The other unexpected treat that popped up on the bedside radio? Well this one isn’t quite so obscure, but it is another track that inspires emotions in me that I had to take time out try to explain. If This Is It by Huey Lewis and The News.

Hearing this song always inspires in me warm feelings of nostalgia, but for the life of me I can never quite pin down why. It surely can’t be nostalgia for remembering when the song was a hit – because it never really was. ‘If This Is It’ barely scraped the UK Top 40 in its day, limping to Number 39 in October 1984 at a time when the British charts had too many other obsessions to bother with such cheesy feelgood American pop. I was barely even aware of the charts back then and would surely not have heard the song on the radio at the time (if it was ever played at all). That can’t be what it reminds me of.

Maybe it is the retrospective vibe of the track itself. Huey Lewis and The News made their career on an appealing fusion of modern day rock and 1950s do-wop, creating records that sounded like they were the product of a The Fly-esque time machine accident, planting feet firmly in both the modern day and the roots of Rock and Roll. ‘If This Is It’ is one of the finest examples of this style, a track which is pop, soul and gold all wrapped up in one delicious package. Yes, you can get nostalgic about the record but the fact it that it apes a style of music that never really existed in the first place. The sound was uniquely Huey Lewis and to imagine this was what all music sounded like in the late 50s is to misread it completely.

My only conclusion is that ‘If This Is It’ makes you nostalgic for a lifestyle you never actually experienced yourself. It is due in part to Huey Lewis’ inexorable link with the modern day Hill Valley scenes from the first “Back To The Future” film, of which ‘The Power Of Love’ was an integral part of the score. It is almost as if his voice makes you yearn for the squeaky clean all-American lifestyle of the 80s, this inevitably artificial image of a teenage lifestyle that is all McDonalds and milkshakes, of skateboarding to the local mall, of watching the world go by in the sunshine and most importantly of romancing the picture pretty high school sweetheart you always dreamed you would have. ‘If This Is It’ is the soundtrack to the Coke advert of your dreams, a horrible superficial and sticky sweet world that many would find nauseating but which for the brief three and a half minutes while the record plays you would give anything to have been a part of and for it to have been a real and tangible part of your memories. I think it is for that reason alone that I can listen to it over and over.

That, my friends is what great radio can do. Over the course of two songs make you long for hits that never were and for a lifestyle that you never actually had, and that is why I’ll keep the internet radio linked to KJAQ for just a little while longer. Meanwhile back in the UK, I think Toby Anstis is about to play some Leona Lewis on Heart. Can’t wait.

Feb 02

Cassettes and Prince’s Trust

Allow me to begin with an illustration.

TapeLibrary

Aside from the copious boxes of archived Top 40 shows that live under the bed, this is what is left of my cassette collection. I know a great many people who don’t actually have a cassette player any more and so have lost forever a great deal of the music they bought growing up. Mine is still going strong and was purchased only a few years ago, for the simple reason that I still have so many of them. Every so often when the urge takes me I will venture into town with a list in hand and upscale many of the old albums to CD, thus thinning their ranks a little more. Some however remain stubbornly unavailable even in the new medium – the mystery of why every Thomas Dolby album save his best (‘Astronauts And Heretics’) can be picked up on CD ranking alongside the sad knowledge that a digitally rendered version of the obscure import ‘Kylie’s 50+1 megamix’ is likely to cost far more than I would ever be willing to pay for it. Also I doubt that I’d ever really want to swap my cassette of the ‘Gladiators – Series One’ soundtrack from 1992 for its CD equivalent. Why do I even still have that?

Buried right at the very back of the rack are a few ancient gems, tapes that I was handed as presents over the years and which rarely get an airing. For some odd reason I was motivated to dig one out the other day and was reminded what a fun snapshot in time it was. Presenting then the tape gifted to me by my Godparents as a 14th birthday present and if I remember correctly, one of the first things ever to be played on the shiny new tabletop record player that was my main wish for the anniversary.

This is the story of the Prince’s Trust Concert – 1987.

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The first such all-star charity ensemble had taken place a year earlier, a collection of the great and the good of the music business all gathered together by Midge Ure to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the charity. It was apparently such a success that they decided to do it all over again the following year, booking Wembley Arena for two nights over June 5th and 6th 1987.

The gimmick was that the concert wasn’t so much a stop-start parade of acts taking their turns on the stage. Instead the assembled galaxy of stars would perform together as a House Band, with various guest singers wheeled on to perform some of their greatest hits. So it was that the paying punters (plus those who bought the subsequent video and compilation album) were invited along to an extended jam session – the band featuring the likes of Mark King on bass, both Ringo Starr and Phil Collins on drums, Elton John on piano, and both George Harrison and Jeff Lynne on guitar alongside one man whose enthusiasm for it all meant that he inserted his unique style into just about every single song performed – as we shall see.

It should be noted that as a live album it is one of the most badly produced and abysmally mixed recordings you are ever likely to hear. There is no continuity to any of the performances, running orders having been chopped and changed to cram everything onto one album and naturally to highlight the best bits of the two different performances. The result can sometimes be a jarring mess, with stars appearing and vanishing at will and separate songs by the same singer scattered around the disc almost at random. Plus this was either the quietest concert audience ever, or someone forgot to mic up the arena as the cheering fans in attendance can be barely heard – something that kind of takes away from the atmosphere and on a couple of occasions ruins the songs where the performers invite them to participate.

Why is this recording remembered with such fondness then? Well as a snapshot of a moment in musical history and as a gathering of stars whom these days we would regard as rather superannuated and over the hill but who at the time were some of the biggest names around it is actually pretty hard to top.

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With little fanfare the tape opens with ‘Running In The Family’ from what appears to be a near complete Level 42 lineup. An all too rare nod to current sounds, the song had only been a Top 10 hit a few months before, but the house band are clearly still finding their feet and struggle to stay in tune at times, as if in sympathy with King himself who bellows his way through one of his most famous hits as if he is hearing it for the first time. That is at least until the magic moment halfway through when King beckons a spotlight over and announces “ladies and gentlemen – Mr Eric Clapton”. For the first time that evening we hear the man in whose presence virtually none of the other participants can compete as he improvises a guitar solo on the spot and drags the pop song as close as he can to blues-rock territory. As the tape progresses this quickly becomes tedious, but the initial joy of hearing him appear from the shadows is one that is worth revisiting.

Just for a change there is no edit between the first two songs as Mark King acknowledges the cheers and introduces “our musical director Mr Midge Ure”. For the only time of the evening the man who has put the whole thing together takes to the floor and performs the song that he had taken to Number One two years earlier. With the band taking a back seat and allowing the song’s synthesised backing to do all the work, this is actually one of the best and most heartfelt performances of the night.

Time now for Clapton to have a turn behind the mic and he goes for the safe option with a perfunctory run through ‘Behind The Mask’, his unexpected cover of the Yellow Magic Orchestra song with which he’d had a huge hit earlier that year. It is a song he rarely if ever performs these days and I don’t recall it being part of the sets in the marathon runs he did at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 90s. Whether it is the appalling mixing or just the terrible acoustics in the arena, but here he just doesn’t seem to be interested.

Here the jarring continuity comes to the fore as Clapton now vanishes, only to reappear a few songs later and is instead replaced by a pair of singers who will reappear for a longer set later on the tape. For the moment though we welcome both Paul Young and Phil Collins who croon their way through ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ (with Young playing Bill Medley naturally) with no band in sight, just Elton (presumably) playing the melody on piano.

No sooner are the pair on however then they are off, replaced instead by an unannounced Ben E King who treats the crowd to ‘Stand By Me’, hot off his recording having been a surprise Number One earlier in the year thanks to a Levis TV commercial. He is replaced in short order by the token pop stars of the night, Curiosity Killed The Cat who sing misfit to what I suspect is a slightly nonplussed adult audience who in truth have all come to see the superstars and not a bunch of fly by night heartthrobs.

Superstar presence is restored with another Clapton performance edited in, this time the guitar legend treats us to ‘Wonderful Tonight’, a song he has performed a thousand times but still manages to sing with love and feeling and soul. In later years Clapton would allow his imagination to take flight even on this most simple of ballads and in live shows would swamp the song with a five minute solo halfway through. At this point however he was still staying faithful to the source material – or maybe he had promised not to confuse the house band by taking off on flights of fancy and leaving them stranded.

More contemporary pop gets a look in with Alison Moyet popping up for a token appearance and a run through ‘Invisible’. A hugely underrated live performer, even in her pop heyday, this somehow manages to be the best rendition of the song I’ve ever heard. I never really took to her music when a teenager but this one track alone is enough to make me realise what I missed.

Side One of the tape ends with “Spandau Ballet” although you suspect this is no more than Tony Hadley popping up to be one of the gang. His song of choice is the much maligned ‘Through The Barricades’ which was sneered at for being overblown and pompous when first released but which in the hands of the superstar house band (Clapton as well) suddenly becomes the soaring rock epic you knew it always had designs of being.

Side 2 opens with Labi Siffre, who in 1987 had come out of self imposed performing retirement and had landed himself a welcome smash hit with the anti-Apartheid song ‘(Something Inside) So Strong’. This would have worked wonderfully in the arena at the time, but sadly the poor production on the tape means that the crowd adding their own backing vocals and performing the African chants from the record are all but lost.

Now for another magical moment as Bryan Adams, at the time the owner of nothing more than a handful of mid-table hits in this country and a long way from the chart-dominating superstar he would become, steps forward to sing what was at the time his one and only Top 20 hit – ‘Run To You’. To make this just a little bit special, step forward Eric Clapton once again as he joyfully takes over the lead guitar part of the song and even restrains himself from improvising as he follows the original arrangement exactly and contributes the howling melody line for the second verse onwards. It is on tracks such as this that the true appeal of the evening becomes clear. Two stars who ordinary would never be on stage together, performing each others songs but in their own trademark style. A Bryan Adams/Eric Clapton duet is surely pretty much unique outside of this concert and that makes it a collectible in its own right for sure.

More star power takes to the floor next in the shape of Elton John. As the press clipping at the top indicates, the concert came at one of the lowest points of his professional and personal life after The Sun newspaper elected to try to destroy him with a series of lurid exposes accusing him of all manner of illegal and semi-illegal practices. History records that everything turned out well, with a million pound libel settlement and a front page apology plus his own personal rehabilitation as a national treasure, but at the time Elton could have been forgiven for thinking that everything he had worked for was in danger of turning to dust. Hence he takes to the stage with a wave of public sympathy for what was a rare public appearance at the time. He sings ‘Saturday’s Alright For Fighting’ as part of what was clearly a longer set, but once again the bizarre editing takes over and he is faded out at the end as soon as he arrived. He’ll return though in just a couple of songs time.

First we head back to Collins and Young (remember them?) who in a session that is either a continuation from the one on Side One or taken from a different night, treat us to a fun Four Tops medley. After a quick run through ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ they launch into ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ during which Phil decides it is time for the crowd to do some work. “It’s ordience participation toime” he breezes, “I sing, you sing. Get it?” The Wembley Arena crowd roar their approval, or at least we presume they did as once more we can barely hear them. Thus the call and response exchange that follows somehow never translates properly on tape and listening back at home you find yourself wanting them to move on and start singing themselves again. This they do, finishing with a rousing bout of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’. Paul Young is a better singer than Phil Collins by the way, but I guess you knew that.

Up next are Go West who were a curious addition to the bill given that their big hits had been a full two years earlier and they were about to enter a barren patch that meant it was a new decade before they started having hits again. Having been invited along though the pair make a good fist of ‘Don’t Look Down’ but I care about this even less than the crowd does.

Elton is back now (see how confusing it gets) and runs tenderly through ‘Your Song’, the most notable part of the performance being at the end when he acknowledges the applause with a heartfelt  “Thank you for all your support”. The subtext is clear. The papers all seem to hate him, but he has just learned he still has the public on his side and that is all that matters.

There is one more surprise superstar collaboration to come as Dave Edmunds teams up with Bryan Adams for a romp through ‘The Wanderer’, but the casual listener will by now have noted the next items on the tracklisting and will be fast forwarding to what may well be the really good parts.

No less a figure than George Harrison takes to the stage. He was at this time preparing for the release of the ‘Cloud 9’ album which would go down in history as his big commercial comeback and take him back to the top of the American charts, but for this concert he digs out two particular Beatles classics. Yes, he had probably performed ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ many times over the years, but rarely had he done so not only with Ringo Starr thumping away just as he did on the record, but standing next to the very man whose weeping guitar famously featured on the original. Eric Clapton had originally resisted the invitation to perform on the original track but his uncredited solo is one of the more famous bits of Beatles trivia. For the Prince’s Trust concert it approaches it with gusto and the coda of the song features both Harrison and Clapton duelling back and forth in a manner which is nothing short of captivating.

Clapton and Harrison remain together on stage for the next song ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Clapton didn’t play on the original version, but the song originates from a songwriting session the pair had together at Clapton’s house in the summer of 1969, having grown out of the melody that would eventually also become the Cream song ‘Badge’. If you appreciate the significance of it, then it is a great moment. 18 years later the two men are stood side by side, rows over stolen wives behind them, and singing the song each had inspired the other to write.

For the finale the mini Beatles reunion continues as Ringo Starr himself steps out from behgind the drums and leads the assembled cast in a rendition of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. Once again the terrible mixing of the live recording comes to the fore as the assembled chorus can barely be heard and so what was meant to be a triumphant climax sounds like a drunk man wailing as loud as he can to hear the echoes coming back off the surrounding buildings.

The tape and the night finishes with a quick breeze through the National Anthem, in honour of the Prince and Princess Of Wales in attendance on at least one of the nights. The performers here are Buddy Curtis and the Grasshoppers, a name which even to this day prompts a “who?” from people looking back at old programmes and ticket stubs. The acapella group had a brief run of festival fame in the mid-80s, their presence on this particular bill explained by the presence in their ranks of a certain Jason Starkey whose Dad may or may not have been involved in proceedings along the way.

So that was the 1987 Prince’s Trust Concert, as lovingly captured on this dusty old cassette which sits in my collection nestled alongside Tape 2 of ‘Who’s Last’ (Grandma, Christmas 1985) and Billy Idol’s ‘Idol Songs – 11 Of The Best’ (birthday money, 1988). Historians of many of the acts involved do point to the event as the moment that inspired two more famous superstar projects. In Harrison and Lynne you had the germination of the idea that became the Travelling Wilbury’s, whilst the idea of assembling a team of mates for a superstar charity concert prompted Ringo Starr to set up the travelling All-Starr Band which went on to sell out arenas around the world.

The audio recording of the event appears long deleted and copies of the LP can only be found second hand. The film of the concert went on to win a Grammy award the following year and was re-released on DVD as recently as 2001. Amazon still appears to have copies for sale as well. As a result there are a handful of YouTube videos kicking around, so here are a couple for your entertainment.

First the performance that opens the tape, ‘Running In The Family’:

Then the climactic moment as the true superstar power takes the stage:

Feb 01

…and at the halfway stage…

Well it isn’t every day you wake up to the news that the Official UK Charts Company has done something bold and unusual.

For a great many years, the Holy Grail for dedicated music fans who were not directly connected with the music industry was to catch a glimpse of the midweek figures. As data collection moved into the digital age, the music industry was no longer restricted to waiting until the end of the week to find out exactly how well their product was performing at retail and charts compilers began to produce informal data tables to provide a midweek update – a tantalising glimpse of what may or may not be the state of play come the weekend.

I remember my first indication that there was a deeper story behind the weekend chart countdown came in January 1989 when Alan Jones’ Record Mirror chart column recounted the progress of ‘Somethings Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ by Marc Almond and Gene Pitney towards its eventual berth at Number One. He revealed that at the start of the week in question, Kylie and Jason led on Monday and Tuesday, Mike and the Mechanics took the lead on Wednesday but following their performance on Wogan that evening, the Almond/Pitney duet stormed ahead and was comfortably the Number One single by the weekend. If you had the information, day by day the it was possible to see a story develop.

By the mid-90s the midweek information could always be obtained if you had the right contacts, and it wasn’t uncommon for fifth-generation faxed copies of the secret earlier sales flashes to be circulating by Thursday of each week. I remember being sent a copy of the sheet in May 1995, one which revealed that ‘Back For Good’ by Take That had sold more copies in three days than most singles did in a week and that by the weekend it would be Number One by a country mile.

It was always important to remember that these listings were as raw and unofficial as it was possible to be. Virtually no filtering of the data had taken place with missing reports taken into account and before security checks had been applied to the figures. One or two of the more famous chart deletions of the mid-90s were exposed when records which had shown up on the midweek sheets were nowhere to be seen on the published chart when it arrived on Sunday. So you had to be careful when relying on the data. More than once I’d been caught out badly by preparing a lovingly constructed column on the significance of a particular act reaching Number One, only to have to discard it completely when the proper chart came through and it turned out the midweek numbers had been completely wrong.

Hence officially the midweeks didn’t actually exist. You couldn’t request a copy or a licence to publish them, and anyone trying to be “helpful” and release them online was slapped down with extremely stern legal letters complaining of copyright breaches.

Recently this attitude began to soften. In an information led age, it was almost perverse to assume that even trivial information about which records were outselling each other would not circulate in any form. Hence even Music Week began making the data readily available to its subscribers, with midweek information published on their website each lunchtime from Tuesday to Friday. Hence whenever you see press stories recounting that “early reports suggest” such and such a record is in the lead (stories which appear everywhere from tabloid pop pages to the BBC News website) they are sourcing the data from these Music Week tables. Nonetheless the information was still raw and unsorted, the “Top 40” would habitually only contain 38 singles, and tracks would often appear twice as sales of different versions had not been properly merged in the database. These were details that would be corrected in the “official” chart at the weekend, so attention to detail didn’t matter at the start of the week.

The other spanner in the works came with the rise to prominence of the online stores, outlets which had immediate access to their sales data and which in time honoured tradition made the rundown of their biggest selling singles of the moment a focal point of their front pages. Hence it is possible to get an up to the minute picture of what is selling by simply firing up iTunes on your computer. Not that this too isn’t without its pitfalls, as not only is the chart just the data from one store alone but its methodology remains a closely guarded secret (it is a 24 or 48 hour rolling average according to most popular theories) and it is subject to quirks of the iTunes database. Hence if a song is temporarily deleted and then re-added to correct a listing problem, it immediately vanishes from the online chart and has to spend the next 24 hours or so climbing back to its true position in the rankings.

Then there was the relaunch of the commercial radio chart show, the Big Top 40 which made a virtue of basing its Top 10 rundown on the “live” iTunes rankings. With new singles arriving online on Sundays, it meant that very often a popular new releases would be at or near the top by the end of the day, allowing the upstart chart show to showcase next week’s Number One immediately and leaving the Radio One show looking dated. Chart purists may loathe its illogicality and disregard for the facts, but in programming and promotion terms it remains a masterstroke.

The culmination of this all is the announcement today that Radio One is to broadcast an official midweek update for the very first time. It is a move that even the OCC notes is the “biggest change to the chart in almost 60 years”. For the first time ever, the midweek data becomes official and public and in the process now allows everyone to follow the internal narrative of the weekly race to become Number One.

Note that this doesn’t mean we end up with two charts a week, as the Sunday countdown will still be based on Sunday-Saturday sales, it is just that on Wednesday afternoon we will officially know what the Sunday-Tuesday sales data looks like. Lest anyone things this somehow ruins the surprise, it is worth noting that in a close race a great deal can change in just a few days. The Music Week piece linked to above notes the race a couple of weeks back between Sidney Samson and Iyaz when both singles spent the week in a neck and neck race with the lead changing hands several times. The Christmas Number One race also had hidden twists that only the full day by day figures exposed, with the Joe McElderry single closing the gap between it and the RATM track almost hour by hour, taking the lead by Saturday morning only to be denied at the last by some blatant cheating from the campaigners and a surge of sales proxied in from overseas purchasers which technically should not have been allowed.

Personally I welcome anything that drags the industry’s most useful promotional tool back to the prominence it needs to have and to see if being shown some attention and care after being abused and taken for granted by the industry over the last decade and a half is very good news indeed. I’ve long maintained that the singles chart’s main problem is a lack of visibility with no record stores to pin the listing up in, no Top Of The Pops to use it as a narrative and a flagship radio show presented by a man whose lack of familiarity with his source material is sometimes uncomfortable to hear.

Midweek data can sometimes tell you things that make you happy after all. At the moment iTunes is telling me that Jedward are trailing Owl City and if they keep that up won’t be Number One at the weekend. That might be the best news some people hear all week.

Jan 28

King Of Books

I don’t think I’m alone in observing this. In pursuit of quick payoffs and the easy profits so beloved of middle management, the publishing industry has in recent years contrived to devalue one of its most worthy genres. Once upon a time the celebrity autobiography was a lovingly crafted work, written (or ghosted) by someone at the end of a long and distinguished career and crammed not only with insights into the most famous moments of their life’s work, but also offering an explanation of how they grew to be the person they are and what hurdles they overcome along the way. Now all too often the shelves of what is left of the bookselling market are crammed with lightweight tomes from barely-famous starlets barely out of their teens. These aren’t books that teach us about the individual but merely attempts to frantically cash in on a name before the inevitably transient nature of their celebrity passes them by.

This does mean that the few celebrity autobiographies that are truly worthwhile are the ones most deserving of appreciation. Particularly as in this particular case, the best life story you will read all year is one you might not even realise exists thanks in part to a de-facto media blackout. Imagine if you had a story to tell, a lifetime of experience and influence to impart and yet due to circumstances beyond your control your reputation had taken the worst kind of public battering. What happens if you are about to tell the full, unexpurgated version of your life story with no holding back or skimping on details and had absolutely nothing to lose by doing so?

Jonathan King - 65 My Life So Far

Welcome then to “65 – My Life So Far” by pop star, label boss, impresario, presenter, producer, consultant, legend and (according to the popular press) vile pervert Jonathan King. He acknowledges at the start that had he not experienced the dramatic fall from grace he suffered at the start of the decade, he might well have written a very different book, one that was slightly more circumspect and which glossed over details – if nothing else for the sake of propriety. With that restriction removed he is left with the freedom to tell the absolute truth, in all its sticky details.

Thus the first part of his story is taken up with what Frank Skinner once memorably described as the “hurry up and get famous you bastard” years, detailing the early life of the young King as he progressed through the public school system of the 1950s. It is as much a tale of sexual awakenings as it is of personal development as friends, classmates and comrades (but thankfully no Masters) all learn together the meaning of their erections and what they can achieve with them. Of course there is more to it than just wanking games – hearing described in detail the moment anyone discovers their lifelong love of music is always worthwhile – but by the time he takes A-Levels you are left feeling flushed and abashed, King taking an almost childish glee in documenting the details of horny adolescence that we all experienced but never imagined we would hear discussed in such detail. Through it all there is a serious point to be made, his sexual tastes having been dissected and scrutinised in court and demonised by the press, he simply feels entitled to explain their origins.

Once school (and a tantalisingly brief university career) is out of the way, the book moves on to King’s years as a celebrity and it is here that the rollercoaster ride truly begins. All too conveniently forgotten is the fact that Jonathan King over a 35 year period found himself at the heart of popular culture, and every single episode of his career is documented with pride. Whether it was through making his own records, discovering and signing acts such as The Bay City Rollers, Genesis and 10cc, presenting on television and radio or rescuing both the Brit awards and the Eurovision Song Contest from the doldrums, Jonathan King has not only been there, done that and worn the t-shirt but as it turns out the branded clothing was his idea in the first place. There are no bold and exaggerated claims made here – just about everything you have reason to doubt is backed up with press clippings and memorabilia.

The narrative is peppered throughout with appearances by the great and the good of the music and entertainment business with the odd scandalous revelation along the way. Some are anonymous, some are not, King careful to note the privacy of those still alive to regret their past behaviours. That said I am sure the world is a better place for knowing it was George Harrison who punched one particularly abusive fan in the face when she turned up on his doorstep and thus made himself a hero amongst the other celebrities of the time who had taken the full brunt of her fury. As a man who found himself falling in love with Sandie Shaw in the 1960s, Jonathan King is certainly far from unique – and indeed those who have formed their view of the man based solely on what the newspapers have chosen to write about him recently may even be taken aback slightly by the large number of adult heterosexual encounters and relationships documented here. Even taken on its own as a set of celebrity memoirs, this section of the book would make for a truly essential publication in its own right.

The most astonishing revelations of all are held back for the final chapters of “65”, recounting as they do the events from the day in November 2000 when the police knocked on King’s door and announced they were investigating allegations of sexual assault. What follows is an account of the investigation, the subsequent trial, King’s conviction and imprisonment and his subsequent release and the ongoing battle to clear his name. Along the way there are breathtaking tales of police incompetence, coaching of witnesses and the British legal system’s own cavalier disregard for some of the principles of natural justice even the most naive observer would assume to be taken as read. Throughout the tale there isn’t a single moment of self pity by the author – he is at pains to point out that throughout his youth both he and his friends engaged in activities which were technically illegal back then – but you cannot help but share his frustration at the way his life and reputation were disrupted by what he demonstrates were the allegations of an fantasist, allegations which in turn prompted other glory seekers to emerge from the woodwork and spin their own tales of “abuse” in the hope of a compensatory payoff. The book even has its own Shawshank Redemption moment when a witness comes forward with a testimony to prove that the allegations against King were all false, only to withdraw co-operation when the time came to swear a statement.

This isn’t an impartial book review, nor is it intended to be. Jonathan King is a man I’m very privileged to be able to regard as a valued contact and a friend. Nonetheless even friends can be critics of each other’s work, and “65 – My Life So Far” ranks alongside works by Bob Monkhouse and Frank Skinner as one of the most essential and fascinating autobiographies I have ever read.

Naturally you will struggle to find it in bookshops, although I often amuse myself by asking for it anyway and berating the assistants when they confess they don’t have it in stock (when I’m not taking 9/11 conspiracy books and helpfully re-filing them under ‘Fiction’, naturally). Order it directly from Amazon instead and treat yourself to a true tale of a life well lived and a story that finally deserves to be told.

Oh, and if you are still disturbed by the notion of appreciating the work of a (wrongly) convicted sex offender, consider my own favourite quote from the book, uttered in King’s London apartment by Jimi Hendrix as he contemplated his oozing and infected genitalia:

“Christ, she can’t have been more than 14 years old! What is the matter with fans these days?”

Bill Wyman would be proud of him.

Jan 21

Brits Nominations 2010

It is new year, so it must be awards season again. This incidentally accounts for my post-holiday silence as in my proper job I’m suddenly snowed under with a mountain of work connected with the annual fruitless task of competing with the BBCs bottomless resources and compiling entries for the Sony Radio Awards. Back in the real world however, music fans are clearing the fog from their minds and working out if they have a reason to care about the Brit awards, nominations for which were announced this week.

Each year the only category that mildly sparks my interest is the vote for Best British single, one of the few awards that is actually based on public opinion rather than a shadowy academy of judges. As in the last few years the long-list of nominations is to be gradually whittled down to a final winner thanks to the votes of “listeners to commercial radio”, or at least the ones that have chosen to participate in the promotion. So if you do have a mind to pick up the phone and choose the song which you think was the least forgettable single of the last 12 months, these are the select few from which you can make your choice:

Alesha Dixon – Breathe Slow

Top 3 back in February 2009 if your memory is slipping, this was the follow up to ‘The Boy Does Nothing’ and scored points with many people for not being quite as annoying as its predecessor. It is pretty enough, very well produced and movingly sung by the pop star/dancing judge/whatever who shows on this single that maybe, just maybe, she has the talent to back up her personal high profile. An award winner as the best single of the year though? I’m not so sure about that. The bookmakers agree, ranking her as the 50/1 outsider.

Alexandra Burke featuring Flo Rida – Bad Boys

Here is an interesting one, does the presence of an American guest star still make a record eligible as “British”? Apparently it does. This is actually Alexandra’s second nomination in a row (see below) albeit with a single that is actually far worthier of the accolade than her previous gong-eligible track. Not a bad choice for a nomination but I can’t help but think that the still obviously manufactured nature of her stardom will count against her, even for an award voted for by the Heart FM listening public. A 10/1 shot.

Cheryl Cole – Fight For This Love

Credentials: one of the fastest selling “ordinary” singles of 2009 and the track that more than lived up to the hype it received thanks to the endless amount of free promotion the singer and her record received thank to X Factor. By definition however it is not the best single of the year as I think there isn’t a single person on the Brits committee that would be able to keep a straight face at the prospect of Biffa Tweedy winning an award for her singing. Worryingly Paddy Power have her as the 5/4 favourite. I can only hope they are guessing.

Joe McElderry – The Climb

Oh dear, really? Yes, sadly as there seems to be some rule that says the X Factor winners single has to be nominated for a Brit award automatically just a few weeks after it was on the charts. It happened to Alexandra Burke last year and so here comes Geordie Joe – in line for one of the most prestigious honours the industry can bestow thanks to half an hour in the studio singing a song that four other people did in the same session and which was originally meant for an American star who is even younger than he is. Look, we all know this isn’t going to win. ‘Hallelujah’ got eliminated after the first round last year and there is no reason to believe this single won’t suffer the same fate either. He’s 25/1 at the bookies for heaven’s sake.

JLS – Beat Again

I’ll be honest, I still don’t really get the appeal of the whole JLS project although I will readily admit my perspective is clouded by having spent the whole of November and December 2008 shouting at them on TV for their inability to sing in tune. Spruced up and properly trained they have somehow become the teen favourites of choice with some unobjectionable pop songs handed to them. They may leave me cold but it is hard to knock success. The bookies have them at 5/4 joint favourites and although they are certain to remain in contention come the final round of voting there are surely far worthier recipients of the trophy.

La Roux – In For The Kill

Take this one for example. Never a Number One but one of the biggest sellers of the year as it simply sold and sold and sold throughout 2009. My honest opinion: ‘Bulletproof’ was less whiny and the better single overall, even if it was a straight retreat of every song Vince Clarke had ever written but as one of the defining moments of 2009 and a true reflection of the popular culture of the year, ‘In For The Kill’ surely has to stand a chance. Bookies have it at 7/1 which to me looks incredibly good value.

Lily Allen – The Fear

Then again we have to bear in mind who is voting – listener to commercial radio. And what just happened to be the most played song of 2009 on the radio? Step forward Miss Allen, your time has come. Lily has been nominated before, having been eliminated in the second round back in 2007. This time around she has a more mature, more rounded and if anything far more critically acclaimed Number One single to compete with. I’m not completely convinced she stands a chance of winning outright, but ‘The Fear’ deserves to be one of the last surviving nominees. She’s priced at 10/1.

Pixie Lott – Mama Do

Now if this was being voted for by the industry itself then Pixie Lott would probably run away with it given her status as one of 2009s big promotional priorities and the way she rewarded that faith with two smash hit singles. As for a public vote, well at the risk of being accused of sitting on the fence, this could go either way really. ‘Mama Do’ was sultry and soulful and an easy Number One but – and I hate to say this – a long way from being one of the best records of the year all things considered. She’s way out at 14/1 in the betting. If she is truly a contender it will be something of a shock.

Taio Cruz – Break Your Heart
Tinchy Stryder featuring N-Dubz – Number 1

Bracketing these last two together as to all intents and purposes they are the joint representatives of the UK R&B sound that was one of the defining sounds of last summer. The careers of the two men are pretty much intertwined already thanks to Cruz’ guest slot on Stryder’s debut single a year ago and indeed given that Taio Cruz has contributed to both Cheryl Cole’s and JLS’ albums his influence over the acts who have been chosen as the most successful of the year is there for all to see. On that basis alone ‘Break Your Heart’ deserves the gong pretty much by default, especially given his surprising lack of nominations in any other area. Cruz is way out at 20/1 in the betting which surely has to be worth a flutter. As for Tinchy Stryder, somehow given the alarming propensity for his guest stars N-Dubz to make twats of themselves, I can’t see it being his year. He’s way out at 25/1.

Conclusion then – hedge your bets between La Roux and Taio Cruz and hope that common sense wins out. Voting proper opens next Monday at the official Brits site, and I’m sure radio stations up and down the country will be pushing the numbers with vigour. I’m sure few people reading this will be unfamiliar with any of the songs listed above, but just for completeness there is a We7 playlist of them all. I’d embed it here, but their widget never seems to work on this site :(