Apr 19

Porky Face

To lighten the mood a little, I thought I’d take the opportunity to gratuitously share with you something which has achieved the near impossible. Our ever innovative creative department at work have managed to craft a programme trail that makes the entire office stop in its tracks every time it is aired. Not only that but almost uniquely every presenter on the station has stopped their show dead after hearing it and asked when the next chance to hear it again will be.

In my book that amounts to something pretty special. Presenting then, for anyone who hasn’t tuned into talkSPORT for the past week and heard this liberally scattered around the schedules, I present: Porky Face

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The trail was created by the talented people at talkSPORT Creative who can work similar magic for you if ever the mood takes you. Visit their site to give them a try.

Apr 18

Crashed My Car, Gone Insane

Looking back, it all seems kind of quaint. With the commercial radio industry now almost totally dominated by one large group (Global Radio) which appears to have a stranglehold on just about every market still capable of turning a profit and leaving an increasingly desperate bunch of small companies all fighting over the scraps that remain, it is hard to forget that in the 1990s there were a number of different players in the world of local radio, all eyeing each other up and waiting for the latest relaxation in the competition rules that would allow them to grow even further.

By accident or design I’ve spent much of my career working for the same small group of stations, joining one that was part of the Metro Radio Group before being spun off in a management buyout into The Radio Partnership which was then itself sold to the Wireless Group and which now forms UTV Radio, of which my spiritual home talkSPORT is the national flagship. Back in the mid-90s as a presenter you watched nervously the growth of The Borg – or the GWR Group as it was then known.

The nation-hugging behemoth that is Global Radio is in fact the final triumph of the aggressive radio company which through a series of acquisitions and takeovers had grown from its humble origins in the west of England to one which was in a position to (for good or ill) define the very shape and sound of local radio in this country. The reason we as presenters viewed it suspiciously was that GWR were notorious for taking a cookie-cutter approach to any station they ran. Back then daytime FM networking was rarely allowed and still technically challenging, and in the absence of this their management instead worked to a set formula for their stations, one they were determined to stick to it at all costs. Any new station that came under their control was swiftly turned into a “better music mix” with a carefully researched playlist imposed from above. Whilst the voices on the air may have varied from region to region, the music was the same minute by minute and listeners who could pick up two GWR-ised stations at once would wryly not that tuning over to avoid a hated song was pointless, as the station down the road was airing exactly the same track.

For presenters it was a double-edged sword. On the one hand the group represented a stable economic environment in a company that supported its staff and encouraged progression into management as a clearly defined career path. On the other hand, outside of breakfast it was tricky to express any kind of personality or personal style. The format called for the music to be foremost. Not even a single note was to be talked over and the jock was there to link the records, and most certainly not to get in the way. A clever radio industry parody of ‘The Sunscreen Song’ that circulated in mid 1999 summed up the dilemma nicely: “work for GWR at least once, but leave before it makes you soft”.

I was only ever briefly exposed to this regimented regime myself, attached in February 2000 to an RSL in Huddersfield which was being run by GWR as the testbed for their application for the new regional licence that would eventually become Real Radio. 106.6 The Edge was a rock station but our instructions as presenters were clear. We were to talk for no more than 30 seconds at a time, at six defined points in the hour. Every link had to start and end with the name of the station and we were also to continually encourage feedback to the email address set up for the purpose. It did not give one much room to breathe. I actually found it quite exciting and liberating for a short period. If I had something to communicate I had to concentrate on the most effective way of doing it. Random rambling was out. I opened the mic, delivered the line and got out of there as quickly as possible. Believe it or not this was for me an exciting, powerful new way of doing radio. I’m sure had it gone on any longer than a month I would have been beating the walls with frustration, but for a short period it was enormous fun. Good job I could indeed leave before it made me soft.

Music on the network was always a curiosity, particularly when it came to the choice of catalogue material that was played. The main problem was that the most senior managers were the forefront of the Australian invasion of UK radio. Hence the cookie cutter approach, the need to impose a strict format and the centralised control of everything from the jingles to the station logos. Their problem was that their knowledge of the British music scene only stretched back to 1992 when they had first landed in the country. Colleagues who came to us from The Borg were often surprised and delighted at being able to play tracks such as ‘Pure’ from The Lightning Seeds (1989 vintage) which were alien to their old managers. One famous anecdote centred around one boss hearing a track on the regular “Top 9 at 9” feature and bellowing “what the hell is this shit and what is it doing on my station?” only to be assured that ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers was actually one of the most famous records of its era and whilst they did not have a clue what it was, on this occasion they had to trust that the audience most certainly did.

This cultural clash would flow in the other direction too, the festive playlist often containing songs that were totally unfamiliar to British audiences but which were included as the managers knew them as seasonal favourites Down Under and presumed the Brits would grow to love them as well. Every so often however the Australians who ran UK radio would try to use their cultural connections as a force for good, bringing over antipodean hits which by sheer force of playlist they would try to turn into a success over here. In one famous example, it is actually something of a shame that they failed.

Bachelor Girl were a duo from Melbourne, consisting of good friends Tania Docko and James Roche. Formed in 1992, they made their breakthrough in their native country in early 1998 with the eminently hummable ‘Buses And Trains’, a song which would become their signature and a smash hit they never were to better. International promotion was hardly high on the agenda of the small label which had signed the pair, but their hand was forced early the following year when one of the GWR upper management brought the CD over to England and slotted the song into heavy rotation on their stations. I possibly would never have heard it myself but for the fact that by 1999 The Pulse was leasing programming from GWR, taking their Classic Gold network for their AM service and using the generically branded “The Mix” as an overnight sustaining service. As breakfast co-host and producer my first job in the morning was to deactivate the networking and put us back live on air, and so was one morning captivated to hear the insanely pretty song blaring out of the office speakers. Perhaps just like everyone else listening, I longed to know what it was and crucially whether I could buy it.

Had such an event happened today the track would have been made available to the UK within weeks. As it was, it took several months for the single to be licensed for UK release, RCA records arranging to distribute the track for the UK on behalf of Gotham records in Australia. Tragically by then the moment had passed, and with GWR having bored their audience into submission with the song six months earlier, airplay for the formal release of ‘Buses and Trains’ was minimal and the single sank without trace, charting at Number 84 here in July 1999 and thus sinking the UK career of Bachelor Girl before it had even begun.

People reading this from Australia will know the song as one of the biggest hits of 1998 and a justifiably famous pop classic and will be more than a little amused that I am here bemoaning it as an underrated lost classic. For indeed virtually everyone in the UK this song is an unknown and I maintain to this day that it is a crying shame. ‘Buses and Trains’ could still be a hit – maybe in the hands of a group such as The Saturdays if done respectfully enough. The managers of GWR may have gone on to ruin the UK radio industry, sowed the seeds for the fully networked Heart FM branded destruction of some famous radio names, contributed to a paucity of broadcasting talent by their refusal to let young presenters develop even the merest hint of a personality and dragged even the once mighty Capital FM in London down the toilet, but had they managed to make this one classic song into a hit, it is possible we might have forgiven them everything.

Apr 16

Cease and Desist

A little feedback can be a dangerous thing sometimes.

As you may well be aware, the blog format that Yahoo! Music currently uses to publish my weekly chart commentaries means that people have the opportunity to directly comment on what I have written each week. Much of the time this is very welcome, providing a platform for heated debate when I have said something particularly disagreeable and a most useful way for me to be alerted to any particularly glaring errors in the text. The desire for readers to prove they know more than I do can work to everyone’s advantage here. I always feel I should extend thanks to everyone who takes the time out to respond.

The exceptions are the tiny minority of what I am sure I can be forgiven for regarding as the slightly obsessive and unhinged individuals who tend to dominate the quiet weeks with lunatic conspiracy theories about records that aren’t where they should be. For that reason I rarely ever look at the pages beyond the first couple of hours. Once I know nobody has flagged up any factual errors, the quality of discussion tends to head off in the direction of Venus and there are more interesting ways to pass the time.

This week was different, after a couple of friends wrote to me with amusement about the outbreak of fuckwittery that was dominating the comment pages. Chief protagonist was one resident loon who had in the past been laughed out of town after complaining the singles chart looked nothing like the one in his fantasies (or something) but now was particularly aggrieved about something or other and was convinced I was at fault and “playing God” with the comments – ones you will note, I don’t actually read.

What required me to intervene and read the riot act was one particular piece of invective where he insisted that I had been “told off by the [Official Charts Company] once for publishing information they didn’t like”. Abuse and disagreement is fine by me and fair game, however potentially quite libellous suggestions that I was somehow behaving in an unprofessional way towards the publishers of my source material was another thing altogether. When challenged, the poster came over all indignant and posted the following:

Again I simply found that you had been sent a CEASE & DESIST LETTER from the OCC on the **** website. It’s still there you can check it out on that site all you have to do is type your surname in the SEARCH and you should find loads of people bad mouthing you. Therefore it is the public domain that you had a run in with the OCC, if it be false you had better tell them on that website it is!

I’d never visited the site in question before. but a quick search of their forum threw up the truth. The discussion in question was one dating from 2006 (four years ago you will note) in which the moderators of the site were suppressing the wholesale posting of copyrighted charts data, citing as a cautionary tale an occasion in 1995 (FIFTEEN YEARS AGO) when… well, we’ll come to that in a moment.

After instructing Mr Loonspud that his contributions were no longer welcome and that any further comments from him would be deleted on sight (using “God” powers that I have but rarely have the energy to use) it did strike me that the full tale of the summer of 1995 is actually one I haven’t told online for some time. It used to be a part of the original “live CV” incarnation of this site about ten years ago, but no longer. What better opportunity then than to recount it all here and put things in their correct context?

<<<<< wavy lines indicating trip back in time >>>>>>

I’d begun writing weekly commentaries on the goings on in the UK Top 40 in October 1992, posting them initially to rec.music.misc on usenet, newsgroups being the primary means of publishing and distributing your work in those pre-browser days of the internet. By the start of the following year there was a mailing list as well, prompted by a request from one reader for a direct copy of the text following a network breakdown in the January which meant that one posting in particular took a full week to propagate its way around the world. Hard to believe now, but this was indeed an era when a message posted online would typically take several days to travel around the globe.

By late 1994 the thing was growing like Topsy. Internet connectivity had gone mainstream that year as the next big thing in personal communication and I was regularly being listed as one of the most interesting musical resources on the net. Over my little 28k dialup connection at home I was regularly sending copy out to over 1,000 different email addresses, as well as posting the copy up on usenet. By that time, again in response to reader requests, my semi-accurate words of wisdom were interspersed with the full Top 40 rundown to put each comment in its proper context.

Inevitably it was only a matter of time before someone in authority noted that I was merrily reproducing what was at the end of the day someone else’s copyrighted data. It wasn’t deliberate theft, just a fact of life that the net was all about the distribution of information across national boundaries. It was all done for the greater community good – but legally there really was no defence for it.

Hence it was no surprise that one day in late June 1995 I received a polite but sternly worded email from one of the two people who at that time ran the Chart Information Network, the publishers of the UK charts and the forerunner of today’s Official Charts Company. In it she noted that having just hooked up an internet connection it had been discovered I was reproducing the singles chart, and that given they owned the data would I be so kind to cease my activities immediately and to make sure it was all removed from view. After a day or so of soul searching I wrote back apologetically and assured them that no harm was meant and that I would be happy to do as they said. I also contacted the chap in Russia who was at the time hosting the latest column for me on some webspace he owned and asked him to take the page down. He was amused by the fuss, noting that where he lived people would stand on street corners with tables full of pirate software and music. International copyright wasn’t really something they bothered with and he was sure nobody would be able to do anything about his website. Nonetheless he complied and removed the page.

This then was the great “telling off” the lunatic commenter believed demonstrated the full extent of my personal misbehaviour. So relevant that there are singles being bought today by people who weren’t born when it all first happened.

Back to 1995 though, and the next stage was to tell my eager audience just why the flow of information had dried up so suddenly. I still have the original posting I made to the newsgroup a few days after the first email had arrived:

From: james@prefade.demon.co.uk (James Masterton)
Subject: CHART: No more chart analyses?
Date: 25 Jun 1995 00:00:00 GMT
Message-ID: <19950625.221429.84@prefade.demon.co.uk>
distribution: world
x-nntp-posting-host: prefade.demon.co.uk
reply-to: james@prefade.demon.co.uk
newsgroups: rec.music.misc

You may have been puzzled by the lack of a Top 40 Analysis posting from me this week. Unfortunately I have to inform you that I am unable to write any further articles.

On Wednesday June 14th I received an email from Catharine Pusey
<xxxx@xxxxxxxxx.xx.xx> who is the Chart Director of CIN Limited, the
organisation in charge of compiling and distributing the UK charts. In it,
she informed me that she had just joined the internet and had come across my article. She also informed me that my usage of CIN charts as a basis for that posting, without the appropriate licence was a breach of copyright and that I should cease to do so immediately. I have to confess a feeling of great disappointment to receive a directive of this nature, but under the circumstances I appear to have no option but to comply, paticularly as I have no wish to abuse the copyright of an organisation whose work I admire and respect.

In the first instance my disappointment stems from the fact that I am
clearly unable to continue to provide to both you and the net the service I have been trying to offer. I have been trying to promote to others is the
vibrancy and life that exists in the music scene in this country and to
enhance the reputation of British charts and British music in general. White I have been writing these articles I have been repeatedly and pleasantly surprised at the respect and admiration that exists worldwide for the music we have in this country, hence my disappointment that CIN should instruct me to discontinue this service.

The compilation and production of charts is a commercial enterprise but I had not thought there would be a problem using information which receives such wide publicity and in circumstances which do not involve money. I produce my articles at my own expense and have never required or received any remuneration for this.

I must also express disappointment at the way the net is clearly about to be deprived of one of its resources. I suspect I have been unfortunate in that I am probably the most prominent user of chart information on the net and so I am the first one they have noticed. Many others contribute information in a similar manner and I am certain that CIN face a long uphill struggle if they want to remove all unauthorised use of their material in every corner of the net, as appears to be their stated aim.

Sadly it appears there is little I can do. Over the many years I have tried
to share my enthusiasm for the British charts with you I have been pleased and flattered at the positive response I have received and I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to write to me with questions and comments, or even just those who have read with interest and I am sorry I have not had the time to reply to you all in as much detail as I would have liked. I hope this is not the last you will hear from me, I am keen to be able to continue the work I have been doing. I have asked CIN if it might be possible for me to legally continue the service but obtaining some form of authorisation. Whatever the outcome, I can promise that this will not be the last you will hear from me. I firmly believe that as the net is an interactive medium, in order to be a good citizen one must contribute as well as receive information and I shall be actively searching for my next opportunity to make that contribution.

James Masterton

Incidentally the blanking out of the email address did not exist in the original. Rather naughtily I chose to reveal the address of my admonisher (a lady who now, incidentally, is the General Manager of the National Trust) to the world at large, maybe in the back of my mind wondering how they would react when word spread of what some would regard as an outrageous act of censorship. You would not get away with it today naturally, but I worked on the basis that should they complain, I could have innocently explained that such things were commonplace online.

24 hours later after returning from work I fired up the modem and logged on to the net. Whereas typically I would have six or seven emails waiting for me to download, this time there were close to 300. Even more would arrive over the next few days. Each one said the same thing, expressing emotions ranging from disappointment to anger and even heartbreak. People were offering to donate legal advice, instigate letter-writing campaigns and to contact the authorities – anything to prevent me having to stop. It seems almost surreal looking back, but it was a level of response that was all at once extremely moving and incredibly humbling. As I suspected many people had indeed contacted the CIN email address directly and copied me in on the text. Amongst the more sensible ones there was a common theme – advising them that really they should be hiring me, not suppressing me.

Amongst that first batch of emails was a name that I recognised from in print. Steve Redmond, the then editor of Music Week saying he had become aware of my work, was impressed by it and wondered if I would give him a call. One quick conversation later, I had an appointment to visit him at their offices to discuss a new project they had coming up.

The magazine was at the time based in Ludgate House, affectionately referred to by Private Eye as “the grey Lubyaka” and perhaps better known as the Daily Express building. It sits on the bank of the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge in London, a building that is oddly enough just around the corner from where I work now.

ludgate

The recent development of the station has changed the area nearby beyond recognition but before it happened I would often smile with nostalgia when I had cause to exit the station. I’d flash back to being 21 years old again, on my first ever trip to the big city. I’d walk past the sandwich shop on the corner, walk across the bridge and approach the towering grey block that to this day houses United Business Media, tracing the very footsteps I made on that hot July morning. On entering the building I was directed across the lobby and invited to use the special express lift that stopped exclusively at what at the time were the penthouse offices of Lord Hollick himself, and one floor below the offices of Music Week. After assuring the lift attendant that I wasn’t heading for his Lordship’s domain I stepped out into the busy offices of the music industry’s trade bible to be greeted by a smiling secretary who guided me to the editors office.

Steve Redmond and I had a long conversation where I waxed lyrical about the online world and how people viewed British music overseas. How people all over the world were fascinated by the UK charts and the unique way the market worked here. “Only in this country,” I explained, “could two actors from a TV series (Robson and Jerome) record a straightforward cover of a 40 year old song and wind up with one of the 10 biggest sellers of all time”. Trust me, back in 1995 that was a very big deal.

The offer Redmond made was simple. The next week they were launching a new website, bringing some official Music Week content to the online world for the first time. Crucially they were to be the first website to carry the official chart listings and he realised that my commentary would be the perfect complement to this. We agreed a fee (a professional rate for a professional job after all) and shook hands on it. In the space of one week I’d gone from internet pirate to freelance writer for one of the most well known trade magazines in the country. Before I left I was taken to say hello to the CIN team and so came face to face with the lady whose email had started the ball rolling. Very nice she was as well. The rest I guess is history.

imageimage

So that is the story of my great “telling off” which is not only completely irrelevant as a piece of criticism of my present day work but which actually turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me in life and the makings of what I might laughably at times call a career.

Never mind, better ludicrous comments from the socially disturbed than no comments at all I guess. My next challenge is to work out what to make of this one that appeared at the bottom of the Yahoo! feed of the podcast last week:

image

I can’t wait to see how that one pans out.

Apr 06

I Have A Dream

Man Sleeping Of course I have dreams. We all do. There is however a curious phenomenon which I am sure is far from unique to this particular industry but which is something that virtually everyone who has been in a radio studio in a professional capacity has in common – perhaps without realising it.

As we never talk about it, there are many who probably don’t realise how common it is. I myself only discovered that I was one of just hundreds about three months or so into my first ever professional assignment as a radio presenter. Whilst in conversation late one night with the news editor, an experienced old radio hand himself, he asked me with a twinkle in his eye the important burning question:

“Have you had the dream yet?”

The Dream  – as it shall henceforth be referenced  – is clearly the subconscious mind’s way of preying on the worst fear of just about everyone who has been responsible for a professional broadcast. It can manifest itself in one of many different forms, in a huge variety of unusual situations and reflect circumstances that you would never expect to encounter in the real world, yet the way it plays out is more or less always the same. Put simply, The Dream is the nightmare radio show from hell.

In The Dream you are hard at work doing your radio show as usual. Except for some reason things are a little different. The studio is a different one to the one you are used to, much of the equipment has been changed or things just aren’t working the way they are supposed to. You start the show bright and confident but with each passing moment your grip on circumstances starts to slip away. Long on air silences ensue as commercial breaks end without warning, as the news fails to appear and as you discover to your horror that the record you were playing has finished and you have nothing else to follow it with. Each time you smile brightly, laugh off the problems and try to continue, but each time something new goes wrong and you find yourself flailing away in the middle of the biggest broadcasting disaster you have ever experienced.

For some strange reason the events of these dreams persist in your mind far longer than an ordinary nocturnal creation. I read once that as dreams are the product of your semi conscious mind, they fall out of your head the moment you wake up properly, as the events of the real world steam in to your mind to replace them. Unless you write them down all you have left after just a few hours is the faintest trace of the strong emotion a really powerful dream might have inspired. Not so The Dream. That sticks around. I can still remember some of the more vivid music radio ones, where I’m in a studio that appears to be in the middle of a hallway by some stairs. People are passing by all the time, making my humiliation as I fire the weather jingle and then fail for a minute to find the script I was supposed to be reading all the more public and personal.

When I stopped presenting radio shows on a regular basis, The Dream went away only to suddenly manifest itself in a brand new environment. Not long after I began producing speech radio and live football shows, I was transported one night to a room at the top of a tower block. On the desk in front of me were all the match reporters but for some reason other distractions kept getting in the way of me putting them to air. The presenters and I would find ourselves stranded in the wrong room, or forced to evacuate for some random reason. Each time we’d have to enter the studio, take a deep breath and try to pick up again from scratch and hope not many people noticed.

The reason I bring it all up was because it happened again on Friday night. There was no reason for this, the weekend ahead was just another ordinary one at work. Yet once I closed my eyes I was transported headlong into another radio nightmare as The Dream worked its magic once more. This time I wasn’t alone. I was back on a music radio station, possibly even one of the ones I’d worked on before. Yet while I was away they had changed everything for the worst. The music I was asked to play was random and obscure, by bands nobody had ever heard of and which no listener would recognise. I had nothing to say about any of them, and indeed the list of songs was merging into one in my head so at times it was hard to keep track of what I had played and what was coming up next. To make matters worse, the radio station had an incomprehensible filing system, requiring me each time to locate the CD either from shelves above my head, just outside the door or even elsewhere in the building. Although it started well, I wasn’t far into the show before the next disc just could not be found and the CD player was counting down the seconds to an unwanted spell of dead air.

Then disaster struck, as the studio was also populated by many of my present colleagues, one of whom accidentally pulled out a plug which plunged the whole operation into darkness. Realising her mistake, she tried to put it back in only for the surge of power to cause sparks to fly. All I could do was open the door to the studio and shout for an engineer, making use of the break to walk to another office to find the next record to play, commenting to the secretaries on typewriters who were mysteriously in the room that I was glad this particular mistake was nothing of my doing. When I got back to the studio the power had been restored and my current boss was berating the person who had pulled out the plug for her lack of care and attention to detail. The fact that I was on air presiding over the disaster appeared not to have been noticed.

At times it seemed I was forgetting my co-host who was sat alongside me, sometimes forlornly waiting for the chance to speak herself. It was Samantha, the genius member of technical staff who sits alongside me on Saturday afternoons and helps make the football show the work of art that it is.

During the show at the weekend, we were gossiping and chatting during a lull in the proceedings. Never backward in coming forward, I mentioned that I was a little freaked out – as she happened to be present in a strange nightmare I’d had the previous night.

“Oh dreams are terrible,” she responded. “You know, whenever I’ve had a period of time away from work, I keep dreaming that I’m doing the show and everything is going wrong – I’ve no idea why….”

Mar 25

The Man With Two Blue Eyes

There is a famous French farce film called “The Man With One Read Shoe” – remade badly by Hollywood in the 80s but which remains a true classic in its original form. The core of the plot is based on a single French literary premise – that even the most ordinary of men become extraordinary if you scrutinise them closely enough.

Apparently at the present time we are all being encouraged to scrutinise each other to an unprecedented degree. There is a high profile government advertising campaign running at the moment across several mediums (and most notably of all on the radio station that I work for) which implores everyone to be vigilant in the fight against terrorism and encourages people to report on suspicious activities. Said activities include (and I’m not making this up here) living on a bus route or near to public transport routes, keeping curtains closed all the time and paying cash for everything. The campaign has quite rightly attracted a huge amount of derision worldwide, with many going out of their way to note that if you live somewhere with busses going past you will generally keep your curtains closed to prevent innocent travellers being terrorised by the view of you stepping out of the shower.

Perhaps we should be reassured that the public has declined to be terrorised by the adverts but has sniggered loudly and indicated that they refuse to be browbeaten into a state of utter fear.

Nonetheless there is no escaping the notion that the Britain of 2010 is a society where even the most innocent of activities can have a negative spin put upon them. There have been countless high profile stories of police and other authority figures reacting in a wholly disproportionate and often hysterical way to members of the public committing what we are now to understand is the hideous crime of gratuitously taking photographs in a built up area. It appears that in an age where photographs of the most famous landmarks are accessible via a simple online search and where most of the views from public highways in the country are lovingly documented on Google Street View, the act of whipping out a digital camera to capture a particular moment in life or a notable street scene is at best “suspicious” and a good barometer of a desire to commit an act of personal destruction at some indeterminate time in the future. It sounds ludicrous even to write down, but when police officers are having to be issued guidance and clarification on the law and told that in fact they are not empowered to force people to delete photographs they have just taken nor is the act of photography necessarily an offence against the public, you do have to take a moment to wonder just what planet these people live on.

One doesn’t have to look too far to experience it at first hand. I spend a fair amount of my leisure time between jobs at Canary Wharf, a place which on the one hand welcomes shoppers and tourists with open arms but at the same time is home to the most jumpy uniform wearers this side of North Korea. Again, the management of Canary Wharf have been at pains to point out that there are no restrictions on photography of any publicly visible buildings on the estate, but that message still fails to get through at times. The most notorious plastic policemen are the security guards who mind the doors of the building on Bank Street which until recently was home to the UK branch of Lehman Brothers. Standing in front of the building affords a nice angle of the Canada Square tower as a backdrop to a group shot, but more than once I’ve seen bemused tourists bawled out by security guards and informed that photography near their building (even while the cameras are pointing in the OTHER DIRECTION) is banned and that the police would be called if they persisted. One afternoon I will hang around the building and photograph him shouting at people taking photographs just to see if I can make his head explode.

Sadly such instances of petty officiousness aren’t always as wryly amusing. Last month when returning to the country from a trip abroad, I was queuing at passport control at Gatwick airport when the UK Border Agency guard at the desk broke off from taking my document from me to shout at a nine year old boy in the queue behind me. His crime? To snap his bedraggled family in one last pose as they waited to finish their journey. In full view of the hundred or so people all waiting in line, he ordered the child up to his desk and demanded the deletion of the photograph just taken, snapping that “no pictures of the immigration desk are allowed to be taken.”

It is a matter of deep regret to me that this took place at 10am on a Sunday morning when I had just emerged from a three hour flight back from Eastern Europe, having risen at 5am to do so and with my wife waiting beyond the desk after having proceeded through passport control before me. Under those circumstances I couldn’t be bothered to react or question what I was witnessing, I just wanted to get home. As a responsible member of society I should actually have stopped to take this twerp to task, asked him to explain why there were no signs up directly prohibiting photography, even of ones friends and family and indeed if it was the case that officers from the UK Border Agency are authorised to enforce the deletion of any such pictures taken. Had I had more wits about me and the time to waste, I would quite cheerfully have whipped out my own camera to take a picture of the scene and invited them to do something about it. Given that we don’t (yet) live under a totalitarian regime, I’m not completely convinced that they had the power to do anything.

The whole issue of “you must delete that picture” is an entertaining legal minefield. After all the taking of a picture is not of itself illegal, unless explicitly stated otherwise. Nonetheless if you have taken a picture in a way that breaches a criminal or civil code, then it naturally follows that the photograph is evidence of the offence being committed. Destroying the picture thus destroys the evidence – and isn’t that of itself an offence? Small point to remember then – if someone ever tells you to delete a picture you have taken, don’t. Nobody has the power to force you to do anything of the kind, not even guards at passport control apparently.

There is incidentally a useful guide to photographers rights compiled by Urban75 which is well worth a read.

I’m sad to report however that despite the expensively mounted government campaign and despite awareness of the pitfalls above, earlier this week I found myself behaving in a way that I was sure was arousing a great deal of suspicion. You see I was waiting around in a tube station.

Once more, entering a station and waiting for a train is not itself an illegal act nor one which theoretically should provoke suspicion, although the experiences in 2005 of David Mery do imply otherwise. However late on Tuesday night after finishing work I had arranged to meet Mila at London Bridge tube station, rendezvousing with her underground as I returned from work on the Jubilee Line and she in turn returned from an evening visiting friends via the Northern Line. As mobile phones do not work underground, we had agreed on a place where one of us would stand to await the arrival of the other and so thinking through the layout of the station I told her I would wait at the top of the steps that lead up from the Jubilee Line platforms towards the older half of the station where the Northern Line entrance sits.

I arrived shortly after 10.45pm and was clearly going to have a short wait as she was journeying from South Wimbledon, a rather longer distance to travel. Standing on the small metal landing of the staircase, I did what I could to pass the time, reading the adverts, noting which elements on the LCD clock were not working properly, and people watching as every so often trains would disgorge groups of people who would all hurry past to make their own connections. Then I realised something. The whirring noises caused by the rotating security cameras had stopped. Maybe it was paranoia or maybe it was just my imagination but I was convinced that every single one of them was now pointing directly at me.

Under those circumstances it is hard not to doubt yourself, and I was suddenly aware that I had indeed spent the last five minutes stood in the middle of what even at that time of night was a busy station, not appearing to have any desire to travel anywhere and wearing a large black rucksack. Yes, it contained my laptop and other work documents, but the eyes on the other end of the security cameras had no way of knowing this. They had declared a full terrorist alert and arrested David Mery for being underground for 60 seconds waiting for a train wearing a rucksack. Was the same about to happen to me?

I spent the next ten minutes willing my beloved vision in red coat to walk along the corridor whilst simultaneously acting as nonchalantly as I could whilst stood on the staircase. I glanced at my watch a few times (although could I have been counting down to detonation?), rolled my eyes a few times as yet another train passed without any sign of the wife (or was I praying?) and contemplated taking my phone out to play with it – before realising that this too could be construed as an attempt to detonate my explosive payload.

Remember “The Man With One Red Shoe”? The most ordinary of individuals becomes extraordinary if you scrutinise them closely enough. Maybe I wasn’t being watched in that way, maybe I was just another tired worker waiting for his other half to appear so we could journey home together. Sadly after months of being exposed to radio propaganda, petty official paranoia and the unpleasant behaviour of a passport control officer, I was left holding up a mirror to my own actions and experiencing a genuine fear that my innocent activities could be interpreted as quite the reverse.

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?