May 04

The Joke Was On “Tim from The Office”

The habit irritates me at times, but just once in a while my inability to spend a morning at home without randomly browsing items all over the net can occasionally turn up something joyful. Those great YouTube moments when you discover that some random stranger has uploaded something you only vaguely remember existing and haven’t actually had any visual proof of for years.

In a week when it seems very likely that Fyfe Dangerfield is about to land the solo hit single that had until now eluded him with a paint by numbers cover of an old song from a TV advert rather than one of his own more superior compositions, it seemed appropriate to think back to other occasions of rather serious minded acts unwittingly becoming famous thanks to nothing more than a throwaway novelty. It happened to Faith No More in the early 90s, yet the tale of how they dealt with it despite being one I’ve cited many times in writing in the past yet rare are the occasions when I’ve met someone who remembers the incident in question.

The song at issue is ‘Easy’, a tongue in cheek cover of the old Commodores song that the group recorded as a late addition to their ‘Angel Dust’ and then watched as it went on to become their biggest ever hit single in many major markets (including the UK where it went Top 3). A world away from the inventive, intoxicating alt-metal with which they had made their name, I always got the feeling it was a source of irritation to the band that wherever they went this was the song that most casual audiences associated with them the most.

Hence, I suspect, this moment of live TV petulance. It was at the end of what turned out to be the last ever edition of the Channel 4 TV series ‘The Word’ which Terry Christian’s autobiography ‘My Word’ documents as having been broadcast on March 3rd 1995. Having been guests on the show the band were invited to close it with a rendition of their most famous hit, but after playing the first few bars of the song they stop dead with an out of tune chord and launch instead into a world-weary rendering of the old Bee Gees song ‘I Started A Joke’.

A deliberate inside joke by the producers? Or a genuine moment of TV spontaneity by a band who had a new album to promote but were instead being asked to deliver a ratings-friendly performance of a two year old cover version they intended as a b-side in the first place? Either way it was glorious to watch, not least for the nonplussed reaction of the crowd who didn’t really understand what it was they were watching.

 

A proper studio version of ‘I Started A Joke’ became a bonus track on their 1995 album ‘King For A Day… Fool For A Lifetime’ but it did not become a single until 1998 when their label issued it as a standalone to promote their farewell Greatest Hits release.

To accompany the UK release, a video was filmed that featured hardly any members of the group but instead cast a selection of well known (and soon to be well known) British actors in a mini kitchen sink drama. The single flopped, so the video went pretty much unseen by most people. God bless the YouTube uploader who has shared it however, giving us all a chance to see Martin Freeman in one of his earliest “regular bloke” roles.

Apr 29

Idol Winnersox

It is time to confess. I think I have a new obsession,

No, not those. I’ve always had that one.

What makes watching the seemingly endless parade of TV talent shows so worthwhile is the all to rare moment when you realise you are witnessing the birth of a star, someone who is stepping into the limelight for the first but who is clearly so outstandingly talented that he or she blows just about everyone else in the competition off the stage. On the current series of American Idol we are witnessing just that moment.

Idol results can be perverse however, and the nine year history of the show is littered with occasions when the most obviously talented performer has wound up in second place – although for the likes of Reuben Studdard and Adam Lambert this hasn’t been to their disadvantage. Hence it would be wrong to predict a guaranteed win for this particular lady, but if she isn’t there weeping tears of joy come the final announcement next month then something has gone very wrong indeed.

The singer in question is 24 year old Crystal Bowersox who hails from Ohio and who as a quick trawl of YouTube will demonstrate has a strong track record of performances in her local area. What makes her such an outstanding contestant on the show isn’t just her voice and her musical abilities but the little details that make her such an unconventional joy to watch every week. For a start she commits a litany of image sins, being a less than perfect shape, with two-tone unwashed hair and worst of all daring to appear on prime time American television without a perfect set of teeth. Yet for all this she lights up the screen each with with a deeply luminous beauty, a heartbreakingly attractive woman with a warm smile and a huge heart. A video package during the series noted that her fellow contestants all call her Mamasox, not just because of her young son who visits every week but for the way she insists on making sure everyone has someone they can talk to.

Normally I’d be very cynical about the insistence of the producers on filling time with endless behind the scenes interviews that give us the chance to “meet the real person” behind the singer – but here it all makes perfect sense. Not only are we watching someone with a very special singing and performing talent but under it all is an incredibly genuinely lovely person who you feel good about supporting and wanting her to achieve everything she dreams of.

Enough of my rambling though – what does Crystal Bowersox actually sound like? Well wonder no longer.

It was her first performance on the very first live show that really got the Crystal bandwagon rolling. Not that her rendition of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was all that spectacular really, but it was comments afterwards from both the judges and the public that she seemed almost to be treating the contest as already won that made her turn it up a notch. Ever since then every single Bowersox performance has been a moment to treasure.

In week 2 theme for the night was Billboard Number One hits, and what better choice for a husky voiced southern gal than to take a Janis Joplin track and make it her own. This was surely the moment that Crystal stepped forward as a star as what could so easily have been the kind of tired karaoke renditions most wannabes trot out on these occasions instead became nothing less than a show-stopper. Warning: video contains unacceptable levels of Miley Cyrus.

 

Still, the one thing that dedicated Idol watchers will know is that the judges hate to see contestants rest on their laurels, and you can bet that the response to any great performance will be a challenge of “what else you got?” This time it was Kara Dioguardi’s turn to throw down the gauntlet: “I want to see you lose the guitar next time” she said. So Crystal did, delivering on her promise during the debrief to come back with a surpriuse – even if guest mentor of the week Usher managed to guess her gimmick in seconds.

You’ll note that the judges’ comments at the end of the video demonstrate the oft-cited truism that Simon Cowell knows nothing about music, complaining that the backing singers were old-fashioned and brought the performance down and thus demonstrating ignorance of the fact that ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ is as much about the story told by the backing singers as it is the lead vocal. Fool. He at least makes up for it at the end by practically begging her never to change who she is.

If you are still not yet convinced and still haven’t had your heart captured by Mamasox, then I offer you finally her rendition from the Top 7 a week ago. The theme was Inspirational Songs as it always is for the annual Idol Gives Back charity edition. The story of this take on ‘People Get Ready’ is not simply her picture perfect vocals but also the moment of unguarded unfettered emotion at the end as she dissolves into tears and which makes you realise even more just how much she opens up to the audience with every single song.

 

Yes, there are still several weeks of the contest to go and yes, as I said at the top the voters on American Idol seem to take a perverse pleasure in ditching the very best contestants right at the death. Nevertheless, presume for now that you have read it here first – American Idol 9 has another potential global superstar on its hands. Until the end of the series comes, I’m spending an important part of my week savouring the joy of her every new performance – and Twittering loudly and strongly just what a fan I have become.

Apr 25

Back To The Future (Of Pop)

Today I did something that might cause people to judge me. Certainly I run the risk of being “diminished in the eyes of right thinking people” as the libel laws might have it and it calls into question not only my own personal judgement but my ability to function as an active member of society. There you have it anyway, what is done is done and there is simply no going back.

I fired up my We7 account and listened to McFly’s Greatest Hits. Worse still, you might say, I rather enjoyed it.

Looking back at the story of the last decade, pop group McFly are nothing short of a fascinating riddle. Statistically speaking they were huge. During their imperial period between 2004 and 2007 the four piece group had an unbroken run of 13 Top 10 hits, 11 of which made the Top 3 and in total they had no less than seven Number One singles. Yet stop any random stranger in the street and ask them to sing one of these hits after being given the title and you may very well draw a blank. More to the point challenge people in a pub quiz to name more than three and virtually every table in the place will fail to score points. Somehow McFly are amongst the most successful chart acts ever, and yet very few people can name any of their songs.

There is actually a simple explanation for this. I once famously branded the group “the most useless pop group in chart history” due to the way their chart hits were such dramatic flashes in the pan. In and out within a matter of weeks before anyone had a chance to notice. The truth was that they and their label were masters of marketing, corralling their enthusiastic band of fans like eager pens of training bra wearing cattle. They knew the exact moment each of their singles was made available and perhaps even more importantly knew just where to buy the music in bundled deals, paying a discounted rate for as many as five different versions of the single, all of which counted as individual purposes for chart surveys.

This tight focus meant that virtually every McFly single opened with a bang, a strong and powerful sale that propelled them all to the very top end of the charts. What happened in week 2 almost didn’t matter, which was unfortunate as week 2 was traditionally where McFly singles struggled. By 2007 their fanbase was so well organised that the group were regularly breaking what were previously thought to be unmatchable records for chart collapses. Of their seven Number Ones, four of them fell from the top straight out of the Top 5. One in particular – ‘Baby’s Coming Back/Transylvania’ from 2007 is the only fully available single in chart history to plummet 1-20 in a single week, spending just four weeks in total on the Top 75 to equal the record as the shortest lived Number One in history.

That is why nobody recognises any of their songs or can conjure up the tune from their titles. They just weren’t around long enough to penetrate mainstream consciousness. That is in fact the biggest shame of all, because as my experience with their Greatest Hits album shows, McFly made some of the most fantastic pop songs of their era.

At the heart of the group were/are lead singer and chief songwriter Tom Fletcher. Originally recruited as one of the members of Busted, he was ousted from the group for numerical reasons but retained instead as a songwriter. When it became clear that his songs were the key to the success of the project, Fletcher was more or less given a free run at forming his own group for a run at chart success, fellow member Danny Jones actually being found after turning up for an audition for short lived boy band V.

Fletcher’s songs are universally magnificent – breezy three minute power pop anthems that enthusiastically and unashamedly evoke both mid-60s surf rock and late 60s bubblegum, all packaged up in a manner that made their teenage girl target audience swoon with delight. Best of all though you don’t have to be a 13 year old girl to appreciate just what fun they are. McFly’s 2004 debut single ‘5 Colours In Her Hair’ (notably their only single to spend more than a week at the top) is a mini masterpiece in itself, combining a Lennon-esque guitar line with a melody lifted straight from the finest moments of The Hollies. It is 1965 dressed up as 21st century pop and not sounding a beat out of place.

Follow-up ‘Obviously’ is an acoustic guitar and handclap rhythm mid-tempo ballad that is straight out of the Noel Gallagher school of retro rock anthem. No seriously, teen romance lyrics aside, the song would not sound out of place on any Oasis album made any time during the last decade, but whereas the Mancunians are lauded as high level artists and the greatest musicians of their era, McFly are a throwaway pop group who sad to say made records that only little girls cared about.

 

 

Later albums saw the group take advantage of a ready built audience that practically guaranteed chart success to push a few boundaries and create music that for a pure pop band is quite breathtaking in scope. Very often it was their most spectacularly unsuccessful chart hits which were the best records of all. Their 2005 Christmas single was a huge miscalculation, released in the week of the seasonal chart itself but only reaching Number 9 to wind up as their smallest hit of the era, yet ‘Ultraviolet’ was a deceptively sophisticated pop record, combining a psychedelically orchestrated verse with a singalong blues-rock chorus that once again you can imagine Liam Gallagher belting it out onstage with ease. Similarly one half of that celebrated 1-20 diving single ‘Transylvania’ is a four minute prog-rock narrative which sounds like a bleeding chunk torn from a rock opera such as ‘Tommy’ or ‘A Teenage Opera’. This is well crafted pop music created by a bunch of 20 somethings which reaches back to some of rock’s finest moments for inspiration.

 

Once again, these are all songs which were as far as the record books are concerned all monster chart hits yet they remain something of an enigma to all but the most dedicated chart follower. Part of the problem may well have been the era in which they were all released. Looking back, the middle part of the 2000s was the time when pop music fell into something of a cultural black hole. The CD single was dying a death, yet the digital download era was the domain still of the early adopters. Top Of The Pops broadcast its last edition in 2006 and with it went the last regular berth on television for pop music and effectively the only way for a wider casual audience to tune in to what the kids were buying and to formulate their own opinions accordingly. The problem was self evident and self-perpetuating. McFly’s music never stayed in the charts long enough for people to take the time to appreciate it properly, and without anyone other than their fans to appreciate it properly the singles stood no chance of having long chart runs.

The sole exception to this is the one song in their catalogue which was not only in a position to gain attention outside of the Top 40 show but which also sold more and for longer than any of their other singles. The track in question is ‘All About You’ which briefly benefitted from being the official anthem of Comic Relief day in 2005. History does record that even this single was rather swept aside by Peter Kay and his gatecrashing of the event with his patronage of Tony Christie and ‘(Is This The Way To) Amarillo’ but even this was not enough to stop the McFly track embarking on a quite uncharacteristic three and a half month chart run and a seven week Top 20 chart life. Another three minute classic that it is, ‘All About You’ is actually oddly atypical of many of their songs, featuring little in the way of 60s aping production, 40 piece orchestra aside.. Nonetheless it remains the one single for which they are best known and loved, so it is still worth including here for illustrative purposes. Warning: contains what some people may regard as unacceptable levels of both Graham Norton and Kate Thornton.

 

Before anyone rushes to correct me, the McFly story is far from over for now, with the group set this year to release the second album following their 2007 departure from Island records and their new life as a self-released independent act. The initial post-split swipe at their corporate control in ‘One For The Radio’ did kind of suggest that by the end their song writing ambitions were being hampered by the need for the label to promote them as a teen pop outfit. The mixed fortunes of new era album ‘radio:ACTIVE’ in 2008 despite the eyebrow raising newspaper giveaway of the entire CD actually suggest they have an uphill struggle to be accepted on their own merits, their chart placings taking on a more realistic outlook away from the world of marketing budgets and loss-leading singles bundles. Even so, I’m now waiting with interest to see just what they do next.

Maybe McFly are ripe one day for an un-ironic rediscovery. I never tire of pointing out that throughout the 80s even the mighty Abba were viewed as the epitome of cheesy 70s naffness, their rediscovery only kicking into life in 1992 thanks to a neatly timed set of Erasure covers. The McFly songbook is thankfully ignored by X Factor producers and hardly essential reading for new bands hoping to turn local gigs into music sales, but these are songs of such quality, fun, and for many people a still important enough part of their childhood memories to ensure that one day someone will take time out to look at this group who had more Number One singles than most but who many will confess to never really having heard much of.

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

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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:

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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’.

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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…