This article is part of a series, chronicling a foolish attempt to chronicle the history of modern pop, through the Now That’s What I Call Music series. All the previous articles, and some other fun stuff, can be found here.
Released- 11th August 1986
Hip-hop is taking off and gets it’s first real section on this series. First entries for the Pet Shop Boys and The Housemartins suggests that people are starting to like wry, arch pop songs. Wham splitting up suggests that soon, Faith will be released, which is good for all Mankind. And sadly, Phil Lynott passes away.
I am 2 1/2 years old. I don’t actually remember anything much, apart from that I might have had a nightmare about Thomas the Tank Engine at this time. I also, according to parenting websites, should be imitating the behaviour of adults. I still feel as though I am doing this at the age of 30, so I must be rather good at it now.
If I had to save one track from this album, and the rest are to be denounced and executed as traitors against the glory of mighty North Korea, that track would be… Opportunities by the Pet Shop Boys, by the narrowest of margins. The wit and high production are unsurpassable. However, Happy Hour by the Housemartins, Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, and Queen and Lovebug Starski would all be in contention for me.
Track by track breakdown
Peter Gabriel : “Sledgehammer”
What an opener! Big, brassy, stonking pop, that puts Phil Collins in his place… Peter Gabriel was the best at Genesis, and the best at 80’s pop. And the video is enjoyably mental too. Would that every Now! album opened with a track this great.
UB40 : “Sing Our Own Song”
Like a lot of UB40, this ambles along nicely enough, not really doing much, but by no means offending. Plus, unironic keytar.
Sly Fox : “Let’s Go All the Way”
Weird Queen sample, cutting up We Will Rock You and Kraftwerk’s Metal on Metal to surprisingly good effect. Very interesting production for the time. Great surprise track.
Level 42 : “Lessons in Love”
Split up already please. Mother’s day card poetry emoting over funky slap bass. The cries of burning children would be a more pleasant listen.
Pet Shop Boys : “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)”
The 80’s summed up in 3 minutes 38 seconds. Neil Tennant is one of the very few deserving of the title genius. He sweeps between the lowbrow nature of pop music and a highbrow lyricism, and shockingly makes them work together. Perfect.
Pete Wylie : “Sinful!”
Even the tracks that should be bad are going good on here! Despite many lyrical and musical flaws, this song transcends the sum of it’s parts with a strange powerful feeling.
Stan Ridgway : “Camouflage”
Atmospheric sounding, and pleasingly different in a synth country way. Lyrically… it’s a ghost story about Vietnam. Which is probably the only instance of this in pop. Elevated by its barmy subject matter.
The Art of Noise with Max Headroom : “Paranoimia”
None more of it’s time. Fantastic. Brain melting oddity- funk jangles, vocal stabs, and narration from the virtual TV host from the future. A strange and beautiful curiosity.
Chris De Burgh : “The Lady in Red”
It’s terrible. But hilariously so. I tried not to laugh the whole way through. His tremulous voice. Trying to rhyme dance (the southern way-darnse) with romance. The echoing drums. It’s just perfect at being funnily bad. Was he trolling us?
David Bowie : “Absolute Beginners”
The best Bowie song for a good while. Nothing mould breaking, but a good song, tinged with sadness.
Genesis : “Invisible Touch”
A long way from a classic Genesis song, but a good enough pop song. The guitars jangle, the chorus loiters in your head, there are occasional flashes of inspiration.
Simple Minds : “All the Things She Said”
The quality has dropped off a cliff, both for this album, which had been the most consistent so far up to this point, and for simple Minds, who follow the classic Don’t You (Forget About Me) with this clunky lump of stodge.
The Housemartins : “Happy Hour”
Jangly indie with sarcasm and bite in the deceptively upbeat lyrics. That this group would spawn The Beautiful South and Fatboy Slim after they split is no surprise with brilliant songs like this.
Big Country : “Look Away”
I could only find a live version of this one. Big Country seem to be a pub rock band who made it too far.
Furniture : “Brilliant Mind”
Another strange one. Art school dramatic opening, a brilliant and original chorus, deadpan vocal, and an obscene amount of marimba all adds up to a song that could only ever work once, but brilliantly so.
Midge Ure : “Call of the Wild”
Aims for triumphant sounding. Reaches maybe a barely scraped 0-0 draw, and loss on penalties.
Wham! : “The Edge of Heaven”
The intro is great but most of what follows is nowhere near as good. I still feel for Andrew Ridgely though.
Owen Paul : “My Favourite Waste of Time”
Brilliant chorus. Just a big fun summer song. Brainless joy. The Con Air of music.
Amazulu : “Too Good to Be Forgotten”
Like a less fun Vengaboys. If you don’t remember what they sounded like, imagine being told by a doctor you have two weeks to live. Comparatively, not so bad.
Doctor and the Medics : “Spirit in the Sky”
Not as good as the original, better than the Gareth Gates version.
Bananarama : “Venus”
Has aged surprisingly well. Great energetic fun, a chorus that you cannot forget. It jitters along with real purpose and fun. Still used to advertise feminine hygiene products after all this time.
Bucks Fizz : “New Beginning (Mamba Seyra)”
If it’s not Making Your Mind Up, just don’t bother.
a-ha : “Hunting High And Low (Re-Mix)”
A maudlin ballad. Listenable but forgettable. I can’t help but compare everything they do to Take On Me, to its detriment. The big bombastic middle 8 is good fun.
Simply Red : “Holding Back the Years”
I’m rethinking my dislike of Simply Red. So far, both songs featured on these albums have been solid. This is a bit too straightforward compared to Money’s Too Tight to Mention but it’s a nice enough slow song. Inoffensive.
Queen : “A Kind of Magic”
Truly is. And also, linked with classic Connery vehicle Highlander. Freddie, you just keep on giving.
Billy Ocean : “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going”
I though I liked this song more than I did. Listening to it it sounds plasticky, a self help tape sung by an overproduced, deeply average singer.
Jaki Graham : “Set Me Free”
Not terrible per se, but rather dull and pedestrian. Given the pretty high hit rate of this volume, it doesn’t pass muster.
Nu Shooz : “I Can’t Wait”
Brilliant slice of 80’s future soul. Bassline and synth stabs are 26 different types of brilliant. The kind of song you’d swagger walk to with your boom box.
The Real Roxanne with Hitman Howie Tee : “(Bang Zoom) Lets Go Go”
Classic hip hop. Badly dated now, but a mix of proto Salt n Pepa female attitude, Steinski style sampling, and an early use of The Big Beat, later used by DJ Shadow and Dizzee Rascal. A beat that never dies.
Lovebug Starski : “Amityville (The House on the Hill)”
The main thing I miss from old school hip hop is that you could release a song like this that just tells a dumb story, which is great fun. Slick Rick is one of the greatest of these. Contains Hammer Horror and Star Trek impressions. I’m all up on the awful Shatner impression. Halloween is this week too, so double points for that alone.
Midnight Star : “Headlines”
More early hip hop, but following the last two absolute classics, this just sounds tired and dated, where the other two still sound great today.
Aurra : “You and Me Tonight”
A brilliantly tacky opening is then ruined by 6 minutes of nothing much, in a grey R&B soup.
Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald : “On My Own”
Lift music, if lifts could be made more boring.
Final verdict: 21/32 or a stunning 66% brilliance. Even if my scoring doesn’t add up, this is my favourite Now album thus far!
Edit: Another link to Then Play Long, in which there is a lot of agreement on how good this volume is.