The earliest editions of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series used to give a handy rundown of the releases so far on their inner sleeves. This didn’t just list the running order of the previous instalments and their long-abandoned ‘Pig’-driven design, but the various spinoffs and attempts to extend the ‘brand’ as well. While everyone remembers the original Now – The Christmas Album, how many are aware of the somewhat less successful (and less thematically coherent) Now – The Summer Album? Or Now That’s What I Call Music – 86, a one-off round up of the year on the exciting new Compact Disc format, which is now far easier to find than any of the actual early Now collections issued on CD? And that’s not even getting started on the sweatshirts, mugs, baseball caps, ‘bugs’ and what have you; let’s just say that it took Ashley Abram and Box Music a while to work out how to turn the chart-topping moneyspinner into an empire.
By far the most intriguing of these to the cash-strapped youngster who could barely afford even the regular volumes was the effortlessly cool-looking Now Dance. Issued in 1985, and promising ‘Extended Dance Versions of 20 Smash Hits’, it touted tantalisingly unfamiliar names around a series of surprisingly revealing photographs of a woman writhing in ecstasy to the sounds of Bunny DeBarge and company; and if that wasn’t enough to entice you, there was also a television advert essentially showing it happening in real time. That was the appeal of Now Dance right there – a hint of sex, a flash of late-night ambience, and the promise of a gateway into the tantalising and mysterious world of nightclubs, cocktails, expensive shoes and Extended Dance Versions.
That said, this was also what makes Now Dance look so odd from this distance. It came out in the last gasp of mainstream club culture being about looking ‘sophisticated’ first and foremost, with the quality and danceability of the actual music being very much a secondary consideration; while this would change dramatically within a couple of years, at that point dancefloor fillers were all about how convincingly you could pose to them, and the sheer ill-fitting assortment of artists and styles represented here does make you wonder what self-respecting actual dance music fan would have gone anywhere near it. This wasn’t Inspiral Carpets and N*Joi jostling for space on a Deep Heat compilation, it was people whose thoughts about dance music went no further than making sure there were enough seconds to fill a 12″ single plonked alongside the sort of deep cuts that would have had Record Mirror furrowing their brows over the ‘BPM’ content. It’s one of the strangest compilations in the history of anything ever. And it’s absolutely fascinating.
As if to underline that nobody quite understood what was meant by ‘dance’ at that point, the bulk of the first side of Now Dance is taken up by lengthy numbers that nobody could really categorise as anything other than ‘rock’. And ‘soft rock’ at that. With a more aggressive mix and a bit more space, Easy Lover by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins sounds a lot more likeable than you probably remember it being. The Power Station’s Some Like It Hot, however, actually sounds less likeable here; padded out to 12″ length by a heavily gated mix with suspiciously trebly and percussive emphases, it’s seven minutes of a song that barely merited three to begin with, and enjoys the dubious distinction of sounding like Never Let Me Down-era David Bowie without the tunes. Or even arguably the restraint. Never the sturdiest of songs in its shorter form, Eurythmics’ Would I Lie To You is stripped back into something a lot more interesting, and indeed possibly not coincidentally similar to Pseudo Echo’s bizarre cover of Funkytown a couple of years later. It’s all fascinating listening – yes, even The Power Station – but hardly exactly conducive to busting a move.
On the other hand, the hot grooves straight from the underground probably sounded great on the light-up dancefloor while you glugged down your Taboo, but they don’t exactly make for entertaining listening. Starting off sounding like Level 42 being arrested by Driving In My Car by Madness, the ‘Hot Pursuit’ mix of Eddy And The Soulband’s inexcusable mangling of the Theme From Shaft deserves to be flung from a window in a tartan trench coat; the at-the-console credit for Ben Liebrand should surprise nobody. War – yes, that War – chime in with a cover of The Young Rascals’ Groovin’ that maintains the Farmer Barleymow-friendly harmonica over the top of a decidedly mid-eighties groove, calling to mind the theme from The Waltons stopping off at a wine bar on its way home. Little Benny & The Masters’ Who Comes To Boogie? sounds like something that you might have heard in a nightclub if that nightclub was in a sketch on Three Of A Kind, complete with a rap that leaves you thinking that it’s no wonder N.W.A happened. At least Ashford And Simpson’s Solid, while being about as far from cutting edge underground dance grooves as you can get, has the decency to appear a little more, well, ‘solid’ in its ‘Special Club Mix’ incarnation.
The best inclusions are the ones that had clearly been planned as 12″ dance-pop singles from the outset, and simply edited down for radio play. DeBarge’s Rhythm Of The Night is essentially an amazing party crammed into seven minutes, complete with a cacophony of conversations underneath random parts. The ‘Mixe Plural’ of Kiss Me by Stephen ‘Tea Towel’ Duffy is an enormous twinkling synthpop symphony driven by samples that were nowhere to be heard on the more familiar version, and while Loose Ends’ Acid Jazz-anticipating Hangin’ On A String (Contemplating) might overdo it a bit with the irritating synthesised cowbell, there’s no point in complaining when you’ve got twice as much of a song this good. Best of all, however, is epic intergalactic sexting saga Clouds Across The Moon by The RAH Band; after the bit where it normally fades out, there’s an extra four minutes of sweeping poignant instrumental extemporisation and occasional breathy sighs, as if the narrator is drowning her sorrows in a neon-lit space bar while Captain Zep, Arnold Rimmer, Dinwiddy Snurdle and Ace off Doctor Who have a long-overdue catchup at an adjacent table.
The rest of Now Dance is taken up by what can only be described as polite Booty Calls set to jazzy chord changes and electro-funk backdrops, as reached for by the Local Radio ‘Love Zone’ when they wanted to get a bit ‘steamy’. The sexually aggressive vocalist on The Cool Notes’ Spend The Night was frank enough with her exhortations in the single version; this looser and slinkier take is verging on soft porn, as is Aurra’s Like I Like It with its attendant demands to ‘feel you vibe, deep inside’. Nobody can ever remember who is who out of T.C. Curtis and Curtis Hairston, and the positioning of their near-identical odes to sweet sweet lovin’ with more instrumental breaks than vocals right next to each other does not exactly help matters. The ‘New Mix’ of Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson is just Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson but longer, while nobody has ever made it to the end of Jermaine Jackson’s interminable Do What You Do, so there’s no way of telling how different this ‘Re-Mix’ really is, although it does appear to have had a bit of the theme from Pob’s Programme shoved into the background. Meanwhile, Lillo Thomas’ Settle Down zooms off into space and beyond the end of the album with lots of sensual oohing and aahing about, erm, being chaste and romantic.
Now Dance 86 followed in, well, 1986, and despite the tracklisting ranging from Ca$hflow, Midnight Star and Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk to Paul Hardcastle, MC Miker G & DJ Sven and That Sodding Boris Gardiner Record (and, apparently, Worker And Parasite on the cover) was a lot closer to what we would recognise and define as ‘dance’ music now. A lengthy gap followed before Now Dance 89, which favoured straight up – pun very much intended – pop stars as much as it did Kym Mazelle and Tyree. The confusingly-named Now Dance 901, Now Dance 902 and Now Dance 903 followed in 1990, with the first volume concentrating on slamming rave anthems from The 49ers, Inner City and Gino Latino, the second taking a more soulful slant with Maureen Walsh, Diana Brown & Barrie K Sharpe and company, and the third going pop-rap toytown techno indie-dance crossover crazy over Technotronic, Betty Boo and The Soupdragons. Finally – although it didn’t feature Finally by CeCe Peniston – Now Dance 91 pulled together the year’s biggest and best dance hits of every shade and hue from De La Soul and Incognito to Cathy Dennis and Omar. They’d got it right at last, after only a whopping five volumes, and from then on the Now Dance series appealed to Network Chart-favouring teenagers and far gone and out ravers dancing to car alarms alike.
Quite what anyone getting on down to Calvin Harris and Kungs Vs. Cookin’ On 3 Burners on the latest volume would make of the original Now Dance is an interesting question, but in fairness nobody really knew what to make of it back then either. All the same, it presented a flash of glamour, sophistication and sex, if not actual slamming beats, to youngsters scouring those tracklistings; at least more than Jerry Keller and company on Now – The Summer Album did at any rate. It’s no wonder we all wanted it.
Oh hang on, I forgot someone. ‘Belouis’ ‘Some’.
If you enjoyed this, then you’ll enjoy my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which contains a lot more about eighties pop and Smash Hits, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
There’s a feature on Smash Hits in the mid-eighties, and the enormous influence Sylvia Patterson in particular had on me as a writer, here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.