Not every compilation album themed around the hilariously loose concept of ‘Summr Hits’ is as likeable as Now – The Summer Album, and 1990’s Summer Chart Party is most definitely one that isn’t. It is, however, fascinating for all the wrong reasons. It was released at the very dawn of the rise of Compact Disc as a widespread mainstream consumer format option, when there was still only a finite amount of discs available and it still seemed possible that you could somehow ‘rationalise’ your music collection as you moved into the digital age. Yes, that worked out well, didn’t it. Especially when everyone just repeated it all over again with DVD.
In the throes of a very weird summer that in musical terms at least hadn’t quite either shaken off the eighties or embraced the nineties yet, Summer Chart Party was everywhere – that thing about hearing it blaring out from neighbours’ back yards really happened, and one of them had a dirty CD that kept skipping and each time it took them about twenty minutes to figure out how to move it on – and yet only a month or two later it was effectively surplus to requirements. Above all else, it had absolutely nothing to do with ‘Summer’ in any way, shape or form.
This was originally a bit of a throwaway piece that nobody really paid that much attention to – probably unsurprisingly given the subject matter, but you can find a heftier version of it in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. What’s more, if you get the full colour eBook version, it’s done up to look like a Smash Hits feature from 1990.
So when exactly was the Second Summer Of Love that Danny Wilson sang about on their not-quite-catching-the-mood-of-Acid-House not-quite-chart-topper from the Summer of 1989? Those who were in at the whole Fleecey Fleecey-sporting waving-arms-in-a-field ground level would probably claim it was 1988. At the other extreme, anyone whose involvement was limited to thinking their radio had gone a bit funny would most likely point towards 1991, when something very definitely did get in the water Top Forty-wise and it was all Italio House Piano as far as the eye could see. Danny Wilson themselves would probably say 1989, because that’s when their record was out. While Dominic Sandbrook counters that there was no Second Summer Of Love, at least not for anyone outside of a small elite hanging around outside Eastern Bloc records who had less than no impact on the daily lives of millions of people in Basingstoke, and anyway he thought Tricky Disco by Tricky Disco was rubbish.
When pushed, though, most people would probably suggest that the Second Summer Of Love took place in 1990. After all, that was the year in which the ‘Madchester’ bands and their ravey Adamski-type big-hatted chums briefly took over the charts, the ever-cheerful Graham Bright MP introduced his Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act in the hope of clamping down on those pesky young people enjoying themselves without obtaining written permission first, and the Ecstasy menace loomed so but-we’re-her-fre-hundssss-invitingly large that the government rushed out a Public Information Film about Dexter Fletcher’s friend falling off a bridge reaching for a Tracker bar or something. And, over and above all of this, 1990 was Time For The Guru. Unfortunately, nobody told the compilers of Summer Chart Party.
For the benefit of those who are understandably left none the wiser by its Yahoo Serious Festival-compliant title, Summer Chart Party was a seemingly ubiquitous TV-advertised compilation album that gathered together some recent top pop hits to help your summer party, ‘chart’ or otherwise, go with a swing. Helped in no small part by the fact that it appeared at the very dawn of Compact Disc, when choices were limited, parameters finite, and delusional beliefs that it would somehow now be possible to ‘rationalise’ your music collection were rife, it sold by the absolute bucketload, to the extent that it was not unusual to hear it blaring out from three neighbours’ backyards hosting barbecues you weren’t invited to within the same week. This it achieved despite being quite possibly the single worst compilation of all time; and yes, that does include Wig Wam Glam.
Surely, you’ll be thinking by now, a public vote-courting collection of hits from the days when people actually still took notice of them can’t be that bad? Well yes, that’s what you’d assume. But that’s reckoning without just how out of step Summer Chart Party was with changing trends, musical fashion, and above all anything even remotely connected to the concept of ‘Summer’ in the first place. Summer Chart Party was the work of the short-lived yet terrifyingly prolific Trax Music, who spent around eighteen months flooding record shops with tepid re-recordings of songs from ‘the musicals’, comeback albums nobody wanted nor needed, and baffling all-over-the-place ‘themed’ compilations called things like Strollin’ Seventies. Summer Chart Party was their one big attempt at scoring a million seller in the already oversaturated pop market, and – like someone who had read The KLF’s The Manual and decided to do it slightly wrong on purpose – it followed an established successful format virtually to the letter.
A cursory glance at both the cover and the tracklisting makes it all too wince-inducingly obvious that the compilers – and indeed the designers – of Summer Chart Party were shamelessly attempting to emulate the Hit Factory compilations, those million-selling late eighties collections of recent Stock Aitken Waterman-affiliated hits with the odd rare 12″ extended version and little-known ‘big across Europe’ curio thrown in for added interest. As such, we get a substantial line-up of PWL-friendly artists; Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Pat & Mick, Rick Astley, Lonnie Gordon, Sinitta and, er, Damian – mostly with tried and tested hits from a year or two previously so that listeners mercifully get I Should Be So Lucky and Too Many Broken Hearts instead of Hang On To Your Love – alongside contemporaneous Smash Hits fodder from Yazz, Lisa Stansfield, Stefan Dennis and long-forgotten Eurovision hopeful ‘Emma’. Oh and Jive Bastard Bunny, but we’ll come back to them in a moment. Anyway, all of this would appear on face value to chime neatly with the prevailing What-Time’s-Neighbours-On? mindset of the times, but trying to copy The Hit Factory on a compilation that proudly proclaimed itself The Sound Of Summer 1990 was a non-starter on two counts. Firstly, whether they had admitted it to themselves yet or not, Stock Aitken & Waterman’s popularity was most definitely on the wane by the summer of 1990, and most of their earlier hits had been sold and resold to punters a million times over already, not least on the Hit Factory compilations themselves. Secondly, and more significantly, it was an album that smacked of the eighties at the dawn of a new decade that just couldn’t wait to leave the eighties behind.
Ignoring the New Kids On The Block-sized elephant in the room, and just plain ignoring Deacon Blue in general, what the pop-hungry audience that only months earlier had been thrilling to the likes of Big Fun and Sonia really wanted in 1990 was some kind of rap-friendly rave-tastic pseudo-hip hop crossover, in other words Betty Boo, and even Kylie had dipped her toes into audibly-off-her-face waters to tremendous effect on Better The Devil You Know. Not for nothing did Smash Hits attempt to go head-to-head with Summer Chart Party with the prosaically-titled Smash Hits Rave!, seeing their Yazz and Sinitta and raising them Sydney Youngblood and The 49’ers. To be fair, Summer Chart Party did feature a couple of tracks on this wavelength, presumably by accident rather than design, notably the tremendous Got To Get by Rob’n’Raz Featuring Leila K, Candy Flip’s cover of Strawberry Fields Forever – occupying a not-particularly-party-enhancing slot midway through the parade of upbeat pop fun – and the much-better-than-you-remember-it waaaaargh-hargh waaaaargh-hargh waaaaargh-hargh wuwuwuwaaaaargh-hargh festival Ride On Time by Black Box. And while Erasure were somewhat devoid of common ground with the wide-trousered dancey types, it’s nice to see the often overlooked Blue Savannah getting an airing here too.
On the other hand, this grudging concession to the rave-flavoured ambience of the time allows the point-evading woo-yeah festooned ‘cover’ of Venus by Don Pablo’s Animals (or, if you will, lots of people in hats doing nothing in particular on Top Of The Pops) in through the back door to stink the place out, and amazingly that’s not even the worst track on offer here. Nor even is Fairground Attraction’s quick-say-‘Ooh-I-love-this’-and-sort-of-jive-with-half-of-your-body-while-standing-stock-still-with-the-other ‘real music’ anthem for the terminally smug Perfect. No, that honour – in an alternate universe where ‘honour’ is a synonym for ‘being hit with a cricket bat’ – must surely go to That’s What I Like by Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers. You know, the second one. With the Hawaii Five-O theme in it.
The kindest thing anyone could possibly find to say about the entire Jive Bunny phenomenon is that it was a shrewd idea; in every other sense, it was the culmination of some of the very worst trends of the eighties – the relentless rise of the ‘medley’, from Stars On 45 through The Sixties Mix, right up to this virtual entire wedding disco condensed into four minutes; the furious adherence to a decade-out-of-date notion that nostalgia for the fifties was in any way a good or desirable thing; the selling of novelty records on the back of shabby yet eyecatching videos; and the wilful provision of ‘evidence’ for the likes of Tony Parsons to further their not entirely sense-making theories about how pop music was only good in the past, and the fact that new pop music was simply regurgitating old pop music was a clear sign that new pop music was even more only good in the past than previously thought but old pop music was being made equally only good in the past or something. The Mastermixers were a bunch of faceless backroom boys who had put their inaugural rock’n’roll medley (‘medley’ being a generous term considering that it consisted of little more than the title of each song in rapid procession) together in the genuine hope of cornering the wedding disco market. Jive Bunny, on the other hand, was an animated figurehead seemingly drawn by a particularly disinterested member of the Why Don’t You…? gang, who smugly popped up in front of archive footage of fuck all to do a couple of hand jives; particularly punchable at 3:26 in the video for Swing The Mood, though you do have to grudgingly admire the ‘concerned’ look it registers when Elvis joins the army.
Much like Summer Chart Party itself, That’s What I Like simply repeated the earlier successful format note for note only using slightly less impressive source material, kicking off a long and tedious nosedive – you can’t even really add ‘diminishing returns’ as that would imply that there were sufficient returns to diminish in the first place – to the point where even Pete Waterman was publically saying he would be embarrassed to be involved with the Jive Bunny franchise. Yet they ploughed ever onwards, flinging out threadbare medley after threadbare medley including the long forgotten likes of Can Can You Party?, Over To You John (Here We Go Again), and the truly odious Let’s Party It’s Christmas, although thankfully what little commercial appeal they had was totally eradicated when the ‘Mastermixers’ decided that they would like to appear in the photos instead of Jive Bunny.
As for Summer Chart Party – an album that did not contain a single song that could in any way be described as emblematic of ‘Summer’ – it was an experiment that the ‘backroom boys’ would not see fit to repeat. The precise date of the Second Summer Of Love will likely remain in dispute for ever more. The First Summer Of Bewildering Compilations That Amazon Used And New Sellers Will Now Actually Pay You To Take A Copy Of, however, will always be 1990.
You can find a feature on Now That’s What I Call Music! spin-off Now – The Summer Album here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.