Ace of Base – Happy Nation (US Version)

She leads a lonely life. Mmm.

If you really want to feel old, why not spend a moment contemplating the fact that Ace of Base‘s debut Happy Nation is twenty-five years old this week? Well, actually it isn’t – the reissued and misleadingly titled US Version is, though, which seems a good excuse to relive those happy summery days of underproduced Swedish reggae-pop.

It opens with the UK and Europe-wide number 1` All That She Wants, which might be the only thing you remember from here now. Honestly, it is a great song, pulled together with the kind of simplicity that characterised the plinky plonk pop of the early 1980s. Even in 1993, this sounded outdated, and now, a quarter of a century later, the production is frankly pretty lacklustre, but the vocals are good (apart from that pained “mmm” sound that she makes in the middle of the first line) and it’s a strong song. It’s interesting to wonder how this might perform on the charts now.

Don’t Turn Around dials the reggae up to 11, and unsurprisingly so, as they’re heavily channelling Aswad‘s 1988 version and adding relatively little in the process. It’s not bad, though, and there’s still something uplifting about the “I will survive, I’ll make it through, go on and go,” message.

Young and Proud wasn’t one of the album’s seven singles, and probably rightly so, but it’s a pretty good album track. It’s also nice to see that they can do something other than reggae, as that was starting to wear a little thin after the first two tracks.

Next is The Sign, and if the four reggae-free minutes that preceded it were leading to withdrawal symptoms, never fear – this follow-up to All That She Wants, a UK number 2, but actually a bigger hit in some parts of the world, brings it back with a vengeance. Billboard observed that this was one of the key tracks to propel Swedish pop into the popular imagination for the decades to follow, and I’m inclined to agree, as Abba had left a bit of a vacuum throughout the 1980s in that regard. Then Living in Danger was the final single from this album, but still comfortably scraped into the top twenty in most countries. This is reggae too, in case you were wondering.

Confusingly, this wasn’t actually the US version of the album – The Sign was released the following year and in a triumph of editorial controls, dropped two of the total drivel tracks, Here Me Calling and Fashion Party. For some reason it left this next track on, Voulez-Vous Danser, perhaps because it isn’t quite as bad as the others, or perhaps because of the slight nod to Ace of Base‘s compatriots Abba. With those omissions, this was the USA’s biggest selling album of the year. Voulez-Vous Danser is disco, by the way, because it’s easier to dance to than reggae.

Happy Nation takes things in a more techno, and consequently rather better, direction. The UK was pretty burnt out with Ace of Base by the time we got it as a single, and so it stalled at number 40, but it topped the charts in some countries. Then Hear Me Calling comes next, a thoroughly misguided attempt to do some kind of electronic dance music which changes key unpredictably and just ends up sounding a bit of a mess. You’ll probably find yourself tapping your foot, and you’ll be a little embarrassed about it.

If you’re counting the genres here, Waiting for Magic is disco. It’s also complete rubbish. Surprisingly, Scandinavia and Finland decided to release it as a single, and it was a decent sized hit. Maybe there was just too much reggae in those territories at that point. You could probably guess from the title that Fashion Party is going to be pretty awful too, so no disappointments here. They keep saying something about having a good time, but frankly by this point, I’m really not.

Fortunately, debut single Wheel of Fortune is strategically placed at this point to re-inject some quality. A moderate hit in most countries when it was released as a single, it’s actually up there among the better tracks on here. It’s reggae again, but I suppose if we’ve learnt nothing else, we’ve learnt that Swedish reggae sells.

The last proper track on here is Dancer in a Daydream, which isn’t too bad. If it had been the actual album closer, it might have worked pretty well – it hinges on dance at times (it’s definitely not reggae, anyway), but it’s fairly laid back for the most part. But it’s hard to resist the urge to throw random remixes on the end of an album, and so we get three, starting with the appallingly bad My Mind (Mindless Mix). That’s followed by the awful and chronically misspelt All That She Wants (Banghra Version) and the pointless Happy Nation (Remix), and then the album is finally over.

Happy Nation (US Version) is a mixed bag, really – it’s definitely better than the non-US version, and frankly it’s also better than most of what followed. But there are some good things on here, and viewed as the album that set the blueprint for Swedish pop, it’s certainly important.

At the time of writing, you can purchase a second-hand copy of Happy Nation (US Version) for just nine pence. Which is definitely a bargain, however much you like reggae.

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Stowaway Heroes – Vince Clarke

One of the most prolific names in music is Vince Clarke. After a couple of excellent false starts including Yazoo and The Assembly, he’s spent most of his career as the knob-twiddling genius responsible for Erasure‘s backing tracks.

Things started out, of course, with Depeche Mode, and we can’t really overlook his sunglasses and designer stubble in their breakthrough hit Just Can’t Get Enough:

Of course, Erasure is where he’s spent most of the last thirty years, and it would be difficult not to give him credit where it’s due for his exquisite performance in the video to Abba‘s Take a Chance on Me:

In recent years, he has branched out, working again with his old bandmate Martin L. Gore as well as half of Orbital, all of Jean-Michel Jarre, and others. From 2Square, his project with Paul Hartnoll, here’s Better Have a Drink to Think:

Genius is an over-used word without a doubt, but it’s absolutely fair to say that Clarke should be one of our stowaway heroes.

Erasure – Other People’s Songs

I think it’s fair to say that Erasure were having a bit of an identity crisis fifteen years ago. Their “guitar” album Loveboat had been an abject failure, and pop generally seemed to be in a bit of a decline. Andy Bell had always threatened to do a cover versions album, which might have made a degree of sense and certainly couldn’t have been any worse than the solo efforts he did release. When it did appear, Vince Clarke had decided to take part as well, and the whole thing ended up smelling more than a little of lousy cash-in.

Other People’s Songs opens with Peter Gabriel‘s Solsbury Hill, a respectable opening track and lead single which adds little to the original other than some cheesy instrumentation and flamboyant vocals. It’s good, but it’s not great.

The strength here is, of course, in the songs themselves. Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime is a great song – one of the best on here, actually – and of course Erasure were, at this stage, still more than competent enough to make a great track out of a catchy song. Especially when the instrumentation didn’t get too cheesy, as it had a little on the first track. The only slight disappointment is that this doesn’t remotely echo Baby D‘s brilliantly manic version of this song from just a few years earlier, although some of the vocal effects do go some way towards making up for that.

There are always the songs that don’t work quite as well – Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) remains a great and catchy song, but it’s hardly an Erasure song, and frankly it made a pretty lousy second single.

And then there are the ones that fail completely – what on earth is Everyday supposed to be? If you want to be really kind to it, maybe it’s a fun reminder of the early days of Yazoo and Erasure, with a fun monophonic synth line and soulful vocals. If you don’t, it’s just plain drivel.

Fortunately, most of the tracks here are mercifully short, and as the equally dreadful When Will I See You Again and the marginally better Walking in the Rain pass you by, you might find yourself starting to lose the will to live.

What you can say here is that there’s always a good song somewhere nearby, and this time it’s the adorable True Love Ways. As with earlier songs, part of the reason it works so well is that the synths are toned down a little here, and this turns out to actually be up to the standard that you might expect from Erasure.

But for every up, there’s always a big down, and Ebb Tide returns us to their earlier form. And again, some of the songs have just been done better by others – Can’t Help Falling in Love is passable, but it’s hardly UB40, and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ was done much better by The Human League.

Of course, Erasure had done plenty of cover versions before, most notably of Abba, and some of them had been very good indeed, and so there was inevitably going to be a moment of absolute greatness on here, but Goodnight is still something of a surprise – it’s so good, in fact, that it overshadows pretty much everything else that Erasure released between 2000 and 2011.

Then they go and spoil it all with Video Killed the Radio Star, which is so objectively bad that I won’t say any more than that.

Ultimately, it has to be said – Other People’s Songs is largely awful. It’s actually bad enough that it’s difficult to fathom how nobody noticed while it was being recorded. Sure, there’s no shortage of great, catchy songs, but most of them would have been better left in their original form, without the awful 8-bit synth sounds that Vince Clarke seemed to be so keen on during this period. On the whole, this one is best avoided.

If that inspired you to track this album down, you can find it here and at all major retailers.

Erasure – Abba-esque EP

Twenty-five years ago, this was number one in the UK for five weeks.

That’s really all you need to know – Erasure held on to the top spot for a very long time. They were huge, and they pretty much single-handedly managed to revive Abba‘s career as well.

There are just four tracks on here – firstly Lay All Your Love on Me, full of electronic flashes and squawks. If you don’t know Abba, you can just accept that this is one of Erasure‘s catchiest moments. If you do, you can enjoy a very different take on a great song.

Perhaps coincidentally, these tracks appear in alphabetical order, so the melancholic S.O.S. comes next, sounding equally brilliant. It’s fascinating to think just how busy Erasure must have been during this period – this EP appeared barely a year after the preceding album Chorus, and also turned up as a four-track video single, the production of which must have really put them through their paces.

Take a Chance on Me was the track that received the most airplay, and was logically therefore the one that appeared on Pop! The First 20 Hits a few months later. It’s great, and definitely every bit as good as anything else that Erasure ever did. Until, at least, MC Kinky turns up for a slightly inexplicable rap halfway through. She was unceremoniously removed from some of the promo radio versions, and I’m not sure she really adds much to the song, but then on the other hand it would be difficult to imagine it without her appearing and rapping about… well, whatever it is she’s going on about, because frankly I’ve never understood a word of it.

Closing the collection is the best of the lot, Voulez Vous. There’s an element of seedy underground darkness, which is of course, entirely as it should be. Four remixes were commissioned for club play, and, so the story goes, weren’t originally intended for commercial release, but were changing hands for such extravagant prices that a non-charting CD and 12″ release followed later. None of them are particularly good, to be honest, but Voulez Vous is probably the closest hint to what’s on there.

Before you know it, the backing has gone a bit crazy, and you’re at the end of this EP already. It’s a shame that it’s over so quickly, but what a fantastic collection of songs!

You should still be able to find second hand copies of this EP, but the original release is no longer widely available in physical form. Try here for starters.

Beginner’s guide to Erasure

One is a very camp man who wears leotards and has an astonishing vocal range; the other is a synth nerd who already had Depeche Mode‘s first album and both of Yazoo‘s under his belt before they even got started. But the unlikely combination of Andy Bell and Vince Clarke built up an extremely accomplished career through the late eighties and early nineties. Their more recent output might have stalled a little, but with a past like theirs it’s difficult to criticise.

Key moments

Their violent kickstarting of the 1992 Abba revival; Love to Hate You (1991); Who Needs Love (Like That) (1985); Sometimes (1987); A Little Respect (1988); and many others.

Where to start

You’ll get a good idea of most of their career to date from the double disc compilation Total Pop! The First 40 Hits (2007). It does tail off a little towards the end, but it’s worth the extra disc for Always and Rock Me Gently, among others.

What to buy

Begin with their absolute pinnacle Chorus (1991), and then hop back an album to Wild! (1989). If you’re feeling adventurous after that, jump forward to 1995 for their eponymous experimental masterpiece Erasure.

Don’t bother with

Pretty much anything from 2000 onwards – Light at the End of the World (2007) in particular is a low point in a sea of low. You could probably skip most of debut Wonderland (1986) too.

Hidden treasure

Although inconsistent, they have snuck a few excellent b-sides in amongst everything else, such as Supernature (1989), Let it Flow (1991), and Tenderest Moments (1994). For all the album’s shortcomings, Love is the Rage from Loveboat (2000) is haunting.

For stowaways

The BRIT Awards 1999

In 1999 Johnny Vaughan took over as the host at London Arena. The ceremony took place on 16th February 1999.

This post is part of a series about the history of the BRIT Awards. You can read about the 1998 ceremony here, and the 2000 ceremony in a couple of days’ time.

Best British Album

Presented by Mariella Frostrup and Prince Naseem. Nominees:

  • Catatonia – International Velvet
  • Gomez – Bring it On
  • Manic Street Preachers – This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours
  • Massive Attack – Mezzanine
  • Robbie Williams – I’ve Been Expecting You

Winner: Manic Street Preachers

Best British Dance Act

Presented by Sharleen Spiteri from Texas and Boy George. Nominees:

  • All Saints
  • Faithless
  • Fatboy Slim
  • Jamiroquai
  • Massive Attack

Winner: Fatboy Slim

Best British Female

Presented by Smita Smitten and Chunky Lafanga. Nominees:

  • Des’ree
  • PJ Harvey
  • Hinda Hicks
  • Billie Myers
  • Billie Piper

Winner: Des’ree

Best British Group

Presented by Kylie Minogue and Lee Evans. Nominees:

  • Beautiful South
  • Catatonia
  • Gomez
  • Manic Street Preachers
  • Massive Attack

Winner: Manic Street Preachers

Best British Male

Presented by Jools Holland and Ian Dury. Nominees:

  • Ian Brown
  • Bernard Butler
  • Fatboy Slim
  • Lynden David Hall
  • Robbie Williams

Winner: Robbie Williams

Best British Newcomer

Voted for by listeners of BBC Radio 1. Presented by Huey Morgan from Fun Lovin’ Criminals and Zoë Ball. Nominees:

  • Another Level
  • Belle and Sebastian
  • Cleopatra
  • Cornershop
  • Five
  • Gomez
  • Hinda Hicks
  • Billie Piper
  • Propellerheads
  • Steps

Winner: Belle and Sebastian

Best British Single

Voted for by listeners of independent radio. Presented by Sheryl Crow and Meat Loaf. Nominees:

  • Beautiful South – Perfect 10
  • Catatonia – Road Rage
  • Cornershop – Brimful of Asha
  • Des’ree – Life
  • Fatboy Slim – The Rockafeller Skank
  • Manic Street Preachers – If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next
  • Massive Attack – Teardrop
  • George Michael – Outside
  • Robbie Williams – Angels
  • Robbie Williams – Millennium

Winner: Robbie Williams – Angels

Best British Video

Voted for by viewers of VH-1. Presented by Helen Baxendale and John Thompson. Nominees:

  • All Saints – Under the Bridge
  • Melanie B feat. Missy Elliott – I Want You Back
  • Cornershop – Brimful of Asha
  • Jamiroquai – Deeper Underground
  • Massive Attack – Teardrop
  • George Michael – Outside
  • Placebo – Pure Morning
  • Radiohead – No Surprises
  • Robbie Williams – Let Me Entertain You
  • Robbie Williams – Millennium

Winner: Robbie Williams – Millennium

Best International Female

Presented by Lionr Abargil and Ian Wright. Nominees:

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Lauryn Hill
  • Natalie Imbruglia
  • Madonna
  • Alanis Morissette

Winner: Natalie Imbruglia

Best International Group

Presented by Björn Ulvaeus from Abba. Nominees:

  • Air
  • Beastie Boys
  • The Corrs
  • Fun Lovin’ Criminals
  • R.E.M.

Winner: The Corrs

Best International Male

Presented by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Nominees:

  • Beck
  • Eagle Eye Cherry
  • Neil Finn
  • Pras Michel
  • Will Smith

Winner: Beck

Best International Newcomer

Presented by All Saints. Nominees:

  • Air
  • B*Witched
  • Eagle Eye Cherry
  • Natalie Imbruglia
  • Savage Garden

Winner: Natalie Imbruglia

Best Soundtrack / Cast Recording

Presented by Mark Morrison. Nominees:

  • James Horner – Titanic
  • Various Artists – Boogie Nights
  • Various Artists – Jackie Brown
  • Various Artists – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
  • Various Artists – The Wedding Singer

Winner: Titanic. Collected by Celine Dion.

The Freddie Mercury Award

Presented by Johnny Vaughan.

Winner: Jubilee 2000. Collected by Bono from U2.

Outstanding Contribution

Presented by Stevie Wonder.

Winner: Eurythmics

Performances

Further Reading / Viewing

British Record Industry Britannia Centenary Awards 1977

As a general rule, the further back you go in the history of what we now call the BRIT Awards, the harder it becomes to find information about them. And the 1977 ceremony was the very first of the lot, so sure enough finding information about the awards is nigh on impossible. This post is going to be relatively short.

But it needs to be done, so let’s cast ourselves back a long way into the past, right back to October 18th 1977. Michael Aspel is our host, and the venue is Wembley Conference Centre, London.

The event was a celebration of music, but it was also timed to celebrate two anniversaries – it was 100 years since Thomas Edison invented the sound recording, and also the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year. By coincidence, it was also almost exactly 25 years since the publication of the first UK chart, but it’s not clear to me whether anybody realised this at the time. Nominations were for the best music of the preceding 25 years, which is why they are a little eclectic in places, although for all of that, there’s a very definite 1970s bias.

Best British Album

Nominees:

  • Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
  • Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (1973)
  • The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  • Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

Winner: The Beatles.

Best British Female

Nominees:

  • Cleo Lane
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Shirley Bassey
  • Petula Clark

Jazz singer Dame Cleo Lane is probably the least famous of the bunch. Despite managing a couple of hit singles in the 1960s, she must have been a lot more popular with “the industry” than the public! Or maybe not…

Winner: Shirley Bassey.

Best British Female Newcomer

Nominees:

  • Bonnie Tyler
  • Julie Covington

Julie, of course, had the honour of recording the original version of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, which had hit number one in February 1977. An album would follow in 1978, and then she returned to the theatre.

Winner: Julie Covington.

Best British Group

Rather predictable nominees:

  • The Beatles
  • Pink Floyd
  • Rolling Stones
  • The Who

Winner: The Beatles. Who would have thought it?

Best British Male

Another predictable bunch:

  • Cliff Richard
  • Elton John
  • Rod Stewart
  • Tom Jones

Winner: Cliff Richard.

Best British Male Newcomer

Nominees:

  • Graham Parker
  • Heatwave

Here’s an interesting pair. Graham Parker wouldn’t release any solo material until 1979, and so we have to assume that the nomination was for his work with The Rumour, which had included hit singles with Hold Back the Night and Sweet on You earlier in 1977. He would carry on recording for a long time after, but never managed to regain his initial success.

Heatwave, on the other hand, had already had a number two hit with Boogie Nights, and would continue hitting the top twenty for the next three years. So who won?

Winner: Graham Parker. Hindsight, it seems, is a fine thing!

Best Comedy Recording

I’m assuming that’s what this award was for – The BRITs website lists it under the wrong category. Nominees:

  • Monty Python
  • Richard Burton & Cast
  • Tony Hancock

Winner: unfortunately history doesn’t record who won!

Best British Producer

Nominees:

  • George Martin
  • Glyn Johns
  • Gus Dudgeon
  • Mickie Most

As is normal with the Best Producer category, I’ve never heard of most of these, but I’m not proposing looking them up…

Winner: George Martin.

Best British Single

Nominees:

  • 10cc – I’m Not in Love (1975)
  • Procul Harum – Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)
  • Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)
  • The Beatles – She Loves You (1963)

Winner: a tie, shared by Procul Harum

… and Queen.

Best Classical Recording

Nominees:

  • Janet Baker – Das Lied von der Erde
  • John Williams – Guitar Concerto – Rodrigo

Winner: again, history doesn’t record who won this!

Best International Pop Album

Nominees:

  • Abba – Arrival (1976)
  • Carole King – Tapestry (1971)
  • Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
  • Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Winner: Simon & Garfunkel.

Best International Pop Single

Nominees:

  • Elvis Presley – Jailhouse Rock (1957)
  • Frank Sinatra – My Way (1969)
  • Ike & Tina Turner – River Deep, Mountain High (1966)
  • Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)

Elvis, of course, had only passed away a couple of months prior to this ceremony.

Winner: unknown.

Best Orchestral Album

Nominees:

  • Oliver Knussen – War Requiem
  • Otto Klemperer – Beethoven Symphonies
  • Sir Adrian Boult – The Planet Suite
  • Sir Georg Solti – Wagner Ring Cycle

Otto Klemperer is my favourite, mainly because he wouldn’t have looked out of place in a silent movie. Actually, since he was born in 1885, he probably was in one.

Winner: unknown.

Outstanding Contribution

Joint winners: The Beatles and L.G. Wood.

The story of L.G. Wood is sadly forgotten in the internet age (OK, he isn’t on Wikipedia), but the BRITs website describes him as “a remarkable figure”. He was chairman of the BPI and EMI in 1977, and was apparently the person who originally signed The Beatles.

Performances

  • Cliff Richard – Miss You Nights
  • George Martin – A Hard Day’s Night
  • Julie Covington – Only Women Bleed
  • Procul Harum – Whiter Shade of Pale
  • Simon & Garfunkel – Old Friends

Further Reading / Viewing