#CrazyStupidAlbum: Steps – ‘Tears on the Dancefloor’

It’s not unfair to say that, where my love of 90s music – and in particular its pop groups – are concerned, that for all their ability to sell concert tickets and records by the truckload c. 1997 – 2001, I was never on board with Steps as much as I was with say, S Club 7. Sure, I made sure I knew their dance routines down pat for school discos – hello to you, the million selling, chart topping cover of the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” in 1998 with that ‘hands to the side of the head’ move. 

And whilst they did release really great singles more often than not – ‘One for Sorrow’, ‘Deeper Shade of Blue’ and ‘It’s The Way You Make Me Feel’ being the three finest examples of their singles canon, and of pop done properly – not one of their first three albums found its way onto 9 year old me’s stereo system. They were very much what-I-call a ‘singles band’. Simply put, I was invested as far as I could be invested. Not to mention I always found Ian ‘H’ Watkins a bit annoying, but then again so did most people my age.

The wheels for their comeback set in motion six years ago, when their former label Sony announced they were releasing ‘The Ultimate Collection’ album – essentially the same album as their 2001 best of ‘Gold: Greatest Hits’ – with or without them.

Cue Sky Living venturing up the opportunity for them to reform for a four part series titled ‘Steps Reunion’, officially one of the greatest bits of pop telly in the last 10 years, if not for inventing the Twitter drinking game ‘#DrinkWhenStepsCry’ (for most instances of which Lisa Scott-Lee was responsible), and a comeback tour. Cue the album shooting to number one and the tour being a sellout, yadda yadda yadda.

Then came a barely noticeable or remembered Christmas-y themed covers album ‘Light Up the World’ which passed without notice in 2012, and then all fell silent again. Until this year, a whole two decades since they first line danced into our consciousness with ‘5-6-7-8′. It seemed only right that this 20th anniversary was celebrated with new material – and the inevitable tour – of some form.

Heralded by Peter Loraine – he of course being the brains behind All Saints’ comeback album ‘Red Flag’ last year, Bananarama’s upcoming reunion tour, as well as the careers of Girls Aloud, The Saturdays and numerous other amazing pop people – ‘Tears on the Dancefloor’ is their fourth studio album of original material, and first since 2000’s ‘Buzz’. And just like that, Steps have released and found success as an ‘albums band’ as well as a singles one.

It helps that they’ve set themselves high standards from the off with all the singles that have come from the album thus far. ‘Scared of the Dark’, which knocked Ed Sheeran off the top of the iTunes chart back in March is exactly what you’d expect a Steps single in 2017 to sound like, but in the best possible way. It’s all dramatic strings and production with an epic chorus that’s up there with the likes of ‘Last Thing On My Mind’.

In fact, much of the album is set firmly towards four to the floor disco pop bangers, like the title track, ‘Firefly’ and ‘Glitter and Gold’. ‘You Make Me Whole’ even finds time to tap into a bit of a Rihanna with Calvin Harris sort of vibe with its calypso-esque backing, whilst current single ‘Neon Blue’ is all quiet and reflective with a soft piano backing before exploding into a monster of a floorfiller that’ll have you partying like it’s 1999 all over again.

But right in the middle of the album is a song that I suspect will be to Steps in years to come, what ‘Patience’ and ‘Rule the World’ were to Take That – aka the confirmation of their pop majesty to any doubters present, and of a pop act at the height of their musical potency. Their last single in June, ‘Story of a Heart’ is, as has been noted elsewhere already, the work of two men from the band that Steps were considered mutual bedfellows with in their first phase of success, namely Bjorn and Benny from Abba.

Originally recorded by Benny Andersson’s orchestra, and released in 2009, it was a song that I remember saying in a review of it that I wrote for a music website at the time would, if it ever happened, be the perfect comeback single for Steps. Eight years on, and happily that has proved to be the case. To paraphrase the famous beer advert at the time of their 90s success, if Carlsberg did wistful, moving Scandopop belters, they’d sound like this. It’s a real work of class.

In fact, dare I say it as an S Club fan, but this puts the S Clubbers’ 2015 reunion of one briefly reactivated hits album and a barely commited tour in the shade somewhat. Steps have delivered by honing to perfection all of what they really did best, and the strength and depth of ‘Tears on the Dancefloor’ really shines through with repeated listens. Better best forgotten? Definitely not with tunes like these – you’ll be stomping all night.

5/5

STREAM THESE: ‘Story of a Heart’, ‘Firefly’, ‘Glitter and Gold’, ‘You Make Me Whole’

‘Tears on the Dancefloor’ is out now via Steps Music/Absolute. Steps’ new UK and Ireland tour “Party on the Dancefloor” (with support from Vengaboys) starts at the SSE Arena in Belfast on 12th November, and finishes up at Cardiff Motorpoint Arena on 7th December – tickets are on sale now. Twitter: @OfficialSteps

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#26in26 Plus 2: The Not in Anyway Difficult Second Birthday Playlist

Hello one, hello all. Today is Saturday, 26th August 2017. Which means that a whole 28 years ago, yours truly was born to the world. So it’s my birthday. Happy birthday to me etc (cue the birthday emojis).

😄😄😄 🎂🎂🎂 🎁🎁🎁 🎈🎈🎈 🎉🎉🎉

Now, those of you who are regular readers to the blog may remember that two years ago, around about this exact time, I published a little celebratory blog and accompanying Spotify playlist called #26in26. The premise was a simple one: via my social media platforms, people voted daily for the first 26 days of August for a given song from a given year of the previous 26 years I’d been alive for at that point, to be included on a specially curated playlist and blog, published on my birthday. It was quite successful, to the point I kind of outdid myself when it came to anything else playlist related.

A lot of people have asked me since then if I’d do a follow up one for every subsequent year. And I always resisted the idea. Why follow up what couldn’t be bettered? Until I struck upon a potentially brilliant (or tragic, depending on your viewpoint) concept for a second playlist. I’m sure we’re all aware of what’s been number one in the UK charts on our birthdays via the numerous wealth of sources – the Official Charts website for one. But what about what’s been #1 on every subsequent year we’ve celebrated a birthday?

With this in mind, my challenge for the long awaited sequel to the original #26in26 – which I am calling #26in26 Plus 2 – is to take each of the singles that have been number one in the UK on my birthday for the last 28 years, put them onto a playlist, and review them, giving them a score out of a possible 28. So it’s not unfair to say that unlike last time, where I actually enjoyed all the songs, this time some I will enjoy, some I’ll be pleasantly surprised by, and some I will hate every second of. But rules are rules, and they should thus also make for some entertaining reading. Hope you enjoy it (and the playlist too), and a hearty thank you for all the continued love and support with this here corner of the internet and my blogs. Much love to you all!

(Credit, by the by, to those lovely people at OfficialCharts.com for supplying me with the official stats of who was number one on which birthday of yours truly. A valuable source indeed)

#26in26 Plus 2: THE REVIEWS

1989: Jive Bunny – Swing the Mood
This? This is what greeted my arrival in the world? Just what was it with the brief UK fascination at the end of the 80s with rubbish European based megamixes of golden oldies? No wonder Pete Waterman gave us the Reynolds Girls to declare (albeit briefly) that ‘We don’t want them back’. We had a Jive Bunny video as kids and it used to terrify me witless. 28 years on and just one look at the video on YouTube again has confirmed that little has changed in my views on this.

28s out of 28: 0

1990: Bombalurina – Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
In which irritating kid’s TV tyrant Timmy Mallett and everything wrong with the then turn of the decade pop culture – with some help from Andrew Lloyd Webber (we’ll meet him again in eight songs’ time) – grin like idiots through this inane, irritating ditty about bikinis. Like a more British and thus God awful ‘Thong Song’, set in Bognor Regis instead of Miami.

28s out of 28: 0

1991: Bryan Adams – Everything I Do (I Do It For You)
A quick check confirms to me that this was almost halfway through the mammoth 16 week run this song, from the ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ soundtrack, was enjoying at the top. It’s probably a good thing I was too young to know what was going on in the charts at that time, as I can imagine I’d have got sick of this pretty quickly if I was say, 9 in 1991, and not 2. Fortunately, I appreciate the old gravelly rock tones of Mr Adams, so I quite enjoyed doing my celebrated imitation of him doing this song whilst listening to it. Altogether now: ‘Dooon’t teeeell me, it’s not worth fighting fooooorrrr…’

28s out of 28: 16

1992: Snap! – Rhythm is a Dancer
At last, a bit of a rave! One of my favourite 90s dance anthems this. And it was also the source of a quite amazing mashup that Girls Aloud’s Nicola Roberts did of it, with her lesser remembered solo hit ‘Lucky Day’, back in 2011. Points knocked off however, for the frankly awful line ‘I’m as serious as cancer / That rhythm is a dancer’. Aces otherwise.

28s out of 28: 18

1993: Freddie Mercury – Living On My Own

Call me a pariah, but there are only two songs of Queen’s I can take listening to in full. And usually only when drunk. They are ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. This is neither of them, being as it is A) a largely forgotten posthumous solo Freddie Mercury track and B) a bit of a so-so offering. Kind of like someone hit the button marked ‘I’M A SRS ARTIST NOW YAH’ without actually making it engaging beyond two listens.

28s out of 28: 7

1994: Wet Wet Wet – Love is All Around

Ah. Like Bryan Adams, another of the 90s notorious long running chart toppers. Now this I can’t be too hard on, given it’s from one of my all time favourite films – namely, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But I must confess that as the grand scale of ‘songs from Richard Curtis films’ go, this is somewhere after Elvis Costello’s remake of ‘She’ from Notting Hill and Girls Aloud’s version of ‘Jump’ from Love Actually for me, i.e. it’s not as good as those. Fine otherwise. Just not for 15 consecutive weeks mind.

28s out of 28: 14

1995: Blur – Country House

City dweller! Successful fella! He thought to himself ‘Oops I’ve got a lot of money’…(sorry. Had to sing along there. And now back to your regularly scheduled blog.) I have my eldest sister, then in the throes of her Britpop and indie loving days to thank for getting 6 year old me into Blur, thanks to countless Saturday mornings watching her tape the indie charts off ITV’s Chart Show with her. This was of course their single that went up against Oasis’ ‘Roll With It’ in an almighty chart battle dubbed ‘the Battle of Britpop’. The more deserving victor by far – and one of their best singles to boot.

28s out of 28: 26

1996: Spice Girls – Wannabe

And this is where my original 2015 playlist and the sequel draw even, as this was the 1996 victor on that one too. And wouldn’t you? This is under three minutes worth of sassy, quirky and downright awesome girl power pop that launched one of the best girl groups – and pop groups generally – that Britain and the world has ever had. You’d be a fool to try and resist otherwise. Zig a zig aah indeed.

28s out of 28: 28

1997: Will Smith – Men in Black

Aka the point the Fresh Prince left his comedy rap and sitcom roots behind for the big smoke of Hollywood blockbusters, scoring an instant number one with the title song from the first of three Men In Black films. If memory serves me correctly, myself and a good friend learnt the dance from the video for a school disco, shades and all. Also used the same sample as George Michael’s ‘Fastlove’ a year previously.

28s out of 28: 22

1998: Boyzone – No Matter What

We did say we’d meet Andrew Lloyd Webber again, did we not? Taken from a musical about some kids discovering what they think is Jesus in a barn, Boyzone released the signature song of their career. Ronan is easily impersonatable on this, whilst the late Stephen Gately delivers the best vocal performance he ever did. I like it more now than I did then, mind.

28s out of 28: 19

1999: Geri Halliwell – Mi Chico Latino

¿Dondé esta el hombre con fuego en la sangre? Quite, Geraldine, quite. Having been denied the number one slot with her brilliant solo debut ‘Look at Me’ (she has the act before her in this playlist to thank for that, who released a bobbins Anne Murray cover the same week), ‘Mi Chico Latino’, a song she’d recorded as a tribute to her maternal Spanish roots in the autumn of the previous year, wound up her first of four solo number ones during the whole Latino craze that summer. Olé etc.

28s out of 28: 21

2000: Spiller featuring Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)

In a year plentiful of great dance records – ‘The Time is Now’, ‘Toca’s Miracle’, ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’ to name but several – this disco house offering from an Italian DJ gave the world one of 21st century pop’s greatest female performers fresh from the ashes of her old band Theaudience, and in the process ensured Victoria Beckham was to never achieve what her other Spicies did – a solo number one. Or duetting with Dane Bowers. (Apols for the live version peeps. It was the closest I could get as the original is M.I.A on Spotify)

28s out of 28: 27

2001: Five – Let’s Dance

Looking back, Five were definitely a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Cool as cucumbers, and the most accepted boyband in late 90s/early 00s British school playground currency, they released some of the best pop singles of their era, but as has been well documented, they were just not very nice to each other and were thus a total trainwreck behind closed doors. Who else stays at number one for two weeks these days with a chunk of funky disco pop with a video that features one of your awol members (Sean Conlon) as a cardboard cutout? Exactly. No wonder they imploded after this.

28s out of 28: 25

2002: Sugababes – Round Round

Aka one of the defining records that shaped 00s pop music – and another point of mutual agreement for our original playlist, where this was 2002’s victor. Truthfully, Brian Higgins’ first stab at pop glory was Dannii Minogue’s brilliant ‘All I Wanna Do’ five years previous to this, but this is the moment Xenomania – and Sugababes – came to be recognised leaders in their field.

28s out of 28: 26

2003: Blu Cantrell and Sean Paul – Breathe

Dutty yeah etc. ‘Sean the Paul’ (as Una Healy calls him) was everywhere in 2003, yet his only connection to the top slot that year was on an R&B number that came virtually out of nowhere, from a woman that had made the top 20 two years previously with ‘Hit ‘Em Up Style’. Sean’s bit is the best thing about this, I won’t lie. Ms Cantrell is a bit shrill.

28s out of 28: 14

2004: Natasha Bedingfield – These Words

The more tolerable of the Bedingfield dynasty was that curiously oh-so-00s phenomenon. Hugely successful and talked about for first album era – see both this number one single and album with ‘Unwritten’ – then buggered off to America, losing whatever fanbase she had back here in Blighty. Also: ‘Read some Byron, Shelley and Keats / Recited it over a HIP. HOP. BEAT’. Hmmm.

28s out of 28: 17

2005: McFly – I’ll Be OK

Now this I remember fondly. In which McFly launched their second album with a song that for all the world sounded like the great lost Bluetones single that never was. Up there with ‘Obviously’ and ‘All About You’ in their singles canon for unfettered, straight ahead jangly pop rock that reveals its charms more and more with every listen.

28s out of 28: 24

2006: Shakira and Wyclef Jean – Hips Don’t Lie

And now the final point of reference between my original playlist and this one. It’s fair to say both Shakira and Wyclef had been musically quiet or irrelevant for some time when this got released. A straight up Latino influenced banger that could teach that ‘Despacito’ rubbish a thing or two. ‘So be wise. And keep on. READINGTHESIGNSOFMABODY…’

28s out of 28: 25

2007: Kanye West – Stronger

Ugggh. As a Daft Punk fan (well I own a copy of ‘Discovery’, what more proof do you need?) I can’t say I care too much for Old Ego Features That Wot Married a Kardashian butchering ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ to within an inch of its life. Next.

28s out of 28: 1

2008: Katy Perry – I Kissed a Girl

I came to like Ms Perry a bit further into her career – i.e. when she released ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’. This however was right at the beginning of her career, when she was all ‘Oooh, I’m singing about kissing girls, how naughty am I?’ when it was obvious she’d done nothing of the sort in her life, and it was thus irritating beyond all belief.

28s out of 28: 4

2009: The Black Eyed Peas – I Gotta Feeling

Well remembered by me for two reasons. 1) Will.I.Am did a DJ set at my university’s then reopened student’s union at the time they were releasing this single and just being the biggest band on the planet. It was quite a special night, more so when this got played. 2) This was my sister Cat (of Dear Cat and Fi fame) and her husband’s first dance song at her wedding four years later. For sentimental reasons I thus love it.

28s out of 28: 20

2010: Flo Rida and David Guetta – Club Can’t Handle Me

In which Flo Rida did another song about being ‘in da club’ and David Guetta gave him a production sounding exactly like all his singles prior to that. It also kept The Saturdays off the top with ‘Missing You’ despite that having the midweek lead which I wasn’t happy with, no. Next.

28s out of 28: 3

2011: Olly Murs and Rizzle Kicks – Heart Skips a Beat

Oh yes. This was a great period of my life – and birthday – indeed. Only two days before this I’d bagged front row seats for the Wembley Arena show of his first arena tour the following February. This then promptly became his second number one with help from those Brighton rapscallions Rizzle Kicks, silencing his critics who said he wouldn’t get past a first album in one foul swoop. Nice one Murs.

28s out of 28: 27

2012: Sam and the Womp – Bom Bom

Oooh. Now I’ll be honest when I say I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention to the music around in the charts on this particular birthday. I’m sort of regretting that now because this is fabulous. Kind of like a holy union between Björk and ‘Doop’.

28s out of 28: 23

2013: Ellie Goulding – Burn

I rather loved Ellie Goulding’s first album ‘Lights’ when it came out three years previously. Ever since then she has released the occasional great single – ‘Still Falling for You’ off the recent Bridget Jones soundtrack for example – but nothing album wise that has topped the brilliance of her debut. This is all atmospheric and kind of ‘lighters at the end of the night before they kick everyone out at 3am’. In a good way.

28s out of 28: 19

2014: Nico & Vinz – Am I Wrong

Again, not a time when I was really paying attention to the charts this. I do however remember (somewhat unfairly) tarnishing this with the same brush as a lot of the samey EDM/tropical house bobbins tag I’ve applied to a lot of the biggest chart toppers in recent years. With my eyes closed and listened to objectively, it’s actually not that bad. Not unlike the sort of thing Hot Chip might have released on their second album (the one with ‘Ready for the Floor’, in case you’re wondering).

28s out of 28: 21

2015: Charlie Puth featuring Meghan Trainor – ‘Marvin Gaye’

Yes, it took hearing this on the Fiat TV advert it was used on for me to be introduced to it. I am a twenty something man who has to stumble upon new music in this way that doesn’t involve Zane Lowe yabbering in my ears, now get over it. It sounds a little less brilliant with two years’ distance, mind. 

28s out of 28: 16

2016: Major Lazer featuring MØ and Justin Bieber – Cold Water

And so ends the playlist much as it started – with a phenomenon I refutely cannot get behind at all. I have the grand total of one Major Lazer song in my iTunes library. That being the brilliant ‘Pon De Floor’ with Diplo and Vybz Kartel. This as you’ve gathered, is not it, and is proof that Justin Bieber, who now looks about as with it as Britney Spears did post-meltdown, could get away with reading extracts from Clifford the Big Red Dog whilst stoned over a bobbins Tropical house beat and still reach #1 with it. I’m going back to Radio 2. Where’s my slippers and glass of wine?

28s out of 28: 3

#SongoftheWeek: Andy Brown – ‘Lay With Me’

  • ARTIST: Andy Brown
  • SONG: Lay With Me

SO ALEX, WHY IS THIS YOUR SONG OF THE WEEK?

A history lesson for this week, readers. Sit up and pay attention at the back there.

2006: Avenue, a quite amazing boyband audition for the third series (or the ‘Leona’ series to everybody else) of The X Factor. They’re hotly tipped favourites for the live finals until Louis Walsh goes all Miss Marple on their asses and rumbles them for having a management company behind them already (verboten in those days of the show).

2008: Avenue, now signed to an actual proper label (Island), are launched about the same time as The Saturdays, at the point when pop music was about to fall back into vogue. Alas, they were twelve months too early to be the boyband to do it, as their quite amazing single ‘Last Goodbye’ stiffed at #50.

2009/10: Whilst one of the members of the now deceased Avenue ends up in The Wanted (hello to you, Max George), another of their number, Andy Brown, sets about filming and uploading acoustic covers to YouTube.

2011: Whilst signed up to ‘The Speakerbox’, a short lived focus group come opinion panel that Universal Music ran, and which used to pay the present writer generously in free CDs in exchange for doing surveys, I get sent some demos and a press kit to listen to of a then up and coming band, called Lawson. I recognise one of their number (Andy) straight away. I’m impressed by what I hear immediately.

2012: Lawson are launched that summer. And as the world and it’s wife fawns over the London Olympics and the opening of the Shard, they quietly release amazing single after amazing single – most of which are from the pen of Andy.

‘When She Was Mine’: AMAZING.

‘Taking Over Me’: ABSO-BLOODY-LUTELY MIND BLOWINGLY AMAZING WITH ADDED OOOHS.

‘Standing in the Dark’: AMAZING.

‘Chapman Square’, the album all of those singles were from: AMAZING.

Success duly follows.

2013: Whilst voluntarily writing for a short lived online pop magazine, my then editor sends an email to all the contributing writers one June afternoon with a sense of urgency. He’s secured Lawson for the following month’s cover feature and big interview, ahead of the release of their new single ‘Brokenhearted’, but has a prior commitment with another entertainment site he writes for, and can’t do it. 

Armed with a lifetime’s experience in interviewing popstars (READ: watching CD:UK and Popworld every weekend as a teenager), the present writer treks over to Lawson’s label offices in Kensington and somehow, interviews them

In that same interview, the present writer also inadvertently starts a debate verging on Prime Minister’s Question Time scale when he asks them what their favourite service station is, much to the bemusement of their manager and press officer who try to keep the peace. It was nonetheless a great interview and we all laughed. Andy even Tweeted us to say thanks afterwards.

In the meantime, ‘Brokenhearted’ (AMAZING) and ‘Juliet’ (OFF THE SCALE AND SOUNDING LIKE THE POLICE AMAZING) are released off a repacked ‘Chapman Square’ and success continues thus.

2016: After a prolonged series of delays and personal/professional setbacks, the second album from Lawson, ‘Perspective’ is released. 

It’s not unfair to say with a year’s distance that commercially, it bombed, despite having some utter gems on it like ‘Roads’ (HOEDOWN BANGER AMAZING) and ‘Where My Love Goes’ (AMAZING). A few final gigs are done for the fans before they quietly part company.

2017: Andy signs a solo record deal with Decca. And there’s more to come from him yet. In fact, just this last week, the video for his first single has been shot out in Portugal (directed by his old Lawson buddy Adam Pitts, no less). 

In the meantime though is a taster of what to expect with an acoustic version of one of his new tracks, ‘Lay With Me’. A beautiful, wistful slice of modern Americana meets country pop that he sounds completely and utterly at home on, and that we suspect will be just as huge as what’s come before. John Mayer, watch out.

Click the video above to hear ‘Lay With Me’. Andy Brown’s first single and – as yet untitled – debut solo album will be released via Decca soon. He plays Bush Hall in London on 4th October as part of Country Music Week. Twitter: @AndyBrownMusic

Don’t forget to let me know your thoughts of my song choice this week on my Twitter using the hashtag #SongoftheWeek!

#CrazyStupidTV: All Gardens Great and Small (More4, 21st August)

“Remember darling, if in doubt with social conversation, switch the subject to gardening. ‘My Californian poppy is really coming on this year despite the chalky soil – such fun!'”

– Penny (Patricia Hodge), ‘Miranda’, 2009, BBC

Eight years on from her sitcom debut, and Miranda Hart – along with her green fingered real life mum, amateur gardener Dee Hart-Dyke – have done just that with All Gardens Great and Small, a new three part series for More4 about the joys and therapeutic benefits of the great British garden.

Dee, Miranda informs us, has been gardening at this level for 27 years, even opening her garden to the public via the National Open Garden Scheme, and making it into their famed ‘Little Yellow Book’ (pictured below), a directory of the 600 or so gardens in the scheme up and down the UK that are open to the public for a small fee, the profits from which go to charity.

In tonight’s opening episode, Dee took in a variety of gardens both on and off the pages of the Little Yellow Book. Gardens such as that owned by married couple Charlotte (who looked like Lady Rosemary from The Herbs. I kid you not) and Don in Kent, with a garden specialising in topiary that Dee couldn’t quite make head nor tail of (‘It’s a cat!’ continuedly stressed the quite agitated voiceover of Miranda as Dee pondered if it was a fox). She also had a go at doing her own topiary of what seemed to be a turkey – much to her daughter’s bemusement.

Also fascinating was Astley House, a sprawling country pad in Worcestershire, owned by Tim, who’d transformed his garden over 25 years to an exotic paradise full of jungle like plants. It even came with its own safari style veranda – ‘All that’s missing is some migrating wildebeest’ – and an ornate water garden with a wall feature made from sea shells ‘inspired by his mother in law’. Oooh, cheeky.

Over the course of the series, Dee’s also visiting some newcomers to the Little Yellow Book. The first tonight was Chatu, a thirty something professional who was opening her garden in a comparatively smaller space to the sprawling countryside plots – namely, her North London end of terrace property. We got to see her toil and fret over getting everything ready for open day but successfully managing to make the most of the space she had – as well as turning over a decent charitable profit. 

Dee’s also visiting the gardens of some well known faces over the series, such as Julian Clary in tonight’s episode, who, following a private tour of his garden with Dee, engaged in a piano sing song of the Noel Coward standard ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage’. As her daughter says in her sitcom, ‘Rude’.

And what of Miranda’s own horticultural exploits? Well, in a sweet and deliciously witty moment of mother-daughter bonding, we saw Dee’s first attempts to help persuade her to get stuck into making her own little oasis in her Hammersmith back garden – although she’s in need of a few ‘hefty fellows’ to deal with her ‘rampant climbers’ before she can start bedding in – not a euphemism – and dealing with nematodes (yes, they are a thing, no, Miranda doesn’t believe they exist).

Dee’s a really engaging and, yes, such fun, host to watch, with her eye for garden detail and her shared love with Miranda of a good pun. I finished the first episode with a sudden urge to take a trip to Wyevale Garden Centre over the bank holiday next weekend. As Dee herself points out, gardening as a pasttime is ‘a tremendous leveller…when you’re amongst fellow gardeners, no matter how big or small your plot, you feel levelled.’ Here’s to hoping she can convert her daughter as she’s converted the present writer in the coming weeks – providing Miranda doesn’t let her fear of plants sounding like male diseases get in the way.

All Gardens Great and Small continues Mondays at 9pm on More4. The first episode is available for UK viewers to watch again on the All4 app.

#SongoftheWeek: Martine McCutcheon – ‘Say I’m Not Alone’

  • ARTIST: Martine McCutcheon
  • SONG: Say I’m Not Alone

SO ALEX, WHY IS THIS YOUR SONG OF THE WEEK?

2017 has proved to be quite the year for those ruling the top end of the charts in 1999 to make surprise returns. Steps knocked Ed Sheeran off number one on iTunes with their first single in 15 years. Geri Halliwell released her first new solo effort in 12 years. And now, the lady we all once knew as Tiffany has made a grand reappearance.

Yes, it was just 18 years ago in 1999 that, following a particularly brutal new scriptwriter’s regime, and a subsequent plot line which involved falling behind the wheel of Frank Butcher’s car to an untimely end, the role that bought Martine McCutcheon to public adoration on the BBC soap opera EastEnders was finished.

What immediately followed however, was a million pound record deal with Virgin’s pop offshoot, Innocent, and an instant UK number one smash with classy ballad ‘Perfect Moment’. All went quiet however, on the music front, after her third album of musical theatre covers in 2002 stalled.

There’s been the well publicised highs – her starring role as Natalie in Love Actually in 2003, for instance – and lows (which we won’t discuss here) in the time since. But now after a 15 year break, Martine has returned this week with her fourth studio album, ‘Lost and Found’.

Produced largely with her husband of five years, singer/songwriter Jack McManus, the album boasts a contemporary pop rock feel, whilst sounding to the ear like something Texas or Natalie Imbruglia wouldn’t be out of place singing – none more so than on this, its first single. 

One thing that does strike you listening to ‘Say I’m Not Alone’ is what a powerful voice Martine still has, and how at home she sounds rocking out on the chorus – ‘Kicking the stars around the constellation / Nothing’s as wild as my imagination’. It’s the kind of song, with enough weeks of summer left, that you could imagine blasting with the top down on a hot day. A sneakily fine come back indeed.

‘Say I’m Not Alone’ and Martine’s new album ‘Lost and Found’ are both out now on BMG. She tours the UK in November, starting in Guildford at G Live on 8th and finishing at Islington Assembly Hall on 14th. Twitter: @MartineOfficial

Don’t forget to let me know your thoughts of my song choice this week on my Twitter using the hashtag #SongoftheWeek!

#CrazyStupidGig: Olly Murs – Summer Tour (Singleton Park, Swansea, 12th August 2017)

I’m pretty sure it was Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver, hosts of the true leading light of smart, funny 00s pop telly, Channel 4’s Popworld, who openly breached the subject in one episode c. 2004/5 that they had McFly on the show that week, despite the fact they were on the week before. And were on again the following week. Their reasoning? ‘Yeah, we know what you’re thinking. But we get good stuff from them. So don’t judge us.’

This theory applies to the same extent with this here blog and a certain Mr Olly Murs. For anyone keeping count, this is the second week in a row he’s had a post on this blog – true, last week’s one was shared with Kungs – and this is his tenth appearance overall since we launched this blog three years ago this week (Happy Blogaversary to us, etc). 

And regular readers will also know that not only does he regularly provide this blog with ‘da clicks’, as the youth say, but that we can also usually not form any stream of coherent logic when it comes to Olly other than ‘OH YAS HE IS THE BEST SO DON’T EVEN TRY TO TEST’, such is our dedicated loyalty to him and all that jazz. It’s a win win all round, so in the words of Amstell and Oliver, ‘don’t judge us’.

Now here’s the thing. Mursy boy has been on one hugely successful tour already this year in support of his fourth UK number one album – and our Album of 2016 in our End of Year Prizes – ’24 HRS’. That was his fourth arena tour back in March, the Bournemouth International Centre date of which we attended. But we never got round to reviewing that, awesome a show though it was. But his current open air summer tour – of which he has two more weeks left before he takes a well earned break – is essentially that same arena tour but A) outdoors and B) with bells, whistles and hell, even the kitchen sink on. We shall explain forthwith.

After the last arena tour in 2015, we made a conscious decision to actually, y’know, make the touring and fanboying an actual experience, and see him in places outside of London and Essex. Hence why we saw him in Cork last year, and Bournemouth this year, and why we didn’t go to the earlier summer show of his in June at Colchester Football Stadium. Instead, we joined some very good friends of ours 200 miles away in sunny Swansea, Wales, at the historic Singleton Park.

It’s been a while since Olly last did summer shows in support of an album – four years ago in fact (we saw him in Peterborough that time, along with Diana Vickers and Ed Drewett). But there’s something about it being summer, outdoors and all that jazz that adds a special air to an already quite amazing live experience – carnival-esque, if you will. But before the star attraction must always come the lesser floats, the ‘Cub Scouts’ of the entertainment world.

So first up on stage were a local breakfast DJ team from a station called 96.4 The Wave. It was a fairly passable ‘MAKE SOME NOISE SWANSEA’ affair, with an hour of ‘C’mon on down ladies, its wine o’clock’ 80s and dance hits, with an odd bit of recent EDM/Tropical house bobbins thrown in here and there. And all made slightly unintentionally amusing by the fact that as the female DJ got the crowd to do the ‘Olly Olly Olly’ chant, the man himself was visible but a few feet away from where me and my friends were stood (albeit backstage).

Then following this was not Louisa Johnson, owing to a throat infection, but instead a two piece ‘guys with guitars and a session drummer’ outfit from nearby Blackwood, called Into the Ark, who were apparently on the revamped ITV series of The Voice this year. To say that they sounded like one interminably long ‘jam session’ of the worst kind is putting it mildly. Still, they weren’t caterwauling all over ‘Unpredictable’, so small mercies etc.

And then, after half an hour’s wait – Murs time! The ’24 HRS’ countdown clock intro from the arena tour was all still in place, as he blistered into an opening salvo of ‘You Don’t Know Love’, ‘Wrapped Up’ and – perhaps more amazingly – his single that more or less never was and the still rather amazing ‘Stevie Knows’ – mashed up quite appropriately with Mr Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ that he auditioned with on The X Factor all those years ago.

It’s safe to say by this point he had all 8,500 people in attendance eating out the palm of his hand. ‘It’s Saturday night Swansea!’ Murs hollered. ‘Are you going to sing? Are you going to dance? Are you going to get naked?’ The answer was a progressively louder whoop and cheer with each new question.

Our favourite cut from the new album ‘Back Around’ got mixed with Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ to amazing effect, as did ‘Heart Skips a Beat’ receiving a 90s banger makeover, as it was mashed up with Gala’s dance classic ‘Freed from Desire’. But he also found time to slow things down, as old favourite ‘I Need You Now’ from his second album got an airing as he invited ‘all the single people in here tonight to put their hands up – even if you’ve come on your own and your partner’s at home, just bring me back with you!’

Another of our favourite tracks that was missed off the earlier arena tour set got an airing, as ‘Love You More’ (again, not the JLS song of the same name) was played, with Olly sounding all remorseful and heartbroken and just generally superb. He also touchingly found time to pay thanks to the emergency services and stewards at the event, and the importance of their job in light of the horrific events at Manchester Arena earlier in the summer.

This led into what was by far one of the emotional points of the night for us, as he invited everyone to sing along and think of those they’d lost whilst he sang the evergreen ‘Dear Darlin’ (during which he pointed to us and gave us a thumbs up). It was a special moment because of that, but also because it made me think of my dear auntie in Australia, who sadly passed away in June after a long battle with cancer.

The atmosphere didn’t remain too emotional for long though, as Olly instructed everyone to put their phones away and ‘just go mental for 10 minutes’ whilst he and his band did a mashup of old skool floorfillers, taking in the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band’s ‘That’s the Way I Like It’, Luther Vandross’ ‘Never Too Much’ and Ini Kamoze’s ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’, rounding off with a spirited cover of the song he was mistaken for releasing last year and which he absolutely smashed – namely Justin Timberlake’s ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’. It was the kind of thing that had to be heard and seen to appreciate how awesome it was.

Resolutely an entertainer throughout, the penultimate three songs of his set – ‘Troublemaker’, ‘Dance with Me Tonight’, and an especially saucy rendition of ‘Kiss Me’ (where, to the delight of all female contigency present, his shirt came off to a snatch of ‘The Full Monty’ tune. Suffice to say from all his tyre lifting antics on Instagram that the dude has got ripped), upped the tune factor – Bam, Wham, Slam!

But he then rounded off with a touching tribute to the fans who’ve got him to the success he has had and who have kept him there, eight years on from where it all began – leading fittingly into the closing number of ‘Years and Years’: ‘It was X Factor 2009, Swansea, where we met!’ And with that, one of the best shows of his I’ve ever seen came to its spectacular finale.

There’s a reason why Olly is continually referred to as the nicest and hardest working man in pop – and not just from these quarters. This show – and the Bournemouth one we saw in March – are proof that eight years on, he still has drive, determination, likeability and the hit factor in spades. And I’ve a sneaking suspicion that he’ll be delivering the hits and shows for many more years to come – and I’ll continue to be at as many of them as possible.

RATING: 5/5

Olly Murs’ summer tour continues this Friday, 18th August at Newmarket Racecourse, and concludes with his headlining slot at Victorious Festival in Portsmouth on 27th August. Twitter: @ollyofficial

#BlastfromthePast: Derek Griffiths

Apologies for no weekly hop in my blogging DeLorean otherwise known as #BlastfromthePast last week – partly because I had my special blog I wot wrote for my sister’s 30th birthday to get up. 

All is back to normal though you’ll be glad to hear. This week, it’s time to celebrate a true legend of British stage and screen…

Ask most people who grew up watching kids TV in the 70s, 80s – heck even a bit of the 90s – to name a few presenters/voices they recall, chances are this man would be chief amongst them – and to my delight, I discovered was on Twitter this week. Starting out as a primary school teacher, Woking born Derek Griffiths is a quadruple threat in a world of triples: actor, singer, multi instrumentalist and mime artist.

It was this set of talents that landed him the gig on the BBC’s Play School, and later Play Away, which saw him work with the late Brian Cant, as well as Chloe Ashcroft and Johnny Ball. His work on this led to more projects with the Beeb, including Heads and Tails – a wildlife/nature show with his zany narration and music accompanying it – something he’d do again for modern young audiences on the Channel 5 series Animal Antics in the early 00s.

He also voiced three animated series for the BBC that I remember fondly from my youth (pictured above, from top left) – King Greenfingers, Christopher Crocodile (from which I gained my sisters’ nickname for me of Crocodilious), and perhaps best known of all, SuperTed. He also made the move after Play School to ITV, where he hosted Film Fun, a series of amusing continuity links set in an old style cinema between assorted Looney Tunes cartoons.

He was also a regular guest feature on various comedy and light entertainment shows, including (but not limited to) Terry and June, Till Death Do Us Part, Blankety Blank and Don’t Ask Me. He also did a notable public ad campaign in the 80s promoting the awareness of bike theft (this along with several other fine works of his can be found in my YouTube playlist below).

Following West End turns in the likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Beauty and the Beast, Derek recently cropped up on the nation’s favourite soap, Coronation Street, playing retired mechanic Freddie – a role he left in March this year to star in another new theatre role, this time in Driving Miss Daisy which is currently touring the UK.

Now he’s also campaigning for a reunion of the Play School cast – before, he says, “we all go senile”. Here’s then, to this week’s #BlastfromthePast, Derek Griffiths. A Jack of all trades, but a master of all of them.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

#SongoftheWeek: Kungs featuring Olly Murs and Coely – ‘More Mess’

Ever heard the one about the French man and the English man walking into a recording studio? No? Let me tell it then…

  • ARTIST: Kungs featuring Olly Murs and Coely
  • SONG: More Mess

SO ALEX, WHY IS THIS YOUR SONG OF THE WEEK?

France has a great tradition for many things. Spiky, slightly brilliant electronic dance music being one of them. Kungs (or Valentin Brunel as sa mere would call him) has only just turned 20, but is already shaping up to be a great to reign with the likes of Daft Punk, Sebastien Tellier and Neïmo, after coming to worldwide attention via his reimagining of the Cookin’ on 3 Burners track ‘This Girl’, a number 2 hit last year in the UK that has shifted 600,000 copies hence.

Olly Murs (more on whom in another blog next week, readers) has not long turned 33, and his most recent campaign for the chart topping (and still brilliant) ’24 Hrs’ that was our album of last year, has just been rounded off by a lazy and unnecessary reworking of one of its best tracks, namely, ‘Unpredictable’, the single mix of which had the caterwauling – sorry, vocals – of his current support act and 2015 X Factor champ Louisa Johnson bolted on to it.

But now, here to make us forget that umpteenth sorry attempt to make one of the show’s less memorable winners relevant before the inevitable ‘SyCo can confirm they and Louisa have parted ways’ speech in January, Mursy boy has wound up guest vocalist alongside newcomer rapper Coely on a late contender for our summer 2017 anthem.

In a bit of further cross continental sound switching not seen since Emma Bunton covered the Astrud Gilberto bossa nova standard ‘Crickets Sing for Anamaria’, ‘More Mess’ is actually a partial cover of an obscure South American funk number from the 90s. The result is a sharp but smooth, bustling little single that all but makes us want to shake our stuff like we’re on Copacabana beach in a thong. Arriba. Here’s to hoping this isn’t the last time Olly heads for the dance floor.

‘More Mess’ is out to stream and download now on Sound of Barclay Records. Olly Murs is currently on his summer tour of the UK, playing Sandown Park Racecourse this Thursday, 10th August and finishing up as headliner at the Victorious Festival on 27th August. Twitter: @KungsMusic @ollyofficial

Don’t forget to let me know your thoughts of my song choice this week on my Twitter using the hashtag #SongoftheWeek!

Three Zero

Friday, 7th August 1987. 

Los Lobos are at number one in the UK charts with their cover of Ritchie Valens’ hit ‘La Bamba’. 

Dynasty and the late Sir Terry Wogan’s chat show are on TV that night. 

Sylvanian Families are the must have toy of the moment. 

And you, Mairi, my dear sister, are born that day too.

As I write this, I’m remembering little things that reminds me of us growing up. 

Like how you always found the best places to play hide and seek in, a skill you still own to this day.

Our teenage keyboard accompanied duets of Samantha Mumba’s ‘Gotta Tell You’ and Bryan Adams and Melanie C’s ‘When You’re Gone’.

Making school discos at home with the copy of Now 39 that you won at the actual school disco.

Our shared love of Friends, and our ability to quote most episodes of it word for word.

Me buying us matching rubber ducks when I moved out of home to go to uni.

Us swapping beds one night as kids to try and fool Mum into thinking we were each other (it didn’t work. Using your Barbies as hair probably gave the game away).

You casually hanging out with Thom Yorke from Radiohead on an Amnesty International march with school and appearing on Newsnight.

Your invention of crisps with melted cheese, the best naughty after school snack we invented behind Mum’s back.

You never suffering fools gladly and having the best comebacks.

You always making me laugh with your (dead on) impressions of Claire from Steps and Madonna in her ‘4 Minutes’ video.

How we always do a little hand jive dance (totally improvised) to ‘Last Nite’ by The Strokes.

I tried to do something poetic for this, but that wouldn’t do justice to what an amazing sister you truly are. 

You have always been, and continue to be, so caring, warm hearted, deliciously witty and gifted at all things art and creative (seriously, I owe you a drink at least for all the years of doing my art homework).

And most importantly, you’ve always been my bookend and one of my closest friends to boot.

Happy birthday Village. Here’s to another 30 and beyond, and many more laughs and memories to come sis.

Love from your little brother with the pen,

Alex 

xxx

🎂😄🎉🎈🍸🎁

#SongoftheWeek: Nerina Pallot – ‘Stay Lucky’

It’s always nice when you get a little thanks of recognition for your what blogs. Which is precisely what we got from one George Ezra for last week’s #SongoftheWeek ‘pon the Twits. Glad you liked it George if you’re reading.

It reminded us of when, whilst running an old pop blog of ours a few years ago, we did a live Tweetalong session for Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s then new album, only for the lady herself to join in whilst discussing one of its quirkier tracks. I think a Russian Gregorian choir might have been involved. Happy days. Anyway…shall we?

  • ARTIST: Nerina Pallot
  • SONG: Stay Lucky

SO ALEX, WHY IS THIS YOUR SONG OF THE WEEK?

The story of the artist behind this week’s essential new song, and my love of them, starts about 11 years ago. On the very rare occasions I let anybody have access to my iTunes library (yes I still have one, yes I’m still stuck in a decade ago. Deal with it), they’ll look a bit confused when they see I have pretty much every album this lady has released, and go ‘Who is she?’ or better still ‘You never told me you were a fan of them!’

I feel therefore, in some ways, like I am disclosing some closely guarded secret in this week’s blog. I first heard of Nerina Pallot whilst on a sixth form outing to a university open day in the spring of 2006. Local radio was playing on the school minibus whilst we hurtled down the A12 on a windy March day, and at the time, I mistakenly thought the person singing the song that had just come on the airwaves was Sheryl Crow.

I then realised quite quickly it wasn’t the ‘All I Wanna Do’ hitmaker. Certainly not with the observant, at times witty lyrics in her modern day anti-combat protest anthem, ‘Everybody’s Gone to War’, which remains a certified lost gem to this day. After seeing the single’s accompanying video of her, caught in the crossfire of a food fight in an American farmers market, I was hooked and keen to find out more.

And I was even more pleasantly surprised to discover that ‘Fires’, her album from whence it came that went onto receive platinum sales and nods at the Ivor Novellos and Brit Awards, was actually the Jersey born Pallot’s second LP, and that she’d released her debut, ‘Dear Frustrated Superstar’ some five whole years prior to that to, criminally, virtual disregard. I bought both albums and thus I was a fan of Nerina’s from thereon in.

Never one to stay stuck to one style of music – particularly true of a lot of lesser singer/songwriters than her – she has always demonstrated her versatility and love of a clever pop sensibility throughout her career, even whilst writing songs for the likes of Kylie Minogue and Diana Vickers, with her husband, record producer Andy Chatterley.

This has happily continued into ‘Stay Lucky’, the title track off her forthcoming sixth studio album. A lush but simply produced number, it’s evocative of Joni Mitchell (one of her heroes) and, somewhat chicly, late Dusty Springfield with its 60s bluesy leanings.

In a further genius move, Pallot has also made like Girls Aloud before her and recorded a version of the single in French, under the title ‘Ta Chance‘, which makes it sound ten times more brilliant and like it should be best accompanying grainy footage of Brigitte Bardot in Nice and St Tropez c. 1967. It is thus building my excitement for what is sure to be another corker of an album from Nerina – even if she remains the best kept secret in my iTunes library.

The single ‘Stay Lucky’ is out to stream and download now, and the album of the same name is released on 13th October, both via Idaho Records. Twitter: @ladychatterley

Don’t forget to let me know your thoughts of my song choice this week on my Twitter using the hashtag #SongoftheWeek!