Number Ones: #90


  • NIK KERSHAW Radio Musicola (MCA)
  • Week Ending 6th December 1986
  • 3 Weeks At #1


Pop is cruel. Pop is unfair. Pop is sometimes so cruel and so unfair that the screaming injustice of it all defies rational explanation. Exhibit A: the career trajectory of Nik Kershaw, 1984-1986.

We can blame Live Aid, like I usually do, for the shift in tone of the music scene and the tastes and expectations of its audiences. Nik was not the only artist who was serenely churning out the Top 20 hits in the time before July 13th 1985, but who then could barely buy a chart entry by the end of the following year. Pop is also cyclical, and it’s true that the particular cycle that I’d come on board with in the Autumn of 1983 had simply peaked by mid-1985 and was almost completely out of favour by December 1986.

Even so, the brutality with which the record-buying public shunned Nik Kershaw’s music, after a winning run of 7 consecutive hits and two platinum albums, was harsh. The respective flop third albums by Howard Jones and Paul Young at least made the Top 10 before they hastily disappeared. Radio Musicola, issued just a week after Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Liverpool limped to #5, arrived on the UK Top 75 at #47. Number forty seven.

Where did it go wrong? Maybe the choice of Nobody Knows as its lead single didn’t help the cause; a decent enough track, it nevertheless sounded a bit too similar to his previous 45, When A Heart Beats, which itself sounded a bit too similar to Wide Boy. That’s three singles out of four which trod almost identical ground, lyrically clever as they all were and – speaking as a fan – still pretty top-notch. However, once your opening salvo falls on deaf ears, it’s a long road back. The media, the radio stations, the whole machine begins to lose confidence; is this artist a busted flush? Have they, in Smash Hits parlance, gone down the dumper?

Radio Musicola was dubbed an “angry little album” in the same pop magazine, on release, and in late 1986 – with the rise of aspirational pop, be it the plastic escapism of Stock Aitken Waterman, the wine-bar stylings of a fashionable new breed ready to take over (Swing Out Sister, Curiosity Killed The Cat), or the suddenly popular hair-metal of Bon Jovi and Europe – the general public didn’t seem overly keen on listening to what Nik Kershaw had to say. I was.

The title track was easily the best thing on the album, a towering ode to the machinations of the industry and the lack of integrity shown towards the very people providing the music they sought to commercialise. “I’ve got political inclinations to announce…no way if it doesn’t scan with your accounts”…..”why don’t you let us do it like Joni (Mitchell) does it?”…..”there isn’t any other way, more’s the pity!”. Scathing, indeed.

“We’re growing up to Radio Musicola”….a world where music becomes a disposable brand like fast-food or a fizzy drink, emanating from “little boxes on the wall”, and it’ll “soon be coming in tin cans”. Something to passively consume, that gives instant gratification but not a lot else. You can see how a troubled teenager, struggling with their health and getting their first sense that all was not right with the world, could identify with such a perspective and, not liking what they saw at the top of the charts so much anymore, feel an affinity for what Nik Kershaw was doing. The track became my most-played of the entire year, despite only being released at the very end of October.

Had my charts allowed for album tracks to be eligible, then Radio Musicola would have dominated throughout November, rather than only when eventually unleashed as a single in the first week of December. Its 3 weeks at the top barely reflects the impact it had on me, and the hammering my poor cassette of the album took over that period from October 1986 to about March 1987.

The single debuted at #43 in the UK, but ventured no further. That did mean it fared better than the singles by Paul Young, The Human League and O.M.D. around at the same time, and equalled the peak of Howard Jones’ You Know I Love You…Don’t You?, although that would have been of little consolation.

If MCA had been less conservative and opted for Radio Musicola instead of Nobody Knows first up, might the campaign have turned out differently? Acts suffering a dip in popularity, whether temporary or terminal, are rarely rewarded by going for the safe option; Madness rued their label’s decision to put out The Sweetest Girl as the final single from Mad Not Mad, when their own instinct was to take a risk with something like the powerful (but very un-Madness) Coldest Day. What too of Duran Duran, had they put Skin Trade out as the big comeback single in 1986 rather than Notorious? Pop is littered with these Sliding Doors moments.

In my world, at least, Radio Musicola had its brilliance recognised.



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