Then & now: Paul Hardcastle, composer
“N-N-N-NINETEEN!” It was the most startling hit of 1985, a mostly instrumental track featuring a clubby beat, synthesised tune, and the sampled voiceover of broadcaster Peter Thomas delivering that unforgettable hook. Not since The Who’s My Generation had a hit song contained so much stammering – although this time the speech defect was electronically induced.
The song tackled a subject that would have been seen as commercial suicide – the war in Vietnam and its traumatic effects on the thousands of young American men – average age 19 — who were shipped off to fight in this ill-considered conflict. Here was a Limey composer criticising America’s treatment of its young conscripts – the single should have tanked, but instead it became a massive hit in the US, even though many US radio stations refused to play it.
For Londoner Paul Hardcastle, 19 was the big break he’d been looking for since going solo after playing keyboards on a few early 1980s dance tunes. He had taped a documentary on the war in Vietnam, and was struck by the very young average age of the soldiers who fought in the conflict. “I was out having fun in pubs when I was 19, not being shoved into jungles and getting shot at,” he told The Guardian last month.
Spoken-word sampling was a bit of a novelty at the time, and 19 neatly captured the zeitgeist. Though it was Hardcastle’s only US pop hit, it was the first of several UK hits – including Don’t Waste My Time, Just For Money (featuring Bob Hoskins and Laurence Olivier) and a cricket-based comedy song called N-N-Nineteen Not Out (featuring Rory Bremner). But his biggest song outside of 19 was probably The Wizard, which became the theme tune to Top of the Pops from 1986 to 1991.
After the abrasive, attention-grabbing mood of 19, Hardcastle took an unexpected left-turn into the world of smooth jazz. For the past 20 years, he has been releasing synth-based smooth jazz albums under the name The Jazzmasters, and having no problem getting them played on jazz radio stations. Among the session musicians who have played on Jazzmasters albums is his own son, Paul Jr, who plays saxophone. Hardcastle’s smooth jazz compositions regularly top the Billboard jazz charts.
In 2010, Hardcastle released a 25th anniversary version of 19, updated to address the war in Afghanistan. For Hardcastle, the rerelease had huge resonance – his son’s friend was killed in Afghanistan aged 19.
On October 15th, Hardcastle releases a new album under his own name, entitled 19 Below Zero. It features nine new songs of ethereal electronica, plus remixes of some of his older songs, including 19.
For Hardcastle, 19 has indeed been a magic number.