Sean Rowley’s Guilty Pleasures – reviewed

Alexis Petridis on the new 4CD set

In 2004, Sean Rowley was booked onto Jonathan Ross’ Radio 2 show to promote the first Guilty Pleasures compilation. What had begun as a regular slot on his own BBC London show, playing the kind of music that had actually been big in the UK singles charts at a time when the rock history books and documentaries would have you believe Britain was entirely consumed by punk – Alessi’s feather-light soft rock hit ‘Oh Lori’, Andrew Gold’s ‘Never Let Her Slip Away’, ‘Howzat’, the solitary UK hit by Australian pop band Sherbert – had mushroomed into a club night and now a series of major-label compilations. Knowing that Ross was away that week, and his slot would be filled by comedian Mark Lamarr, Rowley took former Specials frontman Terry Hall with him: Lamar was a huge Specials fan, Hall – who had apparently spent his time in The Specials quietly nursing a love of the oeuvres of Pilto – was one of the resident DJs at the Guilty Pleasures club night. It did not work out quite as planned. Lamar was aghast at the music on the compilation and more aghast still at Hall’s involvement. “This is just rubbish,” he protested, fading out an old Carol Bayer Sager track selected by Hall after less than a minute. The interview turned combative. “I felt like I was in the Sex Pistols, being attacked by Bill Grundy,” Hall later deadpanned. “Just because I like The Captain And Tennille.”

If nothing else, it’s a story that tells you a lot about how big a phenomenon Guilty Pleasures became in the ‘noughties’. You might have reasonably expected it to strike a chord with a certain demographic. if you had been a kid in the mid-to-late 70s – too young for the music press, but not too young for Radio One and Top Of The Pops – these songs were buried somewhere deep in your brain. They might have subsequently been written out of history, but they had been played a lot at the time: if you relied on the radio and telly for your musical diet, you would have heard Marshall Hain’s now-forgotten 1978 Top 3 hit ‘Dancing In The City’ a lot more than the oeuvres of The Damned or The Clash. Hearing it again a spark of acknowledgement among listeners of a certain age – oh my God, this! I remember this! – and an accompanying burst of nostalgia: few things have the ability to transport you back to the past quite like music you haven’t heard for decades, that’s never previously been revived or reassessed.

You might possibly have expected said demographic to include a few people who’d gone on to become famous musicians: George Michael requested Rowley play a Guilty Pleasures DJ set at his 2007 Wembley Arena show. You might even have wondered if it might attract a few people like the late Terry Hall who’d been old enough to participate in punk, but had a secret yen for the music it was supposed to be implacably opposed to. But what was startling was how widely the idea took off: Rowley obviously hadn’t invented the phrase, he certainly succeeded in reanimating it in reference to rock and pop. The club night was featured on the front page of The Guardian. Barbra Streisand was impelled to change the name of her 2005 album Guilty Pleasures to Guilty Too in the UK.  There was a Guilty Pleasures TV special, a Guilty Pleasures live show – featuring Suggs from Madness singing John Paul Young’s ‘Love Is In The Air’ – and a sneaking suspicion that the success of the compilation paved the way for new bands who sounded like the artists on it to have hits was hard to avoid, hence the triple platinum sales of The Feeling’s debut album Twelve Stops And Home.

But along the way, the term became uncoupled from the specific era on which the first Guilty Pleasures compilation alighted. “Guilty pleasures” ultimately just became shorthand for pop music of virtually any stripe. By the time that X Factor started running a guilty pleasures week – which bafflingly involved contestants performing Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’, and, wait for it, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ – it became apparent that the term had become so detached from its original concept as to become essentially meaningless.

Perhaps understandably, the 4CD set that celebrates Guilty Pleasures’ 20th birthday attempts to bring things back to basics. Everything on it hails from the 70s. It offers a mix of songs that appeared on the initial compilations, ‘Oh Lori’, ‘Howzat’ and ‘Dancing In The City’ among them, songs that probably should have been – Liverpool Express’s ‘You Are My Love’ is prime Guilty Pleasures territory, a fabulous piece of shimmering, dreamy soft pop, a huge hit during the heatwave-struck summer of 1976 – and what you might call Guilty Pleasures deep cuts: songs that are too obscure to cause the old flash of nostalgia-laden recognition, but which broadly fit in with the sonic aesthetics of the music that does.

Some of the latter category really is obscure – British duo Denne And Gold, a track from a flop solo album by former Three Dog Night vocalist Cory Wells. What’s been dug up here is often intriguing (‘Umbopo’ is a peculiar bit of early 70s pop recorded by a pre-fame 10cc under the name Doctor Father; Watchersign was Pratt & McLean’s improbable attempt to follow up their big hit, the theme tune from Happy Days, with some astrology-obsessed disco-inflected soft rock) and frequently fantastic. For all its nostalgic appeal, the music Guilty Pleasures focussed on was seldom kitsch, just unfashionable – you’d have a hard time applying the so-bad-it’s-good label to songs as well-written as Captain And Tennille’s ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ or Ace’s ‘How Long’ or Helen Reddy’s fabulously creepy ‘Angie Baby’ – and so it proves here. Stephen Bishop’s 1976 album track ‘Little Italy’ is impeccably turned-out soft rock blessed with a guest vocal from Chaka Khan. Browning Bryant’s ‘Liverpool Fool’ is just fantastic – the work of a former child star, written by Allen Toussaint, with a supremely lithe backing courtesy of The Meters. And, frankly, the charts in 2024 could use a song as idiosyncratic and melodically rich as Lynsey de Paul’s ‘Sugar Me’.

It walks a line between familiarity and crate-digging exploration, and it’s all richly enjoyable – shameless, blameless fun, as the club’s tagline used to have it – but it’s perhaps worth pausing to think what a mind-boggling state of affairs a fairly lavish 4CD box set that features the work of Alessi, Sherbert, Jigsaw and the Starland Vocal Band would once have seemed. That it doesn’t in 2024 is at least partly down to the fact that we currently live in a world that Guilty Pleasures predicted. It presaged a number of things, not least the rise in standing of yacht rock, as it came to be known, the elevation of which from the bargain bin status to the stuff of serious discussion may be America’s answer to the Guilty Pleasures phenomenon, although the other candidate would be the 2014 soundtrack to Disney’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, which majored in disposable 70s US pop, from Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked On A Feeling’ to Rupert Holmes’ deathless ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’. Both have had an impact on the tracklisting of this box set, which features yacht rock favourites Seals And Croft and Nicolette Larson’s super-smooth reading of Neil Young’s ‘Lotta Love’, as well as a brace of songs familiar from Guardians Of The Galaxy: Looking Glass’s ‘Brandy You’re A Fine Girl’, Silver’s ‘Wham-Bam-Shang-A-Lang’, Elvin Bishop’s ‘Fooled Around And Fell In Love’.

And you only have to look at the improbable old tracks that have gone viral thanks to TikTok’s teenage users to realise that we’re in an era where old-fashioned notions of canonical cool and gatekeeping – the very things Guilty Pleasures was reacting against – no longer apply. Recent years have seen the streaming figures for everything from Edison Lighthouse’s ‘Love Goes (Where My Rosemary Goes)’ to Matthew Wilder’s jaunty ‘Break My Stride’ go through the roof after becoming memes on the video-sharing platform. Meanwhile, the makers of wildly popular teen drama Euphoria thought nothing of throwing songs by Gerry Rafferty and Billy Swan – both of whom appear on this box set – in amongst the big 21st Century pop stars and ultra-hip names on its soundtrack: Labrinth, Arca, Drake, Rosalia, James Blake, Megan Thee Stallion. So the Guilty Pleasures box set arrives in a world where the notion of a guilty pleasure no longer really exists – which makes it a historical artefact twice over.

Guilty Pleasures was reviewed for SDE by Alexis Petridis. It is out now via Demon Records.

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Sean Rowley

Guilty Pleasures Amazon exclusive SIGNED 4CD set


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Guilty Pleasures 2LP vinyl Amazon exclusive signed edition


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Sean Rowley

Guilty Pleasures standard 2LP vinyl



Guilty Pleasures Various Artists / 4CD set

      1. Alessi Brothers – Oh Lori
      2. Captain and Tennille – Love Will Keep Us Together
      3. Pilot – January
      4. Electric Light Orchestra – Sweet Talkin’ Woman
      5. Climax Blues Band – Couldn’t Get It Right
      6. Ace – How Long
      7. The Fortunes – Storm In A Teacup
      8. Andy Kim – Rock Me Gently
      9. Sherbet – Howzat
      10. Marshall Hain – Dancing In The City
      11. 10cc – The Things We Do For Love
      12. Andrew Gold – Never Let Her Slip Away
      13. Gallagher & Lyle – I Wanna Stay With You
      14. David Essex – Gonna Make You A Star
      15. Peter Skellern – Hold On To Love
      16. Brian Protheroe – Pinball
      17. Helen Reddy – Angie Baby
      18. Andrew Fairweather-Low – Wide Eyed & Legless
      19. Colin Blunstone – Say You Don’t Mind
    • CD 2: A.M. – POP GOES SMOOTH
      1. Looking Glass – Brandy Youre A Fine Girl
      2. Blues Image – Ride Captain Ride
      3. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils – Jackie Blue
      4. Billy Swan – I Can Help
      5. Jim Gilstrap – Swing Your Daddy
      6. Lynsey De Paul – Sugar Me
      7. Stretch – Why Did You Do It
      8. Jigsaw – Sky High
      9. Silver – Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang
      10. Randy Edelman – Concrete And Clay
      11. Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel
      12. Liverpool Express – You Are My Love
      13. Starland Vocal Band – Afternoon Delight
      14. Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds – Fallin’ In Love
      15. Elvin Bishop – Fooled Around And Fell In Love
      16. Art Garfunkel – Breakaway
      17. Seals & Croft – Get Closer
    • CD 3: F.M. – NO STATIC
      1. Charlie Dore – Pilot of the Airwaves
      2. Chris Norman & Suzi Quatro – Stumblin’ In
      3. Oliva Newton John – Magic
      4. Rupert Holmes – Him
      5. Carole Bayer Sager – Moving Out Today
      6. Eric Carmen – She Did It
      7. Roger Voudouris – Get Used To It
      8. Gerry Rafferty – Get It Right Next Time
      9. Leo Sayer – Easy To Love
      10. The Four Seasons – Down The Hall
      11. Nicolette Larson – Lotta Love
      12. Little River Band – Reminiscing
      13. Ambrosia – How Much I Feel
      14. Dollar – Love’s Gotta Hold On Me
      15. England Dan & John Ford Coley – Love Is The Answer
      16. Player – This Time I’m In It For Love
      17. Orleans – Love Takes Time
    • CD 4: L.W. – NO HIT WONDERS
      1. Clout – Let It Grow
      2. Doctor Father – Umbopo
      3. Hollywood Freeway – You Are The Song (That I Can’t Stop Singing)
      4. Browning Bryant – Liverpool Fool
      5. Robert John – Give a Little  More
      6. The Mamas & The Papas – Shooting Star
      7. Pratt & McClain – Whachersign
      8. Denne and Gold – Let’s Put Our Love Back Together
      9. Gary Wright – Let It Out
      10. Cory Wells – Midnight Lady
      11. Felix Cavaliere – Only A Lonely Heart Sees
      12. Starbuck – Easing Back
      13. Jim Rafferty – Tomorrow Is Another Day
      14. Stephen Bishop – Little Italy
      15. White Plains – I Can’t Stop
      16. Blue Mink – Another “Without You” Day
      17. Pickettywitch – Days I Remember

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