Roy Orbison: Best of the Rest

December 6th marks the 34th anniversary of Roy Orbison’s death, at the tragically young age of fifty-two. The ‘Big O’ stood apart from other early rock ‘n’ rollers, with his sombre stage persona, his vulnerable, melancholy songs, and his semi-operatic voice.

After his hit-making days ended in the mid-to-late sixties, a decade in the wilderness beckoned. Personal tragedies also unfolded – the deaths of his wife and his two eldest sons in a car crash and house fire respectively. The eighties saw a rediscovery of his work, with hit covers of his songs by Don McClean and Van Halen, and the formation of The Traveling Wilburys supergroup in 1988, alongside Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty. On the cusp of a triumphant comeback, Orbison died from a heart attack on December 6th 1988.

I’ve already written about his three chart-toppers (‘Only the Lonely’, ‘It’s Over’ and ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’) – classics the lot of them – and so to mark this day I’ll cover his five next-biggest UK hits…

‘In Dreams’ – #6 in 1963

A candy-coloured clown they call the Sandman, Tiptoes to my room every night… Only Roy Orbison could give a lyric so ridiculous-and-yet-terrifying the weight that it deserves. He dreams of his ex-lover then wakes, bathed in sweat, and alone. (Of course he’s alone – it’s a Roy Orbison song.) It’s got the same build-up as one of The Big ‘O’s very best songs, ‘Running Scared’, which barely scraped into the Top 10. ‘In Dreams’ is not quite as good, but builds to a fine crescendo. Roy, as was his way, hits a note that most humans are incapable of imagining, let along singing. ‘In Dreams’ was used to famous effect in David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, a move that initially shocked Orbison but one that he came to accept after seeing the film several times (and perhaps, if we’re being cynical, seeing the publicity it brought his music…)

‘Too Soon to Know’ – #3 in 1966

A country cover that, I must admit, I’d never heard before. And yet it’s one of his biggest UK hits. It must have sounded quite unfashionable in the swinging charts of 1966 and yet… When was Roy Orbison ever truly in fashion? Or out of fashion, for that matter? He ploughed his own, spectacular furrow. It’s sweet, but lacking the oomph of Roy’s biggest and best hits.

‘Blue Bayou’ – #3 in 1963

Another bit of country-pop, with a cool bassline. And with Orbison’s angelic tones in the chorus, this is no normal country tune. No matter what genre he turned his hand to – country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll – he couldn’t help doing it a bit different. As a kid, I had no idea what a bayou was, but always thought it sounded nice: where you sleep all day, and the catfish play… I’m still not one-hundred percent certain what a bayou is, but I’d definitely like to hang out there…

‘You Got It’ – #3 in 1989

The comeback hit that never was. Well, it was a hit – one of his biggest – but Roy wasn’t around to enjoy his return to the top end of the charts. And ‘You Got It’ is almost the perfect comeback – a slight updating of Orbison’s sound, with some help from Jeff Lynne, but still a record that could easily slip in amongst his classics from the early sixties. The video above was filmed just a few weeks before his untimely death. It feels churlish to wonder if it would have been such a big hit had he not died… Maybe it would, as it’s a great song.

‘Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)’ – #2 in 1962

Interesting that this rockabilly ditty is Roy Orbison’s biggest non-#1. It’s nice enough: a repetitive refrain that turns into a sort of mantra as the song progresses, and it builds to a crescendo as all the best Orbison songs do. But it’s not an all time classic. Not a ‘Crying’, a ‘Running Scared’ or a ‘Blue Angel’ (my personal favourite). The video above is worth a look if not for the song then for the spectacularly uninterested audience. What did he say just before launching into the song…?

Roy Orbison, then. One of the most original chart stars going, with one of the very best voices.

Roy Orbison, April 26th 1936 – December 6th 1988

599. ‘You Win Again’, by The Bee Gees

They’re back. Again! One of the most resilient pop groups in history returns for a final hurrah on top of the charts…

You Win Again, by The Bee Gees (their 5th and final #1)

4 weeks, from 11th October – 8th November 1987

I’m not sure quite how many reinventions The Bee Gees went through in total. But in chart-topping terms, this is Bee Gees MK III. Folk-tinged pop in the ‘60s, disco behemoths in the ‘70s, now a middle-aged, man-band. (In the video, they’re all sculpted beards, lounge bar jackets and, er, a beret.) But while ‘middle of the road’ is usually thrown about in an insulting way, I’d say this is one of the best examples of the genre.

In fact, I’d say this is my favourite of their five #1s. I love the clanking, industrial intro. I love the deeper timbre of Barry Gibb’s voice, compared to their famous disco falsettos. (It does re-appear, almost, in the second verse.) And then, by the chorus, an initially dark and melancholy number has turned into an Irish jig of a tune. But it’s all still very recognisably Bee Gees – their sound is so flexible and, while they haven’t always been fashionable, they’re one of the best pop song-writing teams ever.

Certain moments are a little too glossy for my tastes. It is still 1987, after all. The high synth notes are catchy, if of their time, and the electronic horns in the solo are a cheesy touch too far. There is also an unintentionally (or not?) filthy line in the second verse, as Barry describes how he’s going to win back his woman: Gonna hit you from all sides, Lay your fortress open wide…

‘You Win Again’ was a huge comeback for the Bee Gees. It was their first Top 40 hit since 1979, and it made them the first group to score #1s in three different decades. (Elvis, Cliff and Paul McCartney having already got there as soloists.) It was also a huge hit across Europe, but in the US ‘disco-sucks’ seemed to have stuck to them, as it got no higher than #75. Though we should mention that they were so heavily involved in Diana Ross’s own big comeback smash, ‘Chain Reaction’, as writers and backing singers, that they should probably have been given a ‘featuring’ credit.

Anyway, ‘You Win Again’ set them up as MOR superstars, and they’d score intermittent Top 10 hits throughout the nineties, including ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (which for a long time I thought must be a Metallica cover…) and the brilliant ‘Alone’ in 1997, which was on the very first NOW album I owned. (‘Now 36’… I think. Or ‘35’… Or maybe ‘37’. Memory ain’t what it used to be…) In 2003, Maurice Gibb died unexpectedly, and the remaining two brothers retired the Bee Gees name out of respect. In 2012, Robin died from cancer, while Barry still performs the band’s music in his solo tours.

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598. ‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)’, by M/A/R/R/S

Right at the start of this year (and by ‘this year’ I mean 1987, not the actual year in which you are reading this) we had our first ever house #1: Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s ‘Jack Your Body’. That was Chicago house, and here we now have Britain’s answer…

Pump Up the Volume / Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance), by M/A/R/R/S (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 27th September – 11th October 1987

I’m pretty sure everybody’s heard the classic title line: Pump up the volume… Dance! Dance! The adjacent, ominous piano note is iconic, too. Problem is, that line and the piano note add up to about five seconds of music. The rest of the song – four minutes in its shortest edit; a good seven minutes on the 12” – suffers from the same gimmicky feel as ‘Jack Your Body’.

But whereas ‘Jack…’ was just repetitive, ‘Pump Up the Volume’ suffers from an everything but the kitchen sink, ‘what does this button do?’ approach. It makes for an interesting, if rarely very enjoyable listen. It’s a mix of distorted guitars, whale noises, your neighbours letting off fireworks in their back garden, and someone shouting Brothers and sisters, Pum-pump it up! ‘Less is more’ was clearly not the M/A/R/R/S motto.

I like the funky, more hip-hop leaning break that pops up a couple of times, in which all the effects are discarded. It’s the only part of the record that makes me want to Dance! Dance! and it doesn’t last long enough. I also like the ‘Indian’ sounding section. But, at the risk of sounding like my late grandmother, a lot of the song is just noise.

There isn’t an original note in it, either. This was a watershed moment for sampling in popular music. In its various edits and mixes, a grand total of twenty-nine different samples feature on the record, from acts such as Public Enemy, Run DMC, James Brown and Stock Aitken Waterman (who took legal action). Some of these samples amount to nothing more than a ‘Hey’ or a couple of musical notes. Anyone opposed to sampling on the grounds of musical puritanism should probably stop and consider that it would likely have been easier to write a completely original song than to stitch all these parts into something even vaguely listenable.

And that isn’t all. It’s been a while since we had a double-‘A’ single on top of the charts: well over five years. While ‘Pump Up the Volume’ is a ground-breaking record, it’s still a pop song at heart, that sits comfortably on top of the chart. The flip-side, ‘Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)’ is a completely different beast. This has no business being at #1…

It’s abstract, arty, and avant-garde. It’s grungy and acidic. Trippy, distorted vocals with yet more samples reverberating around them, and everything absolutely dripping in harsh feedback. It’s not an easy listen, and it’s definitely not anything you’ll be dancing to – the title is misleading in the extreme. But I like it more than its gimmicky twin. It’s harsh and uncompromising, and potentially the most uncommercial track ever to make the top.

I say ‘potentially’, for I’m not sure how much airplay ‘Anitina’ got at the time. I’m guessing next to none. But it’s there, listed in the records, and from it you can pretty much trace a straight line to the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers a decade hence. And these were the only two songs that M/A/R/R/S ever released. They were a supergroup of sorts, composed of an electronic act called Colourbox and an alternative rock band called A.R. Kane, brought together in an uncomfortable arranged marriage by their label manager. Colourbox added the dancier elements to A.R. Kane’s ‘Anitina’, while A.R. Kane added the wailing guitars to ‘Pump Up the Volume’. Neither particularly liked the other’s song and they refused to work together again. And so M/A/R/R/S are one-hit wonders in the purest sense.

At least one half of this record lives on, though. ‘Pump Up the Volume’, and its nods towards hip-hop and the beginnings of acid house make it as central to the late-eighties as Madonna and the SAW stable of hitmakers. While up next, following on from this most modern of chart-toppers, come a group who have been popping up on this blog for quite a while now…

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597. ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, by Rick Astley

Who knew? Before the memes, the jokes and the Rickrolling, this was actually a popular hit record.

Never Gonna Give You Up, by Rick Astley (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 23rd August – 27th September 1987

It’s hard to hear ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ now and not to roll (pardon the pun) your eyes. There’s a reason why this was chosen as the butt of a million jokes: it’s a bit naff. It’s got that bog-standard SAW Eurodisco production, and it’s sung by a pasty, ginger chap with a quiff. But is it better than it seems at first glance?

The answer, I’ve decided after several listens and some serious thought, is both yes and no. Yes, because SAW knew their way around a pop song, and the bassline in particular is quite fun. Yes, because Rick Astley is a very good singer. His voice is meaty and soulful. He’s a crooner, in the best sense of the word. But there’s also a ‘No’: I don’t think these two components come together very well.

Were it sung by Sinitta, say, it would be a competent pop tune. Were Astley given a more adult, blue-eyed soul number, he’d do excellently with it. As it is, the tune and the voice jar – especially in the choppy Never gonna give never gonna give… middle eight – and create something that just sounds a bit odd. Add in the cheap and cheerful video, in which Astley does some very awkward dad dancing (the video being the main reason this one has taken on such a unexpected afterlife) and you’ve got yourself a pretty strange chart-topping record.

But what do I know? Maybe what I find jarring is what others found interesting and unique? It’s not conveyer-belt pop… Well, it is, but with a very distinctive voice on top. It clearly appealed to a lot of people, as it made #1 around the world (including the US, and very few SAW songs made it over there) and was the best-selling single of 1987 in the UK. Perhaps it’s just not my cup of tea…

Sitting down to listen to it now, properly, for the first time ever, I’m noticing how it might be the least sexy love song ever. It’s a song all about how dependable he is: A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of, You wouldn’t get that from any other guy… It’s not about passion, swelling hearts or panting breaths; it’s about reliability. I just read a quote in which someone describes Astley proposing his love like he’s selling a second-hand car. Which made me chuckle. In tone, and also in his pale, honest, everyman style, it’s as if one of the big, semi-operatic voices of the ‘50s – a David Whitfield or a Ronnie Hilton – has staged an unexpected comeback thirty years on.

This was Rick Astley’s debut single, though he was somewhere in the crowd on Ferry Aid (he had famously been the ‘tea boy’ for Stock Aitken and Waterman in their recording studio). It would be the first of eight Top 10s between 1987 and the early nineties. In 1993 he retired from music to focus on his family, but returned to recording in the 2000s. Then came the memes and the Rickrolling (the video currently has 1.3 billion views on YouTube!), which he eventually embraced, and fair play to him. He remains very active, and is still capable of selling out arenas around the world. It seems his fans were… wait for it… never gonna give him up. Thank you, and goodnight.

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596. ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’, by Michael Jackson with Siedah Garrett

It would make a good pub quiz question: what was Michael Jackson’s only UK #1 single to be released from ‘Bad’…

I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, by Michael Jackson (his 3rd of seven #1s) with Siedah Garrett

2 weeks, from 9th – 23rd August 1987

For it wasn’t ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, or the title track. It was this smoocher. And why was this the lead single from his first album in five years…? Who would listen and think, yes, this is the one to launch the most anticipated album of the year? Sure, whatever single they chose would probably have topped the charts; but that makes it all the more frustrating that the other, better songs missed out…

Anyway. We haven’t even got onto the music and I’ve made my feelings pretty clear. It’s not a terrible song, but it’s proper syrupy, glossy, eighties lite-soul. The intro, with its tinkly percussion, sounds like the love-theme from a Disney film. Like it should be sung by an animated teacup, or a doe-eyed princess; not the world’s biggest pop star. Whispers at morning, Our love is dawning… Heaven’s glad you came… And then there’s the fact that I can’t help feeling a bit icky hearing Jackson croon a love song, knowing what we know now… (The album version is even worse, opening as it does with MJ whispering I just wanna lay next to you for a while… and I just want to touch you…)

Much better were he whooping and squealing his way through ‘Bad’… Who’s bad? You Michael, we know that now. At least the chorus here has a bit of beef to it. My life ain’t worth living, If I can’t be with you… Boom… It doesn’t completely redeem the song, but it offers a glimpse as to why it was seen as a potential lead single.

It’s quite easy to miss the fact that this is a duet, as Siedah Garrett has a very similar voice to Jackson. Apparently he wanted Whitney Houston or Barbra Streisand, but both turned him down. Garrett was an interesting choice, as she had largely been a club singer and backing vocalist (though she did co-write ‘Man in the Mirror’) and her biggest hit prior to this had peaked at #45. Still, she sings it well, though I do think a duet is more effective with two more differing voices.

Compared to his last chart-topper, ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ feels like the beginning of MJ Part II. The vocal tics, breaths and whoops are much more pronounced, and his voice feels softer and higher (though that might just be because he’s signing such a syrupy ballad). Meanwhile, I never noticed before how white he looks on the ‘Bad’ album cover, compared to ‘Thriller’.

In the US, this made number one, along with the four following songs from ‘Bad’, a record that’s since been matched but never beaten. In total he released a ridiculous nine of the ten tracks from the album as singles, and while they’d give him six more UK Top 10s none of them would make it to the top. Next time we’ll meet Michael Jackson it will be with the lead single from his next album. He’ll have gone from ‘Bad’ to ‘Dangerous’, make of that what you will…

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595. ‘La Bamba’, by Los Lobos

We’re hitting a bit of a latin groove in the summer of ’87. After Madonna’s two ‘¿hablas español?’ chart-toppers, here are some actual Mexicans…

La Bamba, by Los Lobos (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 26th July – 9th August 1987

OK. Los Lobos (The Wolves) are from California, but they’re of Mexican heritage, and sound to these untrained ears like the real deal. This is a nice, insanely catchy, interlude at the top of the charts – not just because it’s something a little different, but also because actual guitar-led number one singles were rarer than hens’ teeth in the mid-1980s.

It’s also not often that we get a fully foreign-language record at the top, either. In my initial notes on this, I wrote that it was only the 3rd of the decade. Now I’m struggling to think what the other two were… There’s Julio Iglesias’s similarly Spanish smoothy ‘Begin the Beguine’ (which, to be fair, has a couple of lines of English). Oh yes, and how could I forget Falco’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ which, title aside, was fully auf Deutsch.

What is a ‘Bamba’, I’m wondering? It’s not a thing, as such… More of a dance. There’s no direct translation, but the verb bombolear means to shake, or wobble, and so a derivative dance would presumably have a bit of hip wiggling. Put the rest of the Spanish lyrics through a translator, and it turns out to be a bit of a nonsense tune: To dance ‘La Bamba’, You need a bit of grace… I’m not a sailor, I’m a captain… Bam-ba, Bamba…

‘La Bamba’ was originally a hit for Ritchie Valens, and the Los Lobos version featured in a biopic released at the same time as the hit record. Which taps into another emerging theme of 1987: soundtrack hits. ‘Stand by Me’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, ‘Who’s That Girl’, now this, have all made top-spot at least in part thanks to movies. The Valens film told the story of the first Latino rock ‘n’ roll star, whose rise to fame ended in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper when he was just seventeen.

‘La Bamba’ has a much longer history, though. It’s a Mexican folk song, of the son jarocho school, meaning that its roots stretch back centuries and that this is actually a pretty unique and culturally significant chart-topper. The earliest recording of ‘La Bamba’ is from the ‘30s. Valens took a song he presumably knew from childhood and gave it a rock ‘n’ roll twist… And it eventually ended up on top of the British charts some thirty years later, sandwiched between Madonna and Michael Jackson. The instrumental fade-out in particular sounds very authentically Mexican, though I think that was cut from the single edit.

Los Lobos had been around since the 1970s, and remain around today – having just released an album last year. This cover was by far their biggest hit, though, and what a hit: a #1 from the USA to New Zealand, via the UK, France and seemingly everywhere in-between. And, like I said in the intro, it’s been a refreshing change of pace. Up next, though, we’re back with the eighties big-hitters. The biggest of hitters: MJ himself.

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594. ‘Who’s That Girl’, by Madonna

Madonna scores her 4th chart-topper within twelve months, joining a very exclusive club…

Who’s That Girl, by Madonna (her 5th of thirteen #1s)

1 week, from 19th – 26th July 1987

The ‘4-in-a-year club’ are The Beatles, Elvis, The Shadows, Slade and, um, Frank Ifield (do shout at me if I’ve forgotten anyone else!) and one thing you might notice about those five acts are their… well, their manhoods. Yes, Madonna is now officially (probably) the most successful female in chart history!

The sad thing is that, for such a ‘big’ #1, ‘Who’s That Girl’ is a bit of a non-event. It is ‘La Isla Bonita’ Part II, a watered down and remixed version of her previous chart-topper. The intro in particular, with its drum riff, is nigh on identical; while the subsequent latin-funk synths are, if not identical, then heavily influenced by their predecessor.

Plus, there’s even more Spanish thrown in this time. Quién es esa niña…? Señorita, más fina… Who’s that girl? I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘La Isla Bonita’, and it’s therefore inevitable that I’m even less a fan of this diluted version. There’s nothing wrong with it, blandness and lack of originality aside, but it’s well overshadowed by the bolder moments in Madonna’s back-catalogue. And out of her thirteen chart-toppers, it’s the one I’m least familiar with (I could probably have attempted the title line from memory, but that’s it…)

It’s from the soundtrack to a film of the same name. A ‘screwball comedy’, as Wikipedia puts it, that presumably nobody has watched since 1987. And that’s about all there is to write on this most slight and forgettable of #1s. To be fair, in order to achieve four chart-toppers in a year you need a combination of massive popularity and a winning formula. Nobody would deny that at least one of Elvis’s, or The Shadows’, or Slade’s four #1s was a re-tread… ‘Surrender’, ‘Dance On’, ‘Skweeze Me Pleeze Me’… While the sound of 1962-3 was Frank Ifield’s yodel popping up, time and again. The one act who managed to sound new and fresh with every single song was The Beatles, but there’s no point in competing with them…

Perhaps Madonna knew she was treading water at this point, because she took 1988 off and drew a line under what we’ll call Madge MK I. In two years’ time, when she scores her next chart-topper, she’ll be a different beast altogether!

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593. ‘It’s a Sin’, by Pet Shop Boys

Ah, yes. Cleansing the palate after the rotten ‘Star Trekkin’, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a… classic. In fact, with Whitney before and Pet Shop Boys after, we have two beauties sandwiching a stinking turd. Such are the pop charts…

It’s a Sin, by Pet Shop Boys (their 2nd of four #1s)

3 weeks, from 28th June – 19th July 1987

It’s an epic, statement intro, juddering in like a train about to overshoot its platform, followed by a dramatic ‘Skoosh!’ It’s a sound effect last heard on ‘Relax’, and that’s a comparison I think could be maintained for the entirety of this post. Not only in the skooshing, but in the fact that ‘It’s a Sin’ is every bit as gay as its more infamous predecessor.

If ‘Relax’ was an unrepentant celebration of all things queer, then ‘It’s a Sin’ is a little more introspective. A lot more. When I look back upon my life… Neil Tennant announces… It’s always with a sense of shame… I’ve always been the one to blame… Tennant had gone to a Catholic school, where he was taught that pretty much every natural urge he had would earn him a one-way ticket to hell. For everything I long to do, No matter when or where… Or who… It’s a sin…

As serious as the lyrics are, though, the PSBs keep things moving, and shaking. You can pay scant attention to the words, if you wish, and just dance. Tennant himself has said he wrote the song more in a camp than an angry frame of mind. That comes through in the ‘do’ and ‘who’ rhyme, and I can’t help but picture a Noël Coward-esque arched eyebrow on the They didn’t quite succeed… line.

While if you listen harder still, you realise that he isn’t quite as ashamed as he first suggests. In the glorious Father forgive me… middle eight, he ends with a chest-beating moment of affirmation: I didn’t care, And I still don’t understand… It’s a brilliant feat, to write a song about something so unpleasant – his experiences could be seen as child abuse, who knows – but make it so catchy, and so funny. ‘Relax’ was in your face; ‘It’s a Sin’ outs itself more slowly, but just as effectively.

‘West End Girls’ is the Pet Shop Boys’ song which is routinely crowned as one of the best songs of the 1980s, if not of all time. But for me, this one beats it all ends up. Tennant and Lowe wanted Stock Aitken Waterman to produce it, but Pete Waterman hated the demo version. The one that got away… (I’d love to hear the SAW take on it.) Tennant has also likened it to a heavy metal song, in its tempo, it’s portentous chords and it’s overblown production. I’d also like to hear a metal version, and the closest I could find was this take by Finnish (of course they are) band The Jade… None of them can touch the original, though. One of the high points of the entire decade.

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592. ‘Star Trekkin”, by The Firm

Oh. Oh no. Oh God, no…

(Just in case you missed that: Oh. No.)

Star Trekkin’, by The Firm (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 14th – 28th June 1987

I’m an open-minded type. When it comes to this blog, I try my best to find something to appreciate in every song we meet. I managed to tolerate ‘Shaddap You Face’, and I made my peace with ‘Save Your Love’. There are very few #1s that I’ve found utterly irredeemable…

To the ‘Irredeemable Club’, though, we can add this truly heinous number. Just…why? Why take a bunch of lines from ‘Star Trek’ and stitch them into an irritating playground chant? Why the ever-increasing tempo? Why the funny voices? Why the potatoes?? WHY??

I suppose the fact that I’m asking ‘why’ means the joke is lost on me. I’m not a Trekkie; but then again I’m not sure many Trekkies would find this particularly funny. (And, apparently, not all the lines from the song ever featured in the show. It’s life Jim, But not as we know it… for example was invented just for this moment.)

The Firm were a novelty act, helmed by a man called John O’Connor. They’d had minor hits before, but every label they approached was, unsurprisingly, reluctant to release ‘Star Trekkin’. So they went it alone, pressed five-hundred copies, and before they knew it their song was getting pushed by Radio 1. The animated video was rush-released, as the band didn’t want to appear live and lose their mystique…

So on the one hand, I want to applaud this home-made, go-it-alone attitude. Some classic chart-toppers have been made in bedrooms and garages. This, however, is not a classic chart-topper. It’s truly rotten. Not funny. Unlistenable. The end.

Looking back, the obvious comparison to make is with ‘The Chicken Song’, which made #1 a year before this. I gave that a pass as, while it was also annoying crap, it was meant to be annoying crap. Perhaps The Firm also knew ‘Star Trekkin’ was terrible, and released it as a joke, as a prank on an unsuspecting nation. But maybe, just maybe, they thought it was good…

When I was twelve, my brother bought me ‘Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh’ as a Christmas present. Not because he liked the song, or because he thought I liked the song, but because he knew it would annoy me. As a joke. He bought the song, and helped it to #1, with malicious intent. I think the same sentiment probably explains ‘Star Trekkin’s success. People bought it to annoy siblings, flatmates, friends… Nobody bought it with the intention of ever actually enjoying it as a piece of music. Post-‘Star Trekkin’, The Firm had one further song chart at #99: ‘Superheroes’. It follows an ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach and may be – which is a huge achievement, if you think about it – even worse than their sole chart-topper.

591. ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’, by Whitney Houston

And so on to one of the decade’s biggest voices, with her poppiest moment…

I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), by Whitney Houston (her 2nd of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 31st May – 14th June 1987

Her poppiest #1, at least. ‘Saving All My Love for You’ was slinky jazz, and the following two are Whitney Ballads™. Here, though, she sings like the young woman she was, and sounds like she’s having one hell of a time.

Clock strikes upon the hour, And the sun begins to fade… It’s girly-pop 101: the need to dance with somebody, anybody, as long as they love you; from ‘Dancing Queen’ to ‘Just Dance’. It’s slightly contradictory, she is looking for an anonymous encounter with someone who already loves her… A man who’ll take a chance, On a love that burns hot enough to last… but really, who’s looking for lyrical depth?

This is cheese. The lyrics, the castanet flourishes between lines, the strident synth chords before each chorus, and a peach of a key-change. But, there are levels of cheese. And there are two things that save this from being cheesy pop of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman variety. The first is that it’s being sung by Whitney Houston. SAW never had a singer of her capabilities (sorry, Kylie). Check out the way she breathes the ‘falls’ then belts the ‘calls’ in the When the night falls, My lonely heart calls… line. While Sonia ain’t never hit notes like Whitney does in the fade-out. The usual complaints about her over-singing don’t apply here either: it’s much harder to over-sing a bubbly pop tune like this. And even if you do, people are less likely to notice.

The second is that, under all the cheese, the production has quite an edge to it. The squelchy bass in the intro is fun, and the middle-eight breakdown especially has a Prince-like funk to it. It’s worth contrasting the ‘cool’ production on an American hit like this, with the most recent British equivalent, ‘Respectable’. As much as I did enjoy it, and I know it sounds like I’m picking on SAW here, there is a big difference in quality…

Critics picked up on ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s similarity to Houston’s own ‘How Will I Know?’, and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, similarities which are there for all to hear, but they didn’t stop it from being a worldwide smash. And, in the UK at least, it marks a significant milestone: the first single issued on CD. The future is rapidly approaching…

And as fun as this song is, it’s skirting very close with being overplayed to oblivion. At hen-parties and ‘80s nights you can safely bet your house on hearing it. I’d suggest it be retired for a decade or so, in order to preserve what is one of the most enjoyable moments, for me at least, in Whitney’s discography.

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