Birmingham’s finest return for their second chart-topper, with what might be the most obnoxious intro to a #1 single ever. Ta-la-la-la…The re-fle-fle-fle-fle-flex…! It’s brash, it’s in your face, it’s Duran Duran…
The Reflex, by Duran Duran (their 2nd and final #1)
4 weeks, from 29th April – 27th May 1984
I’m imagining Duran Duran as those annoying kids you’ll find in any school playground, the ones needing constant attention from whoever will give them it, demanding everyone watch as they dance and cartwheel around, while the quieter, more thoughtful kids go unnoticed… (I’m not reliving any childhood trauma here, honest…) The main hook – the wh-ay-ay-ay don’t you use it… – even sounds like a child’s taunt, as they stick their tongue out and wiggle their fingers in front of their nose. It’s also a pretty darn effective pop hook. Once it’s in your head, it’s there for the rest of the day.
‘The Reflex’ shouldn’t work. It’s a hot mess of a record. The foundation is standard Duran Duran: a solid bass line from John Taylor, and the same guitars from ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’ Simon Le Bon’s voice remains one that you need to be in the mood for. But on top of this they’ve chucked everything plus the kitchen sink. Steel drums, horns, choppy vocal effects, explosions… Some of it grates, but a lot of it sticks. Everything about it – from the way the band has cut up samples of their own lead singer’s voice, to their perfect mullets in the video – screams peak eighties. This song might actually be as ‘eighties’ as it ever gets. And something about its pure relentlessness carries it through to being a pretty decent tune.
Just what is ‘the reflex’, though? It is a lonely child, waiting in the park… and it’s watching over lucky clover… You must, at all costs, try not to bruise it. Apparently it has something to do with gambling. Le Bon has gone on record as saying that he’s tired of having to explain it, as he thinks song lyrics should retain their mystique. I’d hazard that he’s tired of explaining it because he hasn’t a clue what he’s been prattling on about all these years.
In the end, and just as it went when I was reviewing their first #1, the frown from my first listen slowly fades. By the fifth play I’m dancing on the valentine with the rest of them. If my two posts on Duran Duran have taught me anything, it’s don’t overthink them. Just go with the flow and enjoy yourself.
You might think a band so synonymous with this decade would have had more than just the pair of #1 hits. Still, this was their 8th Top Hit in three years, and they’d have four more before the end of the decade (including one of my favourite Bond themes). They’ll also have a couple of Top 10 comebacks: in the ‘90s with one of their best songs (‘Ordinary World’) and in the mid-00s, when synth-rock had had a big resurgence in the charts and they were suddenly the elder statesmen of the genre…
And so the promising start that 1984 had made comes to a crashing halt. Actually, no. ‘Crashing’ makes this sound way more exciting than it is. ‘Shuddering’? Still a bit too dramatic. A whimpering halt….? Yes, that’s it.
Hello, by Lionel Richie (his 1st and only solo #1)
6 weeks, from 18th March – 29th April 1984
‘Hello’ is a dull record. The lyrics are trite… Let me start by saying, I love you…. and Sometimes I feel that my heart will overflow… The pace is that of a glacier. Lionel Richie’s voice, while technically decent, is bland. After two records that showed how fun the 1980s could be – ‘Relax’ and ’99 Red Balloons’ – it’s dross like this that gives the decade a bad name.
It’s not that dull ballads were invented in the 1980s. The fifties, for example, was stuffed to the brim with them. But the production here, the glossy soft-soul gloop oozing from this record’s grooves, is prime mid-eighties. And it doesn’t enhance… There’s a soppy organ, a soppy piano, a soppy brass section. There are some weird swirling synths, which are as close as the music gets to being interesting. And then there’s an insipid acoustic Spanish guitar solo that really tries the patience.
Having never actually listened to this snooze-fest through choice before today, I was expecting a more OTT power-ballad element to it. You know: bad, but ridiculous. Except that’s just the video… In it, Richie plays a drama teacher with the unfortunate habit of creeping around behind one of his female students. Who just happens to be blind. He finally plucks up the courage to call her – the way he sings Hello! Is it me you’re looking for…? down the phone is actually hilarious – and she displays her love by making a truly monstrous clay model of his head.
Play ‘Hello’ away from the video, however, and you lose all this silliness. It is a truly boring experience. It’s only four minutes long, but it feels like twice that. I named Richie’s previous #1 – ‘Three Times a Lady’, with the Commodores – as a ‘Meh’ chart-topper, but this one takes ‘Meh’ to new levels. Why this was top of the charts for six weeks, and why it has since become an eighties pop culture cornerstone, is beyond me.
I have to admit that even his more upbeat hits of the mid-‘80s, the likes of ‘All Night Along’ and ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’, leave me feeling cold. Lionel Richie is, for whatever reason, an artist I don’t connect with. Too slick? Too glossy? Soulless soul? Maybe. Either way, for now I’m reminded why this decade will, at times, be a slog.
A couple of posts ago, I was a bit down on 1984. Before it had even started, I was pooh-poohing the idea that it was all that great of a year. But… with this next chart-topper following on from the assault to all five senses that is ‘Relax’, maybe 1984 wasn’t such a bad year after all.
99 Red Balloons, by Nena (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 26th February – 18th March 1984
Not that I’m going to start claiming it as the best year ever – not yet anyway – but this is another great slice of synth-pop. The slow-building intro is quite similar to ‘Relax’, and it forms the background to a story of two people in a toy shop, buying a bag of red balloons… Set them free at the break of dawn, ‘Til one by one, They were gone…
And then the beat drops – one of the great beat ‘drops’, from before beat ‘drops’ were a thing – and we have an incredibly catchy, cheese-funk synth riff. And guitars! Punk rock guitars. Forget synth-pop; it’s synth-rock. It feels like an age since we’ve had actual guitars at #1, and they drive the song along through its story of nuclear armageddon. Ninety-nine red balloons, Floating in the summer sky…
The authorities see these innocent balloons and panic. This is what we’ve waited for, This is it boys, This is war… You don’t need a degree in 20th Century history to work out what concerns this record is tapping into. The Cold War was at its height: it’s still February, and this isn’t even the first chart-topper of the year to reference war. It won’t be the last either… Incidentally, the inspiration for the song was said to have come when the band went to a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, and watched balloons released on stage floating towards the Wall.
Nena were themselves from West Germany – ‘Nena’ being both the name of the band and of the lead singer, in a shades of Blondie. In fact, Britain was one of the few countries where the hit version of ’99 Red Balloons’ was in English. Across Europe and Australia, even in the US, the German original soared to the upper reaches of the charts. I do like Nena’s German-accented English, especially in the worry, worry, super scurry line, though there’s a forcefulness to the German version that probably comes from her being more confident singing in her native tongue (the drums are also heavier in the original, which is another pro).
In the end we’re left with something stark, both musically and lyrically. The driving beat and catchy riff vanish, leaving the echoey synths. It’s all over and I’m standing pretty, In this dust that was a city… The singer finds one last balloon. I think of you and let it go… It’s a powerful ending from a song that sometimes gets written off as a novelty (I was thinking the same before listening to it properly a few days ago…)
Nena (the band) had a few more years of success in Germany, but struggled to score many more hits in English-speaking countries. They split up in 1987, though Nena (the singer) has continued to record, and sometimes collaborates with her former bandmates. And so. I am left to reassess my opinions on 1984, and on synth pop in general. Except, oh dear…. Our next number one will go some way to proving why this year wasn’t so great after all…
Having just covered the Daddy of all banned #1s, ‘Relax’, I thought I’d take a short pause to look at which of our 530 previous chart-toppers had been banned for one reason or another.
By ‘banned’ I mean ‘banned by the BBC’, as I think that’s probably the best barometer of overall public taste and opinion in the UK. And rather than divide the post by song titles, I’ve divided it by the reasons the records were banned. Starting with…
Such a Night, by Johnny Ray – a #1 in 1954, and one of my favourite pre-rock chart-toppers. It was banned because of Ray’s ‘suggestive panting’, as he recalls a night of wild abandon with an unamed person. (Ray was gay, and so he technically sent an ode to gay sex to #1 a full thirty years before Frankie Goes to Hollywood.) Read my original post here.
Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus, by Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin – a strong contender for the most controversial #1 ever, alongside ‘Relax’. Leave it to a Frenchman to record this steamy slice. Rumour has it that the ‘suggestive panting’ here is an actual live orgasm, as the randy old goat defiled English rose Jane Birkin in the studio. (Gainsbourg denied this by claiming that if it had been live sex, then the record would have had to have been a long player… Ooh lalala!) Live or not, this record was so good it came twice. To the singles chart, that is… It originally made #2 in the spring of 1969, before being re-released in the autumn and reaching its ultimate climax. (Original post here.)
Answer Me, by Frankie Laine / Hold My Hand, by Don Cornell / The Garden of Eden, by Frankie Vaughan – the fact that these three records were banned might sound completely ridiculous to modern ears. But in the 1950s people – or the Beeb, at least – blanched at the mere mention of Our Lord in a pop song. Frankie Laine made light of praying with the line Answer me, Lord above… (When David Whitfield came to record his own chart-topping version, he changed the words to Answer Me, Oh my love…) Don Cornell and Frankie Vaughan meanwhile compared acts of love to being in the Garden of Eden. Saucy stuff for the mid-fifties. Here’s Vaughan’s hit from 1957, which was actually a bit of a banger by pre-rock standards:
MURDER!! and PROSTITUTES!!
Mack the Knife, by Bobby Darin – originally written for Berthold Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ in the thirties, Bobby Darin’s recording is nowadays seen as the definitive version of ‘Mack the Knife’. No matter that the references to murder and prostitution were softened considerably – ‘cement bags’ and ‘scarlet billows’ for example – the BBC still thought it was a bit too heavy for radio.
Tell Laura I Love Her, by Ricky Valance / Ebony Eyes, by The Everly Brothers / Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton – One of the stranger musical movements of the 1960s was the popularity of ‘death-discs’ in the very earliest years of the decade. They usually involved a young couple, a tragic accident, and an untimely end… Three such ‘splatter platters’ made it to #1 in the UK, the best of which was the Joe Meek produced ‘Johnny Remember Me’. The BBC banned them on the grounds that they were ‘morbid’ – which I guess is true – and ‘nauseating’ – which is most definitely true in the case of the awful ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’.
Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble & the Stingers – I’m stretching things a bit here, as this record was never actually banned. However, the BBC did put it to a review, as this 1962 #1 was a rock ‘n’ roll take on the march from Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, and Auntie took a dim view of frivolous parodies of much more worthy classical pieces. In the end the board decided that the record was clearly of ‘an ephemeral nature’ and was ‘unlikely to offend reasonable people’. B. Bumble lived to sting another day. (Original post here.)
Space Oddity, by David Bowie – Bowie’s first chart hit was this classic, released just five days before the Apollo 11 mission launched in July 1969. The world was on tenterhooks, waiting to see if Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would make it to the moon and back in one piece. The BBC felt that this song, in which a solitary Major Tom floats in his tin can towards oblivion, his circuits dead and something wrong, went against the optimistic public mood. The ban only lasted until the astronauts had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The single made #5, and eventually #1 when re-released in 1975. (Original post here.)
Waterloo, by ABBA – Yes. ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA has indeed been banned by the BBC. During the first Gulf War, it was one of sixty-seven songs banned from the airwaves for alluding, however obliquely, to military conflict. The idea that a metaphor involving a tempestuous romance and Napoleon’s last stand could unsettle the general public in a time of war seems laughable, but the Beeb played it safe. Also banned at the time were Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, Paper Lace’s ‘Billy – Don’t Be a Hero’ and… Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’.
The BBC doesn’t officially ‘ban’ songs anymore, it just doesn’t play them. The last big controversy involved The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ in the late ’90s, which was only played as an instrumental. In recent years, controversy over radio stations editing, or not editing, a certain term from ‘Fairytale of New York’ has become something of a festive tradition in the UK. Last I heard, Radio 1 were playing an edited version, while Radio 2 were sticking with the original.
Any official ‘ban’ on a song nowadays would be quite pointless, with streaming services and YouTube at our fingertips, and the BBC seems to have given up its role as arbiters of public decency. Anyway, the fact that all these banned records made #1 anyway is probably quite telling. At best, a ban did very little. At worst, it actually boosted sales through all the people popping down HMV to see what all the fuss was about.
Next up, we return to the regular countdown, with a song about nuclear armageddon. That was never, as far as I’m aware, banned…
Heresss Frankie! In a way, I dread coming across (filthy pun very much intended…) #1 records like this. Huge megalithic-hits that have had everything written about them, and then some. But we gotta cover them all, so…
Relax, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 1st of three #1s)
5 weeks, from 22nd January – 26th February 1984
That’s not to say I dislike this record. Far from it: this is almost the perfect number one. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, it’s a real cultural moment… and it pissed off all the right people. In fact, that first bit – ‘Relax’s catchiness – is the one aspect of this song that possibly gets overlooked.
Let’s do the music first, then. An ominous intro floats in – I’ve always wondered what is being sung here (it’s M-i-ine, Give it to me one time now…) – before giving way to some grinding synths. I’ve been a bit down on synthesisers at times in this blog, but these are great. These are played like guitars, and could flatten a skyscraper. Apparently, singer Holly Johnson was the only band member to feature on the recording. Producer Trevor Horn – last heard on another synth-pop classic ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ – took complete control of what was a jingly demo, and created a monster.
A monster that demands to be played loud. This is no shrinking violet of a song. It’s all out there, slapping you about the face… Which brings us on to the lyrics. Everyone knows what this one’s about… Relax, Don’t do it, When you wanna suck it to it… (there’s some debate about those lyrics, but the band have apparently confirmed them) When you wanna… Come! For reasons of public decency, I will be spelling it as ‘come’ throughout, when we all know it should be… Anyway. Question is, did anyone ever think ‘Relax’ was about anything else? The band half-heartedly claimed it was about ‘motivation’ when the song was first released, but by the time the album came out bassist Mark O’Toole confessed it “really was about shagging.”
And not just any old shagging. The video sees singer Holly Johnson entering a gay bar in his sensible work suit, and after three minutes of face-spitting, banana-licking, tiger-fighting, and cage-wrestling, he ends up straddling a writhing mass of bodies… and that’s just the edited version. Meanwhile, a Roman emperor unleashes a torrent of piss from the balcony (putting the ‘number one’ in number one single…) on the biggest Come! of the song, complete with a super-soaker sound effect. It’s gloriously tasteless, clearly designed to get a reaction. And get a reaction it did…
Two weeks before ‘Relax’ made top spot, the BBC had banned it from being played before 9pm. Radio 1 DJ Mike Read even pulled it off (the record, that is…!) live on air, in apparent disgust. For the five weeks that it was #1, ‘Top of the Pops’ showed nothing but a picture of the band. MTV followed suit. You can kind of see why – even today the video raises an eyebrow – but at the same time would this record have been as huge if they’d just played it without blinking? Maybe not.
But the band new what they were doing. Two of the members were out and proud, and the song’s promo played on this with gay abandon. One ad saw keyboardist Paul Rutherford dressed a sailor, alongside the phrase “All the nice boys love sea men.” The record sleeve, above, which Mike Read took such exception too, features a man and a woman in a little bit of leather and not much else. If you’re of a negative disposition, you could argue that all this represents the worst of the 1980s, a triumph of image and promotion over substance. But… pop music has never just been about the music. Even before Elvis wiggled those hips, pop and sex have been inextricably linked. ‘Relax’ was just the latest update on the theme. Sadly, as we know all to well, this didn’t herald a sea-change in British attitudes towards homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was just around the corner, and Section 28 would be in place by the end of the decade. Yet for the five weeks that this was #1, it must have felt like quite the moment.
It all ends in a cresecendo, and one final, bellowed Come! Then we all slink off to the bathroom to hose ourselves down… 1984 truly will be Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s year. Three chart-toppers with their first three releases (the first act to do this since fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & The Pacemakers), and fifteen weeks at number one. Two of the biggest-selling hits of all time. And their very own t-shirt. Is ‘Frankie Say…’ the most famous rock logo, aside perhaps from the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue? Possibly. So, much more to come from Frankie, then, before long. Though it is worth saying that, of their three #1s, this is my favourite. Everything that was great and gaudy about the mid-1980s wrapped up in a four-minute mini masterpiece.
Recently, I’ve seen a couple of articles that have claimed 1984 as the best year ever for pop music. Ever. On the one hand I get it: Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Springsteen… MTV hitting its stride. Fashion choices that remain ingrained on our collective conscience. On the other hand, looking down my list of #1s, none of these artists will be bothering top spot in the UK during this hallowed year. Instead, we start with an ex-Beatle, with the only truly solo chart-topper of his long career…
Pipes of Peace, by Paul McCartney (his 2nd of three solo #1s)
2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd January 1984
And to be honest, I’m expecting something truly horrendous here. Still scarred from Macca’s first ‘solo’ chart-topper, ‘Ebony & Ivory’, I see the word ‘pipes’ in the title, and am imagining more bagpipes a la ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or even, shudder, pan-pipes… But actually, no. It’s quite nice. After a strange intro, that sounds like a rusty orchestra tuning up, we glide into a gentle, late-Beatlesy melody. This could have slipped quite easily onto Side 3 of ‘The White Album’ (it was produced by George Martin, too).
Even the earnest message… All round the world, Little children being born to the world, Got to give them all we can… doesn’t grate like it did in E&I. Paul, as ever, just wants us to all get along. Help them to learn, Songs of joy, Instead of burn baby burn… (Either that, or it’s an anti-disco message…?) And it ends in a nice a cappella section which, following on from the Flying Pickets, makes this truly the sound of the season.
It’s not perfect. There are some weird synthy touches that border on cartoonish sound-effects. And there’s a disjointed feel to this song, as if it’s a gathering of ideas rather than a finished version. On the whole, though, it’s a pleasant enough start to the year. It was clearly going for the Christmas market, even if it couldn’t dislodge the Pickets until long after the decorations had come down. Still, peace is for life, not just for Christmas…
The video is set in the trenches of World War I, in which Paul plays both a British and a German soldier who meet during the famous (and possibly apocryphal) Christmas Day truce of 1914. They exchange photos of their sweethearts back home as soldiers play a game of football around them. Again, it’s quite nice. And again, as with ‘Ebony & Ivory’, you can just about make out John Lennon scoffing from beyond the grave…
I’d say that this keeps our run of retro number ones going – just the fact that it’s by Paul McCartney is already pretty retro for 1984 – but that is all about to end. Up next, we have one of the most aggressively ‘eighties’-sounding chart-toppers of the entire decade. And if you have some pearls handy, now might be the time to start clutching them…
And so we hurtle towards the end of 1983, with our latest Christmas number one. And, yes, it’s a novelty record. But wait! No! Come back! This is a ‘novelty’ in the sense that it’s different and interesting; not in the sense that it’s a bunch of gap-toothed schoolchildren singing about their grandma…
Only You, by The Flying Pickets (their 1st and only #1)
5 weeks, from 4th December 1983 – 8th January 1984
The novelty here lies in the fact that this record is (almost) completely a cappella. The only bits that aren’t a cappella are the two drum beats which follow the intro. There might also be a non-human synth right in the background, but I can’t be sure. You wonder why they didn’t go the whole hog and make it completely a cappella, but it was enough for this to go down in the record books as the first a cappella #1. (I’m now going to try writing the remainder of this post without using the term ‘a cappella’, as I keep mis-spelling it.)
All I needed was the love you gave, All I needed for another day… You can see why this was a big festive hit: it’s unusual but still accessible, it’s melancholy, it sounds like a festive choir… It’s got a romantic-sounding title, though it’s actually a fairly miserable break-up song if you stop and listen to the lyrics. All I ever knew, Only you… Plus, the original had been a #2 hit for Yazoo only a year or so earlier, so it may well have appealed to trendy young types too.
The Flying Pickets were a vocal group from London, with a background in fringe theatre. The band’s name would have had a particular resonance at the time, and may have helped them to a few more sales, with the country on the verge of a huge miners’ strike. The Pickets were radical socialists, and the members had been on the front lines of earlier strikes in the seventies. Once ‘Only You’ had made number one, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher displayed either supreme ignorance or shamelessness (both are quite feasible) in naming it her favourite song of the time.
The video adds to the gritty, socialist vibe, shot as it is in a North Shields pub. The band members play darts, pool and the fruit machine as they harmonise. Once you see them, it’s a bit of a shock trying to reconcile the angelic voices on the record with these fairly grizzled looking blokes. They definitely have a ‘fringe theatre’ vibe to them – I think I might have given them a wide berth had I been at the same pub – and all the a cappella-ing does feel a little ‘community centre am-dram’ at times.
Still, it’s a fun record: a ‘novelty’ in the best sense of the word, and a welcome addition to the festive canon. It’s one of those Xmas #1s that, despite having nothing to do with the season, still feels very festive. And it’s another retro-sounding chart-topper to list alongside the doo-wop, disco and reggae tracks we’ve featured in the latter half of 1983.
The Flying Pickets aren’t quite one-hit wonders (the follow-up to this gave them one further Top 10 hit), but their chart success wasn’t sustained beyond the mid-1980s. They are still around and recording to this day – their latest album saw them covering Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, as well as re-recording this #1 hit – although none of the members who feature on this song have been a part of the band since 1990.
That’s it for 1983, then: the year in which it felt like the eighties truly began. Up next, we embark on a year described more than once as the best year for pop music… ever. I may have to take exception to that…
We are now racing through 1983 – no chart-topper in the second half of this year will spend less than three weeks on top. And after six for Culture Club comes five for Billy Joel…
Uptown Girl, by Billy Joel (his 1st and only #1)
5 weeks, from 30th October – 4th December 1983
In my post on ‘Karma Chameleon’, I pointed out how that song took pleasure in its retro touches. Well, here the retro theme is not just maintained; it’s shoved front and centre. ‘Uptown Girl’ harks fully back to the doo-wop and male vocal groups of the late fifties/early sixties. The eighties are temporarily on hold. It’s a pastiche, yes, but one that’s lovingly done, and that’s certainly good enough to stand up on its own.
Uptown girl, She’s been livin’ in her uptown world… It’s a tale as old as time (or at least as old as the invention of social class structures…) A working class boy besotted with a high class lady (I’ve always liked the lyrical contrast between her ‘white bread world’ and this ‘back street guy’). In the video Billy Joel’s a well-groomed mechanic, with some impressively slick dance moves, and the object of his affections goes from being a pin-up in his locker to riding side-saddle on his motorbike in barely three minutes. It has strong overtones of ‘Grease’, which adds to the fun, campy feel of the song. The uptown girl is played by swimwear model Christie Brinkley. Life imitated art, and less than two years after meeting on the set of ‘Uptown Girl’ they married.
This is a great pop song, timeless in the best possible sense of the word, and one that defies too much critiquing. ‘Uptown Girl’ comes on the radio, and you sing along with the woah-oh-ohs. It’s non-negotiable. I’d even go so far as to say that using the word ‘uptown’ in a song title almost guarantees classic status. To date, there have been three ‘uptown’ #1s: ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ (a classic, dripping in attitude), this (a singalong classic) and another one, still thirty-odd years off, that I’m sure you can guess at (another great pop song).
The fact that I still like this record is, actually, quite surprising. Not only have I heard it several thousand times (I’d imagine), I also suffered through Westlife’s cover version hitting #1 when I was fifteen. That’ll be along soon enough on this countdown, don’t worry… Actually, as Westlife hits go it’s not that bad – although that’s the very definition of ‘damning with faint praise’. And as if that wasn’t enough, a supermarket chain in Hong Kong, where I live, has used the tune of ‘Uptown Girl’ for an in-store jingle. And when I say ‘in-store’, I mean: In. Every. Single. Bloody. Store. Twenty. Four. Hours. A. Day. The poor checkout staff must suffer PTSD episodes every time they hear this original.
A song that can survive both Westlife covers and terminal overplaying as a supermarket jingle must have something truly great at its core. ‘Uptown Girl’ was good enough to give Billy Joel his sole #1 single in the UK, in marked contrast to his US chart career. I once read a theory suggesting that Joel isn’t as big in Britain because we already have Elton John to fill our piano-based balladeering needs. Which is an interesting theory, until you remember that Elton is as big in America as he is across the Atlantic. Whatever the reason, and despite not being short of hits, this was indeed Joel’s only chart-topper. But if you’re only going to have one chart-topper, you might as well make it a million-selling, 2nd biggest hit of 1983, 19th biggest hit of the decade kind of chart-topper…
In which we arrive at a mega-hit. The biggest song of the year, a number one in thirty countries, the longest stay at #1 so far this decade, and the… checks notes… thirty-eighth biggest seller of all time!
Karma Chameleon, by Culture Club (their 2nd and final #1)
6 weeks, from 18th September – 30th October 1983
Right from its nifty little intro, this is a record that pulls out all the stops in its efforts to burrow into your brain. It’s jaunty, it’s fast-paced, with lots of little retro flourishes, and with a hook that just won’t quit: Karma (x5) Chameleon, You come and go… You come and go…. It’s the purest of pop, from the biggest pop group of the moment. You can see why it was so huge.
Purest pop, but not perfect pop. ‘Karma Chameleon’ falls short of the level of, say, ‘Dancing Queen’, or ‘Heart of Glass’. (Too much harmonica, for a start… And the lyrics are a kind of pretty-sounding nonsense.) But that’s a fairly unreachably high bar I’m setting. This song’s best bit – the middle-eight where Boy George’s voice soars through the Every day, Is like survival, You’re my lover, Not my rival… line – can rank among the best moments of the decade. Then it descends into a marching beat, which flirts very heavily with the cheesy side of things.
In fact, the entirety of this record is one big flirtation with cheese. It stays on the right side, though, for the most part (harmonicas excepted). In the video, Boy George sits astride a Mississippi steamboat, looking as fabulous as ever. It is interesting that a band as provocative as Culture Club have two such safe chart-toppers to their name. ‘Karma Chameleon’, as good as it is, could have been recorded by Bucks Fizz (the drum beat here is really similar to ‘Making Your Mind Up’…) while ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ was, to my ears, a little dull. Maybe, though, the fact that their music was so accessible is a good thing, meaning that Boy George was beamed into family homes around the world as they scored hit after hit. Fathers scowled, mothers tutted, and all the kids who didn’t fit in secretly saw hope…
Having said that, I’d still have taken the stomping, Motown-esque ‘Church of the Poison Mind’ to have been the mega million-selling hit over this. Culture Club did have an edge to them, it just isn’t to be found in their #1s. They were also at the peak of their powers here: between October 1982 and October ’84 the band saw seven singles chart no lower than #4…
They would split up soon afterwards though, in acrimony and drug addiction. They wouldn’t work together for twelve years, until their 1998 comeback. Which must have been a big deal, as it filtered through into the consciousness of twelve-year-old me. I remember their comeback single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Loved’ well, and liked it at the time. Boy George, meanwhile, will feature in this countdown under his own steam before too long.
I mentioned in the intro that ‘Karma Chameleon’s six-week stay was the longest run at the top since 1979, and it means that we are suddenly racing through to the finish of 1983. Our next #1 is a big ‘un too. I also mentioned this record’s ‘retro flourishes’ which, added to KC & The Sunshine Band’s disco touches, and UB40’s reggae rhythms, means the ’80s are suddenly sounding a little less ’80s’. Whether I think this is a good or a bad thing… I’ll leave that for you to decide.
If writing blog posts on the past five hundred and twenty-six UK #1s has taught me anything – and I’m not sure that it really has – then it is this: I like reggae…
Red Red Wine, by UB40 (their 1st of three #1s)
3 weeks, from 28th August – 18th September 1983
I was never that convinced by the genre, having spent too much time in beach bars on holiday, where the same dull ‘reggae chill-out’ playlists are looped year on year. But tracking the genre’s progress, from Desmond Dekker, past ‘Double Barrell’, Johnny Nash and Althea & Donna, to last year’s Reggae Autumn, I realise that I’ve enjoyed most of it. And when this record’s slow-shuffling rhythm kicks in, my heart does a little flip…
Red, red wine… Goes to my head… It’s a song about drinking, which is usually a good thing, even if it is about drinking away your misery… Just one thing, Makes me forget… Red, red wine… It’s laid-back, it’s cool, the chimes in the background sound like my school bell. It’s a bit lightweight, I guess, if you wanted to nit-pick, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
The video ties in with the theme, set as it is in a pub. The band order beers, though, not red, red wine. I suppose it would have been a bit of a stretch, in 1983, to have a bunch of Birmingham lads ordering bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Sadly, though, this #1 isn’t heralding a second consecutive Reggae Autumn. Unlike in 1982, when we went from Musical Youth, to Culture Club, to Eddy Grant, this is an isolated outbreak.
UB40 had been around since the end of the seventies, and were no strangers to the Top 10 in the early eighties. Their name famously derives from the form used to sign-on for benefits at the time (Unemployment Benefit, Form 40). I suppose their early fans might have viewed their first chart-topping hit as a bit of a sell-out moment, lacking the edge of some of their earlier hits, but I have no such history with the band and am enjoying it!
I have to admit, though, my shock in discovering that this isn’t the original version of ‘Red Red Wine’. OK, the fact it’s a cover doesn’t shock me… The fact that it was written in the first place by the famously un-reggae Neil Diamond, does. UB40 didn’t base their cover on his country-ish ballad, but on Jamaican singer Tony Tribe’s version from a couple of years later. Diamond, though, loves these takes on his original, and often performs it live in a reggae style nowadays.
There is an six-minute, extended version of this record, featuring an extended toast/rap from band member Astro (who sadly passed away just last year), but I doubt many people have heard it. That version does start to outstay its welcome… Perhaps, though, it explains the record’s belated success in the US. (It wouldn’t reach #1 there for another five years, until UB40 performed it at a concert for Nelson Mandela.)
They’ll be back on top of the charts shortly, UB40. In fact, they have a pretty impressive span between their three chart-toppers (almost a decade), and are tied with Madness for the most weeks on the UK charts in the 1980s. Impressive longevity. I’ll finish with a joke (not an original one, sadly, but still…) If you were one year old when this record came out, UB40 now…