366. ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

Cool intro alert! I do like to keep track of our intros, and the ascending bass riff on this one launches it straight into the… let’s see… the Top 5 of the ‘cool intros to chart-topping singles’ list.

Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 16th February – 2nd March 1975

I’ve known this song for years, and the one thing that stands out in my mind, even though I haven’t listened to it in a while, is Steve Harley’s voice. The sneer he puts into words like smiiiillle, and tryyyyyy, as well as his strong accent, seems very punk to my ears. It’s proto-Paul Weller, or Billy Bragg.

You’ve done it all, You’ve broken every code, Pulled the rebel to the floor… And well might he sneer. The lyrics at first sound cryptic, but when you learn that Harley wrote them as a sarcastic comeback to the band he had just split from they become crystal. You spoiled the game, No matter what you say, For only metal, What a bore… The delivery on the ‘metal’ line is genuinely one of the best vocal moments in any #1 single we’ve met, and I’ve always loved the cocky pauses between the chorus and the verses.

Come up and see me, Make me smile… Or do what you want, Running wild… As Harley tells it, the other members of Cockney Rebel left him in the lurch. So he reformed the band, with his name front and centre, and scored a huge chart-topping single. Not a bad bit of revenge. But, it doesn’t sound like a nasty song. On the whole, it’s breezy and uplifting, although apparently earlier demos were slower, and darker.

‘Make Me Smile’ is a hard record to place. It’s eclectic – aside from the acoustic chords and the bass, there’s also a gospel choir for the backing vocals, and a Spanish guitar for the solo. Wiki lists Cockney Rebel as ‘glam’ but, while they certainly looked glam – lots of flamboyant silk suits on display in promo pics – their sound is a little more experimental. They had hit the Top 10 twice in 1974, with ‘Judy Teen’ and ‘Mr Soft’, before the split, but it’s clear why this record went all the way to the top. It’s incredibly catchy and much more commercial. Simple!

It was also a ‘long car journeys as a child’ staple for me (I wonder how many songs that is now?) I can’t say it was always my favourite – I definitely would have skipped it for ABBA or Wizzard, had I been sitting in the front – but I can appreciate it now for what it is. It’s a grown up song, after all, and one that’s ingrained itself in British culture. Apparently there have been 120 cover versions, from acts including Duran Duran, Erasure and Suzi Quatro, which isn’t bad for a record born out of frustration and anger. The power, as one D. Vader might put it, of the dark side

365. ‘January’, by Pilot

(Isn’t this the perfect song for my first post of January 2021?) Back in 1975, making it to the top just in time, with five days to spare: ‘January’, by Pilot. (And don’t think I didn’t notice the perfect coincidence of our first month-themed #1 also being chart-topper #365.)

January, by Pilot (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th January – 16th February 1975

For the first time in what feels like an age, we have some glam rock in the top spot. I make this the first glam #1 since Gary Glitter’s ‘Always Yours’ in June last year. (Was David Essex’s ‘Gonna Make You a Star’ glam…? A question for the ages, but I’m going to err on the ‘no’ side.) Not that ‘January’ is all that glam. We’re not suddenly back in mid-1972, alas. But there are handclaps, for a start. And some flamboyant guitar flourishes.

It also qualifies as glam, for me, because of its nonsensical lyrics. January, Sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me… (Respect to Pilot here, for having the audacity to rhyme ‘January’ with ‘hanging on me’) You make me sad with your eyes, You’re telling me lies… Anyone who’s lived through a British January – and Pilot were Scottish, which means they’d have known some truly miserable Januarys – can sympathise.

 I think the singer just wants the summer to hurry up and arrive: Sun, Like a fire, Carry on, Don’t be gone… But then there are ways he humanises this calendar month – January, Don’t be cold, Don’t be angry with me… – that make me think ‘January’ might be a lover. Then there are lines like: You’ll be facin’ the world…! You’ll be chasin’ the world… that don’t fit either narrative.

What we have here, probably, is nothing more than a catchy pop song with some lyrics arranged semi-coherently. The Noel Gallagher method of songwriting, you might call it… Pop at its disposable best. There’s a hook, a beat to tap your feet to, and a chorus that’ll stay in your head for a while. And sometimes that’s enough.

Pilot were from Edinburgh, and ‘January’ was the follow-up to the (much better, and definitely 100% glam) ‘Magic’. That, amazingly, had only made #11 late in ’74, but I’d suggest that this chart-topper was riding the wave created by that earlier hit. They had a few other, smaller hits, and lasted three albums, before splitting. The members of Pilot, though, have quite the legacy, having been involved with The Alan Parsons Project, produced for Kate Bush, and written for Westlife.

I’m pretty sure that this is the first and only time that a record has reached the top of the charts during the month it’s named after. ‘November Rain’ was not a #1 (and was released in March…), ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’ should have been a #1, as it is a stone-cold classic, but no… In fact, I’ve just checked and bonus points shall be awarded if you can name the only other #1 record with a month in the title… (Hint: it’s coming up pretty soon…)