Into 1978 we go then… 1977 was a bit of a slog – a year that started off slowly, with an interminable easy-listening winter and spring, but that had a fair few classics buried in the middle. You just had to be patient. What will the penultimate year of the decade serve up?
Uptown Top Ranking, by Althea & Donna (their 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 29th January – 5th February 1978
First of all, there’s a bit of reggae to beat the January blues! It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song, this one. It’s a riff, a vibe, a mood that chugs along. Beach bar music. Which isn’t to say it’s bland, or best suited for the background. Not at all. The bass-line is superbly monotonous. The vocals are at once hypnotic and yet indecipherable.
It’s not rap; but it’s not singing, not really. And the lyrics are delivered in an uncompromisingly thick Jamaican patois, that to your average British listener must have sounded like a completely foreign language. See me in me heels an’ ting, Dem check, Say we hip an’ ting… (I googled the lyrics…) Love is all I bring, Inna me khaki suit an’ ting… Althea and Donna are dressed to impress, dancing, cruising around in their ‘Benz’. Basically, they are The Shit. They are ‘uptown top ranking’, a Jamaican phrase for flaunting it in the city.
The one bit I could get without any help was the refrain: Na pop no style, I strictly roots… The girls haven’t forgotten where they came from, no matter how much they are blinging. They’re still Jennies from the Block (as Jennifer Lopez would tell us many years later…) But forget J-Lo, this record sounds incredibly modern, extremely fresh. I’m getting… Rihanna. She should come back with a cover of this…
Althea Forrest and Donna Reid were seventeen and eighteen respectively when they released this, their only hit. And they really do sound like too-cool-for-school teenagers as they deliver their lines, which were apparently ad-libbed. In my head, I can see them painting their nails, applying lipstick, and looking impossibly young and stylish. Listening to this record – this forty-three year old disc – is making me feel very middle-aged.
It’s not just the singers, in fact. Everything about this song feels and sounds modern. There’re the ad-libs, for a start. And then there’s the fact that it’s based around a sample from a 1967 song, ‘I’m Still in Love’. And the fact that ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is an answer record, in response to a similarly braggadocio-filled track called ‘Three Piece Suit’, by Trinity, which also used the same rhythm. We are just in 1978, honest. I haven’t skipped thirty years by accident!
Althea and Donna didn’t bother with anything as basic as having a follow-up hit. They are one-hit wonders, baby. But what a hit, waking up the sleepy post-Christmas charts with a glimpse of downtown Kingston. I think it’s putting the word ‘Uptown’ in the title that does it. I can think of three ‘Uptown’ #1s, including this one, and they’re all great pop songs.