In which Blondie return after only six weeks away – that’s a very short time between chart-toppers, really – with another disco-rock stomper.
Call Me, by Blondie (their 4th of six #1s)
1 week, 20th – 27th April 1980
About a year ago, when records like ‘Tragedy’ and ‘I Will Survive’ were monopolising the chart’s top-spot, I killed disco off. It had peaked, I said. New-wave, post-punk, electronica were about to take over. But it’s not been that simple… Acts keep sticking a disco beat on their songs and scoring hits: Pink Floyd, Fern Kinney, Dr. Hook… And the masters of it, Blondie.
As with ‘Atomic’, there’s another whip-snapping intro, a drum-roll, and a beat that grabs you along for the ride. And what a ride. Colour me your colour baby, Colour me your car… Not sure what that’s all about, to be honest, but this isn’t the sort of song where you stop to think about the lyrics.
Again, as she did in the band’s previous #1, Debbie Harry is letting loose compared to the ‘Parallel Lines’ hits. Call me! she hollers at the top of her voice… On the line, Call me call me any anytime… It’s pretty clear what kind of call she’s talking about (think Donna Summer in ‘Hot Stuff’…) Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, any day, any way…
‘Call Me’ didn’t feature on any Blondie album – it was recorded for the soundtrack of ‘American Gigolo’, starring Richard Gere, which perhaps explains the unrepentant lyrics and why it followed so hot on ‘Atomic’s heels. The soundtrack version is a full eight minutes long, with beefier synths, and a verse about being taken out and shown off, as all the best gigolos want to be. The producer behind the soundtrack was none other than Giorgio Moroder, which means he’s now been involved in three UK chart-toppers with three different acts, and this won’t be his last…
Few bands have the sort of golden runs that Blondie were having in 1979-80. In just over a year they have had four chart-toppers, all of which I’d say were at least eights out of ten. (If you insist: ‘Heart of Glass’ 9.5, ‘Sunday Girl’ 8, ‘Atomic’ 9, ‘Call Me 8.5) Their one release that didn’t top the charts in amongst all this was ‘Dreaming’, a #2 and another stone-cold classic, much more post-punk than disco (and another 8.5, since you ask.)
Sadly, they have but one chart-topper to come, and – without wanting to give too much away – one that isn’t quite in the same league. And of course they’ll have a huge comeback almost twenty years later, but as great as that #1 is I would count it as something separate. Anyway. Let’s leave Blondie here, at the peak of their powers, and their chart success. A band that sound great anywhere, anytime, any day…
As vital as The Jam’s polemic first #1 was, you wouldn’t want every chart-topper to be that angry… Luckily for us, here come the (Detroit) Spinners with a relentlessly positive classic.
Working My Way Back to You / Forgive Me, Girl, by The Detroit Spinners (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, 6th – 20th April 1980
They are far from the first well-established band to try a disco-ified take on the old vocal-group sound. In fact, they’re pretty late to the party. This record could have been a hit from any point since 1975. And you can approach this in one of two ways… Way A) rolling your eyes at the cheese, and at the drunken memories of every wedding disco you’ve ever attended, or Way B) joining in with the undeniable fun.
I’ll keep working my way back to you babe… The singer’s made a mistake, told some lies, thought he could have his cake and eat it, but now he’s feeling remorse… With a burning love inside… And I love his very deep voiced counterpart: Been prayin’ every day… It has a bit of a karaoke-backing track feel, but that’s part of the charm. It gives you no choice but join in.
When you do, you realise how much of a dick the singer has been. He played around, he loved to make her cry… That matters not. He is coming back, and we are left in no doubt as to his success. ‘Working My Way Back to You’ was (yet another) UK #1 that began life as a song by The Four Seasons, in 1966. Theirs is a very ‘sixties’ version, as good if not better than this cover.
Here, the Spinners had it spliced with a few bars from ‘Forgive Me Girl’, a composition by producer Michael Zager (nothing to do with Zager & Evans, unfortunately), giving us our 2nd recent chart-topping medley after Boney M’s last-but-one Christmas number one. You wouldn’t realise that these were two songs mixed together – ‘Forgive Me Girl’ works perfectly as the bridge – and I’m left relieved that this isn’t another double-‘A’ side (as they take twice as long to write about!)
The Spinners had been around since 1954, and had been charting in the US since the early sixties. Which means that by the time their one and only British chart-topper came around, all four members were in their early-forties. One of the original ‘man-bands’, then! They join the aforementioned Four Seasons, and The Tymes, and even The Tams, in scoring #1s beyond their eras thanks to the popularity of soul and, of course, disco. They are still an active group, too, with one founding member, Henry Fambrough, still present.
Why, though, were the plain old Spinners marketed as The Detroit Spinners, and sometimes the Motown Spinners, in the UK? Well, all thanks to a British folk group who had already laid claim to the name. A couple of decades later the Americans would repay the compliment by forcing Suede to become the considerably less cool London Suede for their US releases…
Well, isn’t this quite the shot of adrenaline! The line between new-wave and punk becomes very blurred as The Jam score their first number one single…
Going Underground / The Dreams of Children, by The Jam (their 1st of four #1s)
3 weeks, 16th March – 6th April 1980
The guitars are tight, and fast. Lead-singer Paul Weller spits the opening lines out with venom: Some people might say my life is in a rut! But I’m quite happy with what I’ve got! It’s a record that grabs you by the lapels of your smart, modish suit and doesn’t let you go. These angry young men are not happy with modern life, with their leaders’ lies and atomic crimes, and are off underground.
The lyrics are not always easy to make out – delivered as if Weller just has to get them off his chest before their three minutes are up – but one line stands out: The public wants what the public gets, But I don’t get what this society wants…I’m going underground…! And then there’s the ‘braying sheep’ on his TV screen. They’re words that ring just as true today – you could probably apply them to any point since WWII, to be fair – but after an economically difficult seventies, and less than a year into Thatcher’s government, dissent is growing…
‘Going Underground’ really does sound very raw, and very punk. It could be a hit from 1977, and is much more primitive when compared to new-wave’s two other big guitar bands, Blondie and The Police. This is perhaps The Jam’s last moment as an ‘underground’, if you will, band. This hits number one, and their sound expands and progresses. Only in the break, before the final chorus, does it sound a little more of its time, drippy and echoey, but only for a second before the guitars chop right back in.
‘Going Underground’ was actually only listed as the double-‘A’ due to a printing error. ‘The Dreams of Children’ was intended to be the lead, and it does sound much more of the moment. It starts with a cool false-beginning, guitars and vocals played in reverse, and has a great, chiming riff. But, I’d say it lacks the urgency of the flip-side. I hope that whoever buggered things up at the printing plant wasn’t punished too harshly…
If you were hoping for a more positive take on modern life here… well, nope. Paul Weller is having sweet dreams – the innocent dreams of a child – but wakes sweating and paranoid to this modern nightmare… I was alone and no-one was there… Before long, the song has turned into a sort of horror movie theme, voiced by a sinister dream-catcher.
Something’s gonna crack on your dreams tonight, You will crack on your dreams tonight… he sings, as the twiddly backwards effects return and things get genuinely creepy. Sorry kids, your dreams are just that: dreams. Real-life will grind you down. I mean, it’s not your run-of-the-mill #1 single material, but everything can’t be all sweetness and light. Neither of these songs sounds like a chart-topper, but it’s great that they got there.
And they got there in some style. This was the first record to enter at #1 since Slade did it with ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ over six years ago. Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles and, er, Gary Glitter were the only other acts to have achieved this feat before 1980. It pretty much announces The Jam as one of, if not the, biggest band in the country (or at least the band with the most devoted fanbase, who ran out to buy the song as soon as it was released…)
However, can I just add before I go that it is a shame that The Jam’s previous single – their first Top 10 hit – wasn’t the big #1 debut. As great as this record I’ve reviewed today is, ‘The Eton Rifles’ stands as a brilliant commentary on the British class system: angry, and funny, and another one that still rings true today. We just don’t learn, do we?
Let’s slow things down a bit, with this next number one. A soft, slinky beat, some strings, and a breathy vocal…
Together We Are Beautiful, by Fern Kinney (her 1st and only #1)
1 week, 9th – 16th March 1980
Fern Kinney’s voice reminds me a bit of Anita Ward’s: high-pitched and slightly nasal. But it doesn’t grate in the same way. This record doesn’t grate like ‘Ring My Bell’ at all – for better or worse. ‘Ring…’ might have been annoying; but you remembered it. ‘Together We Are Beautiful’ isn’t annoying, really, but it does wash over you without leaving much of a lasting impression.
He walked into my life, And now he’s taking over… It’s a decent opening line, that the song fails to build upon. I’ve gone with better looking guys, He’s gone with prettier lookin’ girls… It’s a middle-aged love song – settling down with someone on a deeper level. Fern doesn’t need love affairs any more… Except the lyrics still descend into stock-standard, love song cheese: I am the rain, He is the sun, And now we’ve made a rainbow… Ick!
What saves this song from being truly cloying – and when Kinney starts wishing that the whole world could fall in love like her and her man, it comes very close – is that it’s delivered in such a fluffy, tongue-in-cheek way that you can easily treat it as a camp novelty. It does drag on a bit, though: another song that shouldn’t have come anywhere near the four-minute mark.
The disco earthquake may have passed, but there will still be aftershocks like this for some time to come. Fern Kinney had been a backing singer who had given it up to be a housewife, before having one final crack at a solo career. And it worked – for this record… She is a bona-fide one-hit wonder. ‘Together We Are Beautiful’ had been around in different versions for a few years, before Kinney had her go.
I had a very vague memory of hearing this song years ago, in an advert that featured a guy with a miniature-sized version of Arsenal and England centre-back Tony Adams… And I am reassured to find out that I hadn’t dreamt it. It was used in a 1999 deodorant ad, which you can now enjoy in all its glory. What would we do without YouTube…?
Getting us back on track after (yet another) country detour… Though you could argue that there’s a country twang to the main riff on this one… sort of… Anyway, where were we? Oh yes! Blondie go atomic!
Atomic, by Blondie (their 3rd of six #1s)
2 weeks, 24th February – 9th March 1980
Add this one to the list of great intros: a sort of beautiful cacophony, a remix of the way church bells go wild after a wedding, or on Christmas morning… Ding! Dang! Dong! Apparently its based upon the nursery rhyme ‘Three Blind Mice’ of all things! And then it clicks into that riff. (This intro was, for some reason, cut from the single edit… but let’s just pretend that version doesn’t exist.)
Oh-ho, Make it magnificent, Tonight… Is there a better song to listen before a night out than ‘Atomic’? Back when I was young and going to nightclubs, this was often playing as I picked out a shirt, did my hair, and prayed that the bouncer would ignore the fact that I still looked about thirteen… Oh, your hair is beautiful… Debbie Harry would sing, as if she could see me in the mirror. Oh tonight… Atomic! It’s a fine, fine song. But is it better than ‘Heart of Glass’…?
In some ways they’re very similar. Both rock with a disco beat (or disco with guitars…) and both with a synth breakdown in the middle – of the album versions, anyway. Here, actually, it’s time to quickly resurrect the single-edit that I killed off earlier, as that shortens the breakdown, cuts the bass guitar solo, and repeats the iconic, deep-voiced Atomic! line. It works better as a pop song, which I suppose was the point. ‘Heart of Glass’ was chopped up into various different mixes, too…
The biggest difference between last year’s Blondie and this year’s Blondie is Harry’s voice. On ‘Heart of Glass’ she was restrained, and sarcastic. On ‘Sunday Girl’ she was quite cute. She belts this one out, though, full-throated. A huge echo effect is put on her closing Oh-oh Atomics… adding to this record’s epic feel.
I’d go as far as describing ‘Atomic’ as life-affirming. A song that will psyche you up, pick you up, cheer you up… A song that does everything pop music should. Which is funny, because there’s a school of thought (in so far as pop songs have ‘schools of thought’…) that interprets this song as apocalyptic i.e. it’s the song you’d play just before the bomb goes off. That’s not something I subscribe to, though.
Anyway, I still have a question to answer though: is it better than ‘Heart of Glass’…? Actually, who cares? They’re both brilliant songs. Blondie were brilliant, on top of their game at this point, and will be along again soon with another classic hit. And another one that’s totally atomic!
Oh well. The brave new world of the eighties – the world of The Pretenders and The Specials – lasts for precisely two chart-toppers. Because, as they so often do, a Country and Western song has come along to remind us not to get too carried away…
Coward of the County, by Kenny Rogers (his 2nd of two #1s)
2 weeks, 10th – 24th February 1980
It’s another homespun tale, with the exact same jaunty, acoustic plod as ‘Lucille’, Kenny Rogers’ first #1 from three years earlier. It’s the tale of a – presumably – fictional nephew, the eponymous ‘Coward of the County’. His momma named him Tommy, The folks all called him yellow…
Why is he such a ‘coward’? Well, it’s all down to a promise to his dying father, who had made Tommy swear he’d always run from trouble, always turn the other cheek. I hope you’re old enough to understand, Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man… Which was all fine, until the day Gatlin boys came to have their way with his wife, Becky.
Yes, this is a #1 single that centres around a gang rape. In some ways this is one of the most shocking chart-toppers, ever. Except, the way Rogers delivers the line – and there was three of them… – is almost funny. Not intentionally, you’d hope, but still… Yep, she’s been raped. Key change!
Long story short: Tommy decides that there are limitations to his promise, goes to the local saloon, and beats the shit out of the Gatlin boys. Hurray! And as in ‘Lucille’ there’s a plot twist. Papa I sure hope you understand, Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man… There’s something noble about that, I guess… But there’s so much wrong with this song: the vigilantism, the voiceless Becky’s rape as a plot device, the idea that men must fight or they are sissies… All wrapped up in a jaunty little tune. I’m not against dealing with tough topics in pop singles – Rogers did it excellently in his breakthrough hit ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ – but it doesn’t work here.
I’m shocked by my reaction to this song, actually. I thought I liked it… But the more I listen, the more I’m put off. The obvious comparison is to Johnny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue’ – both country, both about absent fathers controlling their sons’ destinies – but Cash plays his hit for laughs. The idea of a father naming his son ‘Sue’ so that he’ll have to fight is genuinely funny, and plays with the masculine conventions of country music, whereas ‘Coward of the County’ is self-righteous and predictable.
Kenny Rogers may not be appearing on this blog again, but his hit-making career was far from over. He’d have one further Top 10 in the UK, the karaoke classic ‘Islands in the Stream’ alongside Dolly Parton. He died last year, aged eighty-one. Meanwhile, ‘Coward of the County’ was turned into a TV movie and was covered – and this is 100% true, just check out this link – by Alvin & The Chipmunks. There was also controversy when it turned out that the writer, Roger Bowling, may have named the song’s villains after the band The Gatlin Brothers, against whom he held a grudge… Actually, that’d make a really good storyline for a country song. Better than this one, anyway…
We have finally reached the end of the seventies! And so, to celebrate, here are the ten records that I – in my recaps – named as the very best of the decade. Note that this is not me retrospectively ranking my faves. I am beholden to decisions made several months, if not a year ago, for better or worse, and it has left us with an interesting rundown….
I spent the 1960s respectfully choosing the classics: The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’. You can check out my sixties Top 10 here (and while you’re at it why not have a glance at my ’50s Top 10 too.) For the seventies, though, it seems I went a little rogue… Those of you expecting to find ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘I’m Not In Love’, or ‘Wuthering Heights’ will have to look elsewhere…
I am limiting myself to one song per artist, regardless of how I ranked them at the time. Interestingly the only act that would have had two songs qualify was… Wizzard! As it is they are left with just one. And I was surprised that one of my favourite bands of the decade, Slade, came nowhere near to placing any songs in this list. Anyway, here we go:
‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, by Simon & Garfunkel – #1 for 3 weeks in March/April 1970
This first song was runner-up in my late-sixties/early-seventies recap. It is a classic, a sweeping hymn, a modern standard. Every time I think I’m bored of it, that it is a little too proper to be a pop song – it is one of the few songs recorded post-1955 that my gran liked, for example – then I listen to it… The Oh, If you need a friend… line gives me shivers, every time. But I was feeling rebellious, and I awarded first place to…
‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry – #1 for 2 weeks in February/March 1971
One of the grimiest, seediest, downright strangest number ones of the decade, if not of all time. The complete opposite to Mungo Jerry’s huge feel-good hit from the year before. In my original post, I described ‘In the Summertime’ as the soundtrack to a sunny afternoon’s BBQ, while ‘Baby Jump’ was the soundtrack as the party still raged on past 4am. Bodies strewn across the lawn, couples humping in the bushes, someone throwing up under a tree… That kind of thing.
‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1972
‘Best song’ in my 2nd seventies recap. T. Rex’s final UK #1 is everything that made them great condensed and distilled into a perfect pop song: power chords, beefy drums, nonsensical lyrics… From the opening woah-oh-oh-oh it is an extended, non-stop chorus of a tune, and a true classic.
‘See My Baby Jive’, by Wizzard – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1973
The height of ridiculous, over-indulgent, glam… And all the better for it. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any song beginning with anti-aircraft guns will be great. Roy Wood threw the kitchen sink at this, Wizzard’s first of two #1s, and everything stuck. I named it runner-up to ‘Metal Guru’, and then named the follow-up, the equally OTT and equally wonderful ‘Angel Fingers’ as runner-up to the song below…
‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1974
Winner in my 3rd seventies recap, you could argue that tracks like this marked the beginning of the end for glam rock. From 1974 onwards the genre was swamped with rock ‘n’ roll tribute acts: Alvin Stardust, The Rubettes, Showaddywaddy, whose hits were catchy but, let’s be honest, dumb. Except, sometimes dumb and catchy is what you need, and when moments like that come along then you can do no better than turn to ‘Tiger Feet.’ Relish the video above… The riff, the repetitive chorus, a man in a dress, backing dancers that look like they’ve just come from the away end at Highbury… Fun fact: There has never been a ‘Best Of the 70s’ compilation that didn’t include ‘Tiger Feet.’
‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’, by The Stylistics – #1 for 3 weeks in August 1975
Here’s the outlier… I was genuinely surprised to find that this one qualified. I named it as runner-up in my 4th recap apparently, ahead of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘I’m Not in Love’, which were punished for their ubiquity. But this is a great tune, and it feels right that a slice of soul should feature in this Top 10, as it was one of the sounds of the mid-seventies.
‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie – #1 for 2 weeks in November 1975
One of the seventies’ Top 10 #1 singles is a re-release of a sixties hit? A mere technicality… We needed some Bowie, and this was his only chart-topper of the decade. I named it as best song in my 4th recap. An epic in every sense of the word.
‘Dancing Queen’, by ABBA – #1 for 6 weeks between August and October 1976
Friday night and the lights are low… Frida and Agnetha are looking out for a place to go. You know the rest. Everyone on planet earth knows the rest. The ultimate pop song? The famous glissando intro is instantly recognisable, and is referenced in ABBA’s comeback hit ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’. But. I only named it as runner-up in my 5th recap, because, well, Donna Summer went and did this:
‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer – #1 for 4 weeks in July/August 1977
The future arrived in the summer of ’77, beamed in on a spaceship piloted by one Donna Summer, with Giorgio Moroder as engineer. I rated it above ‘Dancing Queen’ precisely because it isn’t the ultimate pop song – it’s harsh, uncompromising and aggressively modern. You have to be in the mood for ‘I Feel Love’, which is why it hasn’t been overplayed to death, but when you are in the mood then woah. And it still sounds aggressively modern almost forty-five years on.
‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1979
Winner in my final ’70s recap, just two days ago. Blondie brought us a new-wave classic: a little disco, a little punk, a little classic rock, but beholden to none of what went before. Debbie Harry gave an impossibly cool lesson in how to be a rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman, too. 1979 – probably the best year of the decade in terms of chart-topping quality – was a-go go go. I know I love the glam years, but line these last three songs up – ABBA, Donna Summer and Blondie – and a better 10 minutes of popular music you’ll struggle to find.
So, there ends the 1970s. Next up, I’ll be cracking on with the eighties…
Recap time! Our fifteenth recap, taking in just under two years, from spring 1978 to the early, early weeks of 1980. It would have been great had this recap fallen right at the end of the seventies, but hey…
Our two most recent #1s have felt like a step forward, not just because they were the first two of the ‘80s, but because they’ve been so bold, so vibrantly dripping with (post) punkish attitude. The Pretenders swaggered into the new decade with ‘Brass in Pocket’, while The Specials shouted about birth-control – live – in ‘Too Much Too Young’. The eighties have begun with a bang. Can it last? (Well, sorry… no. Just wait till you see who’s up next!)
But, let me take you back a couple of years, to a time when disco still ruled the airwaves. The genre would explode in a puff of glitter, after a glorious run of chart-toppers, in early 1979. Before that, though, ’78 was probably the most disjointed, undefinable year of the decade. There were sixteen weeks where songs from the ‘Grease’ soundtrack occupied top-position, two shots of religious, disco-calypso from Boney M, a flashback to the MOR days of ’76-’77 from the Commodores, 10cc went reggae, Rod Stewart asked if we think he’s sexy… while The Boomtown Rats scored the very first new-wave #1. There were some long stays at the top – five weeks seemed to be the average – and some very high sales: ‘Rivers of Babylon’ and ‘You’re the One That I Want’ are in the Top 10 of all time.
But then, on New Year’s Eve 1978, The Village People sounded their klaxon, everyone ran to the dancefloor, and we were off on a thrilling run of chart-topping singles. One of the best ever. ‘YMCA’, ‘Tragedy’, ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Heart of Glass’ perfected disco, meaning that the genre was completed, finished, not needed again. By the time Anita Ward came along, ringing her bell, it felt a little old hat. Blondie, in particular, had taken things a step further, mixing synths and guitars into the mix. The new-wave future had arrived…
Actually, the future seemed to be arriving every few weeks by the summer of 1979… Gary Numan and his Tubeway Army scored a couple of impossibly cool, completely electronic number ones. Bob and his Rats returned, with a rock opera about a school shooting. The Police brought a reggaeish, post-punk to the charts. The Buggles asked if this new-fangled video age was all it was cracked up to be… By the end of the year, Pink Floyd – releasing their first single in twelve years – had a Christmas number one about teachers and their means of mind-control…
There were anomalies in all this. The charts never quite do what you want them to. Right at the start of this run, Brian and Michael had a huge folksy singalong about the artist LS Lowry. Art Garfunkel had a low-key ballad about dead rabbits (and, of course, scored the year’s biggest-selling single). Cliff came back! With his best number one, ever! Country and Western kept popping up when you least expected it to…
I said at the time that I felt 1979 was the best year of the decade in terms of variety and quality of chart-toppers. I may not have loved every single one – in terms of my own personal enjoyment I’d say the glam years of ’72-’74 were ‘better’ – but the experimentation and sheer love for pop music that shone through in these closing months of the ‘70s was something else. And a very refreshing change after everything had gone a little soft-rock in our previous recap.
Which means there might be stiff competition when I have to choose the best of this past bunch. But first… the lesser awards. The ‘Meh’ Award, for example. Like I said, not many of the past thirty #1s have been dull. But I have three. I considered ‘Bright Eyes, but Art already has a ‘Meh’ award to his name, and to give a legend like him two out of two just seems mean. I also toyed with The Police and their second number-one, ‘Walking on the Moon’, which just didn’t connect with me. But, edging them out… not once, not twice, but three-times as dull… The Commodores with ‘Three Times a Lady’: a sludgy relic from the days when David Soul and Leo Sayer were ruling the charts.
On to the ‘WTAF’ Award, for being interesting if nothing else. Plenty of interesting #1s this time around. The Tubeway Army… ‘Cars’… The Buggles… But giving it to one of them would be because they sounded new and exciting. Not ‘weird’, as such. No, if you want weird, you have to choose between Ian Dury and his rhythm stick, or Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall Pt II’. When I made my notes for this post a few days ago, I assumed I’d go with the Floyd. But, really, that record is just an Eagles-beat with some kids shouting. Whereas The Blockheads gave us a punky disco world-tour, from the deserts of Sudan to the gardens of Japan, full of shouting in German and spiky saxophone, sung by a self-proclaimed cripple poet. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ has it.
The main events, then. The fifteenth Very Worst Chart-Topper, joining luminaries such as Donny Osmond, Jimmy Young, and… checks notes… Elvis. Should I give it to Brian and Michael’s irritatingly parochial celebration of Lowry: ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’? No. A) That was fundamentally catchy. And B) ‘One Day at a Time’ exists. Yes, Lena Martell somehow preached her way to three weeks at the top with a self-righteous slice of country. It was by far the worst of the past bunch. Sweet Jesus!
Finally, then. Fanfare please. The Very Best Chart-Topper of the last thirty. I said earlier that there was a lot of competition but, to be honest, there’s only one winner this time around. I loved ‘YMCA’, ‘Rat Trap’, ‘I Will Survive’ and the ‘Grease’ hits… But towering above them all are Blondie, and ‘Heart of Glass’. One of the coolest songs ever to have topped the charts, and the perfect choice to sum up this moment in pop history, as we stand on the verge of a new decade, a new era…
To recap the recaps:
The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability:
‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
The ‘WTAF’ Award for Being Interesting if Nothing Else:
‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush
‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
The Very Worst Chart-Toppers:
‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
The Very Best Chart-Toppers:
‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
The 1980 ‘statement of intent’ continues… Following on from The Pretenders’ cool and cocky ‘Brass in Pocket’, the decade’s second #1 is some hardcore ska. Live ska.
Too Much Too Young – The Special A.K.A. Live! (EP), by The Specials (their 1st of two #1s)
2 weeks, 27th January – 10th February 1980
Too much too young! the band announce, to a drum-roll. You done too much too young, You’re married with a kid when you could be havin’ fun with me… The drums and organs skip and thump – ska is basically reggae on speed – as Terry Hall spits out the lyrics. Ain’t it cool, No it ain’t, He’s just another burden on the welfare state… I mean, it puts a different spin on rock music not being child-friendly…
Musically this is ska, or two-tone, but really this is as punk as things have gotten at the top of the charts. Hall sneers at the girl who went and got pregnant… Ain’t you heard of contraception…? and lists all the reasons why getting married and having a kid was a terrible idea (number one being that she won’t come get jiggy with him). The ferocious guitar solo is also as raw and gritty as we’ve heard in a chart-topper for a long old while. As great as the disco/electro years have been, it has all been bit glossy. There’s nothing glossy about this nasty little record. (The album version is slightly slower, and longer; but there’s a lot to be said for the rawness that comes across live.)
The best bit comes at the abrupt end – this is a record that barely makes it over the two minute mark – with possibly the finest closing line to any #1 single: Try wearing a cap! Unsurprisingly, the BBC would not play this bit. We’re only two number ones into this bold new decade and we’ve already had aggressive references to contraceptives.
While ‘Too Much Too Young’ was the hit, this is an EP – only the second ever to top the charts – and so we should give the rest of it a quick listen. The second track on side-‘A’ is an instrumental, ‘Guns of Navarone’. It’s a cover of a 1961 hit by the Skatalites – great band name alert! – which was in turn a cover of a film score. It’s another short, sharp blast of ska, with some unintelligible (to me at least) scatting from Neville Staple. The lead trombone on the song is played by Rico Rodriguez – a near fifty-year-old ska veteran, and not a full-time member of the band.
The flip-side is where my patience with ska wears thin. It’s fine in small doses – I think ‘Too Much Too Young’ is a wonderful kick up the arse – but stretched into a seven-minute, three-part ‘Skinhead Symphony’, the relentlessness of the genre starts to grate. You don’t get any downtime. The final part is the best, a full on wig-out called ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’. The band yeah-yeah-yeahs, as Staple calls on all the rude boys and rude girls to stomp their boots to an ever quickening beat.
Phew! Away from the music, this is an interesting record. TMTY is very short – the shortest #1 of the entire decade and the shortest since ‘It’s Not Unusual’ in 1965. It’s also… I think… only the 4th #1 single to have been recorded live, after ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, ‘The Wonder of You’, and ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ (though I’m sure I’ve forgotten one, or two.) Interestingly, half of this disc was recorded in London, and half in Coventry… where Chuck Berry had also recorded his classic (yes, I said classic) hit in 1972. Who knew Coventry was such a hot-bed of live music. Though, to be fair, The Specials were formed in Cov, so that could explain it…
This is a fun, palate-cleanser of a record, that again proves that January is often the most interesting month for chart-toppers. The Specials will be back next year, with their masterpiece. And we’ll be back, in a couple of days, with a recap.
Catch up with everything so far, before the next recap:
Here we are then. The nineteen eighties. Synths, post-punk, Thatcher, Reagan, the 2nd British Invasion, MTV, SAW, Yuppies, Hip-Hop, ‘Thriller’, Madonna… The decade in which I entered this world… A decade that, I have to admit, I used to rank way below the sixties and seventies in terms of its music. But not any longer. I’m ready for it!
Brass in Pocket, by The Pretenders (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, 13th – 27th January 1980
And what a cool way to start the decade. I got brass, In pocket, I got bottle, I am gonna use it… This one’s all about the hustle. Picture Chrissie Hynde, stepping off the bus in London town, and picturing just how she’s going to make it BIG. Gonna make you, Make you, Make you notice!
She’ll use her arms, her legs, her style and her sidestep, and in the space of three minutes the capital will have fallen. I’m special, So special, Gotta have some of your attention… This could come across as wildly obnoxious, but it doesn’t, somehow. Give it to me! Probably helps that it’s a woman singing these lines. Since punk, women can be bad-ass singers of rock ‘n’ roll bands. These days people’d call her a Boss Bitch.
The obvious comparison to make – a female lead singer in an otherwise male new-wave band – is with Blondie. Hynde sounds nothing like Debbie Harry, but her voice still drips with the same kind of attitude. And the music is more British post-punk – Police-like chiming guitars and a bouncing, reggae-ish beat – than Blondie’s spiky, New York sound.
In the second verse, she’s a little more explicit about how she may be getting her ‘brass’. Got new skank, So reet… I thought it was a drug reference, but apparently it’s about moving your body. You know, like dancing, or… There has been some discussion over whether the song is actually about The Pretenders’ first ever concert, or about the singer’s first sexual experience with a new partner. Either way, Hynde sums it up: “The tradition of ‘Brass in Pocket’ is that you’re cocky, and sure of yourself.”
This was The Pretenders breakthrough hit from their debut album – they had only been a band for just over a year. They would never return to the top of the charts (though a cover of one of their songs will…) but they managed impressive longevity: a handful of Top 10 hits spread out over fifteen years. Chrissie Hynde, meanwhile, will have another #1 under her own steam (sort of).
And so, with this short, sharp little record – that manages to be both clever and catchy – the eighties have kicked off. In previous decades, the first number one singles have been perfectly pleasant pieces of pop (Michael Holliday’s ‘Starry Eyed’ in 1960, and Edison Lighthouse’s ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’ in 1970) with little indication of where popular music is heading at that moment, but ‘Brass in Pocket’ actually sounds like a statement of intent…