How to explain Shakin’ Stevens, to readers from foreign shores, or to readers not old enough to have experienced him in real time…?
This Ole House, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 1st of four #1s)
3 weeks, 22nd March – 12th April 1981
The twanging rockabilly in this take on ‘This Ole House’ sounds completely out of place in early 1981, after two years of sharp, spiky new-wave, and just before the New Romantics came along. Stevens’ delivery too – all energy and cheesy grins – is an outlier in this too-cool-for-school world. But while this is an unlikely hit record, it’s not unwelcome.
I can never say no to some old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. The production may be glossier, the guitars coming through in a warm stereo, but this is a step back to the 1950s. Is it better than Rosemary Clooney’s original, from way back in 1954…? No, probably not. But it is equally manic. That had an out of control honky-tonk piano, Shaky’s take has a distorted guitar solo: this version’s only concession to modern sounds.
He sounds like he’s having a lot of fun singing this – a song stuffed with nonsense lyrics about fixing shingles and mending window-panes – and because of this it is very hard not to have fun while you listen. The hipsters may have rolled their eyes, and turned their Ultravox records up, but the grannies and the kids clearly lapped it up. Just think… The young ones who bought Clooney’s version would have been hitting fifty by now. We have covered a lot of ground here!
I did wonder if this might have been Shakin’ Stevens debut: a smash hit from nowhere, perhaps after winning a TV talent show. But I couldn’t have been more wrong – he had been plugging away for well over a decade, releasing singles in the UK and Europe throughout the ‘70s. Born in Cardiff, he’d been a milkman, before forming his band The Sunsets. They’d supported The Rolling Stones of all people, in 1969. By the mid-seventies he was impersonating Elvis in the West End before finally scoring a minor chart hit with ‘Hot Dog’ in early 1980.
After that the rise was meteoric, and it’s hard to begrudge someone who’s waited that long and worked so hard for success. But. This still doesn’t explain why this Welsh Elvis finally became one of the biggest stars in the land… Maybe the rock ‘n’ roll revival that was gave us Showaddywaddy and Mud a few years back never truly went away? Maybe he was the chart-friendly face of the post-punk rockabilly scene? Or maybe it’s another ‘Shaddap You Face’: some light-relief after weeks of mourning John Lennon? I don’t know.
One thing’s for sure – if this cover of a near thirty-year-old song was a one-hit wonder then it would make perfect sense. A flash in the pan, a moment of frivolity. Except, it’s the first of four chart-toppers for a thirty-something ex-Elvis impersonator, who was on his way to becoming the biggest-selling British singles artist of the decade. More from Shaky, then, very soon…
Yesterday I ranked the songs that didn’t quite make my Top 10 of ABBA’s non-#1s. Here, then, is the main event…
10. ‘Does Your Mother Know’ – reached #4 in 1979
The only ABBA hit on which one of the boys took lead vocals, and their final glam-rock stomper. The lyrics are very of their time BUT, crucially, Bjorn acts like a true gentleman towards this teenage tearaway. Take it easy… Does your mother know? You can picture him helping the girl out the club, giving her a bottle of water, and waiting with her until the Uber arrives.
9. ‘Under Attack’ – reached #26 in 1982
One that benefits from not being over-played… This was the last single released before the band split up in December 1982. Sadly it didn’t help them go out with a bang, and limped to a Top 30 peak over Christmas. I love it though: it keeps the moodiness from ‘The Visitors’ album in the verses before dishing out a classic ABBA chorus. Never has a line like: Under attack, I’m being taken… sounded so positive.
8. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ / ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ – reached #9 / # 14 in 2021
The comeback hits. One of which, astonishingly, restored ABBA to the Top 10 for the first time in forty years. I’m treating them as a double-‘A’, as in days gone by that’s presumably what they would have been released as. I don’t really know where to place them, how to assess them with regards to the rest of their output yet, so have plonked them right in the middle. One things for sure: both songs hold their own with those from decades before. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, to my ears, combines ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘One of Us’, two of the band’s best. ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ I found a little underwhelming on first listen, but in time it’s grown into an epic that could only have been created by one band.
7. ‘Head Over Heels’ – reached #25 in 1982
The single that broke their run of 18 uninterrupted Top 10 hits… But I think it’s a mini-classic. It’s ABBA at their frothiest, and is definitely the lightest moment on ‘The Visitors’ album. It helps that you rarely hear it these days – perhaps if it was as played as ‘Dancing Queen’ I’d be ranking it lower. The video, in which Frida plays a messy It girl, is cheap and cheerful, but Good God those jumpsuits! She’s extreme, If you know, What I mean…
6. ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ – reached #3 in 1979
Until their re-evaluation in the ’90s, the ABBA flame was kept alight in gay bars. Most claim ‘Dancing Queen’ to be their gay anthem, for obvious reasons, but surely they were never gayer than when Frida and Agnetha were demanding a man after midnight. Those exclamation marks after each ‘Gimme’ in the title are everything, as is the pounding, horse-hoof beat, that sounds as close as disco ever came to splicing with a spaghetti-western soundtrack. It was later sampled by Madonna for one of her best songs, however I can’t listen to it now without hearing it sung in the style of Kathy Burke.
5. ‘SOS’ – reached #6 in 1975
I’ve heard this referred to as ABBA’s heavy-metal moment, ABBA’s emo moment, ABBA’s finest moment… I’d say it’s simply pure power-pop perfection. ‘SOS’ was their first big post-‘Waterloo’ hit, and it set them up for half a decade of chart domination. Even this early in their career, with both couples still happily together, ABBA’s melodies and hooks were underscored by melancholy. Even Pierce Brosnan couldn’t ruin this one…
4. ‘The Day Before You Came’ – reached #32 in 1982
Just what is this record about…? Is it the day before meeting the man of your dreams? Is it the day before your death? Your murder? Suicide?? A biting satire on the meat-grinder that capitalism throws us through in the name of a career…? Whatever it might be about, this six-minute, chorus-less epic is probably the most experimental moment of ABBA’s career. The hits were drying up, so why bother trying to write a hit? It was also the very last song they ever recorded (until the comeback). Legend has it that Agnetha recorded her vocals alone, in a darkened recording studio, before walking out and drawing ABBA to a close. Those vocals contain some of the band’s best lines, picking out the mundanity of this woman’s life. I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two… and There’s not, I think, a single episode of ‘Dallas’ that I didn’t see… She isn’t at all sure of what happened that day, really; a very unreliable narrator. You could write a dissertation on the many way this song can be interpreted. Who know, someone might already have. Strange, sinister perfection.
3. ‘Voulez-Vous’ / ‘Angeleyes’ – reached #3 in 1979
Apart, neither ‘Voulez-Vous’ nor ‘Angeleyes’ would get this high… As a double-‘A’ side, though, their combined forces get third place. (And, without giving the game away, the highest-placing of ABBA’s ’70s hits…) Both songs are disco heaven, and both are about a sleaze-ball of a man. The same sleaze-ball? In ‘Angeleyes’ the girls want to warn his new lover not to trust him, to warn her away… While in ‘Voulez-Vous’, in the heat of the dance floor, they give in and ask him bluntly: Voulez-vous? Take it now or leave it…
2. ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ – reached #7 in 1981
In which ABBA move from disco, into electronic dance. The bass slaps (I believe that’s the term), the beat is unrepentant, and the lyrics are classic ABBA (how many dance tracks have words like ‘incomprehensible’ in them…?) My favourite bits are the violins that come in at the end, and the synthesised drops before the choruses, but really it’s all great. This was never intended to be a single, and when it was released it was only put out on 12″, which explains the relatively low peak. Though it was, at the time, the best selling 12″ record ever.
1. ‘One of Us’ – reached #3 in 1981
The first song the band released as two divorced couples; and the last genuine hit single they had. A coincidence…? It has everything you want from an ABBA single: singing through the tears, glorious harmonising from the girls, just the right number of cheesy touches (the parping bass, for example). I’m not sure it’s their best song, but something about it just hits a sweet spot – the Wishing she was somewhere else instead… line is perfection – and so it gives me great pleasure to name ‘One of Us’ as the best of ABBA’s rest.
We’ve covered all nine of ABBA’s UK #1s, from ‘Waterloo’ to ‘Super Trouper’, but I’m not ready to bid them farewell just yet. Here then, are the rest of the band’s 17 non chart-topping UK Top 40 hits, ranked, and split over two days. Bear in mind that I do not actively dislike any of these songs, even the lowest placing. While the records at the top of this list do, I’d say, rank alongside the best of ABBA’s chart-topping hits. Here we go…
17. ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ – reached #38 in 1975
The worst of the rest (but still an earworm). This is ABBA at their schlager-iest: the saxophones, the wedding bells, the silly title. The band were struggling to follow up ‘Waterloo’, to score a hit away from Eurovision, and when this limped to #38 it looked as if the game might have been up. Luckily their next single did significantly better, and the rest is history…
16. ‘I Have a Dream’ – reached #2 in 1979
ABBA’s final single of the seventies was this Christmas Number Two. Sorry, that sounded a bit rude. It’s not that bad, but I’ve never connected with it. Listening to ‘ABBA Gold’ as a kid, this was the one song I wished would end sooner than it ever did, and then along came Westlife’s rotten cover version. I still feel the same way: it’s a bit plodding – the sitar doesn’t help – and children’s choirs in pop songs are, as St. Winifred’s showed us, dangerous things.
15. ‘Chiquitita’ – reached #2 in 1979
Another number two – again, not being rude – from 1979, and from the ‘Voulez-Vous’ album. I can see that this is a well-made piece of music: the baroque piano, the chorus that demands to be belted out, the terrifying snowman in the video; and a well-loved moment in the ABBA canon. But it still leaves me a little cold. ‘Chiquitita’ could well be the lover of ‘Fernando’, and I’d rank the two songs together: catchy choruses, but nowhere near peak-ABBA.
14. ‘Money, Money, Money’ – reached #3 in 1976
If it were down to the video alone, this’d be near the top. The close-ups, the strobe lights, the diamond encrusted kimonos… As a song though, it’s fine. It’s worth a sing-a-long if it comes on the radio. It sounds a bit like it’s been snatched from a musical that nobody has ever seen, and it has one hell of a key-change. Apart from that, the best bit is when Frida pouts the line I bet he wouldn’t fancy me… Um, I bet he probably would, love.
13. ‘Ring, Ring’ – reached #32 in 1974
The title hit from their first album in 1973, albeit only charting in a re-release after the success of ‘Waterloo’. This is such an early hit – their first Swedish #1 – that the band hadn’t yet assumed their iconic acronym (they released it as Bjorn and Benny, Agnetha and Frida). They had a few glam-rock stompers – ‘Waterloo’, ‘So Long’, this. In the video, Bjorn looks like he’s stumbled in after an audition for The Sweet. ‘Twas the style of the time.
12. ‘Thank You for the Music’ – reached #33 in 1983
Their signature hit? Until quite recently, this was ABBA’s chart swansong. Originally recorded in 1977 and included on ‘ABBA – The Album’ but not released as a single until after they’d officially split. A few years ago I’d have ranked this rock-bottom: I thought it tipped too far into camp theatricality. And it still does… But I’ve grown to like it. Who knows, in another decade this might be my favourite? I always imagine Freddie Mercury singing it with Agnetha – the little ‘mm-hmm’ in the second verse is pure Freddie. Can you imagine..?
11. ‘Summer Night City’ – reached #5 in 1978
The band’s first foray into disco, ahead of the ‘Voulez-Vous’ album. While I like the impetus and the drive of this one, I don’t think it’s quite in the same league as their later disco hits, which I’ve ranked higher up the list. And, just confirm, the lyric is: Walking in the moonlight… and not what you think you heard.
A little hors d’oeuvre then, before the main event. Still some classics mixed in there. Same time tomorrow: The Top 10…