Number 1s Blog 5th Anniversary Special – Readers’ Favourite #1s – ‘Silence Is Golden’

This week marks FIVE YEARS since I launched this blog with a post on Al Martino’s ‘Here in My Heart’, the first number one single on the first NME chart, published on November 14th, 1952. Over the course of this half-decade, I’ve picked up some dedicated readers and commenters, to whom I’m very grateful for making this whole thing worthwhile. So, to celebrate the milestone, I’m going to hand the blog over to four of my long-time followers. They’ve all chosen their own favourite UK number one single (from between 1952 and 1988 because, well, we don’t want spoilers!)

Up first is John Van der Kiste, and his choice of The Tremeloes ‘Silence Is Golden’. John is a writer and historian, whose recent projects include a book on Manfred Mann in the 1970s, and ‘Eagles on Track: Every Album, Every Song’. His work can be found on Amazon.

‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes – #1 for 3 weeks in 1967

When Brian Poole and the Tremeloes parted company in 1966, music pundits thought the former would remain a major star while his band would disappear without trace. They were wrong. After struggling with their first two singles, ‘Blessed’ (a Paul Simon song) and ‘Good Day Sunshine’ (Beatles), the band scored with Cat Stevens’ ‘Here Comes My Baby’, a No. 4 in 1967. Stevens disliked their version, complaining that they had turned his heartfelt love-gone-wrong song into a party romp.

For their fourth single, again they decided to take a sad song and make it better (see what I did there). ‘Silence is Golden’, originally the B-side of The Four Seasons’ ‘Rag Doll’ in 1964, was recommended as a potential hit to them by Mick Clarke, who briefly joined as their bassist before being (amicably) replaced by Len Hawkes. Taking a slow, slightly bitter number marked a change in style for them. In three verses and a chorus, the observer tells of his pain at seeing a girl (whom he presumably fancies) being deceived by a guy who obviously doesn’t deserve her. He’s dying to warn her, held back only by the fear that she will tell him he’s lying, so he’d better shut up. A miserable little triangle.

Even so, it flew out of the shops on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of the Trems’ songs featured Hawkes or drummer Dave Munden on lead vocal, but this time they gave the job to lead guitarist Rick West. It shows off the band’s harmonies to perfection. For the most part it follows the arrangement of the original closely with a change in key after the second chorus, the only change coming with a couple of repeats of the final line in a different melody instead of fading out.

1967 may have been the year of Sergeant Pepper, San Francisco and Monterey, but as far as the British charts went, it was big ballad time, with Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Engelbert Humperdinck, Long John Baldry, Tom Jones and The Dave Clark Five all getting sentimental and reaching No. 1 or else getting close. ‘Silence is Golden’ still remains a much-loved staple on 1960s oldies playlists, though some people have never forgiven it for denying The Kinks’ sublime ‘Waterloo Sunset’ the summit after three chart-toppers in three previous years.

(The Trems performing ‘Silence Is Golden’ live in 1967)

The Trems had their chance of repeating history not once but twice, but threw it away. In 1968 they were offered but rejected ‘(If Paradise Is) Half as Nice’, and Amen Corner reaped the benefit. Later they recorded Jeff Christie’s ‘Yellow River’ and scheduled it as a single, though after a change of heart they turned it down, whereupon their producer Mike Smith helped Christie form his own self-named band (with drummer Mike Blakley, whose brother Alan was a Tremeloe) – and take it all the way there in 1970. Also it’s interesting that, of their remaining singles, the most successful were back to the up-tempo party style, with other ballads faring poorly.

Their run of hits continued until 1971 and then faded away (apart from a minor chart entry in 1983 with their version of F.R. David’s ‘Words’), but they have continued to earn a living on the live circuit. Their line-up became something of a revolving door, with West leaving in 1972 after a battle with labyrinthitis, later rejoining on condition that he wouldn’t sing on stage but concentrate on guitar instead. Clarke, who had his moment at the top in 1974 with ‘Sugar Baby Love’ with The Rubettes, has recently been part of the line-up from time to time. The original foursome have all had health issues, with Blakley passing away in 1996 and Munden in 2020, though The Tremeloes have endured in one form or another. Hawkes is still a regular member, while his sons Chesney (as in ‘The One and Only’, No. 1 in 1991) and Jodie often join the line-up on guitar and drums respectively. No mean feat, for a band originally formed in 1958. 

615. ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, by The Hollies

A big feature of the late eighties and early nineties, aside from all the dancing, the sampling and the acid house, was classic re-releases…

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, by The Hollies (their 2nd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 18th September – 2nd October 1988

One such re-release means that The Hollies score their second #1 single, a full twenty-three years after their first. And like the two most recent belated chart-toppers – ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Reet Petite’ – this is a classic in every sense. It’s pop as classical music: stately, grandiose, full of portent and power… The road is long, With many a winding turn…

In fact, I’d file this up there with ‘Hey Jude’, and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, as pop music working as a hymn for the secular. And not just because the band do their best impression of a gospel choir towards the end, but also because the title line is from a Christian tale about a sister carrying her brother on her back, uncomplaining. Interestingly, ‘Stand by Me’ also features lines from the bible (while ‘Reet Petite’ does not, unless I missed that particular week of Sunday School…)

The climax is the middle eight, the If I’m laden… At all… part, that positively soars. In fact, it perhaps soars too much, for my tastes. For a band that spent most of the sixties releasing perfectly crafted, snappy pop tunes – from ‘Just One Look’, to their previous #1 ‘I’m Alive’, to ‘Bus Stop’ and on – this is quite the departure. I have to admit that I prefer their pop stuff to this, as impressive as it is, in the same way that ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ are not my all-time favourites either.

This song originally came not long after Graham Nash had left the band, to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, leaving the band more reliant on outside songwriters. ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’ had been written for US singer Kelly Gordon, a few months before The Hollies made #3 with it in 1969. (Fun fact: not only is it a belated 2nd #1 for The Hollies, it’s a 2nd #1 for Elton John, who played piano on the track as a pre-fame session musician!) And, for a song with such religious connotations and gospel leanings, it took a much more prosaic reason to finally get it to #1: an advert for Miller-Lite.

In 1969, this hit set the band up to keep going well into the 1970s, something that very few of the big ‘60s acts managed. Their ‘final’ big hit was ‘The Air that I Breathe’ in 1974 (a song I do kind of wish had had the big re-release treatment, instead of this…) And unless I’m missing something obvious, this song’s second round of success meant that The Hollies achieved the longest gap between chart-topping singles, a record they kept for quite a while. On a personal note, and quite fittingly, this was #1 on the day that my own brother was born (but I will refrain from commenting on his heaviness…)

614. ‘A Groovy Kind of Love’, by Phil Collins

Just when I’d made such a big point about us being past the gloopiest years of the decade…

A Groovy Kind of Love, by Phil Collins (his 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 4th – 18th September 1988

It’s Phil, a keyboard, some subtle background strings and percussion, all drenched in glossy, echoey reverb. Only three and a half years have passed since his last #1 – ‘Easy Lover’ – but already Phil Collins feels old-fashioned and left behind by this dancey, sample-heavy era. This feels very 1985… And the use of ‘groovy’ in the title is worth suing for false advertising!

Not that it’s terrible. There’s always space in the musical landscape for a smoochy ballad. It’s just fairly dull, and the lyrics are delivered so slowly that their clunky rhymes stand out even more: When I kiss your lips, Oooh I start to shiver, Can’t control the quiver, -ing inside… When you think of Collins’s hits that didn’t make the top – ‘In the Air Tonight’ and ‘Against All Odds’ both peaked at #2 – you might wonder why this unremarkable one made it.

But then Phil Collins isn’t the only artist to be unfairly represented by his chart-toppers. Sometimes there’s a lull at the top, and something understated and gentle can take over for a couple of weeks. It was also on the soundtrack to the movie ‘Buster’, which I’m guessing helped as well.

For something more interesting we must delve into the history of ‘A Groovy Kind of Love’, which I had never realised dated back two decades, to a #2 hit in 1966 for The Mindbenders. (The use of a term like ‘groovy’ makes much more sense in the mid-sixties…) It was their first release after Wayne Fontana had left the band, and I prefer that version, also a ballad, purely because it sounds like it’s from the 1960s (snappy and guitar-led) and not the 1980s, and I’m biased. Sorry! Meanwhile, the melody is based on a piece by 18th century Italian composer Muzio Clementi, instantly propelling this innocuous ballad into the top two or three oldest #1s, ever. Who knew?

Phil Collins won’t be topping the charts again, but his career will keep ticking away throughout the ‘90s and 00’s, despite him becoming a bye-word for ‘uncool’. It probably didn’t help that he always looked, to me at least, like one of my dad’s old school friends. However, he regained some respect from the hip-hop community, of all places, and still tours despite various health problems. Nowadays his influence is much more recognised, and rightly so. For what it’s worth, he’s the world’s 2nd richest drummer, behind Ringo Starr.

613. ‘The Only Way Is Up’, by Yazz & The Plastic Population

There are some songs that get to #1 because they’re great. And there are some songs that get to #1 perhaps in part thanks to the terrible-ness of the #1 that went before…

The Only Way Is Up, by Yazz & The Plastic Population (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 31st July – 4th September 1988

‘The Only Way Is Up’ is undoubtedly a great pop song, but it sounds even greater when played straight after Glenn Medeiros’s limp ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’. Did the record buying public hear Medeiros at number one throughout July, decide that they couldn’t have that as 1988’s Song of the Summer, and so sent this banger to #1 for the whole of August…?

Probably not. Most people just buy songs because they like them. But from the opening horn blast, sounding like an express train about to flatten any drippy teenagers left in its wake, this tune means business. I love the squelchy synths, and I love the way Yazz channels Donna Summer herself in the opening note.

But the best bit is the Hold on… build up to the chorus – perfect for belting out on a crowded dancefloor, before punching the air on the title line. Things are certainly getting dancier as we move away from the gloopy mid-80s and towards the nineties… (And yes, I realise that we literally just covered one of the gloopiest hit singles of all time.) Dance is a difficult genre to define – what’s dance, what’s just pop? – but I’d make this the 6th such #1 in just under a year.

Hits like this, and the recent ‘Theme from S-Express’, are bigger budget takes on the SAW Euro-disco sound, with the anarchic feel of acid house. Basically it’s an amalgam of all that was good and fun in pop music at this time. Some of the production does sound dated, yes – the scratching at the end, and the barking dog synths – but with a song as exuberant as this who cares!

I was pretty certain that this would be a cover of a Motown/soul/disco song, much in the mould of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, and I was correct in my convictions. ‘The Only Way Is Up’ was originally recorded in 1980 by soul singer Otis Clay. His version is fine – very different, lots of horns equally uplifting – but it wasn’t a hit until Yazz got her hands on it.

It’s hard to distinguish who The Plastic Population were… It looks like maybe they were Yazz’s backing singers? After this hit they were never credited again. Yazz scored two further Top 10s, and continued releasing low-charting singles throughout the 1990s. She’s since moved into Christian and gospel music. Meanwhile, I just discovered that a version of ‘The Only Way Is Up’ is the theme tune to ‘The Only Way Is Essex’… Have to admit, if I were scoring these chart-toppers, that fact would cost this one half a point…

612. ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’, by Glenn Medeiros

You might remember that I like to take notes on each #1 I’m going to write about, usually after finishing the previous post. My first note on this, 1988’s big summer smoocher, reads: ‘Straight in with the sax!’

Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You, by Glenn Medeiros (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 3rd – 31st July 1988

The use of saxophones in number one singles is a contentious issue for me, and one of the big black marks on the right-hand side of my ‘1980s Pros & Cons’ sheet. Used properly and sparingly, for maximum effect, they can be glorious. But for every ‘China in Your Hand’ or ‘Baby Jane’, there’s a ‘What’s Another Year’. However, all these songs, for better or worse, kept the sax for the solo. ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’ does a ‘Careless Whisper’, and whips its instrument out from the start. So to speak…

It instantly sets the tone, and instantly consigns this song to sub-Disney theme gloop. There’s no recovering from ploughing straight in with such a cheesy, sleazy sax. Not that Glenn Medeiros tries particularly hard to recover any credibility. He’s quite happy to wallow in his saccharine mess… Hold me now, Touch me now, I don’t want to live without you…

The verses are really lame. The key change is a proper teeth-grinder. The video is all soft-focus sunset strolls along the beach, and smouldering stares down the camera lens, as anyone over the age of fourteen swallows back their vomit. And yet… Nothing’s gonna change my love for you, You oughta know by now how much I love you…The chorus is the moment it all hangs together, for a couple of seconds. It’s pure cheese, but the drums pound and the sax soars, and it is kind of glorious. Then it collapses back in on its gloopy self. Meh. (At least the Brian May impression from whoever was on lead guitar for the solo redeems things slightly once more…)

It’s fitting that this chart topper followed directly on from Bros – two sides of the teenybopper coin. For every fun and funky dance pop hit, teenage girls were just as likely to send shit like this to number one. The fact that Glenn Medeiros was just eighteen himself, with floppy black hair and puppy dog eyes, probably helped shift a few copies too. He’s Hawaiian, and this was his first big hit. The closest he came to repeating this record’s success was a few years later, with ‘She Ain’t Worth It’ – a duet with Bobby Brown that made #12 (and hit #1 in the US). He’s since gone on to a career as a teacher and headmaster of schools in his home state.

‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’, meanwhile, had originally been recorded by soul crooner George Benson. His version is a bit more grown up, but every bit as slick and icky. Westlife have also covered it (of course they have…) Meanwhile, I can confirm that it is a hugely well-known English song in the Far East and South-East Asia – up there with the Carpenters and Celine Dion – where tolerance for this kind of cheese is much higher. Why not enjoy it in Cantonese here, before you go?

611. ‘I Owe You Nothing’, by Bros

‘Peak-eighties’ is a term I’ve used many times over the past few months, as the drum machines and synths took over, as the power-ballads boomed, as the mixing desks scratched and chopped…

I Owe You Nothing, by Bros (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 19th June – 3rd July 1988

Well, the decade is peaking once again, as quintessential late ‘80s boyband Bros meld Hi-NRG dance with MJ-esque soul-pop. It’s a song, an intro in particular, that will test the patience of anyone who isn’t an ‘80s fan, as the producers throw every OTT trick in the book at the listener. The synths sound like B-movie air-raid sirens, every edge is sharp, the chops and changes an assault on the senses. Every tiny gap is filled by a sound or effect, with no room left to breathe…

Having said that… I do like it. Under all the make-up hides a pretty decent pop tune. It’s an aggressive song, one that throws subtlety to the wind, but as long as you don’t stop to think then it will carry you along. And Matt Goss’s vocals are pretty strong too. Yes, he’s trying very hard to be Michael Jackson, with all his growls, whoops and tics. But from the absurd opening line: I’ll watch you crumble, Like a very old wall… he sings it with such gusto that you can’t help playing along.

There seem to have been two main versions of ‘I Owe You Nothing’, one released to little fanfare in 1987, the other remixed after Bros had broken through with the aptly named ‘When Will I Be Famous?’ The latter version – the hit version – is better as it adds a rockier edge, and an actual electric guitar for the solo.

Was this a shadow number one, making the top in the wake of ‘When Will Be Famous?’ Maybe… Except #2 hit ‘Drop the Boy’ came in between. In fact, Bros (pronounced phonetically, and not in the American ‘What’s up, bro?’ sense) could have been the biggest chart act of the late ‘80s, with four #2s between ’87 and ’89, alongside their sole chart-topper. They certainly had legions of fans – the ‘Brosettes’ – who at one point forced Oxford Street to close during an HMV signing session.

It wasn’t to last, though. Following their debut album the one non-brother, Craig Logan, left due to illness. (Interestingly, for me at least, Logan was from Kirkcaldy, which means there has now been a Scottish connection to four consecutive chart-toppers!) Luke and Matt Goss continued into the nineties, before splitting. They had a go at solo careers, reformed in 2016, producing a well-regarded documentary about the preparations for their comeback tour.

610. ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’, by The Timelords

My first reaction upon seeing the title of our next #1 was: “Oh God, not another song based on a popular sci-fi series!” The scars from having to write about ‘Star Trekkin’’ still cut deep…

Doctorin’ the Tardis, by The Timelords (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 12th – 19th June 1988

But wait… Is that glam classic ‘Block Buster! mixed with the ‘Dr. Who’ theme? And is that a refrain based on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Part II’? Plus lots of obnoxious punk chanting? Is this not actually quite great? Stupidly brilliant? Brilliantly stupid?

It takes two very separate strands of music – the sample-heavy house scene that has already given us a classic #1 (‘Theme from S’Express’) and a couple of others (‘Pump Up the Volume’ and ‘Jack Your Body’) and the glam scene of fifteen years previous – while throwing a TV theme into the mix. It shouldn’t work, they shouldn’t be able to meld, but it does. In fact, it sounds incredibly like Muse. Genuinely – and I say this as someone who loves Muse – as if Matt Bellamy has based his band’s entire recent output around this novelty song.

The Daleks are a bit much, mind (I say that as someone with next to no interest in ‘Dr. Who’) but I suppose they’re the most identifiable thing from the programme, and so we need an Exterminate! or two. Oh, and we haven’t mentioned the fact that the You what? chant is from Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character, and so we have an added undercurrent of Thatcher-era social commentary thrown in too: Loadsamoney presumably being as cheap and as vacuous as this song is meant to be. (Enfield had also taken a single based on the Loadsamoney character to #4 just a few weeks before ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’ made #1. ‘Enjoy’ that here…)

And then… ho boy, this is a real cluster bomb of a record… Gary Glitter jumped on the bandwagon and helped record a new version, called ‘Gary in the Tardis’ with chants from his big glam hits: He’s the leader, Of the gang… Do you want to touch me…? and so on. That version featured on some of the various 12” mixes, but he wasn’t officially credited. He performed it live though, I’m guessing on TOTP. (And I’ve just realised the twisted irony in Gary Glitter deposing a record that had been raising money for Childline…)

This has so many strands running through it that we haven’t yet mentioned the Timelords themselves. This was their first and only hit under that name, but we’ll meet Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty again shortly, as The KLF. They had released a few underground sample-heavy hits before, as The JAMs, but this was the big time. The song’s title was presumably a nod to Coldcut’s recent sample-tastic hit ‘Doctorin’ the House’. Drummond called their first big hit ‘nauseating’, and then released a book based on making the song called ‘The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way’.

But hey, never has a cynical grab for chart glory sounded so catchy. Glam is back! For one week only, Britain’s pop past and future – glam, punk and house – mix in a riotous mess of a chart-topper. And I love it! If nothing else, it’s flushed the last remnants of ‘Star Trekkin’’ out of my system…

609. ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ / ‘She’s Leaving Home’, by Wet Wet Wet / Billy Bragg with Cara Tivey

Our next #1 is an interesting concept, and (I think) the only chart-topping example of it: a double-‘A’ side with songs by two different artists…

With a Little Help from My Friends / She’s Leaving Home, by Wet Wet Wet (their 1st of three #1s) / Billy Bragg with Cara Tivey (their 1st and only #1s)

4 weeks, from 15th May – 12th June 1988

Actually, the songs on the recent M/A/R/R/S double-‘A’ were by two different bands in all but name, but OK… This definitely is. A fun pop-soul cover by a hot new lad-band (that presumably got most of the airplay at the time), and a more introspective offering on the flip side. Both are Beatles covers – ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ covers, no less – and were recorded for children’s charity Childline.

Which means we have to sound the Charity Record alarm! But, actually, this is one of the best charity singles of the decade. Perhaps ever. There’s no gimmick, nobody is dicking about, there are no misguided attempts at comedy. Just two solid Beatles covers. Wet Wet Wet’s take on ‘With a Little Help…’ is fine, though not a patch on either the original or Joe Cocker’s OTT version. It’s perky, fast-paced, with a soaring organ, and a little bit of over-singing from Marti Pellow… The ‘friends’ in this version are the kind folks at Childline (as the video makes clear). Though I’m not sure they’re the sort you’d ‘get high’ with… No matter, Pellow glides past that line without blinking.

It’s nothing special, but when you think of some of the horrors inflicted on classic rock songs by X Factor alumni in the name of charity then you’ll take ‘nothing special’ all day long. In fact, it’s a pretty low-key intro for a band who will go on to have one of the biggest number one singles of all time. But that particular beast can wait… For now, Wet Wet Wet were a likeable bunch of lads from Clydebank, who’d had a run of Top 10 hits following their 1987 breakthrough ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’ (and who make it two Scottish chart-toppers in a row, following Fairground Attraction’s Eddi Reader).

And on the other side? Well, considering that the charity album this single came from was produced by the NME, and featured covers from The Fall (‘A Day in the Life’) The Wedding Present (‘Getting Better’) and Sonic Youth (‘Within You Without You’), perhaps Wet Wet Wet were actually the surprise inclusion? Billy Bragg is an activist, a left-wing folk-punk songwriter, and possibly the ultimate Pointless answer to ‘Artists with a UK #1 single’.

His take on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ with his long-time collaborator Cara Tivey on piano, is something different – both in terms of the peppy song on the flip-side, and in terms of chart-topping singles in general. Few pop hits can have featured an accent as uncompromising as Bragg’s, for example. Though the kitchen-sink drama in the lyrics… She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years… is very on-brand for him. It’s a pretty take on the original, and another win for ‘80s indie which, after The Housemartins and Fairground Attraction, is actually getting more of a crack at the top spot than I’d have anticipated.

I like the concept, and the contrast between the two songs… but neither comes close to its original. And I say that as someone who doesn’t even rate ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ as much as certain of the Beatles’ other studio albums (at least the two before and the two that followed it…) There now, I feel like I’ve outed myself as a complete Philistine… Up next, perhaps a post on why I’ve always found Bob Dylan overrated… Or maybe not.

608. ‘Perfect’, by Fairground Attraction

Following on from the sweaty, pounding ‘Theme from S-Express’ comes the jaunty, acoustic ‘Perfect’. One of the biggest style switches between consecutive chart-toppers?

Perfect, by Fairground Attraction (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 8th – 15th May 1988

I’ve always liked ‘Perfect’, long before I knew it had been a number one hit. It’s the sort of song that plays in the background, throughout your life: the sort of song you think you’ve heard even when you haven’t. A little rockabilly ditty, with a cutesy hook: It’s got to be-e-e-e-e-e-e, Perfect…

But, like I said, I knew the song long before I knew it had made #1. And I’m thinking there must have been some sort of story behind ‘Perfect’ making top spot, because it’s just not the sort of song that should have been making #1 in 1988. Was there a movie? An advert? A climactic scene in ‘Brookside’…? Seems not. It wasn’t even basking in the glow of a big preceding hit, as it was Fairground Attraction’s debut single.

To be fair, it’s not as if rock music didn’t exist in the 1980s, it was just largely absent from the top end of the charts. Maybe ‘Perfect’ was at the sweet spot between ‘80s indie (Smiths, Housemartins) and ‘80s rockabilly (the solo here features twanging guitars last heard in a Shakin’ Stevens hit, and might just be my favourite bit of the song), which gathered it enough steam to sneak a week on top. And hey, let’s not quibble! Guitars are back on top for a week! Having glanced ahead at the #1s to come… we’ll take what we can!

My second favourite part of the song is Eddi Reader’s vocal performance. Crisp and clear, playful on the verses, near soaring on the chorus, Reader had been a busker and a session vocalist before finding fame with Fairground Attraction. Their success didn’t last long, as the group split while recording their second album, but Reader has gone on to have a lasting folk career, re-recording ‘Perfect’ in Irish and interpreting the songs of Robert Burns among many other things.

To finish… Here’s where I’m going to get a bit picky. As nice as this record is – and ‘nice’ is an apt adjective – I do wish that our first rock (with a small ‘r’) #1 in a while had a bit more substance to it. A bit more beef. But it is what it is. We take what rock we can get and we move on…

607. ‘Theme from S-Express’, by S’Express

Dance music will never be my favourite genre. I will always go for guitars over keyboards and synthesisers. But sometimes, just sometimes, a dance tune will hit my sweet spot in a way that most rock songs could only hope to do…

Theme from S-Express, by S’Express (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 24th April – 8th May 1988

And this is one of them. It’s far from the first dance #1, it’s not even the first house #1, but it’s the first that I’ve really liked, the first that’s been more than just an interesting distraction. From the opening note of this industrial meat grinder of an intro, as a voice announces Enjoy this trip…and someone counts down in Spanish, I’m sold. I’m quite a fussy dancer, ready to leave the floor the moment a song I even slightly dislike comes on. But I’d be working up a sweat all night if dance music always sounded like this.

To my ears, the two earlier house #1s, ‘Jack Your Body’ and ‘Pump Up the Volume’ were a mess of samples, thrown together for the sake of it rather than because they should have been. But the ‘Theme from S-Express’ is a masterclass in picking the right samples. The foundation of the song is from Rose Royce’s ‘Is It Love You’re After’, which sounds incredibly modern for a song released at the height of disco. And all the vocal hooks work: Come on and listen to me baby now ooh… I’ve got the hots for you boop boop… and the wonderfully dated Drop! That! Ghetto blastah! It all genuinely works well together. It’s still busy, there’s still a lot going on, but it never feels like overkill. Even the screeching. (In the comments to the YouTube video below, someone has kindly listed and time-tagged all the samples.)

I love the Rio carnival interlude that comes along a minute in, as it provides a moment of lightness. But most of all I love the pounding Oh my God… break halfway through (though I don’t know if songs like this can have breaks, verses, choruses and bridges – normal songwriting rules go out the window) The dance music that works for me is dance that could be rock, and there’s something almost metal in this record’s relentless beat. It’s when dance goes all light and airy, with a piano hook and a breathy female vocal, that I tend to lose interest.

But that kind of EDM is a decade or more off. Here we are in the early days of the genre, where people were having fun with samples and filling dancefloors with the results. These results weren’t always perfect, but when they worked – as they do here – it was great. S’Express was a collective helmed by British DJ Mark Moore, and their ‘Theme’ was their first ever chart hit. They’d enjoy two more Top 10s in 1988, and hung around through the golden age of acid house before Moore ended the project in 1994. Whether they were ‘S-Express’ or ‘S’Express’ seems to depend on what font they used when printing their record sleeves, so I’ve used both. (And I’ve just noticed that it clearly spells ‘Sex Express’.)

I first heard this song when I worked in a bowling alley as a student – the very same bowling alley I mentioned in my post on ‘Give It Up’. Who knew bowling alleys would offer such formative musical experiences? But if you can picture bowling to ‘Theme from S-Express’ with the lights dimmed and the neon flashing, then you’ll know why it worked so well.