Pet Shop Boys – Best of the Rest

Time for a ‘Best of the Rest’ rundown for one of the most consistent hitmakers of the eighties and nineties. In fact, Pet Shop Boys’ run of Top 10 hits spans exactly twenty years, from their first #1 ‘West End Girls’ in 1986, to 2006’s ‘I’m With Stupid’.

Neil and Chris were a bit short-changed, for my money, in terms of their chart-toppers. Far worse acts have had far more than just four number ones… But, I’ve said it before and may as well say it again, the chart gods are fickle. Here then are PSB’s ten biggest non-number one hits. Unlike similar posts I’ve published in the past, I’m not ranking them – this is all based on cold hard chart-positions. It’s just ‘Highest Charting of the Rest’ as a title doesn’t have quite the same ring to it…

‘Before’ – #7 in 1996

Perhaps not the most instant PSBs track, ‘Before’ was the lead single from their sixth studio album, ‘Bilingual’. There’s a hook there, in the cooing synth line, and a chilled mix of disco and nineties dance. The brief for the video, meanwhile, was clearly to aim for ‘peak 1996’, years before people had though of ‘peak’ anything.

Can You Forgive Her? – #7 in 1993

It’s very Pet Shop Boys to make love sound like a panic attack. You’re short of breath, Is it a heart attack…? It’s both compulsive and threatening, with nice brassy synths. It’s not hard to read a subtext in the lyrics about a woman making fun of a man who prefers disco to rock, and who claims that’s she’s off to find a real man instead… Another striking video, that I imagine looked very impressive at the time.

‘Domino Dancing’ – #7 in 1988

As we’ve seen from our regular rundown, the mid-to-late eighties saw a mini burst of Latin-tinged pop. PSBs got in on the act for the lead single from their third album. I think the guitar and Spanish rhythms mixed with with their regular synths works well, but Neil Tennant sees it as the end of their imperial phase (as well as failing to break the Top 5 in the UK, ‘Domino Dancing’ was their last Top 20 hit in the US). The video features two ridiculously handsome (and permanently topless) twinks competing for the attentions of the same girl, before giving up and wrestling one another on a beach. Rolling Stone described it as ‘probably the most homo-erotic pop video ever made’, and it’s hard to disagree…

‘Absolutely Fabulous’ – #6 in 1994

La-La-Lacroix, darling… A charity single next, for Comic Relief. Lines from the sitcom of the same name are stitched around a thumping techno beat, as Neil Tennant does very little apart from intone Abso-lutely fa-bulous… over it all. It’s an pastiche of the big eighties and nineties dance hits – ‘Pump up the Jam’, ‘Ride on Time’, ‘Rhythm of the Night’ to name a few. Techno, Techno, Bloody techno darling… Few charity singles manage to be this catchy and remain (relatively) funny, so it’s a shame that this has been all but forgotten, even if the duo don’t recognise it as an official single and have never featured it on a Greatest Hits. Strange fact: this was PSB’s highest-charting single in Australia.

‘It’s Alright’ – #5 in 1989

A thirty-five year old song about dictators in Afghanistan, and forest falling at a desperate pace… Glad we’ve made progress since then, huh! To me this sounds like Pet Shop Boys-by-numbers. Nothing wrong with it, but not a patch on their greatest singles.

‘How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?’ / ‘Where the Streets Have No Name (Can’t Take My Eyes of You)’ – reached #4 in 1991

This bitchy number – with lines like: You live within the headlines, so everyone can see, You’re supporting every new cause and meeting royalty – is about the pomposity of pop stars in general. Or is it about someone in particular…? Neil Tennant claimed later that it was about a ‘female pop star from 1989’. Make of that what you will… It features guitars, which is rare for a PSBs single.

It was paired with two covers – U2 and Frankie Valli – melded into one soaring disco anthem. An early form of the mash-up, both songs work well with a churning dance beat and Tennant’s ethereal vocals.

‘So Hard’ – reached #4 in 1990

Another atypical love song, about a toxic relationship in which both parties make it so hard for ourselves… Tennant’s vocals rarely break a sweat, there are some wonderfully dated ‘barking dog’ synths, and a low-key gem of a chorus. ‘So Hard’ was the lead single from their fourth album, and the video is set in the wonderful city of Newcastle. It apparently features Paul Gascoigne’s sister Anna, as well candid clips of Geordies out for a night on the toon.

‘Left to My Own Devices’ – #4 in 1988

Everything great about the PSBs in a just under five-minute edit: a dramatic string intro giving way to a pulsing disco beat, NT’s trademark deadpan delivery, lyrics that are as camp (I could love you, If I tried, I could, And left to my own devices, I propably would) as they are pretentious (Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat). Oh and, of course, you can dance to it.

‘Go West’ – #2 in 1993

The mark of a good cover is that you no longer imagine it being performed by the original artist. The Village People took their version, inspired by an old rallying cry used to spur pioneers to head out into the great unclaimed (apart from by, you know, the natives…) American West. PSBs kept most of the original, including the chord progression based on Pachelbel’s Canon, but added lots of glorious other things: horns, a male voice choir, a big female diva (posing as the Statue of Liberty) taking it home at the end. They originally covered it for an AIDS charity concert, then decided to release it, scoring their biggest hit in five years. We can assume the video was inspired by the breakdown of the Soviet Union, with lots of sturdy Russian-looking men heading towards a ‘promised land’. The CGI is so dated that it now looks like a brilliantly judged attempt to be retro.

‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ (with Dusty Springfield) – #2 in 1987

I’m not ranking these, but it just so happens that the best is saved for last. For not only do we have Pet Shop Boys in their imperial, huge hits without even trying, phase… (Coincidentally, Neil Tennant is credited with first using the phrase ‘imperial phase’ to describe an artist at the peak of their powers.) Anyway, I digress… We also have Ms Dusty Springfield! Almost two decades into a career slump, filled with alcohol and drug abuse, as well as abusive relationships. Despite this, the sixties diva remained a star, initially turning the duet down because she hadn’t heard of the PSBs. A couple of years later, after hearing ‘West End Girls’ on the radio, she agreed. Neil Tennant was a huge fan, and pushed for her inclusion, despite their label wanting someone less ‘washed up’.

Dusty also took twenty or so takes before she was happy with her vocals. But when she was happy, her voice became an integral part of an ’80s classic. When she comes in for the chorus, slightly raspier but still Dusty, after Tennant has dead-panned the first verse, it’s a goosebumps moment. The song itself is perhaps of its time, a comment on society in the Thatcher-Reagan years: You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job… It’s also a very subversive number, every bit as gay as ‘Relax’, just less in-your-face, with the lesbian Springfield and the gay Tennant playing a very odd couple.

This record came agonisingly close to the top, peaking at #2 in both the UK and the US. It also sparked a late-career renaissance for Dusty. Tennant and Lowe would go on to produce her comeback album ‘Reputation’ in 1990. She died from cancer in 1999. Pet Shop Boys continue to record and perform to great acclaim, almost forty years later.


644. ‘Vogue’, by Madonna

What’re you looking at? snaps Madonna at the start of her seventh, and perhaps most iconic number one. You of course, Madge. You.

Vogue, by Madonna (her 7th of thirteen #1s)

4 weeks, from 8th April – 6th May 1990

At this point, Madonna was hitting at a rate of one #1 per year. 1989’s chart-topper, ‘Like a Prayer’, gave us Madonna the shocker, the church baiting provocateuse. 1990’s chart-topper was the other side of her coin: Madonna the trend-setter, the cultural chameleon (or bandwagon jumper, if you’re not a fan…) For she was off to the ballrooms of Harlem…

‘Vogueing’ as a dance movement had grown there during the 1980s, among black and Latino gay communities. The sudden, sharp movements were supposed to be an impersonation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, or of a star changing poses in a photoshoot for, yes, ‘Vogue’. Madonna had been introduced to it by her own dancers and choreographers. (*Insert complaints about Madonna milking the gay community for her own commercial advantage* Not that I’d at all agree: this was perhaps the start of ‘gay’ culture going mainstream, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and Madge has always been open about her support of LGBTs.)

Like ‘The Power’, the record it replaced at the top, ‘Vogue’s slick house rhythm doesn’t sound instantly danceable. But it creeps up on you, until two minutes in you realise that you’re shimmying. The tinny drums that lead up to each verse and chorus are very Hi-NRG (dare we say, very SAW?) and the short sharp horn blasts keep you on your feet. By the time she yells the Get up on the dancefloor! line, you’re there. Meanwhile the lyrics are fairly generic dance: Let your body move to the music… You’re a superstar, That’s what you are… etc. etc.

Of course many people at the time, unfamiliar with gay ballroom culture, would have assumed that the title referred to the fashion magazine. Madonna nods to that too, in the spoken word section, as she lists various women with an attitude and fellas who were in the mood from Hollywood’s golden age, on the cover of a magazine. And, just in case this record wasn’t gay enough, it includes the line: They had style, They had grace, Rita Hayworth, Gave good face…

Unlike ‘Like a Prayer’, ‘Vogue’ isn’t from a classic album. It’s the final track, tacked on to ‘I’m Breathless’: the soundtrack to the prohibition-era movie ‘Dick Tracy’. The follow-up single was the ridiculous ‘Hanky Panky’ (nothing like a good spanky!) But ‘Vogue’ has long-outlasted both album and film, to rank alongside Madonna’s very best songs. Whereas I didn’t enjoy listening to ‘Like a Prayer’ as much as I thought I would; the past hour has brought me to realise just how good ‘Vogue’ really is.

Believe it or not, this is the last we’ll be hearing from Madonna for eight whole years. She only has two #1s in the 1990s (while she has as many in the ‘00s as she managed in the ‘80s). Not that she’s going anywhere: aside from those two #1s, the decade will bring her a staggering twenty-two Top 10 hits, including four #2s. And ‘Vogue’, a number one in thirty countries and to date her biggest-seller worldwide, kicked it all off.

643. ‘The Power’, by Snap!

The spring of 1990 truly was an age of interesting intros. Well, I don’t know if two songs quite make an ‘age’, but following on from Beats International’s famous rap, our next #1 kicks off with a burst of Russian LW radio. Something something transceptor technology…

The Power, by Snap! (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 25th March – 8th April 1990

Then boom: a riff that sounds like an electric shock, and (another) dance diva with big lungs bellowing about having the power. So far so famous, a hook that pretty much everyone of a certain age knows. Unfortunately, the less-remembered remainder of the song struggles to match the energy of the title line.

It’s much lower-tempo than you’d think: I’d mis-remembered it as a madcap ride, akin to S-Express, but it’s nowhere near as fun. There’s a rapper – in fact this might be the most rap-heavy chart-topper so far, at the start of the decade in which hip-hop will finally go mainstream. Turbo B has a couple of good lines: Maniac, Brainiac, Winnin’ the game, I’m the lyrical Jessie James… and a real clunker: So peace, Stay off my back, Or I will attack, And you don’t want that… While Penny James, the female lead, has a voice that contrasts with him well.

Both the rap and the vocals were based on earlier songs, by a Chill Rob G and a Jocelyne Browne respectively, and for a while it seemed there might be lawsuits on the horizon when the producers tried to use the originals without permission. The record was quickly re-recorded by Turbo B and James, inadvertently setting up Snap! as an actual band with a hit making future rather than a one-hit wonder.

There’s another good moment, when the electric shock riff takes over and performs a bit of a solo; but for me, as a whole, this record struggles to build up a head of steam. I can’t imagine dancing to it, unlike recent dance bangers from Black Box and Beats International. Snap! (note the Wham!-like exclamation mark) were a German creation, and I get “Boney M for the ‘90s” vibes, what with their nationality, their take on Eurodance, and the questions over whose voices you’re actually hearing… (Though both Turbo B and Penny James were American.)

‘The Power’ was Snap!’s first release, and they would go on to have an impressive nine further Top 10 hits between 1990 and 1994. So popular were they that their fifth single was a medley of the previous four, which still made #10. And while this record may not reach the heights of ‘Ride on Time’, you could argue that it was just a warm-up for Snap!’s globe-humping second, and definitive, chart-topper: one of the biggest dance records of all time. Until then, then…

642. ‘Dub Be Good to Me’, by Beats International

Tank fly boss walk jam nitty-gritty, You’re listening to the boy from the big bad city, This is jam hot…

Dub Be Good to Me, by Beats International (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 25th February – 25th March 1990

I often find writing intros to be the hardest part of a new post. Not today: for who can argue with those opening lines? Jam hot, indeed. (Not that I have a clue what he’s on about, but hey ho…) Off we go, then, into a #1 single a little less intense than ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, but perhaps every bit as iconic (that word again…)

If you listen carefully, both this record and Sinéad O’Connor’s predecessor follow a similar beat. It’s very nineties, as if both these records were setting the tempo for the decade to come. Other than that, though, they’re very different beasts. ‘Dub Be Good to Me’ takes us for a stroll through the backstreets of the big bad city. The laconic harmonica sounds like a train rumbling past, the horn towards the end sounds like a sad busker, the humming break in the middle sounds like the crazy guy you’d cross the road to avoid…

Meanwhile, you can just picture the singer walking along with a ghetto blaster, singing the title line: I don’t care about your other girls, Just be good to me… Like Soul II Soul and Black Box before it, this record is a more modern, stripped-back version of dance music, another step away from the sample-heavy culture of the 1980s. Just a beat, that harmonica, and a female diva giving it large (Lindy Layton, who in some places gets a ‘featuring’ credit on the record).

Not that ‘Dub Be Good to Me’ doesn’t contain a sample, or two. Actually, it’s pretty much all samples. The lyrics and melody come from The SOS Band’s 1983 song ‘Just Be Good to Me’. The bassline is the Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton’, the harmonica is from Ennio Morricone’s theme for ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, and the catchy intro rap is called ‘Jam Hot’, and is by Johnny Dynell. I know that for some sampling is a sin, that music should always be original. But it takes a special ear to hear music from acts as disparate as The Clash, Morricone, and a little-known rapper, and spot a number one hit lurking among the noise. And, unlike some recent dance hits, all the samples seem to have been cleared and consensual, with no subsequent legal battles for Beats International.

For the record, I have no problem with sampling. The more imaginative, the better. Sometimes you’re maybe left with a hot mess. But this record is a masterclass in sampling various pieces into a very smooth, very cool piece of music. Beats International were the brainchild of Norman Cook, whom we last met playing bass for The Housemartins. To say that Beats International were a musical departure for him is something of understatement, but I’d also say that there’s a cheeky, indie ethos to both acts. Beats International are described on Wiki as a ‘loose confederation’ of DJs, rappers and musicians, as well as a graffiti artist who would paint as the band played on stage.

They weren’t around for long, as after two albums they disbanded (they did get one Billy Bragg sampling follow-up Top 10 in the wake of their biggest hit). Cook moved quickly on to form another band, ‘Freak Power, before going it alone as Fatboy Slim. We’ll meet him again before the decade is out. Back in 1990, though, we’re left with a cool and funky glimpse of things to come. And it’s jam hot…

641. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, by Sinéad O’Connor

Just four weeks, and three number one singles, into the new decade and the 1990s have their first iconic moment…

Nothing Compares 2 U, by Sinéad O’Connor (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 28th January – 25th February 1990

First things first, I hate overuse of the word ‘iconic’. Yass! Slay! Dresses are ‘iconic’, memes are ‘iconic’, everything’s bloody ‘iconic’. But I think the term is valid here. From the sustained opening note, to the Orwellian opening line: It’s been seven hours and fifteen days… the song grabs you, makes you sit up and listen.

And that is pretty much all down to Sinead O’Connor’s vocal performance. She hits every note perfectly – the soft ones, the angry ones, the ones you don’t expect. Some favourite lines: I went to the doctor, And guess what he told me, Guess what he told me… or All the flowers that you planted mama… Or the way Nothing can take away these blues… hits a really bluesy note at the end. To tell the truth, without O’Connor’s heroics, with a different, less committed singer, this could be a flat, maybe even dull song. The synths are slow, the beat is steady, with a trip-hop edge that will become ubiquitous as this decade goes on.

The most famous of her vocal tricks has to be the key-change in the title line: No-Thing compares, To you… It’s the one hook that ultimately sells the entire song. But we can’t pretend that this song did well on vocals alone. There’s the famous video, another iconic aspect of this whole business (I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that word), in which O’Connor remains in close-up, her face strikingly cat-like, head shaved, a tear rolling down either cheek. (The tears were unplanned, and brought on by the ‘mama’ line, her mum having died in a car crash several years earlier.)

‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was famously written by Prince, though his version was never released. O’Connor’s version was also famously disliked by its author, perhaps because it outperformed pretty much every song he ever released. It was #1 in thirteen countries, and Top 10 in countless others, overshadowing everything that she has done since. I’d never heard the Prince original, which was finally released in 2018, and it’s nowhere near as good – cluttered with fiddly guitar and a wild sax solo, completely missing the sparse beauty of this definitive version.

Is it surprising that this song did so well? I say that because it is unremittingly miserable: the singer counts down the hours since her break-up, listing all the things that won’t help her get over her loss, all the flowers that have wilted since. And yet, I asked a silly question, really. All the best ballads aren’t about love; they’re about lost love: ‘Without You’, ‘The Winner Takes It All’… Misery hits home. It’s the hopeful, positive ones that often lack an edge: ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’, or ‘Hello’, to name but two.

Sinead O’Connor wasn’t a complete unknown when this, the second single from her second album came out; but none of her earlier, or her subsequent releases, made the Top 10. Her career in the US ended abruptly when she ripped up a picture of the pope on ‘Saturday Night Live’ as a protest against child abuse in the Catholic church, and she has courted controversy in statements about her sexuality, her religion, and her views on Irish politics. She is an eccentric, a contrarian, one who is hard to define. Except everyone can agree that her biggest hit kickstarted the 1990s, and remains one of the decade’s most iconic (sorry) songs.

640. ‘Tears on My Pillow’, by Kylie Minogue

Kylie does Grease!

Tears on My Pillow, by Kylie Minogue (her 4th of seven #1s)

1 week, from 21st – 28th January 1990

Well, no. Kylie’s never done ‘Grease’ – though she’d have made a good Sandy – and ‘Tears on My Pillow’ only ever features in the background of the original movie. But this record certainly has that feel about it…

It’s the final UK #1 to be produced by Stock Aitken and Waterman… pause for a moment to cheer/sigh (delete as appropriate)… though you wouldn’t particularly know it. It’s a shame that they don’t bow out with a Hi-NRG banger, but the chart Gods can be cruel. Like Jason Donovan’s stab at the sixties on ‘Sealed With a Kiss’, this is nothing more than karaoke. At least the trio bow out with a big hit for their chief muse, the lovely Ms Minogue. And in the big ‘Jason Vs Kylie Retro Covers Contest’ there can be only one winner: this one, because it’s Kylie.

There has been a bit of a retro wave sweeping the charts over the final year of the ‘80s. There was Jive Bunny, of course, but also those sixties covers from Jason, and Marc Almond with Gene Pitney. ‘Tears on My Pillow’ had originally been a 1958 hit for Little Anthony & The Imperials – one which failed to chart in the UK but had made #4 in the US. (There has of course been a completely unrelated ‘Tears on My Pillow’ at #1 in the UK, for Johnny Nash in 1975. Off the top of my head, I think this is the second time two different songs with the same name have made #1, after ‘The Power of Love’…)

This was from the soundtrack to Kylie’s big-screen debut ‘The Delinquents’, a Romeo and Juliet-ish tale of teenage love in ‘50s Australia. Apparently the movie isn’t great, but it continues a trend of forgettable films accompanied by number one singles (‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, ‘When the Going Gets Tough’…) And it scored Kylie her fourth chart-topper in just under two years. Amazingly, this will be her sole nineties #1. A decade of fading chart fortunes, duets with Nick Cave, and a stab at something more alternative will keep her busy until a spectacular comeback in the early ‘00s. Still, she sneaks in, and in due course will join a select band of artists with #1s in three different decades.

If it feels like I’ve been padding this post out, blethering on about everything but the actual, largely forgettable, music then you’d be right. Let me pad it out a little more before finishing, then. Though I don’t remember this particular record, Kylie (and Jason) are pop ground zero for my generation: the first singers we remember from TV, from the playground, the first CDs we bought (more on that later…) The music may not have always been great, but this is nostalgic stuff for us older millennials. This rundown is suddenly getting quite real!

639. ‘Hangin’ Tough’, by New Kids on the Block

Here we go then. The nineteen nineties. The fifth decade of the UK singles chart. The decade I did half my growing up in. Almost four years old at the start, almost fourteen by the end. I’ll try to keep the personal reminiscences – interesting for nobody but myself – to a minimum as we go. But there’s no escaping the fact that some of  these are the first #1s that I can remember in ‘real time’.

Hangin’ Tough, by New Kids on the Block (their 2nd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 7th – 21st January 1990

Not that three-year-old me, brain filled with Thomas the Tank Engine and dinosaurs, had much interest in 1990’s first number one. NKOTB were back, just a month after ‘The Right Stuff’ had vacated top-spot, to bless the decade with its first of many, many boy-band chart-toppers.

First things first, a question. Did ‘Hangin’ Tough’ ever actually sound tough? I suppose it might have to twelve-year-olds, who were the only audience that mattered. But at a remove of thirty-odd years, the bass chords, the whistles and the oh-oh-ohing all sound incredibly lame. Hangin’ tough… the boys chant, very slowly (this song needs a shot or two of caffeine) Are you tough enough!? they demand, before ending the chorus on a very unconvincing We’re rough!

At my high school these dweebs would have been laughed all the way behind the bike sheds, before having their lunch money nicked. And I think the Kids knew it, because the vocals – especially the oh-oh-ohs – feel half-arsed compared to ‘The Right Stuff’. Elsewhere, the chords in the chorus remind me of ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’, and it’s never a good idea to rip-off a classic song to make a bang-average one like this. A remixed version of the record, the one that presumably got airplay at the time, beefs things up a bit; but not enough.

In fact, the rockier mix takes away one of the few really interesting things about this song. In the album version, a good minute or so is given over to a fiddly, noodly synth-organ solo. I’m not claiming it’s very good, just that few teen-pop songs are allowed moments of such self-indulgence. (The rockier mix switches the organs for a pretty forgettable guitar solo.) By the end though, the Kids are beat-boxing and freestyling, and the song really loses its way. You know it ain’t over till the fat lady sings… one of them announces, and you wish she’d started singing earlier.

The one thing to be thankful for is that, once again, it’s not a syrupy ballad. NKOTB had plenty of them among their ten British Top 10 hits, but none of them troubled the top. The band split in the mid-nineties, with Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre attempting solo careers. They reformed in 2008, then teamed up for a tour and an album with Backstreet Boys (NKOTBSB anyone?)

Whatever their merits (or lack thereof), New Kids on the Block hit two chart milestones with ‘Hangin’ Tough’. They joined Al Martino, Michael Holliday, Edison Lighthouse and The Pretenders in scoring the first #1 of a new decade (a big deal for chart geeks like me!) The second was less illustrious: in the record’s first week on top of the charts, it posted the lowest sales ever for a number one single…

638. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, by Band Aid II

And so we reach the end of the 1980s. And, in some ways, the decade’s final number one single is quite perfect.

Do They Know It’s Christmas?, by Band Aid II

3 weeks, from 17th December 1989 – 7th January 1990

It’s a charity single, for a start, a ‘genre’ that has dominated the charts since the middle of the eighties. It’s a cover, of course, of the charity single, the one that kicked the whole trend off. Plus, it was produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman, giving the trio their seventh #1 of the year. But beyond the good cause, and the production team, the tag ‘perfect’ quickly wears thin.

There’s a reason why none of the three subsequent Band Aids have ever been much played after their original chart runs; while the first is seen as a classic, a perennial returnee to the charts every Christmas. There’s a novelty factor each time, and the urge for people to be seen to be doing something for charity, that means a new Band Aid single will always chart highly. But beyond that initial burst of enthusiasm, there’s always the slow realisation that the new versions simply aren’t as good.

Here, we swap Bono, Boy George, Sting and Paul Young for a considerably younger crowd. Kylie is on opening line duties, followed by Chris Rea and Jimmy Somerville. We meet Jason Donovan, Sonia, Lisa Stansfield, Bros and Wet Wet Wet again, after their recent chart-topping successes. The only singers to reprise their roles from 1984 are two-thirds of Bananarama (Siobhan Fahey having left the year before). To be honest, I struggled to recognise many voices without watching the video, which isn’t a problem you have with the original. One voice stands out above the rest, though: Sir Cliff, who makes it two Xmas #1s in a row (and who will, without wanting to give too much away, soon be making it three).

The production is muted and respectful by SAW’s usual standards, which was probably to be expected. The video is standard: Michael Buerk reporting from Ethiopia, horrifying images of malnutritional babies spliced with footage of Marti Pellow and Matt Goss goofing about. We’ll leave Band Aid II to play out here, bringing the 1980s to a close, and instead muse on the final year of the decade.

1989 has been, I’m going to stick my neck out here, a game-changing year. It’s set the template for modern pop music, in various ways. Firstly, on a purely technical level, songs have started to enter regularly at #1. They’ll continue to do so throughout the 1990s, speeding up the turnover of chart-toppers. As well as that, we’ve had the first ‘modern’ dance #1 from Black Box, from which almost every subsequent dance smash can be traced. We’ve met the first ‘modern’ boy band too, in New Kids on the Block.

Meanwhile, rock music is no longer the force that it has been since the late ‘50s. Rock groups will still make #1, as U2 and Simple Minds have recently done, but often for one week only, thanks to fanbase support rather than genuine cultural heft. And finally, Madonna has defined the ‘modern’ female pop star, and the pop comeback (and comeback video) as a massive event that every pop star since 1989 has tried to mimic.

Next up, we’ll be embarking on the 1990s – the decade in which I came of age, among Britpop, dance, the Spice Girls and boy-bands. I’m looking forward to reliving it. But, you could argue that the nineties began a year earlier, in the final year of the decade that taste forgot…

637. ‘Let’s Party’, by Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers

Shhh! Be very very quiet. We’re hunting wabbits…

Let’s Party, by Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers (their 3rd and final #1)

1 week, from 10th – 17th December 1989

Blunderbusses at the ready, for surely you knew it was coming. With a chart-topper in the summer, and one in the autumn, Jive Bunny and his Mastermixers set their sights on the Christmas number one.

And after two rock ‘n’ roll medleys, he’s skipped forward a decade or so, to the glam Christmas classics of the seventies and early eighties. A Noddy Holder soundalike is on C’mon everybody! duties, as well as his classic It’s Chriiiisstmaaaass… line from ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’. This version sounds muted by comparison to Slade’s raucous original, but it only lasts for a verse and a chorus, before Wizzard take over.

Yes, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ finally assumes its rightful position atop the charts. It’s just a shame that it took this crap to get it there. Unlike Slade, Roy Wood endorsed this sampling, and even re-recorded his vocals for the occasion. That done, the 3rd song is announced: Ok Gazza, take it away…

And it’s ‘Another Rock and Roll Christmas’, Gary Glitter’s 1984 comeback hit. Given that he was also involved in last year’s ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’, it’s easy to forget just how big a part of British popular culture he was before his trip to PC World. Presents hanging from the trees, You’ll never guess what you’ve got from me… (We’d rather not find out, Gary.) Apparently he’s been replaced with Mariah Carey in more recent versions of ‘Let’s Party’, though who exactly has listened to this song at any point in the last thirty years is beyond me.

The thumping beat that holds this whole mess together is called ‘March of the Mods’, which I don’t think has anything to do with Christmas. Why didn’t they try something from ‘The Nutcracker’, at least? And while I complained about some of the mixing on JB’s earlier #1s, at least attempts were made to stitch those songs together. Here the three Christmas songs and the filler beat slam together like dodgems. I found some cheesy, madcap charm in the previous chart-toppers, but here my patience runs out fast. (The sleeve above lists the record as a double-‘A’, alongside a version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Thankfully the Official Charts Company only lists ‘Let’s Party’, so I’ll follow their lead and pretend the Bunny’s desecration of Rabbie Burns never happened…)

What in the hell is going on…? a voice demands towards the end, a sentiment I wholeheartedly echo. J-J-Jive Bunny! someone else replies. Meanwhile the fake Noddy Holder aggressively bellows Let’s Party! It’s a mess, and not a hot one. Yet it entered the chart at #1, and meant that Jive Bunny joined Gerry & The Pacemakers and Frankie Goes to Hollywood in making top spot with their first three releases (the fact that Jive Bunny did it quickest is another feather in his cap).

He and the Mastermixers still had two Top 10 hits to come, and would continue releasing singles until well into 1991. But, thankfully, they won’t be troubling this blog again. And, despite the clear demand for this single, it was never going to be 1989’s Christmas Number One. We have Bob Geldof to thank for that.

(This is the original video, but with the Gary Glitter verse edited out and replaced with the second verse of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’.)

(This sounds to me like a re-recording – with slightly more modern production values – but with he-who-shall-not-be-named left in…)

636. ‘You Got It (The Right Stuff)’, by New Kids on the Block

The 1990s, the decade that we are on the verge of entering, will mean many musical delights. Grunge, Britpop, blockbuster movie soundtracks, Girl Power, the Vengaboys… But you could argue that, ahead of everything, it will be the decade of the Boy Band ™

You Got It (The Right Stuff), by New Kids on the Block (their 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 19th November – 10th December 1989

From beginning to end – literally, as the first and last #1s of the decade will be by a boyband – groups of three to five handsome young men in baggy jeans and backward-facing caps will dominate. Boyz II Men, Take That, Boyzone, Hanson, 5ive to name but a few. And all kicked off by five boys from Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Let’s take a moment, before we start dissecting this record properly, to thank the stars that it’s not a ballad. Wherever boybands go, a drippy love song is never far behind. But no, ‘You Got It (The Right Stuff)’ is a classic serving of late-80s R&B fused with hints of new jack swing. The drums ratatat, the synths swoosh, the bassline is actually pretty cool… It all sounds wonderfully dated. And, in true boyband fashion, the lyrics amount to some pretty nothings and some half-hearted innuendo. First kiss was a sweet was a kiss, Second kiss had a twist… What the ‘twist’ is, or indeed the ‘right stuff’ of the title, is never specified. It’s all dates and kisses, with one mildly risqué mention of being ‘turned on’.

The bridge is the most modern part of the record, a soaring template to be followed by every boyband to come. All that I needed was you, Oh girl, You’re so right… You can just picture the clenched fists as the Kids meet that line. And then there’s the hook in the chorus, the oh-oh-ohohohs that’s as catchy as it is annoying. The video – again, as was traditional for ‘90s boybands – sees them dressed like idiots, dancing like idiots, having a great time in a deserted bar. They then chase some girls around a graveyard, for reasons best left mysterious…

To suggest that New Kids on the Block (NKOTB if you’re in the know) were the first boyband is wrong. At the same time, defining a ‘boyband’ is like catching mist in a jar. If you go by the literal definition – boys in a band – then we’re going to go back to the Crickets, at least. If you insist on the manufactured aspect of it, then we start at the Monkees. But what of the Jacksons and the Osmonds? What of New Edition? Bros? (And I was only mentioning acts we’ve met earlier in this blog.)

Let’s say NKOTB are the first ‘modern’ boyband, then. They were managed by Maurice Starr (also the mastermind behind New Edition) and composed of four school friends led by Donnie Wahlberg (brother of actor Mark) and a younger boy, Joey McIntyre. Unlike some boybands, the path to success hadn’t been smooth for NKOTB: they’d been together since 1984 and were on the verge of being dropped by their label before ‘Please Don’t Go Girl’ made #10 in the US. ‘You Got It’ was the second single from their second album, and their first chart hit in the UK. They’d go on to have nine more Top 10 singles between 1989 and 1992, including one further #1 coming up very soon.

And so we enter the era of the (modern) boyband. And for a taster, ‘You Got It (The Right Stuff)’ is neither a classic of the genre, nor terrible. There are much better boyband chart-toppers to come, and much worse.