658. ‘Innuendo’, by Queen

It feels like a trick pub-quiz question: which number one hit by Queen is over six minutes long, composed of several sections, in several genres…?

Innuendo, by Queen (their 3rd of six #1s)

1 week, from 20th – 27th January 1991

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ everyone will shout, and everyone will be wrong. (For Bo Rap isn’t quite over six minutes long…) No, ‘Innuendo’ is Queen’s true forgotten epic. And what an epic. It starts off brooding, and ominous, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’, with apocalyptic lyrics such as: While there’s a wind and the stars and the rainbow, ‘Til the mountains crumble into the plain… Freddie bemoans mankind’s inability to live in harmony, and its insistence on dividing people by race, religion and creed.

Then come the flamenco guitars, which to my untrained ears sounds like some serious musicianship (it was played by Brian May and Steve Howe of Yes), and a bridge that sounds like a cross between the monkish chants used by Enigma, and a Disney theme. After all that, it’s hard not punch the air when a trademark Brian May guitar solo comes swooping in, saving this monster from disappearing up its own arse.

It ends as it began, ominously stomping its way to the end of time. It’s hard not to read this as Freddie coming to grips with his impending death, when he asks: If there’s a God or any kind of justice under the sky, If there’s a point, If there’s a reason to live or die. He knew that this was the last album Queen would release in his lifetime, and so the line Through our sorrow, All through our splendour, Don’t take offence at my innuendo… almost becomes a farewell to Queen’s fans and detractors alike.

Ultimately, though, it ends on a positive note: Yes, we’ll keep on trying…And that line is the moment in this bizarre epic that sounds like classic Queen. Otherwise, it’s one of the weirdest #1 singles ever, in an era of increasingly weird #1s. And it’s amazing to think that it’s only Queen’s 3rd UK chart-topper, after ‘Under Pressure’ and the aforementioned ‘other’ epic’. Just think of the classic Queen hits, the ‘Radio Gaga’s and the ‘Another One Bites the Dust’s, that didn’t make it while this beast (described beautifully by one journalist at the time as ‘seductively monstrous’) did.

It’s unfair to compare this record to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, though it’s perhaps inevitable. Bo Rap was the sound of a band in their infancy, four young men going wild simply because they could, because nobody had told them not to, and there’s a great joie de vivre throughout that song (and I say that as someone who would happily never hear it again). ‘Innuendo’ is far darker and much less optimistic, four middle aged men, one of whom was terminally ill, pledging to ‘keep on trying’ despite the odds being stacked against them, and against mankind.

As a teen, I had Queen’s three-disc Greatest Hits. I usually skipped ‘Innuendo’ in favour of the earlier hits (in fact, I think it was on Disc 3, which I barely bothered playing). But writing this post has given me an appreciation of this dark, strange record. The fact that it was a #1 hit is amazing – down to a combination of low January sales and Queen’s dedicated fanbase – but I’m glad it was. The band will be back before the end of the year, for their fourth #1, under predictably sad circumstances.


657. ‘Sadeness Part 1’, by Enigma

If we thought that Iron Maiden scoring a heavy metal #1 was unexpected, then it seems positively mainstream compared with the intro of our next chart-topper.

Sadeness Part I, by Enigma (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 13th – 20th January 1991

For how about some Gregorian chanting (in Latin, of course) to kick off 1991? Chanting that is mixed with a chilled-out dance beat, and then replaced by some electronic pan pipes. It’s the culmination of the new-age vibe that’s been infiltrating pop music over the past few years – think Enya, Simple Minds, even recent Cliff – and it means that this record sounds highly innovative and unusual; and yet truly dated.

A bit later a crunchy guitar comes in, while a woman mutters breathily in French, reminding me of Serge & Jane. These are the moments that lift this record above being something you’d hear in the background as someone performs an aromatherapy massage. I do like the drop, the do-doop-de-doo fill, too. It’s way beyond my usual wheelhouse – I have a deep distrust of anything that could feature in a ‘chillout’ playlist – but there’s enough going on here, a lot even, to keep things interesting.

The lyrics, such as they are, appear in Latin and in French. And if you were thinking a song this weird couldn’t possibly have banal lyrics about love and laughter then you’d be correct. It’s written in the form of an address to the Marquis de Sade (hence the title), the notorious 18th century French author and libertine responsible for some of the most outrageously explicit writing in history. (As an aside, I studied literature at university, and the only time we received a content warning, and were allowed to skip a text if we felt uncomfortable, was as we were about to read Sade’s ‘Justine’. There’s a reason the man gave his name to the term ‘Sadism’…) Anyway. Sade tell me, What are you looking for…? the song asks. Sade, are you evil or divine…?

I’m loath to label this as ‘not good’. When it comes to writing these posts, a record featuring chanting monks and pan-pipes, about a notorious sex-offender, is certainly more interesting to write about than your average dance hit. And it’s amazing how sophisticated dance music has become in the past couple of years, since the Hi-NRG heyday of SAW, and how quickly things have chilled out. But at the same time. ‘Sadeness Part 1’ isn’t something I’d ever incorporate into my daily playlists.

Enigma were a German ‘musical project’, helmed by German-Romanian producer Michael Cretu, and this was their breakthrough hit. And what a hit: number one across Europe, and Top 5 in the US. They struggled to match this success until the lead single from their second album, ‘Return to Innocence’, made #3 three years later. That record ditched the monks and went for more ethnic, tribal chanting.

Since then, Enigma have continued to record without particularly bothering the charts, including a 2006 concept album based on an imagined collision between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. Because why not? Cretu’s greatest moment may have come long before Enigma and his championing of world music, though: he played keyboards on Boney M’s 1978 #1 ‘Rivers of Babylon’

Should Have Been a #1…? ‘Groove Is in the Heart’, by Deee-Lite

In this intermittent series on songs that should have been number ones, we’ve met songs that were classics, deserving of chart glory; songs that may well have been secretly denied top spot; and songs that topped the wrong chart

But the record I’m featuring today may well have the strongest case to argue in the ‘should have been a #1’ stakes. For no song has ever gone closer…

‘Groove Is in the Heart’, by Deee-Lite – reached #2 in September 1990, behind ‘The Joker’

First up, the song itself. And it’s a classic. Is it disco? Funk? Hip-hop? All of the above? Or does anyone really care, when it makes you move like it does? Linked in spirit to the big dance hits of the time, but a world away from them, there are few songs that sound this fun, so full of a joie de vivre that you wish you could bottle and use to live forever. The little touches – the bubble popping, the horns, the looped intro – add to its appeal, and never grate. Deee-Lite were from NYC, and comprised an American singer, a Ukrainian DJ and a Japanese producer (as unusual a mish-mash as their genre-bending hit) plus contributions from rapper Q-Tip and legendary bassist Bootsy Collins.

So, ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ should have been a number one on merit, because it’s great and I said so. And, for the week beginning 9th September 1990, it was. At least, it was in a tie for number one with the Steve Miller Band’s re-released ‘The Joker’. In the 1950s, when sales data was pretty patchy, tied chart positions were commonplace. Since 1973, however, a rule had been in place which stated that the record with the bigger increase in sales week-on-week would ‘win’. Both records had climbed that week, but ‘The Joker’ had done so with a 57% increase. Deee-lite had only improved their sales by 37%. Steve Miller took the #1.

There was consternation, not least from Deee-Lite’s record label, who felt that the new, up-and-coming act (this was their first ever chart hit) should get preference. ‘The Joker’, as fun as it is, was just so 1973. ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ was fresh and funky, and the future. Except, that’s sadly not how the charts work. They’re all about cold, hard sales figures. And The Steve Miller Band’s victory was confirmed once and for all when it turned that the tied position had been down to a rounding error, and that ‘The Joker’ had sold a whopping eight more copies than ‘Groove…’

The next week, ‘The Joker’ remained at #1 fair and square, and ‘Groove…’ started to slip down the chart. Deee-Lite never made it back into the Top 20, and split up in the mid-90s. Still, they leave quiet the legacy: one of the classic wedding disco floor-fillers, and the unluckiest #2 single of all time…

656. ‘Bring Your Daughter… To the Slaughter’, by Iron Maiden

Fists of metal to the ready! For yes, you read correctly: Iron Maiden have a number one single.

Bring Your Daughter… To the Slaughter, by Iron Maiden (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 30th December 1990 – 13th January 1991

Though whether this is truly heavy metal, or just hard rock, is a valid question. It’s a straight-forward, riff driven song; distinctly Iron Maiden – few lead singers have as recognisable a voice as Bruce Dickinson – but stripped back, lacking the prog touches that many of their songs have. The opening chords are almost punk – short sharp jabs to the side of the face – before we settle into something more, well, silly.

I’ll be far from the first to point out that, for a genre so given to machismo, sweat and greasy hair; heavy metal can be quite camp. And there have been few camper moments in a #1 single than when Dickinson starts to purr: True love and lipstick on your linen, Bite the pillow, Make no sound… Oo-er! Unchain your back door… he then growls, presumably trying very hard not to giggle… Invite me around…

In fact, the entire record sounds like Iron Maiden put themselves under the control of a group of schoolboys for the day. Even the writers of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ would have turned this down as too silly. But hell, it’s fun. The way Dickinson goes all operatic on the word ‘slaughter’, the middle-eight with demonic monks chanting, the shredding solo, and the sudden ending – I’m comin’ to get ya! – marking the point where the band clearly decided this nonsense had gone on long enough.

Even though ‘Bring Your Daughter…’ gave the genre its first ever chart-topper, it doesn’t have a lot of love in the heavy metal community. (One article I read online named the title line as the laziest rhyme in music history.) On the one hand it’s a bit of a sell-out for band that were capable of truly genre-defining rock. On the other, though, it is a unique moment in UK chart history. The list of hard rock #1s is short, and up for debate: ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Fire’, ‘Baby Jump’, ‘School’s Out’… and this? Plus, it knocked Cliff and his God-bothering ‘Saviour’s Day’ off number one, a fact that Maiden were well aware of when they promoted the single.

In fact, this may well be the first example of a very 21st century phenomenon: the chart campaign. Most of these will come much later, fuelled by the democracy of the download era, with a little help from social media, in which any song from any band, any genre, any time, can chart if bought in sufficient quantities, often for a cause (charitable, or just to be obnoxious). It’ll give us some interesting moments as we go along on our journey. Back in 1990 though, the internet was a strange, new thing that most people had never actually experienced, and so Maiden had to rely on word of mouth, a ban from the ever-willing BBC, and the publicity of whacking Cliff Richard out the way.

They also had the sense to release it on the quietest week of the year – the one after the Christmas rush – and so it entered at #1 with fairly low sales. In fact, one source names ‘Bring Your Daughter…’ as the lowest-selling #1 of all time, with total sales of around 100,000. It’s an old article, though, and that figure was probably beaten in the mid-00s sales slump. (It’s definitely been beaten by now, if you don’t count streams as ‘proper’ sales.) Iron Maiden, though, were no strangers to the top end of the singles chart by late 1990: this was their sixth consecutive Top 10 hit, and one of seventeen in total.

Anyway, who cares if it barely sold, if the BBC didn’t play it, and if it’s a bit crap? It’s heavy metal, at number one. The anonymous dance tracks, movie soundtrack monster hits and boy-band preeners will be back soon enough. Until then, raise those fists once more, and pray for mercy from the Gods of rock.

655. ‘Saviour’s Day’, by Cliff Richard

Appearing on a 3rd Xmas #1 in a row, and going full in on the nu-folk sound of the time: the one, the only, Sir Clifford of Richard.

Saviour’s Day, by Cliff Richard (his 13th of fourteen #1s)

1 week, from 23rd – 30th December 1990

It’s a Christmas tune, and yet it’s not really. No references to decking the halls or Santa Claus here, and not a sleigh bell in sight. I mentioned that, two years ago, despite ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ being unashamedly religious in tone, Cliff still kept the little secular touches that people expect from a festive chart hit. For ‘Saviour’s Day’, though, he’s gone full-on Christian contemporary.

Open your eyes on Saviour’s Day, Don’t look back or turn away… It’s proper judgement day stuff – some hardcore preaching. Life can be yours if you’ll only stay… Songs like this are usually tucked away on a niche Christian chart, so that regular people don’t have to hear them. But, because Cliff is the biggest solo star this island has ever produced (a bold statement, but I’m sticking to it!) he manages to take it to number one.

However actually, by the end, I’m pretty sure he’s toasting several different gods: the God of the Present, the God of the Past… Maybe he was going all Dickensian – rather than for a pagan, Earth-mother sort of vibe – but I’m not sure the Bible allows that kind of blasphemy. Though maybe God himself would think twice before disagreeing with Cliff.

I was expecting to dislike this. And there are certainly aspects of it that I can’t get behind. The lyrics, for a start. The electronic pan-pipes are also an acquired taste, while there are some horrible synth flourishes that make my hair stand on end. Plus, the video is ridiculously cheesy (or is that cheesily ridiculous?), featuring Cliff striking messianic poses on the chalk cliffs of Dorset. And yet, ‘Saviour’s Day’ has a corker of a chorus. And people who know much more about song writing than I do really rate it.

It’s probably better than ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ – though that too has a tacky charm – and it’s certainly better than Cliff’s fourteenth and final number one. (Thankfully we have some way to go before we meet that one.) What’s not up for debate is that this record gave him a chart-topper in every decade that the UK singles chart had been in existence: two in the fifties, seven in the sixties, one in the seventies, two in the eighties, and now one in nineties (plus one to come). It’s a feat that has never been matched, and perhaps never will.

654. ‘Ice Ice Baby’, by Vanilla Ice

Alright stop. Collaborate and listen… It’s time for one of the most maligned number one singles of all time.

Ice Ice Baby, by Vanilla Ice (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 25th November – 23rd December 1990

And I get the hate. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Yes, it sounds very dated. Yes, Vanilla Ice comes across as a weapons-grade moron. But, let me play devil’s advocate. A) Being ridiculous isn’t necessarily a disadvantage for a record that wants to be a hit. This is far from the first ridiculous chart-topper. B) Early hip hop records do sound dated, very focused on rhyme and meter. And C) As for Vanilla Ice looking like a moron… Well, show me any rapper that you wouldn’t look at in the street and think seemed a bit eccentric.

Yet at the same time, Vanilla Ice is the worst thing about this record. Away from his look at me lyrics (If my rhyme was a drug, I’d sell it by the gram…) I’d say the moody synths and the riff that sounds suspiciously like a #1 from ten years earlier could easily form the basis of a hit single in 2023. And I say that it sounds ‘like’ ‘Under Pressure’, because Vanilla Ice claimed that it wasn’t a sample, and that he’d added an extra note. Queen and David Bowie weren’t terribly convinced – they settled out of court and were given co-writing credits.

Nowadays, for sure, ‘Ice Ice Baby’ is a punchline, bound to feature on a ‘Worst Moments of the ‘90s’ clipshow on Channel 5. But, at the time, was it taken seriously? It seems that it was, getting good reviews in Billboard, the NME, and Entertainment Weekly. When exactly the tide turned, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was a victim of its own success, or perhaps the controversy over the ‘sample’ took the gloss off it? Vanilla Ice – whose real name is the gloriously un-gangsta Robert Van Winkle – seems simultaneously annoyed by this albatross around his neck, and unwilling to let it die. He’s released live versions and anniversary remixes, as well as a nu-metal version (which is better than it has any right to be…)

Van Winkle never matched the heights of his debut single. The follow-up, a cover of ‘Play That Funky Music’, made #10 and since then he’s never bothered the Top 20. He’s had a troubled time of it, with firearms charges, burglary, domestic abuse and illegal drag-racing on his rap sheet. And yet, here he stands, with only the 2nd hip-hop #1 in British chart history (and certainly the most credible of the two so far, after ‘Turtle Power’.)

I’m still not sure how to finish and move on from ‘Ice Ice Baby’. On the one hand, it seems to have set hip-hop back by a good few years. At the same time, it’s a very modern rap track: the lyrics are all about how bad-ass, how dangerous, and how popular with the ladies Ice is. And there isn’t a rapper around who hasn’t recorded at least one self-aggrandising track. But I’m not sure it’s very good. It might even be terrible. Let’s leave the final word to Mr Van Winkle: Let’s get out of here, Word to yo’ mother… And speaking of bad-ass mofos; Cliff Richard’s up next!

653. ‘Unchained Melody’, by The Righteous Brothers

And so the slew of random re-releases, that have been peppering the number one slot since the late ‘80s, peaks here, towards the end of 1990. And I mean ‘peaks’ both in the sense that we’ve literally just waved a Steve Miller Band tune from 1973 off top spot, and in the sense that nothing can top this gilt-edged beauty of a love song.

Unchained Melody, by The Righteous Brothers (their 2nd and final #1)

4 weeks, from 28th October – 25th November 1990

That’s not to say that ‘Unchained Melody’, in the hands of the Righteous Brothers, isn’t a preposterous, overblown nonsense of a record. It is completely over-the-top, the sort of display of affection that would put most women off a man were he to belt it out ‘neath her window of an evening. How does a lonely river sigh, exactly…? And yet, it is irresistible.

Irresistible because of the vocal performance of Bobby Hatfield (who won the right to record it in a coin-toss with his Righteous partner Bill Medley). It’s spectacular singing all the way through, a true tour-de-force, that culminates in that outrageous note he hits in the final chorus. The strings swell, the percussion crashes, creating a tempest of emotion that will wash over even the most cynical of listener.

Irresistible, too, because it is so different to what has come before it. I’ve enjoyed the recent transition to dance, more than I thought I might, but it’s interesting to hear a big sixties beast cutting through the drum machines and the samples. And despite coming from long before the era of the power-ballad, ‘Unchained Melody’ can compete with contemporary classics like ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and ‘Show Me Heaven’ in the chest-thumping melodrama stakes. In fact, could the case be made for this being the very first ‘power ballad’?

It found itself back in the charts thanks to its use in the movie ‘Ghost’, in a famous sex scene involving Patrick Swayze and a pottery wheel (I’ve never seen the film, and don’t intend to, so don’t try to persuade me that this isn’t what happens…) The Brothers did a re-record, which charted in the US, but it was their original that took off again in Britain (it had previously made #14 in 1965). It means that the duo have a twenty-five year gap between their two #1s – beating The Hollies’ previous record of twenty-three years – and that ‘Unchained Melody’ itself has a huge thirty five year span since Jimmy Young took his version to the top in 1955.

Young’s version is half the song that this is, though it feels unfair to judge him against what has since become a standard. A standard that, sadly, subsequent singers have felt the need to compare themselves against. ‘Unchained Melody’ has two further, Righteous Brothers aping versions to come atop the charts… And this also increases the irresistibility of this version: the depths that I know the song will be brought down to.

This record cemented itself as the peak of the re-release era by becoming the highest-selling single of the year. Folks lapped it up (‘Ghost’ was, for a spell, the highest-grossing film of all time in the UK), though I’d say it’s now moved into the realms of cliché, thanks no doubt to the subsequent karaoke cover versions, to the point that any use in a movie today would be done with tongue firmly in cheek.

Before I go, I have to give a shout out to the one version that can compete with the Righteous Brothers’: Elvis’s. It was used to great effect in the recent film biopic (that I thought was OK, but nowhere near as good as some said), and when they spliced it with the famous footage of him singing it a few weeks before his death… Well some dust just went and got in my eye, didn’t it?

652. ‘A Little Time’, by The Beautiful South

Let’s slow things down, with a little saloon-bar crooning…

A Little Time, by The Beautiful South (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th October 1990

1990 certainly is taking a mellower turn. After a spring of dance… I won’t say bangers, because I’m not sure that they were… but classics at least, we’ve arrived in an autumn of lower-case rock. ‘The Joker’, ‘Show Me Heaven’, and now the year’s most low-key hit, from The Beautiful South.

It’s a duet in the classic sense, as the male and the female vocals bounce off one another, telling a story. The guy is trying to wriggle his way out of a relationship: I need a little time, To think it over… A little space, Just on my own… His girlfriend is having none of it: Need a little room for your big head, Don’t ya, Don’t ya…?

Meanwhile a piano rolls, and some horns softly toot, and you’re left to wonder how this record found itself on top of the charts. A quiet week? The Beautiful South had already had hit singles, and this was the lead from their second album, so perhaps demand was there. And it’s far from unwelcome: it’s just very understated, and short, so that it’s over before you really start to appreciate how good it is.

By the end, the man has had the little time that he wanted, but the girl’s moved on. The freedom that you wanted bad, Is yours for good, I hope you’re glad… It’s sort of an earlier version of Beyonce’s ‘All the Single Ladies’; in sentiment, if not in sound. There’s a good amount of humour here too, while Briana Corrigan’s voice reminds me, somehow, of Cyndi Lauper.

Is this another late eighties’ ‘indie’ hit, to file alongside Fairground Attraction and The Housemartins? Or is it – bold statement incoming – the first Britpop #1? It’s probably the former, as it sounds nothing like your average Britpop hit (it’s got a woman on it, for a start) and the only reason I’m suggesting otherwise is due to the change of decade. But rock will be a constant, if never quite dominant, chart-topping force in the nineties, which it never really was for much of the eighties.

Speaking of The Housemartins, this record gives the second and third former members of the band a 1990 #1, after Beats International’s Norman Cook. Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway (the wantaway male singer here) had formed The Beautiful South in 1988 after their former band split. Their debut single ‘Song for Whoever’ had made #2 the year before this, their only chart-topper.

The reason I suggest this as ‘Britpop’, is that The Beautiful South had definitely been lumped in with that scene come the middle of the decade, when they were scoring hits like ‘Rotterdam’, ‘Don’t Marry Her’ and ‘Perfect 10’. All of which were pop culture touchstones, a statement I’m basing on the fact that they were all popular in my school playground (especially ‘Don’t Marry Her’, with its incongruous swearing in the chorus). They would continue to have decent chart success until their split in 2007.

651. ‘Show Me Heaven’, by Maria McKee

It’s been a while – a whole six months at least. Time for a power ballad!

Show Me Heaven, by Maria McKee (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 23rd September – 21st October 1990

I love the opening chords, like a wheezy accordion played by the fireside. I also like Maria McKee’s sultry voice, as if she’s just inhaled a lungful of smoke from said campfire. But most of all I love the bridge, a real gear-shift before the thumping chorus: I’m not denying, We’re flying above it all… I’ve never felt this way!

Then the chorus takes a surprising turn. Yes, the vocals are big and the sentiment overwrought: Show me heaven… Leave me breathless… etc. But under that there’s a folky edge to it, with what sound like banjos being lightly plucked. It’s a post-Enya power ballad, perhaps, with a new-age influence being felt in the background. It’s not much, but might I make the same bold claim I seem to make every couple of chart-years, that guitars are making a comeback…?

My favourite bit, though, is the middle eight: If you know what it’s like, To dream a dream… McKee breathes, before embarking on one of the most impressive ten seconds of singing we’ve ever heard in a number one single. I’m pretty sure she does it all in one breath, unless a more trained ear than mine can hear when she sneaks a gulp of air.

From there this most classy of ballads glides to a finish. As the eighties become the nineties, the power ballads are just going to get glossier. But ‘Show Me Heaven’ melds all the OTT fist clenching that we expect – nay, need – from a power-ballad, with genuine credibility and grit. 1990 has already given us ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, and this provides that record with some proper competition in the ‘ultimate power ballad’ stakes.

It probably helped that Maria McKee was an accomplished songwriter. who refused to record the song unless she could rewrite some of the original version’s ‘appalling’ (her words) lyrics. She already has one writing credit on a number one – Feargal Sharkey’s ‘A Good Heart’ – and had been the lead singer of country rock (or ‘cowpunk’, according to Wiki, which is amazing) band Lone Justice. None of her subsequent hits came anywhere near to matching her only #1; but she seems to be a free spirit, doing whatever she pleases, be it recording music, making short films, or writing fiction.

‘Show Me Heaven’ featured on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman, NASCAR racing film ‘Days of Thunder’ (Cruise and Kidman met on set, and were married barely a year later.) This makes it the second song from a Tom Cruise movie to make #1, after ‘Take My Breath Away’ (sadly ‘Kokomo’ couldn’t replicate it’s US success on British shores…) And, lest we forget, Nicky Kidman has her own chart-topping moment in the sun to come…

650. ‘The Joker’, by The Steve Miller Band

If the most important chart trend of the late-eighties/early-nineties was the emergence and dominance of dance, then the second was surely the random re-releases…

The Joker, by The Steve Miller Band (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 9th – 23rd September 1990

Such as this! There are usually two reasons for a golden oldie like ‘The Joker’ making number one years after its original release: use in a movie, or use in an advert. Place your bets… Yes, it was an advert this time, for Levi’s, that gave the Steve Miller Band their biggest hit, a mere twenty-five years into their career.

There’s little point in analysing this record from a musical point of view. It’s a strange little country, bluesy, slightly psychedelic number, recorded in 1973; and so in terms of its style and its production values it sounds a world away from ‘The Power’ (I will leave you to decide whether or not that is a good thing). It’s also very silly, with one of rock and roll’s great opening lines: Some people call me the space cowboy, Some call me the gangster of love…

Who is Maurice (wheep whoop)? What is a pompatus? They are references to earlier songs by Steve Miller but also, perhaps, the real answer lies in the Eaglesy chorus: I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker… Yes, it’s an ode to ganja, and the joys of the doobie. It’s ironic that in 1990, as Britain’s youth raved their nights away, it took a seventeen year old AM radio staple to bring the drug references to the top of the charts…

It’s a fairly random, but very welcome, chilled-out, interlude in our countdown. There’s a great solo, played through some cool vocal effects, as well as the ridiculous cat-call effect in the verse. And a wonderfully filthy line towards the end: I really love your peaches, Wanna shake your tree… It didn’t make the UK charts in 1973, but it did make #1 on Billboard, meaning that Steve Miller Band now holds the record for longest gap between transatlantic chart-toppers. (The ‘band’ is basically Steve Miller, and a revolving door of supporting musicians. He’s still going, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the mid-2010s).

They had already come close a decade earlier, when the equally fun ‘Abracadabra’ had peaked at #2. Except, in finally making #1, ‘The Joker’ caused some controversy. It sold what appeared to be exactly the same number of copies as that week’s number two single, Deee-Lite’s fabulous ‘Groove Is in the Heart’. But, rather than have two songs share the top position – as had happened often enough in the 1950s – Steve Miller won out thanks to having seen the largest sales increase over the previous week. You could bemoan the fact that a crusty old re-release beat a fresh and innovative dance number on a technicality – aren’t the charts supposed to be for what’s current and all that? – but ‘The Joker’ is fun and lively enough to get a pass from me. Plus, the chart compilers eventually confirmed, presumably after several recounts, that it had in fact sold a whopping eight copies more than Deee-Lite, and was there on merit. Just…