When it comes to their (initial) number one hits, Wham certainly had a formula. Songs like ‘Club Tropicana’, ‘Wham Rap’, ‘Everything She Wants’ all tried out different contemporary sounds. To make number one, though, it seems they had to go retro…
The Edge of Heaven, by Wham! (their 4th of five #1s)
2 weeks, from 22nd June – 6th July 1986
Their final UK release is another mish-mash of doo-wop, Motown, and general sixties vibes. It’s a slightly more frenetic take on their previous chart-topper, ‘I’m Your Man’, and matches the energy of their first, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’. All four of Wham’s #1s have been fun interludes in what was a time when pop music could, on occasion, be a little full of itself.
Yeah-yeah-yeah, Badabadabada… It’s a great hook, one that stays with you for the rest of the day. I also like the hard-edged guitars in the solo, and the brassy horns. There’s also some interesting panting (more on that in a moment). But, at the same time, once you’ve heard their previous three number ones, do you need to hear this? You can see why George Michael was keen to split: he was clearly feeling limited, and his solo efforts – ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘A Different Corner’ – have been the polar opposite of this breezy sort of pop tune.
Ok, back to the panting. It’s become almost customary for me to read for subtext in Wham/George Michael number ones. With ‘The Edge of Heaven’ I don’t need to read too deeply. The echoey vocals are buried quite deep in the mix, but once you pay attention they’re pretty steamy: And there’s a place for us in a dirty movie… George sings at the end of verse II, Cause no one does it better than me and you…
Michael later admitted that he made the lyrics overtly sexual because nobody bothered to pay the lyrics of Wham! songs any attention. (The opposite of John Lennon, who was famously annoyed by people paying too much attention to Beatles’ lyrics…) ‘The Edge of Heaven’ was marketed ahead of release as Wham’s farewell single, and it was released to coincide with their final concert, at Wembley. It could have been about skinning puppies or kicking kittens: this record was going to number one.
At least it’s an up-tempo pop banger. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, it was fashionable for pop groups to bow out with a dull ballad about how all good things come to an end blahblahblah. Sod that. Quite rightly, the biggest British pop act of the decade drew the curtain with a proper pop song. And that was that, for almost thirty-five years… I put that ‘(initial)’ in my intro, because one Wham! hit has had something of an extended afterlife. You know which one. Until then, then.
Given the way the charts have been going over the past few months, I’m ready to write this next #1 off as another gimmicky novelty…
Spirit in the Sky, by Doctor & The Medics (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 1st June – 22nd June 1986
From Cliff and the Young Ones, past Falco and The Chicken Song, to this: a mid-eighties take on Norman Greenbaum’s classic 1970 number one (obligatory link to my original post here…) The beefy guitars that open on that famous riff are very welcome – it’s been a good long while since we’ve had proper guitars at #1.
It’s a faithful cover, all the notes are there in the right order. Even the trippy effects between the lines and the riffs are recreated. It’s fine. It’s a great song, and if you stick to the script you’ll end up with a reasonably good cover. But as the song develops, and after repeated listens, you start to wonder why they bothered…
It plods along with the feel of a knock-off karaoke version, especially when the tacky, synthy organ comes in. You can hear it in the background from around midway through, sounding like the one used in the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ theme (sorry, very niche reference for non-British readers…) It’s the version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ that you’d use in a TV series if you couldn’t afford to pay for the original. Meanwhile, in my post on the original I remember questioning whether Greenbaum was singing this as a religious song. Here, the lyrics pass you by. They’re sung so unremarkably that you don’t really notice them.
It is, as you may have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, not a patch on the proto-glam, acid-fried original. And, yet again, this record backs up my bias against eighties production: it just sounds so much better when ‘real’ instruments are used… By this point my 1980s fixation is very much ‘old man shouts at cloud’ territory, but I can’t help it.
One of the main reasons why I approached this record as a novelty is because the band singing it are called Doctor & The Medics. It just screams ‘aren’t we zany!’ They had been around since 1981, formed in London by The Doctor (AKA Clive Jackson). From the look of the band – big hair and Kiss-style make-up – I want to like them. This is possibly the closest we’ll get to an ‘80s glam rock chart-topper (a genre that’s a definite guilty pleasure of mine). The video also has a goth-glam feel to it, with pale women in floaty white dresses popping their heads out of windows.
The Medics were primarily a covers band, but sadly their subsequent versions of ‘Waterloo’ (featuring Roy Wood) and ‘Burning Love’ didn’t set the charts alight. They remain on the verge of being one-hit wonders, and continue to perform with only The Doctor as an original member. Their sole Top 20 hit isn’t a novelty, then, I can confirm. But neither is it anything more than okay… Meanwhile, ‘Spirit in the Sky’ has one more appearance at #1 to come. And if you thought I was down on this version, well…
The past thirty number one singles have taken us through the customary year and a half, from late ’84 to the early summer of ’86. Slap-bang in the middle of the decade. I like to, wherever possible, theme my recaps, to brand them with whatever act, or sound, has been prevalent at the time. We’ve had a rock ‘n’ roll recap, an Elvis recap, a Merseybeat recap, a glam recap, a disco recap… This, then, is our nineteenth recap: the charity record recap.
Yep. We went through thirty plus years of chart-toppers without a single one donating its proceeds to charity. But of the last thirty chart-toppers, five have been for a good cause (that’s roughly 16%, maths lovers!) We started with the daddy of all charity singles – ‘daddy’ in that it basically birthed the genre, and also because it’s still one of the best – Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’
We then moved on to USA for Africa’s ‘We Are the World’ – a bloated, American take on Band Aid. Two original songs, at least, by legends like Geldof, Ure, Jackson and Wonder. Charity singles then started to evolve, and quickly. Next came the cover versions: The Crowd’s take on terrace anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s pantomime dame reading of ‘Dancing in the Street’. Finally, this new genre settled on a format, one that will be plaguing the charts from now until the end of time: the novelty charity single. Cliff and the cast of ‘The Young Ones’ pratted their way through a pretty unlistenable cover of ‘Living Doll’.
I’ve had to take an executive decision when it comes to charity records. While it is unlikely I will ever name one as a ‘Very Best Chart-Topper’ (though you never know), I will always try, if at all possible, not to name one as a ‘Very Worst Chart-topper’ either. Their hearts are in the right place, you see. It would be like kicking a puppy, stealing candy from a baby… No matter how bad they are, there will always be another terrible record that isn’t raising money for the poor and the needy.
Away from charity records, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. On the downside, we’ve had records featuring the worst excesses of ‘80s production. ‘19’s choppy vocal line, and ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’ with its monstrous intro. Songs that might have been good, spoiled by the pervading electronic cheapness: ‘Frankie’, ‘If I Was’, and ‘A Good Heart’ all tainted by tinny synths and gimmicky effects.
Some acts, though, made the sounds of the time work for them. A-ha used their synths to theatrical effect on ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’, the Bee Gees and Diana Ross managed to meld eighties production with a sixties Motown sound on ‘Chain Reaction’. While Falco programmed his keyboards to give us a fun and funky take on Mozart’s life story with ‘Rock Me Amadeus’: the first Austrian, and the first German-language, number one.
We also met a new set of legends, three acts who will dominate the singles chart in the late eighties/early nineties, and well into the 21st century in the case of one lady. Yes, Madonna finally scored a UK #1 with ‘Into the Groove’: a decent slice of dance-pop, though she’s got much better songs to come. Then Whitney Houston made an understated, jazzy entrance on ‘Saving All My Love for You’. While the Pet Shop Boys scored one of the decade’s strangest and best-loved (just not on this blog…) chart-toppers with ‘West End Girls’.
And before we get to the awards, we also have to recognise that we are still firmly in the age of the power ballad. Jim Diamond gave us our first taste of those big eighties drums, while Frankie Goes to Hollywood went spiritual for their final #1. Foreigner gave us what is, in my book, one of the worst examples of the genre. Jennifer Rush, meanwhile, gave us one of the very best in ‘The Power of Love’.
So. Let’s start with The ‘Meh’ Award for the most forgettable of the past thirty number one hits. There were three songs that really failed to get my pulse raising, for good or bad. UB40 & Chrissie Hynde’s plodding take on ‘I Got You Babe’, Midge Ure’s MOR ‘If I Was’, and George Michael’s (too) understated ‘A Different Corner’. The latter two didn’t connect with me simply because they’re not to my taste. ‘I Got You Babe’ didn’t connect because it’s a pretty insipid cover of a classic. UB40 & Chrissie take it.
Onwards, to the The WTAF Award, which rewards the songs that went for being interesting over being particularly good. Again, I have it down to three. Paul Hardcastle’s ‘19’: ground-breaking but gimmicky. Jagger & Bowie’s ‘Dancing in the Street’: camp silliness in the name of charity. And Falco’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’: German camp silliness in the name of Mozart… I do like me a powdered wig: I’m giving it to Falco!
Now for the two biggies. The 19thVery Worst Chart-Topper. Again, I have three candidates. Cliff, Hank and the Young Ones’ ‘Living Doll’ was pretty dire. Except, it’s a charity record and I’ve literally just promised not to award them this… Bugger. Okay. That leaves us with Spitting Image’s ‘The Chicken Song’, a piss-take of novelty records that manages to be just as bad, if not worse, than the records it parodies. And the ultimate teeth-clenching, constipated, soft-rock power ballad: Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’.
I should award it to ‘The Chicken Song’, because it is a horrible piece of music. But it’s supposed to be a horrible piece of music. It wants to you to recognise it as a horrible piece of music. It is the naughty child at the back of the class, begging for attention. We must ignore it and hope it goes away. I’m awarding this to Foreigner then, for condensing the worst of the overwrought, over-serious ‘80s into five minutes of fist-clenching earnestness.
Finally, the The Very Best Chart-Topper. To be honest, there isn’t a standout track. This wasn’t a massively strong bunch. Some of the previous ‘Bests’ would walk to the prize here. I liked ‘Chain Reaction’ and my birth #1 ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’, but not quite enough to nominate them. I really liked Eurythmics one and only #1, the vocabulary-stretching ‘There Must Be an Angel…’ But, again, is it ‘Very Best’ material? Not for me. So, I have two in mind…
Showing Foreigner that power-ballads can be great if done properly: Jennifer Rush. And the only record of the past thirty that truly gets me tapping my toes: Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round…’ It’s a tough one. Both are good for very different reasons. Both are songs I’ve liked for a long time. If ever there was a time for a tie, it’s this. But that’s a cop out. Put it this way: if I had five minutes to live, I’d want to hear Dead or Alive. They win… Just.
To recap the recaps, then:
The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability
‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan.
‘A Little Peace’, by Nicole.
‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police.
‘I Got You Babe’, by UB40 with Chrissie Hynde.
The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else
‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush.
‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre.
‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin.
‘Save Your Love’ by Renée & Renato.
‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco.
The Very Worst Chart-Toppers
‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir.
‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, by Charlene.
‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie.
‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner.
The Very Best Chart-Toppers
‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie.
‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA.
‘My Camera Never Lies’, by Bucks Fizz.
‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive
In my last post, I wondered if ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was intended as a novelty song, a train of thought that took me down an existential route, asking if our native English bias leads us to treat all foreign language songs as novelties, regardless of the artists’ original intentions… Thankfully, this next #1 will not be inspiring any such deep philosophical debate. Ladies and Gentlemen: ‘The Chicken Song’…
The Chicken Song, by Spitting Image (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 11th May – 1st June 1986
Nor do we need to ask if this is a novelty hit. This is the ultimate novelty hit: a novelty hit about novelty hits. A meta-novelty hit. It apes mindless summer smashes like ‘Agadoo’ (the ‘wet gits’ in the lyrics are supposed to be Black Lace) and ‘The Birdy Song’, with their inane lyrics and/or their simplistic dance moves: Hold a chicken in the air, Stick a deckchair up your nose…
My first instinct is to groan and press stop. But then I remember: this is done knowingly. It’s meant to be annoying. My second instinct is still to groan and press stop. Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but that doesn’t make it any more listenable. I get the point they’re making, but… Now you’ve heard this song, Your brain will spring a leak, And though you hate this song, You’ll be singing it for weeks… Well, quite.
‘The Chicken Song’ doesn’t appear to be on streaming service because, let’s be honest, who would ever want to listen to it? After a promising start, 1986 is quickly hitting the skids. I’m starting to cast my eye towards the upcoming recap, and the ‘Very Worst Chart Topper’ award. But then, is it worth getting annoyed about a song that has set its stall out so clearly to be annoying? Aren’t you just giving them what they want…? Let’s move quickly on then, and not give them the attention they crave…
Except, ‘Spitting Image’ was a satirical TV show – ‘The Chicken Song’ had featured heavily in the programme’s third series – and you could maybe have expected something with a little more bite. There’s a video of their ‘Top of the Pops’ performance, featuring Margaret Thatcher on keys and Ronald Reagan on drums. Imagine if those world leaders had featured in the lyrics… Sadly, they went for dumb rather than edgy. The ‘B’-side was a ditty called ‘I’ve Never Met a Nice South African’, which mocked the attitudes of apartheid era, white South Africans. That would have made for an interesting number one; though it wouldn’t have been likely to make it there in the first place…
So, there we go. ‘The Chicken Song’. You might have wondered if, with this being the ultimate novelty song – the novelty song’s novelty song – people might have given up on making them after this topped the charts. Why bother? Sadly, people still did bother. There are plenty more to come. Up next, though, a recap…
Questions arise pretty quickly, as I listen to this next bizarre little chart-topper. Is it based on the ‘Beverly Hills Cops’ theme? Is it about Mozart? And most importantly: is it a novelty record…?
Rock Me Amadeus, by Falco (his 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 4th – 11th May 1986
Before answering any of those, I’m going to have to admit – I’m really enjoying this. It’s funky, throbbing, moody… and completely ridiculous. Despite it being ponderously slow, you can dance to it. I’m also most fond of synths when they are used in this clanking, industrial way; rather than for showy flourishes. It’s a record I knew by title, without ever having properly listened to.
It’s a German chart-topper, which isn’t unusual for the 1980s, when we’ve seen the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena, Nicole and The Goombay Dance Band reach the top. What is unusual is that Falco has done so while still singing in German. Rapping in German even! The harshness of the language complements the thumping synths, I think, in a way that wouldn’t work if this was in French, say.
On a more serious level, though, is the fact that Falco performs the song in German the reason I instinctively treated this record as a novelty? Are we guilty – yes I’m including you in this! – of English language snobbery, of discounting anything not in English as lesser and silly? Especially something in ze harsh, guttural sounds of das Deutsch? At the same time, Falco’s antics in the video show that ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ is at least meant to be fun, if not truly a novelty song.
Said video also definitively answers one of my other earlier questions: this is very much about Mozart. Falco plays the man himself – the song was inspired by the 1984 movie ‘Amadeus’ – as men in powdered wigs dance with leathered-up bikers. The lyrics tell the story of big Wolfgang as the original rock star, about his way with the ladies and his fondness for a tipple: He was a superstar, He was popular, He was exalted, He had flair… And everybody screamed ‘Come rock me Amadeus’…
Which leaves me with just one question to answer: does anybody else hear the ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ theme in the synth riff? I can’t find much evidence online that agrees with me, but I definitely hear it. That theme, AKA ‘Axel F’, will of course have its moment atop the charts, but the mere thought of it makes me shudder…
By the end this song has gone completely bat-shit, with Falco screaming, scatting and yodelling things to a conclusion. Not something you’d want to hear every day, but great fun if you’re in the mood. Falco – real name Johann Hölzel – was Austrian, like Mozart. The first Austrian to top the charts in both the UK and the USA, unlike Mozart (though he’d surely have had hit after hit had the charts existed in the 1780s…) In Austria, Germany and much of Europe he was huge, but in Britain he struggled to have much further chart success – though the follow-up ‘Vienna Calling’ did make #10. Sadly, and again much like the hero of this song, Falco died very young, in a car crash, aged just forty.
George Michael, one of the biggest pop idols of the decade, returns for his second solo chart-topper. A low-key, and I’d say pretty forgotten chart-topper…
A Different Corner, by George Michael (his 2nd of seven solo #1s)
3 weeks, from 13th April – 4th May 1986
It has a haunting intro: two bass notes, and a distant, echoing piano. ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ it is not. In fact, cast your mind back just a few months, and Wham! were at number one with the perky, Motown-flavoured ‘I’m Your Man’. This is a big departure, a big statement, for an (almost) former boyband star, and the fact that Michael took such a sparse record to the top shows just how popular he was.
It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song. George’s voice smoothly caresses its way over hills and around corners, through a tale of unrequited love… I would promise you all of my life, But to lose you would cut like a knife, So I don’t dare… He’s never been in love, as he’s in ‘A Different Corner’… As with all of George’s #1 thus far, I can’t help but read a little subtext in this. I’m so scared of this love… he groans, and I’m left wondering how it took everyone so long to realise. According to George himself, it was written about the end of a very quick relationship, as well as his sadness at the end of Wham!
The obvious comparison to make is with George Michael’s first chart-topper, the much glossier and more bouffant-ed ‘Careless Whisper’. That’s not my favourite song, but I get why it’s much loved. ‘A Different Corner’ is a very different beast on first listen, but actually it’s something of a ‘Whisper’ redux: Michael is still emoting, and smouldering, but over a less-cluttered background. (Plus, there’s a Spanish guitar again). In the video, he is locked in a white room, reclining on large cushions and taking phones off their hooks, rather than swanky hotel rooms and luxury yachts.
I’ve probably made this clear in the five George Michael/Wham! songs that I’ve covered up to know, but I’ll out myself once and for all… I’m not his biggest fan. I like certain of his songs, I respect his talent and voice as a performer, and I was sad when he died, much too young. But he doesn’t rank among the Ultimates for me: the Elvises, The Beatles the Dustys, and so on… And I think since he died he’s been unjustly pushed to the very top of the pile.
I also respect a song like this getting to number one – it sounds unlike anything we’ve had at the top for a while – but I don’t love it. In a sign of Michael’s immense talent, ‘A Different Corner’ was the first ever #1 to be written, performed and produced by the same person. (Which, yes, is more than Elvis or Dusty ever did, but that’s irrelevant… Music doesn’t work on a points system). This pretty much marks the end of Wham! – although they still have one more #1 to come – and sets George Michael up for the all-conquering ‘Faith’ era – during which he would at least have some fun, not just mope around on big white bean-bags…
The newest addition to our chart-topping roster – the charity record – returns. But it has shapeshifted. Morphed into a form that will terrorise the charts from here until the end of time… The comedy charity record…
Living Doll, by Cliff Richard (his 11th of fourteen #1s) & the Young Ones ft. Hank Marvin
3 weeks, from 23rd March – 13th April 1986
As with most charity records – which tend to be very rooted in their particular time and place – this needs a bit of explaining. ‘The Young Ones’ was a sitcom, about a group of flat-sharing undergraduate students of Scumbag College: Rick, an anarchist; Vyvyan, a psychopathic metalhead; Neil, a hippie; and Mike, the ‘cool’ one. The show’s theme tune was Cliff Richard & The Shadows’ 1962 #1 ‘The Young Ones’ and Rick, played by Rik Mayall, was a proud Cliff fan, despite his anarchist leanings. In-jokes on top of in-jokes…
This one isn’t on Spotify, which actually ends up being in the record’s favour – it works better as a video. As a song, it’s fairly unlistenable. Cliff does a straight, very soporific cover of his 1959 #1, while the four actors prat about over the top. Meanwhile, Hank Marvin emerges from behind a door to perform the solo.
It is undoubtedly hard to write a song that is as funny as it is catchy. And this is not how you do it… ‘The Young Ones’ is a funny programme, and Cliff is Cliff. But they’ve had to paint their anarchic humour in very broad strokes here. There are funny(ish) bits… At one point Vyvyan calls Cliff ‘Shaky’. And they call out the creepy ‘gonna lock her up in a trunk’ line: I still feel that locking girls in trunks is politically unsound… Well I feel sorry for the elephant… (groan)
It reminds me – and I’m not sure how I even remember this song – of ‘I See the Moon’, The Stargazers’ 1954 chart-topper. That also featured voice actors pratting about – in a very proper, pre-rock ‘n’ roll kind of way – over a well-known tune. It also reminds me of just about every other ‘comedy’ record to come: ‘Spirit in the Sky’, ‘Islands in the Stream’, ‘500 Miles’ will all be subjected to the same treatment in the years to come, and that’s just off the top of my head.
This was recorded for the very first Comic Relief (AKA Red Nose Day), a BBC charity telethon. Like Band Aid, it was set up in response to the famine in Ethiopia and has since gone on to raise 1.4 billion pounds for charity over the last thirty years. For all the musical chaos it has unleashed, it has undoubtedly done a lot of good for the world. Four minutes of Cliff, and Adrian Edmondson bashing everyone on the head with a mallet, is perhaps a small price to pay…
If you thought our last number one owed a debt to Motown, well here comes an actual living Motown legend for one last spin around the chart-topping block.
Chain Reaction, by Diana Ross (her 2nd and final solo #1)
3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd March 1986
And in a sixties throwback double-whammy: it’s only written and produced by the Brothers Gibb AKA The Bee Gees. (They also provide some fairly prominent backing vocals throughout.) Diana Ross sounds much huskier than when we last heard from her, fifteen years ago on ‘I’m Still Waiting’. She was approaching forty-three when this reached top-spot, putting her firmly among some of the oldest chart-topping female acts.
I want to love this – I thought I did love this – and, yes, parts of it are great. The song is one constant key-change, ascending and descending through each verse and chorus, and it’s crammed full of hooks. The lyrics are pretty steamy too: my personal favourite being the hand moves lower… swallow slower couplet. But it’s a little slower than I remembered, and the heavy synths are a bit lumbering, especially at the start. The ingredients are there, it just takes a while for them to settle.
Worryingly, my take on ‘Chain Reaction’ may be clouded by the fact that I’m more familiar with Steps’ Hi-NRG, early ‘00s cover. (I will happily say ‘sorry’ for many misdemeanours, but I will never, ever apologise over my love for Steps…) This record may have united two titans of popular music, but for me H, Claire and the gang just gave it more welly. Sue me!
In the original, things do finally reach boiling point during the final chorus and the fade-out, as Ross’s voice goes up an octave or ten and she really goes for it. Yes, Diana! If only her voice and the production had matched this tempo from the start then ‘Chain Reaction’ would be a stone-cold classic for the ages. As it is, it’s a very respectable slice of throwback pop – slightly out of place in March 1986, but all the more welcome for that.
Apparently, the Gibb brothers were nervous about approaching Diana Ross with this song, as it sounded so retro. (I imagine most people are nervous about approaching Ms Ross for just about anything, but that’s another story…) She was into it, though, and the video especially leans into the record’s sixties roots. You do wonder – and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out – if a song about ‘chain reactions’ and ‘instant radiation’ would have been such a big hit later in 1986, given events in the USSR… It’s lucky they didn’t hold on for another few months!
This was Diana Ross’s final chart-topper, but she would continue scoring hits throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium – an impressive feat for a lady of her vintage. Her last Top 10 hit came in 2005, with Westlife of all things (she should have given Steps a call…) Meanwhile, away from the recording studio, here she is taking possibly the most iconic penalty kick in football history.
The 3rd number one single of 1986, and the third one with what I’d term a ‘distinctive’ intro. From the subtle build of ‘West End Girls’ to this: the song’s title chopped, sliced and diced into an uber-‘80s ‘look what my mixing desk can do!’ mess.
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going, by Billy Ocean (his 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 2nd February – 2nd March 1986
Tough-t-t-t-tuh-tuh-tuh-tough ooh! The barking voice reminds me of ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’. Nothing that reminds me of ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ can be anything other than reprehensible. Luckily, once the intro is out of the way, things settle down and a decent pop song begins to shine through. I like the bass, and the calypso rhythm. It’s a summer smash, several months too early. I’ve got something to tell you, I’ve got something to say… Billy Ocean sings it smoothly; thankfully nothing like the Baha Men.
I wonder if this is based on a traditional tune, as reggae songs are (even though this is reggae in the loosest sense…) The chorus especially has a nursery-rhyme feel to it. But no, ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’ was written in 1985, for the soundtrack to the Michael Douglas film ‘The Jewel of the Nile’ (it seems the song is much better remembered than the movie…) So it may not be an old song, but it definitely has retro touches. The Darlin’… I’ll climb any mountain… is very sixties Motown, as are the Ooh-ohh-ohh-hoos… lifted straight from ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’.
There’s also a very mid-eighties sax solo. But it’s palatable –I have a very low tolerance for eighties saxophone solos – and works well with the song’s overall jauntiness. I like this: it’s catchy, fun, exuberant… once the intro’s over. I mentioned in my last post that A-ha’s ‘The Sun Only Shines on TV’ might have been a ‘shadow’ number one, and I did wonder if this also might have been one. Had ‘Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)’ and ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car’ – Billy Ocean was one for a good, long song title – immediately preceded it? No. This record was a chart-topper, fair and square.
If I had to choose a song to be Ocean’s sole #1 hit, though, I’d definitely go for the even more Motown-leaning ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’, which had been his breakthrough hit, making #2 a full decade before this. Sadly, and reluctantly, I’ve come to accept that I will never be able to personally control the charts… (though the world would be a much better, Ed Sheeran-less place if I did…)
Billy Ocean’s chart career didn’t last far beyond the late-eighties, though he continues to record and perform, his latest album making the charts in 2020. ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’, meanwhile, will be back at the top of the charts before the century is out.
One of the things I liked about our last #1 – Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ – was the song’s slow build-up. I’m a sucker for a strong intro. That intro, though, is small fry compared to the bombast and drama offered here…
The Sun Always Shines on TV, by A-ha (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 19th January – 2nd February 1986
Before we actually get down whether this record is any good or not, I have to say that a song with a minute-long intro – featuring at least three different synth lines – has an automatic head-start towards greatness. Touch me… pleads Morten Harket in his distinctive falsetto… Give all your love… as the synths wind slowly towards the peak… To me…!
As with ‘West End Girls’, there’s another great beat drop, when chugging guitars, stabbing chords and beefy drums grab us by the scruff of the neck and whip us along. It’s fun, it’s got great energy; but it’s not everything the intro promised it would be. It’s very Duran Duran, and it emulates their most recent #1, ‘The Reflex’, by chucking every trick they can think of into the mix. At time it’s a bit much, the synths especially can be a little too flourishy.
Like much of the mid-eighties, ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ is simultaneously modern and cutting edge, dated and of-its-time. Lyrically, it seems to be about the falseness of fame: I reached inside myself and found, Nothing here to ease the pressure, Of my ever-whirring mind… and the music does a good job of creating the image of a chaotic paranoia. Paranoia that you can dance to.
A-ha are, of course, Norwegian. And Harket has what I’m going to call ABBA-English. Perfectly good English, just slightly off in pronunciation and stress making it somehow even more appealing. For me, his high-pitch and his accent all just add to the frenzied drama. I believe, unless I’ve forgotten someone obvious, A-ha were the very first act from Norway to hit #1 in the UK. This wasn’t, though, their first big hit. It was the follow-up to ‘Take on Me’ – undoubtedly their signature song – which had been held at #2 by ‘The Power of Love’.
Can we say that this was a ‘shadow number one’, making top spot by basking in the glow of its predecessor…? It wouldn’t be the first. And while ‘Take on Me’ is the better song, and would have been a worthy #1, ‘The Sun Always Shines…’ has enough oomph and dynamism about it to suggest that it could have been a chart-topper under its own steam. The video links the two songs by having the start of this one act as a fake ending to ‘Take on Me’.
While the intro here was extended, the ending is not. A sudden, clanging piano note slams down, as if the band is shouting ‘Enough!’ That’s all we’re getting. It draws to an end a run of #1s that appeals to my inner chart-geek: the past six chart-toppers, since Feargal Sharkey’s ‘A Good Heart’ in early November, have all spent a fortnight at the top. Without checking too thoroughly, I think that’s the longest run of its kind… (It’s been surpassed many times since by one-weekers, though).
And finally, I have to mention why this #1 has such resonance for me, why it is a ‘line in the sand’, as I put it in my last post. ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ is the very first number one, five hundred and sixty four songs and four and a half years of blogging in, that I was alive for. To be fair, I was two days old when it got knocked off the top, so my recollections of its time as the biggest hit in the land are hazy. But as a Birth Number One I think I got off quite lightly. (I know people born under the reigns of ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’, and ‘Nothing’s Going to Change My Love for You’…)