581. ‘Caravan of Love’, by The Housemartins

Reintroducing that most niche of chart-topping genres: the festive a cappella #1…

Caravan of Love, by The Housemartins (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 14th – 21st December 1986

Following on from the Flying Pickets’ ‘Only You’ from three years before, The Housemartins give us more warm and fuzzy feelings for Christmas, using only their voices (and some finger clicks). Hand in hand we’ll take a caravan, To the marvel land… One by one we’re gonna stand up with pride, One that can’t be denied…

The lyrics are uplifting – everyone being free, the young and the old, love flowing – vaguely religious, but not preachy. The harmonising is beautiful, led by a spectacular lead vocal from Paul Heaton (imagine an angelic Morrissey…) My judgement may be clouded by the fact that I’m literally listening to his honeyed tones as I type these words, but is this the 1980’s best chart-topping vocal performance? The he’s my brother… line is the pick, up there with the finest fifties doo-wop.

Every woman, every man, Join the caravan of love… Stand up, stand up… It’s a clarion call, but is it for a revolution, or for God? The song had been written by one half of the Isley Brothers (Isley-Jasper-Isley) the year before, with religion in mind. The video for the Housemartins’ version makes the religious intent very clear: Heaton plays a preacher in a pulpit, and the band have crucifixes shaved into their heads… I’m normally one for the separation of church and pop; but this I can just about stomach, because it’s about love rather than sanctimony.

Speaking of Morrissey, this single-week number #1 represents one of the very few moments that ‘80s indie made the highest reaches of the charts (much like Europe flying the flag for hair metal last time out…) The Housemartins had made #3 earlier in the year with the jangly ‘Happy Hour’, and their albums had pithy titles like ‘London 0 Hull 4’ and ‘That’s What I Call Quite Good’. They were clearly going for the Christmas #1 here, ticking all the feel-good boxes, gaining support from both indie kids and their grandmas, but were foiled at the last by an even more unexpected hit… More on that next time.

They split in 1988, but this is just the start for two of The Housemartins… Heaton went on to form ‘The Beautiful South’, before going solo. In a fun coincidence, he is literally on top of the UK albums chart as we speak… Meanwhile bassist Norman Cook became a DJ and producer with Beats International and then as Fatboy Slim. And I can think of at least three ‘90s chart-toppers that he’ll account for…

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580. ‘The Final Countdown’, by Europe

I take back what I said about our last #1, Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’, having the ultimate ‘80s riff. For I had forgotten about this baby…

The Final Countdown, by Europe (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 30th November – 14th December 1986

Da-da-daadaa… A handful of synth notes that have entered our collective consciousness, in a way that few songs manage. I’d say there aren’t very many people who wouldn’t Dada-da-da-da… back at you if you abruptly Da-da-dada’d in their face (there’s a sentence I never imagined writing…)

Is this as close as we’ll come to that most eighties of genres – hair metal – having its moment at #1? I had previously suggested Doctor & The Medics, or Survivor, but this trumps them hands down. It isn’t particularly metal, save for the shredding guitar solo, but boy do they have hair to spare. In the video, lead singer Joey Tempest (pause to relish the name…) bounds onto the stage in a leather jacket and trousers, doing things to his mic stand that make you hope he bought it dinner first. His hair is glorious, though the amount of hairspray used was probably a major factor in our current climate crisis, while his face is prettier than most boyband idols.

I love rock music – proper rock music, by men with beards – and songs like ‘The Final Countdown’, by preening, prancing, clean-shaven hair metal bands like Europe, really get the rock snobs’ goats up. But I have a secret love for ‘80s hair metal that I file under ‘guilty pleasures’, because in some ways it is the purest form of rock and roll. It exists solely for pleasure: no introspection, no shoe-gazing, very little thought at all; just rocking out in ridiculous clothes, and getting laid.

Speaking of getting laid… Is ‘The Final Countdown’ about going to space, with lyrics inspired by David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, as the band claim…? Or is it a five-minute extended metaphor for sex? Since release, it’s moved into the sporting arena, and is regularly used as a hype song before matches. It also gets an airing every New Year’s Eve, around the globe, and charted again in 1999 ahead of the millennium celebrations. The band weren’t very impressed by that remix (their drummer claimed he ‘wouldn’t have pissed on it if it were on fire’…) In fact, certain band members weren’t impressed with the original, thinking it a poppy betrayal of their metal roots.

There haven’t been too many light-hearted chart-toppers as we’ve plodded through the mid-eighties, so I will welcome Europe with open arms. They didn’t hang around long – this was their only Top 10 hit – but they reformed in the 2000s and are touring and recording to this day, remaining very successful across, well, Europe – especially in their native Sweden. Adding to the ‘peak-eighties’ feel of this record is the fact that we’ve now had two successive number ones by acts named after geographical locations. Berlin, Europe… Not to mention Japan, and Asia. Write an iconic synth riff, do a line of coke, and name your band after a continent. The 1980s in all its glory…

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579. ‘Take My Breath Away’, by Berlin

Serious question: is this the 1980s’ most iconic riff? It’s not a decade known for its riffs, not like the sixties and the seventies anyway. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, ‘Money for Nothing’, Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, this…?

Take My Breath Away, by Berlin (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 2nd – 30th November 1986

Of course, purists will argue that any riff not played on a guitar ain’t worth mentioning. But the fact that this is played on a squelchy, echoey synth simply makes it even more representative of the era. Add the drums, the backing melody, the video, the fact that it’s from the soundtrack to one of the decade’s biggest movies, and you’ve got yourself an eighties classic: ‘Take My Breath Away’. Or to give it its full title: ‘Love Theme from ‘Top Gun’’.

Watching every motion in my foolish lover’s game… The lyrics are pure power-ballad tosh: profound, until you actually sit down and listen to them. On this endless ocean, Finally lovers know no shame… I was going to let them off as I assumed the band were German and not writing in their first language… But no, Berlin were from Los Angeles. Yet you’re not here for the lyrics; you’re here for the drama, for the fist-clenching, head-shaking silliness of it all. You’re here for the key change, one of the very best of all time.

Even if you’ve never seen it, you’d put a lot of money on the video for this song featuring dry-ice and a wind machine. And it does, as well as lots of bombed out aircraft shells, interspersed with movie footage of Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. If there is a story to it, it seems to be that the band are scavengers, returned to the Top Gun Academy following a nuclear apocalypse. It makes as much sense as the lyrics…

It’s a triumph of style over substance – further cementing it as one of the 1980’s defining tunes – but I love it. This could have been quite slow and plodding – it is not a fast song – but Berlin, and lead singer Teri Nunn, give it a ridiculous energy. Also helping is the fact that none other than Giorgio Moroder was on production duty. He adds this to his credits on ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Call Me’ to complete a hattrick of electro-classics (as well as the very first electronic #1 being a cover of his ‘Son of My Father’.) Lady Gaga clearly took ‘Take My Breath Away’ as inspiration for her song on the Top Gun 2 soundtrack but, as much as I love her, she didn’t quite manage to match the original…

‘Top Gun’ has one of the most famous, and successful, movie soundtracks of all time, although this song was the only big UK hit to come from it. This was also the only big UK hit for Berlin, a new-wave band who had been around since the start of the decade. It returned them to the Top 3 in 1990, too, when re-released. And look! It’s only Part I of a quintessential eighties double-header at the top of the charts. Get the hairspray ready for our next #1…

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578. ‘Every Loser Wins’, by Nick Berry

Another novelty on top of the UK charts… Unless I’m forgetting someone obvious, Nick Berry becomes the first singer of dubious talent to top the charts thanks to starring in a popular soap opera. We’ve had TV detectives (Telly Savalas) and TV themes (The Simon Park Orchestra), now this…

Every Loser Wins, by Nick Berry (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 12th October – 2nd November 1986

Having already seen the birth of the comedy-charity single earlier in the year, is it time to declare 1986 as the year that destroyed the charts…? Well, I was expecting this to be truly horrific, but to be honest it’s mainly just bland. We nearly made it… Nick croons. He’s not a bad singer, though it’s the sort of voice that you instantly forget, even as the record is still playing… Every loser wins, Once the dream begins…

The worst bit is the horrible three-note synth flourish that pierces the mellow mood every few lines, and on which the song ends. The second worst are the limp lyrics, twisted together to make ungainly lines. The best bit is the moment the big eighties drums come thumping in, raising hopes that this might reach a bombastic finish. But it doesn’t; it slips to an unmemorable, flaccid ending.

Nick Berry played Simon ‘Wicksy’ Wicks in ‘Eastenders’, which had only been on air for a year or so before this record made #1. (While ‘Coronation Street’ had been around almost thirty years without troubling the charts…) The reason I thought that this was going to be horrendous is that I was vaguely aware of a record based on the ‘Eastenders’ theme… That was Anita Dobson (AKA Mrs Brian May’s) disco-lite ‘Anyone Can Fall in Love’, which had made #4 just a few weeks earlier. And again, listening to that for the first time, it isn’t quite as awful as I was anticipating either… I must be in a good mood tonight!

There is a hint of the ‘Enders’ theme in the intro to ‘Every Loser Wins’, too, if you listen close enough. Berry was the show’s first pin-up, his character a happy-go-lucky lad – which makes you wish they’d given him a livelier song to launch his singing career with. I use the term ‘career’ lightly, though he did make #2 a few years later, with a cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Heartbeat’, theme song to the programme of the same name. He retired from acting, and presumably singing too, in 2019.

So. This is far from our one and only soap star chart-topper. It’s not even our one and only ‘Eastenders’ chart-topper… (And, if we’re being thorough, we have already had an one, years before the show was even a twinkle in a producer’s eye, from Wendy Richard in 1962.) Meanwhile, Down Under, a soap had just started airing, one that would go on to dominate our charts during the final few years of this decade. With, it must be said, largely better songs than this!

(Apologies for the quality of the video below… We’re not spoiled for choice with versions of ‘Every Loser Wins’ on YouTube.)

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577. ‘True Blue’, by Madonna

After her first statement number one – an anthem for pregnant teens around the world – Madonna goes back to basics…

True Blue, by Madonna (her 3rd of thirteen #1s)

1 week, from 5th – 12th October 1986

Hey!… What?… Listen… I’m going to admit straight off: this is actually one my favourite Madonna singles. I’m a sucker for retro pop, when modern acts go back to the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop or, in this record’s case, sixties girl groups. Yes, it’s lightweight. Sure. And it’s got some basic ol’ lyrics: Cause it’s true love, You’re the one I’m dreamin’ of, Your heart fits me like a glove… (Surely that should be ‘hand’ – that line has always annoyed me…) But then The Supremes, Ronettes and Marvelettes never changed the world with their lyrics either.

The moment Madonna starts in with her own backing vocals is great, as is the middle-eight – No-oh-oh more sadness, I’ll kiss it goodbye… – which is the moment the song remembers that it’s actually 1986, and the drums become sharp and spiky. Is it strange that this straight-up pop tune made #1, when ‘Holiday’, or ‘Like a Virgin’, or many of her ‘90s hits to come didn’t? (She’ll have 23 Top 10 hits in the nineties, but only two chart-toppers.) Maybe. But therein lies the beauty of the charts. Even megastars like Madonna can have odd, ‘forgotten’ number ones…

Madge herself seemed to forget about ‘True Blue’s existence, as she didn’t perform it live for thirty years. Is that a statement on the song’s quality? Or perhaps it was more to do with the fact she wrote it about then-husband Sean Penn, and they divorced in 1989…

You may have noticed that I recently changed this blog’s header image in tribute to Ms Ciccone. It’s an honour I only bestow on the biggest chart stars – Elvis, The Beatles and ABBA have featured before – but I think it’s justified. This is the second of four #1s she’ll have between mid-’86 and mid-’87. She was undoubtedly the biggest star on the planet at the time. Problem is, when acts dominate the charts like this, you’re left with less and less to write about each time… Madonna will be feature on these pages soon enough – and ten more times after! – so let’s just keep ploughing on…

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576. ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, by The Communards with Sarah Jane Morris

Back to business, then. Our next #1 ups the pace, thankfully, after the past two treacly chart-toppers. It’s a soaring piano ‘n’ strings intro, a mish-mash of ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘It’s Raining Men’ – in my head anyway – which means disco is back, baby, for four weeks at least…

Don’t Leave Me This Way, by The Communards with Sarah Jane Morris (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 7th September – 5th October 1986

In comes a throbbing, Hi-NRG synth beat, and a high-pitched voice: Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, Can’t stay alive… Jimmy Somerville is the latest addition to our list of androgynous eighties voices, a worthy successor to Boy George, Limahl, Pete Burns and co. He hits some genuinely astonishing high notes, especially as the song builds towards the end. The only downside is that he makes this bloody hard to sing along to…

Aaaaah… Baby! That’s a great hook – one that is fun to sing along with – especially when, ahead of the final chorus, the ‘Aaaah’ is drawn out even further and followed by a ridiculously life-affirming key-change. Over the top brilliance! Meanwhile guest singer Sarah Jane Morris, who wasn’t officially a Communard, complements Somerville’s falsetto with a warmer, deeper voice on the second verse and in her Come satisfy me… lines.

Oh and there’s also the ear-catching solo, with a clattering piano and horns. I’m enjoying this. It’s fun, frothy, and full of life (something much of 1986 has been lacking…) ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ was a cover of a cover. Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ disco-soul original had made #5 in 1977, while a pure disco version by Thelma Houston (on which The Communards’ take is based) had made #13 around the same time.

Houston’s version had been taken on as a gay anthem, with significance added to the lyrics as AIDS swept through the community. Both Communards were gay, Somerville having left the poor area of Glasgow he’d grown up in for London, becoming a sex worker in Soho. He’d been in the Top 10 before, with Bronski Beat, but this was his first and only #1. And if he had the interesting back-story, then keyboardist Richard Coles has had the more interesting after-story, becoming an actual Church of England priest, and radio presenter.

Sarah Jane Morris, meanwhile, worked with the duo on several more songs, before moving into jazz and opera. The Communards were only together for two albums, and for three Top 10 singles. A short and sweet chart-career, though one that did give them the biggest-selling single of 1986. This has felt like a bit of a palate-cleanser after the mix of novelties and mawkish ballads that had begun to bog things down. A straight-up, pop banger for the ages. Aaaaaaaaaah… Baby!

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Random Runners-Up: ‘Move It’, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters

Our final #2 of the week, and it’s back to the fifties. To a man we’ve met plenty of times before on these very pages…

‘Move It’, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters

#2 for 1 week, from 24th-31st Oct 1958, behind ‘Stupid Cupid’ / ‘Carolina Moon’

Cliff Richard, in 1958, was Britain’s answer to Elvis. That’s both true, and unfair. True, because he was young, good-looking, and extravagantly quiffed. And unfair, because nobody comes out well from a comparison with Elvis.

This was Cliff’s debut single, his first of sixty-eight (68!) Top 10 hits in the UK, over the course of fifty years. And if you are of a slightly snide disposition – and aren’t we all, sometimes – one could argue that this was the only true rock ‘n’ roll record from Britain’s great rock ‘n’ roll hope.

And it does rock. The opening refrain is great, reminiscent of Buddy Holly, and the purring, driving riff that succeeds it sounds genuinely exciting, almost punk-ish in its simplicity. In the autumn of 1958, it must have been thrilling to hear this growling out of some jukebox speakers, and knowing that the singer was from a London suburb, rather than Memphis.

The lyrics are pretty nonsensical, as all the best rock ‘n’ roll lyrics are… C’mon pretty baby let’s a-move it and a-groove it… while The Drifters sound the equal of any American group. (They wouldn’t become The Shadows until 1959, by which point they had accompanied Cliff on his first of many easy-listening #1s, ‘Living Doll’.)

The one thing that doesn’t quite sell this for me is Cliff himself… He just sounds a bit too nice. And I don’t know if that’s because I can’t seperate the goody-goody, God-bothering, Centre Court-serenading Cliff Richard from the eighteen-year-old version. Still, imagine Elvis mumbling and grunting his way through this…

As I referred to above, Cliff would go on to enjoy some reasonable success over the ensuing decades… I wonder if anyone who bought ‘Move It’ in October 1958 imagined that this hot young rocker would still be touring and recording in 2022, well into his ninth decade… As uncool as he is, I can’t bring myself to dislike Sir Clifford of Richard: he’s a bona-fide pop legend. I can’t say I’m looking forward to reviewing any of his three remaining #1s, though, but that’s a story for another day…

I hope you’ve enjoyed random runners-up week. The regular countdown will resume over the weekend, picking up in the summer of ’86…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Hooked on Classics’, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

For the next in our series of songs that almost made it… It’s time for something a little different…

‘Hooked on Classics’, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

#2 for 2 weeks, from 9th-23rd Aug 1981, behind ‘Green Door’

Disco had wormed its way into pretty much every area of popular music in the late 70s. ABBA went disco, Blondie too. Rod Stewart, of course, even The Stones… By the early eighties, amid the ‘disco sucks’ backlash, ‘cooler’ acts had ditched the glitter ball, new wave had taken over, and we were left with… this?

It’s a medley of classical pieces, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, set to a basic, drum-machined disco beat. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s both completely bizarre, and stunningly simple. I’m going to show up my terrible knowledge of classical music by trying to identify some of the pieces involved: there’s the bumblebee one, something by Vivaldi (edit: it’s Beethoven), ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, and the 1812 overture… There’s plenty more that I couldn’t identify, from Mozart, Handel and Grieg.

I’m trying to imagine who bought this? I can’t imagine classical music lovers really being into such dumbing-down of Tchaikovsky and co., nor can I imagine it filling a dancefloor. Perhaps it was bought by people who thought it made them look cultured – the type that call going to see ‘Mamma Mia’ a night out at the theatre (God, that sounded snobby!) At the same time, and as much as I liked ‘Green Door’, I do wish this had made #1. It would have made for one of the strangest chart-toppers of all time… And clearly there was enough of an audience, because the RPO released three entire albums in the ‘Hooked on Classics’ series!

There was a bit of a medley craze in the early eighties, to be fair. Stars on 45 are the big one that springs to mind, their sixties medley made #2, also in 1981, and got all the way to the top in the US. Britain would have to wait a few more years for its own set of chart-topping medleys, courtesy of a cartoon rabbit (don’t ask…) Anyway, here is ‘Hooked on Classics’, to be enjoyed in all its glory below. There aren’t many YouTube videos to choose from, and I’m not sure if this one with all its black and white footage is the original. Trigger warning: the video features more Steve Wright than is ever strictly necessary…

One last #2 up tomorrow!

Random Runners-Up: ‘The Show Must Go On’, by Leo Sayer

For Part III of Random Runners-up week, we’ll be heading back to the seventies…

‘The Show Must Go On’, by Leo Sayer

#2 for 1 week, from 13th-20th Jan 1974, behind ‘You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me’

We’re also off to the circus… This record starts with the classic Big Top theme, AKA ‘Entrance of the Gladiators’, though I suspect this might just have been the album version. When we finally get to the song proper, it’s a melancholy, rockabilly little number. It thankfully has a lot more life to it than Sayer’s later chart-topper, the snoozy ‘When I Need You’.

There’s a skiffley feel to it – banjos feature heavily – and I like the rasp in his voice. Sayer would perform the song in a pierrot costume, as in the picture above, telling a song of a trapped man: I’ve been used, I’ve been so abused… But I won’t let the show go on! Interestingly, the song’s title is reversed in the lyrics… It’s all about the singer wanting to stop the show. When Three Dog Night recorded their cover (a Top 5 hit in the US) they changed the lyrics to match the title, to Sayer’s chagrin.

I do like this one, even when he starts ooby-doobying. Leo Sayer’s seems to have been a career that covered many bases: rock, disco, pop, as well as soppy ballads. This was his very first hit, the first of ten Top 10s between 1974 and 1982 (not to mention a left-field, chart-topping comeback that will eventually be featuring in my regular countdown…)

There’s a chart-phenomenon that I’ve referred to several times before, that of the January #1. (Basically, it involves stranger than average hits sneaking a week at #1 in the post-Christmas slump, when sales are low and nobody is releasing anything new.) ‘The Show Must Go On’ was a January #2, which by this logic should be even odder than the records one place above them, and it is a strange, but catchy, little record.

Random Runners-Up: ‘So Macho’, by Sinitta

Our second #2 of the week is almost as recent as it was possible to go, and a slight change in mood from Ned Miller…

‘So Macho’, by Sinitta

#2 for 1 week, from 3rd – 10th Aug 1986, behind ‘The Lady in Red’

The world can be a cruel, unjust place. War, famine… ‘The Lady in Red’ keeping this camp classic from reaching #1… plagues, natural disasters…

First things first. This is complete and utter trash. From the clanking, processed, so dated it grates your teeth intro, past the unbelievably cheesy video, and onto the opening couplet: I don’t want no seven-stone weakling, Or a boy who thinks he’s a girl… as Sinitta lays down her dating manifesto (‘man’-ifesto… see what I did there…?) Second things second, I love it.

The chap who wins Sinitta’s heart has to have ‘big blue eyes’ and ‘be able to satisfy’… He’s gotta be big and strong, Enough to turn me on… By the second verse, things have taken a mildly BDSM turn… I’m tired of taking the lead, I want a man who will dominate me… I love these lyrics in part because, let’s be honest, they probably wouldn’t cut the mustard these days.

As much as I love this song, I can admit that, by any barometer of taste and decency, it is pure crap. I assumed it was a SAW production, given the tinny synths, but no. Sinitta was, however, the very first act signed by a young Simon Cowell (the pair even dated for a while). ‘So Macho’ was his first hit single, although it took two re-releases over the course of a year for it to take off. And, as fun as this tune is, if it had flopped we may well have been spared Robson & Jerome, Pop Idol, The X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent… (Sinitta, what did you unleash…!)

In a shocking and truly unforeseen twist, ‘So Macho’ proved very popular in gay bars and clubs, giving Sinitta a fanbase that meant she was good for a few more Top 10 hits. Since the chart career ended she has gone into appearing on daytime TV, helping Cowell out on his ‘talent’ shows, and dating a pre-fame Brad Pitt! A life well lived…

Another #2 up tomorrow…