388. ‘Fernando’, by ABBA

From one Eurovision winner to another. I mentioned in my last post the similarities between ABBA and Brotherhood of Man (they both won the contest, they both have two boys and two girls… though I’m unsure if any of the Brotherhood were ever married to one another…) It’s as if ABBA had had enough of ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’s long stay at #1 sullying Eurovision’s good name, and decided to do something about it.

Fernando, by ABBA (their 3rd of nine #1s)

4 weeks, from 2nd – 30th May 1976

This is, I must admit off the bat, my least-favourite of ABBA’s chart-toppers. It crosses the fine line between good-cheese and cheesy-cheese. It is one of the songs that people who don’t like ABBA can use to justify their idiocy. It has pan-pipes, and a marching drumbeat…

Can you hear the drums, Fernando… I remember long ago another starry night like this… I’ve always wondered where and when this song is set. From a young age, I’ve pictured Mexican rebels, in sombreros and ponchos, sheltering around a campfire on a mountainside. They’re fighting for freedom. They’re crossing the Rio Grande, into Texas apparently, to fight the Yankees at the Alamo… (my knowledge of this conflict is patchy – can you tell?) I could hear the distant drums and sounds of bugle calls were coming from afar…

To be fair, not many #1 singles trod these lyrical grounds. Kudos to Benny and Bjorn for writing outside the box. And then, because this is ABBA, the chorus is still a killer. There was something in the air that night, The stars were bright, Fernando… It’s almost enough to make up for the rest, for the pan-pipes, but not quite… And that’s not even the best bit. Every ABBA song has that golden moment, that perfect hook, and ‘Fernando’s is the: Though we never thought that we could lose, There’s no regrets… which Agnetha and Anna-Frid’s gorgeous Swedish accents sell beautifully.

I had no idea that this had originally been written for, and released by Anna-Frid, the year before. That version had nothing to do with Mexican freedom fighters; in it Fernando has lost his lover and is being consoled (I’m trusting Wiki on that, as I don’t speak a word of Swedish.) I also had no idea that the English-language version was the longest-running Australian #1 single until very recently.

In many ways, ‘Fernando’ is a strange #1. And yet in many other ways it feels like it’s existed since the dawn of time, it’s so simple and so earnest. If I had to do the same again, I would my friend, Fernando… they sing as it fades. Maybe that’s the key. It’s not a song about love; it’s about friendship. It’s completely universal. And it is this chart-topper, the band’s 3rd in Britain, that announces them as the real deal. Not many bands could pull this song off. And their next #1, coming up soon, will cement their place as the biggest band in the world…

387. ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’, by Brotherhood of Man

Oh Lordy, it’s Eurovision time again. Our 5th Eurovision chart-topper. (We need some kind of advance warning system – a Eurovision siren that I can sound to prepare you, dear listeners, for what you are about to hear…)

Save Your Kisses For Me, by Brotherhood of Man (their 1st of three #1s)

6 weeks, from 21st March – 2nd May 1976

Not that every Eurovision entry is terrible, of course. For every ‘All Kinds of Everything’ (shudder) there is a ‘Waterloo’ (hurray). ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ is, though, more towards the Dana end of the Eurovision-ometer. It is the easiest and the cheesiest slice of seventies pop-pap. I think this might actually be the very pinnacle of the genre, and that’s not a compliment.

Though it hurts to go away, It’s impossible to stay… We’ve got all the sentimental schlager themes going on here: separation, a man doing a man’s work, a cute woman pining at home… I’m getting whiffs of ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’ and ‘Billy, Don’t Be a Hero’, minus all the war and executions. I’m also getting more than a whiff (an almighty reeking stench, to be honest) of Dawn’s ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon…’ The melody is uncannily similar, and lead singer Martin Lee’s ‘tache and chest-hair combination is veryTony Orlando.

Save… Your… Kisses for me, Save all your kisses for me, Bye-bye baby, Goodbye… You don’t have to dig too deep for other chart-topping comparisons, either. The ‘bye-bye baby’ line sounds mighty familiar, while Brotherhood of Man’s two boys-two girls line-up was clearly following ABBA’s successful formula from two years earlier. And it worked. Not only did ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ win the contest, it was the biggest single of 1976, and is still one of the biggest selling singles of all time in the UK…

There are a few things to like about this record. There’s a barroom piano, which always sounds good in singalongs like this, and some ridiculous trumpet flourishes. And at least it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which would be a disaster. I’m about to admit that I’m warming to this silly little record… Until, wait a moment. There’s a plot-twist in the very last line.

Won’t you save them for me… Lee croons… Even though you’re only three… The song ends as you’re still wondering what the hell just happened. Ah, of course. He was singing to his daughter all along. Awww… Actually, no. If I were scoring each #1, then that would have just knocked five points off this one’s total. And not because it’s unintentionally creepy – making you think he’s singing about his girlfriend only to find out it’s a toddler – but because it’s dumb. And it’s been done before. Gilbert O’ Sullivan did it in ‘Clair’ four years ago, and it annoyed me then, while Chuck Berry did it in ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ way before that… It is the pop song equivalent of a TV show playing the ‘It was all just a dream…’ card.

Whatever the reason, people clearly dug this kind of cute trick in the seventies. They launched this record to the top of the charts for six long weeks. And they launched the chart-topping career of Brotherhood of Man, who managed something that not many Eurovision acts (ABBA excluded) manage… follow-up hits. Follow-up chart-toppers, even. Save your kisses until then, then, as the Brotherhood will be back. I’ll have my siren up and running by then, to give you plenty of advance warning…

386. ‘I Love to Love’, by Tina Charles

Following straight on from The Four Seasons and their night of romance, we are hitting a disco groove once more. Tina Charles brings us another tale of passion; a tale of two passions, even. She loves a boy, but he only wants to boogie…

I Love to Love, by Tina Charles (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 29th February – 21st March 1976

I love to love, But my baby just loves to dance… Not only that: he wants to, he has to, he needs to dance! It’s not a subtle song – when was disco ever subtle? – but even for its genre this record is upfront and in your face. The chorus is feel-good, the strings swirl, there are key changes a plenty and a hook hidden around every corner.

The minute, The band begins to swing it, He’s on his feet to dig it! As with ‘December 1963’ (and its tale of premature ejaculation, lest we forget), I can’t help reading a bit of a subtext into this one too. Oh I love to love, But there’s no time for our romance… Tina, honey, if your man rushes to the dance floor the minute you suggest a kiss and a cuddle, then maybe, you know… You’re not his type?

Charles’ vocals are quite full on – she clearly had a great time recording this single – and the lyrics are jam-packed in. I’m not sure I could listen to this very often, as catchy as it is. I’m particularly unconvinced by the echoing effect in the bridge as the lines come thick and fast. By the end she’s whooping, because why not, and the pitch continues to rise up and up… It needs a bit of time to breathe, this one; by the end of its three minutes you feel a little like you’ve been bashed around the head by a disco ball, and inhaled a lungful of glitter.

Still, this was a huge smash hit around Europe (not once but twice, thanks to a remix a decade later) and it has an undeniable chorus I feel I’ve always known. Tina Charles had a couple of further Top 10 hits, after ‘I Love to Love’ had launched her to the top of the charts. She had been active since the late sixties, though, recording with Elton John and featuring uncredited on other disco singles. She even featured on an earlier #1 – Steve Harley’s ‘Come Up and See Me’ – as a backing singer. But this one was by far her biggest hit, and she certainly sang the life out of it. Take it away, Tina…

385. ‘December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)’, by The Four Seasons

After seeing three of their songs taken to the top of the charts by different artists – The Walker Brothers, The Tremeloes and The Bay City Rollers* – and after well over a decade of hit-making, The Four Seasons finally get a #1 under their own steam.

December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night), by The Four Seasons (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 15th – 29th February 1976

Like The Tymes a year or so ago, they’ve taken their classic vocal-group sound and updated it, in this case almost drowning it in disco glitter. Oh what a night, Late December back in sixty-three… It’s the tale of a young man’s one-night stand, perhaps even his first time: You know I didn’t even know her name, But I was never gonna be the same…

Main man Frankie Valli is, unusually, not on lead vocals here, but his unmistakeable, slightly nasal voice comes in for the bridge: Oh I… I got a funny feelin’ when she walked in the room… And then, if this is indeed a song about losing your virginity, we can all have a chuckle at the line: As I recall it ended much too soon… What a lady, indeed!

I have to admit that I’m not enjoying this record quite as much as I expected. It’s another one of those: ‘I know this without ever having really sat down to listen to it’ songs that are coming along fairly often at the moment. There are some great sections: the main piano riff, the funky synth solo, the oh-so-seventies chucka-chucka guitars… But somehow it doesn’t all glue together. Still, it’s a killer chorus, one that always sounds great on a drunken dancefloor.

‘December, 1963’ is the second #1 in a little over a year to feature a month in its title, after Pilot’s ‘January’… and there hasn’t been another one since! It is also another seventies hit, along with ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and ‘Barbados’, that I knew first and foremost through a dodgy nineties cover version, this time thanks to Clock, who made #13 with it in 1996, and which featured on the first Now That’s What I Call Music album I ever owned, aged ten.

I guess we have to see this as something of a swansong for The Four Seasons. It would be their penultimate Top 10 hit in the UK, while in the US it was their fifth and final chart-topper, after a twelve year wait, and the fifteenth Top 10 hit of a career stretching back to ‘Sherry’ in 1962. They are still a going concern, and still led by Valli at the sprightly age of eighty-six, having gone through a staggering forty-nine members in their sixty-odd years together. It feels right that they managed at least one #1 on these shores, even if I still feel slightly underwhelmed by this mixed bag of a song, which never quite adds up to the sum of its parts.

*I have to credit popchartfreak for this bit of chart expertise, which I am now passing on to you…

384. ‘Forever and Ever’, by Slik

Our recent run of number one singles has taken us past some illustrious names, some of the pillars of pop history: Art Garfunkel, David Bowie, Queen, ABBA… now Slik…

Forever and Ever, by Slik (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 8th – 15th February 1976

Hmm. Initially I had to do a double take, as I thought it should have been ‘Silk’. Some smooth and silky, mid-seventies soul perhaps. But no, ‘Slik’ it is, and they kick off their one and only #1 single with some church organs, and some ominous chanting. I have genuinely never heard this song before…

When the vocals come in, they come in a Scottish accent. Make that two Scottish chart-toppers out of the past four. As it was in the beginning, Then so should it end… Are we at a funeral…? Don’t let a lover, Become just a friend… It’s quite new-wave, the synthy heartbeats and the half-spoken delivery.

Come chorus time, though, I am pleased to announce: glam is back. The bridge hints at it – the guitars start to growl as the singer builds it up in his best Glaswegian: didnae ya know, didnae ya feel… Then boom. It’s a chorus straight out of 1973, worthy of Wizzard or Eurovision-era ABBA: I dedicate to you, All my love, My whole life through, I’ll love you. Forever and ever…

As a declaration of love, it’s a bit much, a bit stalkery. As a pop song, it’s great. I’m really enjoying this. Why isn’t this on all the seventies ‘Best Ofs’, alongside ‘See Me Baby Jive’ and ‘Come Up and See Me’? The way it spins on a sixpence, from verse to chorus and back again, reminds me somehow of the old Johnny Preston hit from 1960, ‘Running Bear’, which also swung from goofy verses to rocking chorus.

By the end, the rock ‘n’ roll vibe has been boosted by doo-wop backing vocals, sealing this record’s place as a hidden gem I’m very glad to have discovered. Any song that descends into doo-wop backing vocals is fine by me. Slik were a band from Glasgow, and were fronted by James ‘Midge’ Ure (all the other band members took nicknames too: Oil Slik, Lord Slik and Jim Slik… a full twenty years before the Spices!) Ure, of course, is much better known as the frontman of Ultravox, who will famously never have a #1 single, and you can definitely hear the roots of his later work in this pop hit.

Slik were marketed as a new Bay City Rollers, and their hits were written by Bill Martin and Phil Coultier, who wrote many of the Rollers’ songs. This hit was turned down by the Rollers, after being recorded by 2nd rate glam rock outfit Kenny, eventually finding its way into Slik’s hands. I’d place ‘Forever and Ever’ as head and shoulders above either of the Bay City Rollers’ chart-toppers, or indeed any of their non-chart topping singles too. It’s a cracker. Slik faded away quickly, registering just once more on the Top 40, but their lead singer will be back in this countdown, in a decade or so.

383. ‘Mamma Mia’, by ABBA

Into 1976! And we hop from one well-worn classic, to another.

Mamma Mia, by ABBA (their 2nd of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 25th January – 8th February 1976

It’s a dramatic intro – do dee do dee do dee do dee – that sounds a bit like the soundtrack to a murder mystery. But that also, somehow, lets you know straight off the bat that this is going to be fun. It’s a different sound from their first #1 – less glam, slightly more rock – but it still has that trademark ABBA flamboyance. It’s a cliché, I know, but every one of their hits has a hint (often more than a hint) of camp.

‘Waterloo’ was almost two years ago, and since then ABBA have retreated into the background, scoring a few minor hits but looking like they might be best remembered in Britain as ‘those Swedish Eurovision winners’. Until now. ‘Mamma Mia’ kicks off an era of chart dominance: eight number one singles in under five years. The Age of ABBA begins here.

I’ve been cheated by you since I don’t know when, So I made up my mind it must come to an end… One of my favourite things about ABBA is their English: it’s perfect; yet idiosyncratic. No native English speaker speaks like an ABBA song; yet we know exactly what they mean. (Forgive me, I’m an English teacher…) Yes, I’ve been broken-hearted, Blue since the day we parted…

Like its predecessor ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Mamma Mia’ suffers slightly from its ubiquity. Sitting down and listening to it now, I realise just how close it comes to perfect pop. Those power chords leading up to the chorus: Just! One! Look! And I forget everything… In fact, the whole song is a power chord, every note and instrument programmed to hit you right in the sweet spot. The title really should have an exclamation mark.

Mamma Mia! Here I go again! How can I resist ya…! Is there a more ridiculous chorus? First off, why are we using Italian? Do Italians even say ‘Mamma Mia’?? Then there’s the fact that the entire song is an admission of weakness: I want to walk out the door and leave you but, mamma mia, you know I ain’t gonna… It’s the musical equivalent of a knowing wink, a roll of the eyes and a theatrical shrug.

There are better ABBA songs to come in this countdown (as a band they definitely saved the best for last) but this one is undeniable. And in recent years I think it’s probably usurped ‘Dancing Queen’ as their signature tune. That’s all down to the musical (which does have the appropriate exclamation mark!) and its success on both stage and screen. Yes it’s silly, yes it’s been overplayed, but boy if it isn’t a fantastic pop song…

Catch up with all the number ones, from 1952-1975, here: