421. ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, by Brian & Michael

Kicking off the next thirty #1s with a bit of a curio… It opens with a brass band and the sound of children playing. I’m getting a strong ‘Hovis’ ad vibe. But when the actual song starts… Where to begin?

Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, by Brian & Michael (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd April 1978

Perhaps with a bit of context. The ‘matchstalk’ men, cats and dogs refers to the paintings of LS Lowry, a Manchester artist who had passed away a year or so previously. He painted industrial scenes of the north of England – factories, chimneys and smog – but also more intimate pictures of people queueing for fish and chip and going to football matches. All done in a very recognisable – some critics might have said ‘simplistic’ – style…

And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs… He painted kids on the corner of the street that were sparking clogs… (I have no idea what ‘sparking clogs’ involves – I guess it’s a Manc thing.) Now here’s the rub. This song starts off quite nicely. The first verse paints a picture (pardon the pun) of a northern childhood, in which the singers, Brian and Michael (who sound right Mancunian), wonder if Lowry painted them as kids, on the back of cardboard boxes, before he became famous. It builds up a bit of goodwill in me…

Which it wastes almost immediately. The brass band comes back, you see, and a children’s choir comes in. Not only that, the lyrics go a bit naff. Well, naffer. They tell the tale of Lowry’s trips to London, in which bigwigs patronise him by asking him to put on his flat cap. Worse follows… Now Lowrys hang on upon the wall, Besides the greatest of them all, Even the Mona Lisa takes a bow… When he dies, the ‘Good Lord’ mops Lowry’s brow, as he waits outside them Pearly Gates… To paint his matchstalk cats and dogs…

Putting aside the inaccuracies – I don’t think there are any Lowrys in the Louvre – it’s all a bit… provincial. A bit chippy. Only northern folk got our Lowry. Them soft southerners didn’t, never mind the foreigners… Take the first comment on the highest-viewed YouTube video of the song (it’s missing from Spotify – our first unstreamable #1 for a while). ‘Playing outside in the streets’, the commenter writes, ‘in the late 70s with no fears and no social media…’

Those were the days. The winter of discontent, electric meters, Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops, Bisto with your tea… I’m more on the side of the 2nd commenter, who writes: ‘This has got to be the biggest load of shit ever produced’. OK, maybe I wouldn’t go that far (there’ll always be ‘No Charge’) but it’s a song that gets worse as it goes on. The lyrics grow more self-righteous, the kids choir more annoying in their ally-ally-ohs, and then to top it all off there’s a key change…

It’s been a while since we’ve had a pure, unexplainable novelty at the top. At least it’s better than the easy-listening sludge we struggled through recently. Or is it…? Brian and Michael were a duo from Manchester, and had been in the music biz since the sixties. My favourite thing by far about this whole record is the fact that Brian doesn’t even appear on it. He’d been replaced by a chap called Kevin a couple of weeks after the single had been released, and Kevin had to go along with the name…

They are still active, Brian/Kevin and Michael, but remain one-hit wonders. However, the choir, of St. Winifred’s School in Stockport, will be back to score a Christmas #1 as lead artists in a couple of years. Take this as an advanced warning… Start preparing yourselves. On a completely unrelated note, this is the 5th #1 of 1978, and already the 3rd to reference famous works of art. We’ve had an opera (‘Figaro’), literature (‘Wuthering Heights’), and now paintings.

420. ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush

It takes a moment to get used to our next #1 single. The tinkling piano, the etherealness of it, and then that high-pitched voice…

Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 5th March – 2nd April 1978

Even though it’s a very well-known song, it still discombobulates. It still sounds nothing like what pop music should, at least not at first. Out on the winding, windy moors, we’d roll and fall in green… You wonder if it was a risk to write a pop song about a hundred and fifty year old novel, and then to sing it like a Victorian soprano. Pop is usually about the new and the instant, not the ancient and established. There has not been, to my knowledge, a #1 hit about ‘Moby Dick’, or ‘Anna Karenina’. It also means that, after Brotherhood of Man’s references to ‘Figaro’, it has been a pretty high-brow start to 1978.

You only really relax into this record as it slips into the chorus, and a soft-rock vibe takes over: Heathcliff, It’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home now… To be honest, I’ve always thought of this song as some kind of revolutionary moment. But listening to it now, properly, it’s clear that Kate Bush is the star attraction. It’s her wide-eyed vocal performance – and this might be the first time that we really need to recognise the video, in which she performs an extremely intense, interpretive dance to the song, in soft focus against a black background – that makes this a classic.

For musically, there’s not that much to raise an eyebrow. It’s got a catchy chorus, and a hard-rock guitar fade-out that hints at eighties power-ballads to come, but it’s all about Kate, really. She was eighteen when she wrote her debut smash, and only nineteen when it hit #1, making her the youngest artist to reach such heights with a self-penned song.

And if you were going to pick a famous novel to sing about as a teenage girl, then ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the obvious choice. Heathcliff and Cathy’s romance is thrillingly torrid to a seventeen-year-old, then you reach your mid-twenties and the pair turn into obnoxious brats. Still, nowadays, people perhaps know the story more through this record than they do through Emily Brontë’s masterpiece. It’s the ultimate ‘York Notes’ version: a massive novel condensed into a four and a half minute pop song, for lazy students to listen to on repeat the night before a test…

Before arriving at ‘Wuthering Heights’, I did wonder if it would challenge for top spot in my latest recap, coming up next. But I don’t think it will. It’s a great song, memorably performed, but there have been better in recent months. There are probably better songs in Kate Bush’s back-catalogue too, though none perhaps have had the cultural impact of her debut smash.

I must admit that my knowledge of Kate Bush is patchy, beyond this one, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Running up That Hill’ and the like. She is a reclusive star, not one for interviews or photoshoots, or for releasing much music (her last album came out in 2011, and she’s only released two this century). In my mind she is the fairy godmother of British pop… an idea, or a presence, more than a real person. And that’s a pretty cool role to fill.

Finally, ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the 4th chart-topper of 1978, and the fourth to feature female vocalists. If you go back further, and ignore Wings, then six of the last seven #1s have been at least woman-led. Considering that for parts of the 1960s we went entire years without a woman’s voice at #1, that feels worth noting. The next couple of chart-toppers are going to spoil this run but, before that, a recap!

Get up to speed with all 420 #1s so far, before my next recap

419. ‘Take a Chance on Me’, by ABBA

In which the knock-offs are knocked off by the real thing! Not for the first time, ABBA shunt their own tribute act out of top spot…

Take a Chance on Me, by ABBA (their 7th of nine #1s)

3 weeks, from 12th February – 5th March 1978

And they are back to some pure pop, after a couple of more experimental offerings (‘experimental’ in an ABBA sense: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’s guitars and ‘The Name of the Game’s funky bass-line) There’s also a hint of the disco-ball about this one, foreshadowing the ‘Voulez Vous’ era that was just around the corner.

If you change your mind, I’m the first in line… The a cappella opening here is one of the band’s most iconic moments… If you’re all alone, When the pretty birds have flown… while Benny and Bjorn accompany with their takeachancetakeachickachanchance backing line.

In comes the beat, and I’ve always loved the parping synths that keep this one rattling along like a locomotive. Agnetha and Frida are leaving their self-respect at the door here, practically begging to be taken back by a man. No fear of sloppy seconds for them! If you put me to the test, If you let me try…

They change tack in the verses, though. Suddenly they’re confident, their voices sultry: You don’t wanna hurt me, Baby don’t worry, I ain’t gonna let ya… I love the breathy asides – Come on, gimme a break honey – and wonder if they hadn’t been taking notes from Baccara (*edit* this was recorded long before ‘Yes Sir…’ became a hit, but let’s not let that spoil a narrative…)

Some more iconic moments from this classic: Agnetha belting out the bridge, the bababababas that see us home, and the split-screen video, which suddenly looks very apt in the COVID-era (that’s one Zoom call I wouldn’t mind being stuck on…) All of which adds up to the band’s 7th and final #1 of the 1970s, taking them just beyond Slade’s six chart-toppers and making them the most successful group of the decade.

Yep, ABBA are about to go on a hiatus from the top of the charts, after having scored six in just over two years. As I mentioned above, in the years following ‘Take a Chance on Me’ ABBA would go full-on disco, and release some of my favourite singles… ‘Voulez Vous’, ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’… They will be back in this countdown though, fear not, having saved the best for last. Until then, then…

418. ‘Figaro’, by Brotherhood of Man

Deep breath… here we go again. For their final chart-topping trick, the Brotherhood do Boney M!

Figaro, by Brotherhood of Man (their 3rd and final #1)

1 week, from 5th – 12th February 1978

Boney M, with a dash of oompah. To tell the tale of a Spanish love-rat. Every morning when the sun is dawning, You’ll see him down on the beach… He’s a lothario, a sleazeball, maybe even a gold-digger… He’s out to make a killing… And baby if you’re willing, He’s gonna ask for more! He sounds a bit like Mozart’s philandering ‘Figaro’, which gives us perhaps the most unlikely musical comparison ever.

This, in case my little taster there didn’t spell it out clearly enough, is tremendous trash. They’ve done it again, Brotherhood of Man: taken the poppiest sounds of the day, and made them even poppier. They did it with bubblegum (‘Save Your Kisses…’), they did it with ABBA (‘Angelo’), and now they’ve done it with disco. To think this knocked off Althea & Donna’s impossibly cool ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ off top spot! Mind you, ‘Angelo’ kicked ‘I Feel Love’ out the way, so they have form in that regard…

Does this mean, though, that I dislike this record? Well, um… no. It’s catchy, dumb, and a whole lot of fun. In fact, I think this is the best of the Brotherhood’s three #1s. And it’s all down to our inveterate shagger. Uh-ho Figaro… He’s got magic-o woah… Playing guitar at the disco bar, he has his pick of the girls. What I don’t understand is why the band are making out that this is a bad thing? Why else do you have a holiday in Majorca, if not for a no-strings roll around with a Figaro?

Before doing this countdown, I of course knew Brotherhood of Man for their Eurovision-winning, million selling ‘Save Your Kisses…’, which still gets a fair bit of play today. I had no knowledge of their two follow-up number ones. I’m amazed they got two more number-ones, to be honest, and suspect that they sneaked these two one-weekers when sales were low. Still, you can only beat what’s in front of you. They remind me of Bucks Fizz, another poptastic Eurovision act who are remembered for their winning single, despite having big follow-up hits. They’ll be along soon enough…

As for Brotherhood of Man, they are still a going concern, despite a brief hiatus in the eighties. All four of the original members are there, in ‘great demand on the nostalgia and the gay circuits’… (Wikipedia’s words, not mine) Add to this the fact that there was a completely different version of the band floating around in the early ‘70s, that had scored a #10 hit in 1970, and there you go. They’re indestructible! Nothing breaks the Brotherhood…’

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/3sSYyPEUCTyMjMlN55z8SX

417. ‘Uptown Top Ranking’, by Althea & Donna

Into 1978 we go then… 1977 was a bit of a slog – a year that started off slowly, with an interminable easy-listening winter and spring, but that had a fair few classics buried in the middle. You just had to be patient. What will the penultimate year of the decade serve up?

Uptown Top Ranking, by Althea & Donna (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 29th January – 5th February 1978

First of all, there’s a bit of reggae to beat the January blues! It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song, this one. It’s a riff, a vibe, a mood that chugs along. Beach bar music. Which isn’t to say it’s bland, or best suited for the background. Not at all. The bass-line is superbly monotonous. The vocals are at once hypnotic and yet indecipherable.

It’s not rap; but it’s not singing, not really. And the lyrics are delivered in an uncompromisingly thick Jamaican patois, that to your average British listener must have sounded like a completely foreign language. See me in me heels an’ ting, Dem check, Say we hip an’ ting… (I googled the lyrics…) Love is all I bring, Inna me khaki suit an’ ting… Althea and Donna are dressed to impress, dancing, cruising around in their ‘Benz’. Basically, they are The Shit. They are ‘uptown top ranking’, a Jamaican phrase for flaunting it in the city.

The one bit I could get without any help was the refrain: Na pop no style, I strictly roots… The girls haven’t forgotten where they came from, no matter how much they are blinging. They’re still Jennies from the Block (as Jennifer Lopez would tell us many years later…) But forget J-Lo, this record sounds incredibly modern, extremely fresh. I’m getting… Rihanna. She should come back with a cover of this…

Althea Forrest and Donna Reid were seventeen and eighteen respectively when they released this, their only hit. And they really do sound like too-cool-for-school teenagers as they deliver their lines, which were apparently ad-libbed. In my head, I can see them painting their nails, applying lipstick, and looking impossibly young and stylish. Listening to this record – this forty-three year old disc – is making me feel very middle-aged.

It’s not just the singers, in fact. Everything about this song feels and sounds modern. There’re the ad-libs, for a start. And then there’s the fact that it’s based around a sample from a 1967 song, ‘I’m Still in Love’. And the fact that ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is an answer record, in response to a similarly braggadocio-filled track called ‘Three Piece Suit’, by Trinity, which also used the same rhythm. We are just in 1978, honest. I haven’t skipped thirty years by accident!

Althea and Donna didn’t bother with anything as basic as having a follow-up hit. They are one-hit wonders, baby. But what a hit, waking up the sleepy post-Christmas charts with a glimpse of downtown Kingston. I think it’s putting the word ‘Uptown’ in the title that does it. I can think of three ‘Uptown’ #1s, including this one, and they’re all great pop songs.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/3sSYyPEUCTyMjMlN55z8SX