482. ‘Ghost Town’, by The Specials

When a song both begins and ends with police sirens, then you know things might just be getting a little tense at the top of the charts…

Ghost Town, by The Specials (their 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, 5th – 26th July 1981

What makes this record great, though, is that the tension, the anger in this record, is controlled and channelled into a brilliant pop song. In The Specials’ first #1, ‘Too Much Too Young’, the message was spat out, obnoxiously. ‘Ghost Town’ still has that two-tone anarchy, but here it’s under control. They have a plan: every note and lyric is set for maximum impact, and it’s catchy as hell.

This town, Is coming like a ghost town… The band look around Coventry, their hometown, and see clubs closed down, disenchanted kids kicking lumps out of each other… Bands won’t play no more, Too much fighting on the dance floor… They look around, and they know just who to blame.

What makes this record great (Pt II) is that they perfect a ‘haunted house’ vibe with creepy organs and eerie flutes, plus the high-pitched, ghoulish backing vocals, but at no point does it sound like a novelty record. It does mean that this song is fated to be wrongly included on Halloween playlists for the rest of eternity; but that’s a small price to pay for such a unique sounding chart-topper.

Is this the most political number one single yet? The Jam might argue their case, but I think, compared to ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Going Underground’ sounds a little one-dimensional, as great as it is. Here the social commentary is blended with the funky horns and the catchy chorus line. The anger comes through slowly, peaking when Neville Staple starts chanting: Government leaving the youth on the shelf… No jobs to be found in this country… before ending with the succinct: The people getting angry!

‘Ghost Town’ was at #1 as riots broke out across the UK in the summer of 1981, with unemployment rates heading rapidly towards three million, making it sound very prescient. Sadly, the band couldn’t enjoy their ‘told you so’ moment: they split up, according to the history books, as they were waiting to record the song’s ‘Top of the Pops’ performance. Many Coventry locals weren’t too impressed either, hearing their home described as a dying town on radios across the land. Perhaps the truth hurt too much?

I’ve got to the end of this post without mentioning my two favourite bits of this song. The brassy middle-eight, that sounds completely different to the other three minutes, all swinging and upbeat, as they reminisce about the good old days inna de boomtown... And then there’s the drumbeat, that only becomes obvious as the song fades out. It sounds really modern, like ‘90s trip-hop. It sums up a very cool, and very important, moment at the top of the charts.

481. ‘One Day in Your Life’, by Michael Jackson

I wrote in the recap just gone that the eighties had officially begun, kicked off by none other than Shakin’ Stevens. But with all due respect to Shaky, up next we have perhaps the ultimate ‘80s pop icon.

One Day in Your Life, by Michael Jackson (his 1st of seven #1s)

2 weeks, 21st June – 5th July 1981

MJ has his first solo #1. But it’s not as simple as all that. ‘One Day in Your Life’ is hardly one of his signature tunes. In fact, it’s two years older than the chart-topper he managed with his brothers in 1977: ‘Show You the Way to Go’. The Michael Jackson of 1981 was coming off the success of ‘Off the Wall’, poised, only a year away from ‘Thriller’ and world domination. But here we are.

He was just sixteen when this was recorded, in 1974, and he still sounds very young, caught between the high-pitched little kid from ‘I Want You Back’ and the megastar that recorded ‘Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough’. And it’s nice to be reminded that Jackson could actually sing – there’s no sign here of the vocal tics and squeals that make up his later hits.

It’s a song about longing, and waiting. He’s waiting for the day when his ex wakes up and realises what she’s lost: One day in your life, You’ll remember a place, Someone touching your face… And it’s a glossy, beautifully produced, slow-dance number, a good companion to the Smokey Robinson record that it knocked off the top. Like ‘Being With You’, it’s a record that reveals itself slowly. I was underwhelmed and a little bored with it at first – and it does sound dated compared to what was in the charts at this time, and compared to what Jackson was recording – but it’s a really nice song. I can’t help hearing it in a female voice, though: Dionne Warwick maybe, or Dusty…

Just call my name, And I’ll be there… I wonder if that’s a deliberate allusion to his group’s earlier hit of the same name. There are similarities between this and ‘I’ll Be There’ (they’re both ballads, for a start): this is a grown-up sequel, more teenage angst than childish optimism. Why was ‘One Day in Your Life’ a hit six years after its recording, though? It was released as the lead single from a hits compilation, and perhaps a combination of his ‘Off the Wall’ hits and The Jacksons’ second wind with disco hits like ‘Can You Feel It’ and ‘Blame It On the Boogie’ helped. It was the year’s 6th biggest selling hit, but it feels almost forgotten now, overshadowed by his monster smashes from later in the decade.

My favourite fact about Michael Jackson’s chart-career is that he only ever reached #1 in odd-numbered years (all his solo #1s, his Jacksons’ #1, even ‘We Are the World’… ’77, ’81, ’83, ’85, ’87 and so on…) It’s probably fitting, as there have been few pop stars as ‘odd’ as Jackson. Listening to this song, it’s so easy to forget the more uncomfortable side of his legacy. Probably because the teenager singing on this record was, to all intents and purposes, a completely different person to the Wacko Jacko of Bubbles the chimp, Neverland, his ‘sleepovers’, and beyond…

480. ‘Being With You’, by Smokey Robinson

You’re listening to the silky smooth sounds of Smooth Radio, and up next we have a sexy soul number from Smokey Robinson…

Being With You, by Smokey Robinson (his 2nd of two #1s)

2 weeks, 7th – 21st June 1981

After building a nice, oh-so-eighties, head of steam with Shakey, Bucks Fizz, and the aggressively modern Adam & The Ants, we’re temporarily dragged back a few years to the slick, glossy days of the mid-late seventies. And wait… That piercing sax line sounds mighty familiar. It’s… ‘Baker Street’, right? At least, it sounds like someone launching into ‘Baker Street’, before quickly realising that this isn’t the right song.

I don’t care what they think about me and, I don’t care what they say… A disco beat and soft-rock guitars soundtrack this unrepentant tale. Smokey is prepared to commit social suicide, to lose friends and relations, just to be with a woman. I don’t care about anything else but being with you, Being with you… His voice sounds softer, older… In fact pretty unrecognisable from his earlier chart-topping hit, ‘The Tears of a Clown’. It’s still a fine voice, though.

At first, this is simply pleasant background music but, after a few listens, I’m starting to come around to this record’s slowly revealed charms. It’s a solidly written pop song, maybe suffering from not being as cheesily instant as, say, ‘Making Your Mind Up’. Yet it’s still lacking a definite hook, something to grab onto, something to explain why this record became a #1 single.

I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever heard this song before, though I’m sure it does still get some late-night spins on Smooth Radio and the like. But, regardless of this record being slightly on the dull side, it is very impressive that Smokey Robinson was able to score a chart-topping single this far into his career. He was forty-one when this record came out, having released his first discs (with the Miracles) as far back as 1958.

In the UK, none of Robinson’s other solo releases came anywhere near to the top of the charts, but in the US he was more of a presence. He scored a Top 20 album a few years ago, and has duetted with current chart star Anderson Paak, one half of Silk Sonic, on their Grammy Award winning album. He is bona-fide pop music legend. Next up for us… a recap.

479. ‘Stand and Deliver!’, by Adam & The Ants

I’ve just realised something… The eighties have finally begun. 1980 was full of stars – Blondie, Bowie, ABBA and ELO – but they were stars from the seventies. Our recent number ones have introduced us to some brand new stars, huge names of the early ‘80s: Shakin’ Stevens, Bucks Fizz and now, biggest of all, Adam Ant.

Stand and Deliver, by Adam & The Ants (their 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, 3rd May – 7th June 1981

Punk, New-Wave and something else collide here. What that something is I couldn’t say… but it is very new and very thrilling. And very eighties. It’s frantic – there are horns, sound effects, nonsense chanting, and a band dressed as eighteenth century highwaymen… As I said in my last post, glam is back, baby!

I’m the dandy highwayman, That you’re too scared to mention, I spend my cash on looking flash, And grabbing your attention… It’s a statement of intent, this record: a war-cry to kids across the land to ditch old-folks’ fashions, to slap chunky blocks of make-up on their faces, and join the insect nation… It’s the sort of song your nan would have screwed her face to during TOTP, wondering just what was wrong with young folk these days.

There’s a bit of everything here. We go from the verses, in which Adam Ant sounds like Ray Davies trying his hand at rapping, to a Shadows-esque surf-rock solo with monkish chanting for backing. And the main hook is a killer: Stand and deliver, Your money or your life… And I mean literally a killer – it’s what Dick Turpin would have shouted back in his heyday. Meanwhile, the music video – we need more and more often to start referencing the videos for #1 singles now – sees Adam and his band holding up carriages full of uncool types clutching their lame records. Rather than robbing them, he shows how terrible they look in his foppish, handheld mirror.

It’s certainly a breath of fresh air, and there’s a feeling of a new musical order starting to assert itself. And there’s a great pop song here, underneath all the frippery (that’s a nice way to sum up the entire 1980s, to be honest). Adam and the Ants hadn’t appeared out of nowhere, though – they had been around since 1977, and had been scoring Top 10 hits for a year or so before this smash.

And a ‘smash’ it was. ‘Stand and Deliver’ entered at #1, which means the band were at the same level of popularity as The Jam and The Police. Plus its five-week run at the top is the longest of the decade so far. They were a band that burned brightly, but briefly, and they and their charismatic leader will be back with a couple more equally manic chart-toppers in pretty soon.

478. ‘Making Your Mind Up’, by Bucks Fizz

In which we arrive at what is perhaps the Ultimate Eurovision Song. Everything you want and need from a Eurovision winner is present and correct: stupidly catchy, key changes a-plenty, two guys and two girls, a memorable dance routine… and the whole thing as camp as Christmas.

Making Your Mind Up, by Bucks Fizz (their 1st of three #1s)

3 weeks, 12th April – 3rd May 1981

Not that, mind you, I’m claiming this as the best Eurovision chart-topper. Oh no, no, no. There’ll always be ‘Waterloo’ (and Gina G further down the line…) But if you shoved a microphone in someone’s face and screamed ‘Name a Eurovision act!’, half the British population, of a certain age, would say Bucks Fizz.

It starts with a chugging glam-rock drumbeat, and then in come some chugging glam guitars and you suddenly realise that we’re in the midst of a mini glam revival, what with this coming hot on the heels of Shakin’ Stevens’ rockabilly and an actual glam band’s belated #1. Meanwhile the lead guitars are kind of new-wave – seriously, detach them from the rest of this and they wouldn’t sound out of place on a Police record.

You gotta speed it up, And then you gotta slow it down… Not to suggest that this is anything other than a cheese-fest, though. And the lyrics verge from incredibly dumb to bizarrely suggestive. I have no idea if they were trying for innuendo with lines like: Don’t let your indecision, Take you from behind… and You gotta turn it up, Then you gotta pull it out… or if my mind is simply in the gutter.

(Apparently ‘Making Your Mind Up’ was released without a picture sleeve in the UK. Very 1960s…)

For the third time in eight years, a two-guys/two-girls combo won the Eurovision Song Contest. While Bucks Fizz were not ABBA, I’d say they were a step up from Brotherhood of Man. They were only formed a couple of months before entering the contest, but this smash kicked off several years’ worth of hits. And if the song wasn’t enough to win the contest, the band had a trick up their sleeve. In the 3rd verse, on the line: If you wanna see some more… the boys ripped the girls’ long skirts off to reveal much shorter skirts underneath! The continent gasped! I mean, the word ‘iconic’ is overused these days, but…

I have to say that, as revealing as the girls’ costumes were, watching the performance in full for the first time I can say that the boys’ white trousers weren’t leaving much to the imagination either. Bucks Fizz (even their name is ridiculous…) will be back atop the charts soon. Until then, you have two options: roll your eyes and pretend you’re too cool for school; or whip out your scandalously short mini-skirt and go for it. Make your mind up!

477. ‘This Ole House’, by Shakin’ Stevens

How to explain Shakin’ Stevens, to readers from foreign shores, or to readers not old enough to have experienced him in real time…?

This Ole House, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 1st of four #1s)

3 weeks, 22nd March – 12th April 1981

The twanging rockabilly in this take on ‘This Ole House’ sounds completely out of place in early 1981, after two years of sharp, spiky new-wave, and just before the New Romantics came along. Stevens’ delivery too – all energy and cheesy grins – is an outlier in this too-cool-for-school world. But while this is an unlikely hit record, it’s not unwelcome.

I can never say no to some old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. The production may be glossier, the guitars coming through in a warm stereo, but this is a step back to the 1950s. Is it better than Rosemary Clooney’s original, from way back in 1954…? No, probably not. But it is equally manic. That had an out of control honky-tonk piano, Shaky’s take has a distorted guitar solo: this version’s only concession to modern sounds.

He sounds like he’s having a lot of fun singing this – a song stuffed with nonsense lyrics about fixing shingles and mending window-panes – and because of this it is very hard not to have fun while you listen. The hipsters may have rolled their eyes, and turned their Ultravox records up, but the grannies and the kids clearly lapped it up. Just think… The young ones who bought Clooney’s version would have been hitting fifty by now. We have covered a lot of ground here!

I did wonder if this might have been Shakin’ Stevens debut: a smash hit from nowhere, perhaps after winning a TV talent show. But I couldn’t have been more wrong – he had been plugging away for well over a decade, releasing singles in the UK and Europe throughout the ‘70s. Born in Cardiff, he’d been a milkman, before forming his band The Sunsets. They’d supported The Rolling Stones of all people, in 1969. By the mid-seventies he was impersonating Elvis in the West End before finally scoring a minor chart hit with ‘Hot Dog’ in early 1980.

After that the rise was meteoric, and it’s hard to begrudge someone who’s waited that long and worked so hard for success. But. This still doesn’t explain why this Welsh Elvis finally became one of the biggest stars in the land… Maybe the rock ‘n’ roll revival that was gave us Showaddywaddy and Mud a few years back never truly went away? Maybe he was the chart-friendly face of the post-punk rockabilly scene? Or maybe it’s another ‘Shaddap You Face’: some light-relief after weeks of mourning John Lennon? I don’t know.

One thing’s for sure – if this cover of a near thirty-year-old song was a one-hit wonder then it would make perfect sense. A flash in the pan, a moment of frivolity. Except, it’s the first of four chart-toppers for a thirty-something ex-Elvis impersonator, who was on his way to becoming the biggest-selling British singles artist of the decade. More from Shaky, then, very soon…

476. ‘Jealous Guy’, by Roxy Music

The fourth and final part of Britain’s period of national mourning for John Lennon and we end, quite fittingly, with a glossy tribute.

Jealous Guy, by Roxy Music (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 8th – 22nd March 1981

To my ears, this is an interesting choice of both song and band to end up with the big Lennon tribute hit. ‘Jealous Guy’ wasn’t one of his very biggest hits, and Roxy Music aren’t the first act you’d think of to have been influenced by The Beatles, or John Lennon. Then again, what band that formed in the early ‘70s wouldn’t have been influenced by The Beatles? And maybe a more predictable cover of ‘Imagine’, or ‘Give Peace a Chance’, would have been met with a collective shrug.

I went through a phase, as a teenager, where ‘Jealous Guy’ was my favourite song, ever. It’s overwrought, and needy, you see… It’s Lennon’s ‘emo’ record. Feeling insecure… Swallowing my pain… Shivering inside… Those sorts of things. I still like it, though there are other Lennon tracks I much prefer these days. And I quite like this cover version. Bryan Ferry’s vocals are excellent – tremulous but powerful, and not as theatrical as he sometimes can be – but the music is slightly self-indulgent soft-rock.

It’s slow – though the original is, too – and over-long. I count three solos: guitar (good), synth (fine), saxophone (not for me). At least they kept the whistling. That was always my favourite bit. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered since starting this blog, it’s that whistling in pop songs usually works for me. If every sax solo ever recorded was replaced by whistling then the world would be a better place.

This was Roxy Music’s sole number one single, almost a decade into their chart careers. They had a similar chart run to ELO, who had scored their solitary #1 a year before. Both were a huge presence throughout the seventies (though Roxy Music had a two-year hiatus in the middle), and both scored a belated chart-topper with what was far from their best song. Though, I have to admit, my knowledge of Roxy Music beyond their biggest hits is patchy.

It’s worth noting, as we reach the end of it, the effect John Lennon’s death had on the top of the UK charts for three whole months. Other big, premature artist deaths – Buddy Holly, Elvis – resulted in posthumous #1s, but not in weeks of domination. And it will never happen again, in the download/streaming age, where an artist’s back-catalogue is at our fingertips, and we are no longer at the mercy of re-releases. Anyway. Next time out, ‘normal’ service is resumed.

475. ‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre

Giving us a three-week break from the Lennon-love-in, even if we didn’t ask for it… Joe Dolce and his Musical Theatre.

Shaddap You Face, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 15th February – 8th March 1981

Giuseppe is in 8th Grade, and he don’t want to follow no rules. He shoots pool, flunks school. What does his mother think about this? Well, mama’s not happy: Whats-a matter you, Got-ta no respect… Luckily for her, Mama’s got a catchphrase. Altogether now: Ah… Shaddap You Face!

What comes immediately to my mind are those adverts for Dolmio pasta sauce, with the ridiculous Italian puppets (‘Whens-a your Dolmio day??’) Dolce gets away with it (just about) as he is Italian-American. Plus this tune is so dumb, the contents so lightweight, only the professionally offended could actually complain about the caricature.

What you may well want to complain about is the music itself. Giuseppe grows up, becomes a big star… All he can hear is Mama’s catchphrase. We are treated to an accordion solo, and then a raucous call-and-response section: One more time for Mama! (Oh, must we…?) This record is a load of crap; but it’s not abhorrent in the way that the very worst novelty songs can be. I’m not sure what the joke is, or why it became such a big hit, but as I suggested in my previous post maybe the world was just desperate for something light after The Great Lennon Mourning Period.

‘Shaddap You Face’ was, for many years, the biggest-selling single in Australia (a fact that says much more about Australians than it does about the merits of the song.) Actually, I should say it was only the best-selling single by an Australian act, as Dolce had moved to Melbourne in 1978. This was his first hit – the only single he had released before this was a much more worthy number about the struggles of Vietnamese boat people.

In the UK he is a one-hit wonder of the purest kind. A chart-topper, then nothing else. Zilch. And he’d have probably faded into even greater obscurity, if it wasn’t for the record he kept off #1. Any bore with a passing interest in the charts can tell you two things: that Bryan Adams holds the record for most consecutive weeks at #1, and that Ultravox’s stark, synth classic ‘Vienna’ was held off the top by ‘Shaddap You Face’. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, so I’m going to come out and say it: ‘Vienna’ is overrated, and more than a little pretentious. I’m glad that it was outsold by this Joe Dolce trifle, causing the snobs to fume.

Anyway, has ‘Vienna’ ever been translated into an Aboriginal dialect? ‘Shaddap You Face’ has… Joe Dolce is known more these days as a poet and an essayist. He’s doing alright for himself. Mama would be proud. Meanwhile, coming up next, one final tribute to John Lennon.

474. ‘Woman’, by John Lennon

Part III of the Great John Lennon Mourning Period. A single from his brand new record kicks the re-released classic from top spot, only the second time an artist had replaced themselves at #1 (Lennon was also quite heavily involved when ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ replaced ‘She Loves You’ seventeen years earlier).

Woman, by John Lennon (his 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, 1st – 15th February 1981

Just like ‘Starting Over’ – see what I did there –this is another love-letter to Yoko. He starts off by whispering The other half of the sky… (reminding me of the whispered ‘Happy Christmases’ on ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’) and then launches into a detailed explanation of why this woman is so special: Woman, I will try to express, My inner feelings, And thankfulness…

It is a bit soppy. And a bit simplistic. Like ‘Imagine’, the message is sincere but basic. And Lennon’s voice is as close to simpering as I’ve ever heard it, especially on the Hold me close to your heart… line. While the chorus is all ooh-ooh-oohs and do-do-do-dodos. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ it is not. Nor is it the equal of much of Lennon’s earlier solo stuff: ‘Mind Games’, ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’, ‘#9 Dream’ and the like…

That’s not to say it’s a bad song. It’s fine. It’s still a song written by John Lennon, and the quality is there. But like ‘Starting Over’, this wouldn’t have been coming anywhere close to #1 had the tragic not occurred. And I’ve always thought that calling the song ‘Woman’ was a little insulting. He could just as easily have called it ‘Yoko’ and it would still have scanned (though perhaps wouldn’t have sold quite as well…) Still, as Lennon himself said, it is a tribute to all women: Yoko, and you’d imagine his late mother, the aunt that raised him, his first wife Cynthia… That makes it a little more sincere to my ears.

I’ve never fully listened to ‘Double Fantasy’, the album from which this and ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ came, released three weeks before Lennon’s murder. Going by the song titles there was a bit of a theme going on: ‘Dear Yoko’ and ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ from John, and ‘Beautiful Boys’ and ‘Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him’ from Yoko. It’s a celebration of love and family, against which the image of Lennon being gunned down in the doorway of his home, his wife watching on, becomes even more horrific.

But from what I have heard from the album, I’m not sure it would be so well-regarded if it hadn’t been for his soon-to-follow death. Lennon himself won’t be back on top of the charts – the 3rd single, ‘Watching the Wheels’, only made #30, which is a shame because it’s better than either of the #1s – but there is one more tribute to come before the Great Mourning Period wraps up. It must have been a sad time, and people must have been looking for some light relief. For what else would explain our next #1 single…? Gulp!

473. ‘Imagine’, by John Lennon

Herein lies the beauty of a weekly chart of popular singles based solely on sales, rather than on accepted tastes and public decency. We can swing straight from ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, to this…

Imagine, by John Lennon (his 2nd of three #1s)

4 weeks, 4th January – 1st February 1981

There are surely very few people left on this planet who haven’t heard ‘Imagine’s hushed and reverential piano. I’m not sure what this was recorded on, but the piano sounds off in the distance, as if the opening chords are floating in from the nearest cloud. Then in come John’s vocals, and it is young John – Beatles John – sounding significantly different from ‘Starting Over’, though I couldn’t put my finger on why.

It’s simple, it’s stately. Piano, drums and subtle strings. It already sounds like a remnant from another era, despite being only a decade old (I noted the same thing with ‘Suicide Is Painless’), and musically I find this record quite beautiful. This is as close as we’ve come to a pop music hymn… If it weren’t for the irreligious lyrics.

And the lyrics are where ‘Imagine’ starts to lose its shine. Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try… Imagine no hell, no countries, no religion or possessions. Imagine all the people, Living life in peace… I’ve taught ‘Imagine’ to twelve-year-olds and, if we’re being honest, pre-teens are the only people who are going to buy the message on offer here. From our teenage years onwards, the vast majority of us are far too cynical to genuinely believe in a world of people living life in peace.

Maybe Lennon was being playful when he wrote this. He did have a wicked streak, and you can perhaps picture him grinning evilly at the thought of there being no countries, or possessions, and of every one living in the moment, in an orgy of flesh and, let’s face it, violence. Not to mention the church’s tutting at the idea of there being no heaven. Or maybe not. I think he did mean it. And only he, perhaps, could get away with recording this and not having people laugh in his face.

It’s easy to dismiss this song as the trite ramblings of a very rich rock star. In the wrong hands it can sound deludedly ridiculous. (Remember that celebrity cover version from the early days of Covid last year, later described as ‘creative diarrhoea’…?) But you can see why this was the Lennon record that everyone flocked to in the wake of his horrific death: a fitting eulogy for a flawed but beautiful man. It was the title track of his 1971 album, and had been released belatedly in 1975, when it made #6.

‘Imagine’ is a huge, weighty record. It’s impossible now to properly judge it. Or even to properly enjoy it. I doubt I’d ever actually choose to listen to it and, if I did want to be preached to by John Lennon, I’d opt for ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, which was also riding high in the charts during the festive season of 1980-81. But it feels only right that ‘Imagine’ had this month on top of the UK singles charts, only to be replaced by…