533. ‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie

And so the promising start that 1984 had made comes to a crashing halt. Actually, no. ‘Crashing’ makes this sound way more exciting than it is. ‘Shuddering’? Still a bit too dramatic. A whimpering halt….? Yes, that’s it.

Hello, by Lionel Richie (his 1st and only solo #1)

6 weeks, from 18th March – 29th April 1984

‘Hello’ is a dull record. The lyrics are trite… Let me start by saying, I love you…. and Sometimes I feel that my heart will overflow… The pace is that of a glacier. Lionel Richie’s voice, while technically decent, is bland. After two records that showed how fun the 1980s could be – ‘Relax’ and ’99 Red Balloons’ – it’s dross like this that gives the decade a bad name.

It’s not that dull ballads were invented in the 1980s. The fifties, for example, was stuffed to the brim with them. But the production here, the glossy soft-soul gloop oozing from this record’s grooves, is prime mid-eighties. And it doesn’t enhance… There’s a soppy organ, a soppy piano, a soppy brass section. There are some weird swirling synths, which are as close as the music gets to being interesting. And then there’s an insipid acoustic Spanish guitar solo that really tries the patience.

Having never actually listened to this snooze-fest through choice before today, I was expecting a more OTT power-ballad element to it. You know: bad, but ridiculous. Except that’s just the video… In it, Richie plays a drama teacher with the unfortunate habit of creeping around behind one of his female students. Who just happens to be blind. He finally plucks up the courage to call her – the way he sings Hello! Is it me you’re looking for…? down the phone is actually hilarious – and she displays her love by making a truly monstrous clay model of his head.

Play ‘Hello’ away from the video, however, and you lose all this silliness. It is a truly boring experience. It’s only four minutes long, but it feels like twice that. I named Richie’s previous #1 – ‘Three Times a Lady’, with the Commodores – as a ‘Meh’ chart-topper, but this one takes ‘Meh’ to new levels. Why this was top of the charts for six weeks, and why it has since become an eighties pop culture cornerstone, is beyond me.

I have to admit that even his more upbeat hits of the mid-‘80s, the likes of ‘All Night Along’ and ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’, leave me feeling cold. Lionel Richie is, for whatever reason, an artist I don’t connect with. Too slick? Too glossy? Soulless soul? Maybe. Either way, for now I’m reminded why this decade will, at times, be a slog.

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532. ’99 Red Balloons’, by Nena

A couple of posts ago, I was a bit down on 1984. Before it had even started, I was pooh-poohing the idea that it was all that great of a year. But… with this next chart-topper following on from the assault to all five senses that is ‘Relax’, maybe 1984 wasn’t such a bad year after all.

99 Red Balloons, by Nena (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th February – 18th March 1984

Not that I’m going to start claiming it as the best year ever – not yet anyway – but this is another great slice of synth-pop. The slow-building intro is quite similar to ‘Relax’, and it forms the background to a story of two people in a toy shop, buying a bag of red balloons… Set them free at the break of dawn, ‘Til one by one, They were gone…

And then the beat drops – one of the great beat ‘drops’, from before beat ‘drops’ were a thing – and we have an incredibly catchy, cheese-funk synth riff. And guitars! Punk rock guitars. Forget synth-pop; it’s synth-rock. It feels like an age since we’ve had actual guitars at #1, and they drive the song along through its story of nuclear armageddon. Ninety-nine red balloons, Floating in the summer sky…

The authorities see these innocent balloons and panic. This is what we’ve waited for, This is it boys, This is war… You don’t need a degree in 20th Century history to work out what concerns this record is tapping into. The Cold War was at its height: it’s still February, and this isn’t even the first chart-topper of the year to reference war. It won’t be the last either… Incidentally, the inspiration for the song was said to have come when the band went to a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, and watched balloons released on stage floating towards the Wall.

Nena were themselves from West Germany – ‘Nena’ being both the name of the band and of the lead singer, in a shades of Blondie. In fact, Britain was one of the few countries where the hit version of ’99 Red Balloons’ was in English. Across Europe and Australia, even in the US, the German original soared to the upper reaches of the charts. I do like Nena’s German-accented English, especially in the worry, worry, super scurry line, though there’s a forcefulness to the German version that probably comes from her being more confident singing in her native tongue (the drums are also heavier in the original, which is another pro).

In the end we’re left with something stark, both musically and lyrically. The driving beat and catchy riff vanish, leaving the echoey synths. It’s all over and I’m standing pretty, In this dust that was a city… The singer finds one last balloon. I think of you and let it go… It’s a powerful ending from a song that sometimes gets written off as a novelty (I was thinking the same before listening to it properly a few days ago…)

Nena (the band) had a few more years of success in Germany, but struggled to score many more hits in English-speaking countries. They split up in 1987, though Nena (the singer) has continued to record, and sometimes collaborates with her former bandmates. And so. I am left to reassess my opinions on 1984, and on synth pop in general. Except, oh dear…. Our next number one will go some way to proving why this year wasn’t so great after all…

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531. ‘Relax’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Heresss Frankie! In a way, I dread coming across (filthy pun very much intended…) #1 records like this. Huge megalithic-hits that have had everything written about them, and then some. But we gotta cover them all, so…

Relax, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 1st of three #1s)

5 weeks, from 22nd January – 26th February 1984

That’s not to say I dislike this record. Far from it: this is almost the perfect number one. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, it’s a real cultural moment… and it pissed off all the right people. In fact, that first bit – ‘Relax’s catchiness – is the one aspect of this song that possibly gets overlooked.

Let’s do the music first, then. An ominous intro floats in – I’ve always wondered what is being sung here (it’s M-i-ine, Give it to me one time now…) – before giving way to some grinding synths. I’ve been a bit down on synthesisers at times in this blog, but these are great. These are played like guitars, and could flatten a skyscraper. Apparently, singer Holly Johnson was the only band member to feature on the recording. Producer Trevor Horn – last heard on another synth-pop classic ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ – took complete control of what was a jingly demo, and created a monster.

A monster that demands to be played loud. This is no shrinking violet of a song. It’s all out there, slapping you about the face… Which brings us on to the lyrics. Everyone knows what this one’s about… Relax, Don’t do it, When you wanna suck it to it… (there’s some debate about those lyrics, but the band have apparently confirmed them) When you wanna… Come! For reasons of public decency, I will be spelling it as ‘come’ throughout, when we all know it should be… Anyway. Question is, did anyone ever think ‘Relax’ was about anything else? The band half-heartedly claimed it was about ‘motivation’ when the song was first released, but by the time the album came out bassist Mark O’Toole confessed it “really was about shagging.”

And not just any old shagging. The video sees singer Holly Johnson entering a gay bar in his sensible work suit, and after three minutes of face-spitting, banana-licking, tiger-fighting, and cage-wrestling, he ends up straddling a writhing mass of bodies… and that’s just the edited version. Meanwhile, a Roman emperor unleashes a torrent of piss from the balcony (putting the ‘number one’ in number one single…) on the biggest Come! of the song, complete with a super-soaker sound effect. It’s gloriously tasteless, clearly designed to get a reaction. And get a reaction it did…

Two weeks before ‘Relax’ made top spot, the BBC had banned it from being played before 9pm. Radio 1 DJ Mike Read even pulled it off (the record, that is…!) live on air, in apparent disgust. For the five weeks that it was #1, ‘Top of the Pops’ showed nothing but a picture of the band. MTV followed suit. You can kind of see why – even today the video raises an eyebrow – but at the same time would this record have been as huge if they’d just played it without blinking? Maybe not.

But the band new what they were doing. Two of the members were out and proud, and the song’s promo played on this with gay abandon. One ad saw keyboardist Paul Rutherford dressed a sailor, alongside the phrase “All the nice boys love sea men.” The record sleeve, above, which Mike Read took such exception too, features a man and a woman in a little bit of leather and not much else. If you’re of a negative disposition, you could argue that all this represents the worst of the 1980s, a triumph of image and promotion over substance. But… pop music has never just been about the music. Even before Elvis wiggled those hips, pop and sex have been inextricably linked. ‘Relax’ was just the latest update on the theme. Sadly, as we know all to well, this didn’t herald a sea-change in British attitudes towards homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was just around the corner, and Section 28 would be in place by the end of the decade. Yet for the five weeks that this was #1, it must have felt like quite the moment.

It all ends in a cresecendo, and one final, bellowed Come! Then we all slink off to the bathroom to hose ourselves down… 1984 truly will be Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s year. Three chart-toppers with their first three releases (the first act to do this since fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & The Pacemakers), and fifteen weeks at number one. Two of the biggest-selling hits of all time. And their very own t-shirt. Is ‘Frankie Say…’ the most famous rock logo, aside perhaps from the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue? Possibly. So, much more to come from Frankie, then, before long. Though it is worth saying that, of their three #1s, this is my favourite. Everything that was great and gaudy about the mid-1980s wrapped up in a four-minute mini masterpiece.

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530. ‘Pipes of Peace’, by Paul McCartney

Recently, I’ve seen a couple of articles that have claimed 1984 as the best year ever for pop music. Ever. On the one hand I get it: Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Springsteen… MTV hitting its stride. Fashion choices that remain ingrained on our collective conscience. On the other hand, looking down my list of #1s, none of these artists will be bothering top spot in the UK during this hallowed year. Instead, we start with an ex-Beatle, with the only truly solo chart-topper of his long career…

Pipes of Peace, by Paul McCartney (his 2nd of three solo #1s)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd January 1984

And to be honest, I’m expecting something truly horrendous here. Still scarred from Macca’s first ‘solo’ chart-topper, ‘Ebony & Ivory’, I see the word ‘pipes’ in the title, and am imagining more bagpipes a la ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or even, shudder, pan-pipes… But actually, no. It’s quite nice. After a strange intro, that sounds like a rusty orchestra tuning up, we glide into a gentle, late-Beatlesy melody. This could have slipped quite easily onto Side 3 of ‘The White Album’ (it was produced by George Martin, too).

Even the earnest message… All round the world, Little children being born to the world, Got to give them all we can… doesn’t grate like it did in E&I. Paul, as ever, just wants us to all get along. Help them to learn, Songs of joy, Instead of burn baby burn… (Either that, or it’s an anti-disco message…?) And it ends in a nice a cappella section which, following on from the Flying Pickets, makes this truly the sound of the season.

It’s not perfect. There are some weird synthy touches that border on cartoonish sound-effects. And there’s a disjointed feel to this song, as if it’s a gathering of ideas rather than a finished version. On the whole, though, it’s a pleasant enough start to the year. It was clearly going for the Christmas market, even if it couldn’t dislodge the Pickets until long after the decorations had come down. Still, peace is for life, not just for Christmas…

The video is set in the trenches of World War I, in which Paul plays both a British and a German soldier who meet during the famous (and possibly apocryphal) Christmas Day truce of 1914. They exchange photos of their sweethearts back home as soldiers play a game of football around them. Again, it’s quite nice. And again, as with ‘Ebony & Ivory’, you can just about make out John Lennon scoffing from beyond the grave…

I’d say that this keeps our run of retro number ones going – just the fact that it’s by Paul McCartney is already pretty retro for 1984 – but that is all about to end. Up next, we have one of the most aggressively ‘eighties’-sounding chart-toppers of the entire decade. And if you have some pearls handy, now might be the time to start clutching them…

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