561. ‘Saving All My Love for You’, by Whitney Houston

The second last chart-topper of 1985 (an eclectic year of decidedly mixed chart-topping vintage) introduces one of the most famous, most powerful voices in pop history.

Saving All My Love for You, by Whitney Houston (her 1st of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd December 1985

And it’s a pretty low-key entry for such a mighty voice. The intro is very of-its-time, soft, soft soul… Elevator-soul, I’m going to call it from now on, even though playing muzak in lifts hasn’t been a thing for many years. Houston’s voice also comes in very softly. A few stolen moments, Is all that we share…

Following on from Wham’s ode to spontaneous and anonymous (and possibly gay) sex, this record is keeping the illicit theme going. You’ve got your family, And they need you there… Whitney, the homewrecker, is having an affair with a married man! They’re making love the whole night through, while his children ask why daddy’s not home for dinner… Whitney’s mother, Cissy, was against her daughter recording such an immoral song, but to no avail.

Personally, I like the fact that she’s completely unrepentant. Her friends warn her off, she pines away lonely at home… But, she sings, no other man’s gonna do…. So I’m saving all my love for you… She doesn’t come across as very sorry about it at all. The way she slams her fist down on lines like For tonight, Is the night…! In the video, she’s having a great time at a club with her lover, as the wife serves side-eye from the balcony. (In the end, though, the couple re-unite while Whitney walks home alone. You wonder if this scene was thrown in last-minute, by a nervous record label…)

It’s very classy, and well-produced. I’m even enjoying the lounge-bar saxophone that’s crooning away in the background. I could complain about the slick-as-a-seal’s-arse eighties production, but by this point I’d just be shouting into a typhoon. It’s December 1985, things are glossy, and they’ll be staying that way for some time to come. It does feel like a slightly understated song to have been the breakthrough hit for a voice such as Houston’s, but there are moments where she shows what she’s capable of. The that’s just an old fantasy… line, for example, as well as some impressively long notes at the end of the choruses.

I may well be pining for this understated version of Whitney come her final, monster #1 (you know the one). Here she was just twenty-two, with a massively successful career ahead of her. It’s elegant, and very well sung: a grower not a show-er. In the US, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ was the first of seven chart-toppers in a row for her. While never quite as successful in Britain, she would be a big chart presence for the next twenty years. More to come very soon, then, from Miss Houston …

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558. ‘The Power of Love’, by Jennifer Rush

Gather round people, and listen. Listen, for this is how you do a power ballad…

The Power of Love, by Jennifer Rush (her 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 6th October – 10th November 1985

Start off slow. That would be the key to effective power balladry. Make the listener wait. ‘The Power of Love’ does exactly that. The first verse is just voice, and some shimmering synths which hint at the drama to come. The whispers in the morning, Of lovers sleeping tight… You can almost feel the curtains fluttering in the morning breeze, two lithe bodies immodestly covered by delicate muslin sheets…

Sorry, got a little carried away there. But this is pretty steamy stuff, to be fair. I hold on to your body, And feel each move you make… You wait for the song to explode, for the climax, so to speak. But it takes two verses and a chorus – two full minutes – for this song to move from plain old ballad, to a power ballad with a capital ‘P’.

It’s the drums. Oh baby, those enormous eighties drums. Doosh…! Doosh…! I first noticed them on Jim Diamond’s ‘I Should Have Known Better’, but those drums sound positively flimsy compared to these beasts. It’s Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound with shoulder pads, jacked up on cocaine. They make a truly ridiculous line – Cause I’m your lady, And you are my man… – work through their sheer beefiness.

After that moment , this becomes weapons-grade power balladry. The best line, the one that’s made for belting out in the shower, or at a drunken hen night, is We’re hea-ding for something… I’d say that this is the first modern power ballad #1. I’ve been watching their progress through the past couple of decades: Nilsson’s ‘Without You’, Streisand’s ‘Woman in Love’, Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’… all of them ballads, all of them powerful. ‘The Power of Love’, though, sets the template from now on.

Having said that, and having grown up in the 1990s, more used to the in your face, ten octaves in one line Queens of Power Balladry: Whitney, Mariah, and Celine (who famously covered ‘The Power of Love’, and took it to #1 in the States), Jennifer Rush sounds like she’s holding back a bit here. She’s not, though. Here voice is wonderful, and she invests what is a trite song with real emotion. The problem is that the Big Three have now ruined power ballads for everybody else with their belting and their melisma-ing.

I think I know why I enjoy this much more than 1985’s other fist-clenching classic ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’: because it’s sung by a woman. Songs like this somehow sound less ridiculous, or at least more enjoyably ridiculous, when a woman sings them. Imagine Michael Bolton singing this song, for example, and shudder… And it seems that the public agreed, in 1985 at least. ‘The Power of Love’ became the first ever million-selling single released by a female artist, and the ninth best-selling single of the decade.

Jennifer Rush isn’t quite a one-hit wonder, but this is far and away her biggest hit. It’s huge sales were partly helped by the fact its climb up the charts was as slow-burning as its intro. It took (I believe) a record fifteen weeks to make #1… Rush seems to be semi-retired these days, and has only released one album this century. Still, when you’ve put your name to the ultimate power ballad, you can afford to take a little time off…

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549. ‘Move Closer’, by Phyllis Nelson

We are deep, deep into the eighties now. As deep as we can go before we start to come out the other end… If I were to take this metaphor to a slightly terrifying level, I’d say we’ve passed through the decade’s throat and oesophagus, and are currently wallowing in some thick 1980s stomach juice…

Move Closer, by Phyllis Nelson (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 28th April – 5th May 1985

Although the intro to this next #1 is clanking, churning, production-line eighties, I do like how it hints back towards the girl-groups of the sixties, in the way the drum machine mimics some chickachick-asPhyllis Nelson’s voice too, when it comes in, sounds as if it’s from a different era. The spoken word intro is very retro: Hey baby, You go your way, And I’ll go mine, But in the meantime…

Then she starts to sing, and she’s got a great voice. It’s light, and floaty, quite Diana Ross-y, and quite at odds with the industrial production. But it works. When we’re together… she trills… Touchin’ each other… It’s steamy stuff, an ode to the physical side of a relationship, that culminates in the chorus: Move closer, Move your body real close to mine, ‘Til it feels like we’re really making love…

The windows grow even steamier when you find out that Nelson, who was in her mid-thirties when this record became a hit, wrote it about her relationship with a ‘much younger man’ (Wikipedia’s words, not mine…) I can’t find out exactly how ‘much younger’ the guy was, but still. We have a cougar anthem right here!

I like this, after three or four listens. It’s very ‘of its time’, but there’s something about the slow, deliberate rhythm and Nelson’s bird-like voice that draws you in. Makes you move closer, if you will. And I’m not the only one who has taken their time to appreciate this song – it had a very slow-burning climb to #1. In fact, 1985 has three of the longest-ever (at the time) climbs to top spot. I don’t know what that indicates, but it’s interesting.

‘Move Closer’ probably took its time to catch fire simply because Phyllis Nelson was a complete unknown. She had spent the previous decade recording soul and disco records that failed to chart anywhere, and so took it upon herself to write something herself. In doing so she became the first black woman to write her own number one hit. She’s a one-hit wonder, though – the closest she came to chart success after this was at #81 – and she sadly passed away at the tragically young age of forty-seven, in 1998.

It seems that Nelson and/or her record label didn’t expect much from this record, as there isn’t even a music video for the song (quite a rarity by the mid-80s). Somebody has at least taken the time to make a video of the original song playing over footage of Nelson on Top of the Pops, though, so enjoy that instead…

PS I tried to find a better picture of Phyllis to head this post, I really did…

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548. ‘We Are the World’, by USA for Africa

You wait thirty-odd years for a charity single, and then two come along in the space of four months…

We Are the World, by USA for Africa

2 weeks, from 14th – 28th April 1985

Trust the Americans, eh? They see a successful, popular original and, rather than just accept it, they have to remake it… Is ‘We Are the World’ to pop music what ‘The Office’ was to sitcoms, or ‘Ringu’ to horror movies? And in true American fashion, everything here is bigger than anything found on ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’: bigger production, bigger stars, a bigger song (literally… it’s over seven minutes long…)

Bigger, yes. But is it better? Well, no. From the minute the syrupy, faux-grandiose intro kicks in, you know what this is going to be. Seven long minutes of earnest, self-indulgent, do-gooding cheese. As with Band Aid, I try to identify as many voices as I can. Lionel Richie gets things underway, I can hear Stevie Wonder, and Kenny Rogers, and Michael Jackson on the chorus (he and Richie were the Geldof and Ure here in writing this behemoth, while Quincy Jones was on production duties). I can hear Diana Ross, and Cindi Lauper (who really goes for it). And Bob Dylan – this is the only time he’ll be appearing on a #1 single – and in true Bob Dylan fashion he sings his lines like your uncle obliviously singing along to something on his headphones… It’s true we make a better day, Just you and me… (it’s my personal highlight of the entire song, to be honest…)

I’m quite embarrassed by the voices I didn’t recognise, for this makes Band Aid look like a primary school assembly. George Michael? Bananarama? Pfft. They were clearly going for current acts, to attract the kids. USA for Africa is a ‘Who’s Who’ of American popular music, including Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, all the Jacksons, Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler and Harry Belafonte (whose idea this whole thing was, after he’d seen the success of Band Aid) among many others. There was a sign above the studio asking these superstars to ‘check their egos at the door’, while Stevie Wonder joked that if the recording wasn’t finished in time he and the equally blind Ray Charles would be driving everyone home. And yet. None of these names, or this admirable attitude, manage to make this a particularly enjoyable listen…

For a start, what are they singing about? This was recorded for the same reason as Band Aid – to raise money for those starving through the famine in Ethiopia – but where ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ has so many memorable lines (for better or worse) this has very few. We are the world, We are the children… sticks with you, as does the soaring It’s a choice we’re making, We’re saving our own lives… (which is the best line, for me, musically). The rest just float past in a sea of glossy blandness. What they’re really missing, I think, is Status Quo…

Some people think charity records should get a free pass. That because they’re raising money they can be as crap as they want, and it’s our duty to buy them anyway. I disagree, and will not be holding back as I rip into charity singles on this countdown. Starting with this one. Just because it’s for a good cause doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try to be a good song. Plus, there’s always the uncomfortable sight of wildly rich recording artists – who could have donated a million dollars without blinking – caterwauling on about us all being a part of God’s great big family…

Still, despite it being a bloated fart of a record, ‘We Are the World’ actually ranks towards the higher end of the charity song scale. It was written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, after all. And, as someone who has lived in Asia for many years, I can confirm that this is a much more widely-known song than ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, largely thanks to the MJ-factor. Plus, this ‘We Are the World’ is for any time of year, not just Christmas… I was going to add that, unlike Band Aid, USA for Africa hadn’t been re-attempted. Except it turns out that it has been: in 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, featuring the likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West, as well as Jackson’s original vocals. It made #2 in the US, but only #50 in the UK… There may well be a reason I’ve never knowingly heard it…

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545. ‘I Know Him So Well’, by Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson

More balladry, as we continue into 1985. This winter has been very heavy on the slow dances. The closest we’ve come to a toe-tapper was ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, which isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a floor-filler…

I Know Him So Well, by Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 3rd February – 3rd March 1985

Except this next #1, while very much a ballad, has at least got a sense of theatre to it. The intro uses an intriguing combination of plinky-plonky synths and a distant guitar, with a hint of ABBA at their most bombastic (more on that shortly…) Then in comes Elaine Paige. And the second she opens her mouth, you can tell that this song comes from a stage musical.

Nothing is so good it lasts eternally… It’s the diction, you know. Enunciating for the back rows. Proper singing. It’s from ‘Chess’, a musical about, um, chess. Or more accurately, an American and a Russian Grandmaster who compete over the chessboard, as well as for the love of a woman. Elaine Paige is Florence, the Russian Grandmaster’s lover, while Barbara Dickson is Svetlana, his unfortunate wife (in the video Dickson is wearing a luxuriously fluffy ushanka hat, to confirm her Russian-ness).

Why do I enjoy this more than the previous chart-topper: another blockbuster ballad, ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’? In that post, I complained about power-ballads which take themselves too seriously. Power-ballads are inherently ridiculous, and if an artist pretends they aren’t then they end up looking pretentious. And it’s not that Paige and Dickson are taking the piss here; they sing it beautifully. It’s more that any song that’s been wrenched from a musical and slapped on a 7” will sound a bit silly. In Act III of the show all the vocal gymnastics and power chords make perfect sense; as a single it’s very OTT.

The way the chorus comes striding in… Wasn’t it good…! is a brilliant moment, as is the change in octave for the More securi-teee…! line. While the way the two women intertwine their lines towards the end is how all power-duets should end. I can’t imagine that this was at all a cool #1 in the playgrounds of 1985, but who cares for cool? It also helps when your ballad is written by two of the finest pop songwriters of all time, Benny and Bjorn from ABBA, alongside Tim Rice. You can hear it in the little synth and guitar flourishes, and the chord progressions (it’s based on ‘I Am an A’, a song that the band played on tour in 1977 but never released).

Not only does ‘I Know Him So Well’ give us our umpteenth ballad in a row, it gives us our third Cold War chart-topper in the space of a year. The real world encroaching on the pop charts yet again… And before writing this post I had no idea I’d be able to link it with ‘Two Tribes’, but there you go!

Before we go, I have to reveal my most tenuous of connections to this disc. Barbara Dickson is Scotland’s most successful female chart act and, as far as I know, the only chart-topping artist to have attended my high school. While that was a good thirty years before I stepped through the hallowed doors, I can still feel the most tepid of reflected glows as I write this post. Anyway. Up next… Raise your glowsticks to the sky! It’s not a ballad!!

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544. ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner

1984 saw a battle take place at the top of the British charts. A tussle to the death between high energy pop and glossy ballads. The final score, I think, was Ballads 5 – 7 Bangers. Dancefloors across the nation rejoiced…

I Want to Know What Love Is, by Foreigner (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 13th January – 3rd February 1985

Except. The contest isn’t finished yet. 1985 kicks off with what is perhaps the ultimate soft-rock ballad… The steady drums, the background synths. A painfully earnest voice: I’ve gotta take a little time, A little time to think things over… And boy, do they take a little time. It’s so slow. What might be a chorus arrives, and dissolves back into the gloop as we plod on.

I think fist-clenchers like this (the video below literally opens on a clenched fist…) were ten-a-penny on top of the Billboard charts in the mid-eighties. That’s the impression I have, at least: REO Speedwagon, Boston, Peter Cetera, Mr Mister… All hits in the UK, to some extent, but not chart-toppers. Foreigner made it, though. Something about this one caught the British public’s imagination in the deep midwinter, as couples snuggled together around the fire…

The chorus, when it finally does arrive, a minute and a half in, is instantly recognisable. I want to know what love is… I want you to show me… It’s one that’s become ingrained in the popular conscience, which is usually a sign of classic status. But it just doesn’t do much for me. It’s too serious, too constipated… For power-ballads to work they need to be in on the joke, to an extent.

I don’t think that Foreigner had their tongues in their cheeks when they were recording this. By the second chorus, a gospel choir has been added to the mix, and lead-singer Lou Gramm is adding some (admittedly impressive) soulful adlibs. I think there might be a moment, a time in life, when a song like this clicks for you. I have yet to experience it, though.

As I wait for the song to reach its conclusion, some questions come unbidden to my mind. Did Foreigner have big hair…? (Yes, but not quite as big as it might have been. I think 1986/7 was peak poodle-perm) And who is the woman singing those wild backing vocals…? (Broadway star Jennifer Holliday – she’s the best thing about the song.)

‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ was Foreigner’s only #1, on either side of the Atlantic. They were regulars to the US Top 10 for at least ten years. In Britain, though, this was only their second, and final, Top 10 hit. ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ made #8. ‘Cold As Ice’ – a much better contender for their sole number one – only made #24…! As it is, 1985 carries on from where ’84 left: slow, steady and earnest. Up next in our ongoing game of ‘Ballad or Banger’… It’s another slow one…

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542. ‘The Power of Love’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Frankie Goes to Hollywood complete their hattrick of number ones, with a ballad out just in time for Christmas.

The Power of Love, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 3rd and final #1)

1 week, from 2nd – 9th December 1984

This one starts off very slow, very stately – gentle guitars and sparse piano – and completely out of sync with what’s gone before this year. ‘More is More’ has been the motto of 1984, with even the ballads being that little bit extra. This being Frankie though, there’s still a bit of weirdness amongst the calm… I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw, Keep the vampires from your door… whispers Holly Johnson over the intro.

It slowly builds, though, into a more dramatic, orchestral beast. Soaring strings come in after the first chorus, in which we are told to make love your goal… There are ominous synths, and even a jazz bar piano at one point. It grows into its OTT-ness, and ends up quite camp. Under it all, it’s a simple enough love song. Yes, there’s a lot of biblical imagery – tongues of fire and souls being purged – but the key line might just be the heartfelt I’m so in love with you… I’ve no idea who it’s about, but I believe he means it.

Was this Frankie Goes to Hollywood making a bid for granny-loving respectability, after the huge controversy around ‘Relax’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Two Tribes’? (I’m not the first person to point out that they went from sex, to war, to religion.) Well, the difference between this and their debut hit is remarkable. The video for ‘The Power of Love’ (directed by Godley & Creme of 10cc) is a straightforward re-telling of the Nativity, with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, making their way to the stable in Bethlehem. And no, the baby Jesus is not kitted out in bondage gear. But the sheer straight-facedness of it is actually what makes this record quirky enough for us not to shout ‘sell-out’.

At the same time, I can’t enjoy this as much as the band’s earlier, genuinely thrilling, chart-toppers. That’s to do with my personal tastes – ballads always have to try that little bit harder to crack my resistance – but also because this one goes on a bit, and has one chorus too many. It veers a little too close to self-indulgence.

But it made #1, and with it Frankie Goes to Hollywood became only the second act in chart history to have their first three releases reach the top. They did so twenty one years after another Liverpudlian act: Gerry & The Pacemakers. Their fourth single, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, would make #2, but when they came back with their second album in 1986 the magic seemed to have faded. It produced just one Top 10 hit, and the band split the following year.

They didn’t last long, but the hits live on. All their #1s have re-charted in the Top 20 at various points in the decades since. ‘The Power of Love’, in fact, has returned to the Top 10 twice, in 1993 and 2000, as well as a cover version #1 in 2012. And before we go, it’s worth noting that releasing songs called ‘The Power of Love’ was something of a trend in the mid-eighties. This one, Huey Lewis’s, and another, mega-ballad that we’ll be featuring on this countdown soon enough…

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541. ‘I Should Have Known Better’, by Jim Diamond

On with the next thirty, and in 1984’s ongoing battle between ballads and bangers it’s another… ballad. I make that Bangers 6-5 Ballads.

I Should Have Known Better, by Jim Diamond (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 25th November – 2nd December 1984

I confess that the only thing I know about Jim Diamond is that he was Scottish. We Scots are brought up to know two things off by heart: our brave football defeats, and the singers that have represented our tiny country in charts around the world. There are actual compilation CDs with titles like ‘The Best Scottish Album… Ever!’, which stick The Bay City Rollers next to Jimmy Shand, but it’s not weird because they’re all SCOTTISH! (as if it was a musical genre to squeeze in between ‘samba’ and ‘ska…)

Anyway… All I knew about Jim Diamond is that he was Scottish and he had a surprise #1 in 1984, sandwiched among all the Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. A plucky #1. (Any Scottish successes, in sport, or music, or film, must be described as ‘plucky’. It’s a rule.) So it’s nice to finally put a song to the name. And it’s… not bad?

Diamond has a distinctive voice. It’s a good, white-soul voice, but the way he pronounces his vowels is odd… I shooda knohwn baytah… The song starts off nicely enough: standard mid-eighties balladry. I shoulda known better… To lie to one as beautiful as you… He regrets lying to his girlfriend mainly, it seems, because she was hot. Lying to ugly girls is, as we all know, okay. I can see what he’s going for, but it lacks depth. It’s a bit lightweight.

Then halfway through things get simultaneously better, and worse. Some huge drums come slamming in – this might be the first chart-topping example of those huge drums that just scream ‘1985!’ – and Diamond goes for it. Aiyayayayayayay… lo-ove yo-ou! Guitars soar. Fists are clenched. Chests are thumped. This common or garden ballad has become a power ballad.

But still it lacks something. Whether it’s in Diamond’s voice, which struggles the further this song moves from soul into rock, or in the production, which never goes as huge as, say, ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. That’s probably the reason why this record hasn’t taken its place in the pantheon of eighties ballads, and why this feels like a forgotten #1 in between 1984’s other enormous hits.

Still, I do quite like it, and am glad to have discovered it. It sounds like a great one to belt out after a few drinks (which, at the end of the day, may be the one unifying quality every Scottish song has). Jim Diamond’s career makes for interesting reading. He’d been active in the music industry since the late sixties, had been in a band with a future member of AC/DC, and had fronted a Japanese act (??) called BACCO, before finding fame as lead singer of new-wave band PhD. They had one big hit, and then Diamond went solo.

He’s not quite a one-hit wonder, as he would score a #5 a couple of years after his only number one. Diamond continued to record and perform up until his sudden death in 2015, aged just sixty-four. He will also feature, uncredited, on a couple of charity singles still to come. Sadly not, though, on the big one that’s on its way very soon…

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538. ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’, Stevie Wonder

And so we reach the last of 1984’s colossal ballads. ‘Hello’, ‘Careless Whisper’, now this. Fifteen weeks at #1 shared between them. And can I admit, straight off the bat, that this is my favourite of the three…?

I Just Called to Say I Love You, by Stevie Wonder (his 2nd of two #1s)

6 weeks, from 2nd September – 14th October 1984

Yes, yes, yes. It is fashionable – and quite correct – to scoff at this silly little song for being THE Stevie Wonder’s only solo chart-topper. No ‘Superstition’ (a #11), no ‘Sir Duke’ or ‘Master Blaster’ (both #2s)… Only ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’. And while it’s not anywhere near Wonder’s best work, there’s a charm to it.

It’s a lullaby of a song. And I don’t mean that it’s dull, like ‘Hello’; I mean there’s something in its strangely reggae-ish rhythm that just chills you out. Plus, it’s an easy song to remember, and to sing. It’s a song a mother might sing to their baby, or that a dorky boy might sing down the phone to his crush. It’s cute. It’s not Valentine’s Day, or New Year’s, or the 1st of spring (??)… Stevie’s just calling to say he loves you. (In fairness, some cynics have argued that if a man unexpectedly ‘just calls to say he loves you’, then he must just have done something fairly shitty…)

That’s not to say there isn’t quite a lot wrong with this song, though. The production is cheap and tacky – the drum machine is pure karaoke backing track. Then there are the key changes, which start early, on the second chorus, and just keep coming (to be fair, they are so cheesy I can help enjoying them). And then there are the three rinky-dink notes that it ends on, possibly the laziest ever ending to a number one single.

But I do like the ‘second’ melody – the higher, synth line that compliments the chorus. And if it were a little faster, and the production better, this could be a great song. Seriously. As it is, I like it a lot more than ‘Hello’ and, while I admire ‘Careless Whisper’, ‘I Just Called…’ is a simple love song, simply told. And that’s nice. At least it slightly redeems Stevie Wonder’s UK chart-topping career, after ‘Ebony and Ivory’

I’ve lived abroad for a lot of my life, in non-English speaking places, and I can confirm that this song is universal. ‘Top of the World’ by The Carpenters, ‘My Heart Will Go On’, this. And you can see why… Aside from the blatant sentimentality, which other cultures don’t seem to mind as much, the lyrics are slow and simple, and you can make them out clearly. As I’ve mentioned in posts before, that was a big bug-bear of my late Gran’s: pop singers you couldn’t make out. I never had time to ask, but I’ll bet she approved of this one.

Before we go, it’s worth noting how long songs are staying on top of the charts at the moment. In the last twelve months, we’ve had three 5-weekers, three 6-weekers, and a jumbo 9-weeker. There hasn’t been a one-week #1 for a year and a half. Not sure what this means, if anything, but it’s interesting. What’s also interesting (and slightly depressing) is that this is Motown’s biggest-selling record of all time in Britain. It’s a colossus and, yes, I do kind of love it…

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537. ‘Careless Whisper’, by George Michael

We’ve had a famous chart-topper earlier this year that was obsessed with sex. Here, we have a number one that is all about sax.

Careless Whisper, by George Michael (his 1st of seven solo #1s)

3 weeks, from 12th August – 2nd September 1984

Can I just admit right now that ‘Careless Whisper’ has always left me feeling a little… icky? It’s the epitome of mid-eighties slickness: glossy, shimmering, and very heavy on the saxophone. But it’s an important record. Not only is it the first solo #1 for one of Britain’s biggest ever stars, but it set the template for boyband members looking to break away from their group, from Robbie Williams to Harry Styles.

I didn’t appreciate how early George Michael’s solo career began – just a few weeks ago Wham! were scoring their own first #1 – or how confidently he launched into it. This does not sound like the early fumblings of a boyband star going solo; this is a supremely well-made pop ballad. And, amazingly, he wasn’t even twenty when he and Andrew Ridgeley wrote it… His maturity and attention to detail can be found in the fact that he went through nine saxophonists before finding one who could play the famous riff to his liking.

I will not deny how well made this record is. And there are bits I can appreciate. The sax, for a start. This has to be the most famous use of the instrument on a pop single, alongside ‘Baker Street’, and the solo from ‘True’. And the chorus is timeless: I’m never gonna dance again, Guilty feet have got no rhythm… Both this and Wham’s earlier #1 have centred around dancing: on missing out on it, and now on being unable to do it through guilt…

Towards the end, as George is belting out that we could have been so good together… there is a real confidence on show. It’s a song that takes its time, that fills its five-minute runtime at a stately pace. It’s also an interesting lyric: Time can never mend, The careless whispers of a good friend… It’s a classic of late-night ‘love song’ hours on commercial radio, but it’s clearly a break up song… Now who’s gonna dance with me…? Is it also possible, knowing now what we do, that it’s about George hurting a girl thanks to him being gay…?

The video is everything you want from a mid-eighties ballad: soft-focus, gorgeous hair, pointless but moody ropes hanging from the ceiling, sexy yachts, a Princess Diana lookalike love-interest… But the fact that this record is so precisely of its time is what ultimately hurts it in my eyes. Give me the fun, retro stylings of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ over this.

I mentioned that this was the launch of George Michael’s solo career, when in actual fact it’s something of a false start. His next solo record will not be for another couple of years, when Wham! were indeed coming to an end. In fact, in the US ‘Careless Whisper’ reached #1 as a Wham! single. George Michael clearly wasn’t yet enough of a name to carry a record over there. That would change though, and quickly.

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