588. ‘Let It Be’, by Ferry Aid

Uh-oh, charity single ahoy…!

Let It Be, by Ferry Aid

3 weeks, from 29th March – 19th April 1987

OK. That intro might have been slightly tasteless, especially given the disaster that prompted this latest charity chart-topper. On 6th March 1987, a passenger ferry left Zeebrugge in Belgium bound for Dover. The bow door, the one that lets cars drive on, was left open as the ship set off, and it capsized almost immediately. One hundred and ninety three people lost their lives.

Undoubtedly tragic. But the nautical analogy holds up, I think. You’re floating along through the mid-to-late eighties, when along comes a hulking iceberg of a record. Charity songs, with their casts of thousands, their cramming of different styles and voices into one, their overlong runtimes, really do knock the charts off course. And when the record in question is a cover of ‘Let It Be’, one of the world’s best-loved songs, by the world’s best-loved band, you can’t help but wince, no matter how worthy the cause.

But we must listen, and ponder. The best part of an charity ensemble singalong is seeing how many people you can identify. It kicks off with the song’s writer, Paul McCartney, doing his best chirpy Uncle Macca impersonation. Then there’s the still heroin-husky Boy George, carrying the first verse. There’s Andy Bell from Erasure. There’s someone who looks like Marti Pellow (it’s not…) There’s Mel & Kim, again! They (sort of) join the exclusive club of acts who have replaced themselves at #1. There’s Kim Wilde and Nik Kershaw. There’s Kate Bush, who purrs her way through a couple of lines, sounding like she’s been spliced on from a completely different recording. There’s Edwin Starr, of ‘War!’ fame.

There are two guitar solos, from Gary Moore, and Mark Knopfler. Moore’s in particular is pretty blistering, marking this out from the usual charity single fare. There are two guys – one with a bottle of beer, the other smoking a fag – who aren’t quite giving the occasion the respect it deserves. Turns out they’re one half of Curiosity Killed the Cat. This is the second best aspect of a charity single: flash in the pan acts immortalised by being in the right place at the right time. (Also present here is Taffy – no, me neither – who qualified for a line or two thanks to her recent #6 hit ‘I Love My Radio’.)

By the end it’s descended into a pub-singalong, as all charity singles must. I refer to Wikipedia, because it looks like there are at least five-hundred people in the throng, to find it’s actually a ‘Who’s Who’ of previous chart-topping acts: Bucks Fizz, Suzi Quatro, Alvin Stardust, Bonnie Tyler, Doctor and the Medics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The New Seekers. Alongside The Drifters… the actual Drifters??… Gloria Hunniford, and Anne Diamond. Of course. They all look far happier than they should, given that it was the deaths of almost two hundred people that brought them all together.

I haven’t commented much on the music, because what’s the point? Charity singles aren’t bought to be listened to. Before you press play, imagine what a cover version of ‘Let It Be’, recorded for charity, in the late-eighties, would sound like. I’ll bet you come pretty close. (Oh and don’t forget to throw in a completely incongruous, but brilliant, guitar solo.) It is what it is. We listen once, and we move on.

567. ‘Living Doll’, by Cliff Richard & The Young Ones ft. Hank Marvin

The newest addition to our chart-topping roster – the charity record – returns. But it has shapeshifted. Morphed into a form that will terrorise the charts from here until the end of time… The comedy charity record…

Living Doll, by Cliff Richard (his 11th of  fourteen #1s) & the Young Ones ft. Hank Marvin

3 weeks, from 23rd March – 13th April 1986

As with most charity records – which tend to be very rooted in their particular time and place – this needs a bit of explaining. ‘The Young Ones’ was a sitcom, about a group of flat-sharing undergraduate students of Scumbag College: Rick, an anarchist; Vyvyan, a psychopathic metalhead; Neil, a hippie; and Mike, the ‘cool’ one. The show’s theme tune was Cliff Richard & The Shadows’ 1962 #1 ‘The Young Ones’ and Rick, played by Rik Mayall, was a proud Cliff fan, despite his anarchist leanings. In-jokes on top of in-jokes…

This one isn’t on Spotify, which actually ends up being in the record’s favour – it works better as a video. As a song, it’s fairly unlistenable. Cliff does a straight, very soporific cover of his 1959 #1, while the four actors prat about over the top. Meanwhile, Hank Marvin emerges from behind a door to perform the solo.

It is undoubtedly hard to write a song that is as funny as it is catchy. And this is not how you do it… ‘The Young Ones’ is a funny programme, and Cliff is Cliff. But they’ve had to paint their anarchic humour in very broad strokes here. There are funny(ish) bits… At one point Vyvyan calls Cliff ‘Shaky’. And they call out the creepy ‘gonna lock her up in a trunk’ line: I still feel that locking girls in trunks is politically unsound… Well I feel sorry for the elephant… (groan)

It reminds me – and I’m not sure how I even remember this song – of ‘I See the Moon’, The Stargazers’ 1954 chart-topper. That also featured voice actors pratting about – in a very proper, pre-rock ‘n’ roll kind of way – over a well-known tune. It also reminds me of just about every other ‘comedy’ record to come: ‘Spirit in the Sky’, ‘Islands in the Stream’, ‘500 Miles’ will all be subjected to the same treatment in the years to come, and that’s just off the top of my head.

This was recorded for the very first Comic Relief (AKA Red Nose Day), a BBC charity telethon. Like Band Aid, it was set up in response to the famine in Ethiopia and has since gone on to raise 1.4 billion pounds for charity over the last thirty years. For all the musical chaos it has unleashed, it has undoubtedly done a lot of good for the world. Four minutes of Cliff, and Adrian Edmondson bashing everyone on the head with a mallet, is perhaps a small price to pay…

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556. ‘Dancing in the Street’, by David Bowie & Mick Jagger

At the end of my last post I promised you an all-star duet at #1. Well, has there ever been a more all-star duet atop the charts than this? It’s only David Bowie and Mick Jagger…

Dancing in the Street, by David Bowie (his 5th and final #1) & Mick Jagger (his only solo #1)

4 weeks, from 1st – 29th September 1985

I also promised that this wouldn’t be underwhelming. And this record may be many things, but underwhelming it is not. It starts with a giant whistle, the sort shepherds use to summon their dogs from three fields away, and a rollcall of cities and continents. OK! Toky-oh…! Jagger bellows. South Ameriiiiicaaaa…! Bowie replies.

It sets the tone for the entire song. Every dial here is set to eleven: the horns, the handclaps, the riff… But nothing more so than its two stars. This should have been listed as David Bowie Vs Mick Jagger, as they spend the entire three and a half minutes trying to outdo one another for sheer ridiculousness. It makes for a tremendously fun listen.

Bowie does his best, sounding all white soul on the they’ll be swinging, swaying, records playing line, and doing his best Noel Coward with on the streets of Brazil…  But Bowie, even David Bowie, cannot compete with Mick Jagger when he’s in the mood. The way he soars through just as long as you are there…, the way he makes Philadelphia PA sound like a sexual position, and the piece de resistance: his ridiculously aggressive Back! In! The! USSR! It’s good to hear his voice again, sixteen years on from the Stones’ last chart-topper. It’s great to hear him on such fine form.

The video is even more extra. The two middle aged men (Jagger was forty-two, Bowie thirty-eight) prance and flounce around like the campest of pantomime dames. At one point they appear on the verge of a proper smoochy kiss. Again Bowie tries his best, again he is blown away by the force of nature that is Sir Michael of Jagger. The boy was unplayable, as they say on Match of the Day. On YouTube some wag has made a music-less version of the video, and it is as hilarious/terrifying as you’d imagine. It is a completely random, and yet somehow perfect, way for both of these stars to bow out from the top of the charts. And this curio, this borderline novelty single, ends up being one of the biggest hits either man ever had…

But why? I hear you asking. Why now? Why ‘Dancing in the Street?’, which was originally a #4 for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas in 1969. Well, why did most records make #1 in 1985…? For charity, of course. It was for Live Aid, and therefore for those affected by famine in Africa, like Band Aid and USA for Africa before it. The pair were originally meant to perform the song via video-link during the Live Aid concerts, but that would have involved one of them miming to a backing track. Neither was willing to do that, so they went to Abbey Road studios and recorded it instead.

In many way this is the template for how to do a charity record. Don’t bother writing some overblown twaddle about how we’re all God’s children, don’t bother getting everyone from Bobby Davro to Engelbert Humperdinck in the same room… Just get two genuine icons of popular music singing along to a well-loved classic, having the time of their lives. Sadly, very few future charity records will actually take this advice. This is a decent pop record, but I think it might actually be the pinnacle of its particular genre: the greatest charity single of all time…

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551. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by The Crowd

It’s our third charity chart-topper in six months, after over thirty years of managing quite happily without them, and so I’m introducing a new template. For every charity single that features henceforth, I’ll first spend a paragraph detailing how terrible the tragedy that inspired it was. I’ll then spend several more paragraphs detailing how terrible the ensuing record is… Sounds good?

You’ll Never Walk Alone, by The Crowd

2 weeks, from 9th – 23rd June 1985

The serious bit, then. On 11th May 1985, at a Third Division match between Bradford City and Lincoln City, a fire broke out in the main stand of the home side’s Valley Parade stadium. A fan had dropped a cigarette butt through a hole in the floor, where it landed on a pile of litter. On a dry and windy day, the stand was engulfed with flames inside five minutes. Fifty-six people died, many horrifically burnt alive, while another two hundred and sixty five were injured.

Gerry Marsden, of Gerry & the Pacemakers fame, decided to make a record to raise money for the victims and their families, and settled on a cover of his band’s 1963 #1, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which was already a popular terrace song. He assembled a cast drawn from all corners of the British popular entertainment scene…

And the record sounds exactly as you’d expect. It is a large group of people singing along to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It’s not awful; it’s far from being particularly good. It’s karaoke, recorded solely to make money for a good cause. I’m sure Marsden’s heart was in the right place (and he wasn’t just bandwagon jumping his way back to relevance). The most interesting thing about it, by far, are the people involved. Band Aid was full of bright young things; USA for Africa was a ‘Who’s Who’ of American pop. The Crowd are, well, a crowd.

Let’s start with the musicians. There’s Gerry Marsden (becoming the first person to top the charts with the same song), there’s Jim Diamond, Kiki Dee, Denny Laine, Tony Christie and Rick Wakeman. There’s Rolf Harris… There’s Motorhead and The Nolans! (Any record that manages to feature both Motorhead and The Nolans cannot simply be dismissed…) There’s Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, John Entwhistle of The Who, and Frank Allen of The Searchers. There’s Black Lace!! And then there are the non-musicians… The DJ Dave Lee Travis, the boxer John Conteh, the comedian Keith Chegwin, certified national treasure Bruce Forsyth…

Frankly, there are too many to list properly. It is a mind-bender of a lineup, a walking pub quiz question of a number one… Some bloke called Paul McCartney is relegated to a spoken-word ‘B’-side (completely understandable when you’ve already booked Rolf Harris and Cheggers…)

The fact that this record gave a #1 single to so many different people makes me think it should be better remembered. Except, then I press play one more time and realise why this has been quietly forgotten. It’s neither good enough, nor bad enough, to linger very long. And, sadly, the Valley Parade fire would also be overshadowed by another disaster in a British football stadium before the decade was out… ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, meanwhile, has been back atop the charts fairly recently, still raising money for charity.

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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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543. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, by Band Aid

It’s Christmas time… Except, in the real world, we’re as far as possible from the festive season. Hey ho. We pass the midway point of the 1980s then, with the decade’s biggest-selling single. What was, for a time, the biggest-selling single ever. And one that ushers in a new era of popular music…

Do They Know It’s Christmas?, by Band Aid

5 weeks, from 9th December 1984 – 13th January 1985

First, a bit of background. Throughout 1984, news reports had been showing images of an ongoing famine in Ethiopia. Bob Geldof, of The Boomtown Rats, and Midge Ure, of Ultravox and before that Slik, were inspired to form a supergroup in order to record a single, the sales of which would raise money for the starving millions. The song was recorded in a single day, barely a fortnight before it made number one.

The word iconic is bandied around willy-nilly these days. But this is an iconic song. A lot of Brits can sing this word for word, will know what song it is the second those opening chimes come in… Each generation has had its version (we’re up to four now), but this is the original, the one that still gets (over)played each festive season.

It’s Christmas time, There’s no need to be afraid… Paul Young opens proceedings in suitably earnest fashion. In fact, this is a giant reunion of artists whom we’ve already met on this countdown: Geldof and Ure, Young… Next up is Boy George, followed by George Michael… Then I have to check the video as I’m not sure who the fourth voice we hear is (it’s Simon Le Bon, then Sting, then Tony Hadley… with Phil Collins on drums…)

Then it’s time for Bono, a man who is yet to feature on a #1. His time will come. He belts his line out like only Bono can do… Well tonight thank God it’s them, Instead of you…! It’s a line that gets a lot of stick, but I think it’s actually the one line that goes beyond patronising cliché: when you see starving, emaciated people with dead-eyed stares and flies crawling over them yes you feel deeply sorry for them, but there is a part of you that’s thankful. No way would you actually want to be there with them. It’s the next line that’s the dumbest: plenty of people before me have pointed out that yes, there will be snow in Africa at Christmas time, because Africa is the world’s largest continent, one that takes in a huge variety of environments and habitats.

Other people involved in Band Aid: the rest of Duran Duran, U2 and Spandau Ballet, as well as Status Quo, Bananarama, Kool and the Gang, Paul Weller, Heaven 17… The video feels very male-heavy, but the charts at this time were very male-heavy: the last British female singer to score a #1 was Bonnie Tyler almost two years ago. They all record their lines in big headphones and simple, understated clothes – even Boy George! – with weighty expressions on their faces (we’re not the story here…) setting the standard for charity single videos from here to eternity.

(The off-mic stories from the recording are much more rock ‘n’ roll, though. Boy George only made it after catching the last Concorde of the day from New York. Status Quo were too hungover to record any solo lines, and brought a large bag of cocaine to add to the festive atmosphere. George Michael called Paul Weller a ‘wanker’, after Weller accused him of voting for the Thatcher….)

Underneath the stars, there’s a chugging synth beat, and some Christmassy chimes. It’s a tune, especially in the soaring chorus, and there’s a reason why it still gets played today (though after repeated listens you can tell it was thrown together in a day…) And yes it’s patronising, yes it presents a very Westernised view of ‘Africa’ as if it were a country all by itself, and yes the words have been updated in the more recent versions. But, as Midge Ure bluntly put it, ‘it’s a song with nothing to do with music. Its sole purpose was to make money…’ And make money it did: eight million pounds within the year.

I skipped the ‘first of … #1s’ from the top of this post, as I’m really not sure if this is Band Aid’s 1st of four chart-toppers, or their one and only (some of the people on this will feature on the later versions…) Anyway, that’s my problem and we don’t need to go into it. What we do need to go into is the fact that this song came out on December 3rd, and by the end of the year it was already the best-selling single, ever. Its total sales currently stand at over 3.8 million. The following summer would see Live Aid, something that probably wouldn’t have happened had this record not been so successful.

In the intro I mentioned that ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ ushered in a new era at the top of the charts, and I was referring to the era of the charity single. Before this, the earnings of particular records had been donated to charity. But the idea of getting the biggest stars of the day together with the explicit goal of making money for charity started here, pretty much. Since 1984, there haven’t been many years go by without a charity chart-topper of one kind or another… for sick kids, for natural disasters, for Grenfell or the NHS… And, sadly, very few of them are anywhere near as enjoyable as this original…

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