Appearing on a 3rd Xmas #1 in a row, and going full in on the nu-folk sound of the time: the one, the only, Sir Clifford of Richard.
Saviour’s Day, by Cliff Richard (his 13th of fourteen #1s)
1 week, from 23rd – 30th December 1990
It’s a Christmas tune, and yet it’s not really. No references to decking the halls or Santa Claus here, and not a sleigh bell in sight. I mentioned that, two years ago, despite ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ being unashamedly religious in tone, Cliff still kept the little secular touches that people expect from a festive chart hit. For ‘Saviour’s Day’, though, he’s gone full-on Christian contemporary.
Open your eyes on Saviour’s Day, Don’t look back or turn away… It’s proper judgement day stuff – some hardcore preaching. Life can be yours if you’ll only stay… Songs like this are usually tucked away on a niche Christian chart, so that regular people don’t have to hear them. But, because Cliff is the biggest solo star this island has ever produced (a bold statement, but I’m sticking to it!) he manages to take it to number one.
However actually, by the end, I’m pretty sure he’s toasting several different gods: the God of the Present, the God of the Past… Maybe he was going all Dickensian – rather than for a pagan, Earth-mother sort of vibe – but I’m not sure the Bible allows that kind of blasphemy. Though maybe God himself would think twice before disagreeing with Cliff.
I was expecting to dislike this. And there are certainly aspects of it that I can’t get behind. The lyrics, for a start. The electronic pan-pipes are also an acquired taste, while there are some horrible synth flourishes that make my hair stand on end. Plus, the video is ridiculously cheesy (or is that cheesily ridiculous?), featuring Cliff striking messianic poses on the chalk cliffs of Dorset. And yet, ‘Saviour’s Day’ has a corker of a chorus. And people who know much more about song writing than I do really rate it.
It’s probably better than ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ – though that too has a tacky charm – and it’s certainly better than Cliff’s fourteenth and final number one. (Thankfully we have some way to go before we meet that one.) What’s not up for debate is that this record gave him a chart-topper in every decade that the UK singles chart had been in existence: two in the fifties, seven in the sixties, one in the seventies, two in the eighties, and now one in nineties (plus one to come). It’s a feat that has never been matched, and perhaps never will.
And so we reach the end of the 1980s. And, in some ways, the decade’s final number one single is quite perfect.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?, by Band Aid II
3 weeks, from 17th December 1989 – 7th January 1990
It’s a charity single, for a start, a ‘genre’ that has dominated the charts since the middle of the eighties. It’s a cover, of course, of the charity single, the one that kicked the whole trend off. Plus, it was produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman, giving the trio their seventh #1 of the year. But beyond the good cause, and the production team, the tag ‘perfect’ quickly wears thin.
There’s a reason why none of the three subsequent Band Aids have ever been much played after their original chart runs; while the first is seen as a classic, a perennial returnee to the charts every Christmas. There’s a novelty factor each time, and the urge for people to be seen to be doing something for charity, that means a new Band Aid single will always chart highly. But beyond that initial burst of enthusiasm, there’s always the slow realisation that the new versions simply aren’t as good.
Here, we swap Bono, Boy George, Sting and Paul Young for a considerably younger crowd. Kylie is on opening line duties, followed by Chris Rea and Jimmy Somerville. We meet Jason Donovan, Sonia, Lisa Stansfield, Bros and Wet Wet Wet again, after their recent chart-topping successes. The only singers to reprise their roles from 1984 are two-thirds of Bananarama (Siobhan Fahey having left the year before). To be honest, I struggled to recognise many voices without watching the video, which isn’t a problem you have with the original. One voice stands out above the rest, though: Sir Cliff, who makes it two Xmas #1s in a row (and who will, without wanting to give too much away, soon be making it three).
The production is muted and respectful by SAW’s usual standards, which was probably to be expected. The video is standard: Michael Buerk reporting from Ethiopia, horrifying images of malnutritional babies spliced with footage of Marti Pellow and Matt Goss goofing about. We’ll leave Band Aid II to play out here, bringing the 1980s to a close, and instead muse on the final year of the decade.
1989 has been, I’m going to stick my neck out here, a game-changing year. It’s set the template for modern pop music, in various ways. Firstly, on a purely technical level, songs have started to enter regularly at #1. They’ll continue to do so throughout the 1990s, speeding up the turnover of chart-toppers. As well as that, we’ve had the first ‘modern’ dance #1 from Black Box, from which almost every subsequent dance smash can be traced. We’ve met the first ‘modern’ boy band too, in New Kids on the Block.
Meanwhile, rock music is no longer the force that it has been since the late ‘50s. Rock groups will still make #1, as U2 and Simple Minds have recently done, but often for one week only, thanks to fanbase support rather than genuine cultural heft. And finally, Madonna has defined the ‘modern’ female pop star, and the pop comeback (and comeback video) as a massive event that every pop star since 1989 has tried to mimic.
Next up, we’ll be embarking on the 1990s – the decade in which I came of age, among Britpop, dance, the Spice Girls and boy-bands. I’m looking forward to reliving it. But, you could argue that the nineties began a year earlier, in the final year of the decade that taste forgot…
I am writing this post on January 25th, possibly the least Christmassy date in the entire calendar. The whole shebang just came and went a month ago, with any right-minded human needing a good long detox from festive music…
Mistletoe and Wine, by Cliff Richard (his 12th of fourteen #1s)
4 weeks, from 4th December 1988 – 1st January 1989
Though, let’s be honest, is there ever a good time for listening to ‘Mistletoe and Wine’? Even if this were Christmas Eve, it’s not a song I’d ever rush to write a glowing blog post about. Yet it crops up, year in, year out: in shops, on music channels, buried away on Christmas playlists.
Cliff is probably Britain’s best-known Christian, well him and the big Archbishop of C, so of course his Christmas songs have to go deeper than just singing about Santa, presents and snow falling all around us. (He does sing about those things in ‘Mistletoe and Wine’, presumably because he still wanted people to buy the record; he just mixes a bit of sermonising in with it.) A time for living, A time for believing, A time for trusting, Not for deceiving… Ours for the taking, Just follow the master… Meanwhile, the way he pronounces ‘Christian’ in the chorus, with that extra vowel, has always gotten on my nerves.
Watching the video for ‘Mistletoe and Wine’, which begins with Sir Cliff peeking into a sleeping child’s bedroom, you could be forgiven for thinking that he himself is the aforementioned ‘master’, not the man upstairs. The way he conducts his carollers, swaying around as if in raptures, arms outstretched in a messianic pose… It’s ridiculous. Not to mention ridiculously camp.
But… There is something cheesily charming buried within, especially the moment it swells towards the final chorus, and a choirboy comes in with snatches of ‘Silent Night’. There’s an ‘all together now’ music hall feel to it. Most Christmas music is ultimately quite naff, and yet we love it. This record is certainly one of the naffest, and yet it is well loved. And to give him his dues, Cliff was several decades ahead of Mariah and Bublé in setting himself up as a Christmas fixture when the regular hits began to dry up.
As late as the early-eighties he was still scoring respectable pop hits, but this feels like the moment he lost his grip. He was, to be fair, almost fifty when it was released, and how many fifty years old pop stars are still able to have big hits? But from here on in, Cliff seems to have been playing to the gallery, giving the middle-aged ladies what they wanted, with no attempt to keep current. This would be a great place to sign off on Cliff, sending him to a well-earned retirement of gospel songs and old rock ‘n’ roll covers. But no… He still has two further festive #1s to come. And by the time we’re done with them, you’ll be begging for ‘Mistletoe and Wine’…
The Christmas #1 record for 1987 wasn’t a novelty, a charity record, or a song about snow and sleighbells. (Thank God.) It was simply the biggest pop act in the country, the freshly-crowned winners of my most recent ‘Very Best Chart Topper’, at the height of their powers, covering a classic.
Always on My Mind, by Pet Shop Boys (their 3rd of four #1s)
4 weeks, from 13th December 1987 – 10th January 1988
Not just ‘covering’ a classic. More grabbing a classic by the scruff of the neck, dressing it up in glitter and lycra, and shoving it onto the dancefloor. Cover versions work best when they take a song away from its usual environs, and this take on what was originally a hit for Elvis Presley certainly does that. From soaring balladry, to pounding Hi-NRG disco…
Great cover versions are also almost always of great originals. The shift in tones, in styles and in genres brings out different shades of meaning, different ways of appreciating the song, but at heart they remain very good in whatever dressing a band hangs on them. Elvis’s version is slick seventies bombast, made for belting out at his Vegas residencies; and the Pet Shop Boys’ take keeps the song’s humungous presence, swapping lush orchestration for thumping synths, while Neil Tennant’s detached performance of the heartfelt vocals adds an almost comic element.
Do they also change the words? The Elvis version is quite clearly: Maybe I didn’t love you, Quite as often as I could have… Whereas PSBs seem to be singing Quite as often, As I couldn’t… I just be mishearing it, but if they are changed they add a different meaning to the song, and it’s not quite as apologetic.
‘Always on My Mind’ has also been covered by Willie Nelson, as a country ballad, having first been recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. Elvis’s version, though, was the first to become a hit and so feels like the original. Pet Shop Boys first performed their take for an ITV special on the tenth anniversary of Presley’s death, and it was so well received that they released it as a single a few months later. And as Pet Shop Boys singles go, it’s pretty straightforward. There’s nothing particularly clever, or knowing: it’s just an all-out dancefloor banger – one of those songs that pretty much commands you to get up and start making shapes.
What is the name of that pre-set, synthesised chord – the one that sounds like a dog barking, but compressed? It’s a sound that’s synonymous with the late-eighties and early-nineties, to me, and the Boys use it liberally here. It works, but also completely dates the song. Never mind, though. It was the perfect Christmas hit: both a fun pop tune from two huge chart stars, and a song that mums and grans up and down the land knew too. A smash for all the family! And that’s that as far as 1987’s concerned. Never fear, though. The pop classics keep on coming. Stay tuned…
Luckily for us, though, while the appearance of ‘Reet Petite’ at Christmas #1 is clearly a novelty, this isn’t a saccharine twee-fest, or a misguided attempt at humour. Rather it’s simply a stonking, barnstorming, a-whooping and a-hollering classic re-release. It’s got nothing to do with Christmas, nothing to do with peace, love, or the blessed infant; it’s simply an ode to an ‘A’-grade hottie…
She’s so fine, fine, fine, So fine, fa-fa-fa fine… yelps Wilson… She’s alright, She’s got just what it takes… She fills her clothes, from head to toes, as well as being a tutti frutti and a bathing beauty. I don’t know about you, but I’m imagining a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. While the lyrics may be largely nonsensical, and often just exclamations stitched together into pidgin sentences, Wilson sells them with his trademark energy.
Is it a bit much? Maybe. Does it verge on gimmicky when he rolls his ‘r’s on the title line? Perhaps. But who cares when it’s just so darn exuberant, when it’s bursting at the seams with such fun. Wilson competes with the brassy horns, that are just as much the lead instrument as his voice is, and that constantly threaten to outdo him while never quite managing.
So, ‘Reet Petite’ is a great song, and a welcome addition to the Christmas Number One pantheon. Back in 1957, when it was Wilson’s first single after leaving his vocal group The Dominoes, it had made #6. It was re-released thirty years on after demand had grown following the screening of a clay animation video for the song on a BBC 2 documentary. I’ve included the 1987 video below… I don’t know if I’ve been spoiled by the Aardman standard of clay-mation in the 90s and ‘00s, but it’s a bit… odd. Slightly terrifying in places, too. Clearly you had to have been there.
Sadly, by the time Jackie Wilson scored his one and only UK chart-topper he had been dead for three years. He’d seen out his final years semi-comatose in a nursing home, after suffering an on-stage heart attack in 1975, and his star had fallen so far that he was initially buried in an unmarked grave. All of which makes his posthumous return to the charts, which coincided with his body being moved to a proper mausoleum, even more bittersweet.
This will kick off a strange era of re-releases, from adverts, movies and TV shows, several of which will go to #1 in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But, here and now, 1986 comes to end. And a strange end it’s been: from hair metal, to indie lads, to a doo-wop classic. We head into the late-eighties next, with another abrupt change in direction…
Oh what sweet joy it is to be listening to this next chart-topper on a sweltering August day…
Merry Christmas Everyone, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 4th and final #1)
2 weeks, from 22nd December 1985 – 5th January 1986
From the glossy, classy soul of Whitney Houston, to Shaky’s festive smash. Cheap and cheerful, that’s the order of the day here. In fact, this might be one of the cheapest, and the cheerful-est, #1s of all time. There’s an oompah beat, a rock ‘n’ roll sax, some shoobeedoobees and, of course, liberal helpings of sleigh bells.
It harks back to both the old fifties classics – ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ etc. – and the glam Christmas hits from Slade, Wizzard and Mud. The lyrics are a check list of cliches: the season of love and understanding, girls under the mistletoe, wishing every day was Christmas, parties, presents, and snow falling all around. Except it lacks both the class of the classics, and the anarchy of the glam hits. And even though it’s a very retro sounding song, the long fingers of the ‘80s can still be heard in the tinny production and the drum machine.
It’s basic, is what it is. It’s never been one of my festive faves, but it’s fine. It’s catchy and light-hearted. Hearing it a few times every year, when well-oiled on mulled wine, and you could almost become fond of it. Except, for some reason, ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ has in recent years become one of the big Xmas perennials, surpassing the likes of Slade, and settling in behind the untouchables: Mariah, Wham! and The Pogues.
Sadly, I think this is indicative of what modern pop music has become, where inoffensive and blandly streamable is the order of the day. Is ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’, then, actually a hugely important record, and Shakin’ Stevens a man thirty years ahead of his time? Did he somehow predict that nobody would bother to skip this trifle when it popped up in a festive Spotify playlist…? Maybe, maybe…
The fake ending, and the ensuing key change, have always annoyed me. It would be the perfect time to end the song, keep it short and sweet, but no. It keeps going for another chirpy minute. However it’s hard to begrudge Shaky one last number one, as he does seem like one of the good guys. It may have been almost four years since ‘Oh Julie’, but he’d been consistently scoring Top 10 hits in between, making him the UK’s biggest singles-seller of the decade! Post-‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ he still had six Top 20 hits in his locker, until the singles dried up in the early 1990s. Interestingly, this record had actually been recorded and was ready for release the year before, but was shrewdly shelved to avoid it clashing with Band Aid.
Stevens is still touring and recording, and he even remade his big festive hit in a bluegrass style in 2015. To my ears, it’s much more palatable than the original – partly because I haven’t heard it five hundred times, and partly because it isn’t so darn perky. Anyway. Here ends 1985 – an interesting year which has brought us some of the best and the worst excesses of the entire decade. Roll on ’86…
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…
And so we hurtle towards the end of 1983, with our latest Christmas number one. And, yes, it’s a novelty record. But wait! No! Come back! This is a ‘novelty’ in the sense that it’s different and interesting; not in the sense that it’s a bunch of gap-toothed schoolchildren singing about their grandma…
Only You, by The Flying Pickets (their 1st and only #1)
5 weeks, from 4th December 1983 – 8th January 1984
The novelty here lies in the fact that this record is (almost) completely a cappella. The only bits that aren’t a cappella are the two drum beats which follow the intro. There might also be a non-human synth right in the background, but I can’t be sure. You wonder why they didn’t go the whole hog and make it completely a cappella, but it was enough for this to go down in the record books as the first a cappella #1. (I’m now going to try writing the remainder of this post without using the term ‘a cappella’, as I keep mis-spelling it.)
All I needed was the love you gave, All I needed for another day… You can see why this was a big festive hit: it’s unusual but still accessible, it’s melancholy, it sounds like a festive choir… It’s got a romantic-sounding title, though it’s actually a fairly miserable break-up song if you stop and listen to the lyrics. All I ever knew, Only you… Plus, the original had been a #2 hit for Yazoo only a year or so earlier, so it may well have appealed to trendy young types too.
The Flying Pickets were a vocal group from London, with a background in fringe theatre. The band’s name would have had a particular resonance at the time, and may have helped them to a few more sales, with the country on the verge of a huge miners’ strike. The Pickets were radical socialists, and the members had been on the front lines of earlier strikes in the seventies. Once ‘Only You’ had made number one, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher displayed either supreme ignorance or shamelessness (both are quite feasible) in naming it her favourite song of the time.
The video adds to the gritty, socialist vibe, shot as it is in a North Shields pub. The band members play darts, pool and the fruit machine as they harmonise. Once you see them, it’s a bit of a shock trying to reconcile the angelic voices on the record with these fairly grizzled looking blokes. They definitely have a ‘fringe theatre’ vibe to them – I think I might have given them a wide berth had I been at the same pub – and all the a cappella-ing does feel a little ‘community centre am-dram’ at times.
Still, it’s a fun record: a ‘novelty’ in the best sense of the word, and a welcome addition to the festive canon. It’s one of those Xmas #1s that, despite having nothing to do with the season, still feels very festive. And it’s another retro-sounding chart-topper to list alongside the doo-wop, disco and reggae tracks we’ve featured in the latter half of 1983.
The Flying Pickets aren’t quite one-hit wonders (the follow-up to this gave them one further Top 10 hit), but their chart success wasn’t sustained beyond the mid-1980s. They are still around and recording to this day – their latest album saw them covering Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, as well as re-recording this #1 hit – although none of the members who feature on this song have been a part of the band since 1990.
That’s it for 1983, then: the year in which it felt like the eighties truly began. Up next, we embark on a year described more than once as the best year for pop music… ever. I may have to take exception to that…
Save Your Love, by Renée & Renato (their 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, 12th December 1982 – 9th January 1983
Yes, the British public’s capacity for sending crap to #1 for Christmas knows no bounds. Of the three varieties, ‘novelty dross’ reigns supreme. A middle-aged Italian, and a pretty blonde (though the Renée in the video below and the Renée whose voice you hear were apparently not the same person…) Save your love, My darleeeeng… Strings and trembling guitars complete the ‘Valentine’s in a Bella Italia’ vibe.
Songs like this are never worth the effort of holding up to any sort of examination. You can see what they were going for: Christmas, romance, one for the oldies… Except, it’s so cheap and tacky it’s almost unbearable. Back a decade ago, people put some love into their novelty hits. There was a charm, for me at least, to ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ and ‘Ernie’. But ‘Shaddap You Face’ and the St. Winny’s kids, and now this, are almost aggressive in their cheapness. They know they’re shit, and they’re going to batter you into submission.
Sample rhyming couplet: I can’t wait to hold and kiss you, Don’t you know how much I’ve missed you… If they’d gone for a slightly higher-quality production, and spent more than three minutes on the lyrics, I might actually enjoy this. Maybe. Slightly… It’s got a ‘This Is My Song’, or ‘It’s Now or Never’, Venetian gondolier vibes to it, .
Actually, I can half-imagine Elvis belting this out in Vegas, if he’d still been around in 1982. Renato is, sadly, not Elvis. Technically, he can sing. He sounds like a constipated boar, but he the notes are all in the right place. Renée can hold a tune, in a bland kind of way. Who were they? I did hope that this was some kind of ‘Allo Allo!’ spin-off… Except, Rene was a man in that show. (Although, in a spooky coincidence, ‘Allo Allo!’s pilot aired while ‘Save Your Love’ was on top of the charts…)
This record’s ‘cheapness’ can perhaps be excused by the fact that it was written, produced and released all by a man and wife duo (Johnny and Sue Edwards, not Renée and Renato). It is therefore the first truly ‘indie’ chart-topper which, as someone who lived through the height of indie-snobbery in the ‘90s and ‘00s, I find hilarious. Like I said, I want to enjoy this one, want to embrace the ridiculousness of it… but I can’t. It’s just too much.
Renato Pagliari was genuinely Italian, and had waited tables in a Birmingham trattoria before fame came calling. I say ‘fame’, the follow-up to this made #48 and that was that. Rumour, has it that he was the singer of the famous ‘Just One Cornetto’ jingle, though his son denies it. He was also a big Aston Villa fan, and was invited to perform ‘Nessun Dorma’ to the team at half-time, following a poor first-half showing. Sources are quiet on whether the team played any better afterwards… He passed away in 2009.
Meanwhile, Renée (not her real name) had quit the duo before this record even became a hit. She came back for a few years, but retired from the business before the decade was out. One last thing before I go: the grandiose ending to this song is so familiar, but I just can’t place it. It’s driving me mad trying to think what song it copies… Do let me know if you hear it. Anyway, just like that, we make 1983…
Don’t You Want Me, by The Human League (their 1st and only #1)
5 weeks, 6th December 1981 – 10th January 1982
For this is one of the most recognisable riffs ever, I’d say. Up there with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ for chart-topping riffs. It’s dramatic and ominous, yet catchy and danceable. It’s a synth riff here, but play it on a piano, a guitar, a bloody harp, and people would know it was the intro to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.
The opening lyrics are equally iconic: You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar… a male voice intones… When I met you… It’s sung by an overbearing – ok, creepy – bloke. A Svengali figure. He found this girl, made her a star, and now she’s outgrown him. Don’t forget it was me who put you where you are now, And I can put you back down too…
In the second verse, the starlet has her say. Yes, she was working in a cocktail bar… That much is true… She tells him politely that it’s time for her to make it on her own. The male ‘character’ is so well-formed, such a nasty sounding piece of work, that you wish his female counterpart had a little more bite. Who is she? Did she really just use him? Or maybe her niceness is the ultimate insult…?
Aside from the riff, the next best bits are the lines that accelerate up to the chorus: You better change it back or we will both be sorry! This is a high-quality pop song, well worthy of being the year’s biggest-seller and a Christmas number one. But – there’s always a ‘but’ – I’m not sure if there isn’t a hint of ‘fur coat and no knickers’ about it. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ has a great riff and great hook, but on repeated listen it goes from all-time classic to simply great pop. Two years ago, Gary Numan was doing things with a synth that genuinely stood out. Now, in late-1981, synths alone are not enough to wow.
Phil Oakey, The Human League’s founder, didn’t want this released as a single, and has said in subsequent interviews that he sees the music video as a big factor in its success. And you can see why: it’s moody, noirish… dare I say, once more for luck, iconic? It’s certainly slicker and more expensive than many of the homemade looking MVs from the last couple of years, and it looks forward to a New Romantic future in the make-up, earrings and fringes. ‘Rolling Stone’ has claimed ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as the starting point for the 2nd British Invasion in the US (it hit #1 on Billboard six months after topping the charts here).
The Human League had only the one UK chart-topper, but were scoring hits well into the nineties. They still tour to this day. After I’m done writing this post, I’m going to listen to the album that birthed this hit, ‘Dare!’ to see what all the fuss us about. Maybe I’m being harsh in saying that this record lacks much substance beyond its killer riff. It’s still a great tune, but when songs come along with as much baggage and reputation as this one then I can’t help expecting great great things…