613. ‘The Only Way Is Up’, by Yazz & The Plastic Population

There are some songs that get to #1 because they’re great. And there are some songs that get to #1 perhaps in part thanks to the terrible-ness of the #1 that went before…

The Only Way Is Up, by Yazz & The Plastic Population (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 31st July – 4th September 1988

‘The Only Way Is Up’ is undoubtedly a great pop song, but it sounds even greater when played straight after Glenn Medeiros’s limp ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’. Did the record buying public hear Medeiros at number one throughout July, decide that they couldn’t have that as 1988’s Song of the Summer, and so sent this banger to #1 for the whole of August…?

Probably not. Most people just buy songs because they like them. But from the opening horn blast, sounding like an express train about to flatten any drippy teenagers left in its wake, this tune means business. I love the squelchy synths, and I love the way Yazz channels Donna Summer herself in the opening note.

But the best bit is the Hold on… build up to the chorus – perfect for belting out on a crowded dancefloor, before punching the air on the title line. Things are certainly getting dancier as we move away from the gloopy mid-80s and towards the nineties… (And yes, I realise that we literally just covered one of the gloopiest hit singles of all time.) Dance is a difficult genre to define – what’s dance, what’s just pop? – but I’d make this the 6th such #1 in just under a year.

Hits like this, and the recent ‘Theme from S-Express’, are bigger budget takes on the SAW Euro-disco sound, with the anarchic feel of acid house. Basically it’s an amalgam of all that was good and fun in pop music at this time. Some of the production does sound dated, yes – the scratching at the end, and the barking dog synths – but with a song as exuberant as this who cares!

I was pretty certain that this would be a cover of a Motown/soul/disco song, much in the mould of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, and I was correct in my convictions. ‘The Only Way Is Up’ was originally recorded in 1980 by soul singer Otis Clay. His version is fine – very different, lots of horns equally uplifting – but it wasn’t a hit until Yazz got her hands on it.

It’s hard to distinguish who The Plastic Population were… It looks like maybe they were Yazz’s backing singers? After this hit they were never credited again. Yazz scored two further Top 10s, and continued releasing low-charting singles throughout the 1990s. She’s since moved into Christian and gospel music. Meanwhile, I just discovered that a version of ‘The Only Way Is Up’ is the theme tune to ‘The Only Way Is Essex’… Have to admit, if I were scoring these chart-toppers, that fact would cost this one half a point…

607. ‘Theme from S-Express’, by S’Express

Dance music will never be my favourite genre. I will always go for guitars over keyboards and synthesisers. But sometimes, just sometimes, a dance tune will hit my sweet spot in a way that most rock songs could only hope to do…

Theme from S-Express, by S’Express (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 24th April – 8th May 1988

And this is one of them. It’s far from the first dance #1, it’s not even the first house #1, but it’s the first that I’ve really liked, the first that’s been more than just an interesting distraction. From the opening note of this industrial meat grinder of an intro, as a voice announces Enjoy this trip…and someone counts down in Spanish, I’m sold. I’m quite a fussy dancer, ready to leave the floor the moment a song I even slightly dislike comes on. But I’d be working up a sweat all night if dance music always sounded like this.

To my ears, the two earlier house #1s, ‘Jack Your Body’ and ‘Pump Up the Volume’ were a mess of samples, thrown together for the sake of it rather than because they should have been. But the ‘Theme from S-Express’ is a masterclass in picking the right samples. The foundation of the song is from Rose Royce’s ‘Is It Love You’re After’, which sounds incredibly modern for a song released at the height of disco. And all the vocal hooks work: Come on and listen to me baby now ooh… I’ve got the hots for you boop boop… and the wonderfully dated Drop! That! Ghetto blastah! It all genuinely works well together. It’s still busy, there’s still a lot going on, but it never feels like overkill. Even the screeching. (In the comments to the YouTube video below, someone has kindly listed and time-tagged all the samples.)

I love the Rio carnival interlude that comes along a minute in, as it provides a moment of lightness. But most of all I love the pounding Oh my God… break halfway through (though I don’t know if songs like this can have breaks, verses, choruses and bridges – normal songwriting rules go out the window) The dance music that works for me is dance that could be rock, and there’s something almost metal in this record’s relentless beat. It’s when dance goes all light and airy, with a piano hook and a breathy female vocal, that I tend to lose interest.

But that kind of EDM is a decade or more off. Here we are in the early days of the genre, where people were having fun with samples and filling dancefloors with the results. These results weren’t always perfect, but when they worked – as they do here – it was great. S’Express was a collective helmed by British DJ Mark Moore, and their ‘Theme’ was their first ever chart hit. They’d enjoy two more Top 10s in 1988, and hung around through the golden age of acid house before Moore ended the project in 1994. Whether they were ‘S-Express’ or ‘S’Express’ seems to depend on what font they used when printing their record sleeves, so I’ve used both. (And I’ve just noticed that it clearly spells ‘Sex Express’.)

I first heard this song when I worked in a bowling alley as a student – the very same bowling alley I mentioned in my post on ‘Give It Up’. Who knew bowling alleys would offer such formative musical experiences? But if you can picture bowling to ‘Theme from S-Express’ with the lights dimmed and the neon flashing, then you’ll know why it worked so well.

606. ‘Heart’, by Pet Shop Boys

Neil and Chris are back again. And when acts score #1s in such quick succession – it’s been barely three months since ‘Always on My Mind’ – you know they’re at the peak of their fame.

Heart, by Pet Shop Boys (their 4th and final #1)

3 weeks, from 3rd – 24th April 1988

But are they at the peak of their game? Or is this Pet Shop Boys-by-numbers? It’s undeniably them, identifiable after about two point five seconds of the soaring synth intro and the dead-panned Beat…! Heartbeat…! The main riff is a fun one: a vocal riff, a collage of different ‘oh’s and ‘ah’s (one of which is apparently Pavarotti!), and it’s a great hook. Despite their songs rarely featuring guitars, Pet Shop Boys had some great riffs (their previous two #1s, ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘Always on My Mind’ being two prime examples).

Actually, I just wrote that last paragraph before realising that I was listening to the album version of ‘Heart’. The single remix is slightly less PSB; a little more Euro-disco, and a little more instant. That intro sounds like a cross between Damian’s ‘The Time Warp’ and Kelly Marie’s early-eighties banger ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’, with the heartbeat pew-pew effects. It was the 4th single from the ‘Actually’ album, and they clearly felt they needed to do something different with it.

The Pet Shop Boys themselves are a little down on this record, claiming it inferior to some of their other big hits. And lyrically, yes, it doesn’t have the edge or the wit of ‘West End Girls’, or ‘Rent’. It’s a simple enough love song: I hear your heart beat next to me, I’m in love with you, I mean what I say… Nor is it as well remembered as their other chart-toppers. I wonder how many people at the time thought that this would be the duo’s final UK number one…?

It may not be as well remembered, but I’d argue it deserves to be. It’s incredibly catchy, and danceable, and yet sweet. Not every song has to be clever and caustic. Plus, the Boys kept it and released it themselves, despite writing it with Madonna in mind (they never sent it to her, fearing rejection). So they must have liked it at the time. Plus I’d like to shout out to the brilliantly unexpected false ending, which I’m guessing represents a heart that keeps missing a beat… In the video it matches the moment a vampire, played by none other than Sir Ian McKellen, plunges his teeth into Neil Tennant’s newlywed bride…

I mean, that’s reason enough to love this forgotten mini-classic before you even hear the song. Like I said, this would be Pet Shop Boys’ final #1, though they’d have two further decades of Top 10 hits to come, as well as producing songs for the likes of Madonna (they got in there eventually), Robbie Williams and Girls Aloud. They’re icons, bizarre at times and very British, and with a mystique and a presence that makes them genuine pop legends. We bid them adieu here…

601. ‘Always on My Mind’, by Pet Shop Boys

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…

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598. ‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)’, by M/A/R/R/S

Right at the start of this year (and by ‘this year’ I mean 1987, not the actual year in which you are reading this) we had our first ever house #1: Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s ‘Jack Your Body’. That was Chicago house, and here we now have Britain’s answer…

Pump Up the Volume / Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance), by M/A/R/R/S (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 27th September – 11th October 1987

I’m pretty sure everybody’s heard the classic title line: Pump up the volume… Dance! Dance! The adjacent, ominous piano note is iconic, too. Problem is, that line and the piano note add up to about five seconds of music. The rest of the song – four minutes in its shortest edit; a good seven minutes on the 12” – suffers from the same gimmicky feel as ‘Jack Your Body’.

But whereas ‘Jack…’ was just repetitive, ‘Pump Up the Volume’ suffers from an everything but the kitchen sink, ‘what does this button do?’ approach. It makes for an interesting, if rarely very enjoyable listen. It’s a mix of distorted guitars, whale noises, your neighbours letting off fireworks in their back garden, and someone shouting Brothers and sisters, Pum-pump it up! ‘Less is more’ was clearly not the M/A/R/R/S motto.

I like the funky, more hip-hop leaning break that pops up a couple of times, in which all the effects are discarded. It’s the only part of the record that makes me want to Dance! Dance! and it doesn’t last long enough. I also like the ‘Indian’ sounding section. But, at the risk of sounding like my late grandmother, a lot of the song is just noise.

There isn’t an original note in it, either. This was a watershed moment for sampling in popular music. In its various edits and mixes, a grand total of twenty-nine different samples feature on the record, from acts such as Public Enemy, Run DMC, James Brown and Stock Aitken Waterman (who took legal action). Some of these samples amount to nothing more than a ‘Hey’ or a couple of musical notes. Anyone opposed to sampling on the grounds of musical puritanism should probably stop and consider that it would likely have been easier to write a completely original song than to stitch all these parts into something even vaguely listenable.

And that isn’t all. It’s been a while since we had a double-‘A’ single on top of the charts: well over five years. While ‘Pump Up the Volume’ is a ground-breaking record, it’s still a pop song at heart, that sits comfortably on top of the chart. The flip-side, ‘Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)’ is a completely different beast. This has no business being at #1…

It’s abstract, arty, and avant-garde. It’s grungy and acidic. Trippy, distorted vocals with yet more samples reverberating around them, and everything absolutely dripping in harsh feedback. It’s not an easy listen, and it’s definitely not anything you’ll be dancing to – the title is misleading in the extreme. But I like it more than its gimmicky twin. It’s harsh and uncompromising, and potentially the most uncommercial track ever to make the top.

I say ‘potentially’, for I’m not sure how much airplay ‘Anitina’ got at the time. I’m guessing next to none. But it’s there, listed in the records, and from it you can pretty much trace a straight line to the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers a decade hence. And these were the only two songs that M/A/R/R/S ever released. They were a supergroup of sorts, composed of an electronic act called Colourbox and an alternative rock band called A.R. Kane, brought together in an uncomfortable arranged marriage by their label manager. Colourbox added the dancier elements to A.R. Kane’s ‘Anitina’, while A.R. Kane added the wailing guitars to ‘Pump Up the Volume’. Neither particularly liked the other’s song and they refused to work together again. And so M/A/R/R/S are one-hit wonders in the purest sense.

At least one half of this record lives on, though. ‘Pump Up the Volume’, and its nods towards hip-hop and the beginnings of acid house make it as central to the late-eighties as Madonna and the SAW stable of hitmakers. While up next, following on from this most modern of chart-toppers, come a group who have been popping up on this blog for quite a while now…

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593. ‘It’s a Sin’, by Pet Shop Boys

Ah, yes. Cleansing the palate after the rotten ‘Star Trekkin’, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a… classic. In fact, with Whitney before and Pet Shop Boys after, we have two beauties sandwiching a stinking turd. Such are the pop charts…

It’s a Sin, by Pet Shop Boys (their 2nd of four #1s)

3 weeks, from 28th June – 19th July 1987

It’s an epic, statement intro, juddering in like a train about to overshoot its platform, followed by a dramatic ‘Skoosh!’ It’s a sound effect last heard on ‘Relax’, and that’s a comparison I think could be maintained for the entirety of this post. Not only in the skooshing, but in the fact that ‘It’s a Sin’ is every bit as gay as its more infamous predecessor.

If ‘Relax’ was an unrepentant celebration of all things queer, then ‘It’s a Sin’ is a little more introspective. A lot more. When I look back upon my life… Neil Tennant announces… It’s always with a sense of shame… I’ve always been the one to blame… Tennant had gone to a Catholic school, where he was taught that pretty much every natural urge he had would earn him a one-way ticket to hell. For everything I long to do, No matter when or where… Or who… It’s a sin…

As serious as the lyrics are, though, the PSBs keep things moving, and shaking. You can pay scant attention to the words, if you wish, and just dance. Tennant himself has said he wrote the song more in a camp than an angry frame of mind. That comes through in the ‘do’ and ‘who’ rhyme, and I can’t help but picture a Noël Coward-esque arched eyebrow on the They didn’t quite succeed… line.

While if you listen harder still, you realise that he isn’t quite as ashamed as he first suggests. In the glorious Father forgive me… middle eight, he ends with a chest-beating moment of affirmation: I didn’t care, And I still don’t understand… It’s a brilliant feat, to write a song about something so unpleasant – his experiences could be seen as child abuse, who knows – but make it so catchy, and so funny. ‘Relax’ was in your face; ‘It’s a Sin’ outs itself more slowly, but just as effectively.

‘West End Girls’ is the Pet Shop Boys’ song which is routinely crowned as one of the best songs of the 1980s, if not of all time. But for me, this one beats it all ends up. Tennant and Lowe wanted Stock Aitken Waterman to produce it, but Pete Waterman hated the demo version. The one that got away… (I’d love to hear the SAW take on it.) Tennant has also likened it to a heavy metal song, in its tempo, it’s portentous chords and it’s overblown production. I’d also like to hear a metal version, and the closest I could find was this take by Finnish (of course they are) band The Jade… None of them can touch the original, though. One of the high points of the entire decade.

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583. ‘Jack Your Body’, by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley

1987, then. Officially the ‘late-eighties’. I think you can divide the 1980s into roughly three chunks: the early, new-wave, post-punk years (‘80-‘82), the gloopy, synthy, new-romantic years (‘83-‘85)… I’m excluding ’86 from this, as I’m still trying to wrap my head around that strange year… And the poppier, dancier, HI-NRG years of ‘87-‘89. And speaking of dance music…

(Steve ‘Silk’ is on the left)

Jack Your Body, by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 18th January – 1st February 1987

We have our first ever house #1. In fact, we probably have our first modern dance chart-topper, if by ‘modern dance’ you mean a repetitive, electronic beat twinned with a repetitive, inane lyric. Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley was a DJ, a leading light in the Chicago house scene, and jacking is a free-style dance move that looks like a cross between the robot and break dancing (and which Wikipedia helpfully reminds us is not to be confused with ‘jacking off’… something not seen on a dancefloor since ‘Relax’).

It is repetitive and, yes, it is inane. The shortest edit I can find of ‘Jack Your Body’ on Spotify is over five minutes, which is three minutes too long. YouTube has the single edit, which has few more vocals thrown in: some Uhhs and a Jack it up out there… to end on. And yet, there is something thrilling about it, something that still sounds fresh and modern. It’s a window into the future, a line in the sand as we reach the halfway point in our journey through the charts… This is a sound that will last from here to eternity. In the UK, there have been several dance #1s this year. Beyonce, no less, borrowed a bass line that sounds a lot like ‘Jack Your Body’ for her recent smash ‘Break My Soul’.

The part of this record I enjoy the most is the complicated bit, around the midway point, where several different synth lines build together. It sounds a little like a fifties piano instrumental gone wrong – like Winifred Atwell on Ecstasy. Dance music isn’t really my thing, as you’ll see as we delve into the nineties, though I’m not morally opposed to it as some rock-leaning people are. Yet I’m glad that this made #1, both for the variety and the statement that it makes, and that I can claim it as a birthday #1 (I turned one year old on its last day at the top).

Being born in January means that I have an interesting mix of birthday number ones: indie faves, nu-metal, a Disney theme, and the only Chicago house chart-topper. Steve Hurley had limited chart success following this hit, but he continues to DJ and in his work as a Grammy winning remixer has worked with Madonna, New Order and both Michael and Janet Jackson.

Except… Controversial postscript alert! Turns out ‘Jack Your Body’ should never actually have been a number one single. The 12” was too long (ooh-er!), running to over twenty-five minutes which meant it should have counted towards the album rather than the singles chart. Apparently nobody at the Official Charts Company had bothered listening to it until it made the top and so, rather than delete it, they quietly let it remain there. Luckily the worst thing that happened was that ‘Reet Petite’ and then our next chart-topper were both denied an extra week at number one…

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576. ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, by The Communards with Sarah Jane Morris

Back to business, then. Our next #1 ups the pace, thankfully, after the past two treacly chart-toppers. It’s a soaring piano ‘n’ strings intro, a mish-mash of ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘It’s Raining Men’ – in my head anyway – which means disco is back, baby, for four weeks at least…

Don’t Leave Me This Way, by The Communards with Sarah Jane Morris (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 7th September – 5th October 1986

In comes a throbbing, Hi-NRG synth beat, and a high-pitched voice: Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, Can’t stay alive… Jimmy Somerville is the latest addition to our list of androgynous eighties voices, a worthy successor to Boy George, Limahl, Pete Burns and co. He hits some genuinely astonishing high notes, especially as the song builds towards the end. The only downside is that he makes this bloody hard to sing along to…

Aaaaah… Baby! That’s a great hook – one that is fun to sing along with – especially when, ahead of the final chorus, the ‘Aaaah’ is drawn out even further and followed by a ridiculously life-affirming key-change. Over the top brilliance! Meanwhile guest singer Sarah Jane Morris, who wasn’t officially a Communard, complements Somerville’s falsetto with a warmer, deeper voice on the second verse and in her Come satisfy me… lines.

Oh and there’s also the ear-catching solo, with a clattering piano and horns. I’m enjoying this. It’s fun, frothy, and full of life (something much of 1986 has been lacking…) ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ was a cover of a cover. Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ disco-soul original had made #5 in 1977, while a pure disco version by Thelma Houston (on which The Communards’ take is based) had made #13 around the same time.

Houston’s version had been taken on as a gay anthem, with significance added to the lyrics as AIDS swept through the community. Both Communards were gay, Somerville having left the poor area of Glasgow he’d grown up in for London, becoming a sex worker in Soho. He’d been in the Top 10 before, with Bronski Beat, but this was his first and only #1. And if he had the interesting back-story, then keyboardist Richard Coles has had the more interesting after-story, becoming an actual Church of England priest, and radio presenter.

Sarah Jane Morris, meanwhile, worked with the duo on several more songs, before moving into jazz and opera. The Communards were only together for two albums, and for three Top 10 singles. A short and sweet chart-career, though one that did give them the biggest-selling single of 1986. This has felt like a bit of a palate-cleanser after the mix of novelties and mawkish ballads that had begun to bog things down. A straight-up, pop banger for the ages. Aaaaaaaaaah… Baby!

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554. ‘Into the Groove’, by Madonna

You can dance… For inspiration… With these words, we welcome an icon. The most successful female artist in British chart history. Come on… I’m waiting…

Into the Groove, by Madonna (her 1st of thirteen #1s)

4 weeks, from 28th July – 25th August 1985

Madonna’s first of thirteen (13!) chart-toppers is an ode to the joys of dance: Get up on your feet, Yeah step to the beat… Her boy has to prove his love for her by boogying. She feels free, she feels sweet sensations… It’s a revelation. For someone who grew up with provocative, cone-bra, sex book Madonna, this early hit feels a little trite, a little bit too teenybopper.

But it’s impossible not to at least tap your feet to this record even if, like me, you’re a terrible dancer. It’s got that hi-NRG beat that recent hits from Chaka Khan and Dead or Alive had, which is a very welcome development after some stodgy production and tempo from the class of ’83-’84. May the BPMs keep rising for the remainder of the decade.

One of the (many) criticisms aimed at Madonna over the years is that her voice is a little… limited? Which I think is harsh, but her early hits do bear this out somewhat. Her voice on this one is high-pitched, and a little one-note (plus, the song being at least a minute too long doesn’t help). Over time her voice will deepen and improve.

As I’m writing, and listening, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s not more to this tune than first meets the ears. When she sings that at night I lock the doors where no one else can see…. and complains that she’s tired of dancing by herself… Is this actually a bit filthy? Is the order to get into the groove actually total smut, if you see what I mean? Or am I just desperate to hear controversial, attention-seeking Madonna from the off? A quick internet search proves I’m not alone in thinking this… That’s more like it, Madge!

‘Into the Groove’ is a decent enough debut for Madonna as a chart-topper. A solid enough song for someone who is the template for every single-named female pop star hereafter, from Kylie to Rihanna to Gaga. But in my perfect world her first #1 would have been the throbbing ‘Like a Virgin’, or the ultimate school dance smoocher ‘Crazy for You’ – both of which had been huge hits without making top spot. Madonna was already a giant star when she finally scored a #1 (shades of Elvis back in 1957), and ‘Into the Groove’ was from the soundtrack to her first film, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’. Love or loathe her, Madonna was one of the biggest artists in the world in this moment, and will remain so for the next twenty years.

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550. ’19’, by Paul Hardcastle

Well now, what to make of this…

19, by Paul Hardcastle (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 5th May – 9th June 1985

Seriously. What to make of this? I’ve listened to our next #1 three times, and still can’t think how to approach it. Do we go with ground-breaking, game-changing slice of electronic music? Hugely important, anti-war chart-topper? First #1 with only numbers in the title… Or do we go with dated, clunky, hot mess of a song?

Let’s start with this as a game-changing chart-topper. We open with a reporter telling us that: In World War II the average age of a combat soldier was twenty six, In Vietnam he was nineteen… Very few, if any, number ones have used speech to this effect, sampled and chopped up. (Paul Hardcastle was inspired to write this after watching an ABC report entitled ‘Vietnam Requiem’, and the music video features footage from it.) There’s the reporter (from ‘Vietnam Requiem’), a ’60s newscaster, and an interview with a soldier – “I wasn’t really sure what was going on” – none of which were recorded specifically for the song. It’s quite powerful: I particularly like the line about how, eight to ten years after coming home, tens of thousands of men are still fighting the Vietnam war…

Unfortunately, a lot of the message is lost behind really heavy production. The song’s main hook – the stuttering na-na-na-na-na-na-nineteen-nineteen – is probably meant to echo a PTSD-suffering soldier’s nerves, but it just sounds like Hardcastle’s cat was walking across the keyboard as he recorded. If that line wasn’t annoying enough, we also get Sa-Sa-Sa-Sa-Saigon, an electronic impersonation of a military bugle, and some very dramatic (and very cheap sounding) synth notes as we build to a finale.

Then there are the backing vocalists, who lay the song’s message on a bit thick: Destruction! Of men in their prime! Whose average age was nineteen… I don’t want to be overly harsh towards a record that is, I think, pretty fondly remembered. But it’s difficult to listen now, thirty-five years on, and hear how thrilling it may have once sounded. It’s also a bit harsh to criticise the clunky production, as techniques were limited in the mid-eighties, while Paul Hardcastle was hardly a big name with lots of cash at his disposal (this was his first Top 40 hit).

And yet. Do I particularly want to hear this again any time soon…? No, not really. It’s an interesting song, with a worthy message (it’s yet another ‘war’ chart topper – I make that four in just over a year, along with ‘Pipes of Peace’, ’99 Red Balloons’, and ‘Two Tribes’) that is clumsily delivered. But it’s definitely not boring. And that is, as always, my bottom-line. Don’t be boring!

Paul Hardcastle would only have one further Top 10 hit in the UK following ‘19’s huge success, although he continues to record and released his latest album just this year (he’s a big name in smooth jazz). And ‘19’s success was huge: a #1 across the world, from New Zealand to the Netherlands. He cleverly released it featuring different news reports, in different languages, to maximise its appeal. It’s certainly an influential chart-topper: you can hear its fingerprints in the many electronic dance #1s to come during the latter half of the eighties, nineties and onwards… But who would want to – in fact, who should – be dancing to a song about teenagers being sent to die…?

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