519. ‘Let’s Dance’, by David Bowie

Ah…. Ah…. Ah…. Ah….! Bowie’s back. His 4th number one might not be his very best – it would take something to outdo ‘Space Oddity’ – but it’s definitely his biggest, brightest, catchiest moment on top of the pop charts.

Let’s Dance, by David Bowie (his 4th of five #1s)

3 weeks, 3rd – 24th April 1983

I love the mix of sixties pop – the intro ripped from ‘Twist and Shout’, the background harmonising, and the woozy horns – with hard-edged eighties funk. Let’s dance! the Duke commands… Put on your red shoes and dance the blues… And you are powerless to resist. Like ‘Billie Jean’, when a DJ launches this one down your local disco then they know what they are doing.

But as with ‘Billie Jean’, this record isn’t just a simple dance number. It’s David Bowie, and there’s an edge to it, a hidden strain of weirdness. Not so much in the lyrics, more in the way he delivers them. The yelped: Tremble like a flow-er! for example, stands out, as does the Under the moonlight, The serious moonlight! There’s a gravel in Bowie’s voice here, a soulful edge that wasn’t present in any of this three earlier #1s. He sounds like he’s enjoying belting this out, reborn after the lost years of the late-seventies, but there’s also an edge to his voice you don’t often get in dance music.

There’s also some weirdness in the video, which features two Aboriginal Australians trying on the red shoes in the song, and being transported to a capitalist wonderland of jewellery shops and posh restaurants. In the end they smash the shoes, and dance their way back into the outback. I’m not sure the song needs such a statement video, and it perhaps stems from Bowie’s discomfort at releasing such a commercial record.

I fully admit to sometimes not getting David Bowie. I love his glam hits, and two of his three previous chart-toppers, ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Under Pressure’. (‘Ashes to Ashes’ was less of a smash with me.) But I get this one. What’s not to get? If anything, I’m properly realising just how great ‘Let’s Dance’ is, in all its funky glory. The funk here is brought by the song’s producer, Nile Rodgers. His influence is all over it, and not just in the fact he plays guitar on the recording. (The solo at the end, meanwhile, is performed by Stevie Ray Vaughan.) Bowie had written it as folk number, until Rodgers came along.

As great as it is, the success of ‘Let’s Dance’ sent David Bowie off course for the rest of the decade. He confessed that the MTV success of this single and the subsequent album, and the newer, younger fans that it brought him, left him unsure of his direction. But let’s not worry about that for now. In this moment, we can celebrate what is perhaps his ultimate singles chart moment, a good fifteen years into his career as a chart star.

That’s an interesting point. We’re right in the middle of a run of era-defining singles, that are launching the 1980s as we know it. But only really Duran Duran could be described as an ‘eighties’ act, and even they were several years into their career. Bowie, Michael Jackson and Bonnie Tyler were all seventies, if not sixties, veterans. But it is they who are at the forefront of this bright new era.

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516. ‘Billie Jean’, by Michael Jackson

In my last post, on Kajagoogoo’s ‘Too Shy’ I announced it as the eighties-est moment yet. (I also quite liked the intro.) And here we have a ginormous smash hit that is even more ‘eighties’, from the biggest album of the decade, by the biggest star of the decade. (With another pretty cool intro.)

Billie Jean, by Michael Jackson (his 2nd of seven solo #1s)

1 week, 27th February – 6th March 1983

We won’t come across many songs more famous than ‘Billie Jean’ on this countdown. Everyone knows it, has danced to it, has sang along to it. We’re familiar with every ‘hee’ and every ‘hoo’. But it’s the sort of ultra-ubiquitous song that you don’t – or I don’t, at least – stop to pay attention to anymore. And what stands out now is how much there is going on. In my head, ‘Billie Jean’ is that bass riff and Jackson’s voice. But there’s a lot more than that.

There are strings, finger-clicks, a guitar, and about ten different synth lines and effects. It doesn’t feel cluttered, though. Everything is in its right place, where and when it needs to be. Even the vocal ad-libs feel planned and thought-out beforehand. You could argue that music this well-produced can come across as soulless, and you might have a point. But that would be a harsh criticism of an almost perfect pop song.

Billie Jean is not my lover, She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one… It’s a grown-up topic for a former child star. Billie Jean was an amalgam of the groupies who had thrown themselves at his older brothers in the Jackson 5. But the kid is not my son… And the singer of this record sounds like a different person to the boy from his first #1, ‘One Day in Your Life’ – a false start if ever there was one. This is the moonwalking, ‘hee-hee’-ing MJ, who has been parodied ever since. It’s also the first sign of a troubled Michael Jackson, in the ominous lyrics and the paranoid vocals. Of the fact that being world-famous since the age of ten might have made him a little… odd.

Since it’s the 1980s, and this is Michael Jackson, we also have to take the famous music video into the equation. Like the song as a whole, it’s a video I could picture without ever having watched in its entirety. My main take-aways… Jackson still looks very young (he was only twenty-four), there are more cats than I remembered, and it actually looks pretty dated in its slow-motion sequences and its graphics. It suits the song well, though, which isn’t something you can always say about Jackson’s later videos, where it felt like he was just throwing money at them rather than trying to tell a story.

Famously, ‘Billie Jean’ was one of the first songs by a black artist to get played on MTV. But that was only after the president of CBS records threatened to pull all the label’s other acts from the channel. You could spend a day lost down the rabbit-hole of ‘Billie Jean’ trivia. Producer Quincy Jones, for example, didn’t think it was strong enough to even be an album track. My favourite factoid, though? That someone suggested the song be called ‘Not My Lover’, lest people thought Jackson was singing about tennis legend Billie Jean King.

As is so often the case with the biggest stars, the UK singles charts never really played fair when it came to MJ’s imperial phase. ‘Billie Jean’ got a solitary week on top of the charts. While almost all the other singles taken from ‘Thriller’ –famously there were seven from the one album – were Top 10 hits, he only has one further #1 in this decade. But, despite not being the biggest-selling, or longest-lasting, number one ‘Billie Jean’ will probably outlive us all. Deep into the 21st century it is still regularly voted as ‘Best Pop/Dance/Eighties Song Ever’, while in 2021 it became the first music video from the 1980s to reach a billion YouTube views.

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485. ‘Tainted Love’, by Soft Cell

Compare and contrast, if you will, this next #1 with our last. ‘Tainted Love’ has the same instruments, is in the same basic genre as ‘Japanese Boy’, but how different it sounds…

Tainted Love, by Soft Cell (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 30th August – 13th September 1981

It’s a collection of synthesised beats and sound effects, intricate but minimalist, and it sounds thrillingly futuristic. One of the sounds – the poink poinks, you know the high-pitched ones that contrast with the lower dun duns, the ones the song fades ends on – always make me think of a life-support machine. In actual fact, they sound nothing like a life-support machine (though Intensive Care wards would be a much more fun place if they did). It’s strange how music can put images into your head.

Sometimes I feel, I’ve got to, Run away… It’s a tale of a toxic relationship, about a lover who needs the tears and pain of their partner, and the singer’s escape from their tainted love… Don’t touch me please, I can’t stand the way you tease… It’s a cover, of course, of a 1964 release by Gloria Jones that failed to chart. A cover of a cover, even, as Jones had re-recorded it in 1976, with the help of her boyfriend Marc Bolan, though it still failed to chart.

And it’s a great cover version. Soft Cell take the original, strip down all the sixties froo-froo and do it up in an early-eighties style. It’s like seeing an old building renovated in a much more modern fashion, but with the walls all in same place, the support beams still running across the ceiling. They take the song in a completely new direction (a direction semi-influenced by Jones’s re-recording), though to most listeners at the time it would have been brand new. It’s sexy, it’s abrasive, it’s very, very now.

By the end, the singer is having second thoughts about giving up on this relationship. Touch me baby, Tainted love… he urges. It might be wrong, he thinks, but it feels so right. Meanwhile the music video is very much in the ‘anything goes’ spirit of the early-MTV age: there are cricketers, Greek Gods, Regency-dressed women, suspicious looking children…

Actually, what I thought was the video – the one I’ve seen several times before, in which a man writhes on a bed and Marc Almond sings among the stars – is actually the video for the 1991 re-recording, which seems to have now usurped the original. One thing I do notice, as great as this strange, sexy record is, Almond’s voice lets it down slightly. It strains at times, and is slightly flat at others. He sounds much better a decade later, on the re-recording.

Soft Cell were another early-eighties act that burned brightly but briefly. They had a handful of other Top 10s before Almond and his sidekick Dave Ball went their separate ways. They won’t re-appear on this countdown (though Almond will, eventually) And, carrying on the fine tradition of covering and re-recording the life out of ‘Tainted Love’, Marilyn Manson scored his (their?) biggest UK chart hit when his/their Industrial-metal version reached #5 in 2002. I can’t think of many songs that I love in three different versions; but ‘Tainted Love’ is one.

Before I go, and seeing as this is my last post for 2021, I’d just like to wish all my readers, followers, likers and commenters a very Happy New Year! See you all in 2022, as we push on through the eighties!

466. ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’, by Kelly Marie

Grab something tight, get the hairspray out, down your Lambrini… We’re off to the dancin’.

Feels Like I’m in Love, by Kelly Marie (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 7th – 21st September 1980

This is a pure sugar-rush of a song, a blast of amyl in your nostrils. The beats-per-minute are up, the synths are heavy, the bass is funky… There are times when a track like this sounds cheap and tacky; but there are others when this might just sound like the best thing ever recorded.

It’s also a song that doesn’t waste any time in getting going. Quick crescendo, a glissando, then boom. My head is in a spin, My feet don’t touch the ground… Kelly Marie is in love: spinning head, shaking knees, heart beating like a drum. Well, she’s either in love, or off her tits on disco biscuits. Whatever. She’s having a great time, and that’s the main thing.

This is pure disco, in one sense, and it had been recorded at the genre’s peak, well over a year before becoming a hit. We have Kelly Marie’s homeland to thank for the song’s eventual success. She’s fae Paisley, and the record had been popular in Scottish clubs long before it took off nationally. (Dance music is, for whatever reason, always more popular on the Scottish charts, to this day.) Plus, somehow this sounds exactly like a disco record from Paisley should. And I mean that as a compliment. Probably. It feels like the dance music of the future, too, though: it’s got the pace of Hi-NRG, and the trashy aesthetic of the Stock Aitken Waterman to come.

I have to admit I love the kitschy little details here: the ‘aaahs’, the ‘ch-chs’ and, most of the all, the ‘pew-pew’ heartbeats, which are the tackiest sound effects to feature in a #1 single since Anita Ward’s bell. There are also horns, though only in one version, which I don’t think was the original. (I’ll link to it here, because as with The Jam’s ‘Start!’, the horns only improve things further.)

‘Feels Like I’m in Love’ has an interesting history to it. It was written by Ray Dorset, the lead singer-songwriter of Mungo Jerry. They recorded it in 1977, but it was only ever released as the ‘B’-side to a Belgian single. Theirs is a much more sedate version, lacking in sound effects, and if you struggle to imagine Mungo Jerry performing this song, then get your head around that fact that Dorset wanted to pitch it to Elvis! I’d pay good money to hear that. Sadly, the King died before he could get round to it. Happily, some genius on YouTube has recorded his take on what it may have sounded like, and it is… something.

Kelly Marie also had a long route to the top, where her stay was brief. She’d had a few hits in Europe, including a #1 in France, and would have a few smaller hits after this. Her biggest hit was remixed and re-released in 1990, but that version has had something sapped out of it. The original ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’ is her legacy to the world and, to be fair, there are far worse legacies to leave than this fun slice of Paisley-disco.

462. ‘Use It Up and Wear It Out’, by Odyssey

One thing that’s surprised me about the charts in the first six months of the ‘80s: nobody seems to have told the record-buying public that disco is dead. They clearly missed the ‘disco sucks’ memo…

Use It Up and Wear It Out, by Odyssey (their 1st and only #1) 

2 weeks, 20th July – 3rd August 1980

Here come Odyssey then, with another body-shaking anthem (it does actually include the line shake your body down to the ground) that demands a dancefloor to be filled. This is one of those songs that come along every so often in this countdown, where I go ‘Oh, so it’s this song…’ A song you’ve been hearing in the background for your entire life without ever wondering what it is or who it’s by.

But on further inspection, this is a song I should have been paying attention to. It’s a great slice of disco-funk, with some calypso thrown in for good measure. Like the other disco-influenced #1s of 1980, there’s a lot more going on than just ‘disco’: see either of Blondie’s hits, Fern Kinney, the Detroit Spinners, or our previous chart-topper ‘Xanadu’.

Here’s a question: can a song be simultaneously cheesy and cool? If it can, then this might be the very song. In the ‘cheesy’ corner: the slide whistles and the 1… 2… 3… Shake your body down… chorus. In the ‘cool’ corner: the funky bass and the dod-d-d-dododo scatting at the end. It’s not a particularly verse-bridge-chorus kind of song, meaning that it can be chopped up and remixed in various different ways – as all the best disco records can.

Gonna use it up, Gonna wear it out, Ain’t nothin’ left in this whole world I care about… Actually, the lyrics here are a bit depressive, a bit cynical, for a disco record. The singer is dancing because that’s all there’s left to do. She’s going to dance herself to death, perhaps (or at least into a sweaty, dripping mess.) Add it to your ‘end of the world’ playlist now!

Odyssey were a New York based band, who have had a revolving cast of members, but who were a trio at the time of their sole #1 hit. They are still performing to this day. ‘Use It Up and Wear It Out’ was their second of five Top 10 hits in the UK between 1977 and 1982, a much better return than they ever managed in their native US. Disco really was dead over there…

431. ‘Y.M.C.A.’, by Village People

Hitting #1 on the very last day of 1978… And what better soundtrack for your NYE party?

Y.M.C.A., by Village People (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 31st December 1978 – 21st January 1979

It’s an intro that pricks your ears right up. Disco drums, and an ominous foghorn. Once, twice, thrice… Just enough time to steamroller your way from the bar to the dancefloor. Then it explodes. Some songs build to a climax; this is four and bit minutes of pure climax. Exuberant – that’s the word I’d use. The horn blasts, the lead singers’ full throated vocals, the chorus. Nobody ever came away from listening to ‘Y.M.C.A.’ feeling sadder than before it started.

Young man! There’s no need to feel down… A small-town boy steps off the Greyhound bus in downtown NYC. The Big Apple. He looks up at the skyscrapers and gulps. Where should he go first…? Luckily for him he meets a kindly cowboy, policeman, builder, biker, soldier and, um, native American who offer to show him the ropes. It’s fun to stay at the YMCA, they tell him… They have everything for young men to enjoy, You can hang out with all the boys…

The one bit of trivia that everyone knows about the Village People is that only the cowboy was gay. Or was it the cop? Or the construction worker…? OK. Everyone knows that only one of the six was gay. (Actually, almost every source I checked says something different. They were all gay. Half of them were gay. The cop was the only straight one…) Either way, ‘Y.M.C.A’ is a pretty gay song. There is very little coding going on. I assume that people in 1978 knew perfectly well what these muscular, moustachioed men were hinting at… (I wasn’t around, so would welcome input from those who were…)

Which means that – despite the song having morphed into a kids party, wedding disco, nudge nudge wink wink bit of pantomime – this is a pretty significant moment in pop music history. Gay culture rammed down the throats – so to speak – of granny and grandad as they sat through Top of the Pops. However, one of the song’s writers, Henry Willis, claimed that it was simply a straight-faced run through of the wholesome activities on offer at your nearest Young Man’s Christian Association. Which is certainly one way to read it…

Anyway, back to the song. My favourite bit is one that your average wedding DJ cuts off, on the 12” version, when the horns take over and we sashay to a glorious finish. There’s a hint of melancholy about the ending. Our young man, freshly scrubbed and fed, still has to make his way in the big city. Maybe he’s been chucked out of his home? How will he survive? Also, knowing now that AIDS was but a couple of years away when this hit #1 adds even further poignancy.

Apparently, a few years ago Village People claimed they would sue anyone who referred to ‘Y.M.C.A.’ as a ‘gay anthem’. Which feels like a pretty late attempt to rewrite history. Any band that names itself after New York’s gay district, dresses one of its members up as a leather daddy, and releases songs like ‘Y.M.C.A’, ‘Macho Man’, and ‘In the Navy’ (can’t you see we need a hand…) will struggle to pass that argument off in court.

Still, subtexts aside, this is a song that everyone can enjoy, and that everyone still does enjoy. A song that, for me, will never really be ruined through over-exposure. A song that perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves as high-quality pop. And, even though it hit the top on Hogmanay ’78, I’m counting it as Part I of early 1979’s run of classic chart-toppers. More of which are coming up very, very soon.

PS. Interestingly, the famous spell-out-the-letters-with-your-arms-above your-head dance doesn’t feature in this original video. Not sure when that became regulation…

409. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer

The Jacksons and Hot Chocolate were merely our disco’s warm-up acts, setting the tone and getting the audience limbered up. The headline act is ready now. Ms. Summer will take the stage…

I Feel Love, by Donna Summer (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 17th July – 14th August 1977

This is a shift forwards. They come along every few years, number ones that announce a new phase, a new sound, a real moment in popular music. ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘How Do You Do It’, Rock Your Baby’… Rarely, though, do the records in question sound as if they are from another galaxy altogether.

The first thing that hits you, after a short fade in, are the Moog synthesisers. They are harsh, drilling into your brain. We’ve had synths before, plenty of times, but not used like this. This feels like a slap in the face. Meanwhile, Donna Summer’s voice floats high above: ethereal, echoey… so unhuman that it could be as computerised as the music. It’s like her vocals were recorded years before, like this is already the remix.

It’s so good… There’s not much to the lyrics, really. Donna Summer is not the star of the show here – although her vocals are a huge part of the song’s appeal, and its legacy. I feel love, I feel love, I feel lo-o-ove… The stars are Giorgio Moroder’s synths: clanking, chirping, burping away. He layered them, he overdubbed them, he played them slightly out of sync with one another… They’re a world away from ‘Son of My Father’… You start to get a little dizzy if you play this for long enough at a high volume. I can’t imagine what it would have done to you in a sweaty disco in 1977. But you can picture it – the lights, the vibrating speakers, the amyl nitrate in the air…

It’s not a particularly nice song. It’s not one for any old time of day. But it is spectacular. And it’s not disco, at least not the kind of sparkly, flirty disco that’s been the dominant sound of the past few years. It’s dance music. EDM ground zero. (Though I’m not saying this invented dance music in one fell swoop. That’s the problem with only reviewing the chart-topping singles – it’s not an exact overview of popular music as a whole.) But what’s for sure is that it sounds not unlike something a big-name DJ could produce in 2021.

The best bit – sorry Donna – is when everything falls away but the metallic beat. We’re left with a thumping heartbeat, and what sounds like a mouse rattling around in your skirting boards. On ‘I Remember Yesterday’, the album this single is taken from, each track was designed to sound as if it were from a different era. ‘I Feel Love’ was the final track. The future.

For your pleasure, you can choose from the four minute single edit, the six minute album version, or the eight minute extended 12” mix. (We could stretch a case for this being the longest #1 single yet, but we’d be chancing it.) The #1 that this most reminds me of – not in terms of sound, but in terms of impact and weirdness – is another futuristic hit: ‘Telstar’. That, though, was an isolated one-off. Not many subsequent records have sounded like ‘Telstar’. Large swathes of the 1980s will sound like ‘I Feel Love’.

It is a shame that Donna Summer’s only UK #1 is this. Not that it’s not great, but she isn’t the main thing about it. If this was a more recent release, it’d be Giorgio Moroder ft. Donna Summer. The producer would be the star. In the US, this wasn’t a #1, but her other classics were. ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’… I may have to do a Donna Top 10 very soon, as I’m not happy with her just having one appearance on this blog. She passed away in 2012, recognised as an influence on every disco act, every dance act, and every black woman who had hit the charts ever since.