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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579. ‘Take My Breath Away’, by Berlin

Serious question: is this the 1980s’ most iconic riff? It’s not a decade known for its riffs, not like the sixties and the seventies anyway. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, ‘Money for Nothing’, Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, this…?

Take My Breath Away, by Berlin (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 2nd – 30th November 1986

Of course, purists will argue that any riff not played on a guitar ain’t worth mentioning. But the fact that this is played on a squelchy, echoey synth simply makes it even more representative of the era. Add the drums, the backing melody, the video, the fact that it’s from the soundtrack to one of the decade’s biggest movies, and you’ve got yourself an eighties classic: ‘Take My Breath Away’. Or to give it its full title: ‘Love Theme from ‘Top Gun’’.

Watching every motion in my foolish lover’s game… The lyrics are pure power-ballad tosh: profound, until you actually sit down and listen to them. On this endless ocean, Finally lovers know no shame… I was going to let them off as I assumed the band were German and not writing in their first language… But no, Berlin were from Los Angeles. Yet you’re not here for the lyrics; you’re here for the drama, for the fist-clenching, head-shaking silliness of it all. You’re here for the key change, one of the very best of all time.

Even if you’ve never seen it, you’d put a lot of money on the video for this song featuring dry-ice and a wind machine. And it does, as well as lots of bombed out aircraft shells, interspersed with movie footage of Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. If there is a story to it, it seems to be that the band are scavengers, returned to the Top Gun Academy following a nuclear apocalypse. It makes as much sense as the lyrics…

It’s a triumph of style over substance – further cementing it as one of the 1980’s defining tunes – but I love it. This could have been quite slow and plodding – it is not a fast song – but Berlin, and lead singer Teri Nunn, give it a ridiculous energy. Also helping is the fact that none other than Giorgio Moroder was on production duty. He adds this to his credits on ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Call Me’ to complete a hattrick of electro-classics (as well as the very first electronic #1 being a cover of his ‘Son of My Father’.) Lady Gaga clearly took ‘Take My Breath Away’ as inspiration for her song on the Top Gun 2 soundtrack but, as much as I love her, she didn’t quite manage to match the original…

‘Top Gun’ has one of the most famous, and successful, movie soundtracks of all time, although this song was the only big UK hit to come from it. This was also the only big UK hit for Berlin, a new-wave band who had been around since the start of the decade. It returned them to the Top 3 in 1990, too, when re-released. And look! It’s only Part I of a quintessential eighties double-header at the top of the charts. Get the hairspray ready for our next #1…

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569. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco

Questions arise pretty quickly, as I listen to this next bizarre little chart-topper. Is it based on the ‘Beverly Hills Cops’ theme? Is it about Mozart? And most importantly: is it a novelty record…?

Rock Me Amadeus, by Falco (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 4th – 11th May 1986

Before answering any of those, I’m going to have to admit – I’m really enjoying this. It’s funky, throbbing, moody… and completely ridiculous. Despite it being ponderously slow, you can dance to it. I’m also most fond of synths when they are used in this clanking, industrial way; rather than for showy flourishes. It’s a record I knew by title, without ever having properly listened to.

It’s a German chart-topper, which isn’t unusual for the 1980s, when we’ve seen the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena, Nicole and The Goombay Dance Band reach the top. What is unusual is that Falco has done so while still singing in German. Rapping in German even! The harshness of the language complements the thumping synths, I think, in a way that wouldn’t work if this was in French, say.

On a more serious level, though, is the fact that Falco performs the song in German the reason I instinctively treated this record as a novelty? Are we guilty – yes I’m including you in this! – of English language snobbery, of discounting anything not in English as lesser and silly? Especially something in ze harsh, guttural sounds of das Deutsch? At the same time, Falco’s antics in the video show that ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ is at least meant to be fun, if not truly a novelty song.

Said video also definitively answers one of my other earlier questions: this is very much about Mozart. Falco plays the man himself – the song was inspired by the 1984 movie ‘Amadeus’ – as men in powdered wigs dance with leathered-up bikers. The lyrics tell the story of big Wolfgang as the original rock star, about his way with the ladies and his fondness for a tipple: He was a superstar, He was popular, He was exalted, He had flair… And everybody screamed ‘Come rock me Amadeus’…

Which leaves me with just one question to answer: does anybody else hear the ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ theme in the synth riff? I can’t find much evidence online that agrees with me, but I definitely hear it. That theme, AKA ‘Axel F’, will of course have its moment atop the charts, but the mere thought of it makes me shudder…

By the end this song has gone completely bat-shit, with Falco screaming, scatting and yodelling things to a conclusion. Not something you’d want to hear every day, but great fun if you’re in the mood. Falco – real name Johann Hölzel – was Austrian, like Mozart. The first Austrian to top the charts in both the UK and the USA, unlike Mozart (though he’d surely have had hit after hit had the charts existed in the 1780s…) In Austria, Germany and much of Europe he was huge, but in Britain he struggled to have much further chart success – though the follow-up ‘Vienna Calling’ did make #10. Sadly, and again much like the hero of this song, Falco died very young, in a car crash, aged just forty.

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564. ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’, by A-ha

One of the things I liked about our last #1 – Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ – was the song’s slow build-up. I’m a sucker for a strong intro. That intro, though, is small fry compared to the bombast and drama offered here…

The Sun Always Shines on TV, by A-ha (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 19th January – 2nd February 1986

Before we actually get down whether this record is any good or not, I have to say that a song with a minute-long intro – featuring at least three different synth lines – has an automatic head-start towards greatness. Touch me… pleads Morten Harket in his distinctive falsetto… Give all your love… as the synths wind slowly towards the peak… To me…!

As with ‘West End Girls’, there’s another great beat drop, when chugging guitars, stabbing chords and beefy drums grab us by the scruff of the neck and whip us along. It’s fun, it’s got great energy; but it’s not everything the intro promised it would be. It’s very Duran Duran, and it emulates their most recent #1, ‘The Reflex’, by chucking every trick they can think of into the mix. At time it’s a bit much, the synths especially can be a little too flourishy.

Like much of the mid-eighties, ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ is simultaneously modern and cutting edge, dated and of-its-time. Lyrically, it seems to be about the falseness of fame: I reached inside myself and found, Nothing here to ease the pressure, Of my ever-whirring mind… and the music does a good job of creating the image of a chaotic paranoia. Paranoia that you can dance to.

A-ha are, of course, Norwegian. And Harket has what I’m going to call ABBA-English. Perfectly good English, just slightly off in pronunciation and stress making it somehow even more appealing. For me, his high-pitch and his accent all just add to the frenzied drama. I believe, unless I’ve forgotten someone obvious, A-ha were the very first act from Norway to hit #1 in the UK. This wasn’t, though, their first big hit. It was the follow-up to ‘Take on Me’ – undoubtedly their signature song – which had been held at #2 by ‘The Power of Love’.

Can we say that this was a ‘shadow number one’, making top spot by basking in the glow of its predecessor…? It wouldn’t be the first. And while ‘Take on Me’ is the better song, and would have been a worthy #1, ‘The Sun Always Shines…’ has enough oomph and dynamism about it to suggest that it could have been a chart-topper under its own steam. The video links the two songs by having the start of this one act as a fake ending to ‘Take on Me’.

While the intro here was extended, the ending is not. A sudden, clanging piano note slams down, as if the band is shouting ‘Enough!’ That’s all we’re getting. It draws to an end a run of #1s that appeals to my inner chart-geek: the past six chart-toppers, since Feargal Sharkey’s ‘A Good Heart’ in early November, have all spent a fortnight at the top. Without checking too thoroughly, I think that’s the longest run of its kind… (It’s been surpassed many times since by one-weekers, though).

And finally, I have to mention why this #1 has such resonance for me, why it is a ‘line in the sand’, as I put it in my last post. ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ is the very first number one, five hundred and sixty four songs and four and a half years of blogging in, that I was alive for. To be fair, I was two days old when it got knocked off the top, so my recollections of its time as the biggest hit in the land are hazy. But as a Birth Number One I think I got off quite lightly. (I know people born under the reigns of ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’, and ‘Nothing’s Going to Change My Love for You’…)

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563. ‘West End Girls’, by Pet Shop Boys

I have something to confess. I’ve been putting off writing this next post. It’s been a full week since I put fingers to keyboard and mused on ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. But why? When up next is one of the most respected and best loved #1s of the eighties, if not of all time…? Because, to be honest, I’ve never really got this one…

West End Girls, by Pet Shop Boys (their 1st of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 5th – 19th January 1986

It’s a statement first chart-topper for 1986. An enigmatic intro: footsteps, traffic, waves crashing (?)… A very slow build. And I will say that the moment the beat drops (that’s not something we’ve talked about often, beats ‘dropping’ – it feels very modern) and the squelchy bass starts slapping is great. Really great. Interestingly, for a song that sounds so new, it was almost three years old when it finally made top-spot, having already been recorded and released in various iterations (to little success).

But the rest of the song? At best it’s enigmatic, as I said in the last paragraph, and very cool. There’s a strangeness to it, a strangeness that draws you in, no matter what you think of the music. It’s got a very unique sound for a chart-topper – a very ‘January’ number one (the time of the year when oddities tend to sneak their way to the summit) – and that’s to be commended. I’m all for variety. Plus it announced the arrival of one of the most influential acts of the past forty years, and I say that as someone who will only have good things to write about Pet Shop Boys’ three remaining #1s.

This one, though. I can admire it; but I’ve never found a way into enjoying it. It’s a frosty, aloof piece of modern art, there to be pondered, and studied from different angles, but not loved. But… I freely admit that I am in the minority here, and know for a fact that some of my regular readers will disagree vehemently with this take on ‘West End Girls’. Here we are. I can only write my truth, as they say.

Is it going too far to wonder if this record might even have appealed to listeners as a novelty at the time? Nowadays British rappers are ten-a-penny. In early 1986, though, it must have been funny to near Neil Tennant drop lines like You got a heart of class, Or a heart of stone, Just you wait ‘til I get you home… like Grandmaster Flash crossed with Noel Coward. I love his arch delivery. I really like the haunting backing vocals before the chorus… How much do you need…? And I love the fact that it’s influenced by T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ – too few chart-topping singles are based on modernist poetry.

Yes, there are elements of this song that I really do like. It just doesn’t click as a whole. For me. Meanwhile, it’s won Brit Awards, and Ivor Novellos. It’s been named Song of the Decade. Two years ago, The Guardian claimed ‘West End Girls’ as the best number one single, ever. It’s influence has been far reaching, into just about every electronic act that’s come since. Maybe it’s because it’s the first #1 of a new year, but it feels like a line in the sand. And it is also a line in the sand for me, personally, but more on that next time…

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553. ‘There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)’, by Eurythmics

The Eurythmics grab their only UK #1, then. One week at the top for an act I’d suggest were worth a few more. But at least they grab their chance here, and deliver a classic. Their sole chart-topper comes in at a hundred miles an hour, with an impressive a cappella intro from Annie Lennox.

There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart), by Eurythmics (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th July 1985

La-da-dee-doo-n-doo-n-daaa… That’s what it sounds like to me anyway, leading the way into a song about the joys of being in love. I walk into an empty room, Suddenly my heart goes boom… I always associate Eurythmics with slightly more layered, slightly darker music – ‘Sexcrime’, ‘Sweet Dreams’ and so on – but their biggest chart success came with a pure pop record.

But that’s not to say this is cheap and throwaway. Not at all. ‘There Must Be an Angel’ is quality stuff, all the way through. From Lennox’s opening salvo, through the angelic backing vocals (which I’m guessing are Lennox again – whoever they’re by, they’re impressively OTT), the electronic harp, and the excellent gospel-influenced middle eight, with some clever rhyming: hallucinating with celebrating, deception with intervention… Could this be the activating, All my senses dissipating…? Not many number ones can boast that sort of vocabulary, even if it does sound a little try-hard…

The cherry on top of this great record: a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. If that didn’t get you a number one in 1985, then nothing would… This means that as well as his own chart-topper (‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’), Wonder has featured uncredited on three more #1s in the past year (Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel for You’, and ‘We Are the World’ being the other two).

The video ups the celestial ante even further: Lennox plays a beautiful angel, surrounded by cherubs and angelic choirs, and isn’t sporting her usual cropped hair. (There is an argument for her being the female Boy George, mirroring his androgyny, and they had both featured on the cover of Newsweek the year before.) Meanwhile, Dave Stewart plays a bored – and strangely blonde – Louis XIV watching on.

This is the only chart-topper for the Eurythmics (it bears repeating…), and for either Lennox or Stewart (he is not the Dave Stewart who covered ‘It’s My Party’ with Barbara Gaskin in 1981). In fact, their hit making career as a duo was about to peter out: they’d score their last Top 10 hit the following year with my favourite of theirs, ‘Thorn in My Side’. Lennox would go on to have a hugely successful solo career in the ‘90s, as well as lots of charity work. Stewart would go on to do everything from film soundtracks, to voice acting, to comic book writing.

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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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546. ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive

We finally – hooray! – end our run of ballads, in the most emphatic manner possible. It’s as if the Gods of Hi-NRG dance decided that all the fist-clenching and soft-focus videos had gotten too much, and so sent to earth their only son. Pete Burns…

You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), by Dead or Alive (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 3rd – 17th March 1985

This is a record that starts in the middle. In medias res, if we’re being literary. There’s no build up, no intro of any description. Just a slap! around the chops, a sloppy kiss on the mouth, a nose-full of sweat and poppers… A clanging, throbbing synth beat, and a very distinctive voice.

If I… I get to know your name… Pete Burns sounds almost operatic, the way his voice at times soars, then intones, then growls. Just listen to the way he’s going for it in the fade-out. He sounds mildly terrifying. I-I-I… I get to be your friend now baby… If you did meet him in a club, you’d probably go out of your way not to give him your name. He sounds like he’d eat you alive. And I’ve always misheard the line before the chorus for something truly filthy. What I half-thought was ‘open up your loving hole cos baby here I come’ is actually ‘loving arms…’ (I’m quite disappointed…)

I’ve been quite down on the 1980s while writing this blog and, knowing some of the #1s on the way, I will continue being quite down on the 1980s. But this record is the ‘80s at their best. Yes it’s cheap and trashy, tacky and deep as a puddle… But it’s a perfect floor-filler. It’s also something of a line in the sand… We’ve just passed the midway point of the decade, and ‘You Spin Me Round’ is our first Stock Aitken Waterman produced chart-topper. The sound of the late-eighties, for better or for worse, starts here.

If you were being unkind you could brand Dead or Alive as a knock-off Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The similarities are there: Liverpudlians, brash dance-pop, the sheer gayness of both bands… But while Frankie’s chart-career was fairly short lived, I’m not sure Dead or Alive exist in the public’s consciousness at all beyond this hit. They were together for a long time, though, much longer than Frankie. They were genuinely huge in Japan (their look was a big influence on J-Pop acts of the 1990s). So huge that Michael Jackson apparently had to rearrange his tour dates in the country to fit around Dead or Alive concerts…

I’m also not sure if the general public realises that Dead or Alive were a band, rather than just Pete Burns (I must admit I was surprised to see three other members in the video…) Burns’ personality looms large. I grew up with the heavily ‘enhanced’ version often seen on reality TV and quiz shows in the ‘00s, but even before he found fame he was a force to be reckoned with, sending customers from the record shop he worked in if he disliked their choice of purchase. My favourite Pete Burns anecdote: upon hearing Culture Club’s comeback single ‘The War Song’, he sent Boy George a wreath with a note that simply read: ‘Condolences…’

A couple of years ago, The Guardian did a feature on the 100 Greatest #1 Singles and placed ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ at number five, to a lot of derision in the comments section. While I wouldn’t quite have it as the fifth best chart-topper of all time, it is still a very fresh-sounding semi-classic. Though, to be honest, I think I’m just relieved that it’s not a ballad…

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540. ‘I Feel for You’, by Chaka Khan

Chakakakakakaka-chakakhan… 1984 truly was the year of the in-your-face intro. ‘The Reflex’, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, now this. The most in your face of the lot?

I Feel for You, by Chaka Khan (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 4th – 25th November 1984

It probably stands out so much because of the rapping. Only the second example of rap at the top of the charts and, with all due respect to New Edition, this is the real stuff. The Lemme rock you Chaka Khan… lines are delivered at break-neck speed by one of hip-hop’s founding fathers, Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash. It feels incredibly modern, a female singer being introduced at the start of a song, decades before Beyonce and Jay-Z, or Rihanna and Drake.

I did wonder if the rap might have been supplied by the writer of this song, one Prince Rogers Nelson. Prince is someone with a giant discrepancy between his fame and his UK chart-toppers (one, fairly lame, #1 a decade from now). But here at least is one of his songs, transformed from the slinky disco-soul original into a clattering beast of a record.

It seems that every song which topped the charts in 1984 was either a ballad or a banger, and ‘I Feel for You’ is very much the latter. Like Frankie and Duran Duran before, this record grinds and pounds, chops and changes, with that mid-eighties reimagining of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound that’s become the vibe of the year. But while much of ‘84 has been Brit-dominated, this is a very American sounding disc, with its snatches of harmonica and horns, and its new jack swing energy.

Said harmonica was actually played by the last chart-topper but one, Stevie Wonder, while the song also features samples from his 1963 hit ‘Fingertips’, though you’d be hard-pressed to pick them out. It’s a bit of an all-star ensemble then: Chaka Khan, Melle Mel and Stevie Wonder, on a song by Prince. And it delivers: this is a great dance song, with a brilliantly funky bassline, a song that sounds like nothing we’ve heard at #1 before…

You can tell that this was written by Prince. Few people could throw out a line like I wouldn’t lie to you baby, I’m physically attracted to you… and make it work. Khan, in a brilliant move, delivers the lines like Prince, especially in the chorus: I fee-eel for you-oo… The one thing that I would change is that her voice is a little too far back in the mix.

The video ups the ‘80s Americana even further. Khan performs in an inner-city courtyard, with graffiti and wire fences, while a DJ scratches and spins, and break dancers throw shapes around her. It looks a bit funny now, but again must have looked very modern and very cool to suburban Britain in November 1984. In fact, ‘I Feel for You’ feels both new, in terms of its position in this countdown, and pretty dated, when you listen to it through your 2022 ears.

Maybe that’s why Khan’s only #1 isn’t as well remembered as her two other big hits: ‘I’m Every Woman’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’, which would both chart twice, before ‘I Feel for You’ and then a few years later in remixes. It’s possibly the hip-hop element – of all the genres, rap ages the worst – but it’s a shame. It’s been great to discover this funky gem. Next up: a recap. Could ‘I Feel for You’ contend for the top prize…? Watch this space…

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536. ‘Two Tribes’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Slap bang in the middle of 1984 comes the year’s biggest hit, from the year’s biggest band.

Two Tribes, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 2nd of three #1s)

9 weeks, from 10th June – 12th August 1984

Make that the decade’s biggest hit. No record will spend longer at #1 during the 1980s than this. Nine weeks, in which the best-selling song across the land was an ode to nuclear war. There are very few chart-toppers that have lines like: We’ve got the bomb, Yeah… Sock it to me biscuits now… But this is one. When two tribes go to war, A point is all that you can score…

On this, just their second release, Frankie (and producer Trevor Horn) were clearly sticking to the same formula as their first smash, ‘Relax’. Pounding, aggressive, disco-rock… check. A subject matter (and video) designed to raise eyebrows… check. Just the right mix of catchy and clever…?

Almost. The bass riff is thrilling, the splicing of Russian classical music with high-NRG dance is fun… But to my ears it’s all a bit of a mess, especially in the verses. It’s been a theme this year: hard-edged pop that’s bursting at the seams, constantly threatening to implode but just about keeping it together. ‘Relax’, ’99 Red Balloons’, ‘The Reflex’, now this… Maybe it was the impending threat of nuclear destruction (this is also already the 3rd chart-topper of the year to reference war and/or peace…), or maybe it was cocaine. But something was definitely in the air in 1984.

The video is another event in itself, with Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Konstantin Chernenko throwing one another around a sawdust ring. Chernenko only led the Soviet Union for a year or so – despite being nowhere near as famous as Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev and co., he’s the one immortalised in this video… He grabs Reagan by the balls. Reagan bites his ear off. Holly Johnson drinks it all in as the ringside announcer. As the song reaches its final note, the planet explodes. If I had to choose, though, I think I’d spend my last moments on earth in the ‘Relax’ video, rather than this one.

I want to love this as much as I do ‘Relax’, but it falls short for me… I think it’s because ‘Relax’ is so simple, so gloriously filthy, and so universal. Songs about sex generally work. Songs about geopolitical tension can be hit or miss. Frankie try so hard to make it work – and it is still a banging, clanging, throbbing, pulsing wonder – but I think they overreach and, slightly, overcook it.

There were a million and one remixes of ‘Two Tribes’ – the ‘Annihilation Mix’, anyone? – but I like the classic single mix, with the air raid siren, and the public information announcer opening the song with: The air attack siren sounds like… By contrast, the album version is a little short, and missing the very Russian-sounding middle eight.

No doubt all those mixes helped this record to its giant stay at the top – the longest since 1977 – as well as similar promotion tactics to those that worked so well for ‘Relax’. But that’s not to suggest Frankie Goes to Hollywood weren’t genuinely massive in 1984. As ‘Two Tribes’ set up camp at #1 for the summer, their previous five-week chart-topper climbed back up to #2, making them only the fourth act to occupy both Top 2 positions after The Beatles, John Lennon and, um, John Travolta… They have one final number one coming up this year. And after two synth-rock thumpers, they’ll be changing tack, just in time for Christmas…

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