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

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

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

4 weeks, from 1st – 29th September 1985

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

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

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

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

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

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

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529. ‘Only You’, by The Flying Pickets

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…

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514. ‘Down Under’, by Men at Work

I have to admit, straight off the bat, that the sight of this song on the list aux number ones made me shudder… I try to approach every song with an open-mind, void of prejudice and preconception (an approach which is going to become increasingly difficult when we reach songs I’ve lived through…) But ‘Down Under’ is a song that has always got on my wick.

Down Under, by Men at Work (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 23rd January – 13th February 1983

What is it that annoys me? The flutey bits, the faux-ethnic vibe, the strange accent that it’s delivered in – not an Australian accent – the fact that it isn’t funny enough to be a novelty song, but is funny enough to be irritating… (Though the video, which I had never seen before today, is very goofy, and does make the song a bit more palatable.)

I come from a land down under… Where women glow and men plunder… It is a paeon to being Australian. The singer travels the world, from Brussels to Bombay, and is beloved of all because he comes from a land down under. I once spent a holiday in Thailand with what felt like half of Sydney, all celebrating Australia Day. And every third song they sang was ‘Down Under’… I’m not sure the locals of Koh Samui were all that enamoured of their Aussie visitors, as the beer flowed, and the men chundered…

Having said that, what would improve this song in my eyes would be for it to up its Aussie-ness to the extreme. We need lines about ‘utes’, and being ‘daggy’ (actually this song is pretty damn daggy), and a ‘flaming galah’ or two for good measure. And we need it sung by Joe Mangle from ‘Neighbours’. (Yes, most of my Australian cultural references come from mid-to-late ‘90s soap operas. Strewth!)

In a nice coincidence, ‘Down Under’ is back in the charts as I write this, and the original singer Colin Hay has a credit. (It’s been as high as #5 in the UK.) This new drum ‘n’ bass version, although not the sort of thing I’d usually enjoy, ups the weirdness of the song and somehow works better. For me. I realise that this song is loved by a lot of people, people that aren’t even Australian, but I’ve never really got it.

Men at Work were from Melbourne, and had released ‘Down Under’ in their homeland back in 1981. The band actually wrote it as a comment on how Oz was being ‘Americanised’, and that the Australian things referenced in the song were under threat. While I wouldn’t want to disagree with the songwriter, I’d say that that angle has been completely lost over time. ‘Down Under’ has been voted the ‘2nd Most Australian Song’ ever, presumably just behind ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’. Away from this hit, Men at Work wouldn’t get back into the Top 20 in Britain. In the US and Australia, though, they enjoyed more success before splitting up in 1986. They are currently touring again, with Colin Hay.

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512. ‘Save Your Love’, by Renée & Renato

Festive chart-toppers tend to come in three varieties: actual Christmas songs (Slade, Mud, Boney M…), bona-fide classics (Bo Rap, Pink Floyd, ‘Don’t You Want Me’…) and novelty dross (Little Jimmy Osmond, ‘Lily the Pink’, and St. Winifred’s School Choir…) Take a guess, then: what variety of hit 1982’s Christmas number one was…?

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…

504. ‘Happy Talk’, by Captain Sensible

In which ‘South Pacific’ meets punk rock meets kids party singalong…

Happy Talk, by Captain Sensible (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 27th June – 11th July 1982

This is a record you can’t properly imagine until you’ve heard it. If that opening sentence left you stumped, then just go ahead and press play before reading my attempts to describe it… I know, right? It’s woozy, a bit trippy, very end-of-the-pier rinky-dink. And to be honest, I quite like it.

Happy talkin’, Talkin’ happy talk, Talk about things you’d like to do… I’ve never seen ‘South Pacific’, and so wasn’t sure how faithful this cover was. But it is pretty similar to the original showtune, with the brass and strings replaced by very ‘of their time’ synths. It reminds me, a little, of Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s wild take on ‘It’s My Party’: another classic tune done up for the early eighties. Only less unhinged.

Well, slightly less unhinged. In the video, and on Top of the Pops, Captain Sensible, dressed as half pimp-half pirate, gives the impression that he is well under the influence of something a bit stronger than coffee. There’s a dancing parrot, too, and a backing girl-group called the Dolly Mixtures. You’ve got to have a dream, If you don’t have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?

That there is a hook I can get behind. I’m not one for motivational messages in songs, but this one can’t be argued with. No dreams = no dreams coming true. Simple. Cue the organs. It’s one of the more unexpected themes of 1981-82: chart-toppers that sound like fairground rides. ‘Ghost Town’, ‘House of Fun’, now this. Was it intentional? Or is it just that they were using cheap synths? It also calls to mind Adam Ant’s use of music hall brass from ‘Goody Two Shoes’.

Captain Sensible’s day job was as a member of The Damned (the first British punk act to release a single back in 1976) and this record featured on his first solo album. The giant shift in sound from punk to this might be explained by the fact he had become a pacifist vegetarian the year before. The punk-est moment comes when the Captain leaves a big old pause in the Golly baby I’m a lucky cu…….ss… line that has you wondering if he’s about to drop a giant ‘c’-bomb in this family-friendly single (Although you could also argue that him recording an old showtune in this novelty style is already as punk as it gets…)

I’ve said it many times before: at least make your songs interesting. This one certainly is. A harmless singalong for the kids and their grannies, that actually subverts by just existing. Captain Sensible wouldn’t have many other hits, while The Damned have reformed and disbanded several times over the years. He has also formed his own political party (the ‘Blah!’ Party), and – much more impressively – recorded the theme song for nineties snooker/quiz show ‘Big Break’.

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496. ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, by Tight Fit

Another, yes another, well-trodden intro awaits us here. Note that I say ‘well-trodden’, rather than ‘memorable’, or ‘iconic’… or even ‘enjoyable’.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, by Tight Fit (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 28th February – 21st March 1982

I have several pre-conceptions about this song: that it is an old folk tune, that this is far from its first visit to the pop charts, that the band singing it – Tight Fit – were Australian (for surely only an Australian could come up with a song this aggressively annoying…) I’ll hold off for a moment on finding out if any of these pre-conceptions are true.

For first we have to listen to the thing. And at a very basic level, this is a catchy melody. Good for kids parties and animated movies, that sort of thing. It could have been a fairly decent pop song. Unfortunately, however, pretty much every artistic decision taken here has gone wrong. The lead singer’s voice is, at best, an acquired taste. The faux-tribal drums are jarring. The solo is horrible. The animal noise effects are cheap and nasty. The video is… well, see for yourself at the foot of the post.

It’s a novelty – the video makes that very clear – and I refuse to get too serious about #1s that were never actually meant to be taken seriously. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to come anywhere close to enjoying this irritating little record (even if I can’t help joining in on the wimowehs…) The fine head of steam that 1982 had worked up in its first four chart-toppers is dashed before March.

So what of my pre-conceptions? Well, yes this is an old, folk tune. Originally recorded in 1939 as ‘Mbube’ (Zulu for ‘lion’) it was a big hit in South Africa in 1939. (Since it was written by Africans, who must know much more about these things than me, I won’t point out that lions live in the savannah, not the jungle.) And yes, it had charted several times before, mostly in 1961, when Karl Denver took his version ‘Wimoweh’ to #4, and The Tokens made #11 (while topping the charts in the US).

And what of Tight Fit being Australian…? So. I apologise profusely to the good people of Oz, as they are from London. They were around for not much more than a year, but scored three Top 10s in that time, including this million-selling (!) hit. They reformed in 2008, and continue to play ‘eighties nights’ at clubs around the country. And I don’t know… In one sense it’s good that a song with such a long and varied history as ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ topped the charts eventually; it’s just a shame that it had to do so in such a tacky version…

475. ‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre

Giving us a three-week break from the Lennon-love-in, even if we didn’t ask for it… Joe Dolce and his Musical Theatre.

Shaddap You Face, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 15th February – 8th March 1981

Giuseppe is in 8th Grade, and he don’t want to follow no rules. He shoots pool, flunks school. What does his mother think about this? Well, mama’s not happy: Whats-a matter you, Got-ta no respect… Luckily for her, Mama’s got a catchphrase. Altogether now: Ah… Shaddap You Face!

What comes immediately to my mind are those adverts for Dolmio pasta sauce, with the ridiculous Italian puppets (‘Whens-a your Dolmio day??’) Dolce gets away with it (just about) as he is Italian-American. Plus this tune is so dumb, the contents so lightweight, only the professionally offended could actually complain about the caricature.

What you may well want to complain about is the music itself. Giuseppe grows up, becomes a big star… All he can hear is Mama’s catchphrase. We are treated to an accordion solo, and then a raucous call-and-response section: One more time for Mama! (Oh, must we…?) This record is a load of crap; but it’s not abhorrent in the way that the very worst novelty songs can be. I’m not sure what the joke is, or why it became such a big hit, but as I suggested in my previous post maybe the world was just desperate for something light after The Great Lennon Mourning Period.

‘Shaddap You Face’ was, for many years, the biggest-selling single in Australia (a fact that says much more about Australians than it does about the merits of the song.) Actually, I should say it was only the best-selling single by an Australian act, as Dolce had moved to Melbourne in 1978. This was his first hit – the only single he had released before this was a much more worthy number about the struggles of Vietnamese boat people.

In the UK he is a one-hit wonder of the purest kind. A chart-topper, then nothing else. Zilch. And he’d have probably faded into even greater obscurity, if it wasn’t for the record he kept off #1. Any bore with a passing interest in the charts can tell you two things: that Bryan Adams holds the record for most consecutive weeks at #1, and that Ultravox’s stark, synth classic ‘Vienna’ was held off the top by ‘Shaddap You Face’. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, so I’m going to come out and say it: ‘Vienna’ is overrated, and more than a little pretentious. I’m glad that it was outsold by this Joe Dolce trifle, causing the snobs to fume.

Anyway, has ‘Vienna’ ever been translated into an Aboriginal dialect? ‘Shaddap You Face’ has… Joe Dolce is known more these days as a poet and an essayist. He’s doing alright for himself. Mama would be proud. Meanwhile, coming up next, one final tribute to John Lennon.

472. ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir

There has been a lot of talk in recent years that 1984 was ‘The Best Year’ for pop music, ever. I would disagree and, from the chart-toppers POV that this blog takes, 1984 is in truth a far from vintage year which we’ll hear all about soon enough. No, my vote for best year of the ‘80s, in terms of #1s, would be 1980 itself. Blondie, ABBA, The Jam, The Pretenders, The Specials, Bowie, Lennon and ELO. Yes, yes, yes. A done deal. Except…

There’s No One Quite Like Grandma, by St. Winifred’s School Choir (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 21st December 1980 – 4th January 1981

1980 had to go and ruin things with its final #1. For, ladies and gentlemen, I present this year’s Christmas Number One, and the record that kept the late John Lennon from scoring an unprecedented three consecutive chart-topping singles: the sweet, sweet tones of St. Winifred’s School Choir.

Whichever way you try to approach this record – as a novelty, as a camp curio, as a nursery rhyme, as a cynical attempt to cash-in at Christmas – one thing’s for sure. It’s a God-awful piece of music. The budget kiddies-TV backing track, the choir, the little girl who sings the lead… Grandma we love you, Grandma we do…  The key-change! (Oh Christ, the key-change…) The stench only intensifies when you find out that this was originally written as a tribute to the Queen Mother for her eightieth birthday!

It’s so bad that it’s almost not worth elaborating. The bit where the lead girl sings about ‘potty time’ (I presume it’s actually ‘party time’) and the bit where grandma is killed off towards the end… We’ll look back and say, There’s no one quite like grandma, She has helped us on our way… It’s all terrible, and you don’t need me to tell you why. Just listen, shudder, then go about your day as best you can (after liking and commenting, ta…) It would also be whacking some very low-hanging fruit to make fun of these seven and eight-year-olds, singing their little hearts out for their dear old grannies.

This song storms instantly into my Top 3 worst chart-toppers so far (alongside ‘All Kinds of Everything’ and ‘No Charge’, in case you’re wondering). But I’ve never bothered properly ranking them because I don’t want to really remember that they exist. It has also caused me to reassess this song’s obvious counterpart, Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’, the (almost) Xmas #1 from 1970. Compared to this, ‘Grandad’ is quite the sharp-eyed satire.

This isn’t actually the first time we’ve heard from St. Winifred’s School Choir – the school is in Stockport, Greater Manchester, and they provided uncredited backing vocals on Brian & Michael’s Mancunian anthem ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’. It is though, thankfully, the last time we’ll hear from them. The choir has released eight (8!) albums, and if you’d like to hear their takes on ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Bright Eyes’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’ then you’ll have to search for them yourself cause I ain’t linking!

So there we are. The first year of the 1980s finally draws to a close. Though its final chart-topper was a complete and utter howler, I am still ranking it among the very best years for the quality of its number ones. I fear I may not be so generous about what remains of this decade…

(I’m breaking my rule on not posting ‘live’ versions here but, to be honest, each one’s as bad as the next…)

421. ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, by Brian & Michael

Kicking off the next thirty #1s with a bit of a curio… It opens with a brass band and the sound of children playing. I’m getting a strong ‘Hovis’ ad vibe. But when the actual song starts… Where to begin?

Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, by Brian & Michael (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd April 1978

Perhaps with a bit of context. The ‘matchstalk’ men, cats and dogs refers to the paintings of LS Lowry, a Manchester artist who had passed away a year or so previously. He painted industrial scenes of the north of England – factories, chimneys and smog – but also more intimate pictures of people queueing for fish and chip and going to football matches. All done in a very recognisable – some critics might have said ‘simplistic’ – style…

And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs… He painted kids on the corner of the street that were sparking clogs… (I have no idea what ‘sparking clogs’ involves – I guess it’s a Manc thing.) Now here’s the rub. This song starts off quite nicely. The first verse paints a picture (pardon the pun) of a northern childhood, in which the singers, Brian and Michael (who sound right Mancunian), wonder if Lowry painted them as kids, on the back of cardboard boxes, before he became famous. It builds up a bit of goodwill in me…

Which it wastes almost immediately. The brass band comes back, you see, and a children’s choir comes in. Not only that, the lyrics go a bit naff. Well, naffer. They tell the tale of Lowry’s trips to London, in which bigwigs patronise him by asking him to put on his flat cap. Worse follows… Now Lowrys hang on upon the wall, Besides the greatest of them all, Even the Mona Lisa takes a bow… When he dies, the ‘Good Lord’ mops Lowry’s brow, as he waits outside them Pearly Gates… To paint his matchstalk cats and dogs…

Putting aside the inaccuracies – I don’t think there are any Lowrys in the Louvre – it’s all a bit… provincial. A bit chippy. Only northern folk got our Lowry. Them soft southerners didn’t, never mind the foreigners… Take the first comment on the highest-viewed YouTube video of the song (it’s missing from Spotify – our first unstreamable #1 for a while). ‘Playing outside in the streets’, the commenter writes, ‘in the late 70s with no fears and no social media…’

Those were the days. The winter of discontent, electric meters, Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops, Bisto with your tea… I’m more on the side of the 2nd commenter, who writes: ‘This has got to be the biggest load of shit ever produced’. OK, maybe I wouldn’t go that far (there’ll always be ‘No Charge’) but it’s a song that gets worse as it goes on. The lyrics grow more self-righteous, the kids choir more annoying in their ally-ally-ohs, and then to top it all off there’s a key change…

It’s been a while since we’ve had a pure, unexplainable novelty at the top. At least it’s better than the easy-listening sludge we struggled through recently. Or is it…? Brian and Michael were a duo from Manchester, and had been in the music biz since the sixties. My favourite thing by far about this whole record is the fact that Brian doesn’t even appear on it. He’d been replaced by a chap called Kevin a couple of weeks after the single had been released, and Kevin had to go along with the name…

They are still active, Brian/Kevin and Michael, but remain one-hit wonders. However, the choir, of St. Winifred’s School in Stockport, will be back to score a Christmas #1 as lead artists in a couple of years. Take this as an advanced warning… Start preparing yourselves. On a completely unrelated note, this is the 5th #1 of 1978, and already the 3rd to reference famous works of art. We’ve had an opera (‘Figaro’), literature (‘Wuthering Heights’), and now paintings.

390. ‘The Combine Harvester (Brand New Key)’, by The Wurzels

After wading through waist-deep treacle on J. J. Barrie’s ‘No Charge’, and barely making it through with our sanity intact, are we really ready for another novelty single to top the charts? Actually, yes. We are.

The Combine Harvester (Brand New Key), by The Wurzels (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 6th – 20th June 1976

This. This is how you do a novelty song. It is an absolute palate-cleanser after what went before. We’ve got banjos and country-bumpkin accents, a raucous music hall chorus and a relentless oompah beat. Ladies and Gentlemen: our first ever ‘Scrumpy & Western’ chart-topper!

I drove my tractor through your haystack last night, I threw me pitchfork at your dog to keep quiet… A rustic, pastoral picture is painted. The rolling hills and golden fields of Somerset hove into view. Meanwhile, a man is proposing marriage, but not for the most romantic of reasons. I’ve got twenty acres, And you’ve got forty-three… Now I’ve got a brand new combine harvester, And I’ll give you the key…

Personally, and I think I speak for a large part of the British population when I say this, I can’t hear the words ‘combine harvester’ without this playing in my head. As a song it might not be on heavy rotation these days, but its chorus lives on. And, in the finest music hall tradition, there’s a strong undercurrent of smut here… Aar, Yer a fine lookin’ woman, An I can’t wait to get me hands on yer land! (Fnarr, fnarr)

Actually, if you think that this is actually about a grain-harvesting device, then you’re more innocent than you look. The Wurzels, though, sell it with a nudge and a wink, and glug of your cider. ‘The Combine Harvester’ is everything ‘No Charge’ wasn’t (although I have to admit that I might not have been so kind on this record had J. J. Barrie not done his worst directly before).

There’s a bit of history behind this one. It’s a parody of a hit from 1971 – ‘Brand New Key’, by Melanie Safka, a US #1 no less – and had been a hit in Ireland for Irish comedian Brendan Grace (who would, twenty years later, steal the show in an episode of ‘Father Ted’ – he had his fun, and that’s all that mattered…) The Wurzels scrumpy-fied it and scored an unlikely smash hit.

In a bittersweet moment, this biggest of hits came shortly after The Wurzels (‘Wurzel’ means ‘yokel’ in the Somerset dialect) had lost their founder Adge Cutler in a car crash. They followed this up with the equally catchy/daft ‘I’m a Cider Drinker’, and have been around ever since. Most recently they’ve been releasing covers albums. If you’ve enjoyed this slice of silliness, and are wondering what a Wurzeled version of Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, the Kaiser Chief’s ‘Ruby’, or even Pulp’s ‘Common People’, might sound like, well you’re in luck…

Next up, a recap!

Catch up with all the #1s so far, with my playlist: