609. ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ / ‘She’s Leaving Home’, by Wet Wet Wet / Billy Bragg with Cara Tivey

Our next #1 is an interesting concept, and (I think) the only chart-topping example of it: a double-‘A’ side with songs by two different artists…

With a Little Help from My Friends / She’s Leaving Home, by Wet Wet Wet (their 1st of three #1s) / Billy Bragg with Cara Tivey (their 1st and only #1s)

4 weeks, from 15th May – 12th June 1988

Actually, the songs on the recent M/A/R/R/S double-‘A’ were by two different bands in all but name, but OK… This definitely is. A fun pop-soul cover by a hot new lad-band (that presumably got most of the airplay at the time), and a more introspective offering on the flip side. Both are Beatles covers – ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ covers, no less – and were recorded for children’s charity Childline.

Which means we have to sound the Charity Record alarm! But, actually, this is one of the best charity singles of the decade. Perhaps ever. There’s no gimmick, nobody is dicking about, there are no misguided attempts at comedy. Just two solid Beatles covers. Wet Wet Wet’s take on ‘With a Little Help…’ is fine, though not a patch on either the original or Joe Cocker’s OTT version. It’s perky, fast-paced, with a soaring organ, and a little bit of over-singing from Marti Pellow… The ‘friends’ in this version are the kind folks at Childline (as the video makes clear). Though I’m not sure they’re the sort you’d ‘get high’ with… No matter, Pellow glides past that line without blinking.

It’s nothing special, but when you think of some of the horrors inflicted on classic rock songs by X Factor alumni in the name of charity then you’ll take ‘nothing special’ all day long. In fact, it’s a pretty low-key intro for a band who will go on to have one of the biggest number one singles of all time. But that particular beast can wait… For now, Wet Wet Wet were a likeable bunch of lads from Clydebank, who’d had a run of Top 10 hits following their 1987 breakthrough ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’ (and who make it two Scottish chart-toppers in a row, following Fairground Attraction’s Eddi Reader).

And on the other side? Well, considering that the charity album this single came from was produced by the NME, and featured covers from The Fall (‘A Day in the Life’) The Wedding Present (‘Getting Better’) and Sonic Youth (‘Within You Without You’), perhaps Wet Wet Wet were actually the surprise inclusion? Billy Bragg is an activist, a left-wing folk-punk songwriter, and possibly the ultimate Pointless answer to ‘Artists with a UK #1 single’.

His take on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ with his long-time collaborator Cara Tivey on piano, is something different – both in terms of the peppy song on the flip-side, and in terms of chart-topping singles in general. Few pop hits can have featured an accent as uncompromising as Bragg’s, for example. Though the kitchen-sink drama in the lyrics… She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years… is very on-brand for him. It’s a pretty take on the original, and another win for ‘80s indie which, after The Housemartins and Fairground Attraction, is actually getting more of a crack at the top spot than I’d have anticipated.

I like the concept, and the contrast between the two songs… but neither comes close to its original. And I say that as someone who doesn’t even rate ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ as much as certain of the Beatles’ other studio albums (at least the two before and the two that followed it…) There now, I feel like I’ve outed myself as a complete Philistine… Up next, perhaps a post on why I’ve always found Bob Dylan overrated… Or maybe not.

608. ‘Perfect’, by Fairground Attraction

Following on from the sweaty, pounding ‘Theme from S-Express’ comes the jaunty, acoustic ‘Perfect’. One of the biggest style switches between consecutive chart-toppers?

Perfect, by Fairground Attraction (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 8th – 15th May 1988

I’ve always liked ‘Perfect’, long before I knew it had been a number one hit. It’s the sort of song that plays in the background, throughout your life: the sort of song you think you’ve heard even when you haven’t. A little rockabilly ditty, with a cutesy hook: It’s got to be-e-e-e-e-e-e, Perfect…

But, like I said, I knew the song long before I knew it had made #1. And I’m thinking there must have been some sort of story behind ‘Perfect’ making top spot, because it’s just not the sort of song that should have been making #1 in 1988. Was there a movie? An advert? A climactic scene in ‘Brookside’…? Seems not. It wasn’t even basking in the glow of a big preceding hit, as it was Fairground Attraction’s debut single.

To be fair, it’s not as if rock music didn’t exist in the 1980s, it was just largely absent from the top end of the charts. Maybe ‘Perfect’ was at the sweet spot between ‘80s indie (Smiths, Housemartins) and ‘80s rockabilly (the solo here features twanging guitars last heard in a Shakin’ Stevens hit, and might just be my favourite bit of the song), which gathered it enough steam to sneak a week on top. And hey, let’s not quibble! Guitars are back on top for a week! Having glanced ahead at the #1s to come… we’ll take what we can!

My second favourite part of the song is Eddi Reader’s vocal performance. Crisp and clear, playful on the verses, near soaring on the chorus, Reader had been a busker and a session vocalist before finding fame with Fairground Attraction. Their success didn’t last long, as the group split while recording their second album, but Reader has gone on to have a lasting folk career, re-recording ‘Perfect’ in Irish and interpreting the songs of Robert Burns among many other things.

To finish… Here’s where I’m going to get a bit picky. As nice as this record is – and ‘nice’ is an apt adjective – I do wish that our first rock (with a small ‘r’) #1 in a while had a bit more substance to it. A bit more beef. But it is what it is. We take what rock we can get and we move on…

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…

605. ‘Don’t Turn Around’, by Aswad

A Happy New Year to all! In the real world it’s 2023; in #1s blog world it’s March 1988, and time for the year’s obligatory reggae #1. It feels as if every year of the decade has had one: Boy George, Boris Gardner, UB40

Don’t Turn Around, by Aswad (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 20th March – 3rd April 1988

And to be honest, I’m usually all for these little reggae interludes. I’ve mentioned it many times before now, but this blog has really raised the genre in my estimations. I used to find it a bit samey, a bit plodding but, in small doses, it’s very welcome. Was very welcome, I should say. Because 1988’s obligatory reggae #1 is testing my new-found reggae tolerance.

Maybe it’s the eighties production. Maybe it’s the nasal delivery of the lead singer. Maybe I’m just not in the mood today. But something’s not working. Don’t turn around, I don’t want you seeing me cryin’… The good thing about reggae is that is often quite a rough and ready style of music: a simple beat and simple lyrics. But here, the echoey effects, and the synths, not to mention the strings, all feel like overkill.

It was the style of the time, yes. But the style of the time spoils so many of this era’s records, that otherwise might have been very good, and it gets annoying. Aswad should perhaps have known better, having been around since the mid-seventies, but who can blame them for updating their sound and going for a big hit. The biggest of hits. A number one.

Still, reggae works best when kept simple. Any attempts to dress it up, as Aswad do here, fall flat. For me, at least. But, again, there’s a reason why I’m writing about this song today, and clearly it didn’t fall flat for a lot of people. It gave Aswad their first hit after a decade of trying (none of their previous releases had breached the Top 40). They were from east London, the sons of Caribbean emigrants, while ‘Aswad’ means ‘black’ in Arabic. They’d score one further Top 10 – ‘Shine’, some six years after this – and they hung around for a long time, releasing their final album in 2009.

Like pretty much every recent reggae chart-topper, ‘Don’t Turn Around’ was a cover. But the original was not reggae – it was a thumping power ballad by Tina Turner, released as a ‘B’-side in 1986 (I must admit I far prefer that version). Soul singer Luther Ingram recorded a version the following year, which is how Aswad became aware of the song. Meanwhile it has also been covered by Neil Diamond and Bonnie Tyler (very much in the Tina Turner style), and was taken back into the Top 5 by Ace of Base in 1994. A very versatile song!

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604. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, by Kylie Minogue

And so enters a pop icon…

I Should Be So Lucky, by Kylie Minogue (her 1st of seven #1s)

5 weeks, from 14th February – 20th March 1988

I could try and be clever about this, but no. I love Kylie. I know very few people who don’t like Kylie (apart from Americans, who just don’t know who she is) and those that do dislike her are idiots, plain and simple. She’s uncontroversially, undemandingly, unaggressively lovely – the perfect pop puppet.

And this is where it all started (almost), with Kylie at her most puppety – bopping and smiling her way through a Stock-Aitken-Waterman-by-numbers pop tune. (I genuinely think this is ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, just rejigged in a higher key and sped up a little.) There’s very little to write home about on the music front – it’s catchy and frothy, a disposable stick of bubblegum. She has much better to come.

The main thing I do notice is that Kylie sounds a little uncomfortable. The song is pitched a little too high for her, and the lyrics come so thick and fast… In my imagination there is no complication etc… that they always sound on the verge of getting away from her. In the video too, she grins and wrinkles her nose, but seems very aware of how tacky this tune is. Tacky, and trashy but, like all the best SAW, kind of irresistible.

‘I Should Be So Lucky’ caps off our run of four chart-topping pop bangers. And it’s been a case of diminishing returns, moving from the peerless Pet Shop Boys, past Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany to, God love her, Kylie. The full gamut of late-eighties pop, in fourteen weeks of chart-topping singles. And when was the last time, if ever, that we had three solo female #1s in a row…? (And not one of them British!)

I don’t really need to go into the Kylie backstory. ‘Neighbours’, Scott and Charlene, yadda yadda yadda. Plus it’s probably best saved for her next number one, in which a storyline from the show plays out on top of the charts. I was much too young to experience all this first hand, but I will say that meeting Kylie in writing this blog feels like a big step towards my childhood. She was still churning out huge hits when I was a teenager, and even older. And she didn’t feel like a well-regarded legacy act but a genuinely still-popular star. Back then, when she was taking over the world with sophisticated pop classics like ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, the early SAW hits from a decade previous looked and sounded impossibly naff. They deserve their moment in the sun, though, and there’s plenty more to come before the decade’s out.

This is my final post of 2022, and so I’ll wish all my visitors, readers, likers and commenters a very Happy New Year, and a healthy and wealthy 2023. See you in a few days!

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603. ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, by Tiffany

Continuing the pop bangers run that we’ve been on in the deep midwinter of 1987-88…

I Think We’re Alone Now, by Tiffany (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 24th January – 14th February 1988

I love the juddering intro, with the choppy chords and the synthesised hand claps. It sets the tone for a song that, depending on your tolerance for all things ‘80s, could be as brilliant as it is cheap and tacky. It’s an interesting meshing of big and bold American production with the Euro-pop style that was dominating across the Atlantic. A bigger-budget SAW, if you will.

Children behave, That’s what they say when we’re together… Apparently Tiffany had no idea that the song was about teenagers looking for a place to have sex. Trying to get away, Into the night, Then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground… You do have to wonder how she didn’t know, until you realise that she was just fifteen when she recorded it. Then you have to wonder about the ethics of having a child record such low-key smut…

It’s a cover of a sixties hit by Tommy James and the Shondells, which had made #4 in the US in 1967 but hadn’t charted in the UK (their big smash would come a year later, with ‘Mony Mony’). Tiffany had to be persuaded to record a cover of a song written long before she was born but, once she did, it became a worldwide hit… Just in time for this writer’s second birthday.

In my last post, I commented on Belinda Carlisle’s girl-next-door image, at least in her music video. Well, Tiffany Darwish outdoes her on that front, being a literal girl. This is not as hard-edged as ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’, but I’d rate it just as highly. You do have to suspend your… What’s the musical equivalent of suspending disbelief? Suspending taste…? You have to suspend something, certainly, and forgive it some of its more flagrant eighties excesses (the solo, for example… what in God’s name is that?) but it is fun.

The video really ups the teeny-bopper vibes, with footage of Tiffany performing in shopping malls across the USA (it opens in Ogden City, Utah) spliced with her goofing around in recording studios. Like many teen idols, Tiffany’s career didn’t stretch much past two albums and a few more Top 10 hits. Though she did find time to cover/desecrate (delete as appropriate) another sixties classic: the Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. It’s one of the least respectful Beatles covers of all time, and for that I kind of admire it…

Before we go, I’ll repeat a well-worn piece of pop trivia. In the US, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ was knocked off top spot after two weeks by Billy Idol… and his cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ ‘Mony Mony’. The only time two cover versions of songs originally recorded by the same artist have replaced one another on top of the charts…?

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Should Have Been a #1…? ‘Fairytale of New York’, by The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl

Back in the good old days, before Spotify and Alexa turned the December charts into a Christmas nightmare, back when you had to actually download (or even physically purchase! from a shop!) a song to get it into the charts, there were three hardy festive perennials that returned, year after year… Mariah and Wham! have since streamed their way to becoming belated chart-toppers, leaving behind ‘Fairytale of New York’ as the biggest Christmas song never to have made #1.

Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl – reached #2 in 1987, behind ‘Always on My Mind’

And I have to admit… It’s never been my favourite Christmas tune. For a while, in the ’90s and early ’00s, it was the edgelord’s choice of Xmas tune. Swearing, Shane McGowan’s teeth, no sleigh bells in sight… blah blah blah. You’re a bum, You’re a punk, You’re an old slut on junk… I was put off it for this reason. I enjoyed Mariah, Wizzard and Slade because Christmas music was meant to be upbeat, cheesy and unashamedly fun. Until, as I mentioned, streaming came along and listening to Michael Buble suddenly became mandatory, and ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ became so overplayed that I would happily lose a finger (I mean, you could live without a pinkie…) if it meant I never had to hear it again.

(I suppose I also have to mention that it is now a bona-fide festive tradition for there to be a furore over the fact that ‘Fairytale of New York’ contains the F-word. (But not that F-word.) What version is Radio 1 playing? Radio 2? What does Piers Morgan have to say about it? Who is most purple in the face with outrage this year?? The songwriters claim that ‘faggot’ was being used as Irish slang for a lazy person – which is much more conducive to the theme of the song than accusing the male lead of being gay – but as early as 1992 Kirsty MacColl was changing it to ‘haggard’ in live performances. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it was intended as a homophobic slur in 1987, but at the same time it’s probably not OK to be broadcasting that word on national radio in 2022.)

And yet, despite the growing controversy around the song (which means it probably will never make #1 now) I’ve actually grown to enjoy it more as the years progress. Perhaps it’s the ultimate middle-aged Christmas song: a tale of two over-the-hill drunkards, bawling at one another, blaming each other for all their ills, all the while hoping that this Christmas will be their last… Their last together? Their last, ever? It peaks when Shane McGowan groans I could have been someone… and MacColl replies with Well so could anyone… and you feel nothing but sympathy for these two sad junkies. Suddenly Shaky, Mariah and Slade sound trite and tacky.

I couldn’t listen to it too many times a year – to be honest most of the Christmas music I hear is forced on me in shops and bars – but it would have been a worthy Number One. I’ll leave you with the video below, and wish all my readers a merry Christmas (and a much happier one than the protagonists of this song enjoy!) I’ll be back before the new year, resuming the regular countdown.

Results: Your Best (and worst) Number One Singles

Last week, to celebrate reaching the 600th UK number one, I published a poll and opened the floor so everyone could vote for their best and worst chart-topping singles. I limited it to the 20 winners/losers from my regular recaps, allowed folks to cast as many votes as they wanted… And the results are interesting!

The Worst

Interestingly, almost twice as many votes were cast for the ‘Best’ record than were cast for the ‘Worst’. Nice to see that so many people just want to stick with the positives! Those who did indulge their negative side gave us a Top 3 that looks like this…

Joint 3rd Place (10% of the vote each): ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, and ‘Wooden Heart’

A stinkingly saccharine Christmas #1 from 1980, and The King with one of his worst movie soundtrack hits (and there’s plenty of competition in that mini category!) from 1961. Yep, don’t disagree with either of those…

2nd Place (15% of the vote): ‘Star Trekkin”

Our most recent ‘Worst’ chart-topper, from May 1987, but one that instantly goes down as one of the most unforgiveable #1s, ever. Again, I’d have put it this high myself and so can only applaud our voters.

1st Place (20% of the vote): ‘No Charge’

But if I’d had to choose one song to finish above even ‘Star Trekkin”, it would have been this teeth grindingly, forehead smashingly, cloying, preaching, sanctimonious, spoken-word horror from 1976. Well done all! Democracy in action!

I was quite pleased with these results (though, I should really have been pleased with any winner, seeing as I hand-picked my twenty least favourite #1s). Interestingly, the least-worst #1s (those with no votes at all) were ‘Lily the Pink’, ‘Release Me’, and ‘Don’t Give Up on Us’.

The Best

So here we go. Officially, undebateably, 100% verified… The three best British chart-topping singles, ever. (Or, actually, the five best, as we have one three-way tie.) One from the ’60s, three from the ’70s, one from the ’80s…

3rd place (6.5% of the vote): ‘The Winner Takes It All’

Of course. You couldn’t have a Top 3 without this. Third place might be too low, to be honest, but at least it’s there. Timeless pop from the best pop group… ever?

Joint 2nd place (8% of the vote each): ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Feel Love’, and ‘Heart of Glass’

We’ve had ABBA. We couldn’t not have the Beatles…

Plus Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, with what still sounds like the most futuristic number one – forty five years on!

And Blondie, with their first in what has to be one of the strongest chart-topping runs, between 1979 and 1980.

1st Place (13.5% of the vote): ‘Baby Jump’

Yes. It’s official. Mungo Jerry’s ‘Baby Jump’ is the best #1 single, of the 600 to make top spot between 1952 and 1987. Um… There’s a bit of a backstory to this. When I published my original post on ‘Baby Jump’ (a glowing post, because I really do love this rocking, drunken, leery stomper of a song) it was quickly re-posted on a Mungo Jerry fansite. (It even, apparently, came to the attention of Ray Dorset – Mungo Jerry’s lead-singer.) And it seems many of these Mungo fans have stayed on as regular readers, because they came out in their droves make the band’s 2nd and final #1 my poll winner. And who am I to argue? It’s one of the least likely sounding #1s, ever. It’s one of the most forgotten #1s, ever (I doubt it would have gone Top 10 without the preceding success of ‘In the Summertime’). But it’s our Very, Very Best.

A quick consolatory shout-out to the two ‘best’ records that got nil points: Bucks Fizz with ‘My Camera Never Lies’ (seems I am out on my own in naming that as one of the very best), and ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ by Perez Prado (which presumably nobody has listened to for seventy-odd years… It is good though!)

These polls will remain open, and I guess it’ll be interesting to revisit every so often and see if anyone has stumbled across them and added a vote. For now, though, thanks to all who took part! Coming up, I’ll be celebrating a classic Christmas #2, then continuing with the regular countdown next week.

602. ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’, by Belinda Carlisle

1988, then. And the year begins with a bang. And, ooh baby, do you know what that’s worth?

Heaven Is a Place on Earth, by Belinda Carlisle (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 10th – 24th January 1988

Oooh heaven is a place on earth… It’s a song that stretches itself across a lot of ‘80s sub-genres. The chords are power pop, the guitars are glam, the soaring vocals are very of-the-moment power ballad. And they all add up to a great pop song, with just enough of an edge to widen its appeal beyond teeny boppers.

In fact, I’d say that ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’ represents as a UK #1 a lot of the rock-pop-power ballad fare sung by women – think Heart, think Joan Jett, think Cher in black leather straddling a ship’s cannon – that was slightly more successful across the Atlantic in the mid-to-late eighties.

And Belinda Carlisle did have an authentic rock background, having been singer for punk/new wave band the Go-Gos in the late seventies and early eighties. So I was imagining ripped jeans and spiky hair, a la the aforementioned Joan Jett (another punk alumnus). But Belinda Carlisle has much more of a ‘girl next door’ vibe in the music video – nice lip-gloss and bouncy hair – even when she’s writhing against walls. While she was almost thirty when this was released: pretty old for a girl next door, and for a female pop star in general, so fair play to her.

The song at times does indulge a few too many eighties practices. It’s very glossy – that goes without saying – and while the guitars do snarl they remain pretty restrained, like an angry bulldog shackled to a pole. The break in the middle is meandering, as if they were intending to add a proper solo but forgot. And there’s a gigantic key-change, which has apparently been named as ‘one of the best key-changes in music history’… I don’t quite hear that. A fairly common-or-garden key change, for me.

These are minor quibbles, though, with what is a pretty strong pop-rock song. It’s a positive start to 1988, keeping the lively pace set by Pet Shop Boy’s ‘Always on My Mind’. Actually, we’ve hit of a vein of pop classics, and they’ll keep coming for the next couple of posts. But… As good as ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’ is, it doesn’t compare to Carlisle’s best song: the lead-single from her next album, the George Harrison featuring ‘Leave a Light On’. It would make only #4, in 1989…

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