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…?