Random Runners-Up: ‘Hooked on Classics’, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

For the next in our series of songs that almost made it… It’s time for something a little different…

‘Hooked on Classics’, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

#2 for 2 weeks, from 9th-23rd Aug 1981, behind ‘Green Door’

Disco had wormed its way into pretty much every area of popular music in the late 70s. ABBA went disco, Blondie too. Rod Stewart, of course, even The Stones… By the early eighties, amid the ‘disco sucks’ backlash, ‘cooler’ acts had ditched the glitter ball, new wave had taken over, and we were left with… this?

It’s a medley of classical pieces, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, set to a basic, drum-machined disco beat. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s both completely bizarre, and stunningly simple. I’m going to show up my terrible knowledge of classical music by trying to identify some of the pieces involved: there’s the bumblebee one, something by Vivaldi (edit: it’s Beethoven), ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, and the 1812 overture… There’s plenty more that I couldn’t identify, from Mozart, Handel and Grieg.

I’m trying to imagine who bought this? I can’t imagine classical music lovers really being into such dumbing-down of Tchaikovsky and co., nor can I imagine it filling a dancefloor. Perhaps it was bought by people who thought it made them look cultured – the type that call going to see ‘Mamma Mia’ a night out at the theatre (God, that sounded snobby!) At the same time, and as much as I liked ‘Green Door’, I do wish this had made #1. It would have made for one of the strangest chart-toppers of all time… And clearly there was enough of an audience, because the RPO released three entire albums in the ‘Hooked on Classics’ series!

There was a bit of a medley craze in the early eighties, to be fair. Stars on 45 are the big one that springs to mind, their sixties medley made #2, also in 1981, and got all the way to the top in the US. Britain would have to wait a few more years for its own set of chart-topping medleys, courtesy of a cartoon rabbit (don’t ask…) Anyway, here is ‘Hooked on Classics’, to be enjoyed in all its glory below. There aren’t many YouTube videos to choose from, and I’m not sure if this one with all its black and white footage is the original. Trigger warning: the video features more Steve Wright than is ever strictly necessary…

One last #2 up tomorrow!

491. ‘Don’t You Want Me’, by The Human League

1981 has had its fair share of iconic chart-topping moments: Bucks Fizz’s skirt-ripping moves, The Specials’ call to arms, Soft Cell’s re-imagining of a soul classic, Mercury and Bowie going toe-to-toe… And it ends with perhaps its most iconic tune.

Don’t You Want Me, by The Human League (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, 6th December 1981 – 10th January 1982

For this is one of the most recognisable riffs ever, I’d say. Up there with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ for chart-topping riffs. It’s dramatic and ominous, yet catchy and danceable. It’s a synth riff here, but play it on a piano, a guitar, a bloody harp, and people would know it was the intro to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

The opening lyrics are equally iconic: You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar… a male voice intones… When I met you… It’s sung by an overbearing – ok, creepy – bloke. A Svengali figure. He found this girl, made her a star, and now she’s outgrown him. Don’t forget it was me who put you where you are now, And I can put you back down too…

In the second verse, the starlet has her say. Yes, she was working in a cocktail bar… That much is true… She tells him politely that it’s time for her to make it on her own. The male ‘character’ is so well-formed, such a nasty sounding piece of work, that you wish his female counterpart had a little more bite. Who is she? Did she really just use him? Or maybe her niceness is the ultimate insult…?

Aside from the riff, the next best bits are the lines that accelerate up to the chorus: You better change it back or we will both be sorry! This is a high-quality pop song, well worthy of being the year’s biggest-seller and a Christmas number one. But – there’s always a ‘but’ – I’m not sure if there isn’t a hint of ‘fur coat and no knickers’ about it. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ has a great riff and great hook, but on repeated listen it goes from all-time classic to simply great pop. Two years ago, Gary Numan was doing things with a synth that genuinely stood out. Now, in late-1981, synths alone are not enough to wow.

Phil Oakey, The Human League’s founder, didn’t want this released as a single, and has said in subsequent interviews that he sees the music video as a big factor in its success. And you can see why: it’s moody, noirish… dare I say, once more for luck, iconic? It’s certainly slicker and more expensive than many of the homemade looking MVs from the last couple of years, and it looks forward to a New Romantic future in the make-up, earrings and fringes. ‘Rolling Stone’ has claimed ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as the starting point for the 2nd British Invasion in the US (it hit #1 on Billboard six months after topping the charts here).

The Human League had only the one UK chart-topper, but were scoring hits well into the nineties. They still tour to this day. After I’m done writing this post, I’m going to listen to the album that birthed this hit, ‘Dare!’ to see what all the fuss us about. Maybe I’m being harsh in saying that this record lacks much substance beyond its killer riff. It’s still a great tune, but when songs come along with as much baggage and reputation as this one then I can’t help expecting great great things…

490. ‘Begin the Beguine (Volver a Empezar)’, by Julio Iglesias

For their next trick, the charts will be throwing up a spot of Spanish crooner-disco. And the first question that springs to mind is: why…?

Begin the Beguine (Volver a Empezar), by Julio Iglesias (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, 29th November – 6th December 1981

Why, at the tail-end of 1981, at the fag-end of the disco age, did renowned Spanish smoothie Julio Iglesias manage a British number one single? It’s a record that pulls out all the classic disco stops: strings, horns, tacky guitar sound effects… All things I’m a sucker for and so, if you were expecting a scathing write up for this cheese-fest then I’m sorry. Look elsewhere…

When they begin, The beguine… It starts off in English, but that opening line is it. The rest in en Español, making this the most foreign-language #1 since ‘Je T’Aime…’ What is it about? ‘Volver’ means to return, while ‘Emepezar’ means… Well, my Duolingo Spanish lets me down. (It means, roughly: ‘Go back and start’, so I’m guessing that, when they begin the beguine, Julio begins to reminisce…) Also, what is a ‘beguine’? It sounds to my ears like a vegetable; but it is a dance, a sort of Caribbean foxtrot.

I’m enjoying this way more than I should. It’s utter cheese, slicker than a seal’s arse, and Julio croons the absolute life out of it. The fact that it’s in a foreign language, incomprehensible to the majority of the British public, probably makes it more appealing. Adds an air of mystery, or something. Just like if ‘Je T’Aime…’ had been sung in a Yorkshire accent, those lines about ‘coming and going between your kidneys’ would have sounded a lot less sexy…

As it is, you start to understand why Julio Iglesias can claim to have bedded more than three thousand women. He is Tom Jones, Engelbert and Barry Manilow all in one. That sexual statistic was the one thing I actually knew about him before listening to this song (that and the fact he has an equally smooth and sexy singing son.) But he is one of the most successful recording artists in history. The best-seller ever in Spain, as well as the biggest foreign seller in Brazil, Italy and France. China awarded him in 2013 for being the ‘most popular international artist’. On top of all that, he only went and started off his career as a goalkeeper for Real Madrid.

Back to the ‘why’, though? Why now? ‘Begin the Beguine’ was originally an English language song, written by Cole Porter in 1935 and recorded by all the big bands of the time. So it would have been well-known to the over-fifties. Plus, in the late-seventies Iglesias had started to record in languages other than Spanish. Maybe it was just a combination of rising profile and a tune people knew? Either way, I don’t begrudge this silly little disco interlude. It’s fun, and I’m enjoying ‘Begin the Beguine’ more than I’ve ever enjoyed his son Enrique’s overwrought #1 from twenty years later.

I admit: I assumed Julio was dead, as I assumed he’d have to have been around fifty-five when he recorded this. But no. He was only thirty-eight when this made #1. Younger than Cliff, and the same age The Police’s Andy Summers, which surprised me. Sadly, this hit didn’t kick off much of a singles-chart career in Britain, but Julio did return on a few occasion in the 1980s, duetting with legends like Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder. It is both Hola and Adios, then, to a Latin legend.

489. ‘Under Pressure’, by Queen & David Bowie

It’s time to sound the ‘iconic intro’ klaxon. That bass line, those two piano notes, the handclaps and the finger-clicks… They’re impossible to mistake. Unless you mistake them for, you know, the song that sampled them…

(It is near-impossible to get a picture of Queen and Bowie together at the time this record came out…)

Under Pressure, by Queen (their 2nd of six #1s) & David Bowie (his 3rd of five #1s)

2 weeks, 15th – 29th November 1981

But we’re not there yet, thankfully. We’ve got the original to enjoy first. It’s one of those #1s that come along now and then, one that I could sing along to pretty much in its entirety – even Freddie Mercury’s ad-libs – and yet haven’t actually listened to in years.

One of the first things that stands out is that we have two of the most iconic singers in rock ‘n’ roll history, trying to out-frontman each other. Mercury in particular seems to be asserting himself as the alpha rock star: scatting, soaring into falsetto, taking the Why can’t we give love, give love, give love… line into the stratosphere.

For me, though, it’s Bowie who gets the best bits. From the opening Pressure!, to the driving It’s the terror of knowing… line, to the closing ‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word… I have never sang this at karaoke, but I can imagine it would be great fun. It’s a song full of little moments, and it would be nigh on impossible to camp it up more than Freddie and David do.

The ‘little moments’ idea is actually worth expanding on here. Although ‘Under Pressure’ sounds nothing like the song that marked Queen’s only previous appearance on this blog, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, it is far from being a verse-bridge-chorus kind of pop song. Like ‘Bo Rap’, it’s lots of little segments stitched together, apparently because the two singers recorded most of their parts in separate studios. According to Brian May: “you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” It could have been a hot mess, but it somehow works wonderfully.

Until today, I had never quite realised what this song was about. It’s quite clear though: it’s about pressure, pressure that puts people on streets. It’s about being a good person, about not sitting on the fence, about giving love one more chance… The video doesn’t feature either act, instead it shows crowds of people spliced with shots from old horror movies, buildings collapsing and, most tellingly, scenes from the Great Depression: ‘2 million unemployed’ one sign reads. I’ve never thought of this as a political song, but it is. The Specials have a rival…

Like ‘Ghost Town’, the message here doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the song (clearly, as I’d missed the message for the past twenty years). And in a just world this would be each act’s eighth or ninth chart-topper, given the hits that both had churned out since the early seventies. But it was just Bowie’s third, and Queen’s second. And amazingly, for a band so synonymous with this decade… ‘I Want to Break Free’, ‘Radio Gaga’, Live Aid… ‘Under Pressure’ is their only #1 of the 1980s. In fact, the bass riff from this song will be back at #1 before they are…

488. ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, by The Police

Part IV of my ongoing campaign to enjoy The Police more

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, by The Police (their 4th of five #1s)

1 week, 8th – 15th November 1981

I do really want to like their records, but there’s always something holding me back. Something about the production, the jaunty reggae rhythms, Sting’s voice… It just doesn’t work for me. Here, the punky edge from their late-seventies records, ‘Message in a Bottle’ in particular, has gone. In its place are synths, and a very MOR piano line.

All of The Police’s chart-toppers so far have centred on not getting what you want (‘Message…’) or what you want not lasting (‘Walking on the Moon’ and, at a stretch, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’). ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ falls into the former category. Sting wants to tell a girl all of the feelings he has for her, in his heart, but… alas.

What usually saves Police songs for me are the choruses. They sure could write a killer chorus. The verses might meander, and the fade-outs may be too long, but the choruses kick. Every little thing she does is magic, Everything she do just turn me on… Even though my life before was tragic, Now I know my love for her goes on… The lyrics may look clumsy when typed out, but it’s such an air-punching moment you don’t really notice.

The rest of the song, though? Meh. Something about the mix is quite stodgy, with the voices buried under the instruments. There’s the piano – unusual for a Police song – and African drums. A stripped-back, more guitar-based version would work better for me. But that’s just, like, my opinion. And it’s something I’ll have to get used to as the 1980s wear on: guitars taking much more of a back seat.

This record, the second single from the band’s fourth album, isn’t a giant departure from what went before, but it was different enough for guitarist Andy Summers to object, both to the piano and to the production. It’s definitely The Police’s poppiest #1. And the reason that Sting’s vocals sound so distant may be because the band played over a demo he had recorded months before. And I’m with Summers on this: something about it doesn’t quite click.

So. Four of The Police’s #1s down, one to go. Will the last one – still a year and a half away – finally be the Police song I can love? Well, actually, yes it will. Because their final chart-topper is a decade-defining classic. Until then, then…

487. ‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin

More evidence that 1981 was a leap-forward for the charts. The year in which the decade truly began. Because this, this next record, it is… truly…

It’s My Party, by Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin (their 1st and only #1s)

4 weeks, 11th October – 8th November 1981

something? It’s a leap-forward, for certain, because we’ve heard nothing like this before at the top of the charts. Whether we ever needed to hear anything like this at the top of the charts is another question. At its most basic level, this is a cover of the Lesley Gore hit, a #9 (and US #1) in 1963. Except the original has been deconstructed, mashed, blended, twisted and fricasseed until what is being served up is almost unrecognisable.

I’m enjoying it, at first. The intro is the best bit: woozy drums, weird far-eastern sound effects, and the Cry if I want to… line chanted like a mantra. But as it goes on, the song veers in one direction then another, then another. I count three complete changes of tone and style. No, make that four. I’m starting to feel dizzy. Can I just hand over my next WTAF award now?

Is this good? Or is it terrible? I can’t think of many records that straddle the line so completely as this. There are flashes – mainly when the charm of the original manages to shine through – where it’s really fun. But there are other times when it feels like this production is being controlled by a five-year-old banging away at the settings on their toy keyboard. Perhaps you could look at this as haute-couture music: just like nobody actually wears the clothes that come down the runway in Milan; probably nobody would listen to this by choice anymore. But the sounds and techniques used here would filter on down through the decade…

Or maybe that’s generous. Acts like The Buggles, and Soft Cell (who literally just took their version of a sixties gem to the top) have shown that you can sound ridiculously modern – emphasis on the ridiculous – and still make a great pop song. This one gets very lost along the way: there’s a moment, after the wedding bell sound effects and a theatrical gasp, when the final chorus clicks, and you can see that Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin had it in them to make this a great pop record. But, hey ho, it doesn’t last. Give me the sassy, swinging original over this any day. (Actually, I’ve just realised the difference between this and Soft Cell. Soft Cell lovingly re-crafted a classic; this sounds, at times, like art school students taking the piss – see the annoying way Gaskin squeals at the end of every ‘you’, for example.)

The Dave Stewart involved in this is not, as I immediately thought, the Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame. This DS was a keyboard player and composer for various prog-rock bands throughout the seventies, before he hooked up with his former backing singer, Barbara Gaskin. Soon afterwards, they scored this huge hit, by far their biggest. They still work with one another, and have released seven albums together. And I do wonder if they chose ‘It’s My Party’ because it is such a typically old-fashioned, bubblegum hit, and the re-imagining is therefore so shocking. A few years later they tried to repeat the trick with a version of ‘The Locomotion’ that only made #70.

I still don’t really know what to make of this one, even after repeat listening. It is certainly something… Is it avant-garde, or just dumb? Impressive, or unlistenable? I can’t help thinking of that quote from ‘Jurassic Park’: they were so preoccupied with whether they could, they never stopped to think if they should…

For the first time in a while… A #1 that is missing from Spotify…

486. ‘Prince Charming’, by Adam & The Ants

A very happy new year to all who read this! In the real world it’s just turned 2022, but in Number Ones World it’s the autumn of 1981…

Keeping up the ‘too much sugar before bedtime’ vibe of ‘Stand and Deliver!’, Adam & The Ants second chart-topper comes in with a similarly hyperactive intro. Aaah-haah, heeyyy-haaah! the Ants yodel and chant, like a band who’ve been stranded in the jungle for years, staying alive only by feeding off the flesh of their weakest member…

Prince Charming, by Adam & The Ants (their 2nd and final #1)

4 weeks, 13th September – 11th October 1981

I have the feeling that, back in his youth, Stuart Goddard AKA Adam Ant was the bane of his teachers’ lives (I’m a teacher myself, so can spot them a mile off – the ones you describe as ‘spirited’ and ‘energetic’ in report cards.) Though, to be fair, most pop stars probably were little nightmares in the classroom.

And I think the school analogy can be extended, even after the shouts have faded and the song has slipped into a thumping, clumping rhythm. Don’t you ever, Don’t you ever, Stop being dandy, Showin’ me you’re handsome… It sounds like a playground chant. Prince Charming, Prince Charming, Ridicule is nothing to be afraid of… Or is it a mantra, something that Goddard had to say to himself each morning, before he slipped back into the mascara and lip-gloss required of Adam Ant?

I’m waiting for this song to break out of its plod and really kick. But it never does. There’s a bit more chanting, and a lot of repetition. ‘Stand and Deliver!’ was much more fun. Though, ‘Prince Charming’ is a smash-hit so far removed from the usual structures of a pop song (apparently Goddard chose such a slow pace deliberately, so that it wouldn’t be played in discos) it’s quite impressive how well it did. A sign of just how red-hot The Ants were in 1981.

Like ‘Stand and Deliver!’, ‘Prince Charming’ has another bizarrely entertaining video. Adam plays a male Cinderella, put upon by two dragged-up ugly sisters. Diana Dors, in one of her final screen roles, plays his Fairy Godmother. He goes to the ball, dressed in what is now the iconic Adam Ant look, and the other party-goers gag. At the end, he smashes a mirror, and appears as Clint Eastwood, Alice Cooper, Lawrence of Arabia (?) and, finally, as the Dandy Highwayman from his previous #1. As a video it’s great fun, and as a message it’s actually quite powerful: boys can look rugged as Clint Eastwood and boys can cake themselves in make-up and look like Adam Ant. Ridicule is nothing to be scared of!

I just wish I liked the actual song as much as I do the video. But I’m still finding it a bit of a plod, and isn’t really growing on me. And before you know it, that’s all from Adam & The Ants. They would have just one more hit, the uncharacteristically laid-back (only kidding) ‘Ant Rap’, before splitting up in early 1982. Adam’s solo career will follow on very soon from that, he was very much the driving force behind the band, and we’ll be hearing from him one last time atop the charts very soon.

485. ‘Tainted Love’, by Soft Cell

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

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

2 weeks, 30th August – 13th September 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

484. ‘Japanese Boy’, by Aneka

This week, we’re off to discover the mysteries of the Orient… The opening chords sound like the famous intro to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ remixed, a cheap sort of way to show we’re not in Kansas anymore. All that’s missing is a huge gong being banged…

Japanese Boy, by Aneka (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, 23rd – 30th August 1981

Then in comes a driving synth riff with a familiar rhythm and tempo… Disco’s back (again!) baby, for a week at least. It’s a toe-tapper, for sure; the sort of record you can’t help dancing to, even if you don’t really want to. And you may well not want to dance to this because, let’s be honest, it’s a bit naff…

He said that loved me, Never would go, Uh-oh, Uh-oh… Aneka’s been left all alone. Her happy home’s been broken up. Mister can’t you tell me where my love has gone, He’s a Japanese boy… Meanwhile a very tacky tick-tock effect keeps time, and there are the same ‘pew-pews’ from Kelly Marie’s ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’. Maybe the two songs were recorded in the same studio? I feel strangely proud that two of the early-eighties’ trashiest (and catchiest) #1s were Scottish.

For yes, no matter the, um, chopsticks in her hair. No matter how convincing she looks in a kimono. Aneka is not, brace yourselves, actually Japanese. Her real name is Mary Sandeman, and she’s from Edinburgh. You can look at it two ways: it’s a white woman singing in a high-pitch, pretending to be a geisha. While you could argue that she usually sang in a high-pitch (she did), the video below in which she bows and dances like an obedient courtesan does look a bit iffy these days…

Or you could look at the positives. It’s a white woman who’s been dating, maybe even marrying – definitely sexualising – an Asian man, in 1981. Something that Hollywood still gets stick for not doing enough of thirty years later. Is ‘Japanese Boy’ both incredibly progressive and incredibly backwards…? Or is it just a silly disco hit that doesn’t deserve either weighty tag?

I have to admit I’m enjoying this. It’s a musical Big Mac – lacking in any sort of proper sustenance, every verse, chorus and chord change signalled a mile off, but completely hitting the spot. And it seems that Europe agreed wholeheartedly that summer – it hit #1 from Ireland to Switzerland. One place that didn’t agree was Japan. All the ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ bits I mentioned in the intro…? Japanese record labels thought they sounded too Chinese (which they obviously are), proving yet again that Westerners struggle to differentiate anything east of India.

This was Aneka’s one and only hit (the follow-up made #50) and she’s pretty much disowned it these days, refusing offers to do oldies shows. The most bizarre thing about this whole story is that Mary Sandeman is actually a well-respected Scottish folk singer. The follow-up album to this Japanese excursion was titled ‘Reflections on Scotland’. Even the ‘B’-side to this very smash hit was a cover of Robbie Burns’ ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. ‘Japanese Boy’ was her one attempt at something different… and it ended up being a chart-topping single, written about in WordPress blogs decades later. That’s life.

483. ‘Green Door’, by Shakin’ Stevens

Proving that the British public can only remain serious for so long (three weeks, to be precise) here is Shakin’ Stevens knocking The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ off the top with another slice of old-style rockin’ and rollin’…

Green Door, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 2nd of four #1s)

4 weeks, 26th July – 23rd August 1981

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ was obviously the motto pinned to the wall of Shaky’s recording studio. He takes the fun rockabilly of ‘This Ole House’, and ups both the fun and the rockabilly. A boogie-woogie piano and some clicking fingers lead us in to a tale of mystery and intrigue… Just what is behind the green door?

There’s an old piano and they’re playin’ hot, Behind the green door… Is it a bar? Don’t know what they’re doin’ but they laugh a lot, Behind the green door… Is it more than a bar…? A speakeasy? A strip-club? A brothel?? And why does it sound like the door leads directly off from Shaky’s bedroom, as he lies awake all night…?

It’s not a record that holds up much under scrutiny. But, you suspect, that was never the point. This wasn’t written with an eye on it being dissected in literature classes. The grannies and the kids ran out and bought Stevens’s first #1 in their droves, and this is aimed at the same crowd. And I personally can’t say no to some good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, especially in an era where traditional ‘guitar’ music was in short supply at the top of the charts. There’s a great, twangy solo too, which ends in a note for note replica of the solo from ‘That’ll Be the Day’.

Shaky tries his best to get in to this here club, but has the door slammed in his face each time. I do like the hospitality’s thin there… line. It’s never specified why he isn’t allowed in – maybe the singer’s just got a baby face? I can sympathise, having spent most of 2002-03 trying, and largely failing, to get into nightclubs with a fake I.D. Wikipedia lists the song’s possible inspirations as including a Chicago speakeasy, London’s first lesbian bar, and a short story by H.G. Wells, among others.

‘Green Door’ is a cover – it had to be, right? – of a 1956 US #1 originally recorded in fairly pre-rock fashion by Jim Lowe. Frankie Vaughan took a fun big-band version to #2 over here. But I like Shakin’ Stevens’ version just as much. It rocks. And I don’t mean in a karaoke-ish, Elvis-impersonating way. It rocks, in a way that I wish more of the mid-seventies rock ‘n’ roll revival hits from the likes of Mud, Showaddywaddy and Alvin Stardust did. It still sounds completely out of place, considering ‘Ghost Town’ before, and the record coming up next, but who cares? Variety is, as they say, the spice of life, and in 1981 Shaky was bringing it to the top of the charts. He was in the middle of a red-hot streak here, and will be back in pole position again soon.