To recap, then, for the twentieth time…
As we’ve just passed the 600th number one, having covered thirty-five years of British chart-topping singles, it might be worth looking back at every other hundredth #1. See if they show us anything worth noting about popular music tastes. The first #1 was famously ‘Here in My Heart’, a pre-rock power-ballad by Al Martino. And as #1 singles hung around for ages in the fifties, by the time we got to the 100th it was already 1960: Anthony Newley’s fey and clipped ‘Do You Mind?’. The 200th was The Beatle’s ‘Help!’, so that’s definitely a marker, but the 300th was Tony Orlando and Dawn’s ‘Knock Three Times’, which marks nothing but the British public’s undying love for a cheesy, easily-digestible jingle. 400th was Julie Covington’s ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, a complete outlier, though one that could be used to argue the evergreen popularity of showtunes, and the 500th was Nicole’s ‘A Little Peace’, one of many Eurovision-winning number ones.
It would have been cool if those six singles had tracked a direct course through rock ‘n’ roll, Merseybeat, psychedelia, glam, disco and new wave but alas, the charts never do what you want them to. There’s always a German teenager just around the corner, ready to sing about love and peace. The 600th chart-topper was probably the most ‘of its time’, along with the 1st and the 200th: T’Pau’s storming new-age power-ballad ‘China in Your Hand’.
Which is interesting because, for me, the 1980s has been the decade that, in chart terms, has had the least clear trajectory. Since rock ‘n’ roll wiped out the traditional, pre-rock dinosaurs, everything that’s followed has made way for something else. Certain genres borrowed from the past (glam, for example) but in ways that felt very new. But since new-wave wiped the slate clean, in a way, in 1979, things have gotten more jumbled up.
The New-Romantics were a glossier new-wave, and then the drowsy MOR middle years of the decade went glossier still (just with more saxophones). Everything’s been getting smoother, and better-produced, but doesn’t seem quite as new. Maybe that’s it from now on: there won’t be a musical movement with the heft of rock ‘n’ roll, or disco. It’ll just be smaller reinventions of older ideas… With one big exception, which we’ve already seen flashes of at the top of the charts: hip-hop.
Anyway, that was an unscripted diversion. What have we seen over the past thirty chart-toppers, before we dish out some awards? In no particular order: the end of Wham!, the first soap-star-slash-pop-star, the first and only hair metal #1 from Europe, and the first and only ‘80s-indie #1 from The Housemartins. There’s been this frightfully modern-sounding thing called ‘house music’ from Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley and M/A/R/R/S, the now obligatory charity record in Ferry Aid, and a couple of classic re-issues from Jackie Wilson and Ben E. King. Boy George launched a solo career, and George Michael went and duetted with the Aretha Franklin. Michael Jackson kicked off the ‘Bad’ era with an underwhelming lead single. Oh, and there was the third coming of The Bee Gees. While soundtracks have provided plenty of chart-toppers from the likes of Berlin, Starship, Los Lobos and Madonna.
Speaking of Madonna… She has been the dominating force over this last thirty, claiming four chart-toppers along the way: ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘True Blue’, ‘La Isla Bonita’ and ‘Who’s That Girl’. That’s a truly noteworthy level of domination that few artists achieve. And few artists split opinion like Madonna either, for reasons I won’t go into here (that’s a can of worms and a half…) But I’m team Madge. Even when she’s terrible – and she can certainly be terrible – she’s never boring.
One other noteworthy movement, before we get onto the awards, is that we have entered the age of SAW. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman have produced three of the past thirty chart-toppers – the fun ‘Respectable’, the bland but worthy ‘Let It Be’, and the timeless classic/crock of crap (delete as appropriate) that is ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ – and there are plenty more where they came from over the next few years. Love or hate them, SAW are the tinny, brassy sound of the late-eighties, and that’s where we have our sights firmly set…
To the awards, then. The ‘Meh’ Award for all-round dullness and forgettability is up first. I found Boris Gardner’s reggae smoothy ‘I Wanna Wake Up With You’ pleasant but snoozy, while Nick Berry’s ‘Every Loser Wins’ was bland verging on terrible. Boy George did nothing particularly innovative on his ‘Everything I Own’ cover, while sounding like he’d been awake for two weeks straight. But I tend to always give this one to dull ballads. Therefore I’m changing it up and awarding it to Madonna herself, for ‘Who’s That Girl’. Had it been her only chart-topper then I’d probably have let it off the hook. Except it came hot on the heels of ‘La Isla Bonita’ and sounded near-identical – the lazy sound of a pop idol being spread too thin.
There are some middling candidates for The WTAF Award: it was weird (but fun) to suddenly have ‘Reet Petite’ popping up as a Xmas #1, swiftly followed by ‘Stand by Me’. ‘La Bamba’ too was a chart-topping single that few could have predicted. But I’m going to go with a song that sounded genuinely weird, especially on the flip-side. M/A/R/R/S’s house crossed with alt-rock double-‘A’ ‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (First Time I See She Dance)’ was a truly exciting, unnerving, eyebrow-raising moment on top of the charts.
And now the biggies. The 20th Very Worst Chart-Topper. I’m not going to beat around the bush. There were two real stinkers, one of which was Chris de Burgh’s ridiculously simpering ‘Lady in Red’. But that is no competition for the truly heinous ‘Star Trekkin’’, by The Firm. I didn’t get the joke. I didn’t get the song. I’ve never seen ‘Star Trek’. I never want to think about that song again. It wins.
The Very Best Chart-Topper, then. I’d like to give a shout-out to The Communards (and Sarah Jane Morris) for their Hi-NRG take on ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. It’s a great tune, but it drops out of the running and leaves me with a conundrum. Pet Shop Boy’s ‘It’s a Sin’ is one of the best singles of the decade, with a resonance that goes beyond just being a brilliant pop song. In normal circumstances it would easily win. But then a bloody Levi’s advert went and threw a huge spanner in the works, sending ‘Stand by Me’ to #1 twenty-five years later than it should have done.
Do I stick with rewarding current trends and styles? Can I ignore the re-released elephant in the room? I did name Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as a ‘Very Best’, but that was re-released a mere six years after its original run. Do I cheat, and make it a tie…? Or do I invent a one-off category of ‘Honorary Best Chart-Topper’, for those that would probably have won it in their own space in time? This is my baby and I make the rules, so… Yes! Pet Shop Boys are the winners, Ben E King is not ignored!
To recap the recaps, then:
The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability
- ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
- ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
- ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
- ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
- ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
- ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
- ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
- ‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
- ‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
- ‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
- ‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
- ‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
- ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
- ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
- ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
- ‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan.
- ‘A Little Peace’, by Nicole.
- ‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police.
- ‘I Got You Babe’, by UB40 with Chrissie Hynde.
- ‘Who’s That Girl’, by Madonna.
The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else
- ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
- ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
- ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
- ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
- ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
- ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
- ‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
- ‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
- ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
- ‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
- ‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
- ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
- ‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
- ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush.
- ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
- ‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre.
- ‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin.
- ‘Save Your Love’ by Renée & Renato.
- ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco.
- ‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)’, by M/A/R/R/S
The Very Worst Chart-Toppers
- ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
- ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
- ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
- ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
- ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
- ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
- ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
- ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
- ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
- ‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
- ‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
- ‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
- ‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
- ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
- ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
- ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir.
- ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, by Charlene.
- ‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie.
- ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner.
- ‘Star Trekkin’’, by The Firm
The Very Best Chart-Toppers
- ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
- ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
- ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
- ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
- ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
- ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
- ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
- ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
- ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
- ‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
- ‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
- ‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
- ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
- ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
- ‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie.
- ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA.
- ‘My Camera Never Lies’, by Bucks Fizz.
- ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
- ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive
- ‘Stand by Me’, by Ben E. King (Honorary Award)
- ‘It’s a Sin’, by Pet Shop Boys.