599. ‘You Win Again’, by The Bee Gees

They’re back. Again! One of the most resilient pop groups in history returns for a final hurrah on top of the charts…

You Win Again, by The Bee Gees (their 5th and final #1)

4 weeks, from 11th October – 8th November 1987

I’m not sure quite how many reinventions The Bee Gees went through in total. But in chart-topping terms, this is Bee Gees MK III. Folk-tinged pop in the ‘60s, disco behemoths in the ‘70s, now a middle-aged, man-band. (In the video, they’re all sculpted beards, lounge bar jackets and, er, a beret.) But while ‘middle of the road’ is usually thrown about in an insulting way, I’d say this is one of the best examples of the genre.

In fact, I’d say this is my favourite of their five #1s. I love the clanking, industrial intro. I love the deeper timbre of Barry Gibb’s voice, compared to their famous disco falsettos. (It does re-appear, almost, in the second verse.) And then, by the chorus, an initially dark and melancholy number has turned into an Irish jig of a tune. But it’s all still very recognisably Bee Gees – their sound is so flexible and, while they haven’t always been fashionable, they’re one of the best pop song-writing teams ever.

Certain moments are a little too glossy for my tastes. It is still 1987, after all. The high synth notes are catchy, if of their time, and the electronic horns in the solo are a cheesy touch too far. There is also an unintentionally (or not?) filthy line in the second verse, as Barry describes how he’s going to win back his woman: Gonna hit you from all sides, Lay your fortress open wide…

‘You Win Again’ was a huge comeback for the Bee Gees. It was their first Top 40 hit since 1979, and it made them the first group to score #1s in three different decades. (Elvis, Cliff and Paul McCartney having already got there as soloists.) It was also a huge hit across Europe, but in the US ‘disco-sucks’ seemed to have stuck to them, as it got no higher than #75. Though we should mention that they were so heavily involved in Diana Ross’s own big comeback smash, ‘Chain Reaction’, as writers and backing singers, that they should probably have been given a ‘featuring’ credit.

Anyway, ‘You Win Again’ set them up as MOR superstars, and they’d score intermittent Top 10 hits throughout the nineties, including ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (which for a long time I thought must be a Metallica cover…) and the brilliant ‘Alone’ in 1997, which was on the very first NOW album I owned. (‘Now 36’… I think. Or ‘35’… Or maybe ‘37’. Memory ain’t what it used to be…) In 2003, Maurice Gibb died unexpectedly, and the remaining two brothers retired the Bee Gees name out of respect. In 2012, Robin died from cancer, while Barry still performs the band’s music in his solo tours.

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580. ‘The Final Countdown’, by Europe

I take back what I said about our last #1, Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’, having the ultimate ‘80s riff. For I had forgotten about this baby…

The Final Countdown, by Europe (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 30th November – 14th December 1986

Da-da-daadaa… A handful of synth notes that have entered our collective consciousness, in a way that few songs manage. I’d say there aren’t very many people who wouldn’t Dada-da-da-da… back at you if you abruptly Da-da-dada’d in their face (there’s a sentence I never imagined writing…)

Is this as close as we’ll come to that most eighties of genres – hair metal – having its moment at #1? I had previously suggested Doctor & The Medics, or Survivor, but this trumps them hands down. It isn’t particularly metal, save for the shredding guitar solo, but boy do they have hair to spare. In the video, lead singer Joey Tempest (pause to relish the name…) bounds onto the stage in a leather jacket and trousers, doing things to his mic stand that make you hope he bought it dinner first. His hair is glorious, though the amount of hairspray used was probably a major factor in our current climate crisis, while his face is prettier than most boyband idols.

I love rock music – proper rock music, by men with beards – and songs like ‘The Final Countdown’, by preening, prancing, clean-shaven hair metal bands like Europe, really get the rock snobs’ goats up. But I have a secret love for ‘80s hair metal that I file under ‘guilty pleasures’, because in some ways it is the purest form of rock and roll. It exists solely for pleasure: no introspection, no shoe-gazing, very little thought at all; just rocking out in ridiculous clothes, and getting laid.

Speaking of getting laid… Is ‘The Final Countdown’ about going to space, with lyrics inspired by David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, as the band claim…? Or is it a five-minute extended metaphor for sex? Since release, it’s moved into the sporting arena, and is regularly used as a hype song before matches. It also gets an airing every New Year’s Eve, around the globe, and charted again in 1999 ahead of the millennium celebrations. The band weren’t very impressed by that remix (their drummer claimed he ‘wouldn’t have pissed on it if it were on fire’…) In fact, certain band members weren’t impressed with the original, thinking it a poppy betrayal of their metal roots.

There haven’t been too many light-hearted chart-toppers as we’ve plodded through the mid-eighties, so I will welcome Europe with open arms. They didn’t hang around long – this was their only Top 10 hit – but they reformed in the 2000s and are touring and recording to this day, remaining very successful across, well, Europe – especially in their native Sweden. Adding to the ‘peak-eighties’ feel of this record is the fact that we’ve now had two successive number ones by acts named after geographical locations. Berlin, Europe… Not to mention Japan, and Asia. Write an iconic synth riff, do a line of coke, and name your band after a continent. The 1980s in all its glory…

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532. ’99 Red Balloons’, by Nena

A couple of posts ago, I was a bit down on 1984. Before it had even started, I was pooh-poohing the idea that it was all that great of a year. But… with this next chart-topper following on from the assault to all five senses that is ‘Relax’, maybe 1984 wasn’t such a bad year after all.

99 Red Balloons, by Nena (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th February – 18th March 1984

Not that I’m going to start claiming it as the best year ever – not yet anyway – but this is another great slice of synth-pop. The slow-building intro is quite similar to ‘Relax’, and it forms the background to a story of two people in a toy shop, buying a bag of red balloons… Set them free at the break of dawn, ‘Til one by one, They were gone…

And then the beat drops – one of the great beat ‘drops’, from before beat ‘drops’ were a thing – and we have an incredibly catchy, cheese-funk synth riff. And guitars! Punk rock guitars. Forget synth-pop; it’s synth-rock. It feels like an age since we’ve had actual guitars at #1, and they drive the song along through its story of nuclear armageddon. Ninety-nine red balloons, Floating in the summer sky…

The authorities see these innocent balloons and panic. This is what we’ve waited for, This is it boys, This is war… You don’t need a degree in 20th Century history to work out what concerns this record is tapping into. The Cold War was at its height: it’s still February, and this isn’t even the first chart-topper of the year to reference war. It won’t be the last either… Incidentally, the inspiration for the song was said to have come when the band went to a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, and watched balloons released on stage floating towards the Wall.

Nena were themselves from West Germany – ‘Nena’ being both the name of the band and of the lead singer, in a shades of Blondie. In fact, Britain was one of the few countries where the hit version of ’99 Red Balloons’ was in English. Across Europe and Australia, even in the US, the German original soared to the upper reaches of the charts. I do like Nena’s German-accented English, especially in the worry, worry, super scurry line, though there’s a forcefulness to the German version that probably comes from her being more confident singing in her native tongue (the drums are also heavier in the original, which is another pro).

In the end we’re left with something stark, both musically and lyrically. The driving beat and catchy riff vanish, leaving the echoey synths. It’s all over and I’m standing pretty, In this dust that was a city… The singer finds one last balloon. I think of you and let it go… It’s a powerful ending from a song that sometimes gets written off as a novelty (I was thinking the same before listening to it properly a few days ago…)

Nena (the band) had a few more years of success in Germany, but struggled to score many more hits in English-speaking countries. They split up in 1987, though Nena (the singer) has continued to record, and sometimes collaborates with her former bandmates. And so. I am left to reassess my opinions on 1984, and on synth pop in general. Except, oh dear…. Our next number one will go some way to proving why this year wasn’t so great after all…

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456. ‘Call Me’, by Blondie

In which Blondie return after only six weeks away – that’s a very short time between chart-toppers, really – with another disco-rock stomper.

Call Me, by Blondie (their 4th of six #1s)

1 week, 20th – 27th April 1980

About a year ago, when records like ‘Tragedy’ and ‘I Will Survive’ were monopolising the chart’s top-spot, I killed disco off. It had peaked, I said. New-wave, post-punk, electronica were about to take over. But it’s not been that simple… Acts keep sticking a disco beat on their songs and scoring hits: Pink Floyd, Fern Kinney, Dr. Hook… And the masters of it, Blondie.

As with ‘Atomic’, there’s another whip-snapping intro, a drum-roll, and a beat that grabs you along for the ride. And what a ride. Colour me your colour baby, Colour me your car… Not sure what that’s all about, to be honest, but this isn’t the sort of song where you stop to think about the lyrics.

Again, as she did in the band’s previous #1, Debbie Harry is letting loose compared to the ‘Parallel Lines’ hits. Call me! she hollers at the top of her voice… On the line, Call me call me any anytime… It’s pretty clear what kind of call she’s talking about (think Donna Summer in ‘Hot Stuff’…) Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, any day, any way…

‘Call Me’ didn’t feature on any Blondie album – it was recorded for the soundtrack of ‘American Gigolo’, starring Richard Gere, which perhaps explains the unrepentant lyrics and why it followed so hot on ‘Atomic’s heels. The soundtrack version is a full eight minutes long, with beefier synths, and a verse about being taken out and shown off, as all the best gigolos want to be. The producer behind the soundtrack was none other than Giorgio Moroder, which means he’s now been involved in three UK chart-toppers with three different acts, and this won’t be his last…

Few bands have the sort of golden runs that Blondie were having in 1979-80. In just over a year they have had four chart-toppers, all of which I’d say were at least eights out of ten. (If you insist: ‘Heart of Glass’ 9.5, ‘Sunday Girl’ 8, ‘Atomic’ 9, ‘Call Me 8.5) Their one release that didn’t top the charts in amongst all this was ‘Dreaming’, a #2 and another stone-cold classic, much more post-punk than disco (and another 8.5, since you ask.)

Sadly, they have but one chart-topper to come, and – without wanting to give too much away – one that isn’t quite in the same league. And of course they’ll have a huge comeback almost twenty years later, but as great as that #1 is I would count it as something separate. Anyway. Let’s leave Blondie here, at the peak of their powers, and their chart success. A band that sound great anywhere, anytime, any day…

Top 10s – Status Quo

Status Quo. The Quo. Just ‘Quo’. Hated, adored, never ignored… Or is that Manchester Utd? (The single that they released with Status Quo will not be coming anywhere near this Top 10, rest assured…)

Usually with my Top 10s I include any single released, and charted, by an act in the UK. Except, Quo have been around since 1962, charting since 1968. They’ve released a hundred singles over the past fifty-five years! For them, then, I’m only counting singles that made the Top 20.

Where to begin? Maybe some facts and figures. Status Quo have 400 weeks on the singles chart (but only one week at #1!), 500 on the albums, and have played Wembley Arena and on Top of the Pops more than any other act. Speaking of Top of the Pops…

10. ‘Jam Side Down’, reached #17 in 2002

Disclaimer: I’m not really including this as Status Quo’s 10th best single. I include it as I have very clear memories of watching TOTP in a friend’s bedroom – Wiki tells me it was the 16th August 2002 – and sixteen year old me being amazed that Status Quo were still on it. In the Top 20. Look at them! They were old men! The tune is pretty catchy, with that trademark Quo chug, and the lyrics silly enough: My bread keeps landin’ jam side down, Say you’ll be there to spread love around… Also on TOTP that evening were Darius Danesh, the legendary Bowling for Soup and an up and coming act called Coldplay. Wonder what happened to them?

9. ‘Down the Dustpipe’, reached #12 in 1970

Here they are looking a bit fresher-faced. This is perhaps the purest slice of Quo in this countdown. A two-minute blast of raw boogie-woogie, and the first hit to feature their trademark sound… which was still coming through loud and clear on Top of the Pops thirty-two years later!

8. ‘The Anniversary Waltz Part 1’, reached #2 in 1990

Status Quo do Jive Bunny. There are days when I think this might be the best piece of music ever recorded… And then there are days when I see sense. Quo lost their way a bit in the late-eighties, but still kept having those hits. And there is something about them doing a medley of old rock ‘n’ roll covers – ‘Lucille’, ‘No Particular Place to Go’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and more – that ticks a box for me. I love all their covers, ‘Mess of Blues’, ‘Somethin’ Bout You Baby I Like’ et al, but couldn’t in good conscience feature any more of them. Just think… This hot mess of a record came dangerously close to being their 2nd ever #1 single!

7. ‘Marguerita Time’, reached #3 in 1984

A complete cheese-fest that only Francis Rossi liked. Apparently it contributed to bassist Alan Lancaster quitting the band the following year! Yes, it is a million miles from the hard-rocking Quo of the seventies. Yes, there is a ropey synth-riff. Yes, it features actual yodelling. But there is not a week goes by when the lyric: Let’s have a drink, It’s Marguerita time… doesn’t pop into my head, usually around 5pm on a Friday.

6. ‘Again and Again’, reached #13 in 1978

Not one of their biggest or better-known hits, but I love the bluesy riff in this one. Plus, the chorus is peak Quo. Chugging guitars… Again Again Again Again Again Again Again Again, Why don’t do you do it, Why don’t you do it again…? Who said they were a limited and repetitive band…?

5. ‘Ice in the Sun’, reached #8 in 1968

Released as The Status Quo, when they were still a very sixties psychedelic rock act, this is the first Quo song I became aware of as a very little lad. It was on a ’60s Best Of’ cassette that had heavy rotation in my parents’ mustard yellow Ford Escort. It’s a very busy song, with lots of effects and, looking back, some fairly trippy lyrics. ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ is probably the better-known of their two sixties hits, but I’ve always liked this one more. Two interesting facts: ‘Ice in the Sun’ was co-written by rock ‘n’ roller Marty Wilde, and it was the Quo’s final hit in the USA!

To the Top 4, and it’s the big seventies hits… but in what order?

4. ‘Down Down’, reached #1 in 1975

Their only #1 single, but one of their hardest-rocking records. Is it just me, or is there something almost punk-like in the tight, fizzy, riff? The video above has a funky little outro that the single version don’t. Read my original post on it here.

3. ‘Paper Plane’, reached #8 in 1972

Another tight, thrashy rocker. ‘Paper Plane’ gave the band their first Top 10 since the psychedelic sixties, and it set the template for Quo from now until the end of time. Though they wouldn’t always be as frantic as this… I have no idea what the song is about, but I do like how it evolves from riding a butterfly to riding a paper plane to riding a Deutsche car… Possibly the least hippy-sounding hippy anthem ever.

2. ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’, reached #3 in 1977

There are some who might argue that this marks the beginning of the end of Status Quo – less of the hard-rock and more of the boogie-woogie cover versions that they flogged to death in the ’80s. And they may have a point. (Though to be honest, I’ve loved this song since I was wee, and didn’t discover that it was a John Fogerty cover for several decades.) But when a tune is as jubilant as this, who cares? When a tune is able to open Live Aid – see above – and get everyone jumping from the off, then it must be alright.

1. ‘Caroline’, reached #5 in 1973

You might struggle to think of a Status Quo riff (or you might struggle to distinguish one from the other…) Except this one. I love the way the entire first minute of the record is devoted to the riff building, adding guitars, drums and bass. No nonsense, heads down, rock the flip out. ‘Caroline’ is another favourite from my childhood, and is possibly the main reason that, to this day, I can’t shrug off the grip of three-chord, three minute rock ‘n’ roll. There are times in life when nothing but Status Quo will do, and this is their finest moment.

Cover Versions of #1s – Girlschool & Van Halen

I’ve been writing this blog for… *trumpet fanfare* …three whole years! Plodding along, at a post every two or three days, we’ve made it through the pre-rock years, the rock ‘n’ roll boom, the rock ‘n’ roll slump, the Mersey sound years, the Summer of Love, the late-sixties comedown, the glam era, and the arrival of disco… So, to celebrate, this week I’m taking a break from all the actual chart-topping singles… to bring you more chart-topping singles, in versions you may never have heard before.

Let’s kick it off with a couple of straightforward, balls to the wall rockers…

‘Tiger Feet’, by Girlschool – 1986 album track

(Originally reached #1 in January 1974, by Mud)

(Actually, when I said ‘balls to the wall’, I forgot that this first band are all ladies… Anyhoo…) My one complaint about the original glam rock hits is that they sometimes come out a little light in the mix. So when a ’70s glam classic gets covered with the crunchy bite of ’80s hard rock then I kiss my fingers like a French gourmet tasting the perfect roux. Girlschool were mates with Motorhead, and were the logical result of Suzi Quatro’s pioneering work with a guitar a decade before. They covered plenty of glam classics, including ’20th Century Boy’ (oh, if only that had been a #1) and ‘I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am)’ featuring an actual pre-fall from grace Gary Glitter… Their take on Mud’s signature tune takes an ‘if it ain’t broke then just turn the volume up and rock the eff out’ approach, and it is wonderful.

‘You Really Got Me’, by Van Halen – 1978, reached #36 on the Billboard Hot 100

(Originally reached #1 in September 1964, by The Kinks)

A breakthrough single not once but twice. Fourteen years after ‘You Really Got Me’ launched The Kinks to the top of the UK charts, and into the Top 10 in the USA, a glossier, brattier update started getting airplay on the West Coast. While the Kinks were gritty, tough Londoners – Dave Davies resorted to ripping his guitar amp open to get that really scuzzy sounding riff – Van Halen were tanned and gleaming Californians, with confidence and swagger to spare. Just watch David Lee Roth in the video below, acrylic shirt swinging wide, hips swivelling, as he sets the template for every American rock ‘n’ roll frontman for the next decade, while Eddie Van Halen shows off like only Eddie Van Halen could (RIP). I would never go as far as saying that it’s better than The Kink’s original; but it is a brilliant calling card for a band about to become superstars.

More tomorrow!