!!Banned #1s Special!!

Having just covered the Daddy of all banned #1s, ‘Relax’, I thought I’d take a short pause to look at which of our 530 previous chart-toppers had been banned for one reason or another.

By ‘banned’ I mean ‘banned by the BBC’, as I think that’s probably the best barometer of overall public taste and opinion in the UK. And rather than divide the post by song titles, I’ve divided it by the reasons the records were banned. Starting with…

SMUT!!

Such a Night, by Johnny Ray – a #1 in 1954, and one of my favourite pre-rock chart-toppers. It was banned because of Ray’s ‘suggestive panting’, as he recalls a night of wild abandon with an unamed person. (Ray was gay, and so he technically sent an ode to gay sex to #1 a full thirty years before Frankie Goes to Hollywood.) Read my original post here.

Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus, by Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin – a strong contender for the most controversial #1 ever, alongside ‘Relax’. Leave it to a Frenchman to record this steamy slice. Rumour has it that the ‘suggestive panting’ here is an actual live orgasm, as the randy old goat defiled English rose Jane Birkin in the studio. (Gainsbourg denied this by claiming that if it had been live sex, then the record would have had to have been a long player… Ooh lalala!) Live or not, this record was so good it came twice. To the singles chart, that is… It originally made #2 in the spring of 1969, before being re-released in the autumn and reaching its ultimate climax. (Original post here.)

BLASPHEMY!!

Answer Me, by Frankie Laine / Hold My Hand, by Don Cornell / The Garden of Eden, by Frankie Vaughan – the fact that these three records were banned might sound completely ridiculous to modern ears. But in the 1950s people – or the Beeb, at least – blanched at the mere mention of Our Lord in a pop song. Frankie Laine made light of praying with the line Answer me, Lord above… (When David Whitfield came to record his own chart-topping version, he changed the words to Answer Me, Oh my love…) Don Cornell and Frankie Vaughan meanwhile compared acts of love to being in the Garden of Eden. Saucy stuff for the mid-fifties. Here’s Vaughan’s hit from 1957, which was actually a bit of a banger by pre-rock standards:

MURDER!! and PROSTITUTES!!

Mack the Knife, by Bobby Darin – originally written for Berthold Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ in the thirties, Bobby Darin’s recording is nowadays seen as the definitive version of ‘Mack the Knife’. No matter that the references to murder and prostitution were softened considerably – ‘cement bags’ and ‘scarlet billows’ for example – the BBC still thought it was a bit too heavy for radio.

DEATH!!

Tell Laura I Love Her, by Ricky Valance / Ebony Eyes, by The Everly Brothers / Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton – One of the stranger musical movements of the 1960s was the popularity of ‘death-discs’ in the very earliest years of the decade. They usually involved a young couple, a tragic accident, and an untimely end… Three such ‘splatter platters’ made it to #1 in the UK, the best of which was the Joe Meek produced ‘Johnny Remember Me’. The BBC banned them on the grounds that they were ‘morbid’ – which I guess is true – and ‘nauseating’ – which is most definitely true in the case of the awful ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’.

FRIVOLITY!!

Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble & the Stingers – I’m stretching things a bit here, as this record was never actually banned. However, the BBC did put it to a review, as this 1962 #1 was a rock ‘n’ roll take on the march from Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, and Auntie took a dim view of frivolous parodies of much more worthy classical pieces. In the end the board decided that the record was clearly of ‘an ephemeral nature’ and was ‘unlikely to offend reasonable people’. B. Bumble lived to sting another day. (Original post here.)

TEMPTING FATE!!

Space Oddity, by David Bowie – Bowie’s first chart hit was this classic, released just five days before the Apollo 11 mission launched in July 1969. The world was on tenterhooks, waiting to see if Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would make it to the moon and back in one piece. The BBC felt that this song, in which a solitary Major Tom floats in his tin can towards oblivion, his circuits dead and something wrong, went against the optimistic public mood. The ban only lasted until the astronauts had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The single made #5, and eventually #1 when re-released in 1975. (Original post here.)

WAR!!

Waterloo, by ABBA – Yes. ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA has indeed been banned by the BBC. During the first Gulf War, it was one of sixty-seven songs banned from the airwaves for alluding, however obliquely, to military conflict. The idea that a metaphor involving a tempestuous romance and Napoleon’s last stand could unsettle the general public in a time of war seems laughable, but the Beeb played it safe. Also banned at the time were Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, Paper Lace’s ‘Billy – Don’t Be a Hero’ and… Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’.

The BBC doesn’t officially ‘ban’ songs anymore, it just doesn’t play them. The last big controversy involved The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ in the late ’90s, which was only played as an instrumental. In recent years, controversy over radio stations editing, or not editing, a certain term from ‘Fairytale of New York’ has become something of a festive tradition in the UK. Last I heard, Radio 1 were playing an edited version, while Radio 2 were sticking with the original.

Any official ‘ban’ on a song nowadays would be quite pointless, with streaming services and YouTube at our fingertips, and the BBC seems to have given up its role as arbiters of public decency. Anyway, the fact that all these banned records made #1 anyway is probably quite telling. At best, a ban did very little. At worst, it actually boosted sales through all the people popping down HMV to see what all the fuss was about.

Next up, we return to the regular countdown, with a song about nuclear armageddon. That was never, as far as I’m aware, banned…

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Recap: #451 – #480

To recap, then…

The last few number ones to feature in this countdown have given me the feeling that the eighties are off and running. Those songs, from Shakin’ Stevens, Bucks Fizz and Adam & The Ants, may not be among the very best that this decade has to offer, but they are unmistakably of a time and place. You might think ‘Going Underground’, or ‘Call Me’ were #1s from the 1970s, but you wouldn’t make that error with ‘Stand and Deliver!’

Before the eighties got started, we had to pay our respects to the seventies, and even the sixties. John Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment in early-December 1980, sparking several months of mourning at the top of the UK charts. Three of his records went to number one. Two of which probably wouldn’t have if he hadn’t died (‘Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’) and one of which surely had to top the charts at some point: ‘Imagine’. We can just thank our lucky stars it was the original that belatedly did it, rather than a cover by the ‘Cast of X Factor’, or something. It’s tempting to think that the need for something lighter then prompted the success of Shakey and Adam Ant, and the mini-glam revival that they brought with them, though I’m not sure how true that would really be.

And before all that sadness, we made our way through one of the great years for chart-topping singles: 1980. The variety was huge: country yarns from Kenny Rogers, old rereleases (the theme from ‘M*A*S*H’), and reggae covers from Blondie. And then there were the all-time classics sprinkled in amongst it all: ‘Atomic’, ‘Going Underground’, ‘The Winner Takes It All‘, ‘Ashes to Ashes’… This recap barely covers a year and a third, so quick was the turnover at the top of the charts – two weeks being the norm – and that aided the mix.

Things probably weren’t as cutting-edge as last time however. The spiky creativity of new-wave had, in the large part, given way to pop from some seventies leftovers: Bowie, Blondie, ABBA with their final pair of chart-toppers, and ELO finally getting their turn at the top in collaboration with Olivia Newton-John. Even the Bee Gees made an appearance, though as songwriters for Barbra Streisand rather than under their own steam. But it wasn’t all ‘oldies’: The Jam staked their claim as the biggest band in the country with a couple of #1s, and Dexys Midnight Runners hit top-spot with a genre-bending tribute to a soul legend.

And before I dish out my awards, it’s worth checking in on old Father Disco. Update: he’s still not dead, despite what they’d have you believe. Although the genre’s peak passed several recaps ago, various recent #1s still have that unmistakeable beat, and those swirling strings: ‘Together We Are Beautiful’, The Detroit Spinners, and Kelly Marie (who upped the tempo even more to give us a glimpse into the future of ‘80s dance-pop), right through to our most recent chart-topper from Smokey Robinson.

To the awards, then. In fact, this time the four winners have fallen into place very easily. There’s not been much deliberation needed at all. First up, The ‘Meh’ Award for forgettability. This one required the most thinking – I could have swayed to Fern Kinney, to ‘Crying’, to Smokey, even to ‘Woman’ – but in truth Johnny Logan’s Eurovision snooze-fest was always out in front. ‘What’s Another Year’ takes the crown this time around.

On to The ‘WTAF’ Award, dished out to those number ones that you just don’t quite get but at least they’re interesting. Again it’s an easy decision – the only other possibility being ‘Suicide Is Painless’ for its ten-year overdue success. But no. Step forward Joe Dolce and his Music Theatre for puncturing the Great John Lennon Mourning Period with his slice of Italian nonsense. No, you ‘Shaddap You Face’!

And speaking of easy decisions. It’s not often that a record as ear-achingly bad as ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’ comes along. I haven’t even considered what I would’ve named The Very Worst Chart-Topper if the boys and girls of St. Winifred’s School Choir hadn’t nabbed a Christmas number one. Because, let’s be honest, there can be no discussion. Looking down my ‘very worst’ list, there are some ‘bad’ chart-toppers that can count themselves unlucky to be sharing such hideous company…

And finally: The Very Best Chart-Topper. The sixteenth time it has been awarded and, to be honest, I’ve been planning this one for a while. I try to not plan my awards too far ahead, but since starting this blog, and these recaps, I’ve know that this record would be winning this award. And it helps that it’s only real competition – ‘Atomic’ – is ineligible thanks to my one award per artist rule. ‘Heart of Glass’ won last time out, and so the coast is clear for ‘The Winner Takes It All’ to reign supreme. ‘Waterloo’ finished third, ‘Dancing Queen’ finished second… ABBA’s best single finally wins it.

To recap the recaps:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability:

  1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
  2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
  3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
  4. ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
  5. ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
  6. ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
  7. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
  8. ‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
  9. ‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
  10. ‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
  11. ‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
  12. ‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
  13. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
  14. ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
  15. ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
  16. ‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan.

The ‘WTAF’ Award for Being Interesting if Nothing Else:

  1. ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
  2. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
  3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
  4. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
  5. ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
  6. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
  7. ‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
  9. ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
  10. ‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
  11. ‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
  12. ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
  13. ‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
  14. ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush.
  15. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
  16. ‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre.

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers:

  1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
  2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
  3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
  4. ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
  5. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
  6. ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
  7. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
  8. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
  9. ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
  10. ‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
  11. ‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
  12. ‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
  13. ‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
  14. ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
  15. ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
  16. ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir.

The Very Best Chart-Toppers:

  1. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
  2. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
  3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
  4. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
  5. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
  6. ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
  7. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
  9. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
  10. ‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
  11. ‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
  12. ‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
  13. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
  14. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
  15. ‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie.
  16. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA.

In a couple of days we’ll continue on through the early 1980s. And up next: things get even more eighties, as the decade’s biggest star scores his first solo #1.

ABBA: Best of the Rest – Part 2

Yesterday I ranked the songs that didn’t quite make my Top 10 of ABBA’s non-#1s. Here, then, is the main event…

10. ‘Does Your Mother Know’ – reached #4 in 1979

The only ABBA hit on which one of the boys took lead vocals, and their final glam-rock stomper. The lyrics are very of their time BUT, crucially, Bjorn acts like a true gentleman towards this teenage tearaway. Take it easy… Does your mother know? You can picture him helping the girl out the club, giving her a bottle of water, and waiting with her until the Uber arrives.

9. ‘Under Attack’ – reached #26 in 1982

One that benefits from not being over-played… This was the last single released before the band split up in December 1982. Sadly it didn’t help them go out with a bang, and limped to a Top 30 peak over Christmas. I love it though: it keeps the moodiness from ‘The Visitors’ album in the verses before dishing out a classic ABBA chorus. Never has a line like: Under attack, I’m being taken… sounded so positive.

8. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ / ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ – reached #9 / # 14 in 2021

The comeback hits. One of which, astonishingly, restored ABBA to the Top 10 for the first time in forty years. I’m treating them as a double-‘A’, as in days gone by that’s presumably what they would have been released as. I don’t really know where to place them, how to assess them with regards to the rest of their output yet, so have plonked them right in the middle. One things for sure: both songs hold their own with those from decades before. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, to my ears, combines ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘One of Us’, two of the band’s best. ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ I found a little underwhelming on first listen, but in time it’s grown into an epic that could only have been created by one band.

7. ‘Head Over Heels’ – reached #25 in 1982

The single that broke their run of 18 uninterrupted Top 10 hits… But I think it’s a mini-classic. It’s ABBA at their frothiest, and is definitely the lightest moment on ‘The Visitors’ album. It helps that you rarely hear it these days – perhaps if it was as played as ‘Dancing Queen’ I’d be ranking it lower. The video, in which Frida plays a messy It girl, is cheap and cheerful, but Good God those jumpsuits! She’s extreme, If you know, What I mean…

6. ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ – reached #3 in 1979

Until their re-evaluation in the ’90s, the ABBA flame was kept alight in gay bars. Most claim ‘Dancing Queen’ to be their gay anthem, for obvious reasons, but surely they were never gayer than when Frida and Agnetha were demanding a man after midnight. Those exclamation marks after each ‘Gimme’ in the title are everything, as is the pounding, horse-hoof beat, that sounds as close as disco ever came to splicing with a spaghetti-western soundtrack. It was later sampled by Madonna for one of her best songs, however I can’t listen to it now without hearing it sung in the style of Kathy Burke.

5. ‘SOS’ – reached #6 in 1975

I’ve heard this referred to as ABBA’s heavy-metal moment, ABBA’s emo moment, ABBA’s finest moment… I’d say it’s simply pure power-pop perfection. ‘SOS’ was their first big post-‘Waterloo’ hit, and it set them up for half a decade of chart domination. Even this early in their career, with both couples still happily together, ABBA’s melodies and hooks were underscored by melancholy. Even Pierce Brosnan couldn’t ruin this one…

4. ‘The Day Before You Came’ – reached #32 in 1982

Just what is this record about…? Is it the day before meeting the man of your dreams? Is it the day before your death? Your murder? Suicide?? A biting satire on the meat-grinder that capitalism throws us through in the name of a career…? Whatever it might be about, this six-minute, chorus-less epic is probably the most experimental moment of ABBA’s career. The hits were drying up, so why bother trying to write a hit? It was also the very last song they ever recorded (until the comeback). Legend has it that Agnetha recorded her vocals alone, in a darkened recording studio, before walking out and drawing ABBA to a close. Those vocals contain some of the band’s best lines, picking out the mundanity of this woman’s life. I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two… and There’s not, I think, a single episode of ‘Dallas’ that I didn’t see… She isn’t at all sure of what happened that day, really; a very unreliable narrator. You could write a dissertation on the many way this song can be interpreted. Who know, someone might already have. Strange, sinister perfection.

3. ‘Voulez-Vous’ / ‘Angeleyes’ – reached #3 in 1979

Apart, neither ‘Voulez-Vous’ nor ‘Angeleyes’ would get this high… As a double-‘A’ side, though, their combined forces get third place. (And, without giving the game away, the highest-placing of ABBA’s ’70s hits…) Both songs are disco heaven, and both are about a sleaze-ball of a man. The same sleaze-ball? In ‘Angeleyes’ the girls want to warn his new lover not to trust him, to warn her away… While in ‘Voulez-Vous’, in the heat of the dance floor, they give in and ask him bluntly: Voulez-vous? Take it now or leave it…

2. ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ – reached #7 in 1981

In which ABBA move from disco, into electronic dance. The bass slaps (I believe that’s the term), the beat is unrepentant, and the lyrics are classic ABBA (how many dance tracks have words like ‘incomprehensible’ in them…?) My favourite bits are the violins that come in at the end, and the synthesised drops before the choruses, but really it’s all great. This was never intended to be a single, and when it was released it was only put out on 12″, which explains the relatively low peak. Though it was, at the time, the best selling 12″ record ever.

1. ‘One of Us’ – reached #3 in 1981

The first song the band released as two divorced couples; and the last genuine hit single they had. A coincidence…? It has everything you want from an ABBA single: singing through the tears, glorious harmonising from the girls, just the right number of cheesy touches (the parping bass, for example). I’m not sure it’s their best song, but something about it just hits a sweet spot – the Wishing she was somewhere else instead… line is perfection – and so it gives me great pleasure to name ‘One of Us’ as the best of ABBA’s rest.

ABBA: Best of the Rest – Part 1

We’ve covered all nine of ABBA’s UK #1s, from ‘Waterloo’ to ‘Super Trouper’, but I’m not ready to bid them farewell just yet. Here then, are the rest of the band’s 17 non chart-topping UK Top 40 hits, ranked, and split over two days. Bear in mind that I do not actively dislike any of these songs, even the lowest placing. While the records at the top of this list do, I’d say, rank alongside the best of ABBA’s chart-topping hits. Here we go…

17. ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ – reached #38 in 1975

The worst of the rest (but still an earworm). This is ABBA at their schlager-iest: the saxophones, the wedding bells, the silly title. The band were struggling to follow up ‘Waterloo’, to score a hit away from Eurovision, and when this limped to #38 it looked as if the game might have been up. Luckily their next single did significantly better, and the rest is history…

16. ‘I Have a Dream’ – reached #2 in 1979

ABBA’s final single of the seventies was this Christmas Number Two. Sorry, that sounded a bit rude. It’s not that bad, but I’ve never connected with it. Listening to ‘ABBA Gold’ as a kid, this was the one song I wished would end sooner than it ever did, and then along came Westlife’s rotten cover version. I still feel the same way: it’s a bit plodding – the sitar doesn’t help – and children’s choirs in pop songs are, as St. Winifred’s showed us, dangerous things.

15. ‘Chiquitita’ – reached #2 in 1979

Another number two – again, not being rude – from 1979, and from the ‘Voulez-Vous’ album. I can see that this is a well-made piece of music: the baroque piano, the chorus that demands to be belted out, the terrifying snowman in the video; and a well-loved moment in the ABBA canon. But it still leaves me a little cold. ‘Chiquitita’ could well be the lover of ‘Fernando’, and I’d rank the two songs together: catchy choruses, but nowhere near peak-ABBA.

14. ‘Money, Money, Money’ – reached #3 in 1976

If it were down to the video alone, this’d be near the top. The close-ups, the strobe lights, the diamond encrusted kimonos… As a song though, it’s fine. It’s worth a sing-a-long if it comes on the radio. It sounds a bit like it’s been snatched from a musical that nobody has ever seen, and it has one hell of a key-change. Apart from that, the best bit is when Frida pouts the line I bet he wouldn’t fancy me… Um, I bet he probably would, love.

13. ‘Ring, Ring’ – reached #32 in 1974

The title hit from their first album in 1973, albeit only charting in a re-release after the success of ‘Waterloo’. This is such an early hit – their first Swedish #1 – that the band hadn’t yet assumed their iconic acronym (they released it as Bjorn and Benny, Agnetha and Frida). They had a few glam-rock stompers – ‘Waterloo’, ‘So Long’, this. In the video, Bjorn looks like he’s stumbled in after an audition for The Sweet. ‘Twas the style of the time.

12. ‘Thank You for the Music’ – reached #33 in 1983

Their signature hit? Until quite recently, this was ABBA’s chart swansong. Originally recorded in 1977 and included on ‘ABBA – The Album’ but not released as a single until after they’d officially split. A few years ago I’d have ranked this rock-bottom: I thought it tipped too far into camp theatricality. And it still does… But I’ve grown to like it. Who knows, in another decade this might be my favourite? I always imagine Freddie Mercury singing it with Agnetha – the little ‘mm-hmm’ in the second verse is pure Freddie. Can you imagine..?

11. ‘Summer Night City’ – reached #5 in 1978

The band’s first foray into disco, ahead of the ‘Voulez-Vous’ album. While I like the impetus and the drive of this one, I don’t think it’s quite in the same league as their later disco hits, which I’ve ranked higher up the list. And, just confirm, the lyric is: Walking in the moonlight… and not what you think you heard.

A little hors d’oeuvre then, before the main event. Still some classics mixed in there. Same time tomorrow: The Top 10…

470. ‘Super Trouper’, by ABBA

I had no idea, when I wrote this post on ABBA’s final UK #1, that I would be publishing it the day after ABBA returned triumphantly to the top of the charts with their comeback album. It’s a nice bit of symmetry…

Super Trouper, by ABBA (their 9th and final #1)

3 weeks, 23rd November – 14th December 1980

In my eight earlier posts on ABBA, I believe I’ve given very short shrift to those among us that dislike Sweden’s greatest gift to the world (sorry IKEA, sorry Vikings…) Until now, that is. For I do kind of understand why ‘Super Trouper’ might get on your nerves.

That’s not to suggest anything but love for this, their final UK #1. Ask twelve-year-old me, and he’d probably name ‘Super Trouper’ as his favourite ABBA song. The chorus is pitched perfectly at a kid’s ears: the soopapa troopapa backing vocals, the computer game synths… But the chorus, unexpectedly, is the worst part of this song.

One of the reasons I loved this song as a child is that it name checks Scotland’s biggest city in its opening lines: I was sick and tired of everything, When I called you last night from Glasgow… (Glasgow! My gran and grandpa live in Glasgow!) Childhood associations aside, that line is pure ABBA. Then they go and rhyme it with ‘last show’. Most bands using English as a first language would have tossed it out with the first draft. Besides, Glasgow is hardly the first place you’d think of to encapsulate the life of a world-famous pop star…

Or maybe that’s the point. Because ‘Super Trouper’ is all about the drudgery of pop stardom. All I do is eat and sleep and sing, Wishing every show was the last show… (A super trouper is a stage light, whose beams might indeed blind those on stage.) ABBA weren’t the first, nor the last, band to write a song about how terrible it is being famous. But somehow they manage to do it without the message grating. It’s a gift, definitely, to be able to wrap lines bemoaning a success that never ends in glossy pop chords, and getting away with it.

This record might not hit the heights of some of the band’s earlier hits, but there’s still one moment of pure ABBA Gold. Frida’s vocals in the bridge: So I’ll be there, When you arrive… In ABBA’s final number one, it’s the last of many moments of pop perfection. From ‘Waterloo’s glam-rock pre-chorus, to this. Thank you, as they themselves would say, for the music. Just in case anyone’s interested, I would rank ABBA’s nine #1s thusly:

‘Fernando’ > ‘The Name of the Game’ > ‘Take a Chance On Me’ > ‘Super Trouper’ > ‘Mamma Mia’ > ‘Waterloo’ > ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ > ‘Dancing Queen’ > ‘The Winner Takes It All’

That list only tells half the story, though, as many of the band’s classics, and some of my favourites, never got to number one. I will do a ‘Best of the Rest’ soon, and I can’t wait. Following this final chart-topper, they would have just two more Top 10s, releasing what many think is their best album, before finally fizzling out in 1982.

I don’t know quite how true it is, but popular knowledge would have it that ABBA were done and dusted, the carpet pulled over them like an embarrassing stain, by the late eighties. My parents liked them, though they are definitely not representative of society as a whole. But then the ‘90s brought ‘ABBA Gold’, Erasure’s covers, and ‘Mamma Mia’. By the time the stage-show had been made into a movie, everyone loved ABBA again. Unless you’ve already moved to your doomsday bunker in the woods, you’ll have heard that they reformed earlier this year, and have released said #1 album, their first in forty years. Who knows, there may still yet be time for them to add to their tally of #1s…?

463. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA

In which ABBA return, triumphant, to the top of the charts, with their best song. Shortest post ever…

The Winner Takes It All, by ABBA (their 8th of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 3rd – 17th August 1980

OK, fine. I should write a bit more. For a song to be ABBA’s best, it has to be a pretty good song. But why is ‘The Winner Takes It All’ so good? I’m no musicologist – if indeed that’s an actual job – and so cannot talk about chord progressions, keys, and melodic shifts (though I’m sure this record is brimming with them). I’m not sure I can look at this record objectively at all. I grew up with this song. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this song.

It’s a song full of moments. From the opening piano line – confident, stately – which announces that yes, this is ABBA and yes, something great is coming. The moment right at the start of the second verse, when the beat kicks in. The But tell me does she kiss… start to the third verse. The spoken but you see… The fade-out, when the vocals shift to the background and the trademark piano takes over again. It’s long for a pop song, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be. Everything that’s there – pianos, guitars, strings, synths, backing vocals – is essential. There’s nothing extravagant about it (which isn’t something you can always say about ABBA songs).

A song about love as a game, with lovers holding cards, and the Gods throwing dice. It could come across as a bit silly. A bit flowery. But it doesn’t, because Agnetha sells it. She sells it, and then some, from the opening I don’t wanna talk… line through to the closing The winner takes it all… that she belts out in a manner unlike any ABBA single before. This is pop as a stage show, as opera. It’s melodramatic, and unrepentantly sad. There’s no sign of her moving on, of a brighter tomorrow. She’s having a good old wallow. She may even be enjoying this wallow, in a self-indulgent way. Why should she complain? Yet she still does. She doesn’t want to talk… but then she sings a full-blown song about it.

It’s been well-documented that, by this stage in ABBA’s career, the personal relationships between the members of the band had collapsed. It feels lazy to suggest that that’s what makes this song so powerful. But just imagine: Bjorn writes a song – while drunk apparently – about his recent divorce. Then hands it to his ex-wife to sing! She’s the ‘bad guy’ that she’s singing about! (Although Bjorn has denied that it’s specifically about their own divorce.) Still, that’s not your usual husband-wife, singer-songwriter dynamic. You can really hear the pain in her voice, in the lines before the final, earth-shattering chorus: And I understand, You’ve come to shake my hand…

I know people who don’t like ABBA. They’re a dying breed, thankfully, as the band has long since shaken off the cheesy, gay-bar reputation they had when I was growing up. But they still walk among us, the weirdos. The lady next to you on the bus, the guy that just served you in Starbucks… might not like ABBA. It’s best not to think about it. I can’t understand how you could listen to ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and not like it, not get it, not see it for the five minutes of genius that it is. Anyway. ABBA are back at the top of the charts, after what feels like ages. But, alas, they have just one more #1 to come…

Top 10s – The 1970s

We have finally reached the end of the seventies! And so, to celebrate, here are the ten records that I – in my recaps – named as the very best of the decade. Note that this is not me retrospectively ranking my faves. I am beholden to decisions made several months, if not a year ago, for better or worse, and it has left us with an interesting rundown….

I spent the 1960s respectfully choosing the classics: The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’. You can check out my sixties Top 10 here (and while you’re at it why not have a glance at my ’50s Top 10 too.) For the seventies, though, it seems I went a little rogue… Those of you expecting to find ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘I’m Not In Love’, or ‘Wuthering Heights’ will have to look elsewhere…

I am limiting myself to one song per artist, regardless of how I ranked them at the time. Interestingly the only act that would have had two songs qualify was… Wizzard! As it is they are left with just one. And I was surprised that one of my favourite bands of the decade, Slade, came nowhere near to placing any songs in this list. Anyway, here we go:

‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, by Simon & Garfunkel – #1 for 3 weeks in March/April 1970

This first song was runner-up in my late-sixties/early-seventies recap. It is a classic, a sweeping hymn, a modern standard. Every time I think I’m bored of it, that it is a little too proper to be a pop song – it is one of the few songs recorded post-1955 that my gran liked, for example – then I listen to it… The Oh, If you need a friend… line gives me shivers, every time. But I was feeling rebellious, and I awarded first place to…

‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry – #1 for 2 weeks in February/March 1971

One of the grimiest, seediest, downright strangest number ones of the decade, if not of all time. The complete opposite to Mungo Jerry’s huge feel-good hit from the year before. In my original post, I described ‘In the Summertime’ as the soundtrack to a sunny afternoon’s BBQ, while ‘Baby Jump’ was the soundtrack as the party still raged on past 4am. Bodies strewn across the lawn, couples humping in the bushes, someone throwing up under a tree… That kind of thing.

‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1972

‘Best song’ in my 2nd seventies recap. T. Rex’s final UK #1 is everything that made them great condensed and distilled into a perfect pop song: power chords, beefy drums, nonsensical lyrics… From the opening woah-oh-oh-oh it is an extended, non-stop chorus of a tune, and a true classic.

See My Baby Jive’, by Wizzard – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1973

The height of ridiculous, over-indulgent, glam… And all the better for it. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any song beginning with anti-aircraft guns will be great. Roy Wood threw the kitchen sink at this, Wizzard’s first of two #1s, and everything stuck. I named it runner-up to ‘Metal Guru’, and then named the follow-up, the equally OTT and equally wonderful ‘Angel Fingers’ as runner-up to the song below…

‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1974

Winner in my 3rd seventies recap, you could argue that tracks like this marked the beginning of the end for glam rock. From 1974 onwards the genre was swamped with rock ‘n’ roll tribute acts: Alvin Stardust, The Rubettes, Showaddywaddy, whose hits were catchy but, let’s be honest, dumb. Except, sometimes dumb and catchy is what you need, and when moments like that come along then you can do no better than turn to ‘Tiger Feet.’ Relish the video above… The riff, the repetitive chorus, a man in a dress, backing dancers that look like they’ve just come from the away end at Highbury… Fun fact: There has never been a ‘Best Of the 70s’ compilation that didn’t include ‘Tiger Feet.’

‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’, by The Stylistics – #1 for 3 weeks in August 1975

Here’s the outlier… I was genuinely surprised to find that this one qualified. I named it as runner-up in my 4th recap apparently, ahead of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘I’m Not in Love’, which were punished for their ubiquity. But this is a great tune, and it feels right that a slice of soul should feature in this Top 10, as it was one of the sounds of the mid-seventies.

‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie – #1 for 2 weeks in November 1975

One of the seventies’ Top 10 #1 singles is a re-release of a sixties hit? A mere technicality… We needed some Bowie, and this was his only chart-topper of the decade. I named it as best song in my 4th recap. An epic in every sense of the word.

‘Dancing Queen’, by ABBA – #1 for 6 weeks between August and October 1976

Friday night and the lights are low… Frida and Agnetha are looking out for a place to go. You know the rest. Everyone on planet earth knows the rest. The ultimate pop song? The famous glissando intro is instantly recognisable, and is referenced in ABBA’s comeback hit ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’. But. I only named it as runner-up in my 5th recap, because, well, Donna Summer went and did this:

‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer – #1 for 4 weeks in July/August 1977

The future arrived in the summer of ’77, beamed in on a spaceship piloted by one Donna Summer, with Giorgio Moroder as engineer. I rated it above ‘Dancing Queen’ precisely because it isn’t the ultimate pop song – it’s harsh, uncompromising and aggressively modern. You have to be in the mood for ‘I Feel Love’, which is why it hasn’t been overplayed to death, but when you are in the mood then woah. And it still sounds aggressively modern almost forty-five years on.

‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1979

Winner in my final ’70s recap, just two days ago. Blondie brought us a new-wave classic: a little disco, a little punk, a little classic rock, but beholden to none of what went before. Debbie Harry gave an impossibly cool lesson in how to be a rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman, too. 1979 – probably the best year of the decade in terms of chart-topping quality – was a-go go go. I know I love the glam years, but line these last three songs up – ABBA, Donna Summer and Blondie – and a better 10 minutes of popular music you’ll struggle to find.

So, there ends the 1970s. Next up, I’ll be cracking on with the eighties…

419. ‘Take a Chance on Me’, by ABBA

In which the knock-offs are knocked off by the real thing! Not for the first time, ABBA shunt their own tribute act out of top spot…

Take a Chance on Me, by ABBA (their 7th of nine #1s)

3 weeks, from 12th February – 5th March 1978

And they are back to some pure pop, after a couple of more experimental offerings (‘experimental’ in an ABBA sense: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’s guitars and ‘The Name of the Game’s funky bass-line) There’s also a hint of the disco-ball about this one, foreshadowing the ‘Voulez Vous’ era that was just around the corner.

If you change your mind, I’m the first in line… The a cappella opening here is one of the band’s most iconic moments… If you’re all alone, When the pretty birds have flown… while Benny and Bjorn accompany with their takeachancetakeachickachanchance backing line.

In comes the beat, and I’ve always loved the parping synths that keep this one rattling along like a locomotive. Agnetha and Frida are leaving their self-respect at the door here, practically begging to be taken back by a man. No fear of sloppy seconds for them! If you put me to the test, If you let me try…

They change tack in the verses, though. Suddenly they’re confident, their voices sultry: You don’t wanna hurt me, Baby don’t worry, I ain’t gonna let ya… I love the breathy asides – Come on, gimme a break honey – and wonder if they hadn’t been taking notes from Baccara (*edit* this was recorded long before ‘Yes Sir…’ became a hit, but let’s not let that spoil a narrative…)

Some more iconic moments from this classic: Agnetha belting out the bridge, the bababababas that see us home, and the split-screen video, which suddenly looks very apt in the COVID-era (that’s one Zoom call I wouldn’t mind being stuck on…) All of which adds up to the band’s 7th and final #1 of the 1970s, taking them just beyond Slade’s six chart-toppers and making them the most successful group of the decade.

Yep, ABBA are about to go on a hiatus from the top of the charts, after having scored six in just over two years. As I mentioned above, in the years following ‘Take a Chance on Me’ ABBA would go full-on disco, and release some of my favourite singles… ‘Voulez Vous’, ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’… They will be back in this countdown though, fear not, having saved the best for last. Until then, then…

415. ‘The Name of the Game’, by ABBA

And so we come to what I’m right now christening ‘The Forgotten ABBA #1’. Ask your average Joe on the street to name all of the group’s nine chart-toppers: ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Waterloo’ would all trip off the tongue. But ‘The Name of the Game’? Rather than ‘Voulez Vous’, ‘SOS’ or ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’? Doubt it.

The Name of the Game, by ABBA (their 6th of nine #1s)

4 weeks, from 30th October – 27th November 1977

Still, it got a full month at the top. This was no flash in the pan. ABBA were at the peak of their powers, and this was the lead single off a new album. It slinks in, with a funky bassline and a hint of soul. It doesn’t scream “ABBA!” right away. I’ve seen you twice, In a short time, Only a week since we started…

Agnetha and Frida play the part of two late-bloomers who have finally fallen in love. But they’re not sure… Tell me please, ‘Cause I have to know, I’m a bashful child, Beginning to grow… Does she mean as much to him? Compare and contrast this with Baccara’s brazen come-ons. There was nothing bashful about that pair! So I wanna know, What’s the name of the game…?

Musically, this is complex stuff. We move from that funky opening riff – apparently inspired by Stevie Wonder – to hard rock guitar licks and French horns. Since ‘Dancing Queen’ basically perfected the pop song, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, and now this disc, have been much more experimental. Still, at its heart there lies a classic ABBA chorus. Benny and Bjorn knew that that much was non-negotiable…

Having grown up listening to ‘ABBA Gold’, I was shocked – shocked! – to discover a whole new verse here, plus a lot more guitar. Apparently a minute was trimmed off for US radio, and that version made it onto the compilation. If I remember correctly, ‘The Name of the Game’ came towards the end of Gold, and it never stood out to me as one of their great singles. But I was only thirteen. What do thirteen-year olds know?

Listening to it now, though, I’m appreciating it a lot more. This is Grade-A pop music. Not my favourite ABBA song – they’re still to come, though sadly not all of them will appear at #1 – but a solid eight point five out of ten. Not bad at all, for their ‘forgotten’ number one!

403. ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, by ABBA

Already we reach the mid-point of ABBA’s chart-topping run! Their fifth #1, coming from the same album (‘Arrival’) as both ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Fernando’. Hit packed!

Knowing Me, Knowing You, by ABBA (their 5th of nine #1s)

5 weeks, from 27th March – 1st May 1977

Speaking of ‘Fernando’, the intro to this record sounds like a leftover from that recording session – acoustic guitars and a hint of pan-pipes. Fear not, though, for straight away that funky bass-line comes to our rescue and actually, the nearest comparison from the band’s earlier hits is to ‘SOS’. Power chords and actual hard rock guitars.

No more, Carefree, Laughter, Silence ever after… I’ve mentioned ABBA’s unique brand of English before, and I do love these rhymes that you can see coming from a mile off. Then we get a bit emo: Walkin’ through an empty house, Tears in my eyes… We are a long way from ‘Mamma Mia’s camp exclamations, or ‘Dancing Queen’s affirmation.

Knowing me, Knowing You, There is nothing we can do! It’s a break-up song, but at least it sounds like it’s mutual. A conscious uncoupling, if you will, and the intricate male backing vocals in the chorus do make it sound like a conversation. Breaking up is never easy I know but I have to go… Meanwhile the image of empty rooms in which children used to play is a powerful one.

In fact, it’s an early example of the sorts of songs ABBA would go on to make in the 80s, after their imperious phase and their disco phase. It doesn’t hit as hard as, say, ‘One of Us’, though; because the band had yet to go through their famed break-ups. Agnetha and Bjorn were still together, while Benny and Frida wouldn’t get married until 1978. Perhaps, then, we can say it’s a fictional story about a break up; while those later hits were documentaries.

I have seen ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ on top of several ‘ABBA – Ranked’ articles over the years, which has always surprised me a bit. It’s a cracker of a chorus (I mean, it’s ABBA, duh), but it’s never been my favourite. I have, for example, never really understood the song’s signature hook: the a-haaaaa. What does it mean? What does it signify? Meanwhile, Brits of a certain age will never now be able to listen to this song without picturing Alan Partridge.

Maybe it’s because those writers didn’t want to choose the obvious singles, or maybe the song’s slightly low-key vibe makes it a hipsters’ choice. (Though ‘SOS’ is the true hipster’s favourite ABBA single.) It is not as instant as their earlier #1s, but still a classic. Few bands have runs like ABBA did in the mid-to-late seventies. ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ gave them their 4th chart-topper, and their seventeenth week at #1, in little over a year. And they will be back soon enough…