588. ‘Let It Be’, by Ferry Aid

Uh-oh, charity single ahoy…!

Let It Be, by Ferry Aid

3 weeks, from 29th March – 19th April 1987

OK. That intro might have been slightly tasteless, especially given the disaster that prompted this latest charity chart-topper. On 6th March 1987, a passenger ferry left Zeebrugge in Belgium bound for Dover. The bow door, the one that lets cars drive on, was left open as the ship set off, and it capsized almost immediately. One hundred and ninety three people lost their lives.

Undoubtedly tragic. But the nautical analogy holds up, I think. You’re floating along through the mid-to-late eighties, when along comes a hulking iceberg of a record. Charity songs, with their casts of thousands, their cramming of different styles and voices into one, their overlong runtimes, really do knock the charts off course. And when the record in question is a cover of ‘Let It Be’, one of the world’s best-loved songs, by the world’s best-loved band, you can’t help but wince, no matter how worthy the cause.

But we must listen, and ponder. The best part of an charity ensemble singalong is seeing how many people you can identify. It kicks off with the song’s writer, Paul McCartney, doing his best chirpy Uncle Macca impersonation. Then there’s the still heroin-husky Boy George, carrying the first verse. There’s Andy Bell from Erasure. There’s someone who looks like Marti Pellow (it’s not…) There’s Mel & Kim, again! They (sort of) join the exclusive club of acts who have replaced themselves at #1. There’s Kim Wilde and Nik Kershaw. There’s Kate Bush, who purrs her way through a couple of lines, sounding like she’s been spliced on from a completely different recording. There’s Edwin Starr, of ‘War!’ fame.

There are two guitar solos, from Gary Moore, and Mark Knopfler. Moore’s in particular is pretty blistering, marking this out from the usual charity single fare. There are two guys – one with a bottle of beer, the other smoking a fag – who aren’t quite giving the occasion the respect it deserves. Turns out they’re one half of Curiosity Killed the Cat. This is the second best aspect of a charity single: flash in the pan acts immortalised by being in the right place at the right time. (Also present here is Taffy – no, me neither – who qualified for a line or two thanks to her recent #6 hit ‘I Love My Radio’.)

By the end it’s descended into a pub-singalong, as all charity singles must. I refer to Wikipedia, because it looks like there are at least five-hundred people in the throng, to find it’s actually a ‘Who’s Who’ of previous chart-topping acts: Bucks Fizz, Suzi Quatro, Alvin Stardust, Bonnie Tyler, Doctor and the Medics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The New Seekers. Alongside The Drifters… the actual Drifters??… Gloria Hunniford, and Anne Diamond. Of course. They all look far happier than they should, given that it was the deaths of almost two hundred people that brought them all together.

I haven’t commented much on the music, because what’s the point? Charity singles aren’t bought to be listened to. Before you press play, imagine what a cover version of ‘Let It Be’, recorded for charity, in the late-eighties, would sound like. I’ll bet you come pretty close. (Oh and don’t forget to throw in a completely incongruous, but brilliant, guitar solo.) It is what it is. We listen once, and we move on.

586. ‘Everything I Own’, by Boy George

After the exploits and successes of George Michael; another famous, lead-singing George goes solo…

Everything I Own, by Boy George (his 1st and only solo #1)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd March 1987

For someone as provocative and outspoken as Boy George, he didn’t half play it safe when it came to the actual music. I commented as much when Culture Club’s two chart-toppers came along: ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ left me a little cold, and while ‘Karma Chameleon’ is a brilliant pop song, it’s more likely to have granny dancing along than reaching for the smelling salts. At the time, I wondered if a double whammy of androgyny and provocative songs might have been too much. Maybe it was enough for Boy George just to be part of the mainstream…

But still, you might have expected him to launch his solo career with something a little more edgy than a cover of a Bread hit from a decade and a half before… ‘Everything I Own’ is a nice song. The original is nice, the Ken Boothe version (on which this take is heavily based) is nice… Did the world need another version? Probably not, but it doesn’t offend. The reggae beat is bright and breezy – a little perkier than in Boothe’s version, as if UB40 were George’s backing band.

The most interesting bit of the song is Boy George’s voice. It’s only three and a half years since he last topped the charts, but his voice sounds like it’s aged by a decade or two… I would make an irreverent joke about it, but the sad truth is that he was by this point a heroin addict, and had been arrested for possession just a few months before this record’s release. Perhaps the success of this song was as much a statement of support from his fans as it was about people genuinely liking the song (his follow-up singles’ lack of success perhaps backs this theory up…)

Culture Club had disbanded the year before, in the wake of diminishing chart returns and Boy George’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The start of their decline can be traced directly back to the astonishingly bad ‘The War Song’ in 1984, which I’d say caused more harm than the drugs ever did. In fact, when I start yearning for a bit more edge from Culture Club and Boy George, I should remember their big anti-war statement piece and be grateful that they largely stuck to soft reggae…

Speaking of soft reggae, I have a ‘soft’ spot for Culture Club’s 1998 comeback single ‘I Just Wanna Be Loved’, which came out when I was twelve. The band have reformed a couple of times now, while George maintains an on-again off-again solo career. He’s arguably been more infamous than famous in recent years thanks to various legal troubles, but he seems to have turned a corner now that he’s in his sixties (!) Whatever you think of him, he’s certainly an icon of the decade, and it’s apt that he managed a brief swansong on top of the charts…

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527. ‘Karma Chameleon’, by Culture Club

In which we arrive at a mega-hit. The biggest song of the year, a number one in thirty countries, the longest stay at #1 so far this decade, and the… checks notes… thirty-eighth biggest seller of all time!

Karma Chameleon, by Culture Club (their 2nd and final #1)

6 weeks, from 18th September – 30th October 1983

Right from its nifty little intro, this is a record that pulls out all the stops in its efforts to burrow into your brain. It’s jaunty, it’s fast-paced, with lots of little retro flourishes, and with a hook that just won’t quit: Karma (x5) Chameleon, You come and go… You come and go…. It’s the purest of pop, from the biggest pop group of the moment. You can see why it was so huge.

Purest pop, but not perfect pop. ‘Karma Chameleon’ falls short of the level of, say, ‘Dancing Queen’, or ‘Heart of Glass’. (Too much harmonica, for a start… And the lyrics are a kind of pretty-sounding nonsense.) But that’s a fairly unreachably high bar I’m setting. This song’s best bit – the middle-eight where Boy George’s voice soars through the Every day, Is like survival, You’re my lover, Not my rival… line – can rank among the best moments of the decade. Then it descends into a marching beat, which flirts very heavily with the cheesy side of things.

In fact, the entirety of this record is one big flirtation with cheese. It stays on the right side, though, for the most part (harmonicas excepted). In the video, Boy George sits astride a Mississippi steamboat, looking as fabulous as ever. It is interesting that a band as provocative as Culture Club have two such safe chart-toppers to their name. ‘Karma Chameleon’, as good as it is, could have been recorded by Bucks Fizz (the drum beat here is really similar to ‘Making Your Mind Up’…) while ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ was, to my ears, a little dull. Maybe, though, the fact that their music was so accessible is a good thing, meaning that Boy George was beamed into family homes around the world as they scored hit after hit. Fathers scowled, mothers tutted, and all the kids who didn’t fit in secretly saw hope…

Having said that, I’d still have taken the stomping, Motown-esque ‘Church of the Poison Mind’ to have been the mega million-selling hit over this. Culture Club did have an edge to them, it just isn’t to be found in their #1s. They were also at the peak of their powers here: between October 1982 and October ’84 the band saw seven singles chart no lower than #4…

They would split up soon afterwards though, in acrimony and drug addiction. They wouldn’t work together for twelve years, until their 1998 comeback. Which must have been a big deal, as it filtered through into the consciousness of twelve-year-old me. I remember their comeback single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Loved’ well, and liked it at the time. Boy George, meanwhile, will feature in this countdown under his own steam before too long.

I mentioned in the intro that ‘Karma Chameleon’s six-week stay was the longest run at the top since 1979, and it means that we are suddenly racing through to the finish of 1983. Our next #1 is a big ‘un too. I also mentioned this record’s ‘retro flourishes’ which, added to KC & The Sunshine Band’s disco touches, and UB40’s reggae rhythms, means the ’80s are suddenly sounding a little less ’80s’. Whether I think this is a good or a bad thing… I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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509. ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’, by Culture Club

Part two of a three-part reggae autumn, and here’s one of the eighties’ most iconic figures…

Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, by Culture Club (their 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, 17th October – 7th November 1982

When I think of the 1980s, as someone who didn’t live through it (OK, I lived through almost half of it, but you know what I mean) certain images spring to mind. Huge mobile phones, Thatcher’s hair, Maradona’s hand… And that’s before we get to pop music. Madonna’s blonde curls, Michael Jackson moonwalking, ‘Frankie Says Relax’.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the eighties has begun, thanks to a glimpse of Boy George’s long hair and beautifully sculpted eyebrows. Again. The ‘80s keep beginning. I said the same thing when we met Adam Ant, and Shakin’ Stevens, and Human League. The ‘sixties’ had a very definitive start-point: the sudden wave of Merseybeat #1s in 1963. The ‘seventies’ meanwhile actually began sometime in mid-1969, with that string of apocalyptic chart-toppers. Stretch your mind back to the fifties and it was Bill Haley who kicked all that off. The eighties, though, has been harder to pin down.

We’re here to talk about music, though, not iconography. Musically, this record isn’t announcing a new dawn. It’s nice, very gentle, reggae. The intro meanders, and the rest of the song never really picks up the pace. My attention, I’ll be honest, starts to wander. Boy George sings it beautifully, which is probably what made this song stand out at the time. That, and the fact that he looks like a girl.

Sorry, that’s obviously not a very ‘2022’ kind of thing to say. But we’re talking about forty years ago, when appearing on Top of the Pops looking like that was to become an instant national sensation. He makes Ziggy Stardust era Bowie look like Dirty Harry. The music wouldn’t have had to be anything special, it was always going to be playing a clear second fiddle. The video backs this up, with George being thrown out of a nightclub, then a swimming pool, then standing trial for simply being himself. Do you really want to hurt me, Do you really want to make me cry…? The jury of black people in blackface is presumably a comment on people acting how society demands, rather than on being true to themselves. (Completely irrelevant side note: that makes two #1s in a row with a music video featuring the artists on trial.)

I do wish I liked this more. It’s a genuine moment at the top of the charts, but I can’t really get into it. The best bit is the middle-eight, when the emotions peak: If it’s love you want from me, Then take it away… But that’s followed by an empty space where some kind of solo should be. There’s just some bass noodling, some light drumming, and an echo. It reminds me of The Police’s ‘Walking on the Moon’, which I found similarly dull.

‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ was a huge breakthrough for Culture Club. Their only previous chart hit had made #100. Following this, for two years, every single they released would make #4 or higher. Maybe my take on this record is clouded by the fact that I know their monster hit is yet to come… In a year’s time they’ll score one of the biggest chart-toppers of the decade. Maybe that’s when the eighties will officially begin? Or maybe – more likely – I won’t know when the ‘eighties’ began until it’s all over, and I can look back.

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