556. ‘Dancing in the Street’, by David Bowie & Mick Jagger

At the end of my last post I promised you an all-star duet at #1. Well, has there ever been a more all-star duet atop the charts than this? It’s only David Bowie and Mick Jagger…

Dancing in the Street, by David Bowie (his 5th and final #1) & Mick Jagger (his only solo #1)

4 weeks, from 1st – 29th September 1985

I also promised that this wouldn’t be underwhelming. And this record may be many things, but underwhelming it is not. It starts with a giant whistle, the sort shepherds use to summon their dogs from three fields away, and a rollcall of cities and continents. OK! Toky-oh…! Jagger bellows. South Ameriiiiicaaaa…! Bowie replies.

It sets the tone for the entire song. Every dial here is set to eleven: the horns, the handclaps, the riff… But nothing more so than its two stars. This should have been listed as David Bowie Vs Mick Jagger, as they spend the entire three and a half minutes trying to outdo one another for sheer ridiculousness. It makes for a tremendously fun listen.

Bowie does his best, sounding all white soul on the they’ll be swinging, swaying, records playing line, and doing his best Noel Coward with on the streets of Brazil…  But Bowie, even David Bowie, cannot compete with Mick Jagger when he’s in the mood. The way he soars through just as long as you are there…, the way he makes Philadelphia PA sound like a sexual position, and the piece de resistance: his ridiculously aggressive Back! In! The! USSR! It’s good to hear his voice again, sixteen years on from the Stones’ last chart-topper. It’s great to hear him on such fine form.

The video is even more extra. The two middle aged men (Jagger was forty-two, Bowie thirty-eight) prance and flounce around like the campest of pantomime dames. At one point they appear on the verge of a proper smoochy kiss. Again Bowie tries his best, again he is blown away by the force of nature that is Sir Michael of Jagger. The boy was unplayable, as they say on Match of the Day. On YouTube some wag has made a music-less version of the video, and it is as hilarious/terrifying as you’d imagine. It is a completely random, and yet somehow perfect, way for both of these stars to bow out from the top of the charts. And this curio, this borderline novelty single, ends up being one of the biggest hits either man ever had…

But why? I hear you asking. Why now? Why ‘Dancing in the Street?’, which was originally a #4 for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas in 1969. Well, why did most records make #1 in 1985…? For charity, of course. It was for Live Aid, and therefore for those affected by famine in Africa, like Band Aid and USA for Africa before it. The pair were originally meant to perform the song via video-link during the Live Aid concerts, but that would have involved one of them miming to a backing track. Neither was willing to do that, so they went to Abbey Road studios and recorded it instead.

In many way this is the template for how to do a charity record. Don’t bother writing some overblown twaddle about how we’re all God’s children, don’t bother getting everyone from Bobby Davro to Engelbert Humperdinck in the same room… Just get two genuine icons of popular music singing along to a well-loved classic, having the time of their lives. Sadly, very few future charity records will actually take this advice. This is a decent pop record, but I think it might actually be the pinnacle of its particular genre: the greatest charity single of all time…

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!!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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519. ‘Let’s Dance’, by David Bowie

Ah…. Ah…. Ah…. Ah….! Bowie’s back. His 4th number one might not be his very best – it would take something to outdo ‘Space Oddity’ – but it’s definitely his biggest, brightest, catchiest moment on top of the pop charts.

Let’s Dance, by David Bowie (his 4th of five #1s)

3 weeks, 3rd – 24th April 1983

I love the mix of sixties pop – the intro ripped from ‘Twist and Shout’, the background harmonising, and the woozy horns – with hard-edged eighties funk. Let’s dance! the Duke commands… Put on your red shoes and dance the blues… And you are powerless to resist. Like ‘Billie Jean’, when a DJ launches this one down your local disco then they know what they are doing.

But as with ‘Billie Jean’, this record isn’t just a simple dance number. It’s David Bowie, and there’s an edge to it, a hidden strain of weirdness. Not so much in the lyrics, more in the way he delivers them. The yelped: Tremble like a flow-er! for example, stands out, as does the Under the moonlight, The serious moonlight! There’s a gravel in Bowie’s voice here, a soulful edge that wasn’t present in any of this three earlier #1s. He sounds like he’s enjoying belting this out, reborn after the lost years of the late-seventies, but there’s also an edge to his voice you don’t often get in dance music.

There’s also some weirdness in the video, which features two Aboriginal Australians trying on the red shoes in the song, and being transported to a capitalist wonderland of jewellery shops and posh restaurants. In the end they smash the shoes, and dance their way back into the outback. I’m not sure the song needs such a statement video, and it perhaps stems from Bowie’s discomfort at releasing such a commercial record.

I fully admit to sometimes not getting David Bowie. I love his glam hits, and two of his three previous chart-toppers, ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Under Pressure’. (‘Ashes to Ashes’ was less of a smash with me.) But I get this one. What’s not to get? If anything, I’m properly realising just how great ‘Let’s Dance’ is, in all its funky glory. The funk here is brought by the song’s producer, Nile Rodgers. His influence is all over it, and not just in the fact he plays guitar on the recording. (The solo at the end, meanwhile, is performed by Stevie Ray Vaughan.) Bowie had written it as folk number, until Rodgers came along.

As great as it is, the success of ‘Let’s Dance’ sent David Bowie off course for the rest of the decade. He confessed that the MTV success of this single and the subsequent album, and the newer, younger fans that it brought him, left him unsure of his direction. But let’s not worry about that for now. In this moment, we can celebrate what is perhaps his ultimate singles chart moment, a good fifteen years into his career as a chart star.

That’s an interesting point. We’re right in the middle of a run of era-defining singles, that are launching the 1980s as we know it. But only really Duran Duran could be described as an ‘eighties’ act, and even they were several years into their career. Bowie, Michael Jackson and Bonnie Tyler were all seventies, if not sixties, veterans. But it is they who are at the forefront of this bright new era.

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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…

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.

464. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, by David Bowie

Hot on ABBA’s heels, here’s another triumphant return to the top of the charts for a seventies icon.

Ashes to Ashes, by David Bowie (his 2nd of five #1s)

2 weeks, 17th – 31st August 1980

Unlike ABBA, however, this is only David Bowie’s second visit to the #1 spot, and his first with a new song (his earlier chart-topper being a re-release of his debut hit ‘Space Oddity’). It seems that Bowie could score his very biggest hits only if he was singing about Major Tom.

Do you remember a guy that’s been, In such an early song…? The fourth wall is broken in the first lines, while a woozy, harsh riff plays out on an instrument I am completely unable to name. It’s very new, quite avant-garde, the most eighties moment yet in this countdown. There’s also a reggae-ish feel to it, in the beat, and in the singer’s delivery.

It’s a bit of a hotch-potch, really. As with a lot of Bowie’s work, I wish I liked it more than I do. The verses are where my attention wanders the most. The lyrics and the beat trip over one another, and you’re left a bit lost. For the most part, though, I come down on the side of not caring if music is a bit beyond me, as long as it’s catchy. Luckily, this record has a killer chorus.

Ashes to ashes, Fun to funky, We know Major Tom’s a junkie… Is David Bowie Major Tom, and this record a look back at his struggles with drugs in the late seventies? Is he the Starman turned addict? Is Major Tom actually heroin…? The repeated closing lines… My mama said, To get things done, You better not mess with Major Tom… would perhaps bear this out.

The sinister music video – the most expensive ever made at this point in time – does little to clarify: it features Bowie in a clown suit, being followed by a bulldozer, releasing doves and rocking in a padded cell. (But I did find a great story from the making this video… On location, an elderly dog-walker refused to get out of one shot, and when the director asked if he knew who this man – pointing at the David Bowie – was, the old bloke replied: ‘Yeah, it’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ Bowie wore the insult with pride, apparently, for years after.)

I had a friend growing up who was obsessed with David Bowie, and with this song in particular. He was a bit of a pretentious arse, and perhaps I’ve always unfairly associated ‘Ashes to Ashes’ with him. Except… listening to it properly now, over and over, I’m not sure I wasn’t right all along. It is arty, and clever, and perhaps pretentious. Though both feature Major Tom, the shift from ‘Space Oddity’ to this is huge: perhaps the biggest change in sound between chart-toppers by any act so far. Which is fine. Good, even. Some people have to push the envelope, and Bowie did it better than anybody else, but sometimes it’s beyond me.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love a lot of his music. It’s just frustrating that the Bowie I enjoy most never made the top of the charts. Of his five #1s, four are from the eighties, while the seventies’ #1 was actually from the sixties. Hey ho. It’s becoming apparent that very few acts are best represented by their chart-toppers. At least he won’t have as long to wait for his next one…

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…

380. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie

Ground control to Major Tom… Ground control to Major Tom… Take your protein pills and put your helmet on…

Space Oddity, by David Bowie (his 1st of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 2nd – 16th November 1975

Have there been stranger opening lyrics to a #1 single…? A fade-in, which hasn’t featured very often either, then a very familiar voice. We countdown, to lift-off. Check ignition, And may God’s love be with you… Enter a legend.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned any artist in this blog, without actually featuring one of their songs, more often than David Bowie. He loomed over all the glam hits, the Lord above, while never deigning to do anything as vulgar as top the pop charts. And then, when he finally does, we’ve missed out on Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, and it’s a re-release of his breakthrough hit that does it.

This is an awesome song, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word: awesome. A sweeping epic about a man heading into space, alone, inspired by Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, with at least three very separate styles contained in its five minute runtime. One moment it sounds like late-sixties Beatles, the next it sounds like classic Burt Bacharach, while the Mellotron sounds like a visitation from the ghost of Joe Meek.

‘Space Oddity’ was originally released in 1969, to coincide with the moon landing. It made #5, and meant that for a few years David Bowie – David Bowie – was remembered as a one-hit wonder, a novelty… Until he released ‘Starman’, and heavy-petted Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops. Then the rest was history.

Bowie being Bowie, I’m tempted to wonder if this record is simply about a bloke in space. Is it a commentary on fame: And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear…? Or drugs: I’m floating in a most peculiar way…? (I love the way he pronounces a-pe-cu-li-ar, in his best Anthony Newley.) Or is it simply an epic tragedy: Ground control to Major Tom, Your circuit’s dead, There’s something wrong… as Tom orbits away to his doom?

It’s been great to really sit down and listen to this song. I knew it, of course, in that way everyone knows incredibly famous songs, but it’s not part of my regular rotation. In fact, I have to admit, not much Bowie is in my regular rotation. It is permanently item one on my musical to-do list: appreciate David Bowie more, you philistine! I like him, I love what he stood for and represented, but some of his music, like Major Tom himself, floats way above my head…

In the real world, while a re-release of his first hit made #1 – the second 1960s disc to hit the top in this weirdest of years – Bowie was leaving glam behind, and becoming a huge star in the US with soul numbers like ‘Fame’ and ‘Golden Years’. Then came the cocaine, before the mega-successful early ‘80s. We won’t meet him atop the charts again until then. Which means his only #1 from the entirety of the 1970s is this. David Bowie, along with Prince, is perhaps the biggest artist with the worst representation from his chart-topping hits. Anyway, all that is still to come. For now, let’s float off into the milky way, in our tin cans. Altogether now: Can you hear me Major Tom…? Can you hear me Major Tom…?