566. ‘Chain Reaction’, by Diana Ross

If you thought our last number one owed a debt to Motown, well here comes an actual living Motown legend for one last spin around the chart-topping block.

Chain Reaction, by Diana Ross (her 2nd and final solo #1)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd March 1986

And in a sixties throwback double-whammy: it’s only written and produced by the Brothers Gibb AKA The Bee Gees. (They also provide some fairly prominent backing vocals throughout.) Diana Ross sounds much huskier than when we last heard from her, fifteen years ago on ‘I’m Still Waiting’. She was approaching forty-three when this reached top-spot, putting her firmly among some of the oldest chart-topping female acts.

I want to love this – I thought I did love this – and, yes, parts of it are great. The song is one constant key-change, ascending and descending through each verse and chorus, and it’s crammed full of hooks. The lyrics are pretty steamy too: my personal favourite being the hand moves lower… swallow slower couplet. But it’s a little slower than I remembered, and the heavy synths are a bit lumbering, especially at the start. The ingredients are there, it just takes a while for them to settle.

Worryingly, my take on ‘Chain Reaction’ may be clouded by the fact that I’m more familiar with Steps’ Hi-NRG, early ‘00s cover. (I will happily say ‘sorry’ for many misdemeanours, but I will never, ever apologise over my love for Steps…) This record may have united two titans of popular music, but for me H, Claire and the gang just gave it more welly. Sue me!

In the original, things do finally reach boiling point during the final chorus and the fade-out, as Ross’s voice goes up an octave or ten and she really goes for it. Yes, Diana! If only her voice and the production had matched this tempo from the start then ‘Chain Reaction’ would be a stone-cold classic for the ages. As it is, it’s a very respectable slice of throwback pop – slightly out of place in March 1986, but all the more welcome for that.

Apparently, the Gibb brothers were nervous about approaching Diana Ross with this song, as it sounded so retro. (I imagine most people are nervous about approaching Ms Ross for just about anything, but that’s another story…) She was into it, though, and the video especially leans into the record’s sixties roots. You do wonder – and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out – if a song about ‘chain reactions’ and ‘instant radiation’ would have been such a big hit later in 1986, given events in the USSR… It’s lucky they didn’t hold on for another few months!

This was Diana Ross’s final chart-topper, but she would continue scoring hits throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium – an impressive feat for a lady of her vintage. Her last Top 10 hit came in 2005, with Westlife of all things (she should have given Steps a call…) Meanwhile, away from the recording studio, here she is taking possibly the most iconic penalty kick in football history.

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The Supremes: Best of the Rest

Writing a post on Phil Collins’ chart-topping cover of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ made me realise how little we have heard from The Supremes on this blog. In fact, most of the comments on that post turned to the joys of the Supremes, rather than the merits of Collins’ cover. Which inspired this post!

There was a huge disparity between the girl-group’s US and UK chart fortunes. One #1 in Britain (‘Baby Love’), to twelve Billboard #1s between 1964-69! Here, then, are the ten Supremes singles that came closest to matching their only number one… ranked by chart position, rather than by preference.

‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ – reached #8 in 1966

Perhaps a little surprising that this doesn’t come in higher up. The ‘morse code’ guitar lick that comes in and out is great – this is possibly one of their ‘rockier’ hits – and I just noticed the galloping, hand-played drums. It’s not in the very highest echelon of Supremes songs, though. Not for me. It was later covered in a sprawling, psychedelic version by Vanilla Fudge, which manages to outdo the original, and then taken back to #1 in the US – and all the way to #2 in the UK – by Kim Wilde.

‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ – reached #7 in 1965

An even bigger surprise, that this one would be so low down the list. ‘Stop!’ is another classic, one of their best-loved tunes, and a song that practically begs you to do a certain dance move. More songs need exclamation marks in their titles, no? The video above is from a TV performance, but the trio seem to be singing live, showing off just how good their voices were.

‘Up the Ladder to the Roof’ – reached #6 in 1970

While The Supremes couldn’t match their home success in the sixties, by the 1970s they were scoring hits in the UK that struggled on the Billboard charts. ‘Up the Ladder to the Roof’ was their first release without Diana Ross. Jean Terrell is the new lead singer, and she has a throatier voice which she uses to full effect in the final chorus. I hadn’t heard this one before, however, and I’m not sure it will linger very long in the memory.

‘The Happening’ – reached #6 in 1967

From a movie, apparently, of the same name that’s been completely forgotten. This was the final single they released as ‘The Supremes’, before Ross got top billing. And it’s one of my favourites: playful, light, catchy as anything, frantic, slightly demented… Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for it, but that’s just fine.

‘Reflections’ – reached #5 in 1967

And here’s the first of their songs released as ‘Diana Ross & The Supremes’. It feels like a bit of a fresh start, the trio’s classic sound updated with some space-age, psychedelic sound effects. (Which I’m not sure the song really needs, but OK…)

‘Nathan Jones’ – reached #5 in 1971

Their best post-Diana moment? (Ok, there’s one more song to come that could claim that title…) But ‘Nathan Jones’ is my personal favourite. It takes the group’s sound in a very trippy, early-seventies directions, especially in the extended mix above, and is one of the few Supremes records where lead vocals are shared. I’m always amused by the normal-ness of the title. There must be tens of thousands of Nathan Joneses in the world, haunted by this song…

‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ (with The Temptations) – reached #3 in 1969

The last four songs in this countdown all peaked at #3, starting with this A-List Motown collab. It’s every bit as smooth and classy as you’d expect a record by two of the 1960s great vocal groups to be. Diana Ross’ verse is excellent here, with a real playfulness in her voice…

‘Stoned Love’ – reached #3 in 1970

How about this, their joint second-highest UK chart hit is a Jean Terrell number…! The Supremes call for world peace… by getting stoned. Goodness. Either that, or by rhinestoning another fabulous dress… Both might work. Motown tried to distance themselves from the suggestion that it was about drugs, though the lines about lighting up the world suggest otherwise to me…

‘Where Did Our Love Go’ – reached #3 in 1964

Their breakthrough hit… The Supremes first US #1, and their first UK Top 10 hit. My favourite of their big hits? Probably. The boot stomping intro is iconic, especially in stereo as it travels across the room. The rest of the song is quite understated, compared to some of the bells and whistles tunes we’ve seen above. In fact, the girls thought the same, and were unsure about recording it to begin with, thinking it lacked a hook (further proof that most pop stars can’t spot a hit song if it bites them on the arse…)

‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ – reached #3 in 1966

And we end with the song that inspired this ‘Best of the Rest’, the one that made #1 in 1983 thanks to Phil Collins. It’s a bouncy, upbeat classic, though not one of my very favourite Supremes songs. It is, though, probably their most famous hit – it’s by some distance their most listened to song on Spotify – even more famous than the one Supremes single that charted higher.

I hope you enjoyed this short journey back to the sixties/early-seventies. Back on the regular countdown, things are getting even more ’80s… Coming soon!

303. ‘I’m Still Waiting’, by Diana Ross

For the second time this year, a former member of one of the sixties biggest groups scores a solo #1 single. From George Harrison, to Diana Ross. From The Supremes, to Diana Ross & The Supremes, to Diana. Just Diana.

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I’m Still Waiting, by Diana Ross (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 15th August – 12th September 1971

The first word that comes to mind when this record intros is ‘polished’: polished strings, glossy production, not a dollar spared. Ross’s vocals, when they come in, are breathy and crystal clear. I remember when, I was five and you were ten, boy… Diana Ross, as always, has a voice you could swim in.

She’s loved this lad since they were kids, thought they were destined to be together, only to one day be told: Little girl, Please don’t wait for me, Wait patiently for love, Someday it will surely come… But Diana can’t take this advice, can’t give up on her first love. She’s still waiting.

It’s a record that I’m struggling to get into. I can see that it’s good – well-structured and beautifully recorded. It’s pop, but for grown-ups. Sophisticated soul. By the seventies, the people who had grown up buying pop music were getting older, and that starts to show in the number of AOR/MOR (not sure if these terms existed in 1971, but still) tracks that will become huge hits in this decade. Pop was no longer just for teenagers.

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And as I play it again, ‘I’m Still Waiting’ is slowly growing on me. I don’t love it, yet, but it’s gradually imprinting on my brain. It’s not short of hooks – the Little girl chorus is catchy, as is the And I’m still waiting… that hangs at the end of each of chorus. And there’s the I’m just a fool…! from the backing singers. And then, Diana speaks. Love has never shown his face, Since the day you walked out that door… Come back, Can’t you see it’s you I’m waiting for…

Will he ever come back? We’ll never know. The song shimmers to a fade-out. I can’t say I knew much about this record before writing this: it’s not one of Ms. Ross’s many hits that I could have named, that didn’t top the charts. Apparently it was one Tony Blackburn who plugged this album track so much on his radio show that Motown gave permission for it to be released in the UK. And it’s a sign of Ross’s longevity and sheer star quality that this #1 comes seven years after her first chart-topper with The Supremes (‘Baby Love’) and fifteen (!) years before her next chart-topper. She was a huge musical presence for the best part of five decades, and it’s been nice to discover this forgotten gem.

Listen to every number one single so far, here.