572. ‘The Edge of Heaven’, by Wham!

When it comes to their (initial) number one hits, Wham certainly had a formula. Songs like ‘Club Tropicana’, ‘Wham Rap’, ‘Everything She Wants’ all tried out different contemporary sounds. To make number one, though, it seems they had to go retro…

The Edge of Heaven, by Wham! (their 4th of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 22nd June – 6th July 1986

Their final UK release is another mish-mash of doo-wop, Motown, and general sixties vibes. It’s a slightly more frenetic take on their previous chart-topper, ‘I’m Your Man’, and matches the energy of their first, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’. All four of Wham’s #1s have been fun interludes in what was a time when pop music could, on occasion, be a little full of itself.

Yeah-yeah-yeah, Badabadabada… It’s a great hook, one that stays with you for the rest of the day. I also like the hard-edged guitars in the solo, and the brassy horns. There’s also some interesting panting (more on that in a moment). But, at the same time, once you’ve heard their previous three number ones, do you need to hear this? You can see why George Michael was keen to split: he was clearly feeling limited, and his solo efforts – ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘A Different Corner’ – have been the polar opposite of this breezy sort of pop tune.

Ok, back to the panting. It’s become almost customary for me to read for subtext in Wham/George Michael number ones. With ‘The Edge of Heaven’ I don’t need to read too deeply. The echoey vocals are buried quite deep in the mix, but once you pay attention they’re pretty steamy: And there’s a place for us in a dirty movie… George sings at the end of verse II, Cause no one does it better than me and you…

Michael later admitted that he made the lyrics overtly sexual because nobody bothered to pay the lyrics of Wham! songs any attention. (The opposite of John Lennon, who was famously annoyed by people paying too much attention to Beatles’ lyrics…) ‘The Edge of Heaven’ was marketed ahead of release as Wham’s farewell single, and it was released to coincide with their final concert, at Wembley. It could have been about skinning puppies or kicking kittens: this record was going to number one.

At least it’s an up-tempo pop banger. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, it was fashionable for pop groups to bow out with a dull ballad about how all good things come to an end blahblahblah. Sod that. Quite rightly, the biggest British pop act of the decade drew the curtain with a proper pop song. And that was that, for almost thirty-five years… I put that ‘(initial)’ in my intro, because one Wham! hit has had something of an extended afterlife. You know which one. Until then, then.

Advertisements

542. ‘The Power of Love’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Frankie Goes to Hollywood complete their hattrick of number ones, with a ballad out just in time for Christmas.

The Power of Love, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 3rd and final #1)

1 week, from 2nd – 9th December 1984

This one starts off very slow, very stately – gentle guitars and sparse piano – and completely out of sync with what’s gone before this year. ‘More is More’ has been the motto of 1984, with even the ballads being that little bit extra. This being Frankie though, there’s still a bit of weirdness amongst the calm… I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw, Keep the vampires from your door… whispers Holly Johnson over the intro.

It slowly builds, though, into a more dramatic, orchestral beast. Soaring strings come in after the first chorus, in which we are told to make love your goal… There are ominous synths, and even a jazz bar piano at one point. It grows into its OTT-ness, and ends up quite camp. Under it all, it’s a simple enough love song. Yes, there’s a lot of biblical imagery – tongues of fire and souls being purged – but the key line might just be the heartfelt I’m so in love with you… I’ve no idea who it’s about, but I believe he means it.

Was this Frankie Goes to Hollywood making a bid for granny-loving respectability, after the huge controversy around ‘Relax’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Two Tribes’? (I’m not the first person to point out that they went from sex, to war, to religion.) Well, the difference between this and their debut hit is remarkable. The video for ‘The Power of Love’ (directed by Godley & Creme of 10cc) is a straightforward re-telling of the Nativity, with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, making their way to the stable in Bethlehem. And no, the baby Jesus is not kitted out in bondage gear. But the sheer straight-facedness of it is actually what makes this record quirky enough for us not to shout ‘sell-out’.

At the same time, I can’t enjoy this as much as the band’s earlier, genuinely thrilling, chart-toppers. That’s to do with my personal tastes – ballads always have to try that little bit harder to crack my resistance – but also because this one goes on a bit, and has one chorus too many. It veers a little too close to self-indulgence.

But it made #1, and with it Frankie Goes to Hollywood became only the second act in chart history to have their first three releases reach the top. They did so twenty one years after another Liverpudlian act: Gerry & The Pacemakers. Their fourth single, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, would make #2, but when they came back with their second album in 1986 the magic seemed to have faded. It produced just one Top 10 hit, and the band split the following year.

They didn’t last long, but the hits live on. All their #1s have re-charted in the Top 20 at various points in the decades since. ‘The Power of Love’, in fact, has returned to the Top 10 twice, in 1993 and 2000, as well as a cover version #1 in 2012. And before we go, it’s worth noting that releasing songs called ‘The Power of Love’ was something of a trend in the mid-eighties. This one, Huey Lewis’s, and another, mega-ballad that we’ll be featuring on this countdown soon enough…

Advertisements

536. ‘Two Tribes’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Slap bang in the middle of 1984 comes the year’s biggest hit, from the year’s biggest band.

Two Tribes, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 2nd of three #1s)

9 weeks, from 10th June – 12th August 1984

Make that the decade’s biggest hit. No record will spend longer at #1 during the 1980s than this. Nine weeks, in which the best-selling song across the land was an ode to nuclear war. There are very few chart-toppers that have lines like: We’ve got the bomb, Yeah… Sock it to me biscuits now… But this is one. When two tribes go to war, A point is all that you can score…

On this, just their second release, Frankie (and producer Trevor Horn) were clearly sticking to the same formula as their first smash, ‘Relax’. Pounding, aggressive, disco-rock… check. A subject matter (and video) designed to raise eyebrows… check. Just the right mix of catchy and clever…?

Almost. The bass riff is thrilling, the splicing of Russian classical music with high-NRG dance is fun… But to my ears it’s all a bit of a mess, especially in the verses. It’s been a theme this year: hard-edged pop that’s bursting at the seams, constantly threatening to implode but just about keeping it together. ‘Relax’, ’99 Red Balloons’, ‘The Reflex’, now this… Maybe it was the impending threat of nuclear destruction (this is also already the 3rd chart-topper of the year to reference war and/or peace…), or maybe it was cocaine. But something was definitely in the air in 1984.

The video is another event in itself, with Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Konstantin Chernenko throwing one another around a sawdust ring. Chernenko only led the Soviet Union for a year or so – despite being nowhere near as famous as Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev and co., he’s the one immortalised in this video… He grabs Reagan by the balls. Reagan bites his ear off. Holly Johnson drinks it all in as the ringside announcer. As the song reaches its final note, the planet explodes. If I had to choose, though, I think I’d spend my last moments on earth in the ‘Relax’ video, rather than this one.

I want to love this as much as I do ‘Relax’, but it falls short for me… I think it’s because ‘Relax’ is so simple, so gloriously filthy, and so universal. Songs about sex generally work. Songs about geopolitical tension can be hit or miss. Frankie try so hard to make it work – and it is still a banging, clanging, throbbing, pulsing wonder – but I think they overreach and, slightly, overcook it.

There were a million and one remixes of ‘Two Tribes’ – the ‘Annihilation Mix’, anyone? – but I like the classic single mix, with the air raid siren, and the public information announcer opening the song with: The air attack siren sounds like… By contrast, the album version is a little short, and missing the very Russian-sounding middle eight.

No doubt all those mixes helped this record to its giant stay at the top – the longest since 1977 – as well as similar promotion tactics to those that worked so well for ‘Relax’. But that’s not to suggest Frankie Goes to Hollywood weren’t genuinely massive in 1984. As ‘Two Tribes’ set up camp at #1 for the summer, their previous five-week chart-topper climbed back up to #2, making them only the fourth act to occupy both Top 2 positions after The Beatles, John Lennon and, um, John Travolta… They have one final number one coming up this year. And after two synth-rock thumpers, they’ll be changing tack, just in time for Christmas…

Advertisements

535. ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, by Wham!

In my last post, on ‘The Reflex’, I wondered if Duran Duran had produced the most obnoxious-sounding intro ever. In this post, I will pose a similar question: is the intro to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ the happiest intro ever?

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, by Wham! (their 1st of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 27th May – 10th June 1984

In fact, is this entire record not just the happiest piece of music ever recorded? It’s pure, pure pop. If you were to look up ‘pop song’ in the dictionary, I hope the entry would simply read: Noun. 1. As in ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ by Wham. There are finger-clicks, there are organs, there are Jitterbugs!… The moment where George Michael goes for the I wanna hit that high… line, and the horns come smashing in, is perfection.

You can picture the smile on Michael’s face as he sings – though his voice isn’t quite as strong as it would grow to be – probably because he knows he’s just sealed his first UK (and US) chart-topper. In the back of your head you’re thinking: this should be way more annoying than it is, nothing this perky can be ‘good’… But the irritation never comes, not for me anyway. Lines like You put the boom boom into in my heart… float past unchecked. ‘Go-Go’ is rhymed with ‘yo-yo’, and nobody bats an eyelid…

The record’s innocence runs deep. George is upset, he feels betrayed… All because his friend went dancing without him. (I just noticed the potential pun in the title: ‘go-go’, as in ‘go-go bar’…?) The video is also a slice of wholesomeness: an all-white set, George and Andrew in their ‘Choose Life’ tees, as if they are hosting a primary school anti-drugs talk, before things go all neon. (At the very end, as the music fades, a message on screen reads: ‘Go-Go Buy It’, which feels very eighties…)

There’s a cleanness and a simplicity to this record, especially compared to the Blitzkrieg-pop that was ‘The Reflex’ and ‘Relax’. It’s timeless, appropriate for everything from a kids’ party to a stag do, and everything in between. On a completely unrelated note, I’ve always subconsciously connected ‘Wake Me Up…’ with Queen’s ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’. Both are slight outliers in their band’s discography, both are ridiculously catchy, both are throwbacks to the fifties and sixties – rock ‘n’ roll in Queen’s case, doo-wop and Motown in Wham’s. Doris Day even gets a name check here!

This was the first single to be released from Wham’s second album, and it was clearly a step up into the pop stratosphere. They’d had their earlier hits – ‘Wham Rap’ and ‘Club Tropicana’ among them – but this made them global superstars. Back when I wrote my post on ‘Relax’, I confidently claimed 1984 as Frankie’s year. But maybe they’ll need to share it with Wham!, and George Michael, who will also have scored three chart-toppers before the year is out, plus one of the biggest-selling number twos in history. ‘Choose Life’ versus ‘Frankie Say…’ Much more to come from both camps…

Advertisements

532. ’99 Red Balloons’, by Nena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

531. ‘Relax’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Heresss Frankie! In a way, I dread coming across (filthy pun very much intended…) #1 records like this. Huge megalithic-hits that have had everything written about them, and then some. But we gotta cover them all, so…

Relax, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 1st of three #1s)

5 weeks, from 22nd January – 26th February 1984

That’s not to say I dislike this record. Far from it: this is almost the perfect number one. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, it’s a real cultural moment… and it pissed off all the right people. In fact, that first bit – ‘Relax’s catchiness – is the one aspect of this song that possibly gets overlooked.

Let’s do the music first, then. An ominous intro floats in – I’ve always wondered what is being sung here (it’s M-i-ine, Give it to me one time now…) – before giving way to some grinding synths. I’ve been a bit down on synthesisers at times in this blog, but these are great. These are played like guitars, and could flatten a skyscraper. Apparently, singer Holly Johnson was the only band member to feature on the recording. Producer Trevor Horn – last heard on another synth-pop classic ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ – took complete control of what was a jingly demo, and created a monster.

A monster that demands to be played loud. This is no shrinking violet of a song. It’s all out there, slapping you about the face… Which brings us on to the lyrics. Everyone knows what this one’s about… Relax, Don’t do it, When you wanna suck it to it… (there’s some debate about those lyrics, but the band have apparently confirmed them) When you wanna… Come! For reasons of public decency, I will be spelling it as ‘come’ throughout, when we all know it should be… Anyway. Question is, did anyone ever think ‘Relax’ was about anything else? The band half-heartedly claimed it was about ‘motivation’ when the song was first released, but by the time the album came out bassist Mark O’Toole confessed it “really was about shagging.”

And not just any old shagging. The video sees singer Holly Johnson entering a gay bar in his sensible work suit, and after three minutes of face-spitting, banana-licking, tiger-fighting, and cage-wrestling, he ends up straddling a writhing mass of bodies… and that’s just the edited version. Meanwhile, a Roman emperor unleashes a torrent of piss from the balcony (putting the ‘number one’ in number one single…) on the biggest Come! of the song, complete with a super-soaker sound effect. It’s gloriously tasteless, clearly designed to get a reaction. And get a reaction it did…

Two weeks before ‘Relax’ made top spot, the BBC had banned it from being played before 9pm. Radio 1 DJ Mike Read even pulled it off (the record, that is…!) live on air, in apparent disgust. For the five weeks that it was #1, ‘Top of the Pops’ showed nothing but a picture of the band. MTV followed suit. You can kind of see why – even today the video raises an eyebrow – but at the same time would this record have been as huge if they’d just played it without blinking? Maybe not.

But the band new what they were doing. Two of the members were out and proud, and the song’s promo played on this with gay abandon. One ad saw keyboardist Paul Rutherford dressed a sailor, alongside the phrase “All the nice boys love sea men.” The record sleeve, above, which Mike Read took such exception too, features a man and a woman in a little bit of leather and not much else. If you’re of a negative disposition, you could argue that all this represents the worst of the 1980s, a triumph of image and promotion over substance. But… pop music has never just been about the music. Even before Elvis wiggled those hips, pop and sex have been inextricably linked. ‘Relax’ was just the latest update on the theme. Sadly, as we know all to well, this didn’t herald a sea-change in British attitudes towards homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was just around the corner, and Section 28 would be in place by the end of the decade. Yet for the five weeks that this was #1, it must have felt like quite the moment.

It all ends in a cresecendo, and one final, bellowed Come! Then we all slink off to the bathroom to hose ourselves down… 1984 truly will be Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s year. Three chart-toppers with their first three releases (the first act to do this since fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & The Pacemakers), and fifteen weeks at number one. Two of the biggest-selling hits of all time. And their very own t-shirt. Is ‘Frankie Say…’ the most famous rock logo, aside perhaps from the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue? Possibly. So, much more to come from Frankie, then, before long. Though it is worth saying that, of their three #1s, this is my favourite. Everything that was great and gaudy about the mid-1980s wrapped up in a four-minute mini masterpiece.

Advertisements

529. ‘Only You’, by The Flying Pickets

And so we hurtle towards the end of 1983, with our latest Christmas number one. And, yes, it’s a novelty record. But wait! No! Come back! This is a ‘novelty’ in the sense that it’s different and interesting; not in the sense that it’s a bunch of gap-toothed schoolchildren singing about their grandma…

Only You, by The Flying Pickets (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 4th December 1983 – 8th January 1984

The novelty here lies in the fact that this record is (almost) completely a cappella. The only bits that aren’t a cappella are the two drum beats which follow the intro. There might also be a non-human synth right in the background, but I can’t be sure. You wonder why they didn’t go the whole hog and make it completely a cappella, but it was enough for this to go down in the record books as the first a cappella #1. (I’m now going to try writing the remainder of this post without using the term ‘a cappella’, as I keep mis-spelling it.)

All I needed was the love you gave, All I needed for another day… You can see why this was a big festive hit: it’s unusual but still accessible, it’s melancholy, it sounds like a festive choir… It’s got a romantic-sounding title, though it’s actually a fairly miserable break-up song if you stop and listen to the lyrics. All I ever knew, Only you… Plus, the original had been a #2 hit for Yazoo only a year or so earlier, so it may well have appealed to trendy young types too.

The Flying Pickets were a vocal group from London, with a background in fringe theatre. The band’s name would have had a particular resonance at the time, and may have helped them to a few more sales, with the country on the verge of a huge miners’ strike. The Pickets were radical socialists, and the members had been on the front lines of earlier strikes in the seventies. Once ‘Only You’ had made number one, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher displayed either supreme ignorance or shamelessness (both are quite feasible) in naming it her favourite song of the time.

The video adds to the gritty, socialist vibe, shot as it is in a North Shields pub. The band members play darts, pool and the fruit machine as they harmonise. Once you see them, it’s a bit of a shock trying to reconcile the angelic voices on the record with these fairly grizzled looking blokes. They definitely have a ‘fringe theatre’ vibe to them – I think I might have given them a wide berth had I been at the same pub – and all the a cappella-ing does feel a little ‘community centre am-dram’ at times.

Still, it’s a fun record: a ‘novelty’ in the best sense of the word, and a welcome addition to the festive canon. It’s one of those Xmas #1s that, despite having nothing to do with the season, still feels very festive. And it’s another retro-sounding chart-topper to list alongside the doo-wop, disco and reggae tracks we’ve featured in the latter half of 1983.

The Flying Pickets aren’t quite one-hit wonders (the follow-up to this gave them one further Top 10 hit), but their chart success wasn’t sustained beyond the mid-1980s. They are still around and recording to this day – their latest album saw them covering Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, as well as re-recording this #1 hit – although none of the members who feature on this song have been a part of the band since 1990.

That’s it for 1983, then: the year in which it felt like the eighties truly began. Up next, we embark on a year described more than once as the best year for pop music… ever. I may have to take exception to that…

Advertisements

528. ‘Uptown Girl’, by Billy Joel

We are now racing through 1983 – no chart-topper in the second half of this year will spend less than three weeks on top. And after six for Culture Club comes five for Billy Joel…

Uptown Girl, by Billy Joel (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 30th October – 4th December 1983

In my post on ‘Karma Chameleon’, I pointed out how that song took pleasure in its retro touches. Well, here the retro theme is not just maintained; it’s shoved front and centre. ‘Uptown Girl’ harks fully back to the doo-wop and male vocal groups of the late fifties/early sixties. The eighties are temporarily on hold. It’s a pastiche, yes, but one that’s lovingly done, and that’s certainly good enough to stand up on its own.

Uptown girl, She’s been livin’ in her uptown world… It’s a tale as old as time (or at least as old as the invention of social class structures…) A working class boy besotted with a high class lady (I’ve always liked the lyrical contrast between her ‘white bread world’ and this ‘back street guy’). In the video Billy Joel’s a well-groomed mechanic, with some impressively slick dance moves, and the object of his affections goes from being a pin-up in his locker to riding side-saddle on his motorbike in barely three minutes. It has strong overtones of ‘Grease’, which adds to the fun, campy feel of the song. The uptown girl is played by swimwear model Christie Brinkley. Life imitated art, and less than two years after meeting on the set of ‘Uptown Girl’ they married.

This is a great pop song, timeless in the best possible sense of the word, and one that defies too much critiquing. ‘Uptown Girl’ comes on the radio, and you sing along with the woah-oh-ohs. It’s non-negotiable. I’d even go so far as to say that using the word ‘uptown’ in a song title almost guarantees classic status. To date, there have been three ‘uptown’ #1s: ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ (a classic, dripping in attitude), this (a singalong classic) and another one, still thirty-odd years off, that I’m sure you can guess at (another great pop song).

(This has to be the biggest disconnect between ‘mood of song’ and ‘mood of record sleeve.’.. ever)

The fact that I still like this record is, actually, quite surprising. Not only have I heard it several thousand times (I’d imagine), I also suffered through Westlife’s cover version hitting #1 when I was fifteen. That’ll be along soon enough on this countdown, don’t worry… Actually, as Westlife hits go it’s not that bad – although that’s the very definition of ‘damning with faint praise’. And as if that wasn’t enough, a supermarket chain in Hong Kong, where I live, has used the tune of ‘Uptown Girl’ for an in-store jingle. And when I say ‘in-store’, I mean: In. Every. Single. Bloody. Store. Twenty. Four. Hours. A. Day. The poor checkout staff must suffer PTSD episodes every time they hear this original.

A song that can survive both Westlife covers and terminal overplaying as a supermarket jingle must have something truly great at its core. ‘Uptown Girl’ was good enough to give Billy Joel his sole #1 single in the UK, in marked contrast to his US chart career. I once read a theory suggesting that Joel isn’t as big in Britain because we already have Elton John to fill our piano-based balladeering needs. Which is an interesting theory, until you remember that Elton is as big in America as he is across the Atlantic. Whatever the reason, and despite not being short of hits, this was indeed Joel’s only chart-topper. But if you’re only going to have one chart-topper, you might as well make it a million-selling, 2nd biggest hit of 1983, 19th biggest hit of the decade kind of chart-topper…

Advertisements

525. ‘Give It Up’, by KC & The Sunshine Band

Back when I was a student at university, I worked part-time in bowling alley. It was a great job, with great friends, and I had a great time… Why do I bring it up now though, at the start of this post? Because I hear the opening bars of our next #1, and am instantly transported back to AMF Bowling circa. 2005…

Give It Up, by KC & The Sunshine Band (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 7th-28th August 1983

The lights are dimmed, save for flashing neon and spinners – Saturday night means ‘Disco Bowl’ – and the DJ we get in especially for these occasions has just started playing ‘Give It Up’, as he does every single weekend. I am probably cleaning up a spill on Lane 12. Everybody wants you… Everybody wants your love…

It’s a fond memory, and I never grew to hate this song – no matter that I heard it every weekend for three solid years. How can anyone truly hate this song? It’s the very definition of a fun, throwaway hit. And yet… I don’t love it, and that’s not simply down to overplaying. There’s something about it that’s always sounded a little forced, a little soulless. It’s a catchy song, but the nanananananas and the funky synths feel pre-programmed, almost cynical, while the singer – KC himself – doesn’t really sound like he’s enjoying himself.

There are probably prejudices at work here… I think ‘Give It Up’ lacks some of the funky rawness of the Sunshine Band’s big seventies hits: ‘That’s the Way (I Like It)’, ‘Shake Your Booty’ and the like. And yes, despite promising to try not mentioning 1980’s production values in my last post… I think that the 1980’s production is the problem here. That glossy, electronic sheen. Or maybe all those years of hearing it like clockwork have at least dulled my senses, and my ability to analyse this record, even if they haven’t made me actively dislike it.

This was a bit of a comeback for KC & The Sunshine Band, who had had plenty of huge disco smashes in the ’70s (including five US #1s), but who had struggled in the new-wave, ‘disco sucks’ years. Credit to them then, for regrouping, adopting the sounds of the time, and getting one final hit, their biggest by far in Britain. The band were led by Harry Wayne Casey (‘KC’, gettit?) and a revolving cast of musicians who made up The Sunshine Band, and when I say one final hit I mean it: they never went higher than #59 after this swansong… They’ve been around though, in one form or another, since re-forming in the early 1990s.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on this one. I have had it forced on me an incredible number of times and still don’t hate it… That must mean there’s something great in there, right? And isn’t memory a strange thing? Certain sounds instantly transporting you somewhere… The clatter of bowling pins, the sound of a drink being spilled over on Lane 12, the opening bars of ‘Give It Up’ by KC & The Sunshine Band…

Advertisements

523. ‘Baby Jane’, by Rod Stewart

Following on from The Police, another superstar act returns for a final bow atop the UK singles charts…

Baby Jane, by Rod Stewart (his 6th and final #1)

3 weeks, 26th June – 17th July 1983

And if we might continue the comparison for a few moments more… This record isn’t as ‘good’, or as well-regarded, as ‘Every Breath You Take’. But it’s a lot more fun to listen to…

Baby Jane, Don’t leave me hangin’ on the line… I knew you when you had no one to talk to… Lyrically, it’s a throwback to Rod’s earliest hits – ‘Maggie May’ and ‘You Wear It Well’ – in that he’s singing about an old flame. One who loved him and left him, and who now moves in ‘high society’. Musically, though, he’s slap-bang in 1983, with a synth riff and an outrageous saxophone solo (I’m often quite down on sax solos, but this one’s a belter.)

Actually, it’s not completely given over to the sounds of the day. The beat that drives this song along, and that makes it such a fun listen, is decidedly disco. (I miss disco…) Rod’s last #1 had come almost five years before – ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ – and ‘Baby Jane’ was a bit of a comeback hit for him (he’d only had one Top 10 single between these two chart-toppers.) It was a wise decision to keep the disco guitars and drums, for me, and not to go completely electronic.

I mentioned it in an earlier post, but it’s interesting that the run of huge eighties hits we are on have largely been released by established stars, or those on the comeback trail: Michael Jackson, Bonnie Tyler, Bowie, now Rod Stewart. Bowie is perhaps the most obvious comparison for Rod, and his performance on ‘Let’s Dance’, while iconic nowadays, wasn’t typical of a dance record. I’m not sure he enjoyed making ‘Let’s Dance’, as much as Rod enjoyed ‘Baby Jane’. Just listen to the Yeah! before the final chorus.

Fans of Rod the Mod, who enjoyed his work with the Faces, and his earlier, acoustic, solo hits, are probably as down on ‘Baby Jane’ as they are on ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’. And I can understand, to an extent. Sir Rod hasn’t always exercised the greatest quality control over his work. But then again, I think most people could find it in themselves to enjoy this big, dumb puppy dog of a song; while recognising that it’s not among his very best.

This may be the end of Rod Stewart’s chart-topping career, but he’d go on scoring big hits well into the 1990s. Which is in itself very impressive: he was thirty-eight when ‘Baby Jane’ made #1, and has a twelve year span between his first and last number ones – a longevity that not many acts can boast of. His most recent album made #5 last Christmas, while he has also branched out into model railwaying, and drunken Scottish cup draws. Here’s to Sir Rod, then, a true legend, in more ways than one…

Advertisements