563. ‘West End Girls’, by Pet Shop Boys

I have something to confess. I’ve been putting off writing this next post. It’s been a full week since I put fingers to keyboard and mused on ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. But why? When up next is one of the most respected and best loved #1s of the eighties, if not of all time…? Because, to be honest, I’ve never really got this one…

West End Girls, by Pet Shop Boys (their 1st of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 5th – 19th January 1986

It’s a statement first chart-topper for 1986. An enigmatic intro: footsteps, traffic, waves crashing (?)… A very slow build. And I will say that the moment the beat drops (that’s not something we’ve talked about often, beats ‘dropping’ – it feels very modern) and the squelchy bass starts slapping is great. Really great. Interestingly, for a song that sounds so new, it was almost three years old when it finally made top-spot, having already been recorded and released in various iterations (to little success).

But the rest of the song? At best it’s enigmatic, as I said in the last paragraph, and very cool. There’s a strangeness to it, a strangeness that draws you in, no matter what you think of the music. It’s got a very unique sound for a chart-topper – a very ‘January’ number one (the time of the year when oddities tend to sneak their way to the summit) – and that’s to be commended. I’m all for variety. Plus it announced the arrival of one of the most influential acts of the past forty years, and I say that as someone who will only have good things to write about Pet Shop Boys’ three remaining #1s.

This one, though. I can admire it; but I’ve never found a way into enjoying it. It’s a frosty, aloof piece of modern art, there to be pondered, and studied from different angles, but not loved. But… I freely admit that I am in the minority here, and know for a fact that some of my regular readers will disagree vehemently with this take on ‘West End Girls’. Here we are. I can only write my truth, as they say.

Is it going too far to wonder if this record might even have appealed to listeners as a novelty at the time? Nowadays British rappers are ten-a-penny. In early 1986, though, it must have been funny to near Neil Tennant drop lines like You got a heart of class, Or a heart of stone, Just you wait ‘til I get you home… like Grandmaster Flash crossed with Noel Coward. I love his arch delivery. I really like the haunting backing vocals before the chorus… How much do you need…? And I love the fact that it’s influenced by T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ – too few chart-topping singles are based on modernist poetry.

Yes, there are elements of this song that I really do like. It just doesn’t click as a whole. For me. Meanwhile, it’s won Brit Awards, and Ivor Novellos. It’s been named Song of the Decade. Two years ago, The Guardian claimed ‘West End Girls’ as the best number one single, ever. It’s influence has been far reaching, into just about every electronic act that’s come since. Maybe it’s because it’s the first #1 of a new year, but it feels like a line in the sand. And it is also a line in the sand for me, personally, but more on that next time…

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550. ’19’, by Paul Hardcastle

Well now, what to make of this…

19, by Paul Hardcastle (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 5th May – 9th June 1985

Seriously. What to make of this? I’ve listened to our next #1 three times, and still can’t think how to approach it. Do we go with ground-breaking, game-changing slice of electronic music? Hugely important, anti-war chart-topper? First #1 with only numbers in the title… Or do we go with dated, clunky, hot mess of a song?

Let’s start with this as a game-changing chart-topper. We open with a reporter telling us that: In World War II the average age of a combat soldier was twenty six, In Vietnam he was nineteen… Very few, if any, number ones have used speech to this effect, sampled and chopped up. (Paul Hardcastle was inspired to write this after watching an ABC report entitled ‘Vietnam Requiem’, and the music video features footage from it.) There’s the reporter (from ‘Vietnam Requiem’), a ’60s newscaster, and an interview with a soldier – “I wasn’t really sure what was going on” – none of which were recorded specifically for the song. It’s quite powerful: I particularly like the line about how, eight to ten years after coming home, tens of thousands of men are still fighting the Vietnam war…

Unfortunately, a lot of the message is lost behind really heavy production. The song’s main hook – the stuttering na-na-na-na-na-na-nineteen-nineteen – is probably meant to echo a PTSD-suffering soldier’s nerves, but it just sounds like Hardcastle’s cat was walking across the keyboard as he recorded. If that line wasn’t annoying enough, we also get Sa-Sa-Sa-Sa-Saigon, an electronic impersonation of a military bugle, and some very dramatic (and very cheap sounding) synth notes as we build to a finale.

Then there are the backing vocalists, who lay the song’s message on a bit thick: Destruction! Of men in their prime! Whose average age was nineteen… I don’t want to be overly harsh towards a record that is, I think, pretty fondly remembered. But it’s difficult to listen now, thirty-five years on, and hear how thrilling it may have once sounded. It’s also a bit harsh to criticise the clunky production, as techniques were limited in the mid-eighties, while Paul Hardcastle was hardly a big name with lots of cash at his disposal (this was his first Top 40 hit).

And yet. Do I particularly want to hear this again any time soon…? No, not really. It’s an interesting song, with a worthy message (it’s yet another ‘war’ chart topper – I make that four in just over a year, along with ‘Pipes of Peace’, ’99 Red Balloons’, and ‘Two Tribes’) that is clumsily delivered. But it’s definitely not boring. And that is, as always, my bottom-line. Don’t be boring!

Paul Hardcastle would only have one further Top 10 hit in the UK following ‘19’s huge success, although he continues to record and released his latest album just this year (he’s a big name in smooth jazz). And ‘19’s success was huge: a #1 across the world, from New Zealand to the Netherlands. He cleverly released it featuring different news reports, in different languages, to maximise its appeal. It’s certainly an influential chart-topper: you can hear its fingerprints in the many electronic dance #1s to come during the latter half of the eighties, nineties and onwards… But who would want to – in fact, who should – be dancing to a song about teenagers being sent to die…?

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546. ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive

We finally – hooray! – end our run of ballads, in the most emphatic manner possible. It’s as if the Gods of Hi-NRG dance decided that all the fist-clenching and soft-focus videos had gotten too much, and so sent to earth their only son. Pete Burns…

You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), by Dead or Alive (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 3rd – 17th March 1985

This is a record that starts in the middle. In medias res, if we’re being literary. There’s no build up, no intro of any description. Just a slap! around the chops, a sloppy kiss on the mouth, a nose-full of sweat and poppers… A clanging, throbbing synth beat, and a very distinctive voice.

If I… I get to know your name… Pete Burns sounds almost operatic, the way his voice at times soars, then intones, then growls. Just listen to the way he’s going for it in the fade-out. He sounds mildly terrifying. I-I-I… I get to be your friend now baby… If you did meet him in a club, you’d probably go out of your way not to give him your name. He sounds like he’d eat you alive. And I’ve always misheard the line before the chorus for something truly filthy. What I half-thought was ‘open up your loving hole cos baby here I come’ is actually ‘loving arms…’ (I’m quite disappointed…)

I’ve been quite down on the 1980s while writing this blog and, knowing some of the #1s on the way, I will continue being quite down on the 1980s. But this record is the ‘80s at their best. Yes it’s cheap and trashy, tacky and deep as a puddle… But it’s a perfect floor-filler. It’s also something of a line in the sand… We’ve just passed the midway point of the decade, and ‘You Spin Me Round’ is our first Stock Aitken Waterman produced chart-topper. The sound of the late-eighties, for better or for worse, starts here.

If you were being unkind you could brand Dead or Alive as a knock-off Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The similarities are there: Liverpudlians, brash dance-pop, the sheer gayness of both bands… But while Frankie’s chart-career was fairly short lived, I’m not sure Dead or Alive exist in the public’s consciousness at all beyond this hit. They were together for a long time, though, much longer than Frankie. They were genuinely huge in Japan (their look was a big influence on J-Pop acts of the 1990s). So huge that Michael Jackson apparently had to rearrange his tour dates in the country to fit around Dead or Alive concerts…

I’m also not sure if the general public realises that Dead or Alive were a band, rather than just Pete Burns (I must admit I was surprised to see three other members in the video…) Burns’ personality looms large. I grew up with the heavily ‘enhanced’ version often seen on reality TV and quiz shows in the ‘00s, but even before he found fame he was a force to be reckoned with, sending customers from the record shop he worked in if he disliked their choice of purchase. My favourite Pete Burns anecdote: upon hearing Culture Club’s comeback single ‘The War Song’, he sent Boy George a wreath with a note that simply read: ‘Condolences…’

A couple of years ago, The Guardian did a feature on the 100 Greatest #1 Singles and placed ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ at number five, to a lot of derision in the comments section. While I wouldn’t quite have it as the fifth best chart-topper of all time, it is still a very fresh-sounding semi-classic. Though, to be honest, I think I’m just relieved that it’s not a ballad…

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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…

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515. ‘Too Shy’, by Kajagoogoo

I think it may have arrived, the moment I’ve been anticipating for a while now… The official start of the 1980s.

Too Shy, by Kajagoogoo (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 13th – 27th February 1983

This is the most eighties chart-topper yet. Everything here has been filtered through some kind of ‘80s-ifier: the synths, the electronic drums, the bass, the icy piano… And that’s before you get to the band’s hair-dos… Just look at those mullets! I really like the intro, though: the slow build up and funky bass riff. There’s also a killer, if slightly nonsensical, chorus: You’re too shy shy, Hush hush, Eye to eye…

Singer Limahl’s delivery is also very of its time. It’s very arch, very airy and knowing. I don’t want to plant the ‘New Romantic’ flag, as I don’t think Kajagoogoo were quite that, but that’s where we’re heading. The rest of this song, though…? It’s OK. The nice touches aren’t enough to cover up the fact that it’s a bit lightweight, and a bit dull in places. I’ve heard of ‘landfill indie’… Can this be ‘landfill eighties’?

While the song is fine, we have to take a moment to examine the band name. Potentially one of the worst band names in history? It’s based on the sounds babies make, apparently. Before Kajagoogoo they were known as ‘Art Nouveau’, which is the sort of name you’d give a fictional parody of a new-wave band. They weren’t around for very long. Limahl left after just two years as lead-singer, citing personality differences, and the band officially spilt up in 1985.

I do think this is a moment where any remnants of what went before have been ditched. There’s no disco here, no post-punk or soft rock. Just pure and unadulterated eighties. Even the big, decade-specific acts we’ve met so far – Adam Ant, Culture Club, Human League – didn’t have the mid-eighties glossiness that ‘Too Shy’ has. But I think we’re set now, and about to foray into the deepest depths of it.

And I have to admit that I’m making that statement not based solely on this one record – though it is very now. I’m also making it with one eye on the chart-toppers that will immediately follow. The next five number ones will feature either some of the decade’s biggest stars, or its biggest songs. Kajagoogoo’s ‘Too Shy’ is the appetiser to a giant ‘80s feast that is on its way…

494. ‘The Model’ / ‘Computer Love’, by Kraftwerk

Atmospheric, electronic, and über-cool… Ja. Kraftwerk ist da!

The Model / Computer Love, by Kraftwerk (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, 31st January – 7th February 1982

She’s a model, And she’s looking good… It has to be said, German-accented English is the perfect voice in which to deliver an electro-pop hit like this. She plays hard to get, She smiles from time to time… While this model sounds a bit high-maintenance: all champagne, nightclubs and envious glances…

A drum-machine keeps steady, deliberate time, while two or three different synths play variations of the main, instantly memorable, riff. There are not many fancy flourishes, no tricks or gimmicks, which can’t be said of some recent electronic #1s (‘It’s My Party’ springs to mind…)

There’s a minimalism to it, a precision. (It’s hard to avoid certain national stereotypes, but I’ll try…!) There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be. It’s repetitive, certainly; but not boring. It’s a song that seduces you, just like the model in the lyrics. It’s almost lo-fi, which could have something to do with the fact that ‘The Model’ was nearly five years old when it topped the charts.

It was originally supposed to be the ‘B’-side, an older hit included to beef up the appeal of the new single, but radios started to play it and it became a double-‘A’. And it’s the perfect hit for a winter’s week: both in its frosty sound, and in how it sits alongside some very random early-year chartmates in Bucks Fizz and Shakin’ Stevens.

What of that new single, then? ‘Computer Love’ kicks off with another catchy riff – one catchy enough for Coldplay to borrow decades later – but as the record finds its groove you can feel a slightly lighter touch than the heavy, deliberate ‘Model’. There’s almost something disco in the staccato drums, and feathery high notes. It sounds more modern, more ‘eighties’ really, than song on the flip-side. (Though it had only made #36 before being twinned with ‘The Model’.)

It’s another twisted love story, but this time a computer is the object of the singer’s affections: another lonely night, another lonely night… He stares at the screen and longs for a data date. I wonder if the band had any idea, in 1981, of how prescient those lyrics would become in the twenty-first century…? Aren’t we all just staring at our screens, these days, needing a rendezvous?

I’m not enjoying this as much as ‘The Model’, though. It’s too light, too ephemeral. There’s not as much to get your teeth into here. But as a chart-topping, double-‘A’ side single, both tracks work very well. And I say that without being the biggest fan of electronic music. It feels like a moment at the top of the charts. True, it’s far from the first electronic #1, but Kraftwerk had been there from the very beginnings of the genre: forming in 1969, scoring their first hit in 1974. In many ways, they’ve been a part of all the synth-based number ones so far, from ‘I Feel Love’, to the Buggles, to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

Kraftwerk were/are basically two men – Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider (who passed away in 2020) – and a revolving cast of supporting musicians. They are notoriously reclusive, and have released one album in the past thirty-five years. They don’t have many hits to their name in the UK, this one being the only time they ever breached the Top 10. But their legacy cannot be understated. Considering how prevalent electronic music is now – how few acts don’t incorporate at least a smattering of non-analogue sounds – they have to be seen as legends. The NME has argued that while ‘The Beatles and Kraftwerk’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘The Beatles and The Stones’, it is probably more accurate in reflecting who pop music’s two most influential bands are.

491. ‘Don’t You Want Me’, by The Human League

1981 has had its fair share of iconic chart-topping moments: Bucks Fizz’s skirt-ripping moves, The Specials’ call to arms, Soft Cell’s re-imagining of a soul classic, Mercury and Bowie going toe-to-toe… And it ends with perhaps its most iconic tune.

Don’t You Want Me, by The Human League (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, 6th December 1981 – 10th January 1982

For this is one of the most recognisable riffs ever, I’d say. Up there with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ for chart-topping riffs. It’s dramatic and ominous, yet catchy and danceable. It’s a synth riff here, but play it on a piano, a guitar, a bloody harp, and people would know it was the intro to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

The opening lyrics are equally iconic: You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar… a male voice intones… When I met you… It’s sung by an overbearing – ok, creepy – bloke. A Svengali figure. He found this girl, made her a star, and now she’s outgrown him. Don’t forget it was me who put you where you are now, And I can put you back down too…

In the second verse, the starlet has her say. Yes, she was working in a cocktail bar… That much is true… She tells him politely that it’s time for her to make it on her own. The male ‘character’ is so well-formed, such a nasty sounding piece of work, that you wish his female counterpart had a little more bite. Who is she? Did she really just use him? Or maybe her niceness is the ultimate insult…?

Aside from the riff, the next best bits are the lines that accelerate up to the chorus: You better change it back or we will both be sorry! This is a high-quality pop song, well worthy of being the year’s biggest-seller and a Christmas number one. But – there’s always a ‘but’ – I’m not sure if there isn’t a hint of ‘fur coat and no knickers’ about it. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ has a great riff and great hook, but on repeated listen it goes from all-time classic to simply great pop. Two years ago, Gary Numan was doing things with a synth that genuinely stood out. Now, in late-1981, synths alone are not enough to wow.

Phil Oakey, The Human League’s founder, didn’t want this released as a single, and has said in subsequent interviews that he sees the music video as a big factor in its success. And you can see why: it’s moody, noirish… dare I say, once more for luck, iconic? It’s certainly slicker and more expensive than many of the homemade looking MVs from the last couple of years, and it looks forward to a New Romantic future in the make-up, earrings and fringes. ‘Rolling Stone’ has claimed ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as the starting point for the 2nd British Invasion in the US (it hit #1 on Billboard six months after topping the charts here).

The Human League had only the one UK chart-topper, but were scoring hits well into the nineties. They still tour to this day. After I’m done writing this post, I’m going to listen to the album that birthed this hit, ‘Dare!’ to see what all the fuss us about. Maybe I’m being harsh in saying that this record lacks much substance beyond its killer riff. It’s still a great tune, but when songs come along with as much baggage and reputation as this one then I can’t help expecting great great things…

485. ‘Tainted Love’, by Soft Cell

Compare and contrast, if you will, this next #1 with our last. ‘Tainted Love’ has the same instruments, is in the same basic genre as ‘Japanese Boy’, but how different it sounds…

Tainted Love, by Soft Cell (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 30th August – 13th September 1981

It’s a collection of synthesised beats and sound effects, intricate but minimalist, and it sounds thrillingly futuristic. One of the sounds – the poink poinks, you know the high-pitched ones that contrast with the lower dun duns, the ones the song fades ends on – always make me think of a life-support machine. In actual fact, they sound nothing like a life-support machine (though Intensive Care wards would be a much more fun place if they did). It’s strange how music can put images into your head.

Sometimes I feel, I’ve got to, Run away… It’s a tale of a toxic relationship, about a lover who needs the tears and pain of their partner, and the singer’s escape from their tainted love… Don’t touch me please, I can’t stand the way you tease… It’s a cover, of course, of a 1964 release by Gloria Jones that failed to chart. A cover of a cover, even, as Jones had re-recorded it in 1976, with the help of her boyfriend Marc Bolan, though it still failed to chart.

And it’s a great cover version. Soft Cell take the original, strip down all the sixties froo-froo and do it up in an early-eighties style. It’s like seeing an old building renovated in a much more modern fashion, but with the walls all in same place, the support beams still running across the ceiling. They take the song in a completely new direction (a direction semi-influenced by Jones’s re-recording), though to most listeners at the time it would have been brand new. It’s sexy, it’s abrasive, it’s very, very now.

By the end, the singer is having second thoughts about giving up on this relationship. Touch me baby, Tainted love… he urges. It might be wrong, he thinks, but it feels so right. Meanwhile the music video is very much in the ‘anything goes’ spirit of the early-MTV age: there are cricketers, Greek Gods, Regency-dressed women, suspicious looking children…

Actually, what I thought was the video – the one I’ve seen several times before, in which a man writhes on a bed and Marc Almond sings among the stars – is actually the video for the 1991 re-recording, which seems to have now usurped the original. One thing I do notice, as great as this strange, sexy record is, Almond’s voice lets it down slightly. It strains at times, and is slightly flat at others. He sounds much better a decade later, on the re-recording.

Soft Cell were another early-eighties act that burned brightly but briefly. They had a handful of other Top 10s before Almond and his sidekick Dave Ball went their separate ways. They won’t re-appear on this countdown (though Almond will, eventually) And, carrying on the fine tradition of covering and re-recording the life out of ‘Tainted Love’, Marilyn Manson scored his (their?) biggest UK chart hit when his/their Industrial-metal version reached #5 in 2002. I can’t think of many songs that I love in three different versions; but ‘Tainted Love’ is one.

Before I go, and seeing as this is my last post for 2021, I’d just like to wish all my readers, followers, likers and commenters a very Happy New Year! See you all in 2022, as we push on through the eighties!

444. ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, by The Buggles

First up today, I’m going to christen 1979 as not only the best year of the decade for chart-topping singles, but also ‘The Year of the Piano Intro’. We’ve had Gloria Gaynor’s iconic flourish, The Boomtown Rats’ mini rock opera, and now this. A synth piano announcing that: this, this is going to be interesting…

Video Killed the Radio Star, by The Buggles (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 14th – 21st October 1979

I heard you on the wireless back in ’52… The singer reminisces about a simpler time, when music had a human touch. ‘Music was better in my day…’ Except, the twist is, this is a pretty avant-garde, electro-pop song. Exactly the type of music the lyrics complain about. Or are they complaining at all? Are they instead mocking people with nostalgic views on music…? Pictures came and broke my heart, Put the blame on VCR…

The lyrics, though, are not the first thing that slaps you around the chops when you hear this record. Like Tubeway Army, it is almost aggressive in its desire to sound like the future, though with a very different, perkier sound. I saw it described it as an ‘extended jingle’, which is pretty perfect. Even the two voices, a bubblegum girl and a morose lead, are filtered through various effects.

I like this, it’s fun, it’s a classic… But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a little showy. That some bits – the noodley synth flourishes and the aww-ah-oh fills – are a bit much. It took, apparently, three months to record and, again in another link to Tubeway Army, was inspired by a sci-fi story, this time by JG Ballard. Still, they reign it in for the iconic, driving chorus: Video killed the radio star… In my mind and in my car, We can’t rewind, We’ve gone too far… It’s a bit Queen, a bit Sparks, and more than a bit unique.

The Buggles were a duo, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. Horn in particular had been around the music biz for a while, producing jingles among other things. ‘Video Killed the Video Star’ was their first and by far their biggest hit, though they’re not quite one-hit wonders. Horn certainly isn’t, he was lead-singer of Yes for a year or so before becoming a full-time producer. His fingerprints will be on several future number ones, well into to the 2000s.

What many won’t know is that this wasn’t the first recording of ‘Video…’ Horn and Downes had originally written it with Bruce Wolley, who released a still-interesting but slightly more one-dimensional version in 1978. What many will know is that this was the very first record to be played on MTV, on 1st August 1981. Which is cute, I guess, but led me to believe for many years that this was the first ever music video (which is nonsense, they’ve been around since the ‘60s). It also led me to believe that this song had been released in the ‘80s. It seems a bit strange to me that a brand-new, impossibly modern channel like MTV would launch by playing a near two-year old song, regardless of the apt lyrics. But then again, the 6th video played on MTV was ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’, by Cliff Richard. Perhaps they weren’t going for ‘cutting edge’.

Finally, it’s worth noting that after decades of having to publish every one of my posts with those boring, stock-standard record-label sleeves… The age of the picture sleeve is upon us! Most of 1979’s chart-toppers seem to have had glossy (!), colourful (!) sleeves with pictures of the actual recording artists (!) Just like LPs! What on earth took them so long? While punk has to take the credit for the wild variety of sounds in this new-wave era; I’m giving disco, and the genre’s love for the 12” remix, the credit for sending pop music into technicolour. Just in time for a new decade…

439. ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’, by Tubeway Army

Symbolically whacking Anita Ward’s trashy disco ditty off top-spot… Time for something a bit different. The eighties have arrived.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, by Tubeway Army (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 24th June – 22nd July 1979

There have been synths right through the seventies, from Chicory Tip through to ‘Gonna Make You a Star’ and, most memorably, Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. But even Giorgio Moroder didn’t use them as aggressively as this. These churning and grinding synths leave you feeling kind of woozy. A riff hammers away, going low like a grinding gearstick, then high like a wonky police siren.

There’s no chorus, no verses or bridge. Just different themes on the same dreamy, trippy riff. But – and I don’t mean this to sound negative – this is a bad dream; one bad trip. Over the top of it, Gary Numan… Sings? Chants? Announces? It’s cold outside, And the paint’s splitting off of my walls…!

What this song is about I have no idea, really. Numan tells a story of a ‘friend’ – note the inverted commas – who may or not be human. The friend is broken down, and he’s lonely. So I head to Google to find out a little bit more… Numan is autistic, apparently, and struggles with interpersonal relationships. So he wrote a song set thirty years ahead, in a dystopian future, in which robots have replaced lovers (hence the ‘friends’). The title references the Philip K. Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ Numan puts it best: “I had a number one single about a robot prostitute and nobody knew it.”

For large parts of the song he also talks, making it a fairly spoken-word heavy #1. So now I’m alone, Now I can think for myself… He sounds – and maybe this is just me – a lot like Marc Bolan. ‘Plummy cockney’ is the way I’d describe it. You see this meant everything to me…

Is it my imagination, or does this song slow down and speed up at random? Each time I listen to it, I notice this effect but in different places. I think I’m just getting lost in its rhythm. I think I might have a nightmare involving this song tonight, and I’m ready for it. Of course, I’m no stranger to the main riff, sampled for Sugababes’ first chart-topper ‘Freak Like Me’, one of the early-2000’s finest pop songs. (Apparently Numan himself classes it as better as this original.)

Tubeway Army were originally a punk act, but Numan found himself increasingly drawn to electronic music. ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’ was their first single to make the charts; and their last. However, almost the same band will be back in the number one position in just eight weeks… with a single credited solely to Gary Numan.

Finally, I make this the 5th number one by a New Wave act in the last six months… And if they all haven’t sounded completely different to one another! A fertile time for popular music. I know we have six months left to go, but I’m sticking my neck out now and naming 1979 as the best year of the whole decade, in chart-topper terms…