623. ‘Belfast Child’, by Simple Minds

From the opening notes, before you’ve even glanced at the title, you know that this next #1 isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs…

Belfast Child, by Simple Minds (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 19th February – 5th March 1989

It’s heavy, portentous, serious. ‘This is an important record’, the stately synths and sparse drums announce. The opening lines from Jim Kerr add another layer of chin-stroking: When my love said to me, Meet me down by the gallow tree, For it’s sad news I bring, About this old town and all that it’s suffering… In comes a penny-whistle, and some violins, for that olde Oirish authenticity.

While I wait for this one to really get going, my mind turns to other number one singles that have featured place names. Off the top of my head, no peeking, I’ve got ‘San Francisco (Flowers in Your Hair)’, ‘Massachusetts’, and ‘The Poor People of Paris’… Answers on a postcard with any others, please! (It would probably arrive before this song ends…)

We reach the three minute mark, and finally things are picking up. A sort of Irish jig is about to break out. This tune’s melody is based on a traditional song ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, with lyrics updated to reflect the Troubles. The war is raging, Through the Emerald Isle… Kerr howls, as things eventually build to a pretty impressive Wall of Sound climax. He was inspired to write the song after watching footage of the Enniskillen tragedy, in which an IRA planted bomb killed twelve people in 1987.

Of course, pop music can deal with weighty issues. It shouldn’t all be love and sex and having a great time. But, can’t it at least be catchy? Not this seven-minute sermon of a song? At the same time, how could you make a catchy pop hit about a terrorist attack? It would hardly be appropriate. It’s a conundrum, though not one Simple Minds apparently struggled with. They threw everything into this epic, and got their biggest British hit. And for one of the eighties’ biggest bands, it feels right that they did eventually manage a chart-topper.

As impressive as this record is – and it does reach a pretty daunting peak, in which voices, synths and guitars swirl around one another – I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it. For the most part, I found it quite dull. I can’t say I’ve ever heard it before, either. In fact, this might be the final #1 that I’d never heard before writing about it…

Nothing here screams ‘#1 hit’, apart from the fact it’s by a popular band. Was it purely a fan purchase? Technically, it was one track from an E.P. that also included ‘Mandela Day’, which the band had performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Concert the year before. Was that perhaps the more on-demand song?

In any case, ‘Belfast Child’ is the song that went down in the record books. It went down in the record books in different sense too, as at 6 minutes 40 seconds it is one of the longest number one singles of all time. I’ve struggled to find a definitive list, but I think at the time it was the 2nd longest (behind ‘Hey Jude’), and it currently sits at 5th in the all-time rankings (the video below is shorter, but the single was released unedited).


618. ‘Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)’, by Enya

We move from one of the most bombastic #1s – Whitney’s ‘One Moment in Time’ – to one of the oddest.

Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)’, by Enya (her 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 23rd October – 13th November 1988

If you’ve been listening carefully, though, there have been signs that a big nu-folk, new-age smash hit was coming. Both the Bee Gee’s ‘You Win Again’, and T’Pau’s ‘China in Your Hand’ had touches of it, to my ears at least. Still, it’s a shock to hear a song so out there appearing at the top of the singles chart.

And while it does sound like a slightly more focused version of the sort of music piped into to spas and massage parlours, with some unidentifiable chanting and chords that break and ebb like waves, ‘Orinoco Flow’ is a pop song underneath all the hippy dressing. The sail away, sail way hook is a real earworm, while the airy synths (the technical term is pizzicato, and the fact that it sounds a bit like water dripping in the rainforest is very new-age) are distinctive.

The lyrics that aren’t ‘sail away’ are pretty cryptic. It’s basically a list of places Enya wants to visit on the Orinoco flow (the Orinoco being both a river, and the name of the studio where the song was recorded): From Bissau to Palau, in the shade of Avalon…, which one wag has described as ‘the itinerary for the most expensive gap year of all time’.

Then there’s the break, in which things slow down and we’re treated to some chanting in what I guessed was some Bornean tribal language, but what is actually just: Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up, up, adieu… (Actually, this probably sums up the ‘new age’ movement quite well: what appears authentically ethnic turns out to be some gibberish cooked up by middle-class women for money…) Still, when the main beat breaks back in with a big bass drum, you too are swept along with this funny little chart-topper.

There don’t seem to have been any external reasons for it turning into such a big smash hit – no TV theme, no advert… It was from Enya’s second album, but was her first charting single. She had been a member of Celtic folk-rock band Clannad for two years, with various of her siblings and uncles, before going solo in 1982. Perhaps the time of year helped – this is the archetypal ‘autumn’ chart-topper, and I’m not sure it could have been such a big hit at any other time of year. (I’m not sure why this is, something to do with yearning, minor keys…) There are summer smashes, festive songs (obviously), and cosy autumnal hits; but I’m yet to pick out a ‘sound of spring’.

Enya, born Enya Patricia Brennan in County Donegal, has gone from strength to strength since her debut smash, and is the second biggest-selling Irish act ever (we also recently met the best-selling – U2). She scored reasonable-sized chart hits throughout the eighties and nineties, including a handful of further Top 10s, which is pretty impressive considering that her genre isn’t the most commercial. She will also feature on two big hip-hop #1s: one of which she’s credited on; the other one she isn’t…

Should Have Been a #1…? ‘Fairytale of New York’, by The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl

Back in the good old days, before Spotify and Alexa turned the December charts into a Christmas nightmare, back when you had to actually download (or even physically purchase! from a shop!) a song to get it into the charts, there were three hardy festive perennials that returned, year after year… Mariah and Wham! have since streamed their way to becoming belated chart-toppers, leaving behind ‘Fairytale of New York’ as the biggest Christmas song never to have made #1.

Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl – reached #2 in 1987, behind ‘Always on My Mind’

And I have to admit… It’s never been my favourite Christmas tune. For a while, in the ’90s and early ’00s, it was the edgelord’s choice of Xmas tune. Swearing, Shane McGowan’s teeth, no sleigh bells in sight… blah blah blah. You’re a bum, You’re a punk, You’re an old slut on junk… I was put off it for this reason. I enjoyed Mariah, Wizzard and Slade because Christmas music was meant to be upbeat, cheesy and unashamedly fun. Until, as I mentioned, streaming came along and listening to Michael Buble suddenly became mandatory, and ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ became so overplayed that I would happily lose a finger (I mean, you could live without a pinkie…) if it meant I never had to hear it again.

(I suppose I also have to mention that it is now a bona-fide festive tradition for there to be a furore over the fact that ‘Fairytale of New York’ contains the F-word. (But not that F-word.) What version is Radio 1 playing? Radio 2? What does Piers Morgan have to say about it? Who is most purple in the face with outrage this year?? The songwriters claim that ‘faggot’ was being used as Irish slang for a lazy person – which is much more conducive to the theme of the song than accusing the male lead of being gay – but as early as 1992 Kirsty MacColl was changing it to ‘haggard’ in live performances. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it was intended as a homophobic slur in 1987, but at the same time it’s probably not OK to be broadcasting that word on national radio in 2022.)

And yet, despite the growing controversy around the song (which means it probably will never make #1 now) I’ve actually grown to enjoy it more as the years progress. Perhaps it’s the ultimate middle-aged Christmas song: a tale of two over-the-hill drunkards, bawling at one another, blaming each other for all their ills, all the while hoping that this Christmas will be their last… Their last together? Their last, ever? It peaks when Shane McGowan groans I could have been someone… and MacColl replies with Well so could anyone… and you feel nothing but sympathy for these two sad junkies. Suddenly Shaky, Mariah and Slade sound trite and tacky.

I couldn’t listen to it too many times a year – to be honest most of the Christmas music I hear is forced on me in shops and bars – but it would have been a worthy Number One. I’ll leave you with the video below, and wish all my readers a merry Christmas (and a much happier one than the protagonists of this song enjoy!) I’ll be back before the new year, resuming the regular countdown.