And so we arrive at the biggest female pop star du jour, with her first big comeback. Setting herself up, in the process, to polarise and provoke throughout the 1990s and beyond…
Like a Prayer, by Madonna (her 6th of thirteen #1s)
3 weeks, from 19th March – 9th April 1989
It had been a couple of years without any new music from Madonna. In modern terms that’s a pretty normal, even fairly short, break (cf. Rihanna). But since the dawn of pop, stars had been expected to churn out several hits a year. That’s just one way in which this comeback monster hit feels like a game-changer: Madonna’s in charge from now on, setting her own schedule.
After an attention-grabbing guitar intro, a door slams shut. Life is a mystery, Everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my name, And it feels like home… Is she talking about God, or a boy? Or is God the boy? In comes the beat, and to be honest it’s quite predictable late-80s production: dance-pop synths with a squelchy bass. It’s catchy, it’s got a great hook, it would have been a big hit even without…
The video. Madonna cavorting with Jesus. Black Jesus. Burning crosses. Sexual Assault. A wrongful imprisonment. Racism… I’m not 100% sure what Madonna was going for, other than a checklist of things she knew would piss certain people off, but it did the job. The Catholic Church was up in arms, Pepsi (who used the song in an advert) was boycotted, MTV was the only TV channel to show the video… And of course it was a global smash hit.
From this distance, the controversy seems out of proportion: Madonna and Jesus barely kiss, while in the end she does the right thing and goes to the police… And the lyrics aren’t that outrageous either. Sure there’s a bit of innuendo – I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there… – but ‘love as a religious experience’ is not exactly a new and shocking theme. And yet, as the recent Sam Smith controversy has shown, certain types are always poised and ready to get worked up over a music video.
‘Like a Prayer’ peaks for me when the gospel choir take over. And I don’t mean that as a slight on Madonna’s voice, as this is one of her better vocal performances. But it’s a bit too long as ‘just’ a song, without the video to distract. I wouldn’t have this in my Top 5 Madonna songs, personally. Whether that’s harsh, or testament to the strength of her long career, I’m not sure. I’d also put ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and ‘Like a Virgin’, above it in the attention-grabbing stakes.
But there’s no denying this song’s reach and impact. I described it above as a ‘game changer’ in terms of inventing the idea of the pop star ‘comeback’ single. Then there’s the statement video. And the creative control that Madonna was clearly exercising. There’s a clear line from Madonna to pretty much every female pop star since: Christina, Britney, Gaga, Taylor Swift have all had their big statement pieces, their ‘I’m in control now’ moments. Is it too much to suggest then, that ‘Like a Prayer’ was the moment that the modern female pop star was born?
As we’ve just passed the 600th number one, having covered thirty-five years of British chart-topping singles, it might be worth looking back at every other hundredth #1. See if they show us anything worth noting about popular music tastes. The first #1 was famously ‘Here in My Heart’, a pre-rock power-ballad by Al Martino. And as #1 singles hung around for ages in the fifties, by the time we got to the 100th it was already 1960: Anthony Newley’s fey and clipped ‘Do You Mind?’. The 200th was The Beatle’s ‘Help!’, so that’s definitely a marker, but the 300th was Tony Orlando and Dawn’s ‘Knock Three Times’, which marks nothing but the British public’s undying love for a cheesy, easily-digestible jingle. 400th was Julie Covington’s ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, a complete outlier, though one that could be used to argue the evergreen popularity of showtunes, and the 500th was Nicole’s ‘A Little Peace’, one of many Eurovision-winning number ones.
It would have been cool if those six singles had tracked a direct course through rock ‘n’ roll, Merseybeat, psychedelia, glam, disco and new wave but alas, the charts never do what you want them to. There’s always a German teenager just around the corner, ready to sing about love and peace. The 600th chart-topper was probably the most ‘of its time’, along with the 1st and the 200th: T’Pau’s storming new-age power-ballad ‘China in Your Hand’.
Which is interesting because, for me, the 1980s has been the decade that, in chart terms, has had the least clear trajectory. Since rock ‘n’ roll wiped out the traditional, pre-rock dinosaurs, everything that’s followed has made way for something else. Certain genres borrowed from the past (glam, for example) but in ways that felt very new. But since new-wave wiped the slate clean, in a way, in 1979, things have gotten more jumbled up.
The New-Romantics were a glossier new-wave, and then the drowsy MOR middle years of the decade went glossier still (just with more saxophones). Everything’s been getting smoother, and better-produced, but doesn’t seem quite as new. Maybe that’s it from now on: there won’t be a musical movement with the heft of rock ‘n’ roll, or disco. It’ll just be smaller reinventions of older ideas… With one big exception, which we’ve already seen flashes of at the top of the charts: hip-hop.
Speaking of Madonna… She has been the dominating force over this last thirty, claiming four chart-toppers along the way: ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘True Blue’, ‘La Isla Bonita’ and ‘Who’s That Girl’. That’s a truly noteworthy level of domination that few artists achieve. And few artists split opinion like Madonna either, for reasons I won’t go into here (that’s a can of worms and a half…) But I’m team Madge. Even when she’s terrible – and she can certainly be terrible – she’s never boring.
One other noteworthy movement, before we get onto the awards, is that we have entered the age of SAW. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman have produced three of the past thirty chart-toppers – the fun ‘Respectable’, the bland but worthy ‘Let It Be’, and the timeless classic/crock of crap (delete as appropriate) that is ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ – and there are plenty more where they came from over the next few years. Love or hate them, SAW are the tinny, brassy sound of the late-eighties, and that’s where we have our sights firmly set…
To the awards, then. The ‘Meh’ Award for all-round dullness and forgettability is up first. I found Boris Gardner’s reggae smoothy ‘I Wanna Wake Up With You’ pleasant but snoozy, while Nick Berry’s ‘Every Loser Wins’ was bland verging on terrible. Boy George did nothing particularly innovative on his ‘Everything I Own’ cover, while sounding like he’d been awake for two weeks straight. But I tend to always give this one to dull ballads. Therefore I’m changing it up and awarding it to Madonna herself, for ‘Who’s That Girl’. Had it been her only chart-topper then I’d probably have let it off the hook. Except it came hot on the heels of ‘La Isla Bonita’ and sounded near-identical – the lazy sound of a pop idol being spread too thin.
There are some middling candidates for The WTAF Award: it was weird (but fun) to suddenly have ‘Reet Petite’ popping up as a Xmas #1, swiftly followed by ‘Stand by Me’. ‘La Bamba’ too was a chart-topping single that few could have predicted. But I’m going to go with a song that sounded genuinely weird, especially on the flip-side. M/A/R/R/S’s house crossed with alt-rock double-‘A’ ‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (First Time I See She Dance)’ was a truly exciting, unnerving, eyebrow-raising moment on top of the charts.
And now the biggies. The 20thVery Worst Chart-Topper. I’m not going to beat around the bush. There were two real stinkers, one of which was Chris de Burgh’s ridiculously simpering ‘Lady in Red’. But that is no competition for the truly heinous ‘Star Trekkin’’, by The Firm. I didn’t get the joke. I didn’t get the song. I’ve never seen ‘Star Trek’. I never want to think about that song again. It wins.
The Very Best Chart-Topper, then. I’d like to give a shout-out to The Communards (and Sarah Jane Morris) for their Hi-NRG take on ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. It’s a great tune, but it drops out of the running and leaves me with a conundrum. Pet Shop Boy’s ‘It’s a Sin’ is one of the best singles of the decade, with a resonance that goes beyond just being a brilliant pop song. In normal circumstances it would easily win. But then a bloody Levi’s advert went and threw a huge spanner in the works, sending ‘Stand by Me’ to #1 twenty-five years later than it should have done.
Do I stick with rewarding current trends and styles? Can I ignore the re-released elephant in the room? I did name Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as a ‘Very Best’, but that was re-released a mere six years after its original run. Do I cheat, and make it a tie…? Or do I invent a one-off category of ‘Honorary Best Chart-Topper’, for those that would probably have won it in their own space in time? This is my baby and I make the rules, so… Yes! Pet Shop Boys are the winners, Ben E King is not ignored!
To recap the recaps, then:
The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability
‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan.
‘A Little Peace’, by Nicole.
‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police.
‘I Got You Babe’, by UB40 with Chrissie Hynde.
‘Who’s That Girl’, by Madonna.
The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else
‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush.
‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre.
‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin.
‘Save Your Love’ by Renée & Renato.
‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco.
‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)’, by M/A/R/R/S
The Very Worst Chart-Toppers
‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir.
‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, by Charlene.
‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie.
‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner.
‘Star Trekkin’’, by The Firm
The Very Best Chart-Toppers
‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie.
‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA.
‘My Camera Never Lies’, by Bucks Fizz.
‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive
Madonna scores her 4th chart-topper within twelve months, joining a very exclusive club…
Who’s That Girl, by Madonna (her 5th of thirteen #1s)
1 week, from 19th – 26th July 1987
The ‘4-in-a-year club’ are The Beatles, Elvis, The Shadows, Slade and, um, Frank Ifield (do shout at me if I’ve forgotten anyone else!) and one thing you might notice about those five acts are their… well, their manhoods. Yes, Madonna is now officially (probably) the most successful female in chart history!
The sad thing is that, for such a ‘big’ #1, ‘Who’s That Girl’ is a bit of a non-event. It is ‘La Isla Bonita’ Part II, a watered down and remixed version of her previous chart-topper. The intro in particular, with its drum riff, is nigh on identical; while the subsequent latin-funk synths are, if not identical, then heavily influenced by their predecessor.
Plus, there’s even more Spanish thrown in this time. Quién es esa niña…? Señorita, más fina… Who’s that girl? I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘La Isla Bonita’, and it’s therefore inevitable that I’m even less a fan of this diluted version. There’s nothing wrong with it, blandness and lack of originality aside, but it’s well overshadowed by the bolder moments in Madonna’s back-catalogue. And out of her thirteen chart-toppers, it’s the one I’m least familiar with (I could probably have attempted the title line from memory, but that’s it…)
It’s from the soundtrack to a film of the same name. A ‘screwball comedy’, as Wikipedia puts it, that presumably nobody has watched since 1987. And that’s about all there is to write on this most slight and forgettable of #1s. To be fair, in order to achieve four chart-toppers in a year you need a combination of massive popularity and a winning formula. Nobody would deny that at least one of Elvis’s, or The Shadows’, or Slade’s four #1s was a re-tread… ‘Surrender’, ‘Dance On’, ‘Skweeze Me Pleeze Me’… While the sound of 1962-3 was Frank Ifield’s yodel popping up, time and again. The one act who managed to sound new and fresh with every single song was The Beatles, but there’s no point in competing with them…
Perhaps Madonna knew she was treading water at this point, because she took 1988 off and drew a line under what we’ll call Madge MK I. In two years’ time, when she scores her next chart-topper, she’ll be a different beast altogether!
Four Madonna number ones down; four very different sounds from the soon-to-be Queen of Pop…
La Isla Bonita, by Madonna (her 4th of thirteen #1s)
2 weeks, from 19th April – 3rd May 1987
‘La Isla Bonita’ is a Latin-funk tune, with a nice strong bass line, some horn blasts and a sharp Spanish guitar. Everything is fine-tuned, and tight. It has a gloss to it, a modernness to the production, that suggests Madonna had available to her the best studios and equipment. It’s got a steady beat, but it’s still likely to fill a dancefloor.
Except, yeah… I don’t love this one. It’s my least favourite of the four so far. Something about it feels gimmicky to me. Why is she singing in Spanish, for a start? Como puede ser verdad, she purrs in the intro. How can it be true…? If Madonna knows one foreign language, surely it’s Italian?
Anyway, Madonna has fallen in love. Not with a Cuban hunk, rather with an island. I fell in love with San Pedro… Tropical island breeze, All of nature wild and free, This is where I long to be, La isla bonita… Problem is, when non-Latina stars go Latina, they tend to resort to these cliches of warm breezes and Spanish lullabies.
To be fair to Madonna, ‘La Isla Bonita’ may have been her first attempt at Latin music, but it was far from her last. She has a love for it that goes beyond mere musical shapeshifting. Problem is, Madonna is a bit of a trendsetter. She opened the floodgates for every female pop star going to have a ‘Latin phase’: from Lady Gaga to Geri Halliwell. And I’m a traditionalist: no woman has done Latin nonsense better than Rosemary Clooney back in 1955!
So, to me, ‘La Isla Bonita’ feels like a default chart-topper from the biggest star in the world. It was the fifth single to be released from the ‘True Blue’ album, and you have to be pretty darn popular to get the fifth single off your album to number one. This was her 3rd of four #1s between the summers of 1986 and 1987. Again, not many artists manage four chart-toppers in a year.
I was amazed to see that this was Madonna’s 4th most listened-to song on Spotify, above ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Like a Prayer’ and ‘Vogue’. It just feels like such an average moment in her back catalogue… Not terrible – far from it – but nowhere near her best. Rolling Stone has it as her 40th best song, apparently, and that sounds much more reasonable.
Hey!… What?… Listen… I’m going to admit straight off: this is actually one my favourite Madonna singles. I’m a sucker for retro pop, when modern acts go back to the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop or, in this record’s case, sixties girl groups. Yes, it’s lightweight. Sure. And it’s got some basic ol’ lyrics: Cause it’s true love, You’re the one I’m dreamin’ of, Your heart fits me like a glove… (Surely that should be ‘hand’ – that line has always annoyed me…) But then The Supremes, Ronettes and Marvelettes never changed the world with their lyrics either.
The moment Madonna starts in with her own backing vocals is great, as is the middle-eight – No-oh-oh more sadness, I’ll kiss it goodbye… – which is the moment the song remembers that it’s actually 1986, and the drums become sharp and spiky. Is it strange that this straight-up pop tune made #1, when ‘Holiday’, or ‘Like a Virgin’, or many of her ‘90s hits to come didn’t? (She’ll have 23 Top 10 hits in the nineties, but only two chart-toppers.) Maybe. But therein lies the beauty of the charts. Even megastars like Madonna can have odd, ‘forgotten’ number ones…
Madge herself seemed to forget about ‘True Blue’s existence, as she didn’t perform it live for thirty years. Is that a statement on the song’s quality? Or perhaps it was more to do with the fact she wrote it about then-husband Sean Penn, and they divorced in 1989…
You may have noticed that I recently changed this blog’s header image in tribute to Ms Ciccone. It’s an honour I only bestow on the biggest chart stars – Elvis, The Beatles and ABBA have featured before – but I think it’s justified. This is the second of four #1s she’ll have between mid-’86 and mid-’87. She was undoubtedly the biggest star on the planet at the time. Problem is, when acts dominate the charts like this, you’re left with less and less to write about each time… Madonna will be feature on these pages soon enough – and ten more times after! – so let’s just keep ploughing on…
In my post on Madonna’s first UK number one single, ‘Into the Groove’, I found myself looking for controversy in the (slightly) saucy lyrics. When you grew up with Jesus-humping, cone-bra wearing, sex book Madonna then you do expect her to have been raising hackles with every release…
Papa Don’t Preach, by Madonna (her 2nd of thirteen #1s)
3 weeks, from 6th – 27th July 1986
‘Into the Groove’ wasn’t particularly troublesome, while ‘Like a Virgin’ missed #1 altogether, but we haven’t had to wait too long for some top-spot controversy. For her 2nd chart-topper, Madge tells the tale of a pregnant teen looking to her single-parent father for advice. Papa don’t preach, she begs, I’m in trouble deep…
Her Pa had warned her off the boy in question – the one you said I could do without – but he’s promised her a wedding ring. Her friends, meanwhile, say she’s too young. However, despite coming to him for advice, the narrator already seems certain: I’ve made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby…
It’s a grown-up pop song, any controversy is of the thought-provoking rather than the in-your-face kind. Musically, too, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ mixes a classical intro with synth-pop, and then Latin guitars. The moment where the bass comes in after the violins have reached their crescendo is brilliant, adding another contender to 1986’s gallery of great beat drops. Her voice even sounds a little older – I love the throaty rasp in each pre-chorus ‘please!’
In the video, too, Madonna sports a new cropped hairdo, and switches between leather-jacketed tomboy and blonde-bombshell in a black basque. The song plays as an imagined speech to her father, as she returns home to tell him. At the end of the video she does finally confess, and in the end they embrace. A happy ending.
I was looking for controversy here, and controversy there was. Some claimed it encouraged teen-pregnancy; others that it was anti-abortion. Madonna and her song-writing team were smart enough to use the phrase ‘give it up’ rather than anything more explicit. Madonna has always argued that it’s pro-choice, and has at other times added a ‘not’ to the I’m keeping my baby line when performing the song live. Either way, at least the world has moved on from a time when it was considered controversial for a woman to be the one who decides if she does or doesn’t have a baby………….. (how long does an ellipsis need to be to signify huge sarcasm levels…?)
Under the morals, most importantly, there lies a great pop song. No matter who Madonna has chosen to wind up, she rarely forgets that people come to her, first and foremost, for high-grade tunes. And yet, I feel that ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is one of her forgotten gems… Other, bigger, more controversial moments have perhaps eclipsed its standing in her back-catalogue? It’s certainly not as played as other Madonna songs. If ‘re-discovering’ is too strong a term, then you can definitely re-acquaint yourself with it, below…
You can dance… For inspiration… With these words, we welcome an icon. The most successful female artist in British chart history. Come on… I’m waiting…
Into the Groove, by Madonna (her 1st of thirteen #1s)
4 weeks, from 28th July – 25th August 1985
Madonna’s first of thirteen (13!) chart-toppers is an ode to the joys of dance: Get up on your feet, Yeah step to the beat… Her boy has to prove his love for her by boogying. She feels free, she feels sweet sensations… It’s a revelation. For someone who grew up with provocative, cone-bra, sex book Madonna, this early hit feels a little trite, a little bit too teenybopper.
But it’s impossible not to at least tap your feet to this record even if, like me, you’re a terrible dancer. It’s got that hi-NRG beat that recent hits from Chaka Khan and Dead or Alive had, which is a very welcome development after some stodgy production and tempo from the class of ’83-’84. May the BPMs keep rising for the remainder of the decade.
One of the (many) criticisms aimed at Madonna over the years is that her voice is a little… limited? Which I think is harsh, but her early hits do bear this out somewhat. Her voice on this one is high-pitched, and a little one-note (plus, the song being at least a minute too long doesn’t help). Over time her voice will deepen and improve.
As I’m writing, and listening, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s not more to this tune than first meets the ears. When she sings that at night I lock the doors where no one else can see…. and complains that she’s tired of dancing by herself… Is this actually a bit filthy? Is the order to get into the groove actually total smut, if you see what I mean? Or am I just desperate to hear controversial, attention-seeking Madonna from the off? A quick internet search proves I’m not alone in thinking this… That’s more like it, Madge!
‘Into the Groove’ is a decent enough debut for Madonna as a chart-topper. A solid enough song for someone who is the template for every single-named female pop star hereafter, from Kylie to Rihanna to Gaga. But in my perfect world her first #1 would have been the throbbing ‘Like a Virgin’, or the ultimate school dance smoocher ‘Crazy for You’ – both of which had been huge hits without making top spot. Madonna was already a giant star when she finally scored a #1 (shades of Elvis back in 1957), and ‘Into the Groove’ was from the soundtrack to her first film, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’. Love or loathe her, Madonna was one of the biggest artists in the world in this moment, and will remain so for the next twenty years.