One of the things I liked about our last #1 – Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ – was the song’s slow build-up. I’m a sucker for a strong intro. That intro, though, is small fry compared to the bombast and drama offered here…
The Sun Always Shines on TV, by A-ha (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 19th January – 2nd February 1986
Before we actually get down whether this record is any good or not, I have to say that a song with a minute-long intro – featuring at least three different synth lines – has an automatic head-start towards greatness. Touch me… pleads Morten Harket in his distinctive falsetto… Give all your love… as the synths wind slowly towards the peak… To me…!
As with ‘West End Girls’, there’s another great beat drop, when chugging guitars, stabbing chords and beefy drums grab us by the scruff of the neck and whip us along. It’s fun, it’s got great energy; but it’s not everything the intro promised it would be. It’s very Duran Duran, and it emulates their most recent #1, ‘The Reflex’, by chucking every trick they can think of into the mix. At time it’s a bit much, the synths especially can be a little too flourishy.
Like much of the mid-eighties, ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ is simultaneously modern and cutting edge, dated and of-its-time. Lyrically, it seems to be about the falseness of fame: I reached inside myself and found, Nothing here to ease the pressure, Of my ever-whirring mind… and the music does a good job of creating the image of a chaotic paranoia. Paranoia that you can dance to.
A-ha are, of course, Norwegian. And Harket has what I’m going to call ABBA-English. Perfectly good English, just slightly off in pronunciation and stress making it somehow even more appealing. For me, his high-pitch and his accent all just add to the frenzied drama. I believe, unless I’ve forgotten someone obvious, A-ha were the very first act from Norway to hit #1 in the UK. This wasn’t, though, their first big hit. It was the follow-up to ‘Take on Me’ – undoubtedly their signature song – which had been held at #2 by ‘The Power of Love’.
Can we say that this was a ‘shadow number one’, making top spot by basking in the glow of its predecessor…? It wouldn’t be the first. And while ‘Take on Me’ is the better song, and would have been a worthy #1, ‘The Sun Always Shines…’ has enough oomph and dynamism about it to suggest that it could have been a chart-topper under its own steam. The video links the two songs by having the start of this one act as a fake ending to ‘Take on Me’.
While the intro here was extended, the ending is not. A sudden, clanging piano note slams down, as if the band is shouting ‘Enough!’ That’s all we’re getting. It draws to an end a run of #1s that appeals to my inner chart-geek: the past six chart-toppers, since Feargal Sharkey’s ‘A Good Heart’ in early November, have all spent a fortnight at the top. Without checking too thoroughly, I think that’s the longest run of its kind… (It’s been surpassed many times since by one-weekers, though).
And finally, I have to mention why this #1 has such resonance for me, why it is a ‘line in the sand’, as I put it in my last post. ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ is the very first number one, five hundred and sixty four songs and four and a half years of blogging in, that I was alive for. To be fair, I was two days old when it got knocked off the top, so my recollections of its time as the biggest hit in the land are hazy. But as a Birth Number One I think I got off quite lightly. (I know people born under the reigns of ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’, and ‘Nothing’s Going to Change My Love for You’…)
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…
Our next number one reminds me of something… Glossy, confident synths. Broad power chords. A former frontman going solo… Ah yes… It takes me all the way back to two chart-toppers ago, and Midge Ure’s ‘If I Was’.
A Good Heart, by Feargal Sharkey (his 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 10th – 24th November 1985
I do like the intro here. In fact it might be my favourite part of the song, the way that it gives the feeling of racing down a motorway, with the chiming guitars sounding like cars flying past in the opposite direction. I have no idea if that’s what they were going for, but it’s great. Really great, until Feargal Sharkey starts singing.
And this is no slight on his voice, which is fine. A lovely Northern Irish tenor. But I’m a big fan of The Undertones, and to hear Sharkey’s voice so far away from the pop punk I love is just kind of weird. His blue-eyed soul in the bridge: Well I know, Cause I learn a little, Every day… is at once impressive, and disconcerting. It sort of proves the point I made last time, when writing about ‘The Power of Love’: for whatever reason, I can swallow heartfelt and earnest much more readily when it comes from a female singer.
Away from the vocals, ‘A Good Heart’ falls into the same trap as ‘If I Was’. It’s a little full of itself, a little burdened by the weight of what it wants to be. I’m not sure why everyone was getting so serious in the autumn of 1985, but AOR was clearly the order of the day. I’m starting to long for a cheesy boyband… (OK, I may have sneaked a peek at who’s up next.)
My second favourite part, after the intro, is the echoey guitar in the solo. AOR it may be, but at least the ‘R’ really does stand for ‘rock’ in this record. The bassline is pretty cool, too. On the whole, I like this. I like it better than ‘If I Was’, at least, which seems the obvious comparison. (I’m still undecided, though, on the very strange adlibs, both by Sharkey and by his backing singers, in the outro…)
But then I’m tempted to imagine if Feargal (it’s pronounced ‘Fergal’ btw – I just had to check) Sharkey’s one and only #1 had come with The Undertones. ‘My Perfect Cousin’ at number one! Or ‘Get Over You’. Or even ‘Mars Bars’! Or, of course, ‘Teenage Kicks’… And then I remember that that will get to #1, eventually, and I weep for what became of it…
This is by far Sharkey’s biggest solo hit. He moved into the business side of the music industry in the ‘90s, even turning down the chance to re-join The Undertones in 1999. He’s done OK, though, receiving an OBE for services to the industry. Meanwhile, this record also brings together a past and a future chart-topper: Dave Stewart of Eurythmics produced it, while Maria McKee – her number one still a few years away – wrote it.
Fresh from saving the world with Band Aid, the UKs very first charity chart-topper, Midge Ure returns to the day job…
If I Was, by Midge Ure (his 1st and only solo #1)
1 week, from 29th September – 6th October 1985
…with a record that is completely and utterly of its time. There are certain records that transcend, that you believe could have been a hit at any point in time. Then there are records like ‘If I Was’, that you can date almost to the week. This is the mid-1980s, in all its synthy, soaring, clinical glory.
I like the upward-moving chord progression. It gives the song purpose from the start, and gets you ready to expect something great. Something great that never comes… If I was, A better man, Would fellow men, Take me to their hearts…? It’s a very earnest song, in which Ure seems to doubt himself at every turn. If he was a soldier, a sailor, a candlestick maker (OK, one of those three may not be the actual lyrics…) would life be easier? Would he be loved?
It’s all very well being clever in a pop song. But I prefer when the cleverness is hidden behind a great tune. Here the music can’t make up for the lyrics, and it just comes across as a bit pretentious. I want to like the over-the-top-ness of it – the pure eighties-ness of it – but something’s missing. It’s not catchy enough, not silly enough, not something enough… Like I said: it’s clinical. It ends up a bit dull, and a bit long.
My favourite part is the clanging, ascending synth chords that lead up to the chorus. They remind me of a gameshow theme-tune, and are the one moment where Ure lets the silliness shine through. It doesn’t last, though, for straight off comes the chest-thumping chorus: If I was a soldier… Captive arms I’d lay before her…
I genuinely hadn’t heard this record before today, which is an increasingly rare thing as we head closer and closer to my own lifetime. Is this because ‘If I Was’ is very of its time, and hasn’t been played on radio since 1987? Or is it because it’s not very good…? A combination of both, I’d say. I’d also suggest that it only made #1 because of Ure’s Band Aid fame, but that might be a little harsh. He was a big star in Ultravox, and this was the lead single from his first solo album. Ure has been at #1 before, with the teeny-bopping, glam-rocking (and for my money much better) ‘Forever and Ever’, in 1976 with his first band Slik. This would be his last Top 10 hit, though he continues to record and tour, as well as keeping up his sterling charity work.
This is our third fully ‘eighties’ recap, and I’d say we’ve reached the peak. In fact, the first of these thirty #1s was the Jam’s farewell single, ‘Beat Surrender’. In the context of this countdown, that wasn’t simply a sign-off from Paul Weller to his fans. It was a sign-off to the post-punk, new wave, early eighties. The days of the Specials, Blondie, Adam Ant and Dexys Midnight Runners.
In its place came THE eighties. The chunk of the decade that has become synonymous with the whole ten years: Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet, Wham!, Culture Club… (OK, yes, Culture Club did feature in my previous countdown, but we won’t let that get in the way of the narrative…) I was keeping my eyes and ears peeled for the exact start of what we now know as ‘the eighties’, and I narrowed it down to Kajagoogoo’s ‘Too Shy’ – a record completely of its time, in both sound and haircuts.
After that hit the top, the levee broke and we were swamped by classics of the decade… ‘True’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Karma Chameleon’. At the time I pointed out that, as we’d seen in the 1950s, some of these giant eighties hits were being claimed by acts who pre-dated the scene by a full decade or more. For the middle-aged Bill Haley rocking around the clock, we now had the almost forty year old Rod Stewart’s disco-rock stomper ‘Baby Jane’, and the well-into-his-thirties David Bowie scoring his biggest ever hit.
I did, at times, sound like a broken record in complaining about the production values of the age. There was just something too polished, and slightly joyless, about the state of pop in mid-1983: ‘True’, ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’, ‘Give It Up’ all came and went. All well-written and well performed pop songs. All that bit too smooth for my tastes. I noticed, though, that I stopped complaining about the production (or I at least stopped mentioning it quite as often) when 1984 rolled around…
Frankie have been given a run for their money, though, by Wham! (never forget the exclamation mark!) and more specifically George Michael, who has scored three chart-toppers of his own in 1984. Two of them were quite retro in their influences: the ‘happiest song ever’ ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and the Motown love-in ‘Freedom’. Oh, and one of the decades most iconic songs, videos, and hairdos, in ‘Careless Whisper’ (that record tipped things back a little too much towards the glossy side for my liking…)
One thing you might have noticed is that almost every act I’ve mentioned so far has been British. Things haven’t been so Brit-centric at the top of the charts since the mid-sixties. Even in the States these were the days of the ‘Second British Invasion’. What then, of the American acts? They may have been pushed to the margins, but we have had the first two hip-hop #1s: the poppy version from New Edition, and the ultra-cool Prince cover version from Chaka Khan. And we had a pop classic from Billy Joel, as well as two massive slush-fests from Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder. And, oh yeah, we had ‘Thriller’ era Michael Jackson squeaking a week with one of the biggest songs ever…
Which brings us on to our awards. The ‘Meh’ Award for forgettability is traditionally awarded first, and to be honest there’s been quite a bit of ‘meh’ around. The 1980s, to my ears at least, can get pretty ‘meh’. But funnily enough, that makes it hard to pick a winner. In some ways it feels wrong giving it to The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’, as that’s a classic. Except, it’s a classic that’s been given a free ride for too long. It’s so beloved of some that I’m giving it the ‘Meh’ Award out of spite! It’s really not that good, people!
Moving on. The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else. There have been a few outliers in the past thirty, songs that bucked the popular trends. UB40’s reggae, Paul McCartney’s ode to peace (and his only truly solo #1), Phil Collins’ Supremes cover… And our past two Christmas chart-toppers. The Flying Pickets’ (almost) completely a cappella ‘Only You’ was fun, but nothing in comparison to Renée & Renato’s ‘Save Your Love’. It was a pretty God-awful song, but boy did Renato go for it. He just about manages to bellow it into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. They win!
I was swithering over awarding ‘Save Your Love’ this round’s Very Worst Chart-Topper trophy, but its campy charms persuaded me otherwise. That means the coast is clear. There is only one candidate for the worst of the past thirty: Lionel Richie’s overwrought and overly creepy ‘Hello’, which even a ludicrous video couldn’t save. I gave The Commodores ‘Three Times a Lady’ a ‘Meh’ award back in the seventies, too. Sorry, Lionel… nothing personal.
And so, finally, onto The Very Best Chart-Topper. Which is nowhere near as clear-cut as the Worst. First, honorary mentions must go to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and ‘I Feel for You’. Great pop songs; but not quite all-time-great standard. I have it down to three, then. The one I should choose: ‘Billie Jean’ (I’m not sure I’ll have a better chance to pick a Michael Jackson song). The one I enjoy listening to the most: ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ (the power ballad to end all power ballads). And the one whose cultural impact just feels too important to ignore: ‘Relax’. Only one of these three songs was pulled off on air in disgust by Mike Read, and only one of these songs features the lead singer yelling ‘Come!’ backed by the sound of a fireman’s hose. Frankie Goes to Hollywood win. A victory for shock over substance…? Maybe. So sue me.
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.
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
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.
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.
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…
Birmingham’s finest return for their second chart-topper, with what might be the most obnoxious intro to a #1 single ever. Ta-la-la-la…The re-fle-fle-fle-fle-flex…! It’s brash, it’s in your face, it’s Duran Duran…
The Reflex, by Duran Duran (their 2nd and final #1)
4 weeks, from 29th April – 27th May 1984
I’m imagining Duran Duran as those annoying kids you’ll find in any school playground, the ones needing constant attention from whoever will give them it, demanding everyone watch as they dance and cartwheel around, while the quieter, more thoughtful kids go unnoticed… (I’m not reliving any childhood trauma here, honest…) The main hook – the wh-ay-ay-ay don’t you use it… – even sounds like a child’s taunt, as they stick their tongue out and wiggle their fingers in front of their nose. It’s also a pretty darn effective pop hook. Once it’s in your head, it’s there for the rest of the day.
‘The Reflex’ shouldn’t work. It’s a hot mess of a record. The foundation is standard Duran Duran: a solid bass line from John Taylor, and the same guitars from ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’ Simon Le Bon’s voice remains one that you need to be in the mood for. But on top of this they’ve chucked everything plus the kitchen sink. Steel drums, horns, choppy vocal effects, explosions… Some of it grates, but a lot of it sticks. Everything about it – from the way the band has cut up samples of their own lead singer’s voice, to their perfect mullets in the video – screams peak eighties. This song might actually be as ‘eighties’ as it ever gets. And something about its pure relentlessness carries it through to being a pretty decent tune.
Just what is ‘the reflex’, though? It is a lonely child, waiting in the park… and it’s watching over lucky clover… You must, at all costs, try not to bruise it. Apparently it has something to do with gambling. Le Bon has gone on record as saying that he’s tired of having to explain it, as he thinks song lyrics should retain their mystique. I’d hazard that he’s tired of explaining it because he hasn’t a clue what he’s been prattling on about all these years.
In the end, and just as it went when I was reviewing their first #1, the frown from my first listen slowly fades. By the fifth play I’m dancing on the valentine with the rest of them. If my two posts on Duran Duran have taught me anything, it’s don’t overthink them. Just go with the flow and enjoy yourself.
You might think a band so synonymous with this decade would have had more than just the pair of #1 hits. Still, this was their 8th Top Hit in three years, and they’d have four more before the end of the decade (including one of my favourite Bond themes). They’ll also have a couple of Top 10 comebacks: in the ‘90s with one of their best songs (‘Ordinary World’) and in the mid-00s, when synth-rock had had a big resurgence in the charts and they were suddenly the elder statesmen of the genre…
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…
In which we arrive at a mega-hit. The biggest song of the year, a number one in thirty countries, the longest stay at #1 so far this decade, and the… checks notes… thirty-eighth biggest seller of all time!
Karma Chameleon, by Culture Club (their 2nd and final #1)
6 weeks, from 18th September – 30th October 1983
Right from its nifty little intro, this is a record that pulls out all the stops in its efforts to burrow into your brain. It’s jaunty, it’s fast-paced, with lots of little retro flourishes, and with a hook that just won’t quit: Karma (x5) Chameleon, You come and go… You come and go…. It’s the purest of pop, from the biggest pop group of the moment. You can see why it was so huge.
Purest pop, but not perfect pop. ‘Karma Chameleon’ falls short of the level of, say, ‘Dancing Queen’, or ‘Heart of Glass’. (Too much harmonica, for a start… And the lyrics are a kind of pretty-sounding nonsense.) But that’s a fairly unreachably high bar I’m setting. This song’s best bit – the middle-eight where Boy George’s voice soars through the Every day, Is like survival, You’re my lover, Not my rival… line – can rank among the best moments of the decade. Then it descends into a marching beat, which flirts very heavily with the cheesy side of things.
In fact, the entirety of this record is one big flirtation with cheese. It stays on the right side, though, for the most part (harmonicas excepted). In the video, Boy George sits astride a Mississippi steamboat, looking as fabulous as ever. It is interesting that a band as provocative as Culture Club have two such safe chart-toppers to their name. ‘Karma Chameleon’, as good as it is, could have been recorded by Bucks Fizz (the drum beat here is really similar to ‘Making Your Mind Up’…) while ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ was, to my ears, a little dull. Maybe, though, the fact that their music was so accessible is a good thing, meaning that Boy George was beamed into family homes around the world as they scored hit after hit. Fathers scowled, mothers tutted, and all the kids who didn’t fit in secretly saw hope…
Having said that, I’d still have taken the stomping, Motown-esque ‘Church of the Poison Mind’ to have been the mega million-selling hit over this. Culture Club did have an edge to them, it just isn’t to be found in their #1s. They were also at the peak of their powers here: between October 1982 and October ’84 the band saw seven singles chart no lower than #4…
They would split up soon afterwards though, in acrimony and drug addiction. They wouldn’t work together for twelve years, until their 1998 comeback. Which must have been a big deal, as it filtered through into the consciousness of twelve-year-old me. I remember their comeback single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Loved’ well, and liked it at the time. Boy George, meanwhile, will feature in this countdown under his own steam before too long.
I mentioned in the intro that ‘Karma Chameleon’s six-week stay was the longest run at the top since 1979, and it means that we are suddenly racing through to the finish of 1983. Our next #1 is a big ‘un too. I also mentioned this record’s ‘retro flourishes’ which, added to KC & The Sunshine Band’s disco touches, and UB40’s reggae rhythms, means the ’80s are suddenly sounding a little less ’80s’. Whether I think this is a good or a bad thing… I’ll leave that for you to decide.
We’re back among the classics, after a dubious (though admittedly catchy) detour with New Edition. The Police then, with their final, and their biggest, chart-topper.
Every Breath You Take, by The Police (their 5th and final #1)
4 weeks, 29th May – 26th June 1983
I press play, and before the song is halfway through questions begin to arise. Has this record been dulled by repetition? (At any given moment of the day, a radio station somewhere is playing ‘Every Breath You Take’.) Is it just that little bit too glossy, too polished? Has Sting’s voice tipped over the edge into soft-rock crooning…?
Don’t get me wrong, the opening riff, and the simple but effective chord progression thereafter, is a great hook. It can take its place among pop’s great moments. It’s a record that begins with complete confidence in itself… but I’m not sure it builds upon this strong start. It comes close with the How my poor heart aches, With every step you take… line, which is great. But the rest of the song is a bit cold, a bit clinical and, by the end, a bit boring…
Perhaps the problem’s not musical, but lyrical. It’s become a cliché to point out that this is a stalker’s anthem, but it’s true. It’s not a nice song. Every single day, Every word you say… It’s clearly about a possessive, jealous, and potentially dangerous, lover watching his ex. Yet take the title by itself, with the lines about hearts aching and people belonging to one another, and you can convince yourself that it’s a love song. Apparently it some people play it at their weddings…
I was ready for this to finally redeem The Police in my eyes, to show me why they were the biggest band of the late-seventies and early-eighties, as I’d struggled to love their previous #1s. But it hasn’t… In fact, turns out my favourite is their first: ‘Message in a Bottle’. I just didn’t realise it at the time. I’m in the minority on this, though, it seems – ‘Every Breath You Take’ is a Rolling Stone / Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Greatest of All Time kind of tune. In 2015 it was voted the UK’s favourite ‘80s #1, and in 2019 it was named the ‘most played song in radio history’, taking over from ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’.
You could compare The Police with another band we’ve recently bid farewell to on this countdown: The Jam. Both rose out of the punk scene in the late seventies to become two of the biggest British new wave bands. Both left their punk roots far behind, but The Jam did so with a sense of exploration – look at the funky ‘Precious’ and the Motown influenced ‘Town Called Malice’. Whereas The Police went down a more soft-rock route, culminating in this monster hit.
And it is a good song, I’m not writing it off completely. But it’s a little too cold, too negative, and too overplayed, to be a favourite. To finish, here’s a very tenuous link between this record, and the previous #1 I mentioned in the intro. ‘Candy Girl’ was the first rap chart-topper… while ‘Every Breath You Take’ will be heavily sampled in what I believe is the best-selling rap single ever released…