575. ‘I Wanna Wake Up with You’, by Boris Gardiner

Sigh. Another squishy, easy listening ballad. It seems the general public was in a queasily romantic mood during the summer of ’86.

I Wanna Wake Up with You, by Boris Gardner (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 17th August – 7th September 1986

At least this latest #1 is a reggae ballad. Reggae tinged, at least. There’s the merest hint of reggae in the piano that keeps everything in time, ticking along with a tiny spring in the step, which elevates this record above its gloopy predecessor, ‘The Lady in Red’. I’ve pointed out before the indestructibility of reggae as a chart-topping genre – it’s never been popular enough to dominate any one era, but it also keeps popping up long after other, wilder fads have died away.

I wanna wake up with you… I wanna be there when you open your eyes… The reggae-ness of this song is also the best thing about it (along with the fun, squiggly synths in the intro). The rest is sickly sweet lyrics, and chord progressions so simple that the whole thing could be rewritten as a hymn, the kind kiddies have to sing at Easter assemblies (it had originally been written as a country song). Boris Gardiner croons his way through it like a pro and, like all the best crooners, when he runs out of words he just doo-doo-doos

Gardiner was an established and respected reggae singer, who had been active since 1960 without much major success. His one and only previous UK chart hit, the instrumental ‘Elizabethan Reggae’, had made #14 in early 1970. Which must make that one of the biggest gaps between hit singles, ever. ‘Elizabethan Reggae’ is much more rough-round-the-edges, ‘proper’ reggae. Meanwhile, he wrote the soul soundtrack to the movie ‘Every N***** Is a Star’, the title track to which has been sampled by Kendrick Lamar, and featured in the Oscar-winning film ‘Moonlight’. He had an edge to him, then, and definitely softened his sound for this sweet, if pretty boring, love song. But can you begrudge a bloke one big hit almost thirty years into his career?

The fact that Boris Gardiner was forty-three years old when ‘I Wanna Wake Up with You’ hit number one means 1986 is turning into a very middle-aged year for chart-toppers: Billy Ocean, Diana Ross, Cliff, Hank Marvin, Chris de Burgh and now Boris were all aged between thirty-six and forty-five when scoring their recent chart-toppers. That’s some pretty old pop stars (I write through gritted teeth, as I note that I too would now fall into this group…)

I have no idea why this average little ballad was such a big hit (the 3rd biggest seller of the year!) in 1986. Or why this is turning into the eighties’ version of the Summer of Love. Ok, two songs don’t make a summer, but it is tempting to compare the three all-time classics that made up the original 1967 SoL, with the past two drippy, over-produced #1s from the class of ’86, and draw conclusions on the respective merits of the two decades…

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574. ‘The Lady in Red’, by Chris de Burgh

Oooh baby. Who doesn’t love a #1 song that shimmies in, draped in furs and faux-silk, sounding like a soft porn soundtrack…

The Lady in Red, by Chris de Burgh (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 27th July – 17th August 1986

She’s slick, she’s glossy, she’s the eighties-est thing ever. It’s ‘The Lady in Red’. When Chris de Burgh’s vocals arrive, though, the sexy spell is broken. What diction! Never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight… Never seen so many men asking if you wanted to dance… (There’s no way of accurately transcribing how he pronounces the word ‘dance’. ‘Darwnce’? De Burgh is the only person who has ever pronounced it this way. With a straight face, at least.)

This is a terrible song. The music is the worst kind of soulless soft-rock, all finger clicks and thick, gloopy synths. The vocals are overwrought. The lyrics are at best cringey, and at worst truly vomit inducing. You can imagine Chris de Burgh writing the chorus… The lady in red, Is dancing with me… And thinking hmmm, that’s just not rotten enough. Aha! I know… *whispers Cheek to cheek…*

Two bits stand out as particularly nauseating. The mm-hmm-hmm in the first verse, as Chris closes his eyes and pictures this goddess. And the whispered I love you… at the very end. Both send shudders right up the spine. ‘The Lady in Red’ was his wife, Diane, who was wearing a red dress on the night she chose him over all the other men who’d asked to dance. De Burgh wrote this, his biggest hit, as an apology after they had argued. (Whatever the fight was about, it wasn’t worth this. I’d have taken the divorce…) The song also – according to de Burgh – reduced none other a Lady than Princess Diana to tears. Whether they were sad tears, tears of boredom, or tears of relief when the song finally ended, remains unclear.

I was expecting this to be awful, and it is. But… But. It isn’t as truly heinous as I had imagined. I thought this would walk straight into the Top 5 Worst #1s ever, alongside J.J. Barrie and the St. Winifred’s kids. Yet there is something epic about the way De Burgh wails his way through it, the way he revels in its utter cheesiness, like a pig rolling in its own filth, that just about drags it out of the gutter. But I hardly know… (It has an extra chorus on top of the regular chorus, for goodness sake!) This beauty by my side…. Plus I kind of like the funky, plucked guitar.

I don’t think Chris de Burgh thought this was cool. I’m not sure he has any idea what ‘cool’ is, and I don’t think he cares. ‘The Lady in Red’ is a stinker; and yet it went to #1 in twenty-five countries… Coolness be damned! Do I want to hear this again, ever? Nope. Do I admire its relentless, undiluted schmaltz? Yes, somewhat (grudgingly…) De Burgh has only had one further UK Top 10 to his name, though he has been in the music business for nigh on fifty years. He continues to record and tour, and to be wildly popular in countries where English isn’t the first language (make of that what you will…)

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573. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, by Madonna

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…

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572. ‘The Edge of Heaven’, by Wham!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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571. ‘Spirit in the Sky’, by Doctor & The Medics

Given the way the charts have been going over the past few months, I’m ready to write this next #1 off as another gimmicky novelty…

Spirit in the Sky, by Doctor & The Medics (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 1st June – 22nd June 1986

From Cliff and the Young Ones, past Falco and The Chicken Song, to this: a mid-eighties take on Norman Greenbaum’s classic 1970 number one (obligatory link to my original post here…) The beefy guitars that open on that famous riff are very welcome – it’s been a good long while since we’ve had proper guitars at #1.

It’s a faithful cover, all the notes are there in the right order. Even the trippy effects between the lines and the riffs are recreated. It’s fine. It’s a great song, and if you stick to the script you’ll end up with a reasonably good cover. But as the song develops, and after repeated listens, you start to wonder why they bothered…

It plods along with the feel of a knock-off karaoke version, especially when the tacky, synthy organ comes in. You can hear it in the background from around midway through, sounding like the one used in the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ theme (sorry, very niche reference for non-British readers…) It’s the version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ that you’d use in a TV series if you couldn’t afford to pay for the original. Meanwhile, in my post on the original I remember questioning whether Greenbaum was singing this as a religious song. Here, the lyrics pass you by. They’re sung so unremarkably that you don’t really notice them.

It is, as you may have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, not a patch on the proto-glam, acid-fried original. And, yet again, this record backs up my bias against eighties production: it just sounds so much better when ‘real’ instruments are used… By this point my 1980s fixation is very much ‘old man shouts at cloud’ territory, but I can’t help it.

One of the main reasons why I approached this record as a novelty is because the band singing it are called Doctor & The Medics. It just screams ‘aren’t we zany!’ They had been around since 1981, formed in London by The Doctor (AKA Clive Jackson). From the look of the band – big hair and Kiss-style make-up – I want to like them. This is possibly the closest we’ll get to an ‘80s glam rock chart-topper (a genre that’s a definite guilty pleasure of mine). The video also has a goth-glam feel to it, with pale women in floaty white dresses popping their heads out of windows.

The Medics were primarily a covers band, but sadly their subsequent versions of ‘Waterloo’ (featuring Roy Wood) and ‘Burning Love’ didn’t set the charts alight. They remain on the verge of being one-hit wonders, and continue to perform with only The Doctor as an original member. Their sole Top 20 hit isn’t a novelty, then, I can confirm. But neither is it anything more than okay… Meanwhile, ‘Spirit in the Sky’ has one more appearance at #1 to come. And if you thought I was down on this version, well…

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Recap: #541 – #570

To recap, then…

The past thirty number one singles have taken us through the customary year and a half, from late ’84 to the early summer of ’86. Slap-bang in the middle of the decade. I like to, wherever possible, theme my recaps, to brand them with whatever act, or sound, has been prevalent at the time. We’ve had a rock ‘n’ roll recap, an Elvis recap, a Merseybeat recap, a glam recap, a disco recap… This, then, is our nineteenth recap: the charity record recap.

Yep. We went through thirty plus years of chart-toppers without a single one donating its proceeds to charity. But of the last thirty chart-toppers, five have been for a good cause (that’s roughly 16%, maths lovers!) We started with the daddy of all charity singles – ‘daddy’ in that it basically birthed the genre, and also because it’s still one of the best – Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’

We then moved on to USA for Africa’s ‘We Are the World’ – a bloated, American take on Band Aid. Two original songs, at least, by legends like Geldof, Ure, Jackson and Wonder. Charity singles then started to evolve, and quickly. Next came the cover versions: The Crowd’s take on terrace anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s pantomime dame reading of ‘Dancing in the Street’. Finally, this new genre settled on a format, one that will be plaguing the charts from now until the end of time: the novelty charity single. Cliff and the cast of ‘The Young Ones’ pratted their way through a pretty unlistenable cover of ‘Living Doll’.

I’ve had to take an executive decision when it comes to charity records. While it is unlikely I will ever name one as a ‘Very Best Chart-Topper’ (though you never know), I will always try, if at all possible, not to name one as a ‘Very Worst Chart-topper’ either. Their hearts are in the right place, you see. It would be like kicking a puppy, stealing candy from a baby… No matter how bad they are, there will always be another terrible record that isn’t raising money for the poor and the needy.

Away from charity records, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. On the downside, we’ve had records featuring the worst excesses of ‘80s production. ‘19’s choppy vocal line, and ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’ with its monstrous intro. Songs that might have been good, spoiled by the pervading electronic cheapness: ‘Frankie’, ‘If I Was’, and ‘A Good Heart’ all tainted by tinny synths and gimmicky effects.

Some acts, though, made the sounds of the time work for them. A-ha used their synths to theatrical effect on ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’, the Bee Gees and Diana Ross managed to meld eighties production with a sixties Motown sound on ‘Chain Reaction’. While Falco programmed his keyboards to give us a fun and funky take on Mozart’s life story with ‘Rock Me Amadeus’: the first Austrian, and the first German-language, number one.

We also met a new set of legends, three acts who will dominate the singles chart in the late eighties/early nineties, and well into the 21st century in the case of one lady. Yes, Madonna finally scored a UK #1 with ‘Into the Groove’: a decent slice of dance-pop, though she’s got much better songs to come. Then Whitney Houston made an understated, jazzy entrance on ‘Saving All My Love for You’. While the Pet Shop Boys scored one of the decade’s strangest and best-loved (just not on this blog…) chart-toppers with ‘West End Girls’.

And before we get to the awards, we also have to recognise that we are still firmly in the age of the power ballad. Jim Diamond gave us our first taste of those big eighties drums, while Frankie Goes to Hollywood went spiritual for their final #1. Foreigner gave us what is, in my book, one of the worst examples of the genre. Jennifer Rush, meanwhile, gave us one of the very best in ‘The Power of Love’.

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So. Let’s start with The ‘Meh’ Award for the most forgettable of the past thirty number one hits. There were three songs that really failed to get my pulse raising, for good or bad. UB40 & Chrissie Hynde’s plodding take on ‘I Got You Babe’, Midge Ure’s MOR ‘If I Was’, and George Michael’s (too) understated ‘A Different Corner’. The latter two didn’t connect with me simply because they’re not to my taste. ‘I Got You Babe’ didn’t connect because it’s a pretty insipid cover of a classic. UB40 & Chrissie take it.

Onwards, to the The WTAF Award, which rewards the songs that went for being interesting over being particularly good. Again, I have it down to three. Paul Hardcastle’s ‘19’: ground-breaking but gimmicky. Jagger & Bowie’s ‘Dancing in the Street’: camp silliness in the name of charity. And Falco’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’: German camp silliness in the name of Mozart… I do like me a powdered wig: I’m giving it to Falco!

Now for the two biggies. The 19th Very Worst Chart-Topper. Again, I have three candidates. Cliff, Hank and the Young Ones’ ‘Living Doll’ was pretty dire. Except, it’s a charity record and I’ve literally just promised not to award them this… Bugger. Okay. That leaves us with Spitting Image’s ‘The Chicken Song’, a piss-take of novelty records that manages to be just as bad, if not worse, than the records it parodies. And the ultimate teeth-clenching, constipated, soft-rock power ballad: Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’.

I should award it to ‘The Chicken Song’, because it is a horrible piece of music. But it’s supposed to be a horrible piece of music. It wants to you to recognise it as a horrible piece of music. It is the naughty child at the back of the class, begging for attention. We must ignore it and hope it goes away. I’m awarding this to Foreigner then, for condensing the worst of the overwrought, over-serious ‘80s into five minutes of fist-clenching earnestness.

Finally, the The Very Best Chart-Topper. To be honest, there isn’t a standout track. This wasn’t a massively strong bunch. Some of the previous ‘Bests’ would walk to the prize here. I liked ‘Chain Reaction’ and my birth #1 ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’, but not quite enough to nominate them. I really liked Eurythmics one and only #1, the vocabulary-stretching ‘There Must Be an Angel…’ But, again, is it ‘Very Best’ material? Not for me. So, I have two in mind…

Showing Foreigner that power-ballads can be great if done properly: Jennifer Rush. And the only record of the past thirty that truly gets me tapping my toes: Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round…’ It’s a tough one. Both are good for very different reasons. Both are songs I’ve liked for a long time. If ever there was a time for a tie, it’s this. But that’s a cop out. Put it this way: if I had five minutes to live, I’d want to hear Dead or Alive. They win… Just.

To recap the recaps, then:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability

  1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
  2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
  3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
  4. ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
  5. ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
  6. ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
  7. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
  8. ‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
  9. ‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
  10. ‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
  11. ‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
  12. ‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
  13. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
  14. ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
  15. ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
  16. ‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan.
  17. ‘A Little Peace’, by Nicole.
  18. ‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police.
  19. ‘I Got You Babe’, by UB40 with Chrissie Hynde.

The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else

  1. ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
  2. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
  3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
  4. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
  5. ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
  6. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
  7. ‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
  9. ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
  10. ‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
  11. ‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
  12. ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
  13. ‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
  14. ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush.
  15. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
  16. ‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre.
  17. ‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin.
  18. ‘Save Your Love’ by Renée & Renato.
  19. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco.

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers

  1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
  2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
  3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
  4. ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
  5. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
  6. ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
  7. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
  8. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
  9. ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
  10. ‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
  11. ‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
  12. ‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
  13. ‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
  14. ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
  15. ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
  16. ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir.
  17. ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, by Charlene.
  18. ‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie.
  19. ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner.

The Very Best Chart-Toppers

  1. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
  2. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
  3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
  4. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
  5. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
  6. ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
  7. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
  9. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
  10. ‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
  11. ‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
  12. ‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
  13. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
  14. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
  15. ‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie.
  16. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA.
  17. ‘My Camera Never Lies’, by Bucks Fizz.
  18. ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
  19. ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive

570. ‘The Chicken Song’, by Spitting Image

In my last post, I wondered if ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was intended as a novelty song, a train of thought that took me down an existential route, asking if our native English bias leads us to treat all foreign language songs as novelties, regardless of the artists’ original intentions… Thankfully, this next #1 will not be inspiring any such deep philosophical debate. Ladies and Gentlemen: ‘The Chicken Song’…

The Chicken Song, by Spitting Image (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 11th May – 1st June 1986

Nor do we need to ask if this is a novelty hit. This is the ultimate novelty hit: a novelty hit about novelty hits. A meta-novelty hit. It apes mindless summer smashes like ‘Agadoo’ (the ‘wet gits’ in the lyrics are supposed to be Black Lace) and ‘The Birdy Song’, with their inane lyrics and/or their simplistic dance moves: Hold a chicken in the air, Stick a deckchair up your nose…

My first instinct is to groan and press stop. But then I remember: this is done knowingly. It’s meant to be annoying. My second instinct is still to groan and press stop. Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but that doesn’t make it any more listenable. I get the point they’re making, but… Now you’ve heard this song, Your brain will spring a leak, And though you hate this song, You’ll be singing it for weeks… Well, quite.

‘The Chicken Song’ doesn’t appear to be on streaming service because, let’s be honest, who would ever want to listen to it? After a promising start, 1986 is quickly hitting the skids. I’m starting to cast my eye towards the upcoming recap, and the ‘Very Worst Chart Topper’ award. But then, is it worth getting annoyed about a song that has set its stall out so clearly to be annoying? Aren’t you just giving them what they want…? Let’s move quickly on then, and not give them the attention they crave…

Except, ‘Spitting Image’ was a satirical TV show – ‘The Chicken Song’ had featured heavily in the programme’s third series – and you could maybe have expected something with a little more bite. There’s a video of their ‘Top of the Pops’ performance, featuring Margaret Thatcher on keys and Ronald Reagan on drums. Imagine if those world leaders had featured in the lyrics… Sadly, they went for dumb rather than edgy. The ‘B’-side was a ditty called ‘I’ve Never Met a Nice South African’, which mocked the attitudes of apartheid era, white South Africans. That would have made for an interesting number one; though it wouldn’t have been likely to make it there in the first place…

So, there we go. ‘The Chicken Song’. You might have wondered if, with this being the ultimate novelty song – the novelty song’s novelty song – people might have given up on making them after this topped the charts. Why bother? Sadly, people still did bother. There are plenty more to come. Up next, though, a recap…

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569. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco

Questions arise pretty quickly, as I listen to this next bizarre little chart-topper. Is it based on the ‘Beverly Hills Cops’ theme? Is it about Mozart? And most importantly: is it a novelty record…?

Rock Me Amadeus, by Falco (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 4th – 11th May 1986

Before answering any of those, I’m going to have to admit – I’m really enjoying this. It’s funky, throbbing, moody… and completely ridiculous. Despite it being ponderously slow, you can dance to it. I’m also most fond of synths when they are used in this clanking, industrial way; rather than for showy flourishes. It’s a record I knew by title, without ever having properly listened to.

It’s a German chart-topper, which isn’t unusual for the 1980s, when we’ve seen the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena, Nicole and The Goombay Dance Band reach the top. What is unusual is that Falco has done so while still singing in German. Rapping in German even! The harshness of the language complements the thumping synths, I think, in a way that wouldn’t work if this was in French, say.

On a more serious level, though, is the fact that Falco performs the song in German the reason I instinctively treated this record as a novelty? Are we guilty – yes I’m including you in this! – of English language snobbery, of discounting anything not in English as lesser and silly? Especially something in ze harsh, guttural sounds of das Deutsch? At the same time, Falco’s antics in the video show that ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ is at least meant to be fun, if not truly a novelty song.

Said video also definitively answers one of my other earlier questions: this is very much about Mozart. Falco plays the man himself – the song was inspired by the 1984 movie ‘Amadeus’ – as men in powdered wigs dance with leathered-up bikers. The lyrics tell the story of big Wolfgang as the original rock star, about his way with the ladies and his fondness for a tipple: He was a superstar, He was popular, He was exalted, He had flair… And everybody screamed ‘Come rock me Amadeus’…

Which leaves me with just one question to answer: does anybody else hear the ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ theme in the synth riff? I can’t find much evidence online that agrees with me, but I definitely hear it. That theme, AKA ‘Axel F’, will of course have its moment atop the charts, but the mere thought of it makes me shudder…

By the end this song has gone completely bat-shit, with Falco screaming, scatting and yodelling things to a conclusion. Not something you’d want to hear every day, but great fun if you’re in the mood. Falco – real name Johann Hölzel – was Austrian, like Mozart. The first Austrian to top the charts in both the UK and the USA, unlike Mozart (though he’d surely have had hit after hit had the charts existed in the 1780s…) In Austria, Germany and much of Europe he was huge, but in Britain he struggled to have much further chart success – though the follow-up ‘Vienna Calling’ did make #10. Sadly, and again much like the hero of this song, Falco died very young, in a car crash, aged just forty.

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568. ‘A Different Corner’, by George Michael

George Michael, one of the biggest pop idols of the decade, returns for his second solo chart-topper. A low-key, and I’d say pretty forgotten chart-topper…

A Different Corner, by George Michael (his 2nd of seven solo #1s)

3 weeks, from 13th April – 4th May 1986

It has a haunting intro: two bass notes, and a distant, echoing piano. ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ it is not. In fact, cast your mind back just a few months, and Wham! were at number one with the perky, Motown-flavoured ‘I’m Your Man’. This is a big departure, a big statement, for an (almost) former boyband star, and the fact that Michael took such a sparse record to the top shows just how popular he was.

It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song. George’s voice smoothly caresses its way over hills and around corners, through a tale of unrequited love… I would promise you all of my life, But to lose you would cut like a knife, So I don’t dare… He’s never been in love, as he’s in ‘A Different Corner’… As with all of George’s #1 thus far, I can’t help but read a little subtext in this. I’m so scared of this love… he groans, and I’m left wondering how it took everyone so long to realise. According to George himself, it was written about the end of a very quick relationship, as well as his sadness at the end of Wham!

The obvious comparison to make is with George Michael’s first chart-topper, the much glossier and more bouffant-ed ‘Careless Whisper’. That’s not my favourite song, but I get why it’s much loved. ‘A Different Corner’ is a very different beast on first listen, but actually it’s something of a ‘Whisper’ redux: Michael is still emoting, and smouldering, but over a less-cluttered background. (Plus, there’s a Spanish guitar again). In the video, he is locked in a white room, reclining on large cushions and taking phones off their hooks, rather than swanky hotel rooms and luxury yachts.

I’ve probably made this clear in the five George Michael/Wham! songs that I’ve covered up to know, but I’ll out myself once and for all… I’m not his biggest fan. I like certain of his songs, I respect his talent and voice as a performer, and I was sad when he died, much too young. But he doesn’t rank among the Ultimates for me: the Elvises, The Beatles the Dustys, and so on… And I think since he died he’s been unjustly pushed to the very top of the pile.

I also respect a song like this getting to number one – it sounds unlike anything we’ve had at the top for a while – but I don’t love it. In a sign of Michael’s immense talent, ‘A Different Corner’ was the first ever #1 to be written, performed and produced by the same person. (Which, yes, is more than Elvis or Dusty ever did, but that’s irrelevant… Music doesn’t work on a points system). This pretty much marks the end of Wham! – although they still have one more #1 to come – and sets George Michael up for the all-conquering ‘Faith’ era – during which he would at least have some fun, not just mope around on big white bean-bags…

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567. ‘Living Doll’, by Cliff Richard & The Young Ones ft. Hank Marvin

The newest addition to our chart-topping roster – the charity record – returns. But it has shapeshifted. Morphed into a form that will terrorise the charts from here until the end of time… The comedy charity record…

Living Doll, by Cliff Richard (his 11th of  fourteen #1s) & the Young Ones ft. Hank Marvin

3 weeks, from 23rd March – 13th April 1986

As with most charity records – which tend to be very rooted in their particular time and place – this needs a bit of explaining. ‘The Young Ones’ was a sitcom, about a group of flat-sharing undergraduate students of Scumbag College: Rick, an anarchist; Vyvyan, a psychopathic metalhead; Neil, a hippie; and Mike, the ‘cool’ one. The show’s theme tune was Cliff Richard & The Shadows’ 1962 #1 ‘The Young Ones’ and Rick, played by Rik Mayall, was a proud Cliff fan, despite his anarchist leanings. In-jokes on top of in-jokes…

This one isn’t on Spotify, which actually ends up being in the record’s favour – it works better as a video. As a song, it’s fairly unlistenable. Cliff does a straight, very soporific cover of his 1959 #1, while the four actors prat about over the top. Meanwhile, Hank Marvin emerges from behind a door to perform the solo.

It is undoubtedly hard to write a song that is as funny as it is catchy. And this is not how you do it… ‘The Young Ones’ is a funny programme, and Cliff is Cliff. But they’ve had to paint their anarchic humour in very broad strokes here. There are funny(ish) bits… At one point Vyvyan calls Cliff ‘Shaky’. And they call out the creepy ‘gonna lock her up in a trunk’ line: I still feel that locking girls in trunks is politically unsound… Well I feel sorry for the elephant… (groan)

It reminds me – and I’m not sure how I even remember this song – of ‘I See the Moon’, The Stargazers’ 1954 chart-topper. That also featured voice actors pratting about – in a very proper, pre-rock ‘n’ roll kind of way – over a well-known tune. It also reminds me of just about every other ‘comedy’ record to come: ‘Spirit in the Sky’, ‘Islands in the Stream’, ‘500 Miles’ will all be subjected to the same treatment in the years to come, and that’s just off the top of my head.

This was recorded for the very first Comic Relief (AKA Red Nose Day), a BBC charity telethon. Like Band Aid, it was set up in response to the famine in Ethiopia and has since gone on to raise 1.4 billion pounds for charity over the last thirty years. For all the musical chaos it has unleashed, it has undoubtedly done a lot of good for the world. Four minutes of Cliff, and Adrian Edmondson bashing everyone on the head with a mallet, is perhaps a small price to pay…

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