589. ‘La Isla Bonita’, by Madonna

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.

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588. ‘Let It Be’, by Ferry Aid

Uh-oh, charity single ahoy…!

Let It Be, by Ferry Aid

3 weeks, from 29th March – 19th April 1987

OK. That intro might have been slightly tasteless, especially given the disaster that prompted this latest charity chart-topper. On 6th March 1987, a passenger ferry left Zeebrugge in Belgium bound for Dover. The bow door, the one that lets cars drive on, was left open as the ship set off, and it capsized almost immediately. One hundred and ninety three people lost their lives.

Undoubtedly tragic. But the nautical analogy holds up, I think. You’re floating along through the mid-to-late eighties, when along comes a hulking iceberg of a record. Charity songs, with their casts of thousands, their cramming of different styles and voices into one, their overlong runtimes, really do knock the charts off course. And when the record in question is a cover of ‘Let It Be’, one of the world’s best-loved songs, by the world’s best-loved band, you can’t help but wince, no matter how worthy the cause.

But we must listen, and ponder. The best part of an charity ensemble singalong is seeing how many people you can identify. It kicks off with the song’s writer, Paul McCartney, doing his best chirpy Uncle Macca impersonation. Then there’s the still heroin-husky Boy George, carrying the first verse. There’s Andy Bell from Erasure. There’s someone who looks like Marti Pellow (it’s not…) There’s Mel & Kim, again! They (sort of) join the exclusive club of acts who have replaced themselves at #1. There’s Kim Wilde and Nik Kershaw. There’s Kate Bush, who purrs her way through a couple of lines, sounding like she’s been spliced on from a completely different recording. There’s Edwin Starr, of ‘War!’ fame.

There are two guitar solos, from Gary Moore, and Mark Knopfler. Moore’s in particular is pretty blistering, marking this out from the usual charity single fare. There are two guys – one with a bottle of beer, the other smoking a fag – who aren’t quite giving the occasion the respect it deserves. Turns out they’re one half of Curiosity Killed the Cat. This is the second best aspect of a charity single: flash in the pan acts immortalised by being in the right place at the right time. (Also present here is Taffy – no, me neither – who qualified for a line or two thanks to her recent #6 hit ‘I Love My Radio’.)

By the end it’s descended into a pub-singalong, as all charity singles must. I refer to Wikipedia, because it looks like there are at least five-hundred people in the throng, to find it’s actually a ‘Who’s Who’ of previous chart-topping acts: Bucks Fizz, Suzi Quatro, Alvin Stardust, Bonnie Tyler, Doctor and the Medics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The New Seekers. Alongside The Drifters… the actual Drifters??… Gloria Hunniford, and Anne Diamond. Of course. They all look far happier than they should, given that it was the deaths of almost two hundred people that brought them all together.

I haven’t commented much on the music, because what’s the point? Charity singles aren’t bought to be listened to. Before you press play, imagine what a cover version of ‘Let It Be’, recorded for charity, in the late-eighties, would sound like. I’ll bet you come pretty close. (Oh and don’t forget to throw in a completely incongruous, but brilliant, guitar solo.) It is what it is. We listen once, and we move on.

587. ‘Respectable’, by Mel & Kim

I’m a fan of sweeping statements regarding where and when we are in popular music history, so here’s another one: ‘Respectable’, by Mel and Kim is an era-defining record.

Respectable, by Mel & Kim (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 22nd – 29th March 1987

Tay-tay-tay-tay-tay-t-t-t-t-tay-tay, Take or leave us… The hook that runs through this hi-NRG, trash-pop hit is jarring. It’s obnoxious, confrontational, and completely intentional – designed to be played at ear-splitting volume by thirteen year old girls across the country, as their parents bang angrily on the walls. Whether or not you can, forgive me, take or leave this song is a good indicator of how much, or how little, you’ll enjoy this blog for the next few months…

For me personally…? When I first listened to it a few days ago, I enjoyed its in-your-face brassiness. When it comes to pop, for me, the trashier and more disposable the better. In the few days since, though, I’ve caught a cold and, let me tell you, ‘Respectable’s pounding beat and constant, jabbing synths wear thinner when you’ve got a stuffy nose and a high temperature. (And if you think the single edit is jarring, try the six-minute extended mix…)

But it’s the sound of the future, both immediate and a little further off. Immediate, because it was produced by Stock-Aitken-Waterman, whose blend of hi-NRG, disco and Europop will be the sound of the late-eighties. They’ve already had one #1: Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round’, which is probably their best, and between March ’87 and January 1990 they will score a whopping twelve more!

In terms of a further-off future, ‘Respectable’s lyrics put me in mind of a certain girl group still a decade hence. Take or leave us, Only please believe us, We ain’t never gonna be respectable… Like us, Hate us, But you’ll never change us… They don’t care if you think they’re out of line, they’re just out for a good time. Again, these are simple sentiments aimed at tweens, rather than a new feminist manifesto, but when the Spice Girls did it there were theses published on ‘Girl Power’.

Mel and Kim were sisters, and this was their second of four Top 10 hits. They would presumably have had a few more, but tragically Mel died aged just twenty-three in 1990. The cancer that would kill her had been re-diagnosed shortly after ‘Respectable’ made #1. Kim went solo after that, and scored a handful of hits in the early nineties.

A very heavy footnote, then, to what has been one of the lightest number ones for quite some time. It’s tunes like this which have me thinking that, while nobody is claiming the late-eighties to be a classic era for pop music, I will enjoy it more than the decade’s soft and gloopy middle years…

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Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis

Last time I did a ‘Remembering’ post, it was on the universally loved and cherished Olivia Newton-John, about whom nobody had a bad word to say. Jerry Lee Lewis, though…

We’ve met some wrong ‘uns in our journey through the chart-toppers of yore. Bad types with equally bad music (Rolf Harris), bad types with music that I couldn’t help but enjoy (Gary Glitter). Jerry Lee Lewis was possibly that baddest of them all. ‘The Killer’, so named because he had allegedly tried to strangle a teacher at his high school – or so he said – lived a life that would make your average, run-of-the-mill criminal blush. Drug arrests, assault arrests, two wives dead in suspicious circumstances and – the one that effectively ended his mainstream chart career before it had truly started – a marriage to his thirteen year-old cousin.

He was, in his own words, an unrepentant hillbilly. Unpleasant and aggressive towards his fans, his family, journalists, and other musicians. (When he met John Lennon, he did so after berating the Beatles and their peers as ‘shit’ from the stage. Lennon, legend has it, still kneeled down to kiss Lewis’s feet.) Why then, does he seem to have gotten away with it? Any current artist who did a quarter of the things Jerry Lee allegedly did would have been cancelled into the dust. Is it because it was all so long ago? Is it because people were more able to seperate art from artist? Or is it because he was just so good?

For, no matter how terrible a person he was, he is rock and roll royalty. One of the five deities: Chuck, Elvis, Buddy, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee. Elvis used his voice (and his body), Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry their guitars. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had their pianos, which put them at an immediate disadvantage, as pianos are not hugely conducive to rocking and rolling. Pianos are for classical music, for Beethoven and Mozart, for respectable ladies’ front rooms. You have to sit down to play them, and sitting down is the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll.

So you have to do what Jerry Lee, and Little Richard did. Pound the keys, assault the keys, stamp on them, jump on them… Set the goddamn piano on fire if you have to. (Which Lewis allegedly did when angry at being lower down a bill than Chuck Berry. ‘Follow that, boy’, he said as he left the stage.) Which leads to Jerry Lee’s one and only British chart-topper: ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

Quite often, as with many genres, by the time rock ‘n’ roll made it to the top of the charts it had been diluted. Elvis’s first #1 was the smooth ‘All Shook Up’. Buddy Holly had one chart-topping rocker: ‘That’ll Be the Day’. Berry had to wait until the nonsense that is ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Little Richard never had one. Which means that ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is probably the purest rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper. It’s unadulteratedly dangerous, and sexy. It has a title that is at once biblical, yet also sexual. Watch the live performance below, probably quite restrained by his standards, and listen to the shrieks form the audience every time he pauses, when he stands, and when he leers at them. The sweat on his brow, the glint in his eye. Anybody capable of that sort of performance was going to have a few skeletons in the closet. He was complicated, unpleasant, the ‘killer’, but he was rock and roll.

Jerry Lee Lewis

September 29th 1935 – October 28th 2022

586. ‘Everything I Own’, by Boy George

After the exploits and successes of George Michael; another famous, lead-singing George goes solo…

Everything I Own, by Boy George (his 1st and only solo #1)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd March 1987

For someone as provocative and outspoken as Boy George, he didn’t half play it safe when it came to the actual music. I commented as much when Culture Club’s two chart-toppers came along: ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ left me a little cold, and while ‘Karma Chameleon’ is a brilliant pop song, it’s more likely to have granny dancing along than reaching for the smelling salts. At the time, I wondered if a double whammy of androgyny and provocative songs might have been too much. Maybe it was enough for Boy George just to be part of the mainstream…

But still, you might have expected him to launch his solo career with something a little more edgy than a cover of a Bread hit from a decade and a half before… ‘Everything I Own’ is a nice song. The original is nice, the Ken Boothe version (on which this take is heavily based) is nice… Did the world need another version? Probably not, but it doesn’t offend. The reggae beat is bright and breezy – a little perkier than in Boothe’s version, as if UB40 were George’s backing band.

The most interesting bit of the song is Boy George’s voice. It’s only three and a half years since he last topped the charts, but his voice sounds like it’s aged by a decade or two… I would make an irreverent joke about it, but the sad truth is that he was by this point a heroin addict, and had been arrested for possession just a few months before this record’s release. Perhaps the success of this song was as much a statement of support from his fans as it was about people genuinely liking the song (his follow-up singles’ lack of success perhaps backs this theory up…)

Culture Club had disbanded the year before, in the wake of diminishing chart returns and Boy George’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The start of their decline can be traced directly back to the astonishingly bad ‘The War Song’ in 1984, which I’d say caused more harm than the drugs ever did. In fact, when I start yearning for a bit more edge from Culture Club and Boy George, I should remember their big anti-war statement piece and be grateful that they largely stuck to soft reggae…

Speaking of soft reggae, I have a ‘soft’ spot for Culture Club’s 1998 comeback single ‘I Just Wanna Be Loved’, which came out when I was twelve. The band have reformed a couple of times now, while George maintains an on-again off-again solo career. He’s arguably been more infamous than famous in recent years thanks to various legal troubles, but he seems to have turned a corner now that he’s in his sixties (!) Whatever you think of him, he’s certainly an icon of the decade, and it’s apt that he managed a brief swansong on top of the charts…

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585. ‘Stand by Me’, by Ben E. King

From a sixties legend, to a legendary song from the sixties. Who’d have imagined, as we ticked over from 1986 to ’87, that three of the past four #1s would have featured Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, and now Ben E. King…?

Stand by Me, by Ben E. King (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 15th February – 8th March 1987

Let’s be quite honest, the world doesn’t need to know what I think of ‘Stand By Me’. It doesn’t need me to prattle on about the instantly recognisable bass line, and the passion in King’s voice; about the soaring strings and the gospel influence. What more can you say about it…? It’s a good song. Very good. Amazing. One of the best ever. It’s simple – a basic chord progression, accessible lyrics, fairly limited production – yet it proves the notion that writing a good simple song must be fiendishly difficult.

I usually roll the eyes when someone claims of a song that ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’, but when it comes to ‘Stand by Me’ then it’s hard to argue. It was written by King, alongside Lieber and Stoller, and was based on a spiritual song, which in turn had been based on Psalm 46: “will not we fear, though the Earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea”.

There ends today’s sermon, go forth and prosper (you can perhaps tell I’m not a regular at church…) So, ‘Stand by Me’ is technically a religious song, but whereas other holy #1s have preached – I’m looking at you, Lena Martell and Charlene – Ben E. King’s is a humble profession of faith, as long as someone, be it God or his lover, stands with him. Just a few chart-toppers ago, The Housemartins were being similarly low-key religious, and scoring an equally palatable hit.

When originally released, in 1961, ‘Stand by Me’ made a lowly #27 in the British charts. (Number one that week was ‘Well I Ask You’ by Eden Kane – perfectly pleasant, but somewhat lacking in ‘classic’ status.) Ben E. King wasn’t very well served in the UK: this being his only Top 20, though he did make #2 with The Drifters. And I’d always assumed that ‘Stand by Me’ was a 1987 hit thanks to the Rob Reiner movie – another classic. A tie-in video was made, featuring a young Ben E. King morphing into an older Ben E. King, who is then joined on stage by River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton (a sight which takes on a very bittersweet edge knowing the fate that would befall Phoenix just a few years later).

But it turns out that ‘Stand by Me’ was actually given a final push to the top of the charts by an advert for Levi’s jeans, which takes the wholesome gloss off it slightly. Filthy lucre was ultimately behind this beautiful song claiming its rightful chart position. Still, it feels only right that a song of its stature made #1, and it’s interesting to see how generation-defining classics that missed out first time around – ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Imagine’, this – seem to eventually find a way to the top. Class will shine through in the end…

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584. ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’, by Aretha Franklin & George Michael

I spent much of my last new post hailing a brave new world of modern dance. As is often the way, the song that follows a ground-breaking #1 proves the more things change the more they stay the same… Or something… For we are still firmly in the mid-1980s here – ‘peak mid-eighties’, if you will – and when the mid-1980s are giving us songs as fun as this, why would we want to leave?

I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), by Aretha Franklin (her 1st and only #1) & George Michael (his 3rd of seven solo #1s)

2 weeks, from 1st – 15th February 1987

I love the revving guitar in the intro, and the glossy period-piece drums. It’s a lot beefier, a lot more upbeat than either of George Michael’s two previous chart-toppers. There’s a swagger to it, a confidence. It’s very ‘American’, for want of a more sensible expression. On ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘A Different Corner’, Michael was sad and introspective. Here he’s bubbling with confidence. And that’s probably because he’s duetting with an icon. The motherfunking Queen. Of. Soul.

It’s Aretha who kicks off the first verse. In fact, Aretha takes control of the second verse, too. Make no mistake: this is her song. George Michael may have been one of the hottest pop stars on the planet, but he’s very much the understudy here. He was apparently terrified when he got the call – who wouldn’t be? – but he keeps up nicely. Like all the best duets, the couple riff off one another well: I kept my faith… sings George… I know ya did… replies Aretha.

There’s a clear nod to a Motown classic in the chorus: When the river was deep, I didn’t falter… When the mountain was high, I still believed… Which is great. In the video, the pair perform in front of a screen showing other legendary duets – Ike and Tina, Sonny and Cher, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And I also love the way Aretha starts letting loose in the second half of the song: belting, trilling and whooping, as if she knows this will (unjustly) be her one and only moment atop the British singles chart.

You could say that Franklin’s hit-scoring days were over by 1987, though it wouldn’t strictly be true – she had visited the Top 10 the year before in a duet with Eurythmics on ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves’. But if we’re being honest, she never really scored many hits in the UK. She’d had just two Top 10 hits in the sixties – ‘Respect’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer for You’ – and none in the seventies. In the US she was much more successful, but this record still brought about her first chart-topper since she’d spelled out those seven famous letters.

Meanwhile, this was quite the statement for George Michael in his first release following his split from Andrew Ridgeley. Ahead of him lay ‘Faith’ and solo superstardom (though none of those late-eighties hits will feature in this countdown), and here he was, duetting with one of his heroes. I admit I was surprised to see that ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ is GM’s 6th most listened to song on Spotify, as I don’t think it’s one you hear too often these days. It feels as if it’s been overshadowed by his other big duet from a few years later, with another famous diva: Elton John. For my money, though, this one’s better, and ripe for re-discovery…

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583. ‘Jack Your Body’, by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley

1987, then. Officially the ‘late-eighties’. I think you can divide the 1980s into roughly three chunks: the early, new-wave, post-punk years (‘80-‘82), the gloopy, synthy, new-romantic years (‘83-‘85)… I’m excluding ’86 from this, as I’m still trying to wrap my head around that strange year… And the poppier, dancier, HI-NRG years of ‘87-‘89. And speaking of dance music…

(Steve ‘Silk’ is on the left)

Jack Your Body, by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 18th January – 1st February 1987

We have our first ever house #1. In fact, we probably have our first modern dance chart-topper, if by ‘modern dance’ you mean a repetitive, electronic beat twinned with a repetitive, inane lyric. Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley was a DJ, a leading light in the Chicago house scene, and jacking is a free-style dance move that looks like a cross between the robot and break dancing (and which Wikipedia helpfully reminds us is not to be confused with ‘jacking off’… something not seen on a dancefloor since ‘Relax’).

It is repetitive and, yes, it is inane. The shortest edit I can find of ‘Jack Your Body’ on Spotify is over five minutes, which is three minutes too long. YouTube has the single edit, which has few more vocals thrown in: some Uhhs and a Jack it up out there… to end on. And yet, there is something thrilling about it, something that still sounds fresh and modern. It’s a window into the future, a line in the sand as we reach the halfway point in our journey through the charts… This is a sound that will last from here to eternity. In the UK, there have been several dance #1s this year. Beyonce, no less, borrowed a bass line that sounds a lot like ‘Jack Your Body’ for her recent smash ‘Break My Soul’.

The part of this record I enjoy the most is the complicated bit, around the midway point, where several different synth lines build together. It sounds a little like a fifties piano instrumental gone wrong – like Winifred Atwell on Ecstasy. Dance music isn’t really my thing, as you’ll see as we delve into the nineties, though I’m not morally opposed to it as some rock-leaning people are. Yet I’m glad that this made #1, both for the variety and the statement that it makes, and that I can claim it as a birthday #1 (I turned one year old on its last day at the top).

Being born in January means that I have an interesting mix of birthday number ones: indie faves, nu-metal, a Disney theme, and the only Chicago house chart-topper. Steve Hurley had limited chart success following this hit, but he continues to DJ and in his work as a Grammy winning remixer has worked with Madonna, New Order and both Michael and Janet Jackson.

Except… Controversial postscript alert! Turns out ‘Jack Your Body’ should never actually have been a number one single. The 12” was too long (ooh-er!), running to over twenty-five minutes which meant it should have counted towards the album rather than the singles chart. Apparently nobody at the Official Charts Company had bothered listening to it until it made the top and so, rather than delete it, they quietly let it remain there. Luckily the worst thing that happened was that ‘Reet Petite’ and then our next chart-topper were both denied an extra week at number one…

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582. ‘Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town)’, by Jackie Wilson

The 1986 Christmas #1, then. And, giving Paul Heaton a run for his ‘best vocals of the year’ money, in comes Jackie Wilson. The late Jackie Wilson. With a song recorded over thirty years before…

Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town), by Jackie Wilson (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 21st December 1986 – 18th January 1987

One thing you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been following our chart-topping journey for a while is that when it comes to Christmas hits, all logic goes out the window (often along with taste and decency). Think ‘Lily the Pink’, ‘Two Little Boys’, ‘Ernie’, and ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’… Think, if you can bear it, of ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’. Think, too, of the festive horrors still to come…

Luckily for us, though, while the appearance of ‘Reet Petite’ at Christmas #1 is clearly a novelty, this isn’t a saccharine twee-fest, or a misguided attempt at humour. Rather it’s simply a stonking, barnstorming, a-whooping and a-hollering classic re-release. It’s got nothing to do with Christmas, nothing to do with peace, love, or the blessed infant; it’s simply an ode to an ‘A’-grade hottie…

She’s so fine, fine, fine, So fine, fa-fa-fa fine… yelps Wilson… She’s alright, She’s got just what it takes… She fills her clothes, from head to toes, as well as being a tutti frutti and a bathing beauty. I don’t know about you, but I’m imagining a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. While the lyrics may be largely nonsensical, and often just exclamations stitched together into pidgin sentences, Wilson sells them with his trademark energy.

Is it a bit much? Maybe. Does it verge on gimmicky when he rolls his ‘r’s on the title line? Perhaps. But who cares when it’s just so darn exuberant, when it’s bursting at the seams with such fun. Wilson competes with the brassy horns, that are just as much the lead instrument as his voice is, and that constantly threaten to outdo him while never quite managing.

So, ‘Reet Petite’ is a great song, and a welcome addition to the Christmas Number One pantheon. Back in 1957, when it was Wilson’s first single after leaving his vocal group The Dominoes, it had made #6. It was re-released thirty years on after demand had grown following the screening of a clay animation video for the song on a BBC 2 documentary. I’ve included the 1987 video below… I don’t know if I’ve been spoiled by the Aardman standard of clay-mation in the 90s and ‘00s, but it’s a bit… odd. Slightly terrifying in places, too. Clearly you had to have been there.

Sadly, by the time Jackie Wilson scored his one and only UK chart-topper he had been dead for three years. He’d seen out his final years semi-comatose in a nursing home, after suffering an on-stage heart attack in 1975, and his star had fallen so far that he was initially buried in an unmarked grave. All of which makes his posthumous return to the charts, which coincided with his body being moved to a proper mausoleum, even more bittersweet.

This will kick off a strange era of re-releases, from adverts, movies and TV shows, several of which will go to #1 in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But, here and now, 1986 comes to end. And a strange end it’s been: from hair metal, to indie lads, to a doo-wop classic. We head into the late-eighties next, with another abrupt change in direction…

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581. ‘Caravan of Love’, by The Housemartins

Reintroducing that most niche of chart-topping genres: the festive a cappella #1…

Caravan of Love, by The Housemartins (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 14th – 21st December 1986

Following on from the Flying Pickets’ ‘Only You’ from three years before, The Housemartins give us more warm and fuzzy feelings for Christmas, using only their voices (and some finger clicks). Hand in hand we’ll take a caravan, To the marvel land… One by one we’re gonna stand up with pride, One that can’t be denied…

The lyrics are uplifting – everyone being free, the young and the old, love flowing – vaguely religious, but not preachy. The harmonising is beautiful, led by a spectacular lead vocal from Paul Heaton (imagine an angelic Morrissey…) My judgement may be clouded by the fact that I’m literally listening to his honeyed tones as I type these words, but is this the 1980’s best chart-topping vocal performance? The he’s my brother… line is the pick, up there with the finest fifties doo-wop.

Every woman, every man, Join the caravan of love… Stand up, stand up… It’s a clarion call, but is it for a revolution, or for God? The song had been written by one half of the Isley Brothers (Isley-Jasper-Isley) the year before, with religion in mind. The video for the Housemartins’ version makes the religious intent very clear: Heaton plays a preacher in a pulpit, and the band have crucifixes shaved into their heads… I’m normally one for the separation of church and pop; but this I can just about stomach, because it’s about love rather than sanctimony.

Speaking of Morrissey, this single-week number #1 represents one of the very few moments that ‘80s indie made the highest reaches of the charts (much like Europe flying the flag for hair metal last time out…) The Housemartins had made #3 earlier in the year with the jangly ‘Happy Hour’, and their albums had pithy titles like ‘London 0 Hull 4’ and ‘That’s What I Call Quite Good’. They were clearly going for the Christmas #1 here, ticking all the feel-good boxes, gaining support from both indie kids and their grandmas, but were foiled at the last by an even more unexpected hit… More on that next time.

They split in 1988, but this is just the start for two of The Housemartins… Heaton went on to form ‘The Beautiful South’, before going solo. In a fun coincidence, he is literally on top of the UK albums chart as we speak… Meanwhile bassist Norman Cook became a DJ and producer with Beats International and then as Fatboy Slim. And I can think of at least three ‘90s chart-toppers that he’ll account for…

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