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.

530. ‘Pipes of Peace’, by Paul McCartney

Recently, I’ve seen a couple of articles that have claimed 1984 as the best year ever for pop music. Ever. On the one hand I get it: Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Springsteen… MTV hitting its stride. Fashion choices that remain ingrained on our collective conscience. On the other hand, looking down my list of #1s, none of these artists will be bothering top spot in the UK during this hallowed year. Instead, we start with an ex-Beatle, with the only truly solo chart-topper of his long career…

Pipes of Peace, by Paul McCartney (his 2nd of three solo #1s)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd January 1984

And to be honest, I’m expecting something truly horrendous here. Still scarred from Macca’s first ‘solo’ chart-topper, ‘Ebony & Ivory’, I see the word ‘pipes’ in the title, and am imagining more bagpipes a la ‘Mull of Kintyre’ or even, shudder, pan-pipes… But actually, no. It’s quite nice. After a strange intro, that sounds like a rusty orchestra tuning up, we glide into a gentle, late-Beatlesy melody. This could have slipped quite easily onto Side 3 of ‘The White Album’ (it was produced by George Martin, too).

Even the earnest message… All round the world, Little children being born to the world, Got to give them all we can… doesn’t grate like it did in E&I. Paul, as ever, just wants us to all get along. Help them to learn, Songs of joy, Instead of burn baby burn… (Either that, or it’s an anti-disco message…?) And it ends in a nice a cappella section which, following on from the Flying Pickets, makes this truly the sound of the season.

It’s not perfect. There are some weird synthy touches that border on cartoonish sound-effects. And there’s a disjointed feel to this song, as if it’s a gathering of ideas rather than a finished version. On the whole, though, it’s a pleasant enough start to the year. It was clearly going for the Christmas market, even if it couldn’t dislodge the Pickets until long after the decorations had come down. Still, peace is for life, not just for Christmas…

The video is set in the trenches of World War I, in which Paul plays both a British and a German soldier who meet during the famous (and possibly apocryphal) Christmas Day truce of 1914. They exchange photos of their sweethearts back home as soldiers play a game of football around them. Again, it’s quite nice. And again, as with ‘Ebony & Ivory’, you can just about make out John Lennon scoffing from beyond the grave…

I’d say that this keeps our run of retro number ones going – just the fact that it’s by Paul McCartney is already pretty retro for 1984 – but that is all about to end. Up next, we have one of the most aggressively ‘eighties’-sounding chart-toppers of the entire decade. And if you have some pearls handy, now might be the time to start clutching them…

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499. ‘Ebony and Ivory’, by Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder

We’re almost at the five-hundredth number one single. Thirty years since the very first chart, twenty years since Stevie Wonder released his first singles, well over ten years since The Beatles disbanded… It’s amazing that we had to wait this long to meet a solo McCartney, or any kind of Wonder, chart-topper.

Ebony and Ivory, by Paul McCartney (his 1st of three solo #1s) with Stevie Wonder (his 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, 18th April – 9th May 1982

I’d have happily waited a bit longer, to be honest. The best you can say about this anthem of love and acceptance is that it’s well-intentioned. Ebony and ivory, Live together in perfect harmony, Side by side on my piano keyboard… If piano keys, inanimate slices of elephant tusk and timber, can sit happily together then Oh Lord, why don’t we…? (To be fair, the metaphor of ebony and ivory as black and white people wasn’t invented by McCartney and Wonder. It had been around since the 1840s.)

Did this song sound clumsy at the time? It’s not as if the early ‘80s were a racial utopia; but given the events of the past few years this definitely sounds clumsy. Yet you can’t judge the past by the standards of today. You also shouldn’t judge a song by the artists involved but, come on, how can you listen to this and not compare it to what you know both McCartney and Stevie Wonder were actually capable of?

Away from the lyrics, the music does little to save this record: soft-rock guitars, horns, and a cheesy-sounding sitar mean that the song coasts along fairly forgettably. And yet, beating at the heart of this record is a good pop song. No way were two of the century’s best songwriters going to get together and write something completely irredeemable. It’s not awful – though I can see why it would be tempting to kick this record more than it deserves – and of course it was a ginormous hit around the globe. (Apart from South Africa, where it was banned after Wonder dedicated it to Nelson Mandela.)

It’s tempting to imagine what John Lennon would have had to say, had he been alive. Is it a coincidence that McCartney started churning out crap like this not long after his one-time partner died? Probably. But compare Lennon’s great protest songs – ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’, ‘Imagine’ and ‘Happy Xmas’ – to this. Even at his most idealistic (and I gave ‘Imagine’ some stick when it topped the charts) he was hectoring us, berating us, making us confront uneasy truths, rather than simply singing about how nice it would be if we were all chums. Lennon often sang those songs like he knew he’d be disappointed: listen to his sneering It’s easy… on ‘All You Need Is Love’. McCartney sings this like he believes every word.

Anyway. ‘Ebony and Ivory’ has nothing to do with John Lennon. It’s hard on Macca that his late bandmate gets brought up. Hard, but inevitable. The saddest thing here is that this is probably neither McCartney nor Stevie Wonder’s worst musical crime of the decade. There is more to come from both of them as we forage towards the heart of the 1980s. Up next, we hit 500! *Applause* With another song about peace and love! *Groans*

416. ‘Mull of Kintyre’ / ‘Girls’ School’, by Wings

It is amazing to think that, almost eight years on from their split, this is only the second time an ex-Beatle has appeared at the top of the charts. You’d have got long odds on it taking this length of time. George Harrison got in there quickly, and then there was a big old wait… Until our latest Christmas #1.

Mull of Kintyre / Girls’ School, by Wings (their 1st and only #1)

9 weeks, from 27th November 1977 – 29th January 1978

And it’s strangely comforting to hear Macca’s voice again, like a long lost friend… Mull of Kintyre, Oh mist rolling in from the sea, My desire, Is always to meet you… It’s just him, and a couple of guitars. Simplicity itself. Until ninety seconds in, when the bagpipes arrive (I always assumed they were saved for the finale. Alas, no.) They enter with that unmistakeable, ominous drone, and by the three minute mark they are the stars of the show. It is amazing to think that, in the 1970s, as many #1 singles featured bagpipes as featured a Beatle.

‘Mull of Kintyre’ is not an old folk song, though it sounds for all the world as if it should be. It is further evidence of McCartney’s ability to conjure timeless pop from a few chords (and a cheeky slice of ‘Auld Lang Syne’). It is not ‘Yesterday’, nor is it ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but it is a huge moment in his legacy. And yet…

As a Scot, part of me bristles at this act of cultural appropriation… (You may roll your eyes, but hear me out.) It’s a nice song, a sweet melody, a love-letter by Paul to his adopted home (he really was living, while he wrote this, on the Mull of Kintyre). But the lines about mist rolling in from the sea and sweeping through the heather like deer in the glen… It’s the aural equivalent of a souvenir shortbread box. It’s Scotland as imagined by American, or Japanese, (or Liverpudlian) tourists. It’s #notmyscotland. You can also imagine John Lennon hearing this for the first time, on the radio one morning, and ruefully shaking his head…

Still, come the drum-roll and the key change, ‘Mull of Kintyre’ has wormed its way into your brain. You can see why this is was a ginormous hit – a song that appeals to five-year-olds, ninety-five-year olds, and anyone who’s had enough whisky. Its nine weeks at the top makes it the joint longest running #1 of the decade, alongside ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and an upcoming movie soundtrack hit. It became the biggest selling single ever in the UK, usurping ‘She Loves You’, and it remains the biggest selling non-charity single ever released.

I did wonder if, by hitting #1 in late November, this was the earliest an Xmas #1 had made it to the top. But it’s not even close. Al Martino got there two weeks earlier in 1952, as did Clean Bandit in 2016, while Elvis’s ‘It’s Now or Never’ holds the record by holding on from November 3rd. However, this record also stayed top for over a month after Christmas thanks, it seems, to the flip-side…

‘Girls’ School’ is a rocker, all scuzzy slide guitars and heavy drums, as far removed from the faux-folk of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ as can be. SongFacts describes it as ‘semi-pornographic’, and that’s putting it mildly. While your grandma would have enjoyed singing along to ‘Mull…’, she may have choked on her sherry when she heard this one. Sleepy head kid sister, Lying on the floor, Eighteen years and younger boy, Well she knows what she’s waitin’ for…

It seems the nuns have lost control of the convent school… Yuki, the resident mistress and oriental princess, is showing porn in the classroom. The Spanish nurse is running a full-body massage parlour, while the matron is drugging the kids in their beds at night, and then… Well that much is left to the imagination… Ah, what can the sisters do…?

I’m loving-yet-appalled-by this post-‘Mull…’ palate cleanser. It is pure rock ‘n’ roll, both in terms of its sound and its lyrical content (which would come under, shall we say… ‘scrutiny’ were it released in 2021). I think someone was having a good old chuckle to themselves when they stuck this alongside such a shamelessly sentimental ‘A’-side. It does seem, too, that McCartney may have swept it under the carpet in recent years. It’s not on Spotify, for a start.

Although this is his first #1 since The Beatles, it’s not as if Paul had been hiding under a rock since ‘Let It Be’. Wings were a huge chart force throughout the seventies, featuring Paul, his wife Linda, Denny Laine (whom we have heard from before as a member of The Moody Blues) and a rotating cast of supporters. This was their 10th Top 10 hit, but the only one to go all the way. Macca will be back, though, in the 80s, with a couple of chart-toppers to make ‘Mull of Kintyre’ sound like the epitome of cool, cutting edge pop.

259. ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin

From the longest number one yet… To the second longest. Five minutes plus! Picture yourself in a tavern in Leningrad, back when it still was Leningrad. Big furry hats, sturdy men, even sturdier women…

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Those Were the Days, by Mary Hopkin (her 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 25th September – 6th November 1968

It reminds me of Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’, an old-fashioned ballad with a sweeping intro. Instruments that I couldn’t begin to name jingle-jangle before the violins come in… Once upon a time there was a tavern, Where we used to raise a glass or two… It’s a song of longing and regret. The singer is reminiscing about happier times, dancing and singing down the pub. Those were the days, my friend, We thought they’d never end… If ‘bittersweet’ was a sound, then that sound would sound a lot like ‘Those Were the Days.’

I wasn’t just making up all that stuff about Leningrad – this really is based on an old Russian folk-tune. A Georgian folk-tune, actually, which had been around since the turn of the century. And you really can picture some Cossacks high-kicking in time to the steady beat, especially when we get to the dadadadas. That’s another thing that this record has in common with its predecessor ‘Hey Jude’: a chanted refrain. Except this one doesn’t drag on for four and a half minutes…

By the third verse, time has moved on. The singer stands outside the same tavern: In the glass I saw strange reflections, Was that lonely woman really me…? In the fourth verse she timidly enters the bar… Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser, For in our hearts the dreams are still the same… Do they get back together? Have one last fling for old time’s sake? Or do they just leave it at a smile? I guess we’ll never know…

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As a melody, it’s pretty irresistible, coming as it does from a time before ‘pop music’ existed. It sounds nostalgic, like you’ve heard it before, somewhere, sometime… It feels as if it should be from a musical. It was also produced by one Paul McCartney, who may have popped up once or twice already on this countdown. He’d known the tune for years, and finally chanced upon Mary Hopkin as a singer. She was barely eighteen, and looks every bit the sixties flower-power girl. Long hair, bare feet, that kind of thing. ‘Those Were the Days’ was her first, and by far her biggest hit. She would go on to have four more Top 10 singles in the next couple of years, and still records to this day.

In one way, this song stands out as odd. It’s sentimental, old-fashioned, a bit cheesy… But in another way it is very late sixties: there are folk-rock touches (the ‘B’-side was even a cover of The Byrds’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’) and some very Beatlesy flourishes (the horns that come in midway through, for example). Plus, this is 1968, and anything goes at the top of the charts this year. There have been some weird chart-toppers, and some weird ones are still to come…