And so the slew of random re-releases, that have been peppering the number one slot since the late ‘80s, peaks here, towards the end of 1990. And I mean ‘peaks’ both in the sense that we’ve literally just waved a Steve Miller Band tune from 1973 off top spot, and in the sense that nothing can top this gilt-edged beauty of a love song.
Unchained Melody, by The Righteous Brothers (their 2nd and final #1)
4 weeks, from 28th October – 25th November 1990
That’s not to say that ‘Unchained Melody’, in the hands of the Righteous Brothers, isn’t a preposterous, overblown nonsense of a record. It is completely over-the-top, the sort of display of affection that would put most women off a man were he to belt it out ‘neath her window of an evening. How does a lonely river sigh, exactly…? And yet, it is irresistible.
Irresistible because of the vocal performance of Bobby Hatfield (who won the right to record it in a coin-toss with his Righteous partner Bill Medley). It’s spectacular singing all the way through, a true tour-de-force, that culminates in that outrageous note he hits in the final chorus. The strings swell, the percussion crashes, creating a tempest of emotion that will wash over even the most cynical of listener.
Irresistible, too, because it is so different to what has come before it. I’ve enjoyed the recent transition to dance, more than I thought I might, but it’s interesting to hear a big sixties beast cutting through the drum machines and the samples. And despite coming from long before the era of the power-ballad, ‘Unchained Melody’ can compete with contemporary classics like ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and ‘Show Me Heaven’ in the chest-thumping melodrama stakes. In fact, could the case be made for this being the very first ‘power ballad’?
It found itself back in the charts thanks to its use in the movie ‘Ghost’, in a famous sex scene involving Patrick Swayze and a pottery wheel (I’ve never seen the film, and don’t intend to, so don’t try to persuade me that this isn’t what happens…) The Brothers did a re-record, which charted in the US, but it was their original that took off again in Britain (it had previously made #14 in 1965). It means that the duo have a twenty-five year gap between their two #1s – beating The Hollies’ previous record of twenty-three years – and that ‘Unchained Melody’ itself has a huge thirty five year span since Jimmy Young took his version to the top in 1955.
Young’s version is half the song that this is, though it feels unfair to judge him against what has since become a standard. A standard that, sadly, subsequent singers have felt the need to compare themselves against. ‘Unchained Melody’ has two further, Righteous Brothers aping versions to come atop the charts… And this also increases the irresistibility of this version: the depths that I know the song will be brought down to.
This record cemented itself as the peak of the re-release era by becoming the highest-selling single of the year. Folks lapped it up (‘Ghost’ was, for a spell, the highest-grossing film of all time in the UK), though I’d say it’s now moved into the realms of cliché, thanks no doubt to the subsequent karaoke cover versions, to the point that any use in a movie today would be done with tongue firmly in cheek.
Before I go, I have to give a shout out to the one version that can compete with the Righteous Brothers’: Elvis’s. It was used to great effect in the recent film biopic (that I thought was OK, but nowhere near as good as some said), and when they spliced it with the famous footage of him singing it a few weeks before his death… Well some dust just went and got in my eye, didn’t it?