594. ‘Who’s That Girl’, by Madonna

Madonna scores her 4th chart-topper within twelve months, joining a very exclusive club…

Who’s That Girl, by Madonna (her 5th of thirteen #1s)

1 week, from 19th – 26th July 1987

The ‘4-in-a-year club’ are The Beatles, Elvis, The Shadows, Slade and, um, Frank Ifield (do shout at me if I’ve forgotten anyone else!) and one thing you might notice about those five acts are their… well, their manhoods. Yes, Madonna is now officially (probably) the most successful female in chart history!

The sad thing is that, for such a ‘big’ #1, ‘Who’s That Girl’ is a bit of a non-event. It is ‘La Isla Bonita’ Part II, a watered down and remixed version of her previous chart-topper. The intro in particular, with its drum riff, is nigh on identical; while the subsequent latin-funk synths are, if not identical, then heavily influenced by their predecessor.

Plus, there’s even more Spanish thrown in this time. Quién es esa niña…? Señorita, más fina… Who’s that girl? I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘La Isla Bonita’, and it’s therefore inevitable that I’m even less a fan of this diluted version. There’s nothing wrong with it, blandness and lack of originality aside, but it’s well overshadowed by the bolder moments in Madonna’s back-catalogue. And out of her thirteen chart-toppers, it’s the one I’m least familiar with (I could probably have attempted the title line from memory, but that’s it…)

It’s from the soundtrack to a film of the same name. A ‘screwball comedy’, as Wikipedia puts it, that presumably nobody has watched since 1987. And that’s about all there is to write on this most slight and forgettable of #1s. To be fair, in order to achieve four chart-toppers in a year you need a combination of massive popularity and a winning formula. Nobody would deny that at least one of Elvis’s, or The Shadows’, or Slade’s four #1s was a re-tread… ‘Surrender’, ‘Dance On’, ‘Skweeze Me Pleeze Me’… While the sound of 1962-3 was Frank Ifield’s yodel popping up, time and again. The one act who managed to sound new and fresh with every single song was The Beatles, but there’s no point in competing with them…

Perhaps Madonna knew she was treading water at this point, because she took 1988 off and drew a line under what we’ll call Madge MK I. In two years’ time, when she scores her next chart-topper, she’ll be a different beast altogether!

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590. ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, by Starship

Question: has a song ever been written specifically with karaoke in mind? Songs are written for movie themes, for radio play, for their stream-ability… So what about a song for karaoke bars?

Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, by Starship (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 3rd – 31st May 1987

For if ever a song were written for drunk people who shouldn’t be let anywhere near a microphone, ‘tis this one. It’s a duet, for a start, and one that’s pretty easy to sing. It’s got a steady, thumping, drum-led pace. It’s got moments for wannabe rock stars to let loose – woah-oahs and heys, that sort of thing – and a solo that begs to be air-guitared along to. Above all, it’s got the sort of message that appeals to people on their third cocktail of the evening. We can build this thing together, Standing strong forever, Nothing’s gonna stop us now…

I’d say that this record is a bit of a bellwether hit: a test of how much you can tolerate the worst excesses of the 1980s. If you can stomach it, this is a classic of its kind. Yes it’s cheesy, ridiculous, over the top… the little break between the bridge and the solo is perhaps the precise moment the ‘80s peaked (these moments keep coming along, and the decade keeps outdoing itself)… but it’s great fun. And it’s from one of the archetypal eighties movies, ‘Mannequin’, in which Kim Cattrall plays a store-front dummy that comes to life. Hi-jinks ensue, presumably (I’ve never seen it…) On the other hand, if you see the eighties as a decade of style (and hair) over substance, in which true musicianship got lost behind synthesisers and shoulder pads, then ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ is presumably high on your list of worst offenders.

A lot of the hate probably stems from what the band Starship once was. Few acts have had a longer journey from their original incarnation to their most successful line-up. Jefferson Airplane, ground-breaking ‘60s psychedelic act, with two tracks on Rolling Stone’s 500 Best Songs Ever, split in two. One half became Jefferson Starship, a more commercial sounding, but still well-respected rock band. Due to legal threats from the other members of Airplane, they had to drop the ‘Jefferson’ in 1984. By the time this happened, none of the original members remained, apart from the female lead on this song, Grace Slick, who had recently returned to the fold. So far, so Sugababes… (Though the three bands chopped and changed members so much I may be mistaken on this, and am happy to be proven wrong…)

So, even though Starship no longer shared a name, and barely any band members, with their predecessors, they seem to have been a shorthand for the way popular music had degenerated since the late sixties. Coming at this as someone who neither lived through it, nor has listened to much (OK, any) Jefferson Airplane, I can kind of get the hate. (Sugababes MK III had some decent songs, but they weren’t a patch on MK I.) But at the same time: it is snobbery.

Where people’s ire should be directed is the truly horrific ‘We Built This City’, Starship’s debut #12 hit, from 1985. That is a song that I cannot abide, one that takes every truly hideous ‘80s production technique in the book and turns them all up to eleven. ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, though…? I’ve belted this out at karaoke nights, and would do so again, happily. In the UK, this was Starship’s only Top 10 hit, though they had more success in the States. When the hits finally dried up in the early nineties, there was one final regeneration for this most Dr Who of rock groups… Into ‘Starship featuring Mickey Thomas’ (the lead male vocalist on ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us’), which they still tour under today.

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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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565. ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going’, by Billy Ocean

The 3rd number one single of 1986, and the third one with what I’d term a ‘distinctive’ intro. From the subtle build of ‘West End Girls’ to this: the song’s title chopped, sliced and diced into an uber-‘80s ‘look what my mixing desk can do!’ mess.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going, by Billy Ocean (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 2nd February – 2nd March 1986

Tough-t-t-t-tuh-tuh-tuh-tough ooh! The barking voice reminds me of ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’. Nothing that reminds me of ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ can be anything other than reprehensible. Luckily, once the intro is out of the way, things settle down and a decent pop song begins to shine through. I like the bass, and the calypso rhythm. It’s a summer smash, several months too early. I’ve got something to tell you, I’ve got something to say… Billy Ocean sings it smoothly; thankfully nothing like the Baha Men.

I wonder if this is based on a traditional tune, as reggae songs are (even though this is reggae in the loosest sense…) The chorus especially has a nursery-rhyme feel to it. But no, ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’ was written in 1985, for the soundtrack to the Michael Douglas film ‘The Jewel of the Nile’ (it seems the song is much better remembered than the movie…) So it may not be an old song, but it definitely has retro touches. The Darlin’… I’ll climb any mountain… is very sixties Motown, as are the Ooh-ohh-ohh-hoos… lifted straight from ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’.

There’s also a very mid-eighties sax solo. But it’s palatable –I have a very low tolerance for eighties saxophone solos – and works well with the song’s overall jauntiness. I like this: it’s catchy, fun, exuberant… once the intro’s over. I mentioned in my last post that A-ha’s ‘The Sun Only Shines on TV’ might have been a ‘shadow’ number one, and I did wonder if this also might have been one. Had ‘Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)’ and ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car’ – Billy Ocean was one for a good, long song title – immediately preceded it? No. This record was a chart-topper, fair and square.

If I had to choose a song to be Ocean’s sole #1 hit, though, I’d definitely go for the even more Motown-leaning ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’, which had been his breakthrough hit, making #2 a full decade before this. Sadly, and reluctantly, I’ve come to accept that I will never be able to personally control the charts… (though the world would be a much better, Ed Sheeran-less place if I did…)

Billy Ocean’s chart career didn’t last far beyond the late-eighties, though he continues to record and perform, his latest album making the charts in 2020. ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’, meanwhile, will be back at the top of the charts before the century is out.

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545. ‘I Know Him So Well’, by Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson

More balladry, as we continue into 1985. This winter has been very heavy on the slow dances. The closest we’ve come to a toe-tapper was ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, which isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a floor-filler…

I Know Him So Well, by Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 3rd February – 3rd March 1985

Except this next #1, while very much a ballad, has at least got a sense of theatre to it. The intro uses an intriguing combination of plinky-plonky synths and a distant guitar, with a hint of ABBA at their most bombastic (more on that shortly…) Then in comes Elaine Paige. And the second she opens her mouth, you can tell that this song comes from a stage musical.

Nothing is so good it lasts eternally… It’s the diction, you know. Enunciating for the back rows. Proper singing. It’s from ‘Chess’, a musical about, um, chess. Or more accurately, an American and a Russian Grandmaster who compete over the chessboard, as well as for the love of a woman. Elaine Paige is Florence, the Russian Grandmaster’s lover, while Barbara Dickson is Svetlana, his unfortunate wife (in the video Dickson is wearing a luxuriously fluffy ushanka hat, to confirm her Russian-ness).

Why do I enjoy this more than the previous chart-topper: another blockbuster ballad, ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’? In that post, I complained about power-ballads which take themselves too seriously. Power-ballads are inherently ridiculous, and if an artist pretends they aren’t then they end up looking pretentious. And it’s not that Paige and Dickson are taking the piss here; they sing it beautifully. It’s more that any song that’s been wrenched from a musical and slapped on a 7” will sound a bit silly. In Act III of the show all the vocal gymnastics and power chords make perfect sense; as a single it’s very OTT.

The way the chorus comes striding in… Wasn’t it good…! is a brilliant moment, as is the change in octave for the More securi-teee…! line. While the way the two women intertwine their lines towards the end is how all power-duets should end. I can’t imagine that this was at all a cool #1 in the playgrounds of 1985, but who cares for cool? It also helps when your ballad is written by two of the finest pop songwriters of all time, Benny and Bjorn from ABBA, alongside Tim Rice. You can hear it in the little synth and guitar flourishes, and the chord progressions (it’s based on ‘I Am an A’, a song that the band played on tour in 1977 but never released).

Not only does ‘I Know Him So Well’ give us our umpteenth ballad in a row, it gives us our third Cold War chart-topper in the space of a year. The real world encroaching on the pop charts yet again… And before writing this post I had no idea I’d be able to link it with ‘Two Tribes’, but there you go!

Before we go, I have to reveal my most tenuous of connections to this disc. Barbara Dickson is Scotland’s most successful female chart act and, as far as I know, the only chart-topping artist to have attended my high school. While that was a good thirty years before I stepped through the hallowed doors, I can still feel the most tepid of reflected glows as I write this post. Anyway. Up next… Raise your glowsticks to the sky! It’s not a ballad!!

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507. ‘Eye of the Tiger’, by Survivor

We’re meeting some of the decade’s big hitters now (pun fully intended). ‘Fame’, to ‘Eileen’, to this. And it’s another iconic intro. Synths growing, and growing, while a guitar goes chuckachuckachucka… It’s almost disco… Then Bam! Bam bam bam! The chords smash as hard as Rocky Balboa’s punches.

Eye of the Tiger, by Survivor (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, 29th August – 26th September 1982

I love it when the beat drops, and we settle into a groove. The bass riff is great (it’s heavily-influenced by ‘Another One Bites the Dust’). Right here, twenty-seven seconds in, this could be one of the best chart-toppers ever. Except, from this point on it’s all a bit of an anti-climax. It’s a record that shows its hand too early; and the remaining three and a half minutes are a bit of a plod.

Having not listened to this song properly in years, I was fully expecting to be won over by its poodle-rocking silliness. Big hair, power chords, even the title is ridiculous. But the vocals are too earnest. The lyrics are cheesy, and not good cheese. Cheap triangles of Dairylea cheese. It’s missing something, or maybe it’s just been ruined by its prominence in pop culture. It’s been used too many times with tongues in cheek. Hell, it’s been used too many times without tongues in cheek. (Plus, the band didn’t even that big hair…)

It’s polished. It’s glossy. But that’s not really the problem. Most pop music released in the 1980s was glossy and polished. It’s also got a great hook: away from the intro, the best bit is clearly the He’s watching us all with the eye….. Of the tiger line. But. But but but. ‘Eye of the Tiger’ is, I’m sorry, rock music for people who don’t like rock music. All the ingredients are there, but it never builds to anything. It plays it too safe. It’s just verse, chorus, verse, chorus… fade. There’s no solo! Where’s the solo? You’ve got that iconic riff, and no solo? So wrong.

It’s too earnest. That’s the problem. Earnestness in rock music never appeals to me. File it alongside other motivational classics, such as ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ and ‘You’re the Voice’, that I’d happily never hear again. Maybe it’s an American thing… We’ve just had ‘Fame’ (I’m gonna live forever…) and now this (Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past, You must fight just to keep them alive…) While in between a bloke in ill-fitting dungarees from Wolverhampton sang an Irish jig about getting into a girl’s pants.

For me, this song exists solely on a ‘Best Rock Album in the World’ CD that got heavy rotation in our family car way back when. I’ve never seen a Rocky film, and it definitely doesn’t feature in any of my regular playlists these days. It’s a childhood memory, and not even that fond a memory… I didn’t particularly like it even as a kid. (I do have a huge soft-spot for 80s hair-metal, though.) Sadly, ‘Eye of the Tiger’s success won’t herald many other hard-rock chart-toppers, and Survivor themselves wouldn’t have another hit until ‘Burning Heart’, from ‘Rocky IV’. Sadly for them, they weren’t invited back for ‘Rocky V’, and that was that as far as their UK chart career went.

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