604. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, by Kylie Minogue

And so enters a pop icon…

I Should Be So Lucky, by Kylie Minogue (her 1st of seven #1s)

5 weeks, from 14th February – 20th March 1988

I could try and be clever about this, but no. I love Kylie. I know very few people who don’t like Kylie (apart from Americans, who just don’t know who she is) and those that do dislike her are idiots, plain and simple. She’s uncontroversially, undemandingly, unaggressively lovely – the perfect pop puppet.

And this is where it all started (almost), with Kylie at her most puppety – bopping and smiling her way through a Stock-Aitken-Waterman-by-numbers pop tune. (I genuinely think this is ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, just rejigged in a higher key and sped up a little.) There’s very little to write home about on the music front – it’s catchy and frothy, a disposable stick of bubblegum. She has much better to come.

The main thing I do notice is that Kylie sounds a little uncomfortable. The song is pitched a little too high for her, and the lyrics come so thick and fast… In my imagination there is no complication etc… that they always sound on the verge of getting away from her. In the video too, she grins and wrinkles her nose, but seems very aware of how tacky this tune is. Tacky, and trashy but, like all the best SAW, kind of irresistible.

‘I Should Be So Lucky’ caps off our run of four chart-topping pop bangers. And it’s been a case of diminishing returns, moving from the peerless Pet Shop Boys, past Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany to, God love her, Kylie. The full gamut of late-eighties pop, in fourteen weeks of chart-topping singles. And when was the last time, if ever, that we had three solo female #1s in a row…? (And not one of them British!)

I don’t really need to go into the Kylie backstory. ‘Neighbours’, Scott and Charlene, yadda yadda yadda. Plus it’s probably best saved for her next number one, in which a storyline from the show plays out on top of the charts. I was much too young to experience all this first hand, but I will say that meeting Kylie in writing this blog feels like a big step towards my childhood. She was still churning out huge hits when I was a teenager, and even older. And she didn’t feel like a well-regarded legacy act but a genuinely still-popular star. Back then, when she was taking over the world with sophisticated pop classics like ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, the early SAW hits from a decade previous looked and sounded impossibly naff. They deserve their moment in the sun, though, and there’s plenty more to come before the decade’s out.

This is my final post of 2022, and so I’ll wish all my visitors, readers, likers and commenters a very Happy New Year, and a healthy and wealthy 2023. See you in a few days!

Advertisements

597. ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, by Rick Astley

Who knew? Before the memes, the jokes and the Rickrolling, this was actually a popular hit record.

Never Gonna Give You Up, by Rick Astley (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 23rd August – 27th September 1987

It’s hard to hear ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ now and not to roll (pardon the pun) your eyes. There’s a reason why this was chosen as the butt of a million jokes: it’s a bit naff. It’s got that bog-standard SAW Eurodisco production, and it’s sung by a pasty, ginger chap with a quiff. But is it better than it seems at first glance?

The answer, I’ve decided after several listens and some serious thought, is both yes and no. Yes, because SAW knew their way around a pop song, and the bassline in particular is quite fun. Yes, because Rick Astley is a very good singer. His voice is meaty and soulful. He’s a crooner, in the best sense of the word. But there’s also a ‘No’: I don’t think these two components come together very well.

Were it sung by Sinitta, say, it would be a competent pop tune. Were Astley given a more adult, blue-eyed soul number, he’d do excellently with it. As it is, the tune and the voice jar – especially in the choppy Never gonna give never gonna give… middle eight – and create something that just sounds a bit odd. Add in the cheap and cheerful video, in which Astley does some very awkward dad dancing (the video being the main reason this one has taken on such a unexpected afterlife) and you’ve got yourself a pretty strange chart-topping record.

But what do I know? Maybe what I find jarring is what others found interesting and unique? It’s not conveyer-belt pop… Well, it is, but with a very distinctive voice on top. It clearly appealed to a lot of people, as it made #1 around the world (including the US, and very few SAW songs made it over there) and was the best-selling single of 1987 in the UK. Perhaps it’s just not my cup of tea…

Sitting down to listen to it now, properly, for the first time ever, I’m noticing how it might be the least sexy love song ever. It’s a song all about how dependable he is: A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of, You wouldn’t get that from any other guy… It’s not about passion, swelling hearts or panting breaths; it’s about reliability. I just read a quote in which someone describes Astley proposing his love like he’s selling a second-hand car. Which made me chuckle. In tone, and also in his pale, honest, everyman style, it’s as if one of the big, semi-operatic voices of the ‘50s – a David Whitfield or a Ronnie Hilton – has staged an unexpected comeback thirty years on.

This was Rick Astley’s debut single, though he was somewhere in the crowd on Ferry Aid (he had famously been the ‘tea boy’ for Stock Aitken and Waterman in their recording studio). It would be the first of eight Top 10s between 1987 and the early nineties. In 1993 he retired from music to focus on his family, but returned to recording in the 2000s. Then came the memes and the Rickrolling (the video currently has 1.3 billion views on YouTube!), which he eventually embraced, and fair play to him. He remains very active, and is still capable of selling out arenas around the world. It seems his fans were… wait for it… never gonna give him up. Thank you, and goodnight.

Advertisements

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…

Advertisements

546. ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive

We finally – hooray! – end our run of ballads, in the most emphatic manner possible. It’s as if the Gods of Hi-NRG dance decided that all the fist-clenching and soft-focus videos had gotten too much, and so sent to earth their only son. Pete Burns…

You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), by Dead or Alive (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 3rd – 17th March 1985

This is a record that starts in the middle. In medias res, if we’re being literary. There’s no build up, no intro of any description. Just a slap! around the chops, a sloppy kiss on the mouth, a nose-full of sweat and poppers… A clanging, throbbing synth beat, and a very distinctive voice.

If I… I get to know your name… Pete Burns sounds almost operatic, the way his voice at times soars, then intones, then growls. Just listen to the way he’s going for it in the fade-out. He sounds mildly terrifying. I-I-I… I get to be your friend now baby… If you did meet him in a club, you’d probably go out of your way not to give him your name. He sounds like he’d eat you alive. And I’ve always misheard the line before the chorus for something truly filthy. What I half-thought was ‘open up your loving hole cos baby here I come’ is actually ‘loving arms…’ (I’m quite disappointed…)

I’ve been quite down on the 1980s while writing this blog and, knowing some of the #1s on the way, I will continue being quite down on the 1980s. But this record is the ‘80s at their best. Yes it’s cheap and trashy, tacky and deep as a puddle… But it’s a perfect floor-filler. It’s also something of a line in the sand… We’ve just passed the midway point of the decade, and ‘You Spin Me Round’ is our first Stock Aitken Waterman produced chart-topper. The sound of the late-eighties, for better or for worse, starts here.

If you were being unkind you could brand Dead or Alive as a knock-off Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The similarities are there: Liverpudlians, brash dance-pop, the sheer gayness of both bands… But while Frankie’s chart-career was fairly short lived, I’m not sure Dead or Alive exist in the public’s consciousness at all beyond this hit. They were together for a long time, though, much longer than Frankie. They were genuinely huge in Japan (their look was a big influence on J-Pop acts of the 1990s). So huge that Michael Jackson apparently had to rearrange his tour dates in the country to fit around Dead or Alive concerts…

I’m also not sure if the general public realises that Dead or Alive were a band, rather than just Pete Burns (I must admit I was surprised to see three other members in the video…) Burns’ personality looms large. I grew up with the heavily ‘enhanced’ version often seen on reality TV and quiz shows in the ‘00s, but even before he found fame he was a force to be reckoned with, sending customers from the record shop he worked in if he disliked their choice of purchase. My favourite Pete Burns anecdote: upon hearing Culture Club’s comeback single ‘The War Song’, he sent Boy George a wreath with a note that simply read: ‘Condolences…’

A couple of years ago, The Guardian did a feature on the 100 Greatest #1 Singles and placed ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ at number five, to a lot of derision in the comments section. While I wouldn’t quite have it as the fifth best chart-topper of all time, it is still a very fresh-sounding semi-classic. Though, to be honest, I think I’m just relieved that it’s not a ballad…

Advertisements