573. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, by Madonna

In my post on Madonna’s first UK number one single, ‘Into the Groove’, I found myself looking for controversy in the (slightly) saucy lyrics. When you grew up with Jesus-humping, cone-bra wearing, sex book Madonna then you do expect her to have been raising hackles with every release…

Papa Don’t Preach, by Madonna (her 2nd of thirteen #1s)

3 weeks, from 6th – 27th July 1986

‘Into the Groove’ wasn’t particularly troublesome, while ‘Like a Virgin’ missed #1 altogether, but we haven’t had to wait too long for some top-spot controversy. For her 2nd chart-topper, Madge tells the tale of a pregnant teen looking to her single-parent father for advice. Papa don’t preach, she begs, I’m in trouble deep…

Her Pa had warned her off the boy in question – the one you said I could do without – but he’s promised her a wedding ring. Her friends, meanwhile, say she’s too young. However, despite coming to him for advice, the narrator already seems certain: I’ve made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby…

It’s a grown-up pop song, any controversy is of the thought-provoking rather than the in-your-face kind. Musically, too, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ mixes a classical intro with synth-pop, and then Latin guitars. The moment where the bass comes in after the violins have reached their crescendo is brilliant, adding another contender to 1986’s gallery of great beat drops. Her voice even sounds a little older – I love the throaty rasp in each pre-chorus ‘please!’

In the video, too, Madonna sports a new cropped hairdo, and switches between leather-jacketed tomboy and blonde-bombshell in a black basque. The song plays as an imagined speech to her father, as she returns home to tell him. At the end of the video she does finally confess, and in the end they embrace. A happy ending.

I was looking for controversy here, and controversy there was. Some claimed it encouraged teen-pregnancy; others that it was anti-abortion. Madonna and her song-writing team were smart enough to use the phrase ‘give it up’ rather than anything more explicit. Madonna has always argued that it’s pro-choice, and has at other times added a ‘not’ to the I’m keeping my baby line when performing the song live. Either way, at least the world has moved on from a time when it was considered controversial for a woman to be the one who decides if she does or doesn’t have a baby………….. (how long does an ellipsis need to be to signify huge sarcasm levels…?)

Under the morals, most importantly, there lies a great pop song. No matter who Madonna has chosen to wind up, she rarely forgets that people come to her, first and foremost, for high-grade tunes. And yet, I feel that ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is one of her forgotten gems… Other, bigger, more controversial moments have perhaps eclipsed its standing in her back-catalogue? It’s certainly not as played as other Madonna songs. If ‘re-discovering’ is too strong a term, then you can definitely re-acquaint yourself with it, below…

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569. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco

Questions arise pretty quickly, as I listen to this next bizarre little chart-topper. Is it based on the ‘Beverly Hills Cops’ theme? Is it about Mozart? And most importantly: is it a novelty record…?

Rock Me Amadeus, by Falco (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 4th – 11th May 1986

Before answering any of those, I’m going to have to admit – I’m really enjoying this. It’s funky, throbbing, moody… and completely ridiculous. Despite it being ponderously slow, you can dance to it. I’m also most fond of synths when they are used in this clanking, industrial way; rather than for showy flourishes. It’s a record I knew by title, without ever having properly listened to.

It’s a German chart-topper, which isn’t unusual for the 1980s, when we’ve seen the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena, Nicole and The Goombay Dance Band reach the top. What is unusual is that Falco has done so while still singing in German. Rapping in German even! The harshness of the language complements the thumping synths, I think, in a way that wouldn’t work if this was in French, say.

On a more serious level, though, is the fact that Falco performs the song in German the reason I instinctively treated this record as a novelty? Are we guilty – yes I’m including you in this! – of English language snobbery, of discounting anything not in English as lesser and silly? Especially something in ze harsh, guttural sounds of das Deutsch? At the same time, Falco’s antics in the video show that ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ is at least meant to be fun, if not truly a novelty song.

Said video also definitively answers one of my other earlier questions: this is very much about Mozart. Falco plays the man himself – the song was inspired by the 1984 movie ‘Amadeus’ – as men in powdered wigs dance with leathered-up bikers. The lyrics tell the story of big Wolfgang as the original rock star, about his way with the ladies and his fondness for a tipple: He was a superstar, He was popular, He was exalted, He had flair… And everybody screamed ‘Come rock me Amadeus’…

Which leaves me with just one question to answer: does anybody else hear the ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ theme in the synth riff? I can’t find much evidence online that agrees with me, but I definitely hear it. That theme, AKA ‘Axel F’, will of course have its moment atop the charts, but the mere thought of it makes me shudder…

By the end this song has gone completely bat-shit, with Falco screaming, scatting and yodelling things to a conclusion. Not something you’d want to hear every day, but great fun if you’re in the mood. Falco – real name Johann Hölzel – was Austrian, like Mozart. The first Austrian to top the charts in both the UK and the USA, unlike Mozart (though he’d surely have had hit after hit had the charts existed in the 1780s…) In Austria, Germany and much of Europe he was huge, but in Britain he struggled to have much further chart success – though the follow-up ‘Vienna Calling’ did make #10. Sadly, and again much like the hero of this song, Falco died very young, in a car crash, aged just forty.

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563. ‘West End Girls’, by Pet Shop Boys

I have something to confess. I’ve been putting off writing this next post. It’s been a full week since I put fingers to keyboard and mused on ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. But why? When up next is one of the most respected and best loved #1s of the eighties, if not of all time…? Because, to be honest, I’ve never really got this one…

West End Girls, by Pet Shop Boys (their 1st of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 5th – 19th January 1986

It’s a statement first chart-topper for 1986. An enigmatic intro: footsteps, traffic, waves crashing (?)… A very slow build. And I will say that the moment the beat drops (that’s not something we’ve talked about often, beats ‘dropping’ – it feels very modern) and the squelchy bass starts slapping is great. Really great. Interestingly, for a song that sounds so new, it was almost three years old when it finally made top-spot, having already been recorded and released in various iterations (to little success).

But the rest of the song? At best it’s enigmatic, as I said in the last paragraph, and very cool. There’s a strangeness to it, a strangeness that draws you in, no matter what you think of the music. It’s got a very unique sound for a chart-topper – a very ‘January’ number one (the time of the year when oddities tend to sneak their way to the summit) – and that’s to be commended. I’m all for variety. Plus it announced the arrival of one of the most influential acts of the past forty years, and I say that as someone who will only have good things to write about Pet Shop Boys’ three remaining #1s.

This one, though. I can admire it; but I’ve never found a way into enjoying it. It’s a frosty, aloof piece of modern art, there to be pondered, and studied from different angles, but not loved. But… I freely admit that I am in the minority here, and know for a fact that some of my regular readers will disagree vehemently with this take on ‘West End Girls’. Here we are. I can only write my truth, as they say.

Is it going too far to wonder if this record might even have appealed to listeners as a novelty at the time? Nowadays British rappers are ten-a-penny. In early 1986, though, it must have been funny to near Neil Tennant drop lines like You got a heart of class, Or a heart of stone, Just you wait ‘til I get you home… like Grandmaster Flash crossed with Noel Coward. I love his arch delivery. I really like the haunting backing vocals before the chorus… How much do you need…? And I love the fact that it’s influenced by T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ – too few chart-topping singles are based on modernist poetry.

Yes, there are elements of this song that I really do like. It just doesn’t click as a whole. For me. Meanwhile, it’s won Brit Awards, and Ivor Novellos. It’s been named Song of the Decade. Two years ago, The Guardian claimed ‘West End Girls’ as the best number one single, ever. It’s influence has been far reaching, into just about every electronic act that’s come since. Maybe it’s because it’s the first #1 of a new year, but it feels like a line in the sand. And it is also a line in the sand for me, personally, but more on that next time…

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559. ‘A Good Heart’, by Feargal Sharkey

Our next number one reminds me of something… Glossy, confident synths. Broad power chords. A former frontman going solo… Ah yes… It takes me all the way back to two chart-toppers ago, and Midge Ure’s ‘If I Was’.

A Good Heart, by Feargal Sharkey (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 10th – 24th November 1985

I do like the intro here. In fact it might be my favourite part of the song, the way that it gives the feeling of racing down a motorway, with the chiming guitars sounding like cars flying past in the opposite direction. I have no idea if that’s what they were going for, but it’s great. Really great, until Feargal Sharkey starts singing.

And this is no slight on his voice, which is fine. A lovely Northern Irish tenor. But I’m a big fan of The Undertones, and to hear Sharkey’s voice so far away from the pop punk I love is just kind of weird. His blue-eyed soul in the bridge: Well I know, Cause I learn a little, Every day… is at once impressive, and disconcerting. It sort of proves the point I made last time, when writing about ‘The Power of Love’: for whatever reason, I can swallow heartfelt and earnest much more readily when it comes from a female singer.

Away from the vocals, ‘A Good Heart’ falls into the same trap as ‘If I Was’. It’s a little full of itself, a little burdened by the weight of what it wants to be. I’m not sure why everyone was getting so serious in the autumn of 1985, but AOR was clearly the order of the day. I’m starting to long for a cheesy boyband… (OK, I may have sneaked a peek at who’s up next.)

My second favourite part, after the intro, is the echoey guitar in the solo. AOR it may be, but at least the ‘R’ really does stand for ‘rock’ in this record. The bassline is pretty cool, too. On the whole, I like this. I like it better than ‘If I Was’, at least, which seems the obvious comparison. (I’m still undecided, though, on the very strange adlibs, both by Sharkey and by his backing singers, in the outro…)

But then I’m tempted to imagine if Feargal (it’s pronounced ‘Fergal’ btw – I just had to check) Sharkey’s one and only #1 had come with The Undertones. ‘My Perfect Cousin’ at number one! Or ‘Get Over You’. Or even ‘Mars Bars’! Or, of course, ‘Teenage Kicks’… And then I remember that that will get to #1, eventually, and I weep for what became of it…

This is by far Sharkey’s biggest solo hit. He moved into the business side of the music industry in the ‘90s, even turning down the chance to re-join The Undertones in 1999. He’s done OK, though, receiving an OBE for services to the industry. Meanwhile, this record also brings together a past and a future chart-topper: Dave Stewart of Eurythmics produced it, while Maria McKee – her number one still a few years away – wrote it.

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553. ‘There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)’, by Eurythmics

The Eurythmics grab their only UK #1, then. One week at the top for an act I’d suggest were worth a few more. But at least they grab their chance here, and deliver a classic. Their sole chart-topper comes in at a hundred miles an hour, with an impressive a cappella intro from Annie Lennox.

There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart), by Eurythmics (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th July 1985

La-da-dee-doo-n-doo-n-daaa… That’s what it sounds like to me anyway, leading the way into a song about the joys of being in love. I walk into an empty room, Suddenly my heart goes boom… I always associate Eurythmics with slightly more layered, slightly darker music – ‘Sexcrime’, ‘Sweet Dreams’ and so on – but their biggest chart success came with a pure pop record.

But that’s not to say this is cheap and throwaway. Not at all. ‘There Must Be an Angel’ is quality stuff, all the way through. From Lennox’s opening salvo, through the angelic backing vocals (which I’m guessing are Lennox again – whoever they’re by, they’re impressively OTT), the electronic harp, and the excellent gospel-influenced middle eight, with some clever rhyming: hallucinating with celebrating, deception with intervention… Could this be the activating, All my senses dissipating…? Not many number ones can boast that sort of vocabulary, even if it does sound a little try-hard…

The cherry on top of this great record: a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. If that didn’t get you a number one in 1985, then nothing would… This means that as well as his own chart-topper (‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’), Wonder has featured uncredited on three more #1s in the past year (Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel for You’, and ‘We Are the World’ being the other two).

The video ups the celestial ante even further: Lennox plays a beautiful angel, surrounded by cherubs and angelic choirs, and isn’t sporting her usual cropped hair. (There is an argument for her being the female Boy George, mirroring his androgyny, and they had both featured on the cover of Newsweek the year before.) Meanwhile, Dave Stewart plays a bored – and strangely blonde – Louis XIV watching on.

This is the only chart-topper for the Eurythmics (it bears repeating…), and for either Lennox or Stewart (he is not the Dave Stewart who covered ‘It’s My Party’ with Barbara Gaskin in 1981). In fact, their hit making career as a duo was about to peter out: they’d score their last Top 10 hit the following year with my favourite of theirs, ‘Thorn in My Side’. Lennox would go on to have a hugely successful solo career in the ‘90s, as well as lots of charity work. Stewart would go on to do everything from film soundtracks, to voice acting, to comic book writing.

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534. ‘The Reflex’, by Duran Duran

Birmingham’s finest return for their second chart-topper, with what might be the most obnoxious intro to a #1 single ever. Ta-la-la-la… The re-fle-fle-fle-fle-flex…! It’s brash, it’s in your face, it’s Duran Duran…

The Reflex, by Duran Duran (their 2nd and final #1)

4 weeks, from 29th April – 27th May 1984

I’m imagining Duran Duran as those annoying kids you’ll find in any school playground, the ones needing constant attention from whoever will give them it, demanding everyone watch as they dance and cartwheel around, while the quieter, more thoughtful kids go unnoticed… (I’m not reliving any childhood trauma here, honest…) The main hook – the wh-ay-ay-ay don’t you use it… – even sounds like a child’s taunt, as they stick their tongue out and wiggle their fingers in front of their nose. It’s also a pretty darn effective pop hook. Once it’s in your head, it’s there for the rest of the day.

‘The Reflex’ shouldn’t work. It’s a hot mess of a record. The foundation is standard Duran Duran: a solid bass line from John Taylor, and the same guitars from ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’ Simon Le Bon’s voice remains one that you need to be in the mood for. But on top of this they’ve chucked everything plus the kitchen sink. Steel drums, horns, choppy vocal effects, explosions… Some of it grates, but a lot of it sticks. Everything about it – from the way the band has cut up samples of their own lead singer’s voice, to their perfect mullets in the video – screams peak eighties. This song might actually be as ‘eighties’ as it ever gets. And something about its pure relentlessness carries it through to being a pretty decent tune.

Just what is ‘the reflex’, though? It is a lonely child, waiting in the park… and it’s watching over lucky clover… You must, at all costs, try not to bruise it. Apparently it has something to do with gambling. Le Bon has gone on record as saying that he’s tired of having to explain it, as he thinks song lyrics should retain their mystique. I’d hazard that he’s tired of explaining it because he hasn’t a clue what he’s been prattling on about all these years.

In the end, and just as it went when I was reviewing their first #1, the frown from my first listen slowly fades. By the fifth play I’m dancing on the valentine with the rest of them. If my two posts on Duran Duran have taught me anything, it’s don’t overthink them. Just go with the flow and enjoy yourself.

You might think a band so synonymous with this decade would have had more than just the pair of #1 hits. Still, this was their 8th Top Hit in three years, and they’d have four more before the end of the decade (including one of my favourite Bond themes). They’ll also have a couple of Top 10 comebacks: in the ‘90s with one of their best songs (‘Ordinary World’) and in the mid-00s, when synth-rock had had a big resurgence in the charts and they were suddenly the elder statesmen of the genre…

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531. ‘Relax’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Heresss Frankie! In a way, I dread coming across (filthy pun very much intended…) #1 records like this. Huge megalithic-hits that have had everything written about them, and then some. But we gotta cover them all, so…

Relax, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 1st of three #1s)

5 weeks, from 22nd January – 26th February 1984

That’s not to say I dislike this record. Far from it: this is almost the perfect number one. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, it’s a real cultural moment… and it pissed off all the right people. In fact, that first bit – ‘Relax’s catchiness – is the one aspect of this song that possibly gets overlooked.

Let’s do the music first, then. An ominous intro floats in – I’ve always wondered what is being sung here (it’s M-i-ine, Give it to me one time now…) – before giving way to some grinding synths. I’ve been a bit down on synthesisers at times in this blog, but these are great. These are played like guitars, and could flatten a skyscraper. Apparently, singer Holly Johnson was the only band member to feature on the recording. Producer Trevor Horn – last heard on another synth-pop classic ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ – took complete control of what was a jingly demo, and created a monster.

A monster that demands to be played loud. This is no shrinking violet of a song. It’s all out there, slapping you about the face… Which brings us on to the lyrics. Everyone knows what this one’s about… Relax, Don’t do it, When you wanna suck it to it… (there’s some debate about those lyrics, but the band have apparently confirmed them) When you wanna… Come! For reasons of public decency, I will be spelling it as ‘come’ throughout, when we all know it should be… Anyway. Question is, did anyone ever think ‘Relax’ was about anything else? The band half-heartedly claimed it was about ‘motivation’ when the song was first released, but by the time the album came out bassist Mark O’Toole confessed it “really was about shagging.”

And not just any old shagging. The video sees singer Holly Johnson entering a gay bar in his sensible work suit, and after three minutes of face-spitting, banana-licking, tiger-fighting, and cage-wrestling, he ends up straddling a writhing mass of bodies… and that’s just the edited version. Meanwhile, a Roman emperor unleashes a torrent of piss from the balcony (putting the ‘number one’ in number one single…) on the biggest Come! of the song, complete with a super-soaker sound effect. It’s gloriously tasteless, clearly designed to get a reaction. And get a reaction it did…

Two weeks before ‘Relax’ made top spot, the BBC had banned it from being played before 9pm. Radio 1 DJ Mike Read even pulled it off (the record, that is…!) live on air, in apparent disgust. For the five weeks that it was #1, ‘Top of the Pops’ showed nothing but a picture of the band. MTV followed suit. You can kind of see why – even today the video raises an eyebrow – but at the same time would this record have been as huge if they’d just played it without blinking? Maybe not.

But the band new what they were doing. Two of the members were out and proud, and the song’s promo played on this with gay abandon. One ad saw keyboardist Paul Rutherford dressed a sailor, alongside the phrase “All the nice boys love sea men.” The record sleeve, above, which Mike Read took such exception too, features a man and a woman in a little bit of leather and not much else. If you’re of a negative disposition, you could argue that all this represents the worst of the 1980s, a triumph of image and promotion over substance. But… pop music has never just been about the music. Even before Elvis wiggled those hips, pop and sex have been inextricably linked. ‘Relax’ was just the latest update on the theme. Sadly, as we know all to well, this didn’t herald a sea-change in British attitudes towards homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was just around the corner, and Section 28 would be in place by the end of the decade. Yet for the five weeks that this was #1, it must have felt like quite the moment.

It all ends in a cresecendo, and one final, bellowed Come! Then we all slink off to the bathroom to hose ourselves down… 1984 truly will be Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s year. Three chart-toppers with their first three releases (the first act to do this since fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & The Pacemakers), and fifteen weeks at number one. Two of the biggest-selling hits of all time. And their very own t-shirt. Is ‘Frankie Say…’ the most famous rock logo, aside perhaps from the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue? Possibly. So, much more to come from Frankie, then, before long. Though it is worth saying that, of their three #1s, this is my favourite. Everything that was great and gaudy about the mid-1980s wrapped up in a four-minute mini masterpiece.

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494. ‘The Model’ / ‘Computer Love’, by Kraftwerk

Atmospheric, electronic, and über-cool… Ja. Kraftwerk ist da!

The Model / Computer Love, by Kraftwerk (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, 31st January – 7th February 1982

She’s a model, And she’s looking good… It has to be said, German-accented English is the perfect voice in which to deliver an electro-pop hit like this. She plays hard to get, She smiles from time to time… While this model sounds a bit high-maintenance: all champagne, nightclubs and envious glances…

A drum-machine keeps steady, deliberate time, while two or three different synths play variations of the main, instantly memorable, riff. There are not many fancy flourishes, no tricks or gimmicks, which can’t be said of some recent electronic #1s (‘It’s My Party’ springs to mind…)

There’s a minimalism to it, a precision. (It’s hard to avoid certain national stereotypes, but I’ll try…!) There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be. It’s repetitive, certainly; but not boring. It’s a song that seduces you, just like the model in the lyrics. It’s almost lo-fi, which could have something to do with the fact that ‘The Model’ was nearly five years old when it topped the charts.

It was originally supposed to be the ‘B’-side, an older hit included to beef up the appeal of the new single, but radios started to play it and it became a double-‘A’. And it’s the perfect hit for a winter’s week: both in its frosty sound, and in how it sits alongside some very random early-year chartmates in Bucks Fizz and Shakin’ Stevens.

What of that new single, then? ‘Computer Love’ kicks off with another catchy riff – one catchy enough for Coldplay to borrow decades later – but as the record finds its groove you can feel a slightly lighter touch than the heavy, deliberate ‘Model’. There’s almost something disco in the staccato drums, and feathery high notes. It sounds more modern, more ‘eighties’ really, than song on the flip-side. (Though it had only made #36 before being twinned with ‘The Model’.)

It’s another twisted love story, but this time a computer is the object of the singer’s affections: another lonely night, another lonely night… He stares at the screen and longs for a data date. I wonder if the band had any idea, in 1981, of how prescient those lyrics would become in the twenty-first century…? Aren’t we all just staring at our screens, these days, needing a rendezvous?

I’m not enjoying this as much as ‘The Model’, though. It’s too light, too ephemeral. There’s not as much to get your teeth into here. But as a chart-topping, double-‘A’ side single, both tracks work very well. And I say that without being the biggest fan of electronic music. It feels like a moment at the top of the charts. True, it’s far from the first electronic #1, but Kraftwerk had been there from the very beginnings of the genre: forming in 1969, scoring their first hit in 1974. In many ways, they’ve been a part of all the synth-based number ones so far, from ‘I Feel Love’, to the Buggles, to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

Kraftwerk were/are basically two men – Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider (who passed away in 2020) – and a revolving cast of supporting musicians. They are notoriously reclusive, and have released one album in the past thirty-five years. They don’t have many hits to their name in the UK, this one being the only time they ever breached the Top 10. But their legacy cannot be understated. Considering how prevalent electronic music is now – how few acts don’t incorporate at least a smattering of non-analogue sounds – they have to be seen as legends. The NME has argued that while ‘The Beatles and Kraftwerk’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘The Beatles and The Stones’, it is probably more accurate in reflecting who pop music’s two most influential bands are.

491. ‘Don’t You Want Me’, by The Human League

1981 has had its fair share of iconic chart-topping moments: Bucks Fizz’s skirt-ripping moves, The Specials’ call to arms, Soft Cell’s re-imagining of a soul classic, Mercury and Bowie going toe-to-toe… And it ends with perhaps its most iconic tune.

Don’t You Want Me, by The Human League (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, 6th December 1981 – 10th January 1982

For this is one of the most recognisable riffs ever, I’d say. Up there with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ for chart-topping riffs. It’s dramatic and ominous, yet catchy and danceable. It’s a synth riff here, but play it on a piano, a guitar, a bloody harp, and people would know it was the intro to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

The opening lyrics are equally iconic: You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar… a male voice intones… When I met you… It’s sung by an overbearing – ok, creepy – bloke. A Svengali figure. He found this girl, made her a star, and now she’s outgrown him. Don’t forget it was me who put you where you are now, And I can put you back down too…

In the second verse, the starlet has her say. Yes, she was working in a cocktail bar… That much is true… She tells him politely that it’s time for her to make it on her own. The male ‘character’ is so well-formed, such a nasty sounding piece of work, that you wish his female counterpart had a little more bite. Who is she? Did she really just use him? Or maybe her niceness is the ultimate insult…?

Aside from the riff, the next best bits are the lines that accelerate up to the chorus: You better change it back or we will both be sorry! This is a high-quality pop song, well worthy of being the year’s biggest-seller and a Christmas number one. But – there’s always a ‘but’ – I’m not sure if there isn’t a hint of ‘fur coat and no knickers’ about it. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ has a great riff and great hook, but on repeated listen it goes from all-time classic to simply great pop. Two years ago, Gary Numan was doing things with a synth that genuinely stood out. Now, in late-1981, synths alone are not enough to wow.

Phil Oakey, The Human League’s founder, didn’t want this released as a single, and has said in subsequent interviews that he sees the music video as a big factor in its success. And you can see why: it’s moody, noirish… dare I say, once more for luck, iconic? It’s certainly slicker and more expensive than many of the homemade looking MVs from the last couple of years, and it looks forward to a New Romantic future in the make-up, earrings and fringes. ‘Rolling Stone’ has claimed ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as the starting point for the 2nd British Invasion in the US (it hit #1 on Billboard six months after topping the charts here).

The Human League had only the one UK chart-topper, but were scoring hits well into the nineties. They still tour to this day. After I’m done writing this post, I’m going to listen to the album that birthed this hit, ‘Dare!’ to see what all the fuss us about. Maybe I’m being harsh in saying that this record lacks much substance beyond its killer riff. It’s still a great tune, but when songs come along with as much baggage and reputation as this one then I can’t help expecting great great things…

487. ‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin

More evidence that 1981 was a leap-forward for the charts. The year in which the decade truly began. Because this, this next record, it is… truly…

It’s My Party, by Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin (their 1st and only #1s)

4 weeks, 11th October – 8th November 1981

something? It’s a leap-forward, for certain, because we’ve heard nothing like this before at the top of the charts. Whether we ever needed to hear anything like this at the top of the charts is another question. At its most basic level, this is a cover of the Lesley Gore hit, a #9 (and US #1) in 1963. Except the original has been deconstructed, mashed, blended, twisted and fricasseed until what is being served up is almost unrecognisable.

I’m enjoying it, at first. The intro is the best bit: woozy drums, weird far-eastern sound effects, and the Cry if I want to… line chanted like a mantra. But as it goes on, the song veers in one direction then another, then another. I count three complete changes of tone and style. No, make that four. I’m starting to feel dizzy. Can I just hand over my next WTAF award now?

Is this good? Or is it terrible? I can’t think of many records that straddle the line so completely as this. There are flashes – mainly when the charm of the original manages to shine through – where it’s really fun. But there are other times when it feels like this production is being controlled by a five-year-old banging away at the settings on their toy keyboard. Perhaps you could look at this as haute-couture music: just like nobody actually wears the clothes that come down the runway in Milan; probably nobody would listen to this by choice anymore. But the sounds and techniques used here would filter on down through the decade…

Or maybe that’s generous. Acts like The Buggles, and Soft Cell (who literally just took their version of a sixties gem to the top) have shown that you can sound ridiculously modern – emphasis on the ridiculous – and still make a great pop song. This one gets very lost along the way: there’s a moment, after the wedding bell sound effects and a theatrical gasp, when the final chorus clicks, and you can see that Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin had it in them to make this a great pop record. But, hey ho, it doesn’t last. Give me the sassy, swinging original over this any day. (Actually, I’ve just realised the difference between this and Soft Cell. Soft Cell lovingly re-crafted a classic; this sounds, at times, like art school students taking the piss – see the annoying way Gaskin squeals at the end of every ‘you’, for example.)

The Dave Stewart involved in this is not, as I immediately thought, the Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame. This DS was a keyboard player and composer for various prog-rock bands throughout the seventies, before he hooked up with his former backing singer, Barbara Gaskin. Soon afterwards, they scored this huge hit, by far their biggest. They still work with one another, and have released seven albums together. And I do wonder if they chose ‘It’s My Party’ because it is such a typically old-fashioned, bubblegum hit, and the re-imagining is therefore so shocking. A few years later they tried to repeat the trick with a version of ‘The Locomotion’ that only made #70.

I still don’t really know what to make of this one, even after repeat listening. It is certainly something… Is it avant-garde, or just dumb? Impressive, or unlistenable? I can’t help thinking of that quote from ‘Jurassic Park’: they were so preoccupied with whether they could, they never stopped to think if they should…

For the first time in a while… A #1 that is missing from Spotify…