Which decade is Tops for Pops? (8/10) – 2004 edition.

Slowly but surely, this year’s contest is turning into a walkover for the 1960s, who are now four points ahead of their nearest rivals. Looking at today’s selection, I think they have every reason to continue feeling confident. Jeez, I’ve started anthropomorphising whole decades now. Nurse – the screens! Bring on the Number Threes!

1964: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black.
1974: The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies.
1984: Street Dance – Break Machine.
1994: The Sign – Ace Of Base.
2004: Baby I Love U – Jennifer Lopez featuring R.Kelly.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Time for the customary pretentious-music-journo waffle, then. I’ve been searching high and low for my copy of Semiological Signs & Signifiers In The Work Of Cilla Black, but I think our cleaning lady must have made off with it. In which case, I shall have to wing it. (Note to newer readers: he gets like this when he’s been out on the piss the night before. Just smile and nod.)

Anyone Who Had A Heart: undeniably great song, one of Bacharach & David’s finest, and Dionne Warwick’s impeccable original version is a much-loved classic. So what are we to make of Cilla’s cover version, which reached Number One and prevented Miss Warwick from getting any higher than Number 42? Tatty cash-in cover version? Pale imitation of the real thing? (There’s a whole thesis waiting to written here about ethnicity issues, but let’s save that for another day.) And, c’mon – bleedin’ Cilla “light entertainment” Black? I can hear the cries of “travesty” from here.

But let’s try and be fair. Let’s strip away all the naffness which followed – the Blind Dates, the Surprise Surprises, the Moments of Truth – and remember Cilla as she was in March 1964: the 20 year old former coat check girl from the Cavern in Liverpool, as breezy, optimistic, youthful and fresh as the rapidly emerging new pop culture that surrounded her, enjoying her first major hit and patently loving the whole experience. Let’s credit her – or at least her “people” – with the good taste to spot a hot US import of the day, and to cover it with love and respect for the song’s essence. Where Warwick is all elegant restraint, our Cilla chooses instead to belt the song out like the Mersey girl she is, with a screech on the chorus like an oxyacetalene blow torch. Technically speaking – even, dare I say it, aesthetically speaking – she’s not a great singer, the kindest word possibly being “eccentric”. But there’s an undeniable passion at the heart of the record, which saves it – by a whisker, mind, but a significant whisker – from being superfluous trash.

You’re My World, however, was bloody awful. Meanwhile, Dionne didn’t need to sulk for long; a month later, she entered the charts with her first UK hit, Walk On By, which went onto reach the Top 10. So everyone went home happy.

Wow, look everyone! The Hollies are back! So soon! Thirty years ago, I loathed The Air That I Breathe, viewing it as a dismal, never-ending dirge. With the wisdom of adulthood, hem hem, I am inclined to view it more favourably. Much more favourably. The song takes its time to work through its various sections (making it a bugger to edit down for the MP3), all of which are heading inexorably in the same direction, towards that epic, soaring chorus. The simplicity of the song’s lyrical theme, as the singer strips his existence down to the bare essentials, is juxtaposed wonderfully well with the full-on, everything-but-the-kitchen sink orchestration in the chorus. Lovely stuff, and – along with He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – one of the only two moments in The Hollies’ long but somewhat second division career that approached greatness.

In the case of Break Machine, the passage of time has produced the reverse effect. Twenty years ago, boom-box electro boy that I was, I fairly lapped up Street Dance – especially as it appeared on one of my favourite labels of the time, Record Shack (home of cult Hi-NRG divas such as Miquel Brown, Earlene Bentley and Evelyn Thomas). Indeed, I remember standing in the Record Shack store in Berwick Street the week before this very chart appeared, flicking through the import racks while the shop and label people discussed where Street Dance was going to end up (and correctly predicting its rise from #5 to #3). A moment later, Miquel “So Many Men, So Little Time” Brown casually strolled in with her shopping, and the whole shop went into a star-struck swoon. No, really, it did. Heady days!

However, the essential fakeness behind Break Machine has meant that Street Dance hasn’t worn at all well. Portrayed as beat-of-the-street b-boys, they were in fact the latest confection from Jacques Morali, former svengali to the Village People. Yes – it’s a little known fact, but Street Dance was written by the same team who brought you YMCA, and Eartha Kitt’s über-camp Where Is My Man. And as James Hamilton waspishly remarked in Record Mirror at the time, the vocals were distinctly more Santa Monica Boulevard than the Bronx. Miaow!

Faced with the prospect of writing anything at all about the irredeemably dreary Ace Of Base, I feel the will to live draining from my body. Did you know that they made the 1994 Guinness Book Of World Records for the biggest selling debut album of all time? It beggars belief, doesn’t it? Instead of trying to invent new ways of saying “pants”, I shall offer you the following little exchange from earlier this evening, when K did his voting.

K: “She’s got some sort of speech impediment, hasn’t she?”
M: “Actually, she’s Swedish.”

Laugh? We nearly drowned out the rest of the track.

At this stage of the game, I find myself desperately wanting to defend contemporary R&B from all you h8erz out there who are slagging it off for being unmelodic. As I see it, the essence of R&B isn’t melodic at all, or even particularly song-based. The emphasis here is on rhythm – on the intricate syncopated interplays between the various elements in the music, both vocal and instrumental. You might just as well slag Cilla Black off for not being funky enough; the criticism would be equally wide of the mark.

Unfortunately, I only have Jennifer Lopez and R. Kelly as today’s evidence for the defence, with this ropey old pile of toss. No doubt stunned by the somewhat freakish success of last year’s staggeringly good Ignition (remix) – my favourite single of last year, and a record which worked so well partly because it sounded so casual and accidental – R. Kelly is doggedly, and all too self-consciously, trying to repeat the formula here. It doesn’t work. At all. In fact, it sucks a big one. Meanwhile, J-lo continues to betray her utter disinterest in music as anything other than a means to an end, with her useless, indifferent, can-we-get-a-move-on-my-driver’s-waiting warbling. The track reaches its absolute nadir during what I suppose we must call the “chorus”, which sounds like the work of, ooh, about 3 seconds’ creative effort. If that. Plus there’s this awful percussive klatsch noise about once every bar, which sounds horribly intrusive on headphones. Pah. A pox on all your houses!

Mv votes: 1 – The Hollies. 2 – Cilla Black. 3 – Break Machine. 4 – Ace Of Base. 5 – Jennifer Lopez featuring Our Shelleh.

Over to you. Except that you’ve already started, haven’t you? (A skeleton version of this post first appeared three hours ago.) Naturally, I’m expecting a Cilla/Hollies two-horse race. But I’ve been wrong before. Come on, surprise me.

Running totals so far – Number 3s.
1964: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black. (121)

  • CILLA! Yes, she’s the Evil Queen of Crap Saturday Night Telly and her face looks like it’s been pulled until it might explode, but that’s NOW. Then . . . just brilliant. This is red wine music. What I mean is, this is a song to listen to when you’re on your own, feeling incredibly sorry for yourself, and are feeling physically sick due to the consumption of a whole bottle of red wine. Perfect. Listen to Anyone Who Had A Heart while chucking up in the loo. (That’s a recommendation, by the way). (Vaughan)
  • Wow. I’d forgotten she’d done this – it’s one of my all time favourites. Everything else on this list pales into insignificance when compared to this piece of 60s staccato pop purity. (groc)
  • I know she’s reached icon status in England and the ensuing riducule that goes with it, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard anything by her. At first I thought it was Petula Clark. I don’t know what she sounds like now, but this is lovely. (asta)
  • The definitive version (controversial!) of the Bacharach standard. Dionne was too understated and polished. Cilla really gives it some welly, which is what this song requires. (dumptruck)
  • I love those Brit chicks with big hair and lots of eye liner. Cilla, Lulu and Dusty. This obviously explains my love of drag shows. (jo)
  • I so wanted to hate this and make it last for the twin unforgivable sins of changing footy team and defending Thatcher but it’s okay really. (Demian)
  • Not even Katie Kahlua could ruin this song, and I like the vulnerability in Cilla’s rendition. Time to run to the cloakroom before they turn the house lights on, and leave on your own, and go home, and cry, etc. etc. etc. (noodle)
  • better than I was expecting, musically great (a bit like Tom Jones’ Delilah), but I can’t get past her hammy vocal (Hg)
  • A classic song, of course. Classic, as in, you didn’t have to have been born then to know it. It’s quite a swayey. But Cilla Black is one of those people that makes me wish I have never been born. The Lorra lorra surprises is that this isn’t actually the worst song in today’s pick. (Gert)

1974: The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies. (118)

  • this was a real surprise – they’ve come a long way since Tuesday. Like a wine taster noting tarmac and toast, do I hear strains of Bowie and Radiohead in that verse? (Demian)
  • I’ve never listened so closely to this and it’s brilliant, I’m away to seek out the whole version the moment I’ve posted this comment (so that’s where the Verve stole, erm, everything from) (Hg)
  • A fantastic, deathless song. So good even Radiohead ripped it off. (dumptruck)
  • beautiful, beautiful, although kd lang’s version is a million miles better. What a wonderful sentiment – all that i need is the air that i breathe and to love you. Can I give it all five votes because the other four are so dreadful as to be beyond dreadful (Gert)
  • The melody is so-so, but the chorus is brilliant. It’s the only song by them I can say I truly like. (asta)
  • One of the tracks that I was trying to remember when chastising you for not picking the better known Hollies numbers with your “21 hits but who remembers any of them” bit t’other day. (What do you mean you can’t hear me through the monitor?!??) (Adrian)
  • Had a ‘Dynamite 8’ 8-track player and double 8-track set along the lines of a K-tel special. This was was one of the tracks. Associations are skipping school and hanging out with friends in the woods all day. *sigh* Oh for that lack of responsibility again. (jo)
  • The only one here I could ever imagine myself wanting to listen to (and even then I’d be like Homer watching Bachman Turner Overdrive: “Skip to the chorus!”) (Michael)
  • Less MOR than I remembered, but I prefer the verse to the chorus. I think it’s the Bowie echoes. (noodle)
  • I didn’t go for the last Hollies record, but the boys (makes it sound like I know them) had obviously matured by the time of this song. My mum likes it. That’s a recommendation too, by the way. But it’s miles behind Our Cilla, which means that the rest of them . . . oh dear . . . (Vaughan)

1994: The Sign – Ace Of Base. (76)

  • Speech impediment, eh? The Swedish jury would just like to say: “biggest selling debut album of all time”. In your face!(To be honest, I don’t like it either. Or rather “didn’t” – then I met so many people, from so many countries, who all loved it. And that impressed me a whole lot – it gave a hint of the True Power Of Music, even if the truly powerful music can sometimes be rather substandard. My point being: The not so talented members of Ace of Base, with their speech impediments and all, made kids all over the world capital-H Happy. And in my opinion that counts for something.) (Simon (from Sweden))
  • The cut-price Abba with their rip-off of “One Of Us”. Possibly their finest moment. (dumptruck)
  • chugging Abba-esque Euro-pop with a lovely energetic bassline, with the “Epic” control turned up this could have been a killer (Hg)
  • What’s a closet loving Abba girl to do when a substitute comes around? Hop on board. (jo)
  • They thought they were the new ABBA. I hope Agnetha invited them round for tea and allowed them to kiss her arse. (Vaughan)
  • Vile. Bears as much relation to ABBA as the collected works of Celtic Frost. (noodle)
  • You know how a catchy song gets played so often on the radio that you come to hate it? This is one of those. (asta)

1984: Street Dance – Break Machine. (62)

  • a surprisingly good example of nondescript 80s pop (Hg)
  • It’s hardly supposed to be Grandmaster Flash, is it? A lovely pop confection, that whistling riff has been stuck in my head for the last 20 years. (noodle)
  • Being the electro-lover that I am, I got a bit unecessarily excited about this when reading about it. That’s before I had a listen though. It’s not even good bad-taste is it? (Michael)
  • The Rocksteady Crew and Freez evidently had all the tunes. Limp, generic and forgettable. Wouldn’t have made it without hitching itself to the craze of the time. (dumptruck)
  • this has the most memorable chorus I’ve ever remembered today. Street Dance – Street Dance – Street Dance – oh oh. We all wanted to spin on our heads back then. (Demian)
  • sweat bands, metallic nylon, the kids from Fame… For a song about dancing in the streets, it’s overwhelmingly joyless. (asta)
  • Insert the word ‘wind’ betwen those two words. Funny how this is only 20 years old yet sounds positively ancient when compared to Cilla and The Hollies. (Vaughan)
  • oh my god this was Eighties, like, my time, decade, radio on all day during the Easter hols – but I hate this so much it had actually never properly entered my memory. (Gert)

2004: Baby I Love U – Jennifer Lopez featuring R.Kelly. (44)

  • I’ve never had any time for Ms Lopez’s work before this, but Our Kelleh’s great, even on autopilot. Can anyone name a high profile Black American who hasn’t been prosecuted in the last 40 years? Just wondered. (noodle)
  • a song that features shopping sprees in LA.. the irritants of paparazzi and critics…. oh yeah..that’s ” keepin’ it real” pffft….. my distaste for both of these people aside .. it’s just an imitation of not very good material they’ve already released. (asta)
  • Again, normally I’d place her so far at the bottom of any list that she’d be under my desk (ooer, that didn’t come out right). But I can’t help thinking of the irony of this song – presumably written before the Benifer break up. Argh! And I am sickened with myself for even knowing anything about that. (Michael)
  • I think J-Lo comes out with two types of songs – Brill or Bland. This is bland to me. But I just typed brill, so what do I know? (zbornak)
  • I’m so in touch with da kidz, as you know. All I know about these two is that SHE’S GOT A F***ING ENORMOUS ARSE (why is that sexy, pray) and HE INDULGES IN S*X WITH UNDERAGE G*RLS. I have never listened to a song by either of these ‘artists’ all the way through. This is the quality of our pop music today. Christ almighty. (Vaughan)
  • I can’t even dislike it, it’s just dull (Hg)
  • Please. Die. Now. (dumptruck)
Decade scores so far (after 7 days).
1 (1) The 1960s (25) — I have a dream!
2= (3) The 1990s (21) — I did not have sexual relations with that woman!
2= (2) The 1980s (21) — This lady is not for turning!
4 (4) The 1970s (20) — I will survive!
5 (5) The 2000s (19) — I like blinking, I do!

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