Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Fives.

Yesterday evening, BBC2 screened the last ever edition of Top Of The Pops, a programme whose whole raison d’etre was to reflect the state of the current UK singles charts. Without wishing to get into the chicken-and-egg whys and wherefores of the situation (or else we’d be here all day), it is fair to say that as the British public’s general interest in keeping up with Top Of The Pops has declined, so has their interest in following the UK singles chart. Coupled with the decline (both in quality and significance) of Radio One’s weekly Top 40 countdown, and the scarcity of other opportunities for singles-based acts to perform on terrestrial TV, the whole notion of deriving any measure of continuing significance from the UK singles charts is looking increasingly quaint and dated.

Here on dear old Troubled Diva, where “quaint” and “dated” are far from dirty words, we plough on regardless of this Major Cultural Paradigm Shift. Here on dear old Troubled Diva, where The Charts Will Always Matter (and that’s a pledge), let us turn our minds instead to happier matters. It’s the Number Fives!

1966: Michelle – The Overlanders.
1976: Mamma Mia – Abba.
1986: How Will I Know – Whitney Houston.
1996: One Of Us – Joan Osborne.
2006: All Time Love – Will Young.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

As well as marking my fourth birthday, February 1966 also marks the first time that the hits of the day started registering in my mind, and taking up residency in my long-term memory. Only “She Loves You” by The Beatles pre-dates this; my parents had it on a 45rpm single, and my father would sometimes get me to dance to it, vigorously shaking my non-existent “mop top” from side to side as I did so.

This cover of The Beatles’ “Michelle” by one-hit-wonders The Overlanders is the first single in our 1966 Top Ten which I recognise from back then – and it won’t be the last, either. I can remember singing along to it on the radio, probably encouraged to do so on account of the French portions of the lyric, as we would have had a French au pair staying with us at around that time. (Hence also my early familiarity with the nursery rhymes “Frere Jacques” and “Au Clair De La Lune”.)

As I didn’t properly encounter the original verson for a few more years to come, The Overlanders’ version is, for me, the definitive one. OK, so it’s more or less a straight note-for-note copy, no doubt conceived for the purpose of a quick cash-in – but we four-year-olds were never too hung up on “rockist” notions of “authenticity”.

However, now that I am forty-four, and possessed of a more sophisticated set of critical faculties (oh yes), I find myself having difficulties in evaluating this song. Do I mark it up for being a delightfully catchy and memorable little love song, or I mark it down for being an unimaginative carbon copy? What a conundrum, readers!

In the case of Abba‘s “Mamma Mia”, a different problem raises its head: namely, that it is almost impossible to say anything usefully informative or thought-provoking about such a well-worn classic. Because we all love Abba, don’t we?

Or are we sick of them yet? Niftily constructed and immaculately performed as it is, has continued exposure to this song (hell, they even made a musical out of it) dimmed our enthusiasm? Could we happily never hear it again? And even if that’s the case, then doesn’t “Mamma Mia” still deserve the string of maximum points which I’m expecting it to pick up?

Whitney Houston‘s second ever UK hit is one of those tunes which I’ve always enjoyed, but never quite loved. For me, it has always stood slightly in the shadow of Aretha Franklin’s stylistically similar “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” – a hit from only a month or so earlier, which shared the same producer (Narada Michael Walden). Nevertheless, this is good, solid stuff, which thankfully hasn’t yet been buggered around with by some clueless, witless dance act (although you sense its time will surely come).

Update: As Adrian‘s girlfriend rightly points out, “How Will I Know” has already been sampled, on LMC vs U2’s 2004 Number One hit “Take Me To The Clouds Above” (yes, the very same line). I stand corrected.

More conflicted emotions in the case of Joan Osborne, whose “One Of Us” is as palpably ridiculous as it is horribly enjoyable. Listening to it again for the first time in years, I got the giggles good and proper. Why did I buy it when it came out? What were we all thinking? What was Prince thinking, when he covered it a year later on the Emancipation album? But then again, this was a time when we thought that Alanis Morissette was an Important New Voice, that Tony Blair was a dynamic and progressive new force in British politics, and that Gary Barlow would enjoy the biggest solo success after the demise of Take That. Strange days indeed.

Hey, does anyone still remember Shayne Ward? You know, the one who won that TV talent show thingy? The one we were talking about this time last week? No? Anyone?

How very different from the continuing success of that other TV talent show survivor, the ever-likeable Will Young, who must now be fast approaching the status of Untouchable National Treasure. “All Time Love”, while admittedly slushy in the extreme, benefits from a essentially touching sincerity in its performance which poor young Master Ward has shown no signs of being capable of approaching. Honestly, this one makes me go right gooey inside! I must be getting soft in my old age.

My votes: Abba – 5 points. Will Young – 4 points. Whitney Houston – 3 points. Joan Osborne – 2 points. The Overlanders – 1 point.

A tough selection, this one – as I can happily live with all five of today’s songs, and how often can you say that?

Over to you. What’s your stance on Beatles cover versions? Has your Abba love withstood all the over-exposure? Does Whitney make you shimmy? Does Joan Osborne, like, make you really think about, like God and stuff? Or does dear old lovelorn Will make you want to knit him a nice boyfriend? Gosh, I can hardly wait to find out.

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Fives.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sixes.

You might snort at this, but I reckon that this year’s bunch of contenders have been our strongest selection to date. Particularly when compared to the horrors which I have in store for you next year; I sneaked a peek at the Top 10s for mid-February in 1967/1977/1987/1997, and I’m telling you: it ain’t pretty.

So, settle back and enjoy this comparative Golden Age while it lasts, as we wheel out the Number Sixes.

1966: A Groovy Kind Of Love – The Mindbenders.
1976: Love To Love You Baby – Donna Summer.
1986: Borderline – Madonna.
1996: Open Arms – Mariah Carey.
2006: Check On It – Beyonce featuring Slim Thug.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Hah! Battle of the divas, or what? The Mindbenders aside, this pits arguably the most iconic of each decade’s female pop performers against each other. How fabulously representative!

I’ve got to be quick today, so shall have to trust you to form your own judgements (the arrogance!) without much further in the way of introductory nudging. But I will say this much at least:

The Mindbenders: Plodding, clunking and astonishingly primitive, as if mankind were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of songwriting and performing. It’s the cack-handed lack of flow which gets me about this. Well, that and the rubbish rhymes.

Donna Summer: All that pseudo-orgasmic moaning (OR WAS IT?) was so shocking for its time, but now it just sounds kinda kitsch, in a Mayfair/Penthouse period softcore way. However, it’s the essentially teasing, tickling nature of the track which gives it its true eroticism: all foreplay and no climax. (K said that he kept expecting the track to “start properly”.)

Madonna: One of my all-time Top Five Madgetrax, although it belongs more to the spring of 1984 for me. In a word: breezy.

Mariah Carey: Like a parody of everything that’s ridiculous about her grim power ballads. JUST STICK TO THE F**KING TUNE, CAN’T YOU? But then again, the void at the heart of “Open Arms” is precisely its lack of melody, and hence of any discernible direction. What’s left is mere twittering blather. (K said that it sounds like the sort of music that people play to show off their new hi-fi systems.)

Beyonce: Passing quickly over the dubious merits of Slim Thug’s contribution, what I like about this is its almost clockwork herky-jerkiness, which suits Beyonce’s not-quite-human-ness rather well. (Have you ever seen a photo of her that hasn’t been digitally enhanced, or heard her sing without the benefit of similar audio-airbrushing?) I imagine her twitching around to this like a pneumatic, silken-coated wind-up toy. Your fantasies may vary.

My votes: Madonna – 5 points. Donna Summer – 4 points. Beyonce – 3 points. The Mindbenders – 2 points. Mariah Carey – 1 point.

Over to you. Which diva rocks your world, or has your mind been sufficiently “bent” by yet more latter-day Merseybeat? Vote now!

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sixes.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sevens.

Yeesh, this heat. The fabled Long Hot Summer of 1976 has had nothing on the past couple of weeks. Which Decade Is Tops For Hots? No contest, mate.

K and I have taken to commuting from the cottage, which was built to cope with such extremes of temperature. Thick walls and small windows retain the warmth in the winter, and shut out the worst of the heat of the summer. Plus we have the use of the PDMG, which has reached maturity in its fourth year, and so has never looked better.

In stark contrast, our pressure cooker of a house in Nottingham has been rendered more or less uninhabitable. Yesterday evening, we lasted less than five minutes indoors, before grabbing some clean socks and pants, and heading for the A52.

Of course, the price to be paid for all this is the 50 minute drive there and back each day. But even that’s not without its benefits: the sweet relief of the in-car air-conditioning, and the fact that K is a captive audience for the Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? project. Our respective votes have been surprisingly at variance with each other this year – until today’s selection, which sees us more or less ad idem.

Will our unanimity prove to be universal? Well, let’s find out! Here come the Number Sevens!

1966: Love’s Just A Broken Heart – Cilla Black.
1976: Convoy – C.W. McCall.
1986: System Addict – Five Star.
1996: Do U Still – East 17.
2006: You Got The Love (New Voyager mix) – The Source featuring Candi Staton.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

In a break with tradition, I have let Cilla Black‘s section of the medley run on for much longer than usual, as a mere minute’s worth couldn’t possibly do justice to its gob-smacking over-the-topness. No, really, this is extraordinary. Each time that you think that the arrangement has reached saturation point, somebody cranks it up yet another notch, until you find yourself wanting to scream: “She’s already on full throttle, you fools! She can’t take any more pressure! She’s gonna BLOW, do you hear?”

I’ve said this before somewhere, but my God, the fads of the 1970s were weird at times. ClackersPet rocks. And Citizen’s Band Radio, or CB for short, with its ridculous slang: “Four on that, good buddy. What’s your twenty?”

Ever the craze-jumper (he was possibly the first person ever to send marketing spam out via Prestel, and I HELPED HIM DO IT, oh the SHAME), my father soon had a CB kit installed in the drawing room at home – only to lose interest in it after the first week, thus giving my step-sisters unfettered access to chat up truckers during the school holidays. (These days, there would be a public outcry.)

Anyway. Strange as it may seem today, the concept of lorry drivers talking to each other via interactive radio sets seemed deeply glamorous and progressive in February 1976, when C.W. McCall enthralled us all with his hillbilly proto-rap “Convoy”. Who could forget the tale of Big Ben, his “good buddy” Rubber Duck, and the “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse micro-bus”? Why, they even made a film out of the song, starring sexy ole Kris Kristofferson. (Not to mention – and really, we mustn’tthe parody record “Convoy GB” by Laurie Lingo & The Dipsticks, which went Top Five in April 1976.) Truly, the past is another country.

Turning once again to February 1986, I find myself increasingly staggered at what a truly SHIT time for pop music this was – as exemplified by the distressing success of the joyless, lifeless, characterless bunch of performing androids known as Five Star. Hearing “System Addict” again, I am transported back to the first job I had after graduating, at a small software house on the edge of town – where I spent a year or so festering in quiet desperation, unable to comprehend that my university education had fetched me up in such dismal, alienating, intellect-free, and okay okay I admit it I admit it, un-cool surroundings.

A couple of desks away from me, the company’s sales guy spent many an afternoon cold-calling, trying to build on our impressive track record of supplying Bespoke Software Solutions to, inter alia, Western Europe’s largest manufacturer of nightie cases, and a factory in Long Eaton which made nothing but knicker elastic. When he wasn’t getting shitty with random P.A.’s who wouldn’t put him through to the managing director (honestly, the man’s telephone manner was appalling), the sales guy liked to sing to himself – invariably homing in on the one record in the current Top 40 which irritated me the most.

The sales guy loved “System Addict”. Because, you know, it was obviously about us, the IT professionals – hell, it was Our Anthem! After all, weren’t we all System Addicts ourselves, merrily bashing out our BASIC stock control packages on our dinky little networked micro-computers?

Twenty years on, this song still makes me shudder to my core. Which probably says more about me than it does about Five Star.

East 17, then – and I can hear your sighs from here. Oh God, lowest common denominator manufactured pop, yadda yadda yadda. Well, think again – because “Do U Still” really ain’t too shonky. It’s a close cousin of East 17’s other great pop/rap moment, “Deep” – leery, grimy, and yet sporting some rather fetching ensemble vocal work. East 17 were like the Take That who you could actually imagine having a quick-and-dirty shag with (probably down the alley behind the chip shop) and it’s their essential rough-arsedness which saves this track from production-line blandness.

I’ve wondered in previous years whether it is strictly fair to include re-issues in this survey, and there’s a strong argument which says I shouldn’t. Nevertheless, if a song is inside the Top Ten, then it can reasonably be said to represent the popular music of its time – and such is the case with the third re-issue of The Source featuring Candi Staton‘s “You Got The Love”.

This started life in 1986 as a fairly straightforward piece of cheerfully happy-clappy soul/gospel (I have the original 12-inch in the attic), before someone had the bright idea of slapping Candi Staton’s vocals over the instrumental track from Frankie Knuckles’ “Your Love” as a sort of early bootleg mash-up – thus bringing a whole new dimension to the original song, which shifted from major to minor and sounded a whole lot better for it. Result: a top ten hit in 1991.

Six years later, the “Now Voyager” mix, which plonked the same vocal over a brand new Massive Attack-esque trip hop backing track, took the song back into the top ten. This version returned to prominence in 2004, when it was played over the closing credits of the last ever episode of Sex And The City.

And then, for no reason that I know of, someone saw fit to re-jig the “Now Voyager” mix as the “New Voyager” mix (but so slightly that you can barely tell the difference), and to bung it out again in 2006. Based on their dismal peformance this week thus far, 2006 should be grateful for such small mercies – ‘cos this is GREAT.

My votes: The Source featuring Candi Staton – 5 points. Cilla Black – 4 points. C.W. McCall – 3 points. East 17 – 2 points. Five Star – 1 point.

Accumulating your votes from the first three days, the 1970s have taken an early lead, followed by an atypically strong showing from the 1990s. However, with the votes still open for all selections, anything could still happen.

Over to you. Have Cilla’s oxyacetalyne blowtorch pipes left scorch marks upon your soul? Does C.W. McCall make you feel like “chasing bear”, fer sure fer sure good buddy? Have Five Star got you tappity-tapping your keyboard in time with their futuristic rhythms? Or do you fancy a quicky knee-trembler with East 17? Or has Candi Staton got you all weepy as you recall the reunion of Carrie and Big, Oh My God like she SO deserved a little happiness in her life, and that Michael Barynshiwotsit was like SO OBVIOUSLY wrong for her? As “Dickie” from Big Brother 2006 might squeal: my box is all yours!

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sevens.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Eights.

It’s not every day that you pop out for lunch and bump into the Prime Minister – but that’s exactly what happened to me today, in my endlessly exciting little life. Well, maybe “exactly” is the wrong word, as Tony Blair (for it was he) was safely behind a fairly sizeable security cordon, as he stepped out of Nottingham’s Albert Hall (no relation) and into a big black car, before speeding off up the Derby Road – passing a titchy clump of protesters with just the one banner between them.

(“Shame On You!”, it screeched, in big black marker pen, but it failed to be any more specific than that. Well, there’s so much to choose from.)

Down at my end of the patch, there were just a few mildly curious sandwich-munchers from Cast Deli at the Nottingham Playhouse, plus a few of the Playhouse staff. “Alright Tone!”, bellowed one wag, just as Blair came into view.

(Apparently, the wag has a blog – but he was coyly refusing to divulge its URL to his friends. Blog anonymity, how quaint!)

Being one of the respected elders of my community, I refrained from such puerile attention-grabbing. Instead, I inched a teensy bit closer to the crash barrier, and called out to the Dear Leader in my most authoritative yet respectful tone.

“Mr. Blair: as a keen musician yourself, would you care to give us your opinion on Day Three of the Troubled Diva Which Decade Is Tops For Pops Project? I have a medley of today’s tracks right here…”

As the Prime Minister turned to greet me, his teeth bared in a manner that bore the closest approximation to “welcoming” that a decade and a half of on-the-job media training would allow, I stretched out my hand and offered him my iPod, already queued up at the relevant MP3.

Blair’s grasp of digital media technology was little short of masterful. Why, he knew which buttons to press, and everything! Who says that today’s politicians are out of touch? Six minutes later, he removed the headphones and passed the device back to me, quickly patting his hair back into position with his free hand.

“Thanks Mike, that was great stuff. You know, the robust good health of the British popular music industry is one of our greatest success stories as a nation, and I want to pay tribute to that, here today in Nottingham…”

Tony Blair’s votes are in the comments box. And now it’s your turn! Because that’s Democracy! So pray be upstanding for… the Number Eights.

1966: Keep On Running – Spencer Davis Group.
1976: Love Machine – The Miracles.
1986: Burning Heart – Survivor.
1996: Children – Robert Miles.
2006: Sugar We’re Goin’ Down – Fall Out Boy.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Picture this: North Nottinghamshire, August 1973. An 11 year old boy called Michael, and his 9 year old sister, are home for the holidays. It is the Golden Summer of Glam Rock. Slade, T.Rex, The Sweet, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Wizzard and Mott The Hoople reign supreme. The children’s father has enlisted a “home help” called Ruby, to assist around the house now that their mother has left to re-marry. (She walked out at the end of July, and the children are still raw and numb from the shock.)

Ruby is 24, and jolly, and good fun to have around. She is also well into her music – but lacks some of the children’s enthusiasm for all things glittery. “This stuff is all very well,” she smiles, “but you need to hear some proper music. Have you ever heard the Spencer Davis Group? No? Really? OK, I’ll bring something in with me tomorrow.”

The next day, Ruby places her 45rpm copy of “Keep On Running” on the family stereo system. “I used to love this when it came out”, she enthuses. “Isn’t it great?”

Being a well brought-up little boy, Michael manages a polite response – but inwardly, he isn’t too impressed. To his ears, there is something dour, lumpy and colourless about “Keep On Running”. Despite its driving dance beat, it all sounds a bit too earnest, a bit too blokey, a bit too lacking in fun.

Thirty-three years later, Michael does not see much reason to change his opinion.

Compare and contrast with the zing and verve of the only UK hit which The Miracles enjoyed after splitting with Smokey Robinson. I am particularly struck with the way that the group aren’t shy of connecting with their feminine side, with gleeful falsetto punchlines such as “…and my indicator starts to glow, WOO!” Camp as hell – but playfully so, and without that any of that tediously heavy-handed nudge-and-a-wink mugging to camera that has become so prevalent in more recent times.

(Here, I must put in a quick word for another mid-1970s Miracles track which I have only just discovered, on a fascinating compilation assembled by the writer Jon Savage called Queer Noises 1961-1978: from the Closet to the Charts. The track is called “Ain’t Nobody Straight In L.A.”, and contains such breezily delivered lines as “Homosexuality, it’s a part of society; I guess that they need some more variety; freedom of expression, is really, the thing!” What a markedly different approach from the US R&B stars of today. It’s not all been progress, you know.)

There will be no such dangerous “touching base with our feminine side” malarky for the resolutely macho Survivor, hoping to reprise the massive success of “Eye Of The Tiger” (the theme tune from Rocky III) with the similarly anthemic hair-metal bombast of “Burning Heart” (the theme tune from, erm, Rocky IV). This is the one where Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky comes up against the might of the Soviet Union’s champ fighter Ivan Drago, played by blonde lunkhead Dolph “Not My Type” Lundgren. Yes, it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for the final days of the Cold War – a fact which is suitably reinforced in Survivor’s lyrics, should we somehow have failed to get the point.

Back then, at the height of my impeccably right-on phase, I hated “Burning Heart”. Listening to it again now, I find it almost quaint – indeed, almost camp in its overblown ludicrousness. Now, there’s a thing.

I have nothing but fondness for “Children” by Robert Miles: Italy’s trance/techno answer to Richard Clayderman. Sure, it inspired a thousand and one deeply rubbish “ambient trance” monstrosities (ATB’s “9pm (Till I Come)” springs immediately to mind) – but this was genuinely ground-breaking stuff for its day. I love the atmosphere which the track conjures up: of sweaty ravers emerging into the misty dawn, and sharing a “spiritual” moment as the sun rises over the fields. Or something.

Which isn’t so far from the truth, actually. A story went round at the time that “Children” had been specifically composed in order to ease over-excited (cough) Italian clubbers “down” at the end of the night, so that they would then drive safely home. Indeed, it was reported that Miles was the recipient of dozens of tear-streaked letters from grateful Italian mothers, thanking him for saving their children’s lives with his unique and innovative style of melodic trance music. And you wonder who were the ones taking drugs?

And finally, Fall Out Boy give it some NME-approved, MySpace-friendly, generic indie welly, with a song that bore the rare distinction of steadily climbing the singles chart week on week, just like proper hit singles used to do in the Olden Days. I’ve slowly been warming to his, having managed to overcome my initial antipathy to their chosen genre. For if nothing else, “Sugar We’re Goin’ Down” has a good deal more youthful spirit, and many more twists, turns and general points of interest, than that stodgy old “classic track” from the Spencer Davis Group. So there.

Bonus points also for the couplet “I’ll be your number one with a bullet/A loaded God complex, cock it and pull it.” Because it sounds a bit rude. (Cock! Pull! Arf!)

My votes: Robert Miles – 5 points. The Miracles – 4 points. Fall Out Boy – 3 points. Spencer Davis Group – 2 points. Survivor – 1 point.

So. Will Spencer Davis get you stomping, or will the Miracles get you swishing? Will you be beating your chest with Survivor, or taking a well-earned rest with Robert Miles? Or are you a Young Person, who thinks that Fall Out Boy represent the total artistic pinnacle of fifty accumulated years of rock history?

Over to you. The comments box is now open.

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Eights.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Nines.

Before we start: two important reminders.

1. Voting will remain open for all songs until the end of the fortnight, i.e. just before the final totals are tallied. So if you’re late to the party, or if you miss a few days and need to play catch-up, then sweat not.

2. When casting your votes, do try not to be swayed by nostalgia for your youth, or by familiarity with some songs over others. We’re looking for a reasonable degree of objectivity here – after all, this is AN IMPORTANT SOCIO-CULTURAL SURVEY, the results of which might have IMPORTANT IMPLICATIONS for the advancement of HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Oh yes. And anyway, if everyone keeps automatically voting for the 1970s and 1980s, it just gets boring, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, let us crack on with… the Number Nines.

1966: Tomorrow – Sandie Shaw.
1976: We Do It – R & J Stone.
1986: Living In America – James Brown.
1996: Slight Return – The Bluetones.
2006: Say Say Say (Waiting 4 U) – Hi_Tack.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

And straight away, I’m having the same difficulties wih Sandie Shaw as I did yesterday with Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours. “Tomorrow” has many admirable qualities – but nevertheless, it remains low on impact. Or, as we IT types would have it: stickiness. Or, as common parlance would have it: it goes in one ear and out the other. During the preparatory stages of the “project”, I have played this many times over – and yet, I don’t think I have ever managed to sustain full concentration throughout. What emotion is Sandie trying to convey here?

OK, look, I’ll give it one more shot. Bear with me as I stick my headphones on.

Ah. Got it. This is all about the apprehension of a cheating girlfriend, preparing herself to break things off with her hapless cheatee. Which could make for a gripping mini-drama, but there’s a prosaic flatness to the verses which doesn’t quite come off, despite all of Sandie’s best efforts. Still, nice triplets and all that.

“Tomorrow” was also Sandie’s sixth Top Ten hit in less than 18 months. However, her initial flush of success was about to come to an end. Following a #14 position with her next single, and two consecutive #32s with the two after that, there was nothing for it but to take a deep breath, hold her nose, and submit herself to the indignities of “Puppet On A String” – which gave her a third Number One, but also finished her off as a credible hit-making artiste. Cast in this light, maybe the weaknesses of “Tomorrow” showed the writing on the wall.

Oh Lord. Now, what was I just saying about maintaining objectivity? Because in the case of R & J Stone‘s syrupy yet soulful love duet, which I hadn’t heard for the thick end of thirty years, all my objectivity goes flying out of the window. Why? Because the boy I loved at the time – madly, yet hopelessly – loved this song, and bought a copy, and played it during morning break times on the gramophone in our school common room, and so hearing this all over again brought back such strong memories of the sweet yet searing pain which I felt so keenly, because of course we never “did” it, because I never dared make my feelings known, and so the song both reflected and mocked my overblown romantic idealism, and…

…and exhale. Oh dear. The thing is: after all the obvious hits of the time have been exhumed and re-played and re-purchased and downloaded onto your iPod, thus draining them of most of their personal resonance, then all you have left are the minor hits – and so it’s often the musical also-rans of any era which end up sabotaging the emotions in this way. Except, this doesn’t sound to me like an also-ran. On the contrary, it’s quite swoonsomely lovely and stirring, and deserves to be listened to in full. (Unfortunately, and scandalously, it doesn’t appear to be available on CD.)

Oh, and one other thing: in its day, “We Do It” was thought to be really rather scandalous and risqué – presumably because a 1970s Britain which had been weaned on the light comedic smut of Benny Hill and the Carry On team couldn’t quite cope with the profound erotic resonances of the expression “do it”. (“Every night, every day, every possible way”… oo-er missus.) In fact, I even remember a hand-wringing think-piece in the Daily Mail, which claimed that the UK singles charts were sinking into a mire of filth, on account of this song, “Squeeze Box” by The Who, and Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”. Well, honestly. Such innocent times.

I dare say that James Brown‘s “Living In America” will pick up a fair few votes – but for me, it has always been a bit of a dud. Yes, of course his 1960s and especially early-to-mid 1970s work was classic classic classic all the way, and of course it was good to have him back after so long – but, if you’re going to try to re-create your classic funky sound, then why employ Dan “Instant Bloody Replay” Hartman to do it for you? It just all sounds so air-brushed, so ersatz, so hollow – so typically bloody mid-1980s, in fact. But played on the tinny laptop speakers last night, with the nasty hi-gloss sheen all but obliterated, I have to confess it sounded OK. Which will be why my partner K gave it 5 points, while I only gave it 2.

Eek, more instant nostalgia: it’s Britpop’s fabulous Bluetones, with easily their finest hour. OK, so it’s three parts Stone Roses to three parts Lloyd Cole, sprinkled with a little bit of Aztec Camera’s “Oblivious”, with weedy vocals and inconsequentially lumbering lyrics, and who remembers the band’s three other Top Ten hits nowadays (Cut Some Rug? Marblehead Johnson? Solomon Bites The Worm? No, thought not) – but come on, this was their moment in the sun, and despite all the above: IT WORKS.

About the only positive thing you can say about Hi_Tack is that at least they had the good grace to take the piss out of themselves – for high tack this most certainly is. A bog-standard Ministry Of Sound Dance Anthems Part 94 club-throb backing is pasted beneath some samples of an old Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson hit which was never much cop in the first place, all of which provokes the simple reaction: why did they bother?

(Answer: for the same reason that they colluded in similar pointless “desecrations” of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” and “Message In A Bottle” by The Police.)

Googling tells me that the chaps behind Hi_Tack were also responsible for one of my all-time most loathed dance tracks: “The Launch”, by DJ Jean. (Don’t remember it? Lucky old you.) And that concludes the case for the prosecution.

My votes: R & J Stone – 5 points. Bluetones – 4 points. Sandie Shaw – 3 points. James Brown – 2 points. Hi_Tack – 1 point.

So. Will Sandie stir you? Will R & J Stone make you swoon? Will the Godfather Of Soul make you get up offa that thang? Will The Bluetones get you misty-eyed for the days of TFI Friday and your local indie disco? Or will – heaven forfend – Hi-Tack make you wish it was Friday night down your local Ritzys?

Over to you. Favourites first, least favourites last, comments welcome, you know the drill.

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Nines.”

Stylus Singles Jukebox: Being Jacques Lu Cont.

In a week which sees the release of fantastic new singles by Madonna, The Knife and the Pet Shop Boys – all reviewed in this week’s Stylus Singles Jukebox – the singles assigned to me for review came from these (cough) Major Artists: Nadiya, Ne-Yo, Beatriz Luengo, Ze Pequino, The Similou… and, er, George Michael. Well, you can’t win them all.

For the sake of completeness – and because I abhor waste – here are the two reviews of mine which didn’t make it to the finished article. (They have to commission more than they need, so it’s an occupational hazard.) Particular apologies to George Michael: one doesn’t like to kick a man when he’s down, but a dud single is still a dud single.

Update (1): Ah well, at least my spoken word recital of the Ze Pequeno review made this week’s accompanying podcast for the Stylus Jukebox, along with my recital of the Similou review. Goodness, what a smug smart-ass I sound.

Ze Pequeno – Ze Phenomene.

Reggaeton en Français, somewhat inevitably rendered in a Manu Chao-esque style, avec accordion (naturellement). Probably huge in back-packer beach bars; markedly less essential anywhere else.
[5]

George Michael – An Easier Affair.

Nope: this one isn’t going to arrest the long slow artistic/commercial decline, either. Over the same tired old suburban-wine-bar soul/funk backing that he has been peddling ever since “Fast Love”, George recycles the same tired old post-coming-out “revelations” that have peppered his interviews since being busted for cottaging eight years ago. Whereas 1998’s “Outside” handled much the same issues with wit, aplomb, and a boldness which was genuinely ground-breaking for its time, “An Easier Affair” has nothing to say that we haven’t heard before, and says it with the sort of narrow, self-absorbed literalism that even Madonna at her most solipsistic manages to swerve clear of. Hell, some of this half-digested self-help piffle (“Don’t let them tell you who you are is not enough!”) would make even Geri Halliwell cringe. In the words of the wise old gay saying: get over yourself, Mary.
[4]

Update (2): Tell you what: here’s my spoken word recital of the George Michael review, which didn’t make the Stylus podcast.

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Tens.

Right then. I’ve been postponing this for long enough, so let’s lurch straight in with the minimum of preliminaries. Most of you will be familiar with the drill by now – but if you’ve not taken part in this exercise before, then skip down a couple of posts for a brief introduction. Everything else should become clear as the next couple of weeks roll on – but for now, all you really need to do is listen and vote.

First up, it’s the Number Tens. Have a listen to this eclectic bunch of more-or-less one hit wonders…

1966: Mirror Mirror – Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours.
1976: Dat – Pluto Shervington.
1986: The Captain Of Her Heart – Double.
1996: I Wanna Be A Hippy – Technohead.
2006: That’s My Goal – Shayne Ward.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Crikey. We’re not exactly rolling out the big guns on Day One, are we? So who the hell are this bunch of also-rans, anyway?

All I can tell you about Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours is that they hailed from Rugby, that they “pioneered the use of the amplified auto-harp” (thank you Google), and that they never troubled the UK Top 40 again after this, their debut release. (Although they did hit the US Top 5 three years later, under their new name of The Flying Machine, with a song called “Smile A Little Smile For Me”.) “Mirror Mirror” comes across as an orchestrated version of Merseybeat, two years after the fact; it’s that particular early Sixties pop voice which is the giveaway here. It’s a pretty enough tune, but I can’t say that it moves me particularly one way or the other – it’s just sort of there.

Ah, now… I know loads about Pluto Shervington‘s “Dat”, having bought it at the time and played it dozens of times. Sung in full-on Jamaican patois over what was by then a rather dated “rock steady” beat, it tells the story of “Rasta Ossie from up the street”, who decides to be a very naughty boy indeed, and purchase some pork from his local butcher. The consumption of pork being taboo for those of the Rastafarian faith, this has to be done on the hush-hush, by referring to the meat simply by the agreed code word “dat”. In the chorus, you get to hear the butcher running through the meats which he has for sale (“You want goat?” “Try the beef!”), as Ossie comes up for transparently feeble excuses for rejecting each of them (“I no check for the grass were green”), before concluding “Hush your mouth, mind me brethren hear, sell I a pound of dat thing there”. Yup, it’s a satirical depiction of the breaking of religious taboos, which hit the UK Top 10 without noticeably offending anybody. Impossible to imagine these days, isn’t it?

Just as Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours picked up the fag end of Merseybeat without doing anything particularly interesting with it (groundbreaking amplified auto-harps notwithstanding), so the Swiss duo Double (pronounced Doo-ble, like yer actual French) picked up the fag-end of early 1980s synth-pop, augmenting it with a typically mid-1980s sax solo. Although I’ve not looked at the video (CBATYT already!), I would wager an educated guess that it features a) someone with Big Hair and his jacket sleeves rolled up, staring through a gap in his Venetian blinds at the sunlight outside his darkened room, and b) a champagne flute being knocked off a lacquered black ash coffee table, and shattering in slow motion.

I can still remember the first time I ever heard Technohead‘s “I Wanna Be A Hippy”. It was over a year earlier, on New Year’s Day 1995 to be precise, on the dancefloor of the mega-hardcore gay club FF, in the middle of a particularly brutal and uncompromising set of banging techno from Mrs Wood. As you might imagine, its absurdly bonkers cheeriness stood out a mile, particularly as the track featured – oh horror of horrors! – a full vocal. (Down at FF, we simply didn’t do vocals.) If you had told me then that it would end up being covered by The Smurfs, who took the song back up to Number 4 in September 1996 as “I’ve Got A Little Puppy”, I wouldn’t have believed you. (On the other hand, I was probably in such a messed-up state that I would have believed anything. “Oh my God The Smurfs that’s AMAAAAZING I LOVE THEM…”)

Which just leaves British reality TV’s most recently anointed “star”, Shayne Ward, and the song that he was given to record as a reward for winning ITV’s The X-Factor. As with all of these events, the words have been deliberately crafted to describe the very act of winning the TV competition itself. Just as Will Young sang “Gonna take this moment and make it last forever” (which he sort-of did), and just as Michelle McManus sang “I’m praying this moment’s here to stay” (which it most certainly wasn’t), so sweet, obedient little Shayne faced his adoring viewing public, and began with the lines “You know where I’ve come from, you know my story, you know why I’m standing here tonight”. Shayne’s first single peaked at #1, his second at #2… and his third, just a couple of weeks ago, at #14. We do, indeed, know his story.

My votes: Pluto Shervington – 5 points. Technohead – 4 points. Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours – 3 points. Double – 2 points (because an amplified auto-harp narrowly trounces a naff sax solo). Shayne Ward – 1 point. My partner K’s votes are in the comments.

Over to you. In the comments, please place these five songs in order of preference, starting with your favourite and working your way down. Remember: you must vote for every song, and no tied places are allowed – so there will be none of this lazy “I hate them all equally!” nonsense. Because even shite comes in several shades.

I’ll be back tomorrow with the Number Nines. Have fun!

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Tens.”