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.

Running totals so far – Number 8s.
1966: Keep On Running – Spencer Davis Group. (136)

  • Trying to keep objective as requested, but this brings back memories of op art mini-dresses, black eyeliner and saturday night discos at St Mary’s Church Hall in Whitley Bay – ah heady days… (Tina)
  • a toe-tapping wedding reception classic (diamond geezer)
  • A decade ahead of it’s time. Compare the richness of the sound compared with the previous sixties tracks. (Chris Black)
  • Well it’s just a classic isn’t it, and Winwood had one of the best sets of vocal chords in the business. (Alan)
  • A classic song and for good reason – it’s anthemic…! I used to play my friend’s guitar at Uni. It had been his Dad’s and he claimed that his Dad had taught Spencer Davis to play guitar on that very instrument. It actually had a really beautiful tone. I like this song but it would never feature in my top 100 of all time! (Gert)
  • 5 points: because I must have grown to love this while in the womb. (Chig)
  • As it says in the title, so it manages in the song. (Adrian)
  • A bit sterile but I do still like it (probably best in little snatches like this though… there’s not really enough to keep on running through the whole song is there? (NiC)
  • Pretty simplistic but gets points for the intro, the rhythm, the bass and the hey hey heys. (Will)
  • Simplistic yet catchy. Sadly lacking hammond organ but not too shoddy. (Gordon)
  • Decent enough, if a bit stodgy (Ben)
  • Somebody strained a major muscle trying to get this clunker to move. (asta)
  • One of the creepiest songs ever. It’s not devotion, it’s stalking and threatening with menaces. It’s not entirely deluded, though, as the line “Everyone is laughing at me” illustrates. Brrr, nonetheless. (PB Curtis)

1976: Love Machine – The Miracles. (130)

  • Epitomises disco. So bad it’s gloriously good. And you ALL dance to it when it comes on. Don’t lie. (Gordon)
  • Unfortunately, I’m liable to break into a Young Generation-style dance routine if I hear this, even if I’m sober. (betty)
  • 5 points – for the lyrics, the oooo yeah and the falsettos. (asta)
  • even camper than the Wham! cover, were that possible (diamond geezer)
  • can’t keep the old feet still while that’s on (Tina)
  • that grrrowl at the beginning! (Lucie)
  • Glorious. It’s not something I’d listen to if I wasn’t in the mood for it. I mean, the Robert Miles song played and it *became* my mood – I’ll be downloading pop trance all day – but this, on any other day, might have irritated me. Today was a good day. (Koen)
  • Distinguished from blander tracks of the same type by some amusing vocal noises and a bit of innuendo. (Will)
  • After a poor start, it’s pulled me in. I thought it’d be tired disco, but it’s better than that.(Adrian)
  • Not a great song, but some superb innuendos that appeal to my British sense of humour. See for example: “My meter starts to rise”. I blame it all on ‘Allo, Allo’. (Ben)
  • Decent sound, but a bit vacuous. (Chris Black)
  • not quite miraculous enough for me. (NiC)
  • I really like this, but just a bit too camp. The Grrr at the start, great. The one in the middle, too much. The la-las at the end tipped the balance – the wrong way. (z)
  • When does it start? Nothing going for it whatsoever. (Gert)

1996: Children – Robert Miles. (120)

  • Trancy-dance from the height of my club-going. It is a classic isn’t it? (Adrian)
  • A standard “dancefloor classic”, and perfect for trancing away into the night. (Gordon)
  • one of a v. small number of ravey dance tunes I actually liked (Lucie)
  • Absolutely superb, ambient dance-floor music par excellence. (Alan)
  • it takes talent to make something so clever so simple (diamond geezer)
  • I hardly ever listen to trance. This I remember and still like. (asta)
  • I don’t think I even spent a thought on Robert Miles at the time, and only got into this type of music with the dodgy knock-offs (ATB’s 9PM (Till I Come) springs to mind haha:), but this is really rather beautiful. I think my sentimental phase is really finally upon me (turned 34 at the weekend). (Koen)
  • Pleasant enough stuff. Probably good to ski to. (Chris Black)
  • Never used to be that impressed by this, but I was listening to it on a compilation as we were driving back from the New Forest (well within the speed limit of course) and it sounded great. (betty)
  • That’s worn better than I might have expected. (NiC)
  • I’d always thought that Children was a play on the theme from X-Files. Is that not so? In any case, it conjures some horrible memories for me, as ’96 was my annus horribilis. (Joe.My.God.)
  • I totally see where everyone praising this song is coming from, now as well as in 96. However, to me it’s still a bit point- and soulless. (Simon C)
  • I recall hating this at the time although I’m not sure why now (connotations, perhaps) as it’s preferable to much of its contemporary trance. The tune’s OK but the beat and beepy sound effects detract from it. Catchy, but then so’s measles. (Will)
  • Atmospheric, yes, but I don’t think it’s stood the test of time. (z)
  • Never been much of a “proper” clubber at all, and this sort of piano-led trance has always left me completely cold. (Ben)
  • So people actually bought this? I was getting itchy wanting it to end. (Gert)
  • This is just Giorgio Moroder revisited. He wasn’t in. (PB Curtis)

2006: Sugar We’re Goin’ Down – Fall Out Boy. (88)

  • Introduced to me by our kids, the first almost decent band that’s come to me this way (I keep waiting for them to introduce me to the next big thing). (NiC)
  • would have come top had it been a Nine or Ten, but unfortunately it’s an Eight and the competition’s much steeper (diamond geezer)
  • I don’t think I’ve ever put a Noughties song so high, which is partly a comment on the crap below, but more a reflection that this is a throwback to an earlier era – my era. It’s actually not bad. (Gert)
  • The chorus lingers after the song is done, and that happens so rarely with these sorts of bands. (asta)
  • Named after the Simpsons character? Nothing special but the chorus is OK. (Will)
  • While it seems the UK is finally managing to squeeze out some decent indigenous hip-hop, US rock is still out in the wilderness without a compass. This is not too bad, I guess, but I prefer my traditional four-piece rock acts either with lots of finesse, or with masturbatory guitar solos. (Simon C)
  • Surprisingly enough, this is growing on me. He’s straining his voice though – take singing lessons, FOBoy. (z)
  • Now I’ve heard it, it sound familiar… my girlfriend loved it when it was out, although she could never remember who it was by or what it was called. (Adrian)
  • The voice isn’t easy to listen to, I wouldn’t bother to listen to it again. (Chris Black)
  • ohh slightly punky, slightly distorted, slightly “heard it before”. (Gordon)
  • Just can’t understand the appeal of this sort of thing, try as I might. Sorry. (betty)
  • The sort of song tailormade for skateboarding videos – ergo it’s bad. (Ben)
  • never impinged on my consciousness when it came out and didn’t when listening to it here (Lucie)
  • Yeah yeah whatever, snotty spotty kids. You sing worse than him out of Green Day. And at least they had decent melodies. (Koen)
  • A couple of days on, I have the Fall Out Boy song in my head… (Will)

1986: Burning Heart – Survivor. (51)

  • I had high hopes for this, probably because I remember it featuring in a guitar songbook I’ve got. It hasn’t aged too well has it? (Adrian)
  • I can just imagine the video with large chunks of landscape spontaneously combusting… (Tina)
  • Football clubs in the Austrian Premier League are required *by law* to play this during half-time, you know. (Koen)
  • so difficult to be objective when you remember the terrible video (Lucie)
  • Isn’t this exactly the same as ‘Eye Of The Tiger’? The intro is at least. (Ben)
  • Oh dear. “We had a Monster hit” with Eye of the Tiger so let’s re-do it but do it crap. (Gert)
  • I thought Eye of the Tiger was unbeatably awful until they put this out. (asta)
  • It’s not too bad for its genre, but it’s not a good genre. (Will)
  • At least it’s quite funny. (betty)
  • Made me laugh, quite a lot. Which is at least a response. I might want this played at my funeral now. Yes, I’m just being perverse, because most of these songs are rubbish. (PB Curtis)
  • I still remember the first time I saw Rocky IV – classmate’s 10th birthday, complete with hot dogs, oven chips and a rented video. It made a huge impression. To this day, the scene where Rocky runs away from his minders, ascends a snowy mountain and shouts “DRAGO! DRAAAAGO!” from the top, is the inner metaphor I use when preparing myself for major imminent challenges (PhD viva coming up, ho hum). That said, this song rings no bells at all, and I can see no reason why it should. No finesse, lacklustre guitar solo. (Simon C)
  • Possibly the most blatant copy of a band’s own previous hit I have ever heard. The philosophy here was presumably to make sure the production was identical whilst forgetting that songs also need a catchy tune/riff/something! (NiC)
  • A prime example of the worst kind of eighties big-hair euro-rock, it’s only redeeming feature is that it was this kind of pap that caused bands like the Pixies and Nirvana to come along to sweep it away hopefully forever. (Alan)
  • every battle-weary cliché assembled with talentless bravado (diamond geezer)
  • This is all that was bad about the 80’s. No, No, No ….. just NOOOOOOO! (Bryany)
  • Should they have released an double album called “29 Identical Hits”? (Chris Black)
  • I’d rather be castaway on a desert island than have to listen to this again. (Gordon)
  • If even I can recognise it as derivative, it’s scraping the barrel. (z)

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