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.

Running totals so far – Number 5s.
1976: Mamma Mia – Abba (144)

  • Absolutely chuffing marvellous, and light years beyond anything else here. At the risk of looking foolish, if there’s a better song featured in the remainder of WDITFP, then I’ll go out and buy a hat just so I can eat it. (Ben)
  • It had got 5 points before I’d even started listening, being probably the best song so far. There’s only one ABBA song of which I’m tired through overexposure and it’s not this (the track in question begins with a “D” and ends in “ancing Queen”). The most musical of the five, although McCartney’s chromatic scale is a challenger, with lovely guitar bits. Hurrah for ABBA. (Will)
  • I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be my favourite song of the entire fifty. Not my favourite Abba song, by a long chalk, but a second rate Abba song is so much better than much of the forgettable dross. (Gert)
  • F**k me those songs are still great. Genius, and I don’t use the word lightly. (Gordon)
  • Overfamiliar and yet sounds fresh and inspired and immediately had me sitting upright and shaking my head along. (Koen)
  • if you’re not singing along to this you’re probably not human (diamond geezer)
  • I’ve never been an ABBA fan but I have to admit that they did very polished and innovative material. I’m just a miserable bastard. (David)
  • Probably not even in the best twenty of their songs, but it still sounds great after God knows how many hearings. (betty)
  • A little bit, well, soul-less, but has longevity. (Chris Black)
  • Impeccably done, but not one of their best. (z)
  • I’ve just never understood what was so special about them, they always seemed like a very average pop band to me. (Alan)
  • Ordinarily, I would give Abba 1 point on principle, but they are lucky to be in some truly excruciating company. I have a Thing About Abba, you see, which boils down to my belief that terribly ordinary songs with clunky rhythms don’t deserve to be hailed as “classic”, just because they were tremendously popular at the time. At least this isn’t “Dancing Queen”, whose single virtue is the comedy value of people leaping up to the dancefloor at wedding receptions only to slowly and painfully realise that you can’t actually dance to it. (PB Curtis)

2006: All Time Love – Will Young (99)

  • No beats, no mix, no dance video, just an open heart. Lovely. (asta)
  • 5 points – a close call but his wholeheartedness won me over. (z)
  • Four points – Will Young – who I admire for taking the risky path of moving away from the safe pop music I’m sure was being pressed very heavily on him to do his own thing instead. If he achieves longevity, he deserves it. (Alan)
  • My theory is that Will Young made a bargain with Satan, which involves the swapping of talent, guile and good fortune with Mr. George Michael. This was one of those songs that stood out from the radio every time it came on. (PB Curtis)
  • Gentle ballad, nicely produced. Not too interesting but nothing to complain about. (Will)
  • Enjoyable. Well, agreeable. Well, … oh you English have too many adjectives for “quite nice”. (Koen)
  • I’m not all that keen on Will’s slower stuff but he does sound like he means this and as such I almost like it. (David)
  • Like the piano, but what a weedy tuneless voice. You could drive a coach and four through that wobble. Only gets to be third in preference to the dreadful Whitney and the waxwork Overlanders. But it is bad. Very bad. Who buys this crap? Pensioners, I assume. (Gert)
  • ask me again in 40 years, I might like it more then (diamond geezer)
  • The poor man’s Rufus. (Lucie)
  • A bit precious. (Chris Black)
  • Smarmy. (Simon C)

1986: How Will I Know – Whitney Houston (73)

  • I wish I wasn’t singing along to this, but I am. (diamond geezer)
  • Who’s Zoomin Who is better, but this is still good. (Adrian)
  • Ah, before she snorted all of that “tired and emotional” and when she was releasing fun songs. If you find this kind of thing fun, which I don’t really but there you go. (David)
  • She must listen to her good stuff like this, immobilised in her crack den, and weep for the days when she had a career, a voice and half a brain. (Chig)
  • I actually do like a lot of her early stuff but this one was just a bit too boppy and not enough substance for me. (Alan)
  • A second rate I Wanna Dance With Somebody. (betty)
  • Without Whitney Houston there would be no Mariah Carey, so that counts against her. But despite being a bit overblown this predates Whitney’s warbling so it’s not too bad. (Will)
  • Sounds like every other 80s diva-wannabee. Poor considering how good her voice is now. (Gordon)
  • Sounds almost like an ’80’s pastiche. Hilarious. (NiC)
  • What an ugly voice. Top notes sound like the noise a cow makes when defecating. Song utterly forgettable. Backing track irritating and tinny. (Gert)
  • I’ll know…… that I’m in hell, if hers is the only voice I can get on the radio. Her clip here lasted an eternity. (asta)
  • Instantly, I see her doing that Kevin Bacon “flashdance” jerky pointy-toed prancing, and I am bathed in the tepid waters of the 1980s once more. Brushing that off (with a sort of towelly brush thing, I suppose, if you’re antsy about metaphorical consistency), I then get annoyed by the poverty of the lyrics, which are repeated for no good reason. By the time I get to the fourth “How will I knooooooow?” my head is screaming in response “what do I caaaaaaare?” (PB Curtis)

1996: One Of Us – Joan Osborne (72)

  • I absolutely loved this song, it’s inventive imagery and the lyrical games it plays – and I never saw it as having anything to do with religion, it’s God as a metaphor not as a real entity. (Alan)
  • Definitely isn’t helped by being played on the laptop. I don’t think I have this in my collection but it’s one of those songs that sits in my head. Up against just about anything else it would be my top. Tune, indeed two tunes, beat, and although her voice is nothing special she knows her limitations and doesn’t pretend to give birth and shit melons at the same time. You get the feeling that she understands what she’s singing, which is by no means guaranteed. (Gert)
  • Twee lyrics, but I liked the laidback, feelgood vibe. (Gordon)
  • Flawed theologically, but haunting. But I doubt if I’d like it so much after 20 plays. (Chris Black)
  • unexpectedly deep, but never quite uplifting (diamond geezer)
  • mushy thinking, but it sticks. (asta)
  • Inescapable when it was a hit. One of those songs that made you groan inwardly when you heard it on the pub jukebox for the fifth time that night. (betty)
  • I thought by the nineties religious types had moved into more gender-inclusive pronouns? (Lucie)
  • I keep professing my love for nineties music so I assume songs like this are sent to test my faith. If God was one of us, I like to think he’d give ABBA top marks and relegate this simpering nonsense to one point too. (Will)
  • In my universe, the phrase “one of us” should only be uttered if you have been brainwashed and are in the company of hundreds of others in the same predicament. All in uniform, of course. (Simon C)
  • So, there I am, face to face with God, and for some After Dark Conversation reason that I can’t begin to fathom, I have just one question to ask him. I hum and haw about wasps, courgettes, the human capacity for brutality, the lack of divine intervention thereof, but eventually get into the facile spirit of things and ask “What was the point of that bleedin’ Joan Osborne song?” (PB Curtis)
  • What if God had a name? Like Jehovah (or even the non-Latinate version but y’know) or Elohim perhaps? Just go away and leave theology to the grown-ups. (David)
  • 1 point: because religious nonsense is unforgivable in ANY decade. (Chig)
  • Blood boilingly, skin crawlingly, hair pullingly AWFUL. (Koen)

1966: Michelle – The Overlanders (62)

  • 4 points. I know, I know, but I actually prefer this to the Beatles’ version, because I associate it with early childhood and yes, I can remember singing along to it. Probably not a very considered or serious attempt to analyse it, but … (betty)
  • Unless you’re going to mark down every artist who didn’t write their own songs, the only reason to take into account that this is a cover version is that we can see the song’s potential realised in a better performance. Nevertheless, it’s a good song underneath and a reasonable enough version to merit second place. (Will)
  • 3 points – as I don’t hesitate when punishing the 00’s for gratuitous recycling I couldn’t possibly put this higher, even though it is a wonderful song. (Simon C)
  • A bit pointless and I think my mum would like it which is obviously the kiss of death. (Alan)
  • Plinky-plonky – and just what is it all about? (Lucie)
  • Urggh, I stopped taking sugar in my tea a long time ago. (Stereoboard)
  • I have no hang ups about Beatles covers in general. But this one loses something in translation. The intimacy of the original. maybe? (jeff w)
  • Whilst the arrangement sounds more jarring which should make it better, the vocal is much more syrupy than the original, so, no, sorry guys no thanks. (NiC)
  • No no no. If you’re going to cover the Beatles, at least have the decency to bring something new to the table. (asta)
  • Far from being my fave Beatles song. I have never quite seen the point of covers which seek to ape the original but with a poorer quality of vocals. If this had been the Beatles I would have placed it higher but minus 1000 points for utter derivativeness. (Gert)
  • squeezed the jaunty smile out of McCartney’s tune (diamond geezer)
  • I’m not all that keen on the original so to be so dull as to do a carbon copy deserves nothing but scorn. (David)
  • Of all the Beatles songs to choose to cover, they went and picked one of the few real duds. The expression “you can’t polish a turd” springs to mind – and there’s not even the hint of an attempt to use some Mr Sheen here. (Ben)
Decade scores so far.
1 (1) The 1970s (20) — yet to place lower than third on any one day.
2 (2) The 1960s (17) — benefitting from late surges from Spencer Davis and Cilla Black.
3 (3=) The 1980s (16) — clinging on to third, thanks to the Madonna Effect.
4 (3=) The 1990s (5) — with two consecutive last places (East 17 & Mariah Carey), it’s not looking good.
5 (5) The 2000s (10) — only once (The Source/Candi Staton) have they placed higher than 4th out of 5.

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