Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 1s.

What a eventful Which Decade it has been thus far. As we enter the final round, all eyes are on the mid-table tussle between the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s. It already looks certain that our most recent two decades will, for the first time ever, not occupy the bottom two places – but more excitingly than that, there’s a very real chance that one of them might end up finishing in second place. Just how consensus-busting is that, pop-pickers?

Shall we crack on? Bring ’em out – it’s the Number Ones!

1967: This Is My Song – Petula Clark. (video, in French)
1977: When I Need You – Leo Sayer. (video, in a tree, with Muppets)
1987: I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) – George Michael & Aretha Franklin. (video)
1997: Discotheque – U2. (video)
2007: Grace Kelly – Mika. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

As with the Hump, so with Our Pet. Sitting at Number One in 1967, we find – possibly to our slight dismay, given the excitement of the lower positions – a second consecutive Forces Family Favourite, performed by that doyenne of the Light Programme, Miss Petula Clark.

To further underline its pre-rock-and-roll credentials, “This Is My Song” was composed by none other than Charlie Chaplin, who had originally envisaged it as the instrumental theme from his final movie, A Countess In Hong Kong. Having penned some English lyrics to sit over the top, Chaplin was all set to offer the song to Al Jolson, unaware that he had passed away 17 years earlier. Thus thwarted (and it allegedly took a photo of Jolson’s grave to convince him), the song was next offered to Chaplin’s neighbour in Switzerland, the aforementioned Miss Clark.

Never exactly thrilled with the English lyrics (and who could blame her, for with all its beatific talk of smiling flowers, one wonders whether Chaplin was conducting some era-appropriate psychedelic experiments of his own), Clark soon took to performing the song in French as much as possible – as evidenced by the video which I’ve linked to above. Meanwhile, a rival version by Harry Secombe entered the charts in March, overtaking Petula’s version a few weeks later, and eventually peaking at Number Two.

All of which is a lot more interesting than “This Is My Song” itself. Good grief, 1967. What were you thinking?

“Everybody loves Leo!” (Leo Sayer, 2007)

My Crypto-Maoist Year Zero Punk Rocker fifteen-year old self might have been wrong about “Daddy Cool” and “Boogie Nights”, but he’s not about to make any posthumous concessions to “When I Need You”. Boring then, boring now. Next!

Poor old Aretha Franklin. Having been roped in by Annie Lennox to add a bit of weight to “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”, she was now doing the same thing for George Michael: another early 1980s pop star who was busily trying to swap delusions of Style and Subversion for delusions of Authenicity, Passion and Commitment. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” is an OK enough tune, but it doesn’t half sag under the weight of its own “meeting of the giants” self-importance, what the Ross/Turner-invoking references to “rivers”, “mountains” and “valleys”. Don’t be blinded by nostalgia, Voters Of A Certain Age!

Let us now turn to the vexed question of U2: a band whose lumbering earnestness turned me right off in the 1980s, and whose equally lumbering attempts at corrective “irony” turned me off equally in the 1990s. (Although I will concede that the not-too-earnest, not-too-silly synthesis of their 2000s work really hasn’t been too bad at all.) Come on, now: “Discotheque” is basically a collection of admittedly quite groovy noises in search of a song, isn’t it? Well, can you remember how it goes? Thought not.

And so, finally to Mika: an act upon whom I have resisted Forming A Position for quite long enough. Having been perfectly vile about all of our other Number Ones, it would only be fair to be equally vile about “Grace Kelly”.

However, not only I am absolutely f**king desperate for the 2000s to come second, I am also quite fond of this arch little show-tune confection, which makes a pleasingly theatrical Grand Finale to this year’s offerings. It communicates little beyond “I Am The Fabulous Multi-Talented Mika, And You Must Love Me As Much As I Love Myself” – but in pop, we can allow that. For the course of a single, at least.

(As for the album, I’m with Pete: rarely has an act got on my tits as rapidly as this uppity charlatan. Oh wait, I forgot about Joanna Newsom.)

My votes: Mika – 5 points. George Michael & Aretha Franklin – 4 points. U2 – 3 points. Leo Sayer – 2 points. Petula Clark – 1 point.

This is it, then. The final vote. Unless late votes on the other rounds throw a spanner in the works – and they still quite easily might – the 1960s would appear to have it in the bag, although I’m forecasting last place for Pet. Meanwhile, the nostalgia factor might well give the 1980s a final shot in the arm. But whither the 2000s? Where do you stand on Mika? Or will you defend U2 against my heinous slurs? Or does everybody really love Leo? Over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 1s.”

Imminent ghettoisation alert.

After spending over five and a half years sitting at the same desk (no, let’s not even think about it), I am shortly to be moved to a new location in the same office. Nearer the entrance, nearer the reception, nearer the kitchen. You know, nearer the action. Dead hip spot to be in, probably.

This is to allow all the people who work for one particular client to be grouped at the far (unhip) end of the office, so that the rest of us don’t get to snoop at them when we walk past. It’s a client confidentiality thing. We’re thinking that maybe they could wear T-shirts with the client’s logo on the front, to remind the rest of us to bow our heads when passing them. That way, we’d minimise the risk of instigating any potentially compromising form of social contact – which could only lead to troublesome questions like “How are you”, “How’s it going”… and, fatally, “So, how’s work?”

Over in the Hip Zone, I’ll be sitting at a bank of six desks. One desk will remain unallocated. Two others have been assigned to co-workers who are on permanent secondment in other cities. Another belongs to a colleague who is on maternity leave for the next few months. (She’s just dropped. Congratulations, S!)

Which just leaves me and JP, The Pair Of Poofs, all alone in our own fabulous little ghetto. Talk about exclusive!

I’m seeing major accessorisation here. Kylie posters! A mirror ball! A dry ice machine! Multi-coloured rope lighting! A podium! A door-whore! (“Sorry love, but you just wouldn’t Fit In.“)

Ooh, ooh, and all the heterosexuals will have to run our Fashion Gauntlet, on the way to and from the kitchen.

“State of ‘er!”

“Is she wearing that for a BET?”

“LOVE the hair, LOSE the belt.”

F**k it. We’ve had nearly six years of assimilation. Time to unleash the stereotypes.

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 2s.

The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Monkees. Donovan. Cat Stevens. With that kind of line-up, is it any wonder that the 1960s have been steaming ahead?

With just two days to go, that might all be about to change. Without wishing to get all Gillian McKeith on you, shall we examine the Number Twos?

1967: Release Me – Engelbert Humperdinck.
1977: Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – Julie Covington.
1987: Down To Earth – Curiosity Killed The Cat. (video)
1997: Where Do You Go – No Mercy. (video)
2007: Ruby – Kaiser Chiefs. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

As played at the wedding of some dear friends of ours (anyone remember the story of Ron and Yvonne?), Engelbert Humperdinck‘s “Release Me” famously kept The Beatles off the Number One slot, in an act of pop injustice which rivals only the “Vienna”/”Shaddup You Face” debacle of 1981 and the Rod Stewart/Sex Pistols scandal of 1977 for the levels of froth-mouthed outrage which it has inspired. And as epoch-defining chart battles go, The Fabs versus The Hump in 67 easily tops the minor local skirmish that was Blur versus Oasis in 1995. (Hell, it even tops Girls Aloud versus One True Voice in 2002, and that’s really saying something.)

Epoch-defining? Hell, yeah. This was Hipsters versus Squares, long-haired layabouts versus Forces Family Favourites, the post-war “never had it so good” generation versus the pre-war “we didn’t fight the Battle of Britain for this” generation. And The Hump walked it.

Personally, I can’t listen to “Release Me” without experiencing certain olfactory side-effects: Mister Sheen on teak veneer, Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden, over-boiled cabbage, and the faintest top notes of stale urine. But maybe that’s just me.

Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s second contribution to this year’s Which Decade comes as a salutary reminder that occasionally – not often, but occasionally – he is capable of knocking out a bloody good tune, and “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” stands as his greatest achievement. Or does it? Perhaps the song’s greatness is more attributable to Tim Rice’s lyrics – sorry darlings, libretto – and most particularly, to Julie Covington‘s absolutely spot-on performance. She doesn’t overdo it, you see. There’s a controlled, un-showy integrity to it. She serves the song, not the other way round.

In my tortured teenage years, I managed to twist most song lyrics around so that they became All About Me And My Unique Unrequited Suffering, and “Argentina” was one of the prime examples. God knows how I did it. But, y’know, it still means a lot. Let’s not delve further.

Lloyd-Webber is not the only svengali figure from our Number Nines round to make a return in the Number Twos, either. Step forward Frank Farian: the man behind Boney M in the late 70s, Milli Vanilli in the late 80s… and in the late 90s, No Mercy, a Latino three-piece vocal group from Miami. “Where Do You Go” is unashamedly corny Europop, what with its Eurovision-esque Spanish guitars and its 1980s Italo-disco “woh-oh-ohs”, and I vaguely seem to remember being massively irritated by it at the time. Ten years on, and the kindly, forgiving Eurovision fan in me finds it perversely enjoyable.

Last time round, Frank from Germany whupped Our Andrew’s sorry ass. For this re-match, I’m confidently predicting that the tables will be turned.

During the latter part of 1985, Curiosity Killed The Cat had enjoyed a good deal of attention in the all-important “style press” of the day, leading eager style queenlets such as I to expect something rather special. Plus the band – with the possible exception of gangly lead singer Ben Vol-Au-Vent Poltroon – were droolsomely gorgeous looking in a clean-cut smoothie kind of way, which always helps.

You can therefore imagine my disappointment when “Down To Earth” was revealed as yet another drippy, ploppy, piddling little piece of clueless yuppie-pop nonsense, which communicates nothing but its own everything-just-SO self-satisfaction. “You’re shattered by the final frame of the movie scene that generates your every aim.” Whatever you say, Mister Vol-Au-Vent Poltroon.

And so to cheeky chappy Britpop revivalists the Kaiser Chiefs, serving up the sort of cheery knees-up that you could easily imagine as the opening performance on TFI Friday in 1997. “Ruby” isn’t really about anything much, other than a vague sense of emotional nothingness at the end of a seemingly insignificant relationship. It’s a kind of extended shrug; a “so that was that then, now I’m off out with the lads”. And that’s only if you listen closely – when actually, the track is nothing more or less than another sloshing-about-at-the-indie-disco party tune, to stick on the same playlist as “Same Jeans”. For some of you, that’s not nearly enough. For me, it’ll do nicely for now.

My votes: Julie Covington – 5 points. Kaiser Chiefs – 4 points. No Mercy – 3 points. Curiosity Killed The Cat – 2 points. Engelbert Humperdinck – 1 point.

Over to you. With three first places and one second place over the last four rounds, the 1960s are surging ahead – but will The Hump stop them in their tracks? The 2000s are still looking useful, and I’m expecting the Kaiser Chiefs to keep them well in the game. Having sagged badly in the middle rounds, the 1990s are staging a major comeback – but could La Covington lead a rear-guard action for the established order? And at this late stage, can anything to be done to save the 1980s? Mister Vol-Au-Vent Poltroon and your sorry Stu-Stu-Studio-Lined lackeys, you’re letting not just yourselves but your whole decade down.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 2s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 3s.

“Can I just say that one of the things I really like about this project is that over the years many people with considerably different tastes, backgrounds and influences have been reasonably candid about their views on these records and there has never been a mocking of people for holding those views, and certainly no personal attacks. It’s a model of how the personal internet should work.”

Hear hear, Gert. And if it’s a diverse range of opinions that you’re after, then look no further than the previous round, where it’s still neck and neck between The Tremeloes, Man 2 Man and En Vogue. Meanwhile, back at the Number Sixes, the Rolling Stones and Heatwave are also still slugging it out for pole position. I ask you: could it get more exciting? Could it? No, but could it though?

Time to chuck five more songs into our democratic melting pot. Hold onto your hats, it’s the the Number Threes!

1967: I’m A Believer – The Monkees. (video)
1977: Don’t Give Up On Us – David Soul. (video)
1987: Heartache – Pepsi & Shirlie. (video)
1997: Don’t Speak – No Doubt. (video)
2007: Starz In Their Eyes – Just Jack. (video; alternative X Factor spoof video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Proof positive, should any still be needed, that so-called “manufactured” pop can be as capable of transcendence as music made by any other means, The Monkees more or less defined the classic boyband template, setting the bar high as they did so. They also benefitted from working with some of the top songwriting talents of their day – such as Neil Diamond, who wrote “I’m A Believer”, and still includes it in his live show to this day. Flawless stuff, and so much a part of the iconography of pop that any fresh objective assessment is rendered almost impossible.

Like the Monkees, Dishy David Soul came to prominence as part of a hit TV show (Starsky and Hutch), and was therefore almost guaranteed to gain major-league exposure with his first single release, if only for the curiosity factor. With its winsome pleading for a second chance from his Lady Love, “Don’t Give Up On Us” plays perfectly to Dishy David’s adoring female fanbase – and its the underlying sincerity of his performance which rescues it from the slush bin. Plus there’s a strong tune and a deft arrangement, which always helps.

Pepsi & Shirlie‘s curiosity-factor fame-boost sprang from their roles as backing singers for Wham!, and it proved just about enough to sustain them through two Top Ten singles in early 1987 – despite “Heartache” earning a slagging from none other than Margaret Thatcher on BBC1’s Saturday morning children’s show Swap Shop. (“Very professional, the voices, yes, but where’s the heartache?”) The sub-“Billie Jean” rhythm and the horrid, horrid 1980s hi-gloss/hi-tack airbrush production job haven’t worn well, and the whole track feels lifeless and forced.

Making her second appearance in this year’s Which Decade, Gwen Stefani enjoyed prolonged success as the lead singer with No Doubt before going solo, and the adult-contemporary maturity of “Don’t Speak” stands in marked contrast to the dayglo juvenalia of her more recent work. Although the track isn’t for me stylistically, I’ll happily concede that as a break-up song, it strikes all the right chords. This stands as yet another example of how it’s often the unfashionable songs which endure the longest.

And so to Just Jack‘s utterly splendid “Starz In Their Eyes”, which – once you’ve got over the obvious comparisions with Mike Skinner of The Streets, which in my case took several weeks – delivers a timely and welcome broadside to talent-show-pop culture, with articulacy and wit. There’s something about the chugging funkiness of the chorus which reminds me of 2000-era disco-house cuts such as Spiller’s “Groovejet” and Modjo’s “Lady (Here Me Tonight)”, and there’s something about Just Jack’s vocal delivery, particularly in the “Dog and Duck karaoke machine” section, which sticks in the memory in the most deliciously compelling way. This is my favourite track in the 2007 Top Ten to date, by some distance.

My votes: Monkees – 5 points. Just Jack – 4 points. David Soul – 3 points. No Doubt – 2 points. Pepsi & Shirlie – 1 point.

OK, so the Monkees are almost certain to keep the 1960s ahead – but hey, just look at the plucky Noughties, snapping at their heels in joint second place. Will Just Jack spell further good news for our plucky underdog of a decade? Over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 3s.”

SwissToni’s Earworms.

I’ve been doing a spot of guest-blogging over at SwissToni’s Place, as part of his excellent “Earworms of the Week” series. The concept of the series isn’t necessarily to list your ten current favourite tracks; it’s more about listing the ten tracks which have been occupying the most space on your internal jukebox. It’s a subtle but significant difference…
Continue reading “SwissToni’s Earworms.”

Freelance Friday.

In order to introduce some semblance of consistency into this here rag-bag of a blog, I’m only going to post freelance pieces here on Fridays from now on – so you’ll get all the “pro” stuff in one dollop.

This week, we have:

1. An interview with the Living Goddess that is Joan Baez. The honour!

2. An interview with Jason Reece from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, whose Nottingham show I’ll be reviewing on Sunday night. When reading the piece, please try to imagine Jason’s heavy, deliberate, infinitely world-weary drawl, shot through with heavy irony. That one took all of my “rapport-forming” skills, I can tell you. But I made him laugh a couple of times, before he got bored towards the end, so that was cool.

3. A review of the X Factor live show, which ended up as half think-piece, half gig report. I basically hated the whole show, and returned home fuming, with hatchet freshly sharpened – and so the extended preamble is really just my way of calming myself down. This review – to my mild alarm, as it might well have made me The Most Hated Man In Nottingham in some quarters – also turned out to be my first cover story for the paper, in that it was plugged at the top of the front page, alongside a colour photo of Leona Lewis. “Read our verdict inside! Page 26!” Yeah, that’s right, spell it out for everybody…

Highlights from the show which didn’t make it to press included Chig texting one of the backing dancers during the interval – as he recognised two of them from last year’s Eurovision in Athens, where they performed as part of the Turkish entry. He is such a pop tart. I am in awe. The backing dancers were also doubling up as “backing singers” for the various X Factor “stars”. I think those quotation marks tell you all you need to know.

But the best moment? That was when we realised that some sharp wag at the Arena had decided to pipe Just Jack’s “Starz In Their Eyes” over the PA system during the interval. For those that don’t know it, it’s a blisteringly accurate demolition job on the whole “reality pop” phenomenon. Sheesh, talk about apposite.

4. A gig review of Duke Special, who I interviewed last week. A slight disappointment, given the expectations which he had set – but a decent little gig all the same.

There, that little lot should keep you busy. Happy reading, pop-pickers.

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 4s.

You know: for a while back there, I thought that we were going to get our second ever run of perfect 5s, to match Harold Melvin’s recent triumph. But no: for a couple of you renegades (and I name no names here), Mason & Princess Superstar’s chunky club track has the edge over The Beatles’ all time classic (© Mojo, Uncut, The Word, Rolling Stone, Dad Rock Monthly etc etc). Such heresies are what we live for, here at WDITFP.

As for today’s selection, things could get a little more unpredictable once again. At the time of writing, I have no idea which one of these five tunes is going to come out on top. Could we be looking at our closest photo-finish since the epic tussle – still going strong, incidentally – between The View and Depeche Mode, back in the Number 8s? Set your stop-watches: it’s the Number Fours.

1967: Here Comes My Baby – The Tremeloes. (video)
1977: Side Show – Barry Biggs.
1987: Male Stripper – Man 2 Man featuring Man Parrish. (video)
1997: Don’t Let Go (Love) – En Vogue. (video)
2007: This Ain’t A Scene It’s An Arms Race – Fall Out Boy. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Every year without fail, one or two hidden gems reveal themselves during the course of assembling the project – and here’s a case in point. Over the past few weeks, I’ve devloped quite an unseemly obsession with the first hit to be scored by The Tremeloes, following their split from front man Brian Poole. “Here Comes My Baby” has so many of the elements I love: it’s ridiculously catchy, with a spirited rhythmic thrust that puts me in mind of “If I Had A Hammer” by Trini Lopez – and to top it all, THERE ARE COWBELLS. I’m such a sucker for a good cowbell – in fact, it’s probably half the reason why I retain such a soft spot for Hi-NRG.

Despite all of its surface cheeriness, “Here Comes My Baby” sports a incongruously melancholic set of lyrics – thus pre-dating the collective oeuvre of Steps by over thirty years. Sticking with the love-lorn and the bereft, Barry Biggs‘ “Side Show” provides a neatly turned example of the time-honoured “sad showman mocked by the gaiety of the fairground” lyrical archetype. This time, however, both the jauntiness and the melancholy are reflected in the song’s light pop-reggae stylings. There’s a wonderfully haunting quality to the tune and the arrangement – plus a great el cheapo synth break further down the line, which somehow evokes the gaudy cheapness of the fun fair – and in other circumstances I would have had no hesitation in doling out the 5 points…

…except that, with Man 2 Man featuring Man Parrish on the agenda, no-one else was likely to get a look in. “Male Stripper” is the second late-period Hi-NRG hit in the 1987 Top 10 – and my my, it has lost none of its power over the years. In fact, I think it still makes me feel a little bit “funny” down there. Hey, I never said that my sexuality was sophisticated. Shall we move on?

Much as I enjoyed En Vogue‘s soulfully sassy early 1990s hits such as “Hold On” and “My Lovin'”, R&B and rock have never struck me as a particularly winning combination. Fine on their own – but stick ’em together, and they don’t half curdle in the churn. Throw in a dollop of Power Ballad, and the stench can become unbearable. Although I dare say it will find its supporters in the comments box, I find “Don’t Let Go (Love)” a deeply annoying piece of music, which is currently tying with Five Star as my Dud Of The Year. (Hey, at least Michael Crawford has some comedy value.)

And so to Fall Out Boy, who make their second consecutive appearance on Which Decade, following last year’s “Sugar We’re Goin Down”. (Oh, so they’re American, are they? Why did none of you correct me last year? I feel such a fool!) This is another case of a single which would normally fall into the Not My Sort Of Thing category, but for which I have developed a creeping fondness. I like the slight nods to pomp-rock, especially with some of the backing vocals – and as such, I guess that you can forge certain stylistic links between this song and the recent work of My Chemical Romance and Muse. (Er, can you? How the hell should I know; this falls so far outside of my generational demographic, that it’s almost embarrassing to be caught discussing it in public.)

My votes: Man 2 Man – 5 points. The Tremeloes – 4 points. Barry Biggs – 3 points. Fall Out Boy – 2 points. En Vogue – 1 point.

As I say, this one’s wide open. Will Man 2 Man give the lagging 1980s a much needed boost? Or Will The Tremeloes widen the 1960s’ lead even further? Over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 4s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 5s.

Well now, there’s a thing. At the time of writing, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes has scored a maximum 5 points from every single voter, making it the first single ever in the history of Which Decade to do so – and therefore, if you stick with my admittedly patchy logic, The Best Single Ever In The History Of Which Decade, If Not Of All Time.

But hark! And hist! What’s that coming over the hill? Could it be a victory to rival that of Harold Melvin? Only one way to find out: it’s the Number Fives.

1967: Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane – The Beatles. (video)
1977: Isn’t She Lovely – David Parton.
1987: Almaz – Randy Crawford.
1997: Clementine – Mark Owen. (video)
2007: Exceeder – Mason. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

As JonnyB rightly points out in the previous comments box, The Rolling Stones were actually in the Top Ten with a double A-side single, which combined “Let’s Spend The Night Together” with “Ruby Tuesday”. I’d feel guiltier about this oversight if the Stones weren’t already in the lead – but I’m certainly not about to make the same mistake with this double A-sider from The Beatles.

Despite breaking their four year run of consecutive Number Ones, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” is regarded by many – myself included – as the Best Beatles Single Ever, and regularly tops the sort of magazine polls to which men of my age and background are so irresistably drawn. I’ve written about it before, so shan’t bang on for too long – except to re-state that “Penny Lane” evokes memories of my 1960s childhood with an almost supernatural accuracy, and an almost overwhelming poignancy. Meanwhile “Strawberry Fields Forever” – Side One, Track One on the first album I ever bought – more or less invented the future. Not bad going for a pop single, is it?

Given Stevie Wonder’s refusal to release “Isn’t She Lovely” – already a major airplay hit – as a single from his massively successful Songs In The Key Of Life, it fell to some previously unheard-of (and never to be heard of again) jobber called David Parton to seize the commercial opportunity, and to milk it for all it was worth with this carbon-copy cover version. Since the song is dedicated to Wonder’s baby daughter Aisha – even mentioning her by name – Parton’s already shabby opportunism looks all the more artistically indefensible. Still, since carbon-copy cover albums (such as the perennial Top of the Pops series) were still selling well in the late 1970s, nobody outside of the music press and the Wonder fan club cared too much – indeed, Parton was widely hailed as nobly fulfilling a public demand, in the face of Wonder’s stubborn intransigence – and “Isn’t She Lovely” duly peaked at Number Four. God, but the Seventies could be such a shabby decade.

Randy Crawford, whose breezy, carefree, seemingly effortless vocals worked so well on The Crusaders’ “Street Life” in 1979, got bogged down during the 1980s with a right load of syrupy cabaret gloop, and “Almaz” is one of her very gloopiest. It’s a pleasant enough tune, and the essentially likeable Crawford does her best with it – but the song itself’s an utter dog, whose endurance – often as source material for TV talent shows – totally baffles me.

By early 1997, so-called “manufactured” pop was right at the bottom of the cycle of popularity, the rise of the Spice Girls notwithstanding. East 17’s final hit was on its way down the charts, Kylie had “gone indie”, and the former members of Take That were having to adapt to survive, with mixed fortunes. Gary Barlow was enjoying an immediate but short-lived flash of success as a pretender to the thrones of George Michael and Elton John; Robbie Williams was floundering and looking increasingly marginalised (this was still 10 months before “Angels” saved his career); but on the face of it, Little Marky Owen (The Cute One™) seemed to be re-inventing himself quite successfully as a more “mature” artiste, working with Radiohead producer John Leckie and replacing the cheesy grins with moody pouts.

I say “on the face of it”, because “Clementine” – like “Almaz” before it – is another array of pleasant noises thrown over another utter dog of a song (in this case, a remarkably depressive ode to a desperate single mother). Weirdly, it also sounds as if it could have fitted – stylistically at least – onto Take That’s all-conquering comeback album. However, when placed next to TT’s two current Top Twenty singles – “Patience” (justly voted Best British Single at last week’s Brits) and “Shine” (lead vocals by one Mark Owen), it stands revealed merely as an object of minor historical curiosity.

And so to Mason, whose club hit “Exceeder” has been re-worked as a mash-up with the vocal line from Princess Superstar’s “Perfect”. Or so I’ve read, at any rate; never having heard either of the originals, the combination of the two sounds perfectly natural to me – as if it was always meant to be. I like the chunky electro-house feel, and I like the way that the basic themes are subtly developed over the course of the track, and I particularly like the “whooshy” bits later on (they’re not on the MP3), which sound like something that the rather ace dance act Vitalic might have put out two or three years ago. Heavens to Betsy, a more-than-decent club track in the Top Ten, whoda thunk it? There is hope.

My votes: Beatles – 5 points. Mason – 4 points. Mark Owen – 3 points. Randy Crawford – 2 points. David Parton – 1 point.

OK, so the Beatles are a shoo-in for first place – but how are the rest of the votes going to pan out? As predicted, former leaders the 1990s have taken a nasty tumble, as the old order of the 1960s and 1970s re-establishes itself. Can Mason keep the 2000s in the running? Or will Randy Crawford lead a resurgence for the rapidly flagging 1980s? Over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 5s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 6s.

Ooh, but it’s getting close down there. At the time of writing, Depeche Mode have drawn level with The View in the battle of the Number Sevens, and Taffy is slugging it out with Apollo Four Forty for second place in the Number Tens. Which means that, yes, every vote does count, and can significantly affect the final result. So it’s never too late to get involved.

With that in mind, let’s check out the Number Sixes.

1967: Let’s Spend The Night Together – Rolling Stones. (video)
1977: Boogie Nights – Heatwave. (video)
1987: It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way – Blow Monkeys.
1997: I Shot The Sheriff – Warren G.
2007: How To Save A Life – The Fray. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

This is the third time that the Rolling Stones have represented the 1960s, having finished in first place on both previous occasions (“Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown” in 2006, and “Not Fade Away” in 2004). “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, while not perhaps quite the equal of its two predecessors (although its unambiguously libidinous intent highlights all the deficiencies of the Akon/Snoop effort in a most instructive and timely manner), has only one real rival in today’s selection…

Heatwave‘s “Boogie Nights” is the second single in our 1977 Top Ten to have lent its name to a 21st century nostalgia-based musical show. Like Boney M, Heatwave began their career in West Germany, before moving to the UK and teaming up with songwriter Rod Temperton (later to write “Rock With You” and “Thriller” for Michael Jackson) and producer Barry Blue (a minor star of the glam-rock period). “Boogie Nights” is a fine early representation of the sort of overground disco music that was to reach its commercial peak in 1978 and 1979 – although my aforementioned crypto-Maoist Year Zero punk rocker 15-year old self loathed everything which it stood for. That’s sexual repression for you.

(I also misheard the lyrics, for many years, as “one two three four dancing, three four dancing“, but that’s AM radio for you.)

The Blow Monkeys are a prime example of the sort of act which seemed cool in the obsessively style-conscious climes of 1987, but whose music has largely failed to stand the test of time. Although this was their biggest hit by some considerable distance, they had better material, such as the still-rather-nifty “Digging Your Scene” from 1986. They were also brave enough to commit commercial suicide just three months later, with a doomed piece of eve-of-General-Election Thatcher-bashing/wishful thinking called “Celebrate (The Day After You)”, featuring guest vocals from no less a figure than Curtis Mayfield, if you please. The band’s hit-making career never really recovered after that, and so it would be tempting to redress this historical injustice by awarding “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” oodles of points – but sadly, WDITFP doesn’t work like that. Harsh but fair; it has to be this way.

To endure one lazily rubbish rap remake of a pop classic in the space of a single Top Ten might be a misfortune; to endure two in a row smacks of carelessness. But then, there was a lot of it about in 1997; Notorious BIG’s “Mo Money More Problems”, which massacred Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out”, was a few months away from charting, as was Puff Daddy’s deeply yucky mega-smash “I’ll Be Missing You”. The self-styled “G-funk” artist Warren G had promised so much in 1994, with the sublime “Regulate” – but by 1997 his artistic stock was much diminished. Not that the singles-buying public (puh, them) cared, as “I Shot The Sheriff” duly followed his late 1996 assault on “What’s Love Got To Do With It” into the Top Ten. Tellingly, Youtube doesn’t have a video for this one, either.

And so to The Fray, who would appear to be a US take on the likes of Coldplay, Snow Patrol, and most especially Keane. “How To Save A Life” has all the earnest, preachy, mid-paced ponderousness of the above three acts, and positively drips with the sort of unfocussed “meaningfulness” which can so frequently drive me to distraction – and yet, a dozen or so listens down the line, I have formed a kind of grudging accommodation with it. If preachy ponderousness is the lingua franca of the day, then at least The Fray execute it with a tolerably acceptable efficiency. It’s not for me, but I don’t particularly begrudge its existence.

My votes: Heatwave – 5 points. Rolling Stones – 4 points. The Fray – 3 points. Blow Monkeys – 2 points. Warren G – 1 point.

Over to you. The 1990s are holding onto their lead, but I fear that the combined weight of LL Cool J and Warren G are about to change all of that. Meanwhile, the 1980s are trailing badly, with two last places (Michael Crawford and Five Star) in four days. Today has to be a good one for the 1960s and the 1970s, doesn’t it? Could Heatwave be about to nudge the 1970s ahead? It’s all up to you…
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 6s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 7s.

Wow. What an unexpected and wonderful birthday present (yes, it’s today; no, that’s fine, you couldn’t be expected to remember) the Which Decade project has seen fit to bestow on me.

Five years, 44 rounds of voting and scoring… and yea, on the 44th day, something rather marvellous has happened.

At the time of writing, the votes for this year’s Number 8s are stacked up in exact chronological order. Sure, this has happened several times before; but always with the 1960s in first place and the 2000s in last. However, for the first time ever in the history of Which Decade Is Tops For Pops, the 2000s have the leading song (The View’s “Same Jeans”), and the 1960s have the losing song (The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron”).

Many congratulations to The View for salvaging the reputation of this most beleaguered of decades; you must be feeling very proud of yourselves right now.

To underline the magnitude of their victory: “Same Jeans” is the first winning song from the 2000s since The Source’s “You Got The Love”, on Day 4 of last year’s contest. However, since “You Got The Love” was essentially a microscopic re-twiddle of a 1990s backing track and a 1980s vocal, which would have been excluded under this years rules, we have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a previous victor from the 2000s: Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. Thus it is that “Same Jeans” breaks a drought which has lasted for no less than twenty-three rounds of voting.

Welcome back to the game, Noughties. Now, let’s see whether you can capitalise on your renewed success, as we get our critical teeth stuck into the Number Sevens.

1967: Peek-A-Boo – New Vaudeville Band. (video)
1977: Don’t Leave Me This Way – Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes.
1987: Stay Out Of My Life – Five Star. (video)
1997: Ain’t Nobody – LL Cool J.
2007: Too Little Too Late – Jojo. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

My my, but wasn’t February 1967 an uncommonly whimsical time for chart pop? Following Donovan’s surrealist strut and the Royal Guardsmen’s ever-so-slightly-sweary beagle-based novelty, the New Vaudeville Band, with their exaggerated plummy accents (shades of Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy?) and their nostalgic 1920s tea-dance stylings, come across like a somewhat sanitised Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – as the above video link will confirm. (It’s worth watching just for the introduction from the bosomy old broad in bottle-green, and for the performance of their US Number One hit “Winchester Cathedral” which follows.)

“Peek-A-Boo” was the work of the songwriter Geoff Stephens, who also penned pop hits such as “The Crying Game” (Dave Berry), “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr.James” (Manfred Mann), “Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha” (Cliff Richard, pre-empting gender-bending by over a decade) and the mighty “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” (Mary Hopkin). It’s a cute but slight affair, whose initial charm wears off fairly swiftly.

There were, of course, two competing versions of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” in the Top 20 of February 1977, nine years before the Communards took the song to Number One. Thelma Houston’s fine rendition peaked at Number 13, but this superior version (originally recorded in 1975) by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes – featuring Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals, and best heard in its dizzying, ever-intensifying, seemingly endless full length version – made it as far as Number 5. (In the US, where Thelma’s cover of the Bluenotes’ original reached Number One on the pop charts, the fortunes were reversed.) Thirty years on, and despite saturation exposure to the Communards version in the 1980s, the song has lost none of its power, and I’m banking on a solid stream of first placings.

Five Star‘s ghastly “System Addict” was at Number Seven in last year’s snapshot of the 1980s, and it is our unique misfortune to have them back at Number Seven this year, with the even more forgettable “Stay Out Of My Life”. To all of you who are about to lose just over a minute of your lives to its anaemic, cloying, personality-free wretchedness: be at least grateful that you didn’t have to spend 79p on its acquisition (and, yes, I resent every last penny).

“I Can’t Live Without My Radio”, “Rock The Bells”, “I’m Bad”… yes, in his early days on Def Jam records in the 1980s, LL Cool J produced some of the most compelling and ground-breaking hip hop cuts of all time. And then he recorded a rubbishly piece of slush called “I Need Love” (or “I Need A Hit”, as we all called it), hit the charts, and generally went a bit rubbish. Successful, but still a bit rubbish.

LL’s utterly pointless version of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s classic “Ain’t Nobody” was taken from the soundtrack of Beavis & Butthead Do America, and the single came packed with a picture of Beavis & Butthead on its front cover. At the time, it felt like a new benchmark of marketing over content – and it also felt like the most insignificant Number One in British chart history. (Go on, I bet you had forgotten all about it. YouTube doesn’t even have a video.) The slow devaluation of the Top 40 was just beginning, and “Ain’t Nobody” was at the vanguard.

All of which leaves Jojo‘s rather effective little lament to a love affair turned sour, which has been hanging around inside the 2007 Top Ten for several weeks now. Yes, “Too Little Too Late” is part of the new breed of real hits, which are hanging around because people actually like them, and are getting the chance to know them before they disappear from sight.

I like to think of “Too Little Too Late” as a necessary corrective to Akon & Snoop’s witless slobberings of a few days ago. Jojo’s image is that of a comparatively ordinary girl-next-door, and the plight which she describes is an easily identifiable one. Unfortunately, this is badly undercut by the auto-tuning software, which makes her sound like a whiney robot – but not even that can altogether prevent little glimpses of true emotion from poking through the sheen. I particularly like the wordless wailing at the end of the track (not featured on the MP3 medley), in which Jojo is either celebrating her new freedom, or exorcising her pain – but most likely a mixture of both.

My votes: Harold Melvin – 5 points. Jojo – 4 points. New Vaudeville Band – 3 points. LL Cool J – 2 points. Five Star – 1 point.

Over to you. After three days of voting, the 1990s are our clear leaders – blimey, whoda thunk it, there is hope, etc etc – with the gap between the other four decades still too close to call. Why, even the 2000s are still in the running. There’s everything to play for here, in what could be our most open competition to date.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 7s.”

When Mike met Duke, and other stories.

dukspelMy interview with the Irish singer-songwriter Duke Special can be found in the EG supplement of today’s Nottingham Evening Post, and also on the paper’s website. To my surprise and delight – as I was expecting some fairly savage cuts – the full 1200 word feature has been published exactly as I wrote it. This makes me very happy, as it’s my favourite piece of work for the Post to date, by some distance. Even if you’re not that interested in the man himself, he has some interesting observations to make on the songwriting process, and on the extent to which personal experience can be spun into fiction without compromising its essential truthfulness.

Meanwhile, a few pages further on in the same supplement, a Q&A session with X Factor finalist Ray “Snappy Fingers” Quinn makes my recent interview with Shayne Ward look positively Socratic by comparison.

(Incidentally, for all you Shayne fans out there: here’s Chig’s review of his Tuesday night show at Nottingham Arena, as composed on the PC in our study, while the rest of us all sat around and chatted. I couldn’t have coped with the distraction, being far too much of an “I need space!” prima donna, but Chig didn’t have a problem with it at all. The man is such a professional.)

And finally, on a completely unrelated note, here are a couple of choice links from the past week’s browsing.

1. Adrian Sevitz: Unemployed, Single and Ill. A remarkable piece of home video, made using stop motion photography over the course of several days, with a well-chosen soundtrack.

2. For his regular “Open Thread Thursday” spot, Joe. My. God. asked his predominantly gay male readers: What was your worst sex ever? The many, many answers which follow make for fascinating reading, in all sorts of ways – but be warned, and I cannot stress this too strongly – the content is very, VERY explicit, and absolutely NOT for the squeamish.

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 8s.

OK, time to face facts. No longer quite the carefree little thing that I was in previous years, my ongoing “professional” duties – plus a fatal weakness for, you know, actually enjoying the occasional night in front of telly with a fine wine and my man by my side – do rather stand in the way of being able to maintain a daily service.

On the other hand, it does give all of you busy little blog-hoppers and feed-snappers a bit of breathing space, and more time to form thoughtful evaluations of the material on offer.

But here I am, and here we are, and here they are: the Number Eights.

1967: Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron – Royal Guardsmen. (video)
1977: Jack In the Box – Moments.
1987: Running In The Family – Level 42. (video)
1997: Barrel Of A Gun – Depeche Mode. (video)
2007: Same Jeans – The View. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

With the memory of Snoop “Doggy” Dogg’s unseemly slavering still fresh in our minds, let us now turn to his predecessor in title, as immortalised by the Royal Guardsmen‘s dodgy stab at World War Humour. Dozens of dead soldiers! Ho ho ho!

As an eleven-year old fan of the Trojan Records sound, and a Peanuts afficionado to boot, I was mightily fond of the 1973 pop-reggae re-working of “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” by the Hotshots, which blared out of my newly acquired Bush monaural gramophone with the smoked perspex lid, all the way through the High Summer of Glam. Some of our childhood enthusiasms stay with us through to adulthood, while others are gladly cast aside – and this song, in any version, shall forever reside in my mental Clearance Bin.

Like Whizzer & Chips, The Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, and Alfreton & Mansfield Parkway, The Moments shall be forever linked with their musical other halves, The Whatnauts. Sans Whatnauts, The Moments merely feel like half the deal – and sans any genuine disco-funkiness, or even a halfway decent song, the sickly, cloying “Jack In The Box” merely feels like bargain basement fodder for the Port and Lemon set.

It’s at times like these that I reconnect with my inner adolescent crypto-Maoist year-zero scorched-earth Punk Rocker. Production line garbage for the brainwashed masses! With my Slaughter & the Dogs and Eater singles, I shall obliterate you all!

None of which can adequately prepare me for the creeping realisation that “Running In The Family”, by the hitherto irredeemable Level 42, is – whisper it if I dare – actually quite good. There, I’ve said it. Back in 1987, when I was in thrall to more received notions of “cool” than were good for me (for what is a man, if he cannot be judged by the cut of his 501’s and the badges on his black MA1 flying jacket?), I wouldn’t have given this track house room. Looking back, it’s so bizarre…

By 1997, former electro-pop pretty boys Depeche Mode had reached the height of their gnarly, “industrial”, wannabe-Nine-Inch-Nails phase, and Dave Gahan had just begun to emerge from his own private Skaghead Hell of self-destruction. Produced by Tim “Bomb The Bass” Simenon, “Barrel of a Gun” is a harrowingly accurate reflection of his turmoil. I’ve never formed much of an emotional connection with the work of Depeche Mode – a band whose continued international mega-success has always bemused me – but this song comes pretty close to convincing me otherwise.

“Hang on, Mike: what’s this cover of “Brimful of Asha” by The Proclaimers doing in the 2007 chart?” Oh, I will have my little joke, even if it’s scarcely an original one. The Lurching Around At The Friday Night Indie Disco With A Pint Of Cooking Lager Aesthetic gets far too short a shrift in some purse-lipped quarters, and I happen to find it a perfectly acceptable aesthetic – which means that, bless my soul, The View have turned in my favourite track of the bunch. Oh, come on. It’s FUN. You remember FUN, dontcha?

My votes: The View – 5 points. Depeche Mode – 4 points. Level 42 – 3 points. Moments – 2 points. Royal Guardsmen – 1 point.

Over to you. Cartoon capers, plastic disco, yuppie funk, f**ked-up self-loathing, or Sheer Youthful Exuberance From Some Promising Youngsters Who May Go Far? The choice is yours!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 8s.”

Strategies for coping with Bob Dylan: an open reply to Lucy Pepper.

Over at Blogzira, Lucy Pepper – the prodigiously gifted donor of my disco-dancing topless avatar – has publicly requested my help regarding a rather nasty outbreak of Dylan Worship on the part of her Life Partner.

I am in need of your esteemed muso-help, as I can’t think of anything musically clever to say to him to make him shut up once and for all and keep the Dylan to himself, like a dirty little secret.

Dear Lucy,

Alas, I fear that Dylan-itis is a largely uncurable disease. “Bob-heads”, as they like to call themselves (I know) are an uncommonly intractable bunch, and most provocation will only inflame the condition.

(It’s a Martyrdom Complex thing. To paraphrase Neil Innes: Bob has suffered for his art, and now it’s your turn.)

However, maybe there are ways of reducing the symptoms. So why not try some of these for size?

1. The “Clay Feet” approach.

Does your Life Partner know that His Perpetual Right On-ness has licensed one of his wretched CDs for exclusive distribution by the Great Satan that is Starbucks? Or that he has appeared in an advert for a tatty bra-n-knickers emporium called Victoria’s Secret? Tell him, Lucy! Tell him!

2. The “Fighting Fire With Fire” approach.

Load up your music player with some of Bob’s, um, less seminal works, crank up the volume, set to repeat, and prepare to cut a deal.

Here are my top tips for maximum damage.

a) Any live recording from the past two or three years, which reveal the great man’s vocal range – never that impressive in the first place – to have shrunk to about three notes. Until you have heard the once-passable “Like A Rolling Stone” re-worked as experimental plainsong, you haven’t truly suffered.

b) Selected works from his “Born Again Christian” phase of the late 1970s – in particular, the execrable “Man Gave Names To All The Animals“, which includes this deathless couplet:

He wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big.
“Ah, think I’ll call it a pig.”

3. The “Mike Yarwood” approach.

Buy a cheap mouth organ (don’t worry, you won’t need lessons), smoke 40 consecutive Marlboro Reds, mix yourself a nifty paint-stripper ‘n thumb-tacks mouthwash, and treat him to a Zimmerman-esque rendition of these deliciously appropriate Baby Boomer Busting lyrics, from the pen of The Overnight Editor. Now, that’s Social Commentary! A few repetitions, and he’ll be jibbering putty in your hands.

We shall overcome!

Yours in solidarity,
Mike xxx

Supplementary material: This week’s “In The Dock” debate over at The Art Of Noise, and a live review cum hatchet job of mine own.

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 9s.

At this early juncture, I should explain something about the thorny matter of re-releases. In past years, I have sometimes included them (Elvis Presley’s “Wooden Heart”), and sometimes excluded them (Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round”). This year, I’m definitely excluding them – and here’s my reasoning.

The objective of this little stunt is to compare the music that was actually made in each decade. Therefore, older records which happened to find popularity in a different decade – most usually because of successful marketing – would only skew the sample. Exceptions can be made for remixes which noticeably change the original, and for re-releases that still belong to the same decade.

This year, three singles fall foul of the re-release rule: Elvis Presley’s “Suspicion” (a 1962 recording which hit the charts in 1977), and two hits from 1987: Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”, which were both used in massively popular (and deliciously homo-erotic) TV advertisments for Levi’s Jeans. To fill the gaps, I’ve added Number 11 and Number 12 hits to the bottom of the lists, and shuffled everything up accordingly.

Now that we’re all singing from the same revisionist hymn sheet, let’s crack on with the Number Nines.

1967: Matthew And Son – Cat Stevens.
1977: Daddy Cool – Boney M. (video)
1987: The Music Of The Night – Michael Crawford. (video)
1997: Remember Me – Blue Boy. (video)
2007: I Wanna Love You – Akon featuring Snoop Dogg. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Ah, but didn’t The Artist Subsequently Known As Yusuf Islam have some great moments, before he went all soppy and sappy in the early 1970s? Boasting some terrific orchestration, “Matthew And Son” is a fine piece of slightly Kinks-esque social observation, which bemoans the plight of the Oppressed Worker and delivers a sophisticated pop take on the emergent genre of the “protest” song.

From deep and meaningful to shallow and meaningless, but in the best possible way: Boney M were rarely less than preposterous, and rarely more fun than on this, their debut hit. So good that they based a musical around it, “Daddy Cool” is production-line German disco from that eternal pop tart, Frank Farian (of whom more in a few days’ time) – and as such, it sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from Giorgio Moroder’s increasingly ground-breaking work with Donna Summer. “Daddy Cool” may be no “I Feel Love” – but at eight out of ten wedding discos, it’s the one which is more likely to get me wiggling my pin-striped booty with the bridesmaids.

Ooh Betty, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s done a whoopsie all over the Top Ten! From the musical Phantom of the Opera, Michael Crawford buries the memory of Frank Spencer with… with…

…no, sorry. We all have our blind spots, and this brand of over-egged, pseudo-operatic Musical Theatre is one of mine. Please don’t make me think about it any more than I have already had to.

Featuring vocal samples from Marlena Shaw’s superb “Woman of the Ghetto”, Blue Boy‘s “Remember Me” was one of those crossover club hits that just about everybody loved at the time. Perhaps it got a little over-played, and perhaps it needs laying aside for a few more years before we can all start loving it anew – for such is the fate of the “used groove” – but you can’t argue with class like this, can you?

I’ve tried to do my best by Akon & Snoop Dogg, even beefing their track up with a running beat-mix from “Remember Me”, but I can already hear the howls of outrage building up in my embryonic comments box. Although bearing the DJ-friendly title “I Wanna Love You”, the word “love” is mysteriously absent from the track itself – and there are no prizes for guessing which four-letter word takes its place, either.

A couple of years ago, I penned a fairly detailed defence of the use of the f-word in Eamon’s huge hit, “F**k It (I Don’t Want You Back)” – and I’d stand by that defence today. With Akon & Snoop’s “I Wanna F**k You” – a straightforward ode of dribbling lust towards a pole dancer – the issues are somewhat different. There’s no subtlety here. No subversion of the apparent meaning. Not even any redeeming wit. They want to f**k her. End of.

So in that case, why do I find myself becoming increasingly obsessed with this song, which I must have played half a dozen times in the past 24 hours? Maybe it’s because I’m trying to absorb the shock – because, yes, having a song like this in the Top Ten does shock me. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to work out, from a generational distance of at least twenty years if not thirty years, how this song is being consumed by its target audience. Do they find it funny, or horny, or thrillingly transgressive (I’ll bet this is huge with 13-year old boys), or are they even listening that closely in the first place?

Although this country doesn’t boast much in the way of a pole-dancing culture, it’s a safe bet that “I Wanna F**k You” will be blaring out thrice nightly, in every titty-bar from New York to L.A. Well, of course it would, as it handily perpetuates the fantasy that the dancers are gagging for it, and that the punters have some sort of legitmate claim over them.

On the other hand, perhaps people aren’t as dumb as I’m making out. Of course this track perpetuates an erotic fantasy. That’s the whole point. It’s a fantasy – and as such, does its existence necessarily have to be a harmful one?

But then again: is it just me, or isn’t there something bleak, desolate and almost mournful about the atmosphere on this track? Doesn’t it exude some kind of languid, disconnected loneliness, which intensifies with each repeated listen, to the point where the tune becomes perversely enjoyable?

Or maybe I’m over-analysing, and it’s just a pile of lazy, offensive crap (and also Akon’s second consecutive appearance in the 2007 Top 10, but I can’t think of anything remotely interesting to say about that). We shall see, soon enough.

My votes: Cat Stevens – 5 points. Blue Boy – 4 points. Boney M – 3 points. Akon & Snoop Dogg – 2 points. Michael Crawford – 1 point.

Over to you. Votes in the comments box, please. I’m predicting an early lead for the 1960s, but what do I know?
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 9s.”

Ah, the sweet smell of desperation…


Do you fancy a hot date this Valentine’s Day? Well spend the big day with your loved one and Tuesday 13th February with Shayne Ward.

If you’ve not got your tickets yet there’s still chance to spend a night with last year’s X Factor winner at Nottingham Arena.

Hmm. Perhaps that “major arena” tour was a little over-optimistic after all?

Having turned down the chance to review Shayne’s Nottingham show this evening (the interview was quite enough, and we’ve decided to see Dreamgirls instead; even more Gay Points), I have instead sub-contracted the assignment to Chig, who will be hot-footing it over from Birmingham this evening, notebook and pencil in hand. (The relief from my editor was palpable.)

As usual, K and I won’t be celebrating Valentine’s Day, because a) we don’t do slushy, b) it only distracts attention from my birthday on the 17th, and c) it’s a bag of bollocks, as this lethally accurate post from last week’s Post of the Week shortlist illustrates.

Alternatively, maybe I’ll send him one of Meg’s Anti-Valentine cards instead. It wouldn’t be the first time…

While we’re on the subject of Post of the Week: although the project is going every bit as well as I had hoped, we could still do with a few more volunteers. To this end, we have introduced a new category of volunteer: the Permanent Judge.

The duties of a Permanent Judge are dead simple, and not in the least bit time-consuming. Once every four to six weeks, you’ll be asked to read the shortlist – which contains between six and twelve of the week’s best posts – and to e-mail the names of your favourite five posts, in order of preference. You’ll have from Saturday lunchtimes to Sunday nights to do this. I can’t imagine it taking any longer than 30 minutes at most, and you’ll get to read some damn good stuff into the bargain.

If you’re interested, then please e-mail me.

What do you think of Post of the Week, anyway? I’d be interested to hear your opinions, criticisms, suggestions, whatever…

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 10s.

Oh, is it that time of the year again? Why, I do declare it is! Let joy be unbounded, as we gird our loins for Year Five of our seven year quest: Which Decade Is Tops For Pops?

Before we start, here’s a brief introduction for newcomers. Over the next couple of weeks, we shall be examining the Top Ten best-selling UK singles from this week (my birthday week, as it happens) in 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997 and 2007. Today, we shall be looking at the five singles at Number 10; tomorrow, we look at the Number 9s… and so on until we reach the Number 1s, at the end of next week.

On each day, I shall be publishing a short medley of the five songs under examination. Your job is to listen to the medley, to arrange the five songs in descending order of merit, and to leave your vote in the comments box.

I’ll be totting up the points for each day, and adding them all together, using a simple scoring method which is frankly too tedious to bother you with at this early stage. You’ll soon pick things up as you go along.

Suffice it to say that at the end of the ten days, one of our decades – the Slinky Sixties, the Sexy Seventies, the Excessive Eighties, the Naughty Nineties or the Neglected Noughties – will be crowned this year’s winner.

Last year, 1976 brought it home for the Seventies, who duly notched up their second victory in four years. Can the Top 10 from February 1977 work similar wonders – or will we finally see some big points for those two perennially scorned decades, the Nineties and the Noughties, neither of whom have even so much as placed in the Top Three?

Are we all ready, then?

OK, eyes down (and indeed eyes sideways, as we’ve got video links for the first time this year, Youtube be praised) … it’s the Number Tens!

1967: Mellow Yellow – Donovan. (video)
1977: Chanson D’Amour – Manhattan Transfer.
1987: I Love My Radio – Taffy. (video)
1997: Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub – Apollo Four Forty. (video)
2007: The Sweet Escape – Gwen Stefani featuring Akon. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Not too shoddy an opening selection, is it? Listening to Donovan‘s gentle whimsy, a small window opens onto the Sixties’ Next Big Thing: hippy psychedelia, which would hit its historic peak over the “Summer of Love” in five months’ time. The first clues are there – the wacky surrealism, the langourous nonchalance, the “anything goes” attitude – but at the same time, there’s not much of the overtly counter-cultural on display here. “Mellow Yellow” might take us on a dandified strut down Carnaby Street or the King’s Road, but we’ll search in vain for a signpost to Haight-Ashbury.

Ten years on, and the next soi-disant Youth Revolution was swiftly gathering momentum – but looking at the February 1977 singles chart, there was no evidence whatsoever that punk rock was on the way. Never mind the bollocks – here’s Manhattan Transfer, stalwarts of the peak time TV variety show, with their biggest UK hit – and also possibly one of their downright naffest musical moments. Displaying little of the slick sophistication of their best material, “Chanson D’Amour” is well-executed but swiftly irritating swayalong schlock for the Sing Something Simple generation, whose main redeeming feature is to summon up images of a Morecambe and a Wise, gleefully hamming it up to the ra-da-da-da-dahs.

Another ten years on, and with yet another musical paradigm shift waiting in the wings, most of the country’s gay clubs were happy to continue ploughing the same old Eurodisco furrows. Why bother learning how to jack your body, when you could simply pass the poppers and party like an eternal 1983? Within this increasingly impoverished cultural cul de sac, walloping belters such as Taffy‘s “Midnight Radio” (to give it its correct original title) were as manna from heaven – and this one duly ruled every gay dancefloor in the country for weeks on end, stretching well back into late 1986.

However, when it came to promoting “Midnight Radio” as mainstream chart crossover material, a hideous compromise was made. Since BBC Radio One (The Nation’s Favourite!) actually stopped broadcasting at midnight, handing its airwaves back over to Radio Two (Brian Matthew! Sheila Tracey’s Truckers Hour!) for the wee small hours, none of its DJ’s were likely to promote a song with lyrics like “Wo-oh, my guy, my DJ after midnight, I love my radio, my midnight radio”. Instead, an absolute clunker of a re-worked chorus was forced upon the UK singles market: “I love my radio, my deejay’s radio.” Big Yuck! Sacrilege!

A further decade down the line, and the musical shifts that Chicago House had set in motion were now at their popular, commercial peak. Dance culture was mainstream, and ubiquitous, and yet to harden over into the diminishing returns of Ibiza Trance, which were to deal it an almost fatal blow towards the end of the decade. And so it was that interesting, well-crafted, non-formulaic, genre-blurring tunes such as Apollo Four Forty‘s Van Halen-sampling “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub” got a crack at the Top Ten – complete with one of the few instances of jungle/drum-and-bass rhythm patterns selling in large quantities, even if Apollo Four Forty themselves were anything but a jungle/drum-and-bass act. Covering broadly similar ground to The Prodigy, one of the biggest dance acts in the country at this stage, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub” stands up remarkably well.

And so, with a weary sigh, we turn to the singles chart of 2007 for the first time, ready for whatever half-assed pap that the Noughties might throw at us – but stop! Wait! Reconsider! After a slow ten year slide in relevance, during which genuine popularity was routinely overshadowed by efficient but meaningless target marketing, newly liberalised regulations are already re-establishing the Top Forty as a genuine barometer of taste. With most new entries now falling outside the Top Ten, the “climber” is back, and we are once again seeing those gratifyingly smooth rises and falls which are a more accurate reflection of the way that we fall in and out of love with our favourite tunes of the day.

None of which offers much by way of defence for Gwen Stefani‘s latest effort: a slight piece of retro-tinged pop fluff, with shades of Madonna’s “True Blue” and faint echoes of the soda fountain, which falls some way short of the standards set by her enjoyable run of hits from a couple of years back. Cute but forgettable – and I promise you that we’ll hear better.

My votes: Donovan – 5 points. Taffy – 4 points. Apollo Four Forty – 3 points. Manhattan Transfer – 2 points. Gwen Stefani – 1 point.

Over to you. Please leave your votes in the comments, starting with your favourite and working downwards. No tied positions are allowed, and all five songs must be ranked. You’ll find me very strict on that.

And there’s one more earnest plea, which I make at this stage every year: when casting your votes, please try to rank them in terms of merit, and not just in terms of subjective nostalgia appeal. OK, let’s go…
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 5 – the Number 10s.”

Cryptic crossword clue.

I devised this one while lying in bed this morning, basically as a displacement activity for getting out of bed and cracking on with the day. Yes, that might be an extra clue.

Automobile financed, Ethel Merman starts to rise and shine, we hear. (5,4)

I’ll leave the solution in the comments – but no advance peeking, do you hear? I’m placing you on trust…

Update: OK, so maybe that one was too easy. In which case, try this one.

Minty Yorkshireman’s ejaculation into African dictator’s behind. (6,6)

Welcome to Troubled Diva.

(Last revision: January 22nd 2009.)

Hello, I’m Mike Atkinson, and this is my personal weblog.

Firstly, and despite frequent evidence to the contrary, I am not “Troubled Diva”. That’s the name of the blog, not the name of its author. I dreamt the name up in a hurry, before I knew what I was going to do with this site, and then it stuck, so here we are. I particularly dislike the forced glottal-stop between the “d” at the end of “troubled” and the “d” at the beginning of “diva” – but hey, what can you do. It’s a brand, of sorts.

I’ve been writing Troubled Diva since October 2001, which either places me at the end of the “first wave” of British blogging, or at the start of the “second wave” of British blogging. I’ve probably got a foot in both camps.

I’m in my mid-forties, I’m as gay as a goose, and I’ve been sharing my life with my partner K since 1985. We registered our civil partnership in April 2006, and as such are now legal, decent, honest and truthful. Farewell, twilight subculture! Hello, equality under the law! That we should have lived to see the day!

During the week, we live in central Nottingham, where I work as an IT consultant, and where K runs a company which specialises in improving the detection and treatment of cancer in pets. From Friday evenings until Monday mornings, we de-camp to a village in the Derbyshire Peak District, somewhere between Ashbourne, Bakewell and Buxton. We’re a little bit country, and a little bit rock and roll. But I’m more rock and roll than he is.

Ah yes, rock and roll. I’m a freelance music journalist in my spare time, and I provide regular gig reviews, album reviews and interview features for the Nottingham Evening Post. I’ve written for Guardian Film & Music, Stylus and LeftLion, and I’ve also covered the Eurovision Song Contest for Slate and Time Out (London).

Ah yes, the Eurovision Song Contest. I’ve attended it in person on five occasions, and I have to warn you that, for two or three weeks a year, Troubled Diva does go Full On Eurovision Crazy. I’ll leave you to negotiate around that in the way which suits you best.

As for the rest of the blog: it’s primarily a “personal” site, which means that the main subject matter is Me And My Fabulous Life. There are diary-style pieces; there are autobiographical reminiscences; there are various scraps of half-baked commentary on what we must loosely term “popular culture” (as I’m too shallow to engage with anything else); there are competitions and collaborative stunts; there are occasional excursions into podcasting and vidcasting … but there is also much linkage to other sites of interest, and to other blogs in particular. I’m one of those bloggers who does feel very much like part of an extended community, and blogging has introduced me to many wonderful like-minded souls, many of whom I now regard as good friends.

(Of course, the downside to all of this community-mindedness is that a certain self-referential cliquiness does creep in from time to time. Advance apologies, but it can’t altogether be helped. Such is the nature of our medium.)

My “site style” is a wildly inconsistent one, and I have no wish to make it more consistent. Consistency is for freelance work; the blog is where I cut loose, muck around, take risks, and generally do what I damn well please – but, and this is crucial, only if I think it will entertain others. I may swing between wild extremes of self-aggrandisement and self-deprecation – frequently within the same blog post – but I do my best to steer away from self-indulgence. Troubled Diva isn’t written for myself; it’s written for its readership.

As for frequency of posting, that also varies considerably. I might post six times in a day, and then not at all for two weeks. This depends on all sorts of factors, but mainly on the ever-shifting balance of priorities in my life. I do have a tendency to over-commit, which is a tad awkward when you’re as fundamentally lazy as I am. So bear with me, reader. It all evens out in the end.

Troubled Diva has received more than its fair share of bouquets over the years. It has been shortlisted for all sorts of blogging award doo-dahs – most notably the 2005 Bloggies, when it made the final five in the Best Gay Lettuce Bacon & Tomato category. I’ve talked about blogging on the radio, I’ve given lectures about blogging to a writers’ conference, a book festival and an MA Creative Writing class, and the site has been featured in various newspapers and magazines, both in the UK and abroad.

I also administer a site called Post of the Week, which ran as a regular feature on this blog before being launched under its own domain in January 2007. It’s basically an attempt to promote good writing on personal blogs, and to draw people’s attention to blogs they might not have heard of before.

I have edited and published a paperback anthology of British blog writing, within the space of a week, in order to raise money for Comic Relief 2007. The book is called Shaggy Blog Stories, and copies are still available for sale. I’ve also contributed a piece for another blog anthology, You’re Not The Only One.

In March 2008, I launched a community blog for the aforementioned village in the Derbyshire Peak District. The village blog has gone from strength to strength, and I spend a lot of my spare time helping to administer it.

To get a flavour of to what expect around here, I have assembled 25 of my favourite posts on their own dedicated page. There’s a massive archive to dip into, and I’ve provided links to the highlights over here. Ooh, it could keep you busy for months.

I hope you enjoy the Troubled Diva Experience. Comments are encouraged – indeed, I can be quite the petulant little madam if I feel I’m not getting enough of them – and a range of quality souvenir merchandise is available in the foyer.

Further assorted “about this site” / “about the author” posts can be found here:

troubled diva: the first 5 years, summarised
dramatis personae
potted autobiography
4 things · 100 things · 100 other things
BBC Nottingham profile & interview
what makes me “good”?
the zbornak mini-interview
the ages of mike (in pictures)
blogging questionnaire
“finish this sentence” meme

Showing my workings: an explanation for the feed readers.

Blessed are the RSS watchers; for they shall see the “inappropriate humour” posts, slapped up on a whim and hastily withdrawn. Context is key, and I sometimes forget that not all who pass though these doors are necessarily equipped with that context.

Cursed are the RSS watchers; for they shall be burdened with scores of old posts, re-published in order that New Blogger “labels” might be added. My apologies for the intrusion.

I’m loving these new-fangled “labels”, though – as they are helping me to bestow retrospective order upon the more unkempt areas of my archives and sidebar. For while most people – normal, sensible people with a sense of perspective and a functional set of priorities – are happy to let their archives grass over, I like to tend to mine, keeping them neat and clipped and accessible, with their more prominent features clearly marked.

It’s a time-consuming process to be sure – but there’s something about grinding monotony in the service of neatness and tidiness which appeals to something deep and primal within me. In Neolithic times, while others were out a-hunting and a-gatherering, I would have been the one stuck back in the cave, ranking mammoth tusks by size, or age, or curvature, or pointiness. Or maybe organising a “Mammoth Tusk of the Week” poll amongst my fellow Neanderthals.

Anyway. Before the SHEER UNADULTERATED JOY of Which Decade Is Tops For Pops kicks off again on Monday, I’m having a behind-the-scenes Maintenance Week.

And interviewing pop stars. And getting some order back into the Nottingham house, after the kitchen refit. And sourcing a 20-second “walk” interlude for the dressage music (thank God for BPM analysing freeware, and iTunes smart playlists). And keeping a watchful eye on Post of the Week. And savouring home-grown leeks, donated by lovely fellow bloggers. And purchasing the word “bottom”, twice. (More explanation here.) And enjoying exceptional posts written by good friends. Busy busy busy!