Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 1s.

Gosh, is it that time already? Whereas most previous Which Decades have, barring the initial head-rush of Year One, unfolded over a relatively leisurely three weeks or so, I haven’t half been banging them out this year.

(There’s a reason for that: namely four gigs on four consecutive nights next week, AND an interview to write up, AND a 1200-word article for… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But if I don’t get this post up by tonight, there simply aren’t going to be enough hours in the day.)

In terms of the daily decade-by-decade league tables, this year has been almost entirely free of drama. The 1980s, 1990s and 2000s have been fixed in their respective positions, while the only real action has occurred at the top of the league, with the 1960s and 1970s frequently swapping places or else drawing level with each other.

Nevertheless, and with just one more round to go, the pole position is still very much up for grabs. There are some extremely close border skirmishes lower down the league, and the three closest (Lighthouse Family vs The Feeling, Usher vs Kelly Rowland, Robbie Williams vs Rihanna, none more than two points apart) are all battles between the same two decades. Add that to the current one-point gap between Nickelback and the Ofarims, and you can see that the 2000s are still capable of snatching victory, for the first year ever.

Have I got you all worked up again, then? Because after those last two rounds, our collective spirits could do with some reviving. Once more into the breach we go, brave soldiers! It’s Friday night, it’s Top Of The Pops… it’s the Number Ones!

1968: Mighty Quinn – Manfred Mann. (video)
1978: Take A Chance On Me – Abba. (video)
1988: I Should Be So Lucky – Kylie Minogue. (video)
1998: Doctor Jones – Aqua. (video)
2008: Mercy – Duffy. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd08-01-68What is it with our insistence on reading non-existent “naughty” meanings into innocent cultural artifacts of forty years ago? There were no sexual double entendres in Captain Pugwash; Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds wasn’t about LSD; Bob Dylan’s Puff The Magic Dragon wasn’t about cannabis; and his 1967 composition Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) weren’t about no coke dealer, neither. (The song actually drew its inspiration from Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of an eskimo called Inuk, in the 1960 movie The Savage Innocents. God, I love Wikipedia.)

“Yeah, but he’s an eskimo, right? And where do eskimos live? In igloos! And what are igloos made of? Snow! And what does snow look like, eh? Eh? Eh? You’re a man of the the world, squire! Say no more, say no more!

To which I say, look at the third verse, Tedious Throwback Drugs Bore: “Nobody can get no sleep, there’s someone on everyone’s toes, but when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna wanna doze.

Must be pretty shite charlie, then. I rest my case.

Oh yes, the Manfred Mann version. (Stripped of its parentheses and its definite article, Fact Fans. These things matter.) The Manfreds had a bit of a “thing” for covering Dylan songs, having already scored Top Ten hits with versions of If You Gotta Go, Go Now and Just Like A Woman. Never having heard Dylan’s 1967 Basement Tapes original, I find myself quite unable to imagine what it might sound like – and indeed, I would never have guessed from the typically strident, straight-up, boom-thwack 1968 arrangement that this was even one of his compositions. Having subtracted its attendant – and considerable – nostalgic pull, I also find myself wondering how it ever came to top the charts. It’s pleasant, it’s curious… but, you know, what the f**k was going on here? He’s an eskimo! Who cares?

wd08-01-78It’s always a bit boring when Abba songs come up on Which Decade, because everyone just goes “yadda yadda yadda classic”, and they get maximum points all round, and where’s the thrill in that? But then again, what can you can do when they keep knocking out material of this quality, except salute their genius?

As a love-struck teen with the most massive, all-consuming, and needless to say unrequited boy-on-boy crush on a fellow school mate (who still hasn’t shown up on Friends Reunited, and yes, I do still check from time to time), I found a considerable personal resonance within Take A Chance On Me – as indeed I did with just about every song on the radio for the full three years that we were at school together, up to and including Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, and believe me, that takes some doing. Listening to it again this morning, I had to smirk at lines such as “If you’re all alone when the pretty birds have flown, honey I’m still free, take a chance on me“, which cast me as some sort of lovelorn Mr. Humphries Junior – but we didn’t have much in the way of role models in 1978.

(OK, Tom Robinson – but I never really thought of him as gay in a fancying-blokes sort of way, just in an abstracted fist-punching badge-wearing way. I’m rambling, aren’t I? It’s been a long day.)

Incidentally, those of you watching the video should pay close attention to Agnetha’s small but significant pout at around the 2:17 mark, as this was the moment that totally slaughtered the lads in the school TV room on Thursday nights, just after supper and just before prep. I can still remember the anticipation (“Wait for it, wait for it!”) and the almost post-coital sigh which followed (“She just looks so… easy, you know what I mean?”) Hey, they didn’t get out much. At least my source material was closer to hand. (And I mean that entirely metaphorically.)

By way of introducing our third Number One, I can do no better than to quote SwissToni‘s and Z‘s comments on When Will I Be Famous:

Have I really wasted 20 years of my life hating this record? Listening to it now, it all seems so…so… innocuous. How could I have expended so much passion loathing something that is ultimately this harmless?

I was too old for this back in 1988. Now, I’m not.

Because, you see, back in the days when Soap Starlet Kylie Minogue had yet to morph into SexKylie, DanceKylie, IndieKylie, PopKylie, SexKylie2.0 and BraveKylie, SnottyLittleHipsterMike was as yet allergic to her charms.

wd08-01-88OK, I f**king DETESTED I Should Be So Lucky, despite having bought it as a “just in case” standby for my club nights. I only ever played it the once, at another benefit night down the Old Vic (I did a lot of benefit nights), this time to raise funds for a Lesbian & Gay Community Centre which, with the wisdom of hindsight, never stood a ghost of a chance of being opened. (And what’s worse, I accidentally played the instrumental version on the B-side. Oh, the cheek-burning shame of it! Hateful, hateful, song!)

Well, look. If you’d told us at the time that Kylie’s pop career would still be going strong twenty years later, with the artist elevated to the position of Much Loved National Treasure, we’d never have believed you. Besides which – and I know she’s never claimed to be the world’s greatest singer, but still – this has to be one of the most lacklustre vocal performances on any UK Number One ever.

Sorry, Kylie. Luvyaloads, you know that. And I also love the good grace with which you’ve worn this particular albatross: reciting it straight-faced at a highbrow poetry festival in the 1990s, reworking it as Ibiza trance on your 2002 tour, and most recently, with that deliciously slinky Jessica Rabbit cocktail lounge version, on Jools Holland’s New Year’s Eve show. Never was a turd more ably polished, I’ll grant you that. But you know, and I know, that I Should Be So Lucky is still… well… a bit shit, really.

wd08-01-98No such taste-related problems befell me in 1998, as my extended Oh What A Big Fat Gay Cliché mid-life crisis reached its autumn years. By that time I’d have danced to any old rubbish, provided it was “gay” enough – as my Vengaboys collection alone would prove – but if truth be told, Aqua‘s Doctor Jones holds up rather well.

Oh, the new crop of snotty little hipsters hated it with a passion, of course. At the end of 1997, when Muzik magazine polled its best known DJs for their end of year round up, almost every single one of them named Aqua’s Barbie Girl as the worst single of the year – whereas, as I’m sure we’ve all come to realise, it was nothing less than Total Pop Genius. (I think the penny first dropped with the Goodness Gracious Me parody, Punjabi Girl.) And while Doctor Jones might not scale the same Olympian heights, it sure as hell comes close.

wd08-01-08And finally, it’s this week’s New Amy Winehouse! Move over Adele, you’re ancient history: Duffy‘s the new gal in town!

Actually, and before we go any further, shall we put all this New Amy Winehouse conspiracy theory nonsense to bed? For lest we forget, Amy only went stratospherically massive a few months ago, whereas Adele and Duffy have been in “artist development” for considerably longer than that. The time lines simply don’t fit. So let us hear no more about it.

I haven’t yet made my mind up about Duffy, whom I’ll be seeing at The Social in exactly a week’s time (and what’s she even doing playing such a tiny venue when she’s at Number One, anyway – so much for the carefully plotted Evil Masterplan). I heard a few selections from the new album earlier in the week and liked them – but having heard the full album this evening in a single sitting, I find that her voice grates badly after half a dozen numbers. Then again, as Tina said last to me last night, “She’s more Lulu than Dusty” (although Chig and I think she’s more Carmel than Lulu – follow these links and you’ll see what we mean) – and if you downgrade your expectations accordingly, then numbers like Mercy become a whole lot more palatable.

For when all’s said and done, and despite my increasing aversion to retro-ism in 2000s pop (hell, anyone would think they were chasing the Fifty Quid Bloke market!), I really like Mercy, even somewhat despite myself. I’ve been earworming it literally all day, and it hasn’t yet driven me bonkers, so that alone is a good sign – and hell, it’s just good plain, tongue-in-cheek, gently chiding, finger-wagging FUN. With the added bonus of some totally hot Mod boys dancing on their own in the video, which can only help…

My votes: Abba – 5 points. Duffy – 4 points. Aqua – 3 points. Manfred Mann – 2 points. Kylie – 1 point.

Over to you, for the last time. This is the Big One, folks. I’ll keep the voting open, for all selections, until midnight on Monday night. Have a great weekend! Sorry for rambling! I’m outta here!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 1s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 2s.

There’s a quote somewhere in the Ian Gittins Top Of The Pops book – ah, here it is, page 71 – from Johnny Marr, talking about the special Christmas editions of the show:

“It was often a letdown, because the records I really liked tended to get to Number Eleven, not Number One. I would much rather have seen Mott The Hoople do All The Young Dudes than Don McLean singing bloody Vincent again.”

I know exactly what he means by that. And having feasted your ears upon the motley crew which comprise our Number Twos (was a Which Decade selection ever more appropriately named?), I fancy that you will too. Hold yer noses! In we go!

1968: Cinderella Rockefella – Esther & Abi Ofarim. (video)
1978: Figaro – Brotherhood Of Man. (video)
1988: I Think We’re Alone Now – Tiffany. (video)
1998: All I Have To Give – Backstreet Boys. (video)
2008: Rockstar – Nickelback. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd08-02-68I AM THE LADY

(Sorry, a little Nottingham Textile Heritage In Joke there. The rest of you, please skip on by.)

Of all the songs in our 1968 Top 10, Esther & Abi Ofarim‘s novelty duet is the one that I remember the most vividly, doubtless because it was played on the radio shows that my parents were most likely to listen to. (I’m guessing Housewives’ Choice and Family Favourites.)

There’s period charm, I’ll grant you (especially in the video clip) – and I’m always partial to bit of yodelling – but, ecch, maybe I’m just a jaded old grump, as this stopped putting a smile on my face a long time ago.

wd08-02-78From one Eurovision act (Abi Ofarim represented Switzerland in 1963, as did Celine Dion in 1988) to another. Whereas Celine shoved Scott Fitzgerald into second place, the Brotherhood Of Man, as any fule kno, triumphed in 1976 with Relax Missus, I’m A P@3do! – and two years later, there was still mileage to be extracted from their Woolworths Own Brand Abba act.

Not content with distilling the loamy essence of Fernando (and the piano riff of Dancing Queen) into the milky piss-water of Angelo, the sheer paucity of creative vision at the heart of BOM enured that, in best dog-returning-to-its-own-vomit style, the formula could bear one more reduction. Adios, ill-starred Mexican shepherd boy! And hola, medallion-clanking scourge of the Costa de Sol!

Believe it or not, this was voted Best Single of 1978 by the viewers of the ITV children’s show Magpie. Tsk, kids, eh? And we have the nerve to complain about bassline house on the bus?

(But I do still quite like the rising and falling bass vamp which underpins the chorus. There, I’ve said it. Fair and balanced, me.)

wd08-02-88And just in case those two WEREN’T QUITE PERKY ENOUGH FOR YOU, heeeeeeeeere’s Tiffany! Come on, ON YOUR FEET! And FLEX! And POINT! I’m not seeing enough SMILING FACES AT THE BACK!

Much as I loathed it at the time, snobby little hipster that I was, you simply couldn’t keep a good song down – and I Think We’re Alone Now, whether by Tiffany in 1988, or Lene Lovich in 1978, or The Rubinoos in 1977, or Tommy James and the Shondells in 1967, or indeed Girls Aloud in 2006 (and I can do interpretive movements to the Girls Aloud version, as demonstrated in a Brighton gay club last May, hem hem, ooh I can still show them youngsters a thing or two), is a great song. So much so, that even Tiff’s generically tinny 1980s production job somehow ends up playing to the song’s strengths.

(And before we move on, I must pay a fond tribute to my long-lost friend Nik’s “alternative cabaret” version of this, as performed down the Old Vic on a Stop Clause 28 benefit night, which approached the song from the perspective of a pair of smug young marrieds. “We’ll tear down the walls! And build an archway to the dining room!” Ah, ’twas class…)

wd08-02-98A couple of days ago, commenter Jeff W said of Bomb The Bass: “If we could play one joker in any one round each year, this is probably where I’d play mine.” Well, if I could play a joker in any one round, then it would be one that excused me from doing a blurb for one of the fifty songs – and the song in question would be this total waste of space from the Backstreet Boys.

Because, you see, there’s some sort of protective override system in my brain which absolutely refuses to ingest production-line boy-band ballads of this nature. I must have played All I Have To Give a good half dozen times in the last couple of weeks, in an attempt to reach an informed opinion – and every goddammed time, my brain detuned after the first thirty seconds.

So, all I have to give is this. Firstly, that this is an early example of the sort of ghastly straining-on-the-potty pop vocal technique that would come to dominate the early-to-mid Noughties (Enrique, I’m looking at you) – and secondly, that Louis Walsh, having already bludgeoned us into submission with Boyzone, must have been taking careful notes for his next project

wd08-02-08And so, dear MP3 medley listeners – and dear God, hasn’t this felt like the longest six and a quarter minutes in living memory? – to those unlikeliest of comeback kings: Nickelback, back in the Top 10 for the first time since 2003 with their, ahem, Wry Social Commentary.

For if you’re the sort of person who derived profundity from Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) and an important history lesson from We Didn’t Start The Fire, then I’m guessing that Rockstar is your idea of Wry Social Profundity. But hey, with major cultural figures in the video like Gene Simmons, Kid Rock, Nelly Furtado and Ted Nugent, they must be doing something right, yeah?

Sorry, readers. I don’t know what’s got into me this evening. Perhaps we should leave it there. I’ll be Princess Fluffy again tomorrow, I promise.

My votes: Tiffany – 5 points. Esther & Abi Ofarim – 4 points. Nickelback – 3 points. Brotherhood Of Man – 2 points. Backstreet Boys – 1 point.

Over to you. I have suffered for my art, and now it’s your turn. Don’t all rush at once!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 2s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 3s.

Le sigh. Once again, I am Homo Alone, with only the upstairs PC and a freshly poured glass of Valdivieso for company. K is in Copenhagen until Saturday, and has just loyally logged on, in the hope of finding today’s selections and “cheering me up”. Given his habitual hatred of the voting process, this takes loyalty to a new level, and so I do feel a bit bad for letting him down.

Shall we? Yes, we shall. Ladies and gentleman of the blog, it’s the Number Threes!

1968: She Wears My Ring – Solomon King. (video)
1978: If I Had Words – Scott Fitzgerald & Yvonne Keeley with the St. Thomas More School Choir. (video)
1988: Tell It To My Heart – Taylor Dayne. (video)
1998: Never Ever – All Saints. (video)
2008: Now You’re Gone – Basshunter. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd08-03-68Making Engelbert Humperdinck sound positively rock-and-roll by comparison, there’s something disturbingly proprietorial about Solomon King‘s ode to wedded bliss, which conjures up images of a scene from an imagined 1980s “suburban noir” David Lynch movie. Can’t you just picture this being crooned by a nitrous oxide-inhaling Dennis Hopper, while a caged, shackled, gagged Isabella Rossellini cowers behind him? I know I can.

Why, it’s almost enough to make She Wears My Ring sound interesting… and on one level, the downright creepiest Which Decade entry since Billy J. Kramer’s Little Children.

wd08-03-78And speaking of little children: although, as I can now reveal, you have been spared the sound of the St Winifred’s School Choir – backing Brian And Michael in pre-Grandma days, on pop music’s other ode to L.S. Lowry (which didn’t chart for another couple of weeks) – it is nevertheless my duty to inform you that the St. Thomas More School Choir have gamely stepped into the breach, with their contribution to Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keely‘s reggae-fied vocal reworking of the Maestoso from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 (Gert, I hope you’re impressed by my research).

(There, I swore I wasn’t going to waste more than a sentence on that load of old toot. Scott Fitzgerald ended up doing Eurovision, you know. Surprised? No, I didn’t think you would be.)

wd08-03-88Although my “alternative” night down the Barracuda Club on Hurt’s Yard (“A Polysexual Pink Playground for Lesbians Gay Men and their Friends!” ran one slogan; “An Equal Opportunities Dancefloor!” ran another) operated a strict NO HI-NRG! policy (the battle lines had been drawn, and one simply had to make a stand), we weren’t above bending the rules to let in the odd disco diva or two… and they didn’t come much odder (Wa-hey, I Am On Fire Tonight!) than the capaciously-gobbed and frankly bloody scary Taylor Dayne.

Although, like the depressing majority of our 1988 Top 10, this is fairly standard issue stuff, Taylor belts it out like a trouper (eventually receiving a Grammy nomination for her labours), and I cannot help but gaze fondly on – meaning that, unlike, Scott and Yvonne, she’s worth, ooh, two sentences.

wd08-03-98And at last, a touch of class. With lyrics inspired by the break-up of band member Shaznay Lewis’s relationship, and with a chord progression borrowed from Amazing Grace (Scott and Yvonne please note: this is how you nick stuff and make it work), the second single from All Saints took a couple of months to climb to Number One, before taking an equally leisurely amount of time dropping back down again.

Despite the faintly comical spoken intro, which can’t quite decide which side of the Atlantic it comes from, Never Ever oozes class from the moment that the main track kicks in. (And frankly, dear hearts, class is in rather short supply today.)

wd08-03-08Right then, who’s ready for some good old Swedish Schaffel-Bosh? Anyone? Come on, I need to see hands in the air.

Basshunter‘s Now You’re Gone started life nearly two years ago, in a distinctly slower Swedish-language incarnation known as Boten Anna: a love song directed to an IRC bot, if you can countenance such a thing. (Or rather, to a woman whom Mister Basshunter mistook for an IRC bot. What’s IRC? What’s a bot? Oh, you go and look it up.)

If you think that all sounds quite quirky and interesting, then I’m afraid that none of it translates to the duller-than-dull English language version, which is to its Swedish original what the clunking 99 Red Balloons was to the delightful 99 Luftballons, and hence not worthy to lick the boots of the H “two” O track with which it shares a record label.

My votes: All Saints – 5 points. Taylor Dayne – 4 points. Basshunter – 3 points. Solomon King – 2 points. Scott & Yvonne – 1 point.

Over to you. Not the best bunch we’ve ever had, I’ll grant you. A string of Fives all round for All Saints, then? Or are you all a bunch of closet Schaffel Boshers? The 1960s are back ahead again, but the 2000s could still catch up, at least in theory. Phone lines are open…. NOW!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 3s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 4s.

Sometimes, I think that my whole life could be defined as an epic struggle against procrastination – and it’s a struggle which, regrettably, I have spent most of today losing. And so, while K packs his clobber for Copenhagen (where he’ll be from tomorrow until Saturday), I’m going to seize the moment and squeeze out today’s instalment. Number Fours, get your arses over here! And look lively about it!

1968: Everlasting Love – The Love Affair. (video)
1978: Come Back My Love – Darts. (video)
1988: Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car – Billy Ocean. (video)
1998: My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion. (video)
2008: Sun Goes Down – David Jordan. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd08-04-68Remember what I was saying last time, about the simple joys of a boom-thwack beat and a parping brass section? Well, here’s further evidence of the same – as well as another example of a song which charted in a different version in the States.

Although I’m still not entirely clear as to whether Amen Corner covered American Breed or vice versa, the provenance of Everlasting Love is a clear one: Robert Knight performed the “authentic”, “soulful” original, and The Love Affair (or rather lead singer Steve Ellis and a bunch of session men) followed up with the “watered down”, “manufactured” cheapo Brit-pop copy (Marmalade having already rejected it as “too poppy”, THE FOOLS).

Having been cleansed of my residual “rockism” a long time ago, I can’t say that such issues of “authenticity” particularly trouble me. The Love Affair’s version is, after all, still the work of living, breathing human beings, and to my ears it works gloriously well, anything that the song loses in hesitant tenderness and lightness of touch being adequately compensated by the soaring, widescreen grandeur of the production.

wd08-04-78A decade on, and the British doo-wop revival group Darts were up to a broadly similar trick: taking a US hit, and poppifying it for the UK market. Except that in this case, the hit in question (for a long-forgotten act called The Wrens) was already 23 years old, and the band covering it had the sort of solid pub-rocking, dues-paying credentials that lifted them head and shoulders above those other 1950s revivalists of the day, Showaddywaddy.

(And, oh look, here’s a 1975 clip of the band in their former incarnation as Rocky Sharpe and the Razors, performing the self same song.)

Darts were always just the right side of Hip for people like me, with a winning freshness and an underlying knowingness, which somehow tipped you the wink that there was slightly more to them than met the eye. And of course, for school kids of a certain age, there was the added thrill of The Bit Where It Sounds Like They’re Singing “Do The Wank” – which should never be discounted.

wd08-04-88Enough with the Learnedness already. Sheesh, we’ll be here all night. Thankfully, Billy Ocean‘s slight little effort need not detain us for too long. Repeating more or less the same formula that had brought him so much success two years earlier with When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going (and tellingly, following a period when he had once again started to flounder commercially), Get Outta My Dreams is an unimaginative reduction which, as I said earlier, needn’t detain us long. Hey, if he can do it, then so can I.

wd08-04-98After yesterday evening’s lecture (see below), Dymbel kindly treated me to dinner – during which he presented me with a copy of a book which I have very much been wanting to read: Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste, by the Canadian music journalist (and blogger) Carl Wilson. Its premise, if I have correctly grasped it, is that Wilson embarks upon an exhaustive examination of the work of an artist that he cannot stand, in order to reach a better understanding of why so many millions of people love her work.

The artist in question is Wilson’s fellow Canadian Celine Dion: a singer whose appeal has similarly always been lost on me (or in other words, I can’t f**king stand her either). Despite her own early hatred of it, My Heart Will Go On became Celine’s biggest hit – eventually landing her an Oscar for her trouble – and it has since been ranked as the 14th most successful song in music history.

Even after making allowances for the massive boost that it received from the equally risible Titanic, I too am at a loss to explain why this banal little dirge captured the hearts of millions. As for Celine’s performance, it’s Humperdinck Syndrome all over again: technically adept, but smarmily over-egged and clinically devoid of true emotion.

All of which makes me more than eager to get stuck into Carl Wilson’s worthy little tome – especially since, as Dymbel was quick to point out, Wilson has seen fit to quote selections from my 2006 Eurovision series for Slate on pages 43 and 44: fully attributed, although he’s a full decade out on the date. Woo! And indeed, Hoo!

wd08-04-08K has finished his packing and is now preparing dinner, so my window is rapidly narrowing. What to say about David Jordan, then? To be honest, I know nothing about the man, and have no idea where Sun Goes Down came from. Standing quite at odds stylistically from anything else in the 2008 chart, this is a curiously old-fashioned sturdy campfire sing-a-long, which puts me in mind of 2002-era Shakira for some strange reason. Somewhat despite myself, I find that I quite like it. Don’t ask me why. It’s, um, catchy? Yes, that’s probably the long and the short of it.

My votes: Love Affair – 5 points. Darts – 4 points. David Jordan – 3 points. Billy Ocean – 2 points. Celine Dion – 1 point.

Over to you. The 1960s and 1970s are neck and neck once again, but otherwise there’s not much change in our accumulated chart – which, to be honest, could do with a few upsets. (It’s not always this static, you know!) Then again, have the 2000s ever scored so consistently well before? As a perennial champion of the underdog, that gladdens me mightily. OK, dinner time!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 4s.”

“Ain’t Too Proud To Blog” – lecture notes.

Yesterday evening, I gave a lecture to Nottingham Trent University’s Creative Writing M.A. students, on the subject of (what else?) blogging. As promised at the end, here are my lecture notes (in MS Word format) – please right-click and select “Save As” to download them.

Supporting links are as follows, in the order in which I mentioned them during the talk:

Diablo Cody: Oscar-winning blogger.
Technorati: The State of the Live Web, April 2007.
Letters Home: Alison Moyet’s blog.
Interview with Alison Moyet, in which she talks about her blog.
The “Online Disinhibition Effect”.
Being “Dooced”: sacked from one’s job due to blogging.
My autobiographical “40 in 40 Days Project”.
The Bloggies: annual weblog awards.
Freelance work for slate.com: “America, Meet The Eurovision Song Contest”.
Bloglines: RSS feed reader/aggregator.
Statcounter: website stats monitor.
My “statement of jadedness” re. Web 2.0 re-definitions of “friendship”.
Belle De Jour: first UK blog-turned-book.
Girl With A One-Track Mind: anonymous sex blog turned book
“outed” by the Sunday Times.
Petite Anglaise: fired for blogging, first book about to be published.
Random Acts Of Reality: ambulance driver’s blog turned book.
The Policeman’s Blog – another “job blog” turned book.
My Boyfriend Is A Twat – Zoe McCarthy (humour)
Out Of The Tunnel – Rachel North (7/7 survivor’s memoir)
Gods Behaving Badly – Marie Phillips (fiction)
The Friday Project (specialist blog to book publishers)
Lulu.com (specialist online self-publishers)
Shaggy Blog Stories (charity blogging compilation, published in a week)
Post Of The Week – promotes good writing on new blogs.
You’re Not The Only One – new charity blogging compilation, still accepting submissions.
Novel Racers – self-help group.
Bookarazzi: excellent, comprehensive, lively resource for bloggers with book deals.
Max Gogarty’s travel blog for The Guardian: a recent example of how NOT to do it!
North vs Lowde: blogger jailed for harrassment of other blogger, following “Wanted” campaign on UK blogosphere.
Guardian Unlimited: Comment Is Free.
Published novelists who subsequently started blogging: Clare Sudbery, Penelope Farmer, Kate Harrison
Plasticbag.org: (Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything… (influential think-piece)

Yup, that little lot should keep you going!

NOTE: As a result of all this activity, there was no Which Decade post yesterday, for which apologies. The next instalment will be appearing this evening.

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

Swings and roundabouts, folks. Swings and roundabouts. Yesterday, you got the learned, considered, well-researched treatise, which touched on The Very Nature Of Popular Song Itself. Today, you’re getting the hasty, top-of-my-head, Back From The Pub And Oh Shit It’s Ten Fifteen On A Sunday Night And I’d Better Bash This Out Quick version.

(Which I would have written earlier, had I not spent the best part of the day scaling the North Face of Gary Numan, and bricking myself about tomorrow’s 90 minute lecture about blogging to Dymbel’s Trent Uni Creative Writing M.A. course – of which more in due course, on both fronts.)

Let’s not fart about, then! Number Fives, please make yourselves known to the group!

1968: Bend Me Shape Me – Amen Corner. (video)
1978: Hot Legs – Rod Stewart. (video)
1988: Beat Dis – Bomb The Bass. (video)
1998: Cleopatra’s Theme – Cleopatra. (video)
2008: Chasing Pavements – Adele. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd08-05-68For me, one of the defining features of 1968 pop is a certain new-found stridency of tone, as exemplified by the straight-up boom-thwack beat and the blaring, parping, stentorian brass of Amen Corner‘s Bend Me Shape Me. (Don’t you just love the cheeky, tush-wiggling, almost Carry On-style implied upward inflection – “Ooh-wa, Ooh-wa!” – on the final two notes of each brass riff? I know I do.)

Set against the buoyant Brylcreem bounce of the rest of the track, Andy Fairweather-Low’s vocals strike just the right note of restraint, with a delivery that suggests he’s almost too cool even to bother moving his lips. And it just my over-ripe imagination, or is this music for swinging wife-swappers, high on Mackesons and Cherry B, to fling their keys into the onyx ashtray, before casting off their natty sports jackets and 18-hour girdles and hurling themselves upon the Brentford Nylons? Mm, kinky!

wd08-05-78And speaking of the unsophisticated lusts of the suburban lothario, here’s their 1970s poster boy Rod Stewart (“Britt Ekland? Wa-hey, get in there son!”), with the aural equivalent of that Athena photo of the tennis player scratching her behind.

I have to say that Hot Legs, which I fully intended to pan, sounds a damned sight more enjoyable after an early doors skinful down the boozer – as I discovered less than three hours ago, re-connecting with my inner caveman as I Jagger-swaggered round the kitchen, pointing and pouting and feeling myself up in my notional skin-tight leopard skin leggings.

Sexist? Yes. Neanderthal? You betcha. But tossed-off, raunchy-arsed rock-a-beatin’ boogie has its place, you know?

wd08-05-88And before I torch what remaining stocks of Sensitive New Man Cred I possess, here’s some ideologically sound, GLC-approved, NALGO-Benefit-Night-sanctioned (and yes, I speak from direct experience), Lesbians-Gay-Men-And-Their-Friends-compatible, MA1-bandana-and-cycling-shorts-friendly Eighties Groove from Tim Simenon, aka Bomb The Bass – who originally put Beat Dis together as a coursework project, on a budget of about 20 pence.

Set against the transgressive likes of Bend Me Shape Me and Hot Legs, there’s something almost prim about Simenon’s invitation to party – but then again, I have nothing but fond memories of the way it used to fill the floor at my club nights: the natural successor to Pump Up The Volume, the 114 BPM bridge between hip-hop and house (and hence extremely useful in my DJ sets), and a record which, by getting in there seconds ahead of its legions of imitators (even if it did blatanly rip off the true pioneers such as Steinski and Coldcut, and boy, didn’t we quickly tire of those same old samples?), managed to encapsulate a precise moment in time.

Yes, it’s a “used groove” whose time will never come again – but dance music has never been burdened with the need to strive for longevity, and this is as neat an encapsulation of the ephemeral as you’ll find anywhere.

wd08-05-98Cleopatra! Coming atcha!” Hey, and you thought Beat Dis was disposable? There was a massive resurgance of capital-P Pop in 1998, and of GIRL-POWAH! pop in particular, as the revolution which the Spice Girls kicked off began to bear fruit in the shape of B*Witched, Billie, [spoiler deleted] and this bunch of happy-go-lucky teenage sisters from Birmingham.

As with the unseen Heaven 17/Scritti Politti fans behind When Will I Be Famous, the crew behind Cleopatra’s Theme clearly knew their stuff, and in this case I’d wager that at least a couple of Eighties Soul Boys must have been involved somewhere down the line. And as with Beat Dis, ephemeral disposability is no barrier to enjoyment. This is frothy, feisty and fun, and marred only by the painful memory of the girls’ Top Of The Pops appearance, in the exact same trendy beige combat trousers that I had bought in Covent Garden a week earlier, with which to go clubbing in Trade. Way to ruin a Hot Look, ladies!

wd08-05-08It’s getting late, the early doors booze is wearing off, and only Adele stands between me and beddy-byes. How quickly can I knock this one out?

OK, it’s like this. Having seen her on The Brits last week, I found myself quite warming to Adele as a character. Hyped to the heavens and beyond she might be (“Critics’ Choice” award, my arse), but I liked her warm, earthy and unexpectedly unspun quality, which put me in mind of a future Alison Moyet in the making.

However. The trouble that I have with Chasing Pavements is much the same trouble that I had with The Feeling’s I Thought It Was Over, a few days ago: namely that it is little more than an artfully assembled collection of tastefully retro-classic moments, which fail to plaster over the gaping void that they seek to conceal.

For what is Chasing Pavements about, and what emotion is it trying to convey? If you know, then please enlighten me, as all I can hear is a self-consciously “big” chorus in search of a song to support it. As an ad-break soundbyte, it works fine for about 10 seconds, but since when was that enough? And can I go to bed now, please?

My votes: Amen Corner – 5 points. Bomb The Bass – 4 points. Rod Stewart – 3 points. Cleopatra – 2 points. Adele – 1 point.

Over to you. Thanks to a strong showing by Rose Royce and a weak showing by Engelbert Humperdinck, the 1970s have overtaken the 1960s at the top of the pile, with the 1990s and 2000s close on their heels (for once). Can Bomb The Bass revive the 1980s’ fortunes? Could Adele send the 2000s shooting ahead? Or will Amen Corner give the 1960s the necessary shot in the arm? I’ll begin to find out in the morning. Vote wisely!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 5s.”

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

Well now, here are a couple of Fun Facts that I didn’t know this time two days ago – and they both concern your new favourite and mine, H “two” O ft. Platnum’s “opinion-dividing” What’s It Gonna Be.

Firstly: in common with its 1968 rival Pictures Of Matchstick Men, What’s It Gonna Be was created in a toilet. Secondly: the toilet in question was right here in Nottingham, inside the Golden Fleece pub on Mansfield Road. (Read the full story here.) Yes, folks: a fully fledged Youth Culture Explosion has been taking place right under my nose, not half a mile from where I’m currently sitting, and I never knew about it until today. And I call myself a local music journalist? It Is Just Pathetic.

Anyhow, this means that What’s It Gonna Be stands a good chance of becoming Nottingham’s fourth ever Number One, after Paper Lace (Billy Don’t Be A Hero), KWS (Please Don’t Go) and Bob The Builder (Can We Fix It?) Or even the fifth, depending upon the importance that you place upon DJ Vimto’s contribution to Fragma featuring Coco’s immortal Toca’s Miracle. Who said that we don’t have a music scene to be proud of?

With that little flash of municipal pride duly dispatched, let us examine today’s Number Sixes.

1968: Am I That Easy To Forget – Engelbert Humperdinck. (video)
1978: Wishing On A Star – Rose Royce. (video)
1988: When Will I Be Famous – Bros. (video)
1998: Angels – Robbie Williams. (video)
2008: Don’t Stop The Music – Rihanna. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd08-06-68Oh dear, didn’t we have our fill of Engelbert “The Hump” Humperdinck this time last year? Then as now, this comes as a salutary reminder that the mid-to-late 1960s weren’t all about tinpot psychedelia, day-glo rainbows, granny glasses, foofy cravats, tie-dyes and bell-bottoms. Representing the interests of the age group of which I now find myself a part, The Hump could always be relied upon to remind us of The Way Things Were Supposed To Be Done, Before Those Pesky Kids Spoiled Everything: you know, proper music played by proper musicians, with lyrics that were actually about something, rather than all this juvenile matchsticks-and-fire-brigades nonsense. (In which case, perhaps every generation has its Humperdincks.)

None of which would particularly trouble me (for I quite like a good inter-generational ding-dong, when the sides are well matched), if only The Hump’s records were actually any damned good. But, no. Backed by the sort of string arrangement which forever puts me in mind of Care Homes and Chapels of Rest, Hump delivers a technically assured but not altogether convincing performance, with a certain smarminess at its core that smothers a good deal of the potential emotional effect – assuming that a dreary workaday ballad such as this could have such an effect in the first place, of course. None of this is helped by the syrupy and superfluous Mike Sammes-style backing singers, whose presence threatens to turn Hump’s lovelorn lament into a cosy saloon bar sing-song.

wd08-06-78In striking contrast to Hump’s inert self-pity, Rose Royce‘s similarly lovelorn Gwen Dickey is far from ready to accept defeat. Wishing On A Star she may be – but as long as there’s a glimmer of hope, she’s going to keep praying and pleading.

In certain respects, Wishing On A Star serves as the blueprint for Rose Royce’s masterpiece: Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, which hit the charts just over six months later. There’s a distinct similarity in the arrangements – and particularly with those swooning, soaring, shimmering, shivering strings, whose presence lifts both recordings into another almost unworldly dimension. For there’s true magic to be found here, despite this being the weaker of the two songs, as well as the sort of exquisite musicianly polish that can’t help but leave you wondering whether popular music really has slid steadily downhill ever since…

wd08-06-88…at which point, the blaring crash-bang-wallop of Bros is perhaps the last thing you might want to hear right now. But then, it’s worth bearing in mind that When Will I Be Famous is also the sound of pop music dropping down a generation, as it is historically wont to do at the end of each decade – and such drops have always jarred with the sensibilities of those who had spent the previous few years “maturing” with their pop music, secure in the false hope that pop music would continue to keep pace with them. We had it when bubblegum trampled over the ground that psychedelia had laid; when punk ripped up the cherished rule book of Dinosaur Rock; when the Spice Girls, UK garage and nu-R&B killed Britpop, diva house and “classic” soul; and with a bit of luck and a fair wind, we might be seeing faint signs of it again right now.

A dumbing down? A return to Square One? A case of Have We Learnt Nothing? No, not a bit of it. Pop music has to be cyclical, it has to be rooted in an endless present, and certain key divisions of it have to address the concern of an eternally adolescent age group. However, this doesn’t mean that that the rest of us necessarily have to dismiss it as witless trash. We were all there ourselves at some point or other, defending our own Square Ones as if they were the beginning of time itself.

Yes Mike, but does this make When Will I Be Famous any good? Well, strangely enough, I’d venture that the years have been quite kind. Aged 26 at the time it charted, perhaps I in turn was generationally obliged to loathe Bros – or to see through their blatant artifice, at the very least. But as brash, solipsistic teen-pop goes, this ain’t too shabby. Someone with a central involvement in its construction has clearly been listening to their Heaven 17 and their Scritti Politti, and if you listen closely enough then you might detect a certain wryness at work, which rather subverts the thrusting Thatcherite triumphalism of those buzzcut bimbos up front.

wd08-06-98Then again: for every bunch of fresh-faced ingenues, there must always be a counter-balancing set of somewhat over-ripe idols, their three or four years in the sun drawing to a natural close, who are facing that crucial adapt-or-die crossroads. The thick ones, the cutie-pie chancers who merely got lucky (and please don’t look back up the page, you’ll only embarrass them): they’ll drop off our radars without us even noticing. Some will move into light entertainment in its wider sense; and others will try to pull off that riskiest of tricks, the “growing with our audience” manoeuvre.

So it was for Robbie Williams: dismissed as “the fat dancer from Take That” by his would-be role model Noel Gallagher, and floundering to such a degree that he had been reduced to playing venues the size of Nottingham Rock City on his Autumn 1997 solo tour. The debut solo album had stiffed, and the third single hadn’t even gone Top Ten. Angels was the only card that Williams had left to play: a final fourth single from the album, whose atypical trad-balladry took him far away from the sort of laddish latter-day Britpop that he had been attempting to peddle.

The turning point came one Friday in December 1997, with an appearance on Chris Evans’ TFI Friday. His live interview completed, a nervous, vulnerable – hell, almost humble looking Williams semi-apologetically squeezed through the crowd, made his way to the stage downstairs… and gave the best performance of his solo career to date, by a country mile. In a stroke, he had granted us the opportunity to exert one of our favourite powers: the power of redemption.

“Ah bless, Robbie’s not so bad after all! Let’s give him another chance!” We duly clasped the overtly sentimental Angels to our seasonally sentimental bosoms (perhaps those sleigh-bells at the start of the song were exerting a subliminal effect?), turned the former fat dancer into the biggest star of his generation (well, in the UK at least; we couldn’t work miracles), and appointed Angels as our new national anthem.

Ten years on, and while Williams looks to be a washed-up spent force, his public’s patience having run out at around the time of the scrappily indulgent, are-you-taking-the-piss-or-what Rudebox album, his formerly beached boy-band compatriots have spent the past eighteen months surfing their own wave of ah-bless-it’s-good-to-have-them-back public redemption, with the admittedly sublime Patience having taken the place of the over-played and ultimately tiresome Angels (one funeral too many, perchance?) in our affections.

(And I am uncomfortably conscious of using that most irritating of devices, the first person plural, in order to make my point. “When DID we all fall out of love with Robbie?” “Why HAVE we all fallen back in love with Gary, Mark, Howard and Jason?” “What IS this, Troubled Diva or G2?“)

wd08-06-08Despite the corner-cutting laziness of her recent Nottingham Arena show (under an hour and a quarter on stage including costume changes; songs dropped from the set list because it’s the last night and it’s only Nottingham, so who even cares), I am still just about prepared to acknowledge (and gosh, she’ll be so glad to hear it!) Rihanna‘s current pre-eminence as one of our brightest, boldest and best pop stars. Don’t Stop The Music (another fourth-single-off-the-album, like Angels before it) was perhaps THE key unifying moment of that live show, even more so than her run of fine, astute ballads (and definitely more so than Umbrella, which chugged on for ten long minutes as the cast and crew indulged in end-of-term foam fights with each other, almost oblivious to the 10,000-strong crowd in front of them).

Now in its third month on the chart – and still inside the Top Ten at that – this is a track which seems to accumulate power as time goes on, and repeated plays during the past few days have only served to reinforce its greatness. Just as Althea and Donna may never have heard the 1967 Alton Ellis single which set off the chain of events leading to Uptown Top Ranking, so it is entirely possible that the 20-year old Rihanna has never even heard of Manu Dibango, the veteran African saxophonist whose 1972 single Soul Makossa provides Don’t Stop The Music with its central motif (via a circuitous route which takes in Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Starting Something, Jay-Z’s Face Off, Jennifer Lopez’s Feelin’ So Good – and hell, even Thursday’s Will Smith track quotes from it).

Well, at least not until Dibango filed a law suit against Rihanna in December for unauthorised usage, but that’s beside the point for the purposes of this argument. What I’m trying to say is that there’s something rather wonderful about these chains of mutation: quoting and re-quoting and re-re-quoting, like a game of Chinese Whispers, such that the end product isn’t even aware of the original source. And most importantly of all – and it has this in common with the H “two” O track – Don’t Stop The Music remains thrillingly, propulsively, intoxicatingly modern and of the moment.

For a wrinkly old bifter like me, caught at a vulnerable enough moment (as happened during the walk to work yesterday morning, and again during the walk home that evening), it can even represent a kind of prayer for the future: a re-statement of faith, that the gloriously daft and conflicted medium of pop music, which has obsessed me for almost all of my life, can still, and hopefully always will, have the power to delight, to surprise, to challenge, to excite, and to make me feel that life is worth living. All together now! MAMMA SEH MAMMA SAH MA MAKOOSA, MAMMA SEH MAMMA SAH MA MAKOOSA, PLEASE DON’T STOP THE, PLEASE DON’T STOP THE, PLEASE DON’T STOP THE MUSIC!

My votes: Rihanna: – 5 points (but sort things out with Manu Dibango, you thieving little bitch). Rose Royce – 4 points (the most musically proficient by far, but I’m voting for the future this time, as perhaps I should have done with H “two” O on Thursday). Robbie Williams – 3 points. Bros – 2 points. Engelbert Humperdinck – 1 point.

Over to you. Sheesh, I’ve rambled on for so long that I’ve ended up missing a day. Future posts will probably be shorter than this one, but I had a lot to say. And in any case, you always skim-read this bit and head straight to the comments box, don’t you? Oh, don’t attempt to hide it! Well, let me detain you no further. It’s down there. Off you trot…
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 6s.”