Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 6 – the Number 7s.

Looking at the results from the first three days of voting, it seems that your perennial enthusiasm for the 1960s remains undimmed, with strong showings for Brenton Wood, John Fred and The Move. Conversely, the 1980s have never got off to a worse start. At the time of writing, Jack ‘N’ Chill, Debbie Gibson and T’Pau have all placed last in their respective rounds, meaning that the 1980s are already trailing by 5 points (as you’ll see in the score table at the bottom of today’s post).

If there’s one theme that links today’s five selections, I’d say it was this: cheapness. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment – but first, let us fling open the doors to our Bargain Basement and hurl ourselves in an unseemly scrum upon the Number Sevens.

1968: Pictures Of Matchstick Men – Status Quo. (video)
1978: Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna. (video – link fixed)
1988: Say It Again – Jermaine Stewart. (video)
1998: Gettin’ Jiggy With It – Will Smith. (video)
2008: What’s It Gonna Be – H “two” O featuring Platnum. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd08-07-68Remember what I was saying yesterday about the make-do-and-mend shonkiness of that 1968 Top Of The Pops? Well, here’s another prime case in point. A few years before their re-invention as no-nonsense boogie merchants in brushed denim, Status Quo had a brief flirtation, both musically and indeed sartorially, with post-psychedelic pop. Although Pictures Of Matchstick Men sold well, both here and in the USA, giving the band their first hit, it sounds to these ears like a decidedly awkward marriage, with a primitive, low-rent feel that suffers by comparison with the likes of Itchycoo Park, or even Flowers In The Rain.

Rather than conjuring up images of a lysergically-fuelled Arcadia, the plodding, prosaic production sounds as if it was funded by Green Shield Stamps (the logical extension of post-war ration book culture?), and held together by Sellotape, Copydex and scraps of greasy twine. But then, as its composer Francis Rossi eventually revealed, the song was written not while tripping his tits off in some far-flung ashram, but while sitting “on the bog… to get away from the wife and mother-in-law”.

Poor old Frank. Not so much Timothy Leary as Timothy Lumsden – and in the Lowry-tribute stakes, his song even ended up being eclipsed, ten years later, by…

wd08-07-78…but hey, we’ll have no spoilers here. Let us turn instead to Althea and Donna, and the first of this year’s songs to have featured in a previous Which Decade. (Hands up, who remembers the Year One tie-break?) Played to death on Jamaican import by John Peel for most of the second half of 1977, Uptown Top Ranking was a product of reggae’s standard cost-cutting device, whereby numerous vocal tracks were laid upon the exact same backing track (or “riddim”) – in this case, Trinity’s Three Piece Suit, which was itself a dub version of a cover version of a song which first appeared in 1967… look, are you keeping up with all this?

Despite its humble Frankenstein’s Clone origins, what’s remarkable about Uptown Top Ranking is that, to the unschooled ear, the backing track (featuring “the ubiquitous Sly and Robbie”, as we are contractually obliged to call them) sounds as if it had been expressly recorded with Althea and Donna’s vocals in mind.

And what vocals! If you can get beyond the patois, this is a deliciously sassy and endearingly unspun exercise in bigging oneself up – and as such, almost enough to make you believe in the strange erotic power of the humble khaki suit. (And, indeed, ting.)

(A quick aside about Althea and Donna’s video, before we move on. This is the famous clip in which A&D were obliged to sing with the Top of the Pops orchestra: a performance which the Ian Gittins book brands as an embarrassing disaster, but which I think isn’t all that bad, considering that a BBC light entertainment orchestra could hardly be expected to display any great natural affinity with the genre.)

wd08-07-88Along with the trusty old “Gareth Gates naked”, my other most notable search engine referral term has been, for many years, “Jermaine Stewart gay”. And, do you know what: in all those years, it has never occurred to me to find out. Having just looked up his details, I now know that Stewart met an untimely death in 1997, a few months short of his fortieth birthday, of an AIDS-related disease – and there, I feel, is where my brief investigation should end.

Let us instead consider the merits of Say It Again: a slight confection, whose typically thin and tinny 1980s production does it no favours, but which is partially redeemed by an intriguing if ultimately misleading introduction (cut from the MP3 medley, but you’ll find it on the YouTube clip), some frisky piano vamps, and a general air of good-natured bonhomie which, when set against the forced relentlessness of Debbie Gibson’s Shake Your Love, comes as a refreshing blast of early spring air.

wd08-07-98“Cheap” is, of course, a relative concept. As Dolly Parton famously said, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” – a maxim that can be somewhat less favourably applied to Will Smith‘s lazy, slapdash, but probably eye-wateringly expensive bastardisation of Sister Sledge’s He’s The Greatest Dancer.

Dear Lord, didn’t we have enough of this pop-rap claptrap last year, with LL Cool J’s Ain’t Nobody and Warren G’s I Shot The Sheriff? What, was there some sort of movie soundtrack tie-in going on here? (For it’s the only logical explanation that I can think of, other than the commercial imperative to provide Will Smith with regular vehicles to carry on being “Will Smith”.) And can I really be arsed to find out?

(Answer: No, I can’t. If Will’s people can’t be arsed to put the effort in, then neither can I.)

Compare and contrast, then: Will Smith’s half-assed shotgun wedding with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, versus Althea and Donna’s arranged marriage with Joe Gibbs, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Two very similar techniques, two massively different budgets, and two entirely different outcomes. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Eeh, I can’t half waffle on when I’ve got the bit between my teeth. And there’s still loads that I want to say about H “two” O featuting Platnum, but a dwindling time slot in which to do so.

wd08-07-08Quick bit of background, then. A brand new entry on the UK chart last Sunday, What’s It Gonna Be follows T2’s Heartbroken as the second breakout hit for the “bassline house” scene: a largely underground dance music sub-culture rooted in the Midlands and the North of England, with a particularly strong base in Sheffield. H “two” O are a two-man production team from Leicester, Platnum (sic) are a vocal trio from Manchester, and the video for What’s It Gonna Be has received over 1.5 million viewings on YouTube in just over a month. This, my fellow oldsters, is The Exciting New Youth Sensation That Is Sweeping The Country, and as such it is widely tipped to hit Number One within the next couple of weeks.

It therefore logically follows – and really, this is only right and proper – that the vast majority of my generation will loathe What’s It Gonna Be with a passion. Oh, I can hear you all now: “It’s music for people with ASBOs to play on the bus!” And, for those of you who were clubbing in the 1990s: “Call this new? It’s just souped-up Speed Garage from 1997! Heard it all before!” (It’s a reasonable enough charge, and I have the same issue with 2000s dubstep versus 1990s trip-hop.)

Equally, it also follows that an aging former hipster such as myself arguably has no business enjoying this tune as much as I do – but, and I fully expect to stand alone in this, I bloody love it. Like so much great teenage music over the years, it’s simple to the point of crudeness, it’s wilfully dumb to the point of insolence, it celebrates itself whilst ignoring all else around it… and it has the most irresistable thrust and drive and energy and general sense of alive-ness. And, indeed, a monumentally thumping and fully genre-appropriate bass line. And so, at the risk of acting like a soul-sucking leech upon a youth culture that by its very definition must exclude me, all I can say is this: I LUV DIS TUNEE!!!

My votes, then: Althea & Donna – 5 points. H “two” O – 4 points. Jermaine Stewart – 3 points. Status Quo – 2 points. Will Smith – 1 point.

Over to you. Which cheapo bargains from our basement are going to end up in your shopping trolley? The comments box awaits you. Happy shopping…

Running totals so far – Number 7s.

1978: Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna (162)

The best of this bunch and a classic. One of those tunes that’s always been there. (Sarah)

Legendary track and critic-proof as far as I can tell. (jeff w)

5 Points, by dint of being original and at the time (feeling depressed that I’m old enough to remember) like nothing I’d heard before. (Alan)

At the time I wasn’t too happy with them for denying a certain other single its historic 10th week at number one, but whenever I hear it now the reaction is of pure unpretentious joy – which is pretty much what you hear in the vocals. I’d love to see the face of a Lily Allen fan hearing this for the first time as well. (Erithian)

By default they should receive honorary damehoods for displacing “Mull Of Kintyre” from the top, but this felt like a punk number one (and not just because Strummer was in the habit of namechecking or quoting from it at Clash gigs); contentedly young and explosively confident and its meaning and intent (even though Record Mirror felt itself obliged to print a glossary of Jamaican patois and a “translation” of the lyrics) are latent and luscious. Note the crucial hooks of the “oo!”s and that brief but devastating harmonic modulation near the end. (Marcello Carlin)

A beautiful pop record, nothing to do with going to the bingo apparently. (Geoff)

Looking back, I modelled my own personal ’70s look on Althea (or was it Donna..) – big hair and even bigger glasses, and also at times an ‘alter back (see me gi you heart attack most definitely). I still jig around the kitchen when this comes on the radio – oooh. Ting. (Tina)

5 points, although obviously it’s jumping on the bandwagon of Reggae Like It Used To Be by Paul Nicholas. (Simon)

Lovely, but destined to be a one hit wonder, or to be considered as a “novelty” record by really stupid people. Shame. (betty)

Not a fan at the time, but it’s grown on me every year since. (diamond geezer)

If retrospective TV documentaries are anything to go by, this was much more influential than it sounds to me. (Adrian)

This duo had zero impact in North America…and I’ve never been a big fan of reggae. I like it in principle, but it does nothing for me. (asta)

Top quality stuff, obviously. But not top marks. It’s a great song but I find myself drifting off before the end. Maybe I’m too white and too male? And ting? (imsodave)

Rather drab and repetitive attempt at the genre. (Stu)

I recognise that this is regarded by some as a seminal track, but I’ve never really liked it very much. I suppose I don’t like the reggae-disco fusion. Be one or the other, not both. (Gert)

1968: Pictures Of Matchstick Men – Status Quo (137)

The finest Quo song ever – I am a sucker for psychedelia. (Stereoboard)

I remember this coming out – I was a big Small Faces fan at the time and this was in a similar vein. SQ were almost cool back then (almost) – and seemed to know more chords, which they subsequently erased from their repertoire. (Tina)

I’d always associated Status Quo with the school bullies and heads down no nonsense mindless 70s boogie. That was until I heard this gem on a cheap psychedelic compilation we got about 10 years ago. It’s not Status Quo. It doesn’t look like them or sound like them. It can’t be them. The bullies certainly wouldn’t have recognised them. (Geoff)

Gloriously gormless pop-psych which fits snugly into the lemon belly/tangerine bread bin where-are-we-all-going mood of inventive early ’68 teenpop. Still their only American hit (as THE Status Quo) but see also the undervalued follow-up “Ice In The Sun,” one of several strange ’68 hits written by the unlikely team of Marty Wilde and Ronnie Scott. (Marcello Carlin)

Four points for the riff, and the fifth for the crazy phasing effects that clearly encourages the listener to sway their arms in a suitably ‘far out’ manner. The sound of bad drugs gone good. (imsodave)

You can picture Rossi and Parfitt, can’t you, on some nostalgia TV show watching Top Of The Pops footage of this and chortling about how they thought they were part of the counter culture, haw haw haw, while trying to shove out another few copies of their latest warmed over boogie and just before the bit where they start boasting about being off their heads on coke at Live Aid. Or worse, Steve Wright on TOTP2. Great skeletal riff, lovely phasing, beautifully of and out of its time. (Simon)

I love the story of how Rossi wrote this. None of us can hear it now without knowledge of the long career to follow, but that opening guitar sound must have been pretty cool back then. A nice little time capsule of a song. (Erithian)

There’s something not quite right about this. It’s almost as if someone has tried to make a psych pop record having never heard one before and relying solely on an Ikea-style instruction manual. This is a compliment btw! (jeff w)

Everyone can play that opening riff on anything, including plastic rulers and rubber bands. (Nottingham’sMr Sex‘)

I’ve a soft spot for the Quo generally (although a soft spot that involves owning none of their records, I note). This is not typical Quo of course, but sounds…er… a bit like that early Spinal Tap thing “(Listen to the) Flower People” (you know…. “Shhh. Listen”). Actually, that’s exactly what this is, isn’t it? Spinal Tap. It’s no “In the Army Now” for sure… (SwissToni)

Pleasant enough, but whenever I hear it I can remember it being on the radio in 1968 and I’m thrown into a state of depression about the passage of time😦 I once covered as a temp in Ian Gittins’ brother’s job. That’s how sad my life is: I can remember things like that. (betty)

False nostalgia for this tune as The Divine Comedy covered it during one of their tours (as they did ‘Mr Blue Sky’, now I come to think of it). I prefer Mr Hannon’s version but thanks to him this remains in the top three. (Sarah)

The singing is strangely slow, but it still sounds good. (Z)

Suffering quite badly as you say from its GreenShield Production but still there’s something there. Is it still in their set I wonder? Was it ever? Don’t think it was when I saw them in ’78 (shameful I know). (NiC)

Plodding and uninspiring, but better than their later offerings. (Adrian)

Yes it was a poor man’s psychedelia, but still better than the rest of this twaddle. (Alan)

Another group that I really like but have never bought one of their albums. This isn’t one of my faves of theirs, but it nicely breaks the 60s formula. A good classic track but not one that actually does anything for me emotionally or intellectually. (Gert)

That Quo riff depresses me. To these ears, it sounds forlorn, bleak and broken (i.e. not qualities that I respond to well), and a hundred years old in a way that makes me shudder. (mike)

“I see your face beneath my pillow”? Right, Did she choose suffocation over having to listen to that guitar solo? I would have. (asta)

1998: Gettin’ Jiggy With It – Will Smith (110)

Well, I think I was about the only person who said they thought Warren G’s I Shot The Sheriff was great last year. I’m consistent at least! Come on, what’s to hate about Will? This is infectious and a lot of fun. (jeff w)

How can you possibly dislike Will Smith? Even if – like me – you generally can’t abide rap. Ah, but this isn’t rap is it? It’s sun captured on tape. Uh. Ah yeah. Look, it’s got kiddies helping with the chorus and everything. It’s about as street as Coldplay. Unlike Usher though, at least our Will realises that this is all ridiculous and not to be taken too seriously… (SwissToni)

Cheap formula, but the end result is surprisingly good. Too many aim too high, and as a result space is filled with debris. Or something. (Simon C)

Unbearably catchy. Usually this sort of thing would have me cringing, and indeed Will Smith himself makes me cringe, but his summery pop tunes just seem to get under your skin, don’t they? (Sarah)

My appetite for Mr. Smith never regained the heights of his initial offering Summertime, but this sounds better than I remember. A surprise first placing. (Adrian)

Five points: I have trouble believing this. On paper, he’s everything I object to- but even with repeated listening I can’t help wanting to dance to this. However, I refuse to have anything to do with oversized shiny track suits. (asta)

I cannot give any reasonable reason for why I like Will Smith, but I can’t help myself. 5 points. (jo)

Love the big ass video. Its got me doing strange things with my hands. (Tina)

Uncool perhaps, but I prefer rap with a smile rather than a snarl, or with a message (or indeed The Message) – and a smile is what Big Willie’s giving us here. Not one I’d search out, but fun. (Erithian)

Big Willie expresses the pressing issues of the nineties male, by tossing off some nonsense over the butchered remains of a classic. I’d much rather get jiggy with the instrumental version. (imsodave)

Karaoke mock rap was unfortunately the late nineties rage and this is as bad as Stars on 45 or Mark Ronson. Where did all the gusto of “Boom! Shake The Room” go? Should we ask Will’s accountant? (Marcello Carlin)

His affability is his undoing. (betty)

Did the cloying tabloidese of ‘jiggy’ predate or post-date this? Good luck to him and all that, but it is really as if the Vibrators were the biggest selling punk band ever. (Simon)

Let’s face it, Will Smith was to gangsta rap what Busted are to the hardcore death metal scene. The one great thing about Will’s successful movie career is that he rarely sings any more. (Alan)

How to ruin a classic tune in one easy lesson. Get Will “Multiplex” Smith to do one of his tedious little “raps” over it. Give me MC Hammer any day. At least he’s funny. (Geoff)

Oh god, it’s pathetic. A song assembled by committee to ensure that it will tick enough boxes to sell. (Gert)

2008: What’s It Gonna Be – H “two” O featuring Platnum (85)

You know, I’m really excited about the music scene right now. Because the really great moments usually come along at times of horrendous musical stagnation, and I can’t remember a time when music has been as stagnant as it is now. If this is the big new sound, how come it has absolutely nothing in it I haven’t heard a hundred times before? (Alan)

I wasted days in the 90s stuck at the back of clubs listening to this breed of characterless tinny rubbish, hoping in vain that the DJ might play a decent track, but they never did, they just spun the 12 inch version afterwards, and I went home miserable and unfulfilled, and this rubbish is just continuing the awfulness, it’s such a bland grim attempt at music, and the singer even namechecks herself which is a sure sign of shallow desperation, and as for the misspelling of Platnum that’s just unforgivable, but I guess in this age of txtspeak not entirely surprising, and this has no redeeming musical features whatsoever, and basically I despair. (diamond geezer)

Oh God. The name. The music. Make them stop. In the name of all that’s holy make them stop. (SwissToni)

OK, so I’m in that vast majority you spoke of! 1 point. (Erithian)

So, it sounds exactly the same as hundreds of other tracks that have been assembled in exactly the same way. I am tempted to go off into a rant about the cynical marketing of meaningless products to people who are too young and naive to realise that a) you don’t have to have it b) that the test of good music isn’t its fashionableness and c) advertising is never the equivalent of critical judgement. (Gert)

Council House. Not even the fact that it’s one of the few successes of the Trent Tempo (recorded in a toilet at the Golden Fleece, Notts Kids), can save it. (Nottingham’sMr Sex‘)

It’s music for thickos. For those who have no knowledge of, or interest in, the huge scope and breadth of the history of popular music. And that’s fine. Everyone needs a soundtrack to their own misdemeanors, but that’s no reason to imply that this is in any way a good pop song. (imsodave)

With the opening bars of this I wondered if it would be an unexpected high ranker, but as it progrssed it became clear that my expectations were right all along. (Adrian)

Following the Britpop revival, the speed garage revival was inevitable. My problem with this sort of thing is slightly obtuse, in that I have Channel 4’s Freshly Squeezed on over breakfast, and at the moment they’re playing a lot of records that sound like this, before which Nick Grimshaw will always go “this is bassline house!” in a really smug fashion even though he might as well be reading it from Latin for all the knowledge of what that means he clearly has. (Simon)

Having videos puts a whole different complexion on this – are they trying to recapture the whole Britney business of more innocent days with the schoolgirl thing? Although Britney did in those days actually look like a teenager and this lot look like they’re about 33. (Tina)

The video is ridiculous, the female singer’s voice is grating and yet I still like it. A lot. (asta)

Despite my better judgement, I quite like this. I liked ‘Heartbroken’ too. I’m far too old to be frequenting the kind of clubs where this will be played. Instead, I’ll throw a nostalgic nod to my first Mediterranean holidays sans-parents and jig about while I’m doing the ironing. (Sarah)

They’d hate to know I like this, when I could be their granny. Heh heh. (Z)

Christ that was just like my schooldays. This is a real grower as the one girl who went to my school probably said to someone (not me). (Geoff)

Why do people have such a downer on songs that teenage girls would probably like? Er, rant over … it would be wrong and slightly creepy of me to show too much knowledge or enthusiasm for bassline house but I prefer My Destiny by Delinquent featuring K Cat. I’m having a midlife crisis and will be using terms such as “rinsing” and “dropping some hot joints” next. So embarrassing. (betty)

Top two too close to call really – Althea & Donna is an all-time classic but H Two O is a right now classic and deserves its moment in the sun, especially as I’ve been crossing my fingers on it crossing over for the last 8 months. (Down with the kids? Moi?). Upcoming T2 single, “Gonna Be Mine”, is the best bassline pop smash yet BTW. (Tom)

This is as completely and uncompromisingly fabulous as Althea and Donna and Mel and Kim were; it’s the latest in a glorious line of fuck-you-but-we’re-nice-girls-really pop classics; unruly and all over the Top Shop but brilliantly propulsive and deliciously insolent as all great pop should be (and if it gets to number one, as it ought, it will possess the best bassline on any chart topper since “Babycakes.” As a 44-year-old I am glad that I lived long enough to hear and love this wonderful record. (Marcello Carlin)

The kids (on the bus) are all right. As per. (jeff w)

1988: Say It Again – Jermaine Stewart (76)

Found myself liking this, rather surprisingly. Nice clear voice and a good hook to the tune. (Stu)

Deserves more! I actually luv the plastic sound of the late 1980s, even when I don’t remember the song, but I also appreciate this is just mourning for the adolescence I wasted listening to The Wall. (Tom)

I probably danced to this in a Walsall nightclub when it was snuck in between the Vandross and Alexander O’Neal played on a loop, without knowing who it was. God, they don’t know they’re born these days. (betty)

3 Points – and if you’d told me beforehand I’d be rating this colourless twaddle so highly I’d have hit you with a baseball bat. (Alan)

It’s not terrible. That’s about as nice as I can be about this. The chorus is alright, if you can get past the nasty production, I suppose. (SwissToni)

Michael Jackson lite. Unmemorable – although I did like his other one about not having to take your clothes off – a bit cold IMHO for that sort of tomfoolery. (Tina)

“We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” was really his moment and this was OK but hardly the beginning or even the middle of time – it sounds ready to be covered by LEON. (Marcello Carlin)

Dull. Comparing it favourably with Debbie Gibson’s song is faint praise indeed. (Z)

Jermaine’s funk is particularly insipid here. There were a lot of very badly produced songs in the 80’s, and weak tunes like this just seem horribly exposed. I want to give it a cuddle. (imsodave)

Yea, i used to like Terrence Trent D’Arby too. Sad I know. A repeat listen reveals that I should have sliced my ears off years ago. (jo)

People should be laughing at the late 80s in the way people in the late 80s laughted at the 70s. Did the record company have an expense account with C&A and Staples for the wardrobe budget? (Nottingham’sMr Sex‘)

The worrying thing is, there are still records being made that sound like this aural sludge of cream drum machines and aural compression in the name of wine bar funk. (Simon)

Generic, forgettable, squeaky. (Sarah)

The whole thing is pathetic. (asta)

Crap. Sorry, I know he’s dead and all that, but I don’t like this idea that making ugly strangulated noises is an adequate facsimile for emotion. I much preferred We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off. (Gert)

Please don’t say it any more times. Please. (Adrian)

Decade scores so far (after 3 days).
1. The 1960s (13)
2. The 1970s (11)
3. The 2000s (10)
4. The 1990s (8)
5. The 1980s (3)

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