Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 8s.

Today, we’re extending a special welcome to temporarily displaced Freaky Trigger‘s Comments Crew refugees, all of whom should be well-versed in this sort of collaborative caper. They join us for a hearteningly strong selection, which offers ample scope for some enjoyably Tough Decisions. So please be upstanding! It’s the Number Eights!.

1969: You Got Soul – Johnny Nash. (video)
1979: Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – Ian Dury & the Blockheads. (video)
1989: Last Of The Famous International Playboys – Morrissey. (video)
1999: When You’re Gone – Bryan Adams featuring Melanie C. (video)
2009: Omen – The Prodigy. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-08-69Although his output has been overshadowed by more significant talents, Johnny Nash was by all accounts a crucial figure in the development of reggae music. Not a Jamaican resident himself, a chance visit to the island in 1968 led to Nash discovering the almost unknown genre, and forming an immediate affection for it. Links were forged with Bob Marley and the Wailers, whose early recordings were financed and distributed by Nash – albeit with limited success. As for his own recordings, Nash’s first excursions into the genre proved more successful, “You Got Soul” providing him with his second UK hit.

For all its plesant period charm, “You Got Soul” strikes me as a much weaker record than its predecessor “Hold Me Tight” and its early 1970s successors “Stir It Up”, “I Can See Clearly Now” and “There Are More Questions Than Answers”. It was more difficult to source than any other track in this year’s Which Decade, and perhaps there’s some significance in that.

wd09-08-79I’ve blogged before, and at some length, about this towering masterpiece from Ian Dury and the Blockheads – both here, and in the Freaky Trigger comments box. This time around, suffice it to say that “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” – which had topped the charts a few weeks earlier – is one of my favourites of all UK Number Ones. Perhaps it’s even my absolute favourite.

In December 1978, as “Rhythm Stick” was still climbing the charts, The Blockheads played the third gig I ever attended, and the first gig I ever loved, setting an almost unfairly high standard for all the hundreds of the gigs that followed in its wake. The second album Do It Yourself came out in May 1979 – a fine piece of work, but one which could never hope to equal the impact of their classic debut, New Boots and Panties!! “Rhythm Stick” therefore remained their commercial and artistic high water mark: a deceptively subtle and intricate piece, whose bawdy titular hook was always its least interesting feature.

wd09-08-89And so to Morrissey, scoring his third solo hit with a devotional love song to the Kray Twins, if you please. Moz’s fetishisation of the butch and the brutal would become increasingly apparent over time – to the detriment of his artistic vision, many would argue – but “Playboys” is a third-person narrative, which establishes clear distance between protagonist and performer.

Twenty years on, the performer appears to have been consumed by his self-invented mythology, rendering him incapable of representing any viewpoint other than his own bunker mentality. There have been partial returns to form along the way – 1994’s Vauxhall And I, 2004’s You Are The Quarry – but hearing “Playboys” again reminds me of how much ground has been lost, and of how diminished these returns have become.

wd09-08-99The enduring affection in which Bryan Adams is held by vast, silent swathes of the population serves as a salutary reminder: that there are some facets of popular culture which will always be closed off to me, no matter how hard I try to understand them.

That said, I find the appeal of “When You’re Gone” easier to identify than most. It’s a feisty little drivetime FM rocker, whose easy-going, thumbs-in-belt-loops swagger suggests that fun was had in its making. A matey rapport prevails between Adams and Melanie Chisolm, as emphasised by the unison of the duo’s delivery: no harmonies, no solos, no counterpoints, no call-and-response. It’s more open-mike night than lover’s duet, with Adams cast as the experienced host and Mel C as the humble, slightly starstruck auditionee.

For this marked Mel’s first leave of absence from the Spice Girls, who were still very much seen as a going concern. Before “When You’re Gone”, only Melanie B had broken ranks (with “I Want You Back”), and even the departed Geri Halliwell had yet to launch her solo career. It marked the moment when people begain to remark – with no small degree of surprise (and condescension?) – upon Mel C’s vocal proficiency (not bad for a manufactured pop act, who’d have thought it, etc.) In our eagerness to confer legitimacy upon her, we might have over-estimated her interpretive powers – but this felt at the time like a brave step forwards, and it holds up none too shoddily today.

wd09-08-09It’s been four and a half years since The Prodigy last had a new single in the charts, and nearly seven years since they had a Top Ten hit. And with only two albums to their name since 1997’s massive-selling The Fat Of The Land, The Prodge come close to rivalling that lonely old stoner George Michael as the ultimate laurel-resting slackers of their generation. (Oasis might have been crap for years, but at least they’ve kept churning out the product.)

I’ve not lived with “Omen” for long enough to be able to plonk one of my “Stunning Return To Form!” stickers on it just yet – but based on my first few listens, I’m liking what I’m hearing. Blokes in their forties making an almighty, unholy racket should always be encouraged; that’s my default position. Shall we move to the voting?

My votes: Ian Dury & the Blockheads – 5 points. Morrissey – 4 points. The Prodigy – 3 points. Bryan Adams featuring Melanie C – 2 points. Johnny Nash – 1 point.

Over to you. A string of Perfect Fives for Ian and the Blockheads? Oh, I do hope so. As I said several hundred words ago: it’s Tough Decision time. Off you go, then…
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 8s.”

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Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 9s.

Slowly but steadily, the Which Decade tribe appears to be re-assembling itself – along with a couple of newcomers, whom we warmly welcome. Now, I’d hate to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm at this still formative stage – but after yesterday’s strong opening, today’s selections are… not all they could be, shall we say.

On the other hand – and seasoned regulars will back me up on this, I’m sure – we’ve had far worse. Far, far worse. So have at ’em, crew! It’s the Number Nines!

1969: The Way It Used To Be – Engelbert Humperdinck. (video)
1979: Milk & Alcohol – Dr. Feelgood. (video)
1989: Fine Time – Yazz. (video)
1999: Changes – 2Pac. (video)
2009: Day ‘n’ Nite – Kid Cudi vs. Crookers. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-09-69Gawd strewth, not him AGAIN? The annual appearance of dreary old Engelbert Humperdinck in the listings has become Which Decade‘s unique curse, I fear. But hold up, hold up: compared to previous excursions, this one’s not so bad. Sure, we’re still mired in expansively lugubrious “Soundtrack for a Suburban Divorce” terrain – but it does sound like one of Engelbert’s people might have been taking notes from that younger, edgier, more vital Engel – better known to the world as Scott Walker. Certainly, the orchestration is less soupy this time round: there’s more colour, more definition, and a keener sense of dramatic ebb and flow. None of which can altogether mitigate against the wearily corny weepalong sway of the statutory Big Chorus – but credit where it’s due, eh?

wd09-09-79In the autumn of 1976, our boarding school’s so-called “underground” magazine polled us all for our favourite bands. A few hundred adolescent poshboys duly submitted their top tens, revealing two clear winners (and this just goes to show how popular culture distorts itself in the memory over time)… Santana and Dr. Feelgood.

Younger readers may never have heard a note, but The Feelgoods were a big draw in their day, even scoring a UK Number One with their live album Stupidity. Always more of a live band than a studio act, many felt that they never successfully captured their stage sound on record. And when it came to having hit singles, “Milk And Alcohol” was their only significant success.

Listening to it afresh, and finding less of interest than I was expecting – it’s a nifty enough pub-rock chugger, but little more than that – I find myself wondering whether the single’s success was largely down to a “Buggin’s Turn” vote of confidence in “the good old Feelgoods”, rather than a specific response to the merits of the track. Or am I being overly harsh on an unfashionable genre? Perhaps, perhaps.

wd09-09-89At some stage in early 1989, I must have thought enough of Yazz‘s “Fine Time” to have bought the 12-inch – but twenty years later, I’m struggling to remember why. Sure, she had been the Queen of my dancefloor through 1988, thanks to the triple punch of “Doctorin’ The House”, “The Only Way Is Up” and “Stand Up For Your Love Rights” – but the languidly loping “Fine Time” was no floor-filler, and in retrospect it probably broke Yazz’s spell.

As I see it, there are three problems here. One: the song’s kinda blah in the first place. Two: Yazz just doesn’t have the requisite vocal chops to get the job done. She sounds thin, uncertain, exposed. And three: for all the tasteful elegance of the backing track, this kind of post-Sade wine-bar skanking was about to get buried for good by Neneh Cherry’s immeasurably superior “Manchild”, Soul II Soul’s nothing-short-of-epochal “Keep On Moving”, and all the glories which followed in their wake.

wd09-09-99Perhaps it’s just that we finished Season One of The Wire last night, with the fate of some of its central characters still resonating inside my head – but anything that combines ghetto-toughness with wistful reflection and a twist of regret is currently scoring Big Points with me. With that in mind, I’m happy that yesterday’s TQ track has segued into today’s posthumous hit for Tupac Shakur: an artist who charted just twice in the UK before his death in 1996, and no less than fourteen times afterwards.

Although there’s something grisly and false about the whole 2Pac Heritage Industry, and the way that any old studio offcuts could still be passed off as new material over a decade later (Boy George on Elton John’s chart-topping participation with “Ghetto Gospel”: “She’s digging them up now!“), the Bruce Hornsby-sampling “Changes” is still seen by many as one of the rapper’s defining works, and it’s easy to see why. Every gangsta rapper needs their “What madness have we wrought?” moment, and 2Pac snatches the moral high ground with the best of them here. The BPMs are a bit on the swift side for total comfort, and there’s a lazy over-reliance on Hornsby’s hook – but the rapper’s flow is basically sound, and lines such as “We ain’t ready to see a black President” cannot help but take on an extra resonance in February 2009.

wd09-09-09I don’t know about you lot, but when it comes to voting, I often find myself at the mercy of two equal and opposing forces: The Comfort of the Old, versus The Thrill of the New. In Kid Cudi‘s case, I’ve decided to allow myself to be thrilled. Will the Crookers remix of “Day ‘n’ Nite” sound tired and played out in a few months’ time? Perhaps I shouldn’t even try to form a judgement – but for now, it works a treat.

If the Crookers remix is all you’ve heard, then duty compels me to point you in the direction of Kid Cudi’s original version: an altogether starker, more sombre, more sinister affair, which effectively conveys the bleak mood of his “lonely stoner” lyric. (With this in mind, it’s no wonder that Kid Cudi was called in by Kanye West to collaborate on his equally strange, stark and sad 808s and Heartbreak album.) But for the European market, an Italian production team were drafted in to give the track some clubland clout – hence the electro-house thump, the vocal cut-ups, and – oh joy, I’m SUCH a sucker for this – the sort of Wonky Parping that was last heard on Fedde Le Grand’s 2007 output.

You could argue that the remix is a travesty – and even Kid Cudi himself might agree with you, given his angry reaction to the admittedly terrible remix video – but pop’s a dirty old game, and it’s the remix which the Eurokids are hoovering up in gleeful droves. It’s ugly, it’s wrong… and it totally works. Hey, what can you do?

My votes: Kid Cudi vs. Crookers – 5 points. Dr. Feelgood – 4 points. 2Pac – 3 points. Engelbert Humperdinck – 2 points. Yazz – 1 point.

Over to you. If you’re my age, then I’m guessing you’ll be leaning towards the Feelgoods. Or has Engelbert finally bludgeoned you into submission, after all these years? Nostalgists might be feeling more charitable towards Yazz, poptimists might be preparing their cases in favour of Kid Cudi… and I’m not sure who’s going to champion 2Pac, especially consdering the battering that most of you have already given TQ’s sublime classic… but then again, You Never Know. Go on, surprise me!

(Oh, and don’t forget: voting remains open for all rounds until I blow the whistle – so if you want to play catch-up with the Number Tens, then please go right ahead.)
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 9s.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 10s.

Goodness, has it been a year already?

And bearing in mind my recent lack of enthusiasm for writing original new blog posts, can I really be arsed to pull this stunt for a seventh consecutive year?

Yeah, course I can! Shall we crack on?

When you last left us, the 1960s had just enjoyed their second consecutive victory, thus keeping them in pole position as the Official Best Decade Ever For Pop. But can 1969 sustain the momentum of 1968 and 1967? Or will the 1960s see a slide in popularity, taking them back to the dark pre-Merseybeat days of 1963?

Moreover, can the once loved, now derided 1980s reverse their seemingly terminal decline (from third to fourth to fifth, in three consecutive years), and recapture some of the winning spirit that saw 1985 bring it home for them four years ago?

These questions – and so many more – will be answered over the course of the next three or four weeks, as we re-engage our pop-critical faculties and seek to determine anew the answer to that age-old question: Which Decade Is Tops For Pops?

As Paxman would have it on University Challenge: we all know the rules by now (but if you’re new then they’re summarised here), so let’s get straight on with the game… starting with The Number Tens.

1969: For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder (video)
1979: Car 67 – Driver 67 (video)
1989: Wait – Robert Howard & Kym Mazelle (video)
1999: Westside – TQ (video)
2009: T-Shirt – Shontelle (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.
UK readers only: Listen to four of these songs on Spotify.

wd09-10-69It’s always good to start with a classic, isn’t it? For those of a certain vintage (i.e. mine), the shine was rubbed off “For Once In My Life” during the 1970s, as the memory of Stevie Wonder‘s joyful rendition was steadily erased by a slurry of chicken-in-the-basket cabaret covers on various crappy light entertainment shows. Thankfully, a period of “laying down” has worked in Stevie’s favour, leaving the song sounding – to these jaded old ears at least – fresher than ever.

Which is perhaps hardly surprising, given that I’ve been going through a major “I MOTOWN” phase in recent months, spurred into a critical re-appraisal by a delightful series of interviews with Martha Reeves, Lionel Richie and Temptations founder member Otis Williams. Of all the people I’ve interviewed over the past couple of years, these Motown veterans stand out as some of the most charming, courteous and co-operative – and there’s something about the way that they speak about the label which communicates an abiding love of, and genuine pride in, their musical legacy.

Oh dear, I’m gushing already. Let’s move on.

wd09-10-79It wasn’t until viewing the video earlier this evening that I realised – or rather, re-realised – that the lovesick taxi driver and his oppo back at base were voiced by the same person. This was a chap called Paul Phillips, who quickly sank back into obscurity – not least because Driver 67‘s follow-up single “Headlights” was banned by the BBC for being (quite genuinely, as it turns out) disturbing, creepy and several shades of Wrong.

As for “Car 67”, one of its minor claims to fame was being chosen by our dear departed Queen Mum as one of her Desert Island Discs, because it reminded her of once being stuck in a traffic jam. (I have Googled for confirmation of this evidence of the “common touch” which endeared her to millions, but can find no supporting documentation.)

A version was subsequently cut for the US market with the Brummie back at base replaced by an excitable American, and the iconic “83 Royal Gardens” yielding to the presumably more Yank-friendly “83 Brook Terrace”. (Incidentally, I have also Googled “83 Royal Gardens” and was disappointed to find no real-life version of this iconic address.)

wd09-10-89It’s difficult to form an objective assessment of Robert Howard (aka “Dr Robert” of the Blow Monkeys) and Kym Mazelle‘s “Wait”, as this was one of the Big Tunes at the weekly mixed gay night that I was running at the time, and I have reason to thank it for filling my floor in the first hour, several weeks on the trot. As such, it’s inextricably linked in my mind with the “She Drives Me Crazy” by the Fine Young Cannibals, which had just dipped out of the Top Ten.

Partly because I never played it into the ground, partly because it was always a “first hour” floor-filler, and partly because I haven’t heard it in the intervening twenty years, “Wait” still sounds gleaming and box-fresh to me now. Yes, Dr Robert might have been jumping on the house bandwagon – but he did it convincingly, and with enough suss to rope in one of the hot new garage divas of the day, giving Kym Mazelle her first UK hit (her “Useless (I Don’t Need You Now)” already having done the dancefloor business during the second half of 1988).

How can anyone NOT like this? Guess you lot will be telling me soon enough…

wd09-10-99TQ‘s “Westside” was my Official Favourite Single of 1999, fact fans… and yes, I thought that would surprise you. I loved the internal tension between the tough and the tender, the elegiac and the thuggish… and I loved the rolling, tumbling melodies and counterpoints, and the cascading, almost overspilling flow of the lyric… and its overall vibe of high summer in the pressure-cooker city… of baking sun beating down on sticky-hot tarmac… of fond, almost regretful nostalgia for people, places and situations that don’t tend to turn rose-tinted over time…

…and then I bought his album, and didn’t warm to it much, the thug-talk taking too much precedence over the tender touches for my liking. But this still sounds great: a handy bridge between 1990s G-Funk and the route that R.Kelly and The-Dream would take during the 2000s.

wd09-10-09Speaking of contemporary R&B, here’s Shontelle, whose recent success follows in the wake of fellow Barbadian Rihanna. “T-Shirt” is a slight confection, with an over-familiar chord progression (I’m hearing echoes of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love?”, and maybe even All Saints’ “Never Ever”), but its central conceit is cute enough. For if Shontay is to be believed, she misses her fella sooooo badly that, oooooh, she’s just going to step out of these designer clothes, all casual-like ‘cos she can’t be messing with that shit right now, and oooooh, maybe she’ll just slip his T-shirt on, and mmmmm that feels gooood

Cleverly, “T-Shirt” appeals to girls for its “Are you feeling me sisters?” insouciance, and to boys for its “Your skanky old T-shirt actually carries a Deep Erotic Charge” hotness. Sadly, the conceit doesn’t really stretch to the end of the song, which fades away into endless re-runs of the chorus.

But then if we’re going to start docking points for Failing To Develop A Theme, then “For Once In My Life” pretty much states its case in its opening lines, and that noodly harmonica solo doesn’t add much… and “Wait” has that equally twiddly piano break… and “Car 67” takes an awfully long time to deliver a rather cumbersome narrative “reveal”… which leaves me scoring the Number Tens thusly:

My votes: TQ – 5 points. Stevie Wonder – 4 points. Robert Howard & Kym Mazelle – 3 points. Shontelle – 2 points. Driver 67 – 1 point.

Over to you. As always, please place all five songs in descending order of preference – NO omissions, NO tied places – using as much objectivity as you can bring to bear on the exercise (because kneejerk nostalgia for one’s personal Golden Age makes for boring scoring).

When you’ve done that, please leave your votes in the comments box, along with any supporting observations. I’ll be totting the scores up as we go, with frequent updates as the project progresses.

You got that? OK, we’re good. I’ll be back on Tuesday or Wednesday with the Number Nines.

Ah, isn’t this just the Best Time Of The Year?
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 10s.”