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

VOTING IS NOW CLOSED. I’ll be posting the results over the weekend.

And about bloody time and all! As we lumber, sweating and panting, up to this year’s finishing line, I can offer you one final incentive: this is a decent, respectable, clunker-free batch of Number Ones, and hence a suitably “quality” finish to this year’s concluding round of “Which Deacde”.

Yes, I said “concluding”. For once this year’s voting is over, and the final cumulative totals are tallied and announced, our seven-year quest will be officially over – and we shall know, once and for all, which of the past five decades really IS “tops for pops”.

And so, for the 72nd and last time, may I introduce you to today’s selections… the seventh and final Number Ones.

1969: (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice – Amen Corner. (video)
1979: Heart Of Glass – Blondie. (video)
1989: Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart – Marc Almond featuring Gene Pitney. (video)
1999: Maria – Blondie. (video)
2009: The Fear – Lily Allen. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-01-69Following the example set by The Move and Engelbert Humperdinck, Amen Corner become the third act from last year’s 1968 chart to re-appear in 1969. Although “Bend Me, Shape Me” comfortably won its round last year (against competition from Rod Stewart, Bomb The Bass, Cleopatra and Adele), I’m wagering that it will have a much tougher struggle this year – partly due to the strong competition, and partly because “Paradise” simply lacks the sheer bounce of “Bend Me”.

Yes, it’s a memorable melody – and as before, there’s a particular quality to Andy Fairweather-Low’s voice which transcends its bubblegum surroundings – but the song rests too heavily on a repeated melodic descent, which does negate much of the intended joyfulness. As for the lyrics, which have been translated from the original Italian (“Il Paradiso”), they strive manfully for the metaphysical – but Andy Fairweather-Low is no Andrew Marvell, and the conceit feels cumbersome and strained, as translations tend to be.

wd09-01-79(I’ve written about Blondie‘s “Heart Of Glass” before, so let’s do a bit of judicious copy/pasting from Freaky Trigger:)

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a new wave/disco hybrid which pre-dates this, and certainly to my 16-year old ears this came as something shiningly new, deeply thrilling and quite without precedent. Blondie had always been fun, but with “Heart Of Glass” they stepped up and took ownership of pop, at least for the next 18 months or so.

It’s remarkable how fresh this record continues to sound, no matter how over-played – but then there’s something shrink-wrapped perfect about its glossy, immaculate sheen, which never wears off with age.

One of the more curious features is the insertion of a stray 3:4 bar in the middle of the instrumental hook – but even more curiously, not in every repetition of it. Perhaps it’s further evidence that the rule books of pop were being torn up like never before?

Oh, and for the record… despite being something like a 99.9% on the Kinsey scale, even I had a bit of a “thing” for Debbie. (Up to a certain point. Ahum.)

And finally, here’s a detail from the back cover of the 12-inch, scanned by my own fair hand, which has always tickled me. Can YOU spot the elementary error? (I’m guessing that the UK branch of Blondie’s label had to send a junior down to HMV Oxford Street in a hurry, in order to complete the montage.)

wd09-01-89It feels slightly mean to point this out, but Marc Almond‘s three biggest solo hits have all been 1960s cover versions: Jacques Brel’s “Jacky”, David McWilliams’ “The Days Of Pearly Spencer”, and Gene Pitney’s 1967 hit “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”. Then again, Marc is both a skilful and an enthusiastic interpreter of other people’s songs, who suggested to me in 2007 that his days as a songwriter might well be numbered.

Sportingly, Gene Pitney is invited back for Almond’s cover – and the pairing of their voices is a delightful and successful one. You sense a genuine warmth and a mutual respect, without the whole affair turning into a Jools Holland-esque back-slapping jam session. I’m amazed at how well this stands up today: a thoroughly deserved Number One.

wd09-01-99Well now, here’s a thing: twenty years on from their first chart-topper, the newly re-united Blondie made Number One all over again with their first comeback single. So, was the success of “Maria” simply the freak result of a collective wave of “Ah bless, they’re back!” goodwill, or did it deserve Number One status based on its own merits?

Listening to it ten years on, I’m inclined to pitch my answer somwhere between the two. “Maria” is frisky and feisty, peppy and pert… but ultimately it’s rather slight, and little more than a pretext for Blondie to resume being Blondie. Will any of you be marking it higher than “Heart Of Glass”, I wonder? I’d say: doubtful in the extreme.

wd09-01-09Before “The Fear”, I’d never cared much for Lily Allen, an artist who struck me as the epitome of a uniquely Noughties celebrity culture: smug, shallow, slight, and bolstered by a delusional over-estimation of her talent. Her easy, instant success in 2006 felt like a foregone conclusion, and I could have spat at her sense of entitlement.

All of which merely adds to the power of this splendidy deft, wry and chilling single, which sees Lily not only mocking her own delusions, but travelling beyond mere self-satire to a bleaker place entirely. “I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore”, runs the hook line, placing “The Fear” as the darker flip-side to the cheery discombobulation of “Let’s Dance”, its immediate predecessor at Number One.

(And if you thought that the line about The Sun and The Mirror was lazy and glib, then listen again: it’s all in the prepositions, and you may wish to de-capitalise.)

My votes: Heart Of Glass – 5 points. Lily Allen – 4 points. Marc and Gene – 3 points. Maria – 2 points. Amen Corner – 1 point.

Over to you. This was a tough one to mark, as my top three choices are also three of my favourite UK Number Ones – but will YOU be similarly conflicted? I’m looking forward to finding out…
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number Ones.”

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

Nearly there, folks… nearly there. It’s been a slower slog than usual up the foothills of this year’s top tens – but with the summit nearly in sight, I think you’ll detect a noticeable and welcome improvement in the quality of today’s selections. So, start spreading the news; it’s the Number Twos!

1969: Where Do You Go To My Lovely – Peter Sarstedt. (video)
1979: Chiquitita – Abba. (video)
1989: Belfast Child – Simple Minds. (video)
1999: You Don’t Know Me – Armand Van Helden featuring Duane Harden. (video)
2009: Just Dance – Lady GaGa featuring Colby O’Donis. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-02-69For anyone who has seen Wes Anderson’s delightful 2007 comedy The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and the short film Hotel Chevalier which precedes it, Peter Sarstedt‘s “Where Do You Go To My Lovely” will be instantly familiar. The late John Peel might once have named it as his most loathed record of all time, and who are we to argue – but then I’ve always found it stirringly evocative, if more than a little absurd.

(What’s WITH all those yes-you-do’s and no-you-don’t’s, for instance? It’s if Sarstedt is conducting a one-sided argument with a phantom, and it makes me want to insert my own shouted rebuttals – “there’s diamonds and pearls in your hair”, “NO THERE AREN’T!” – except there’s not enough space within the song to do that properly. Mr. Sarstedt, you protest too fast.)

A rum bunch, those Sarstedt brothers. Peter only had one other hit (“Frozen Orange Juice”, from later in the year) – which is one more than his younger brother Robin (“My Resistance Is Low”, 1976), and a good few less than his older brother Eden Kane (whose “Boys Cry” popped up on Which Decade five years ago). But when it came to song titles, Peter was the rummest. Hands up, who’d like to hear “Many-Coloured, Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Eggs”… or “Sons of Cain Are Abel”… or “Open a Tin”… or “No More Lollipops”… just me, then? Oh, suit yourselves.

wd09-02-79Much as I love them, Abba‘s occasional Hispano/Latino genre excursions have always left me cold – and hence “Chiquitita” has always struck me as a dull, syrupy slog.

(I was all set to point out its hilarious titular similarity to “Chicken Tikka”, but French and Saunders beat me to it on Friday night’s Mamma Mia spoof for Comic Relief. MY gag! MY gag!)

Set against this, one can only commend the group’s decision to donate half its royalties to UNICEF, as part of 1979’s “International Year of the Child” initiative – an arrangement which persists to this day, and which has benefited the organisation by over 2.5 million US dollars. Such impeccable altruism won’t earn “Chiquitita” any more points – but in honour of the gesture, I shall suspend all further slaggings, and move swiftly on to…

wd09-02-89…this dismal dirge from Simple Minds, whose renewed topical relevance makes it no more or less dismal. This was the second longest single to top the UK charts after “Hey Jude” – and my God, can’t you just feel the weight of every one of its three hundred and ninety-nine ponderous, U2-aping seconds?

The topicality didn’t end there, either. For having asked the Big Questions regarding “The Troubles” on the A-side, Jim Kerr and his crew turned their attentions to the South African Question on the B-side, with the marginally more bearable “Mandela Day” and a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”. All very sincere and well meant, I’m sure – but as Neil Tennant wryly commented, two years later: “How can you expect to be taken seriously?”

wd09-02-99Remember when I heaped surprised-and-delighted praise upon Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”, naming it as this year’s happiest re-discovery? Well, the process can work in both directions, and here’s a prime example.

I was looking forward so much to hearing this Armand Van Helden track again, as it was very much my song-of-the-moment ten years ago, providing the soundtrack to some agreeably debauched moments (a weekend in Brighton springs to mind)… but dearie me, whatever uniquely spell-binding qualities it once had now strike me as well-executed, but ultimately a bit routine.

So perhaps this is one of those former dance anthems whose appeal at the time depended upon its straight-out-of-the-box freshness, and its brief moment of universal floor-filling appeal? Take both elements away, and what do you have left? In this case: just another disco-sampling vocal house track.

wd09-02-09Hold up, did I say “noticeable and welcome improvement?” And if so, then why have I been so down-in-the-mouth about the last three songs? Well, there’ll be no dispirited mealy-mouthings where Lady GaGa is concerned: an artist who initially irritated me beyond belief, before the realisation dawned that beneath the off-putting hype and the you-simply-have-no-choice inevitability of her UK success, there’s actually a not-half bad pop performer (at least, when she’s not dribbling on about licking disco lollipops and generally trying too hard to be “OutRAGEous!”).

All initial cynicism duly stripped away, “Just Dance” stands revealed as a wry, cleverly crafted encapsulation of a state of mind which I spent rather too much time chasing in the 1990s: lurching around some dimly lit boite de nuit, happily fucked up beyond the point of no return, divested of any residual notions of dignity and shame, and not giving one flying fuck about anything beyond the immediate pursuit of pleasure. Salad days indeed! And so, for its sheer tingle of “been there, done that” recognition, “Just Dance” gets today’s top billing.

My votes: Lady GaGa – 5 points. Peter Sarstedt – 4 points. Armand Van Helden – 3 points. Abba – 2 points. Simple Minds – 1 point.

Over to you. The 1960s and 2000s are the two front runners, with the 1970s and 1980s still within grasping distance of the ultimate prize. I can’t see Simple Minds doing the 1980s any favours, but I dare say that the usual Abba-love will keep 1979 in the running. Bring on the votes!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number Twos.”

Sleccy’s vinyl countdown.

I’ve got a piece in today’s Guardian Film and Music section, which charts the rise and fall of one of the UK’s finest independent record stores: Nottingham’s Selectadisc, which closes its doors for good at the end of this month.

Click here to read it online.

(And now you know why this year’s “Which Decade” has been running so slowly. This took time!)

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

Sorry, readers; this year’s Which Decade has been a slower, more drawn-out slog than usual, but at least the infrequency of updates has been giving you plenty of time to catch up. Weirdly, a number of you have given a wide berth to the Fleetwood Mac / Edwin Starr / Bobby Brown / A+ / James and Nelly round, and I’m not quite sure why – but there’s still a bit of a tussle going on down there for second and third place, so your votes will still count.

Lower down the list, Kid Cudi’s lead has been steadily eroded by Dr Feelgood, who now draw level in first position. And there’s been a change of place in the Number Eights, as Morrissey overtakes The Prodigy. As for yesterday’s Number Fours, the race couldn’t be tighter – mainly because you can’t seem to decide which song you hate more: “Please Don’t Go”, “I Was Made For Dancin'” or “The Living Years”. Tough choices, people. But will today’s bunch be any easier? Let’s put on our sorting hats! It’s the Number Threes!

1969: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me – Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations. (video)
1979: Woman In Love – The Three Degrees. (video)
1989: Love Changes Everything – Michael Ball. (video)
1999: Fly Away – Lenny Kravitz. (video)
2009: Breathe Slow – Alesha Dixon. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-03-69For the third time this year, we return to the Classic Sound of Motown™. Diana Ross & The Supremes and The Temptations had joined forces for a TV special in late 1968, performing a selection of covers, and so inevitably there was a spin-off album. Even though “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” wasn’t performed on the TV show, it became the lead single from the album, reaching Number Two in the US and Number Three in the UK.

Unlike almost all Motown hits before it, this is a cover of a non-Motown song, rather than an original in-house composition. Its composers were Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (aided by Jerry Ross), whose golden age came in the 1970s with their work for the Philadelphia International label (Three Degrees, O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes), and perhaps there’s a foretaste of that Philly smoothness in this version.

The Supremes/Tempts project also marked the debut of lead Tempts singer Dennis Edwards, who had been recently drafted in to replace David Ruffin. However, the falsetto lead on this particular track is handled by Eddie Kendricks, with the seldom heard “tenor in the middle” (and my dear personal showbiz friend) Otis Williams handling the spoken word section.

Enough with the history lesson, already. Does it WORK? Well, comparisons with “For Once In My Life” and “Dancing In The Street” aren’t going to do it any favours, and there’s a surprisingly screechy roughness to some of the vocals at times, and the song doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself towards the end – but least some of the scary stalker-ishness of the lyric is redeemed by re-casting it as a duet (i.e. they’re as whacked-out as each other, so they deserve each other), and there’s a collective spirit here which just about stops the whole kaboodle from sliding into cabaret… so I’d say, yes, it does.

wd09-03-79Oh, did someone mention The Three Degrees? Our heir to the throne’s favourite pop group was sharing the Top Ten with his grandmother’s Desert Island Disc this week, and enjoying a second wind in the UK charts following their Philly period of 1974-75. Fayette Pinkney had been replaced by Helen Scott in the line-up, and composer/producers Gamble and Huff (yes, them again) had been replaced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Belotte, better remembered for their work with Donna Summer during the same period.

It’s strange to think that the syrupy cabaret of “Woman In Love” was produced by the same team responsible for “I Feel Love” two years earlier – but it was 1970s Diva Law that all albums needed a smoocher, and so this was shoehorned into the trio’s New Dimensions album alongside the wonderful “Givin’ Up Givin’ In” and the good-but-dated “The Runner”.

God, but I’m yakking on about the history today. So what do we think of the SONG? Historically, I’ve always been conflicted – as the first and the second young gentlemen that were to, ahem, take my fancy (in the physical sense) both loved it dearly. Indeed, the second young gentleman loved Sheila, Helen and Valerie so dearly that he was a fully paid-up member of their fan club. (I’ve seen the newsletters!)

Dubious emotional attachments by proxy aside, I can just about live with most aspects of “Woman In Love” (particularly Sheila Ferguson’s lip-trembling, camp-as-tits lip-synch in the YouTube clip) – except that gloopy, mood-killing sax solo (Eighties, here we come!), and except the trifling matter of the lyrical sentiment, which can be boiled down to “I’m a doormat! And I’m grateful for scraps!”

Or – and this only occurred to me last night – is the apparent self-abasement actually a passive-agressive cover tactic? (“Oh don’t mind ME. No, go on! Be as much of HEARTLESS BASTARD as you like!”) If so, then All Power To You, Sister. If not, then Stand Up For Your Love Rights, Change That Stupid Lock, You Deserve BETTER!

wd09-03-89And so to our third consecutive song with “love” in the title, and our second brush this year with the tunesmanship of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Taken from the musical Aspects of Love, this provided Michael Ball with his first hit single, and his only major single to date – whereas on the albums front, Ball has had major and sustained success from 1992 onwards.

It’s fair to say that my anticipation for “Love Changes Everything” wasn’t exactly sky high. Musical Theatre is emphatically NOT my bag – still less so, when Lloyd Webber is involved. But, you know what? Twenty years on, I find I can live with this just fine: it’s a sturdy melody, confidently performed with no small measure of charm, backed by a rousing arrangment, and conveying a simple sentiment with which I cannot quibble.

Yes, Michael – love does change everything. And perhaps we’d all be better of with your “aspect” of love than the manipulation of the Supremes/Tempts and the degradation of the Three Degrees. Three cheers for normals!

wd09-03-99So far, so reasonable. But that’s partly because I’ve been saving my bile for this UTTER UTTER PILE OF GARBAGE from Lenny Kravitz – an artist who has had his good moments along the way (“It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over”, “Are You Gonna Go My Way”, and the beautiful “Heaven Help”), but who jumped the shark into irredeemable tosspottiness with this, his biggest international hit (it galls me to relate). Why, the damned thing even earned him a Grammy, which tells you all you need to know about the flawed voting processes behind the Grammies.

I mean, come ON, people – these lyrics go far beyond doggerel, into some vile remedial netherworld where even the duffest Eurovision entrant would fear to tread. Did people buy this simply because it was used in a couple of TV ads, leading to Prominent Instore Racking? Were they all DRUGGED? For I shall never understand how else this got to Number One, except to remind myself that we had now entered that dark period in singles chart history where ANYTHING could get to Number One, for a week, if an executive decision had been made to chuck some money at it.

wd09-03-09And so we return to matters of the heart, courtesy of Alesha Dixon – formerly of Mis-Teeq, winner of Strictly Come Dancing 2007, and all-around Quite Nice Celebrity, Actually. It’s interesting to compare Alesha’s attitude to a love affair on the rocks – in danger of losing the plot, but still trying to wrest back some dignity and self-control – with the self-harm of the Three Degrees, and in that context I’d take the controlled subtlety of “Breathe Slow” over the gushing cabaret of “Woman In Love” any day…

…BUT, the trouble with “Breathe Slow” is that it Just. Isn’t. Memorable. I’ve played it over and over again in order to get a purchase on it, and invariably my attention starts wandering within the first minute. And besides, we’re not here to rank songs according to how much we approve of their lyrical sentiments… or are we?

My votes: Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations – 5 points. The Three Degrees – 4 points. Alesha Dixon – 3 points. Michael Ball – 2 points. Lenny Kravitz – 1 point.

Over to you. Another free pass for Motown Magic? Or are you all closet Lloyd Webber fans? Hell, we might even have some deranged supporters of Lenny Kravitz in the house. It takes all sorts. Not for me to judge! That’s your job!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number Threes.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 4s.

Look, I ain’t going to lie to you or nothing: today’s selection is not that great. Have we perhaps been spoilt by the unusually high quality of some of the earlier rounds? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

But don’t run away, when there’s work to be done! Here at Which Decade, we’re voters, not quitters. So buckle down and bite the pillow – it’s your Number Fours.

1969: Please Don’t Go – Donald Peers. (no video available)
1979: I Was Made For Dancin’ – Leif Garrett. (video)
1989: The Living Years – Mike & The Mechanics. (video)
1999: Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) – The Offspring. (video)
2009: Crack A Bottle – Eminem featuring Dr Dre & 50 Cent. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-04-69The 1969 chart debut of the 60-year old Donald Peers is a curious quirk indeed – but in career terms, he had always been a Johnny Come Lately. In his early forties, Peers became a huge star in post-war Britain: packing the Albert Hall and out-selling Bing Crosby in the UK. A performer of the old school, whose most popular song was “In a Shady Nook, by a Babbling Brook”, his music would have sounded out of place even in the earliest singles charts of 1952.

In 1962, Peers invited the then unknown Tom Jones onto his TV show, giving Jones his first big break. But as the 1960s progressed, Peers slid from view – not helped by a serious on-stage accident in Sydney which caused him to lose two inches in height (according to this fascinating biographical tribute page).

However, the Great British Public have always loved a good comeback story (how else to explain the 2004 resurgence of Peter Andre?), and so in 1969 they re-clasped Peers to their collective bosom. This doesn’t make “Please Don’t Go” any more enjoyable in 2009, though. There’s something off-puttingly stiff-hipped and stiff-upper-lipped here; a dessicated repression of unseemly emotion; the sort of stolid recital which reminds us of why rock and roll HAD to happen.

wd09-04-79And talking of stiff-hipped emotional blockage, here’s the useless five-minute roller-disco king Leif Garrett, stumbling blankly through a pile of cynically ropey old toss that no amount of retro-kitsch filtering could ever make acceptable.

OK, so maybe bits of “I Was Made For Dancin'” could have been re-fashioned into a jolly Bollywood Disco romp, and maybe Ricky Martin could have done something borderline passable with the chorus – but that’s really as generous as I can get.

Poor old Leif has had a tough old time of it in recent years, mainly on the drug abuse/arrest front; there’s an awful police mug shot of him out there, that feeds into the sort of public appetite for Schadenfreude which is the nasty flip side of the Donald Peers “redemption” coin. But looking at this video clip, poor old Leif doesn’t even look particularly happy at the height of his success. Am I just projecting, or are those poster-boy eyes rather glassier than they should be? Or is he merely wrestling with an entirely understandable inner aesthetic disgust? We may never know, eh readers?

wd09-04-89Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I have NOT been looking forward to writing about this one, AT ALL. So please bear with me, as I attempt to type with fingers squished against nose…

OK. To be fair, then. Easily the best thing about Mike (Rutherford-out-of-Genesis) and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” is Paul Carrack’s vocal performance. If anyone was ever going to make this ghastly song work, then the underrated talent who brought us Ace’s “How Long” and Squeeze’s “Tempted” was its best of all possible hopes.

All of which simply makes “The Living Years” all the more agonising, as this otherwise fine singer works his way through one of the most painful compositions I have ever had to endure on “Which Decade”. Speaking as someone who has “Unresolved Issues With Formerly Controlling Dead Father” baggage of his own to deal with, thank you very much, there’s something about this song’s lumbering, mawkish strive for universality which really, really needles me.

To make matters worse, they occasionally hit the nail on the head in snatches of the earlier verses (and God, do I resent it when that happens!), before ladling on the treacle and giving us the emotional equivalent of multiple Chinese burns with the kiddies’ choir, and the “echoes from beyond the grave when I gaze at me new born babby” section, and the…

…oh, but enough. And you know what’s even more galling? Objectively speaking, this is still better than Leif Bloody Garrett. So I can’t even mark it bottom of the pile.

wd09-04-99All of which makes the brattish entrance (“Gunter Glieben Glauben Globen!”) of the refreshingly uncouth Offspring all the more welcome, as light and life finally descend upon this wretched MP3 medley.

“Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” is a cute and clever little dig at wannabe-homies from the ‘burbs, stuffed full of neat observations and “ooh, THAT’S a good bit!” musical tricksiness. (I especially like the bit with the cowbells.)

And how propitious, that it should immediately precede the comeback single from that flyest of all white guys…

wd09-04-09Yes, it’s Eminem: back from his so-called “retirement” after a mere three years, and sounding… re-charged? Re-vitalised? Hungry for it, all over again?

Mmmph, no, not really. Sure, even Eminem on an off day is never less than entertaining, but for all its bravado (yeah, why not make light of serious sexual assault in the opening lines, you old liberal-baiter you?) “Crack A Bottle” fails to swing, fails to swagger (compare and contrast this all-star reunion of the old guard with the fantastic “Swagga Like Us”, last year’s “Paper Planes” sampling belter from rap’s current A-list), and Eminem’s delivery feels too by rote, too flatly on-the-beat, and almost a little grudging.

Things pick up for a while when Dr Dre shows up for his guest slot, before sliding off totally with 50 Cent’s tired, listless contribution. (Hell, even Will Smith at the end of the Tatyana Ali song sounded more committed.) Still, when it comes to stiff stolidity, Eminem is no match for Donald Peers, and there’s enough of worth here to be going on with. Just enough.

My votes: The Offspring – 5 points. Eminem featuring Dr Dre & 50 Cent – 4 points. Donald Peers – 3 points. Mike and the Mechanics – 2 points. Leif Garrett – 1 point.

Over to you. Until a couple of minutes ago, when I updated the spreadsheet, the 2000s were in second place – but it has only taken a couple of late votes in the earlier rounds to send them plummeting back down to fourth. Eminem, your decade is counting on YOU.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 4s.”

“Time to put ’em away, love.”



(They may only be cartoon tits, but that doesn’t make their public display any less undignified. This is Troubled Diva, not Vauxhall.)



(There comes a time. Thanks to my official portrait artist for doodling a nice Ben Sherman over me manky old moobs. Besides, retaining a little mystery at this time of life is no bad thing. Let them speculate at the glories beneath!)

Oh, and apologies for the extended “Which Decade” service break. Conflicting priorities, dear hearts. We should be back on track by late evening.

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

As ever on “Which Decade”, it’s the Key Marginals in the earlier rounds which can swing the whole match. So far, the big tussles to watch are Shontelle vs Driver 67 in the Number Tens, Moz vs The Prodge in the Eights, Adams/Chisolm vs Nash (also in the Eights), and Starr vs Brown in yesterday’s Sixes. Just one set of votes can tip the balance, earning or losing crucial cumulative points for certain decades. So if you’re late to the contest this year, don’t worry; your votes are as vital as anyone else’s.

Will today’s Number Fives yield another Key Marginal? Let’s line ’em up and see how they fall:

1969: Blackberry Way – The Move. (video) (live performance video)
1979: Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – The Shadows. (no video available)
1989: Love Train – Holly Johnson. (video)
1999: Boy You Knock Me Out – Tatyana Ali featuring Will Smith. (video)
2009: Take Me Back – Tinchy Stryder featuring Taio Cruz. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-05-69I can’t say that it’s ever occurred to me before, but Wikipedia’s suggestion that The Move‘s Roy Wood composed “Blackberry Way” as a gloomy riposte to the location-specific optimism of “Penny Lane” is, on the face of it, quite a plausible one. From “there beneath the blue suburban skies” in early 1967 to “absolutely pouring down with rain, it’s a terrible day” in early 1969 – was this a Metaphor Of Post-Flower-Power Disillusionment For Its Times, or are we over-analysing again?

The Move were here last year, with the equally effective “Fire Brigade” – which, although it lost out to ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky” in that day’s voting, ended up being 2008’s tenth most popular tune. Something tells me that “Blackberry Way” is going to do just as well for them…

wd09-05-79…and perhaps significantly better, if this kind of dismal muzak is the competition. Oh Hank, how COULD you?

Then again, I think Hank knew what he was doing. This pointless cover of Julie Covington’s classic (a “Which Decade” winner from two years ago) might have surgically sucked all the soul out of the song – but it also returned The Shadows to the Top Five for the first time since “The Rise And Fall Of Flingel Bunt”, fifteen years earlier.

Thus emboldened, they charted again two months later with an equally icky take on “Cavatina” from The Deer Hunter – which once again showcased Hank’s new, weird and downright ridiculous “pluck a single string as if it were the pinnacle of artistic endeavour” technique.

I’d show you all this in moving images – but the shadowy cabal behind the fun-loving Shads are clearly a thorough bunch, making this the first of this year’s tracks which I was unable to source on video. Never mind, though; the brief snippet on today’s MP3 medley should suffice.

Dymbel and I will be seeing The Shadows in concert later in the year, reunited with Cliff Richard for their 50th anniversary tour. As long as there’s plenty of stuff like “Flingel Bunt” (go find it on Spotify, it’s GREAT) and a bare minimum of dreck like this, then we should be happy.

wd09-05-89Returning to Holly Johnson‘s debut solo single after a twenty year gap, my first impressions were along these lines:

Ee, this ain’t half dated badly. Did this really fill my dancefloor at Eden every week? Why did I buy the album? And how did the album ever get to Number One? What were we thinking?

Several plays later, and its simple charms have won me over again. The song may not look like much on paper, but there’s a smiling, un-selfconscious joie de vivre at work here, which it would be churlish to resist. Two years on from the anti-climactic demise of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, it was good to have Holly back on top of his game.

As it turned out, his commercial comeback didn’t even see him through to the end of the year – but I always felt that was Holly’s choice; to switch priorities and saunter gracefully off the public stage, before we started getting bored with him, and he with us.

wd09-05-99If it’s smiling, un-selfconscious joie de vivre that Tatyana Ali is aiming for with “Boy You Knock Me Out”, then I’d say that she almost, a-l-m-o-s-t, hits the target. But not quite. There are some agreeable touches, but at heart this is imitative rather than inspired, with Will Smith’s cursory contribution seemingly tacked onto the end by the marketing department.

For yes, there is a TV tie-in connection: for several years, Tatyana had played Will’s young cousin Ashley on the hit TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and towards the end of its run her character had been preparing for a singing career. Indeed, in the last ever episode, Ashley had enrolled at a performing arts studio in New York City. So, there’s a cute “life imitating art” angle at work – but does it make “Boy You Knock Me Out” any more interesting? Or does it underline the track’s more contrived aspects?

wd09-05-09It seems to be the pre-ordained fate of every UK grime act – Tinchy Stryder included – to have a surprise Top Ten hit with a genre-junking mainstream dance collaboration. Dizzee Rascal teamed up with Calvin Harris for “Dance Wiv Me”; Wiley sampled a classic garage house anthem for “Wearing My Rolex”; and now Stryder has joined forces with the successful jobbing hack Taio Cruz for “Take Me Back”.

So, does this work as well as the Kid Cudi/Crookers remix? Well, we’re on more familiar lyrical ground here, as Tinchy pleads forgiveness from his “pretty lady” for some hinted-at transgression. But as acts of contrition go, this one’s fairly transparent. You get the sense that he’s only admitting the bare minimum (“There’s me thinking I’m moving slyly, your friend was out there with both eyes on me“), and that his motivation is almost wholly self-interested. (“I need you back in my zone, ‘cos I’m sitting at home alone.“)

(Run, love! Run like the wind, and never turn back! He’s not worth it! Men never are!)

Perhaps it’s this laughable transparency which is the song’s saving grace. WE know he’s a bullshitting dirty dawg who got caught; SHE probably knows it; and HE knows that we ALL know. So, why not set the confession to a stonking Euro beat (there are shades of “Numa Numa” here, and a few Benidorm “woh-ohs” to boot), and have a bit of fun with it? Hmm, maybe this ain’t so bad after all…

My votes: The Move – 5 points. Holly Johnson – 4 points. Tinchy Stryder featuring Taio Cruz – 3 points. Tatyana Ali featuring Will Smith – 2 points. The Shadows – 1 point.

Over to you. The Seventies have nudged fractionally ahead, but I suspect that Hank and the Shads will cost them dear. The Sixties have made up a lot of lost ground, moving from fourth to third to second… and after today, maybe to first place? And barring a miracle, The Nineties might as well give up and go home right now. So come on, Tatyana! Do yer bit!
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 5s.”

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

OK, are we ready to genre-hop? Today’s selection takes us from blues to disco, and thence to new jack swing, commercial rap and… well, I don’t quite know what you’d call that last effort, but I’m sure you’ll be quick to tell me. So open your minds! It’s the Number Sixes!.

1969: Albatross – Fleetwood Mac. (video)
1979: Contact – Edwin Starr. (video)
1989: My Prerogative – Bobby Brown. (video)
1999: Enjoy Yourself – A+ (video)
2009: Broken Strings – James Morrison featuring Nelly Furtado. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-06-69It’s difficult, nay impossible, to write objectively about this atmospheric instrumental from Fleetwood Mac, as it’s one of those pieces of music that is so deeply embedded within my childhood memories that I almost experience it synaesthetically. Indeed, its 1973 re-appearance inside the Top Ten must have occasioned one of my earliest experiences of nostalgia. Was this ever used on the BBC test card, I wonder? Because that’s one of the images which springs to mind: of still weekday afternoons in the school holidays, waiting for the children’s programmes to begin.

Consequently, I can’t place “Albatross” within a genre; to me, it sounds like nothing other than itself. I’d struggle even to quantify the feelings it expresses, “contemplative” and “brooding” being the best I can come up with.

It therefore came as quite a shock when K declared his irritation with it after the first twenty seconds (“Will this thing never end?”), as I’d have put money on his being similarly transported. He’s full of surprises. (See also his awarding five points to The Prodigy, who operate in a genre for which he has historically felt little but disdain.)

wd09-06-79In the absence of a good short-length video, I’ve linked to the extended 12-inch version of Edwin Starr‘s “Contact”. And it gives me great pleasure to do so, as this was the first disco 12″ single that I ever bought – largely on the strength of James Hamilton’s column in the back of Record Mirror, which I began following in earnest at the start of 1979. It may not have been a landmark release of its genre – indeed, there’s a whiff of corniness about it which I didn’t have the faculties to spot at the time – but on a personal level, this was a landmark piece of vinyl, which hastened the widening of my public school punk rocker’s tunnel vision.

The lengthy DJ-friendly percussion break was of particular fascination, as this was the first time that I became aware of dance music’s functional aspect; you weren’t necessarily supposed to listen to the whole thing from beginning to end, and I found this a radical new concept. And with its blend of mechanistic electronics and uncomplicated euphoria, perhaps this was also a pointer towards the hi-energy music of the early-to-mid 1980s which was to thrill me so much.

wd09-06-89Speaking of pointers towards the future, late Eighties “swingbeat” – soon to be re-christened New Jack Swing – helped form a bridge between the stark urban funk of Prince/Cameo/Janet Jackson and contemporary R&B.

Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Alyson Williams and their ilk didn’t play at all well on my dancefloor, but this didn’t stop me eagerly embracing the new sound, which struck me as a logical extension of the soul/funk tradition.

And so “My Prerogative” still has a touch of the Shock Of The New about it – even though I always preferred “Don’t Be Cruel” and the fabulous “Every Little Step”. Pity he turned out to be such a Whitney-wasting plonker, eh readers?

wd09-06-99But of course, the trajectory of urban music in the 1990s wasn’t always an upwards one, which brings us to this long-forgotten piece of drivel from some chancer called A+. (Sheesh, the lengths to which some people will go in order to be optimally alphabetised…)

Much as I enjoyed Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth Of Beethoven” (from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), the track has been shoddily appropriated, its only saving grace lying in imagining the appalled outrage that it must have caused amongst upper middle-class parents of wannabe b-boy sprogs. Oh, the travesty!

There was an awful lot of lazy, sample-heavy pop-rap around in the late 1990s – Will Smith, I’m looking at you – and this is a prime example. Eww to the power of Eww!

wd09-06-09I was going to award bottom marks to James Morrison and Nelly Furtado‘s dismal, life-sapping dirge – for if there’s one 2000s genre that I hate, it’s this kind of MOR/AOR mope-pop (Chris Martin and James Blunt, I’m holding you personally responsible) – but I’ve pulled back for two reasons.

Firstly, I have an abiding horror of scoring the decades in exact reverse-chronological order, as this suggests a conclusion about the declining state of pop which I refuse to countenance. Secondly, there is at least some degree of crafted workmanship about “Broken Strings”, even if its effect causes my brain to blank the song out entirely, every time I try to listen to it. And that, my fellow voters, is as much rational critique as you’re going to draw out of me on this one.

My votes: Fleetwood Mac – 5 points. Edwin Starr – 4 points. Bobby Brown – 3 points. James Morrison featuring Nelly Furtado – 2 points. A+ – 1 point.

It’s neck and neck on our cumulative scoreboard, with only one point separating four of the decades. However, the 1990s are already sinking way behind the pack, with a yawning seven point gap that A+ is unlikely to close. OR IS HE? As ever, it’s over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 6s.”

TwitterTitters – it’s the new Shaggy Blog Stories!


Two years ago, I came up with the idea for Shaggy Blog Stories – a paperback collection of comic writing from British bloggers, in aid of Comic Relief.

One year ago, Sarah Peach published You’re Not The Only One – a blog-book collection of “intimate and personal stories”, in aid of War Child.

This year, and once again with Red Nose Day in mind, Linda Jones and Louise Bolotin have continued the tradition with the newly published TwitterTitters: “a tweetin’ hilarious collection of new comedy writing”. The difference this time round is that the project has been publicised and managed through Twitter, rather than through blogs.

Fear not, though – this isn’t some sort of loo-friendly collection of 140-character bon mots, but a proper book with proper writing from proper people (myself included, hem hem), who just happen to have Twitter streams. There’s a forward from comedy writer Nat Coombs (creator of Chelsey: OMG!), and a brand new piece by Dave Spikey, of Phoenix Nights/8 Out of 10 Cats fame.

I’m delighted that Linda, Louise and their team have picked up the baton on this one, and dead chuffed that my submission has made the final cut. All that remains is for me to urge you to buy a copy, from http://www.lulu.com/content/6281246.

There’s more about the project here, and also via @tweetree on Twitter.

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

Apologies for the service break, folks. I was all prepped to make this post over the weekend – but ended up being overcome by a powerful urge to do Absolutely Sod All instead.

(Apart from an over-vigorous bout of hooray-it’s-March-at-last garden tidying, which left me in considerable muscular discomfort on Sunday night. But what’s this, a personal blog? Good grief, whatever gave you that idea?)

There probably won’t be another post until Wednesday evening, as I’m off to Leeds tomorrow; Clare “Boob Pencil” Sudbery is taking part in Countdown, and I’ll be part of her cheerleading squad in the audience. Following the recording (which requires us to stay put for a full FIVE shows; I only wish I could take some knitting in), I’ll be travelling to Sheffield to watch Elbow. So that’s a nice little day out in Yorkshire to look forward to.

Yes, I’ll get on with it now. Look lively, crew! It’s the Number Sevens!

1969: Dancing In The Street – Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. (video)
1979: Tragedy – The Bee Gees. (video)
1989: You Got It – Roy Orbison. (video)
1999: Heartbeat/Tragedy – Steps. (video 1) (video 2)
2009: Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – Beyonce. (video)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

wd09-07-69Three places ahead of Stevie Wonder, here’s another unimpeachable Motown classic, courtesy of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. I’m unclear as to why this 1964 recording was re-released, four and a half years after peaking at Number 28 – but 1960s Motown recordings did have a habit of re-appearing in this way. (See also “Tears Of A Clown”, “My Guy”, “I Can’t Help Myself”…)

I’m going to hand the remainder of this commentary over to Martha herself. Here’s what she said to me about “Dancing In The Street”, when we spoke towards the end of last year:

“I’d heard Marvin Gaye sing it, and it was a love song to a girl. He sort of crooned it, and then he said: man, give this to Martha, let her try it. So when I tried it, I called to mind New Orleans, and Rio De Janeiro where I had been at carnival time. Actually, I had seen people get in the street and dance.”

“This song was used to quench a lot of the evil feelings that were out in the streets, because of the riots that happened in every major city. And the words were simple: ‘Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat’. Not the hate that everybody was feeling, but the happiness that it brings.”

“And we’ve changed a lot of ordinances with our song. Now, some cities allow you to block off the street and actually have dance parties. So it didn’t start a riot; it quenched one.”

wd09-07-79While we’re in a copy/paste kind of mood, I see little reason to start from scratch when it comes to The Bee Gees‘ fourth chart-topper – so, for the majority of my readers who don’t hang on my every word in Tom Ewing’s comments boxes, here’s what I said about “Tragedy” last September:

“This is a GREAT example of how to follow up a worldwide mega-success [with the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever]. For rather than stick to the slinky, smooth-funking SNF template, the Gibbs have pulled out all the stops, ramping up the drama to tremendous effect. This fairly screams “Top Of The World, Ma” confidence, even as the anguished lyric subverts all the surrounding bombast. Perhaps all that lets it down is the Gibb vocal style, which does admittedly take their characteristic castrato right to the brink of self-parody – but in the strident, diva-like hands of a Donna Summer (or even an Amii Stewart), this would have been viewed as the sort of unassailable classic that would never have required subsequent rehabilitation by cover version.”

wd09-07-89Ah yes, the rehabilitation by cover version. We’ll come to that in a minute – but not before we’ve dealt with Roy Orbison, returning to the singles charts in 1989 after a gap of nearly twenty years. This has become a well-worn theme on “Which Decade” over the years, but Trendy Eighties Mike gave “You Got It” very short shrift indeed – not least because of the involvement of the ELO’s Jeff Lynne, whose very name was anathema to me back then.

How utterly up my own 501’ed arse I was, not to have recognised its genius! Every year on “Which Decade”, at least one previously dismissed old chestnut pops up out of nowhere, making perfect sense at last – and more than any other record in this year’s selection, “You Got It” has caused me to flip my opinion 180 degrees in the right direction. The critical re-evaluation afforded to Jeff Lynne over the past few years has been one of the happier by-products of the whole “Guilty Pleasures” phenomenon, and “You Got It” deserves to stand proud against the best of his work with the ELO.

wd09-07-99History repeats itself; first as Tragedy, second as Farce.” – Karl Marx.

And here’s the farcical Steps, tragically re-appropriating “Tragedy” as a cut-price jingle for kids’ tea parties and shit gay discos – oh, the HAND MOVEMENTS! – speeding up the tempo by seven beats per minute and, as per usual, not giving a two-bit session singer’s cuss for lyrical content. What WAS it with this perma-grinning fivesome, and their consistent failure to spot a sad lyric? (“One For Sorrow”, “Deeper Shade Of Blue”, “Better Best Forgotten” – all performed with the same joyless, stick-on mirth.) Was it some sort of high conceptual joke on the part of their puppet master, Pete “you done good, kiddo” Waterman? With this in mind, it was scarcely any wonder that Faye Tozer from the band failed to recognise and complete the line “When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on”, when appearing as a contestant on Never Mind The Buzzcocks.

As “Tragedy” was a double A-side, duty compels me to include its companion track “Heartbeat” in the MP3 medley. It’s a rare mid-tempo moment for the group, which perhaps explains the bet-hedging, no-risk presence of the Bee Gees cover version. The single duly became their first of just two chart-toppers, the other being the actually-quite-decent “Stomp” from 2000.

wd09-07-09It wasn’t until I overheard a colleague whistling the “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it” refrain that I made the connection – but Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies” does bear a passing melodic similarity to the signature tune from BBC1’s Nationwide, does it not? Skip to 0:42 in this YouTube medley, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

(Er, maybe. Well, try whistling them instead. That should work.)

Cannily released at the same time as the classic soul ballad “If I Were A Boy” in order to ensnare both halves of her constituency, “Single Ladies” is a representation of Beyonce’s “sassy”, “foxy” alter-ego Sasha Fierce. The entire second half of her current album is given over to “Sasha”, with ballads occupying the first half – a conceit which doesn’t altogether work for me, but there’s good stuff to be found in both halves. As for “Single Ladies”, the proliferation of home-made “tribute” videos on YouTube has greatly added to my enjoyment of it. Here’s one! And here’s another!

My votes: Martha Reeves & the Vandellas – 5 points. Roy Orbison – 4 points. Beyonce – 3 points. The Bee Gees – 2 points. Steps – 1 point.

So, will Martha walk it for the Sevens, just as Stevie walked it for the Tens? Will Steps trounce the Bee Gees? Will you give your Big Five to The Big O? Or will Beyonce’s bumping booty-shake bring it on home for the Thrill of the New? There’s everything to play for, as the 1970s and 2000s jointly lead the pack after the first three rounds, with the 1980s in hot pursuit. The 1960s and 1990s are lagging behind at this early stage, but all is far from lost. Over to you.
Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 7 – the Number 7s.”