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.

Running totals so far – Number Sevens.

1969: Dancing In The Street – Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. (172)

Head and shoulders above the rest of today’s. Wonderful. (NiC)

This is pop firing on all cylinders. It moves, it shakes and it has the added bonus of having something to say. (asta)

This is a blast of jubilant excellence. (diamond geezer)

What a great sunshiny song to listen to on a gloriously sunny summer’s day in March. I’m bopping while I’m type. Have to confess I prefer the Bowie/Jagger cover! (Gert)

Fresh, upbeat and fun. And I even like the Bowie/Jagger version. (Will)

Easiest choice ever, one of the most important records in history, Motown or otherwise. It inspired The Stones, Civil Rights Movement reference and recently Beyonce’s sister in the internet buzz smash of the summer. It still isn’t a patch on “Heatwave”, mind. (John)

Not a vote for 1969 really, but a great pop song which, even if it wasn’t intended to be iconic, became so because of the social circumstances of the decade. It still staggers me how people who were among the most successful entertainers in 60s America (the Supremes hitting number one as regularly as the Beatles) were such third class citizens. Incidentally, there was a spate of Motown reissues at this point in ’69: the first British Market Research Bureau chart was around this time and included several of them. (Erithian)

Even though I had the worst possible introducion to this song via Sir Mick and Dame David, its still a work of deathless greatness. (Incidentally, the 1969 rerelease was down to the patronage of ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Alright? Not ‘arf!) (Billy Smart)

1969 and Motown get it again: Archie Shepp was I think the first musician to identify this as radical riot music, and sure enough there’s future Shepp/Sun Ra drummer Steve Reid thrashing himself out of his chains next to Marvin Gaye on the traps. To anyone with ears at the time this must have sounded like the incitement of all incitements, but offering fun and colour with its promises of liberation. In his brief sleevenote for Motown Chartbusters Vol 3 Fluff Freeman comments that “I always knew there’d be British Justice for ‘Dancing In The Street’!” and for that we must thank Dave Godin and Tony Blackburn for launching and maintaining (Godin planned it, Blackburn played it) the multiple Motownian onslaught of simultaneous new issues and reissues which stormed our charts from late 1968 onwards, sending the Housewives’ Choice Reithian crooners into deserved exile, putting history right. Throw open the petrified curtains, pour the Valium down the sink, open the windows, let the sunshine in…does that sound like 1969 again? In 2009, of course, and despite everything, it feels like the celebration after-party which we still deserve. (Marcello Carlin)

The first record I ever bought with my own money and has remained one of my favourite songs of all time ever since. (Richard)

An unimpeachably perfect song. It is happiness in 3 minutes or less. Can you listen to this song and NOT tap at least your toes? I didn’t think so. (jo)

Perhaps the most important song Motown recorded ever? Not sure. Dancing as an alternative to rioting, but that didn’t stop the dancing or the rioting, come to think of it. A song of complete freedom. (Lena)

Admirable, though a bit sedate for me. (Hg)

Well it’s not Bowie and Jagger, but I suppose it’s alright in its own way…. (SwissToni)

To some extent this song looks better on paper, always perk up when I hear it but after a minute it feels a bit repetitive. (Simon C)

I know it’s a Motown classic, but actually it’s not even my favourite Vandellas song. (The Lurker)

Not a song I have ever had any affection for, despite my Bowie devotion his version of his with Jagger is undoubtedly the crappest thing he ever recorded and this, while better, doesn’t really stir anything in me. (Alan)

1989: You Got It – Roy Orbison. (140)

Oh my god, this is brilliant; great tune, great harmonies, great sound world, evocative. (Gert)

Sublime. I’ve never had a problem with Jeff Lynne. (Hg)

Absolutely fantastic. Luckily when this came out, I was 14 and too young to be cool, although even then I was surprised to be enjoying something by someone so old (especially as I was already mostly listening to dance music by this stage). I’d forgotten all about this record’s existence until I heard while out clubbing at London’s fantastic ‘Unskinny Bop’ last year – and it sounds even better heard loud in a club, those fantastic thundering drums in the chorus sound great nice and loud. What a good selection we’re having this year! (Geoff Itinerant Londoner)

An amazing comeback and a terrific swansong, even if I like it despite Jeff Lynne’s involvement rather than because of it. As I’ve said on Popular, I thought Jeff Lynne’s production tended towards the excessive and rather spoiled the “new” Beatles singles. (Erithian)

5 Points – on the grounds that his voice is great and the arrangement is pretty good, even though the song itself is quite lacklustre. (Alan)

Almost placed it top. This was on one of the first CDs we ever owned and my proper introduction to the Big O. Still really like it. (Will)

Intrigued by Roy’s ageing voice on this (a touch of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings), I found from Wikipedia that this was released posthumously. Roy Orbison was only 52 when he died. I don’t know what he did with his life that he sounds more like 70. (Amanda)

Imagine if we could have had a whole ‘The Big O Sings ELO’ album… (Billy Smart)

Great as this is, Orbison’s ‘Not Alone Any More’ is the Wilburys’ high point. (Dymbel)

The Wilbury-style backing renders this faintly undignified: fine performance and a big hook though. (Tom)

As pained as The Bee Gees are, Roy crushes them with his nobility. As sad as his early death was and is still, I am glad he got to make one more album and get the respect he so clearly deserved(s). (Lena)

This was a tough placing. I’ve never rated this song as particularly noteworthy, because I think Crying, and Only the Lonely are far superior to it. But I’ve always liked the catch in Roy’s voice that implies hurt and regret on a grand scale. On the other hand, I’m tired of his voice being used to shill everything from cars to soda and this song gets recycled a lot for that very function. (asta)

Not my favourite Roy song and a lead up to his days with the Travelling Wilburys, which despite my liking of many of the members of the band it unfortunately contained one Tom Petty, a man I cannot stand to hear sing, nor can I look at him for long without wanting to wash his hair. (jo)

Timeless, but somehow second hand. (diamond geezer)

The strongest selection so far, so all points are necessarily relative. Even so the Big O seems to be the weakest link; “You Got It” is an efficient slice of ELO-doing-Roy but too dependent on inbuilt nostalgia (the “Oh Pretty Woman” references – and see also the current Glen Campbell album for further examples of this regrettable tendency) really to work. The great lost Orbison track of the eighties remains “Wild Hearts,” from the soundtrack to Roeg’s Insignificance, released on ZTT. If only Trevor had been given Mystery Girl to produce. (Marcello Carlin)

Oh Roy, lucky the BeeGees were here or you’d have been bottom, how the mighty have fallen. (NiC)

1979: Tragedy – The Bee Gees. (115)

They have heard the big music and they’ll never be the same. (Tom)

I think they have no rivals when it comes to agonized disco. Did Ian Curtis ever hear this? (Lena)

Epic. I didn’t need the karaoke prompts. (Hg)

I saw them when they released this song. Yes, they were touring in Podunk Canada. I loved every single minute of it and would rate this far higher in another year. (asta)

Wagner rip-off (Siegfried’s funeral music from Gotterdammerung). Another great great song. I don’t like the Bee Gees vocally, but they did some blinding songs. (Gert)

Long after nuclear armageddon, campfire survivors will still be singing this. (diamond geezer)

I kind of like it despite myself. Like the pumping verse intros; less keen on the falsettos. (Will)

There’s definitely a harsh sound to the falsetto singing. It’s unforgettable though. (Amanda)

Again, we’ve had this discussion on Popular. Not quite a meaningless song, albeit in very high voices, but they irritated the hell out of me. (Erithian)

I can’t even begin to imagine wearing trousers tight enough to make me sing like that. (SwissToni)

Horrible compared to what they’re capable of. This is no “Love You Inside Out”. (John)

The tragedy of the title being that the Gibb brothers ever discovered disco. Hard to believe this nonsense is by the same band that produced Massachusetts and New York Mining Disaster. Gets the extra point only on the basis that it is marginally less insipid than the Steps version. (Alan)

Yep, still make my ears bleed. (NiC)

2009: Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – Beyonce. (90)

Sighs – Like a cheerleader at the head of a parade. Mmm – precussion and vocals. (Billy Smart)

There’s a lot more going on in this than I thought – it’s really grown on me. (Tom)

“To infinity and beyond!” she proclaims, and the music is right with her. (Lena)

My gym instructor has used it for class the last few weeks – leading to a terrible ear-worm and bad singing from me for the rest of that day. But it did lead one member of the gym class to ask if Beyonce was singing instructions for us to do the move ‘on a single leg’ (not physically possible and quite bizarre!) (suz)

If only this had been a double A-side with “If I Were A Boy” since it follows on with great logic and consequence; he’s lost her, and now Sasha/Bouncy shows him what he’ll miss. Shirley Ellis (those claps and chants) meets Gary Numan (that ominosity of a synth line in the second half of each chorus), exactitude taken to Yello-like machinery absurdity (“Wooooooh-oh-oh!”) and does anyone believe the mask, least of all her? (Marcello Carlin)

Not a patch on ‘If I Were a Boy’, my favourite record of last year (surprisingly, as I don’t like ballads all that much), but quite fun all the same. (Geoff Itinerant Londoner)

I can’t explain why I like to hear her,but I do. Wouldn’t buy a single, but if one fell in my inbox it might hit my pod. (jo)

Considering the costumes I find this surprisingly unsexy and don’t much like “strident” Beyonce – but credit for sounding unlike anything else she’s done. “If I Were A Boy” was superb AND grammatically correct – Midge Ure please note. BTW, it takes a special kind of person to spot the link between Beyonce and the Nationwide theme! (Erithian)

3 points – Only because it is a Sasha Fierce tribute to the greatness that was Gwen Verdon. Okay,and because of the percussion. (asta)

I like this, but Sasha Fierce is a half-arsed alter ego. (Hg)

I loved Beyonce in concert last year but still find ‘If I Were A Boy’ too calculated and this one doesn’t do a lot for me. (Dymbel)

Bouncy as ever but just more of the same from the now seemingly one-trick Beyonce. (NiC)

I like this kind of jerkiness when it works, but it doesn’t here. Also the kind of vocal hook in the chorus just annoys me. (Simon C)

Although in no way is this worthy of three points, it’s pretty much Beyonce-by-Numbers and seems to exist merely as an excuse for yet another video featuring her trademark “trying to squeeze out a difficult turd” dancing style. (Alan)

This is alright, I suppose, but I find the theme of the song quite irritating. How dare she lecture men on what to do when she allows the man who put a ring on her finger to bang on about his bitch not being a problem? Having said that, I think I can guess who wears the big hip-hop trousers in that relationship, and it ain’t Jay. It’s still a pale cousin to “Crazy In Love”. (SwissToni)

Slow down, dear! S’OK but I think K’s right about longevity – is anyone going to be talking about this in 10 years time? (Will)

Her second worst single since the equally monotonous and irritating “Baby Boy” and also “Bootylicious”. I can see why it struck a chord, but the B’day album was much better. (John)

Whatevs. It doesn’t speak to me. I assume it’s about cock rings, but references to sex toys doesn’t a good song make (it is less awful than Steps’ Heartbeat, though). (Gert)

I hate this record. I absolutely bloody detest it. However, it beats Steps. (diamond geezer)

1999: Heartbeat/Tragedy – Steps. (53)

Tragedy rebooted and energised. Tremendous fun. (Billy Smart)

I actually don’t mind this, it’s a harmless piece of fun and I have very fond memories of friends trying to do the dance routine very badly on nights out. (Geoff Itinerant Londoner)

Best version of overrated screechy song, Waterman back on form, of sorts – and I like Wham-esque “Hearbeat” and the video. (John)

Maybe this one gets too much from me for the time when it was my daughter’s main way of communicating upset but surely everyone agrees it’s better than the dire original? ….I haven’t looked yet😉 (NiC)

This demands an extended entry (ooer missus) so here goes…

According to the sleevenote to Gold, Steps’ greatest hits collection – and since it was written by their creator, Tim Byrne, he ought to know – the idea was to combine the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, although in reality they were the latest in the line of perky co-ed vocal groups leading back from the New Seekers to the Stargazers, with – as their name might suggest – the twist of added dancing (although they never to my knowledge danced the Twist).

Pete Waterman would appear to have sat most of the nineties out – all those Take Thats, Spices and Boyzones which didn’t require his input – but as the decade neared its end he returned. He described his musical paradigm for Steps as “Abba on speed” although this would seem to have referred more to the speed of their gym treadmills than dexedrine. Working variously with writers/producers such as Dan Frampton, Mark Topham and Karl Twigg, Waterman was determined to apply the songwriting theory of Abba in this new context and in the process heighten his own songwriting game.

It worked with rare consistency. The innocent pleasures of Steps provided sixteen hit singles, the last fourteen of which made the top five, although only two went all the way; theirs was the role of the rep reliables rather than grasping the idolatry of automatic number ones. Yet they don’t deserve to be filed next to Erasure or Eternal; from the endearingly daft line dance electro of 1997’s debut “5-6-7-8” to the torrential reclaiming of “Chain Reaction” in 2001, theirs was a pop of subtle invention and only occasional coasting. “Better Best Forgotten,” a number two hit from March 1999, should be presented to students as a model example of how to write and construct a pop song; Bjorn and Benny would have been proud of its patient bounce from opening minor key to the culminating rewrite of the verse melody in the major key, not to mention the chorus line “Take a chance on a happy ending.”

“Heartbeat” was written by one Jackie James, and nearly approaches the divinity of “Better Best Forgotten”; here the thawing musings of the Olivia Newton-Johnesque lead vocal (all three female Steps – Faye, Claire and Lisa – take the lead at some point on the record but the transition is so subtle one doesn’t notice the difference) lead to a typically yearning, probing chorus with its tripartite plea/prayer for the Other to take her back and embrace her once more. The vocals are superbly acted – the tremble of the “die” of “All our dreams are doomed to die,” and the spellbinding slow motion middle eight, performed as though trapped in an iceberg of fog; note how Frampton and Waterman dissolve the “vain” at the end of “but my feelings are in vain” and the “go away” of the “just like feelings they go away” (“my feelings” which are “just like feelings”?) into an ahuman warp, only for everyone to join in at the end (H’s “baby” anchor to the chorus is crucial). A masterful achievement.

Their assault on “Tragedy” is brave but they don’t quite pull it off; the Gothic bells which launch their version into a premature explosion are ingenious, but Faye can’t get Barry Gibb’s suicidal/petulant agony (no “a-a-AAAAAH”s – but there is a sneaky satirical bent at work in the accompanying video/routine, wherein the band clasp their hands to their heads en masse every time the word “tragedy” comes up, as though needing a paracetamol) and the thunderclap punctum which heralds the Bee Gees’ final chorus is missed out altogether; something of an own goal. Still, they would learn; and the more spacious and maximalist deployment of the same tools would work wonders in “Chain Reaction” which slaughters Diana’s original. 5-6-7-8! (Marcello Carlin)

Actually “Heartbeat” wasn’t too bad, and H came across as a good bloke on Celeb Big Brother. (Erithian)

Oh, the cruel fate that puts this in the same voting category as the far superior original. This is efficient enough, I guess, but in an open audition, would H get anywhere near the BeeGees? (whereas I imagine that Maurice Gibb would walk into Steps, no problem). Heartbeat? Shit. (SwissToni)

Like drowning in six inches of golden syrup. (diamond geezer)

Don’t even remember the other song, it can’t have had much airplay. Either way, both songs are utterly worthless, and I’m just left wondering why they seemed insistent on making videos that bore no relation whatsoever to the songs they were representing. (Alan)

What? Go away. I’m not even listening to the end. And what are you doing, wearing your knickers in bed? Ew. And who’s the girl with the stringy hair? – though admittedly, Tragedy would have come higher if the real thing hadn’t been at the same chart rating exactly 20 years earlier. It should be more than 1 point below the Bee Gees though. Indeed, Heartbeat on its own would have been. (Z)

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

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