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!

Running totals so far – Number Threes.

1969: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me – Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations. (139)

Classic, obv. Gently, subtly brilliant. (SwissToni)

My sister had the Motown Chartbusters albums so I was kind of indoctrinated into this sort of thing. Quality. (Erithian)

Still classically lovely after all these years. Beats any of those ridiculous boy girl group mash-ups any day. (jo)

A mercenary exercise in branding & synergy. Wins by virtue of being the best song. (Billy Smart)

I like both groups a great deal but together they were pretty mediocre. Even so, 5. (Dymbel)

I don’t really want to put it this high because the chorus is such a disappointment, but then the verses are great. (Simon C)

Not the best from this stable. It is embedded in that part of my memory reserved for tunes absorbed effortlessly as a result of many hearings when young. All the different elements add up to a text book ‘good song’ but it doesn’t quite do it for me. (Gert)

From the album which kept Tommy off number one in the UK album charts and a bit slushy and frankly more than a bit creepy. Cabaret time despite or because of “Love Child” and “Cloud Nine.” (Marcello Carlin)

Great artists; terrible off-key falsetto passage that’s supposed to sound ecstatic but just sounds awful. (Amanda)

I remembered this as so much better. Disappointing. (Z)

Barrel scraping from artists who really should do much better. (NiC)

Geoffrey Boycott’s mum could have sung it better, but why bother? It’s not a great song. (JonnyB)

Proving that 3× the talent isn’t 3× the song. (diamond geezer)

This is a song so mediocre that I don’t think even the engineers bothered much with it. (asta)

I find the chorus quite painful and it wouldn’t make my top 100 Motown songs, but compared to the competition… (The Lurker)

2009: Breathe Slow – Alesha Dixon. (109)

Go, Alesha! Very pretty effort, I like this a lot. (Hedgie)

She’s very, very good at this sort of thing, isn’t she? Quite a pair of lungs, and not a bad song either. And she climbed a mountain for charidee and everything. (SwissToni)

Wins on technical knock-out. The fit between the track and the vocals is absolutely watertight, and the resulting dynamics where you can’t really tell which is driving which is beautiful. Bit of a boring song to go charting, but I’m still slightly awestruck at just how good it sounds. (Simon C)

A very typically English song about compo-wo-sure and the importance of staying cool. (Lena)

Cunning song, this; subtle, insidious, gradually unfolding like the pinkest and lightest of clouds over the Grand Canyon at dawn. But not quite a great one. (Marcello Carlin)

The rest are pretty much on a level but I’ll go for Alesha as I’ve always liked her since Mis-Teeq. They did a stadium gig once at Salisbury City FC, you know. Lovely vocal. (Erithian)

Nice, easy listening. And it does help that she seems such a thoroughly nice lady. (Lizzy)

“Breathe Slowly” Alesha…that’s cost you the five points from me. (NiC)

Unlike Sheila Ferguson of The Three Degrees, Alesha’s bothered to learn the words of this by heart. (Amanda)

Sounds like a triumph for clever engineering, which kind of defeats the purpose. Don’t get that chopping up of ’emo…tion’. I like her as a celeb, but don’t rate her as a singer. (Gert)

Who? Nevermind. I expect she’ll not be around all that long. I’m not suggesting that she lacks talent. It’s just that there’s nothing special here. Proficient. Yes. she’s quite proficient. This is not the quality for long-lasting stardom. (asta)

Ugh. Saccharine, anaemic voice. Loathe it. And saying “woa-oh” is not lyrics. (Sue Bailey)

Absolutely nothing about this is interesting. (JonnyB)

Singing by numbers. And you don’t take a breath in the middle of a word if you want to call yourself a singer. (Z)

1999: Fly Away – Lenny Kravitz. (87)

Love love love it. So funky. (Sue Bailey)

I LOVE this song!! Yes, the lyrics are complete drivel, but… I honestly can’t see what you despise about it so much – lots of songs have silly lyrics, but don’t usually warrant such venom!? (Lizzy)

Yikes! Feel the hatred! I think people divide into those who find lyrics the most important part of the song, and those who respond to the whole musical package. I agree these lyrics are total nonsense, but it doesn’t bother me at all – the whole thing is about the vocal line and funky guitars (And the vid’s good too). It’s wildly pretentious, yes, but then I like a bit of healthy toss-pottery, if it’s done well. (Hedgie)

I once saw high school students perform this song. It wasn’t great but it was interesting. (Plus one.) Lenny WANTS to get away. (Plus one.) (Amanda)

He’s a twat, clearly, and this is about as far away from authentic as it gets, being widely used for an advert….. but given the choice of the other dross here, the simple use of the guitar drives this up the list. Sorry about that. The rhyming here is fucking ridiculous too. so very high. up in the sky. just like a butterfly… up into the trees . To anywhere I please. V. poor Lenny, V. poor. (SwissToni)

I give him a two. That’s what I’m gonna do. Because with him I’m through. I’m gonna put on a shoe. Is it just me or was Lenny Kravitz a huge disappointment? I seem to remember thinking his very early stuff was really interesting. (JonnyB)

‘It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over’ is the only one of his I have any affection for. (Dymbel)

5 points. Yes, this is shit. But it doesn’t bore me as much as any of the others. (Hg)

I had hopes of this, but it went downhill rapidly. (Z)

He’s never actually seen a dragonfly fly has he? They hover low to the ground. This is the least of the problems with this song, but I’ve been trying to to dial back on the venom, so I’ll leave it at that. (asta)

It’s like Prince! With all the artistic merit removed! (Simon C)

The reproduction antique market can’t be doing that well in the credit crunch either. (Marcello Carlin

It’s just noise. Actually, it sounds like it’s building up to an interesting middle passage and climax that never comes. It only gets to be this high because of Michael Ball. (Gert)

1979: Woman In Love – The Three Degrees. (83)

Yes, I know they were just a latter day English version of the Supremes but you gotta love them shurely. Good song. I would have never have guessed they were still around by ’79. (NiC)

One of their records was my “our tune” with my first proper girlfriend. Nice if not earth-shattering. (Erithian)

Hardly earth-shattering, but essential “omg he just dumped me” mixtape fodder. And that’s no bad thing either. (Sue Bailey)

I never liked them, thinking them dated and uninspired, but I did make an exception for this song. Even so, it would have been better sung by someone with a more interesting voice. (Gert)

The dogsbodiness of the lyrics put this below the Supremes’ & Temptations’ spikiness. (Z)

Not a patch on “Givin’ Up, Givin’ In” or “The Runner” – Two Ronnies musical interlude fodder. Here’s a sketch set in a ballbearings factory… (Marcello Carlin)

Turgid ballad; the singer sounds like she’s reading out the lyrics from a sheet of paper. (Amanda)

Their worst moment. (Billy Smart)

This song is an affront to women and it’s boring. That’s a tough act to pull off. (asta)

1989: Love Changes Everything – Michael Ball. (77)

5 points – only because he sings it so well, and because it has great personal significance which is none of anyone else’s damn business, and because Lloyd Webber gets an unjust bum press when it comes to hit singles. (Marcello Carlin)

He’s still soppy, but a couple of decades have mellowed me and I wasn’t annoyed. (Z)

Fine if you like that sort of thing, but pretty unremarkable. I’d still go for a pint with him though. (Erithian)

Might work in the context of the show, I suppose. (Billy Smart)

Nice song, shame about the operatic performance. (NiC)

It’s beautiful, well sung, surprisingly poor production, slightly boring. I think this might have been my first musical, on some happy London holiday. (Simon C)

Now if this was a Eurovision song there would have been a key change in the middle – so for resisting the urge to change key: plus one. For the two syllable pronounciation of “ter-remble”: minus one. (Amanda)

Oi. BALL. NO! I don’t really like Lloyd-Webber, and although I think Ball is a nice enough chap, his style of singing makes me ill. He’s like the proto-Il Divo, isn’t he? You have to admire the efficiency of the combination, but it’s like anti-music, isn’t it? (SwissToni)

I have an aversion to Michael Ball. Truck drivers gear changes. Dreadful leaps from chest to head voice. It would be a decent song. with a different singer. And different orchestration. And different words. And a re-working of the tune. (Gert)

I give up. Can I give this minus points? No? Damn. This is the reason why I think ALW is to music as Velveeta is to cheese. (asta)

I hate giving the obvious choice the bum’s rush. But I have really listened carefully to this abomination I remember from its release and and nothing – nothing – can convince me that this isn’t hateful. (JonnyB)

If this is what love does, I never want to be in it. (Sue Bailey)

Decade scores so far (after 7 days).

Look at this, folks: an unprecedented three-way tie for first position, with the 1970s only one point behind the leaders. And with voting absolutely neck and neck in the Number Fours round, it’s still very much anybody’s game. Apart from the 1990s, that is.

1= (4) The 2000s (23)
1= (2) The 1980s (23)
1= (1) The 1960s (23)
4 (2) The 1970s (22)
5 (5) The 1990s (15)

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