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.”