Which Decade Is Tops For Pops: Volume II, A New Decade.

Well, I do hope you’re all enjoying New Look Troubled Diva so far! But if I can just step in and quell the madness for a second: “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops?” has just made its debut at its new home at Freaky Trigger, now with six decades to place under our collective microscope. All previous running totals from 2003 to 2009 have duly been reset to zero, as the game begins again.

Please join me!

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – THE FINAL SCORES.

Yes, folks: after seven years of judicious voting and meticulous tabulation, which have seen us examine 362 different singles from 37 different singles charts (allowing for a couple of tie-break rounds), I can now reveal the ULTIMATE answer to the question which I first posed to my readers in February 2003.

In fifth place, with a cumulative score of 172 points, it’s The 1990s.

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Never finishing higher than fourth place at the end of our seven annual “Which Decade” episodes, The 1990s have endured a rough ride. In 70 rounds of voting, our least popular decade has placed first on just eight occasions – a pitiful showing indeed. Let’s list them again, shall we?

1993: Sweet Harmony – The Beloved.
1993: Ordinary World – Duran Duran.
1994: Girls And Boys – Blur.
1995: Reach Up – Perfecto Allstarz.
1995: No More I Love You’s – Annie Lennox.
1996: Slight Return – The Bluetones.
1998: Never Ever – All Saints.
1999: Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) – The Offspring.

And in fourth place, with a cumulative score of 196 points, it’s The 2000s.

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The Noughties stiffed badly between 2003 and 2006, before rallying towards the end of the decade, and peaking in second place for the chart of 2007. Here are those 2000s winners in full (and with the benefit of hindsight, some of them are strange choices indeed).

2003: Lose Yourself – Eminem.
2004: Amazing – George Michael.
2004: Red Blooded Woman – Kylie Minogue.
2004: Toxic – Britney Spears.
2006: You Got The Love (New Voyager mix) – The Source featuring Candi Staton.
2007: Same Jeans – The View.
2007: Grace Kelly – Mika.
2008: A&E – Goldfrapp.

Now, here’s a surprise: just like the 1990s, the 2000s only managed to notch up 8 winners out of 70. Instead, the mid-table was their natural stamping ground – placing them 24 points clear of fifth place, but a mere 15 points short of third place.

And in third place, with a cumulative score of 211 points, it’s The 1980s.

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The Eighties finished on top in just one annual round, and in the most unlikely year of all: 1985, which I have long considered to be one of the worst years in singles chart history. Its least popular year – and again, this comes as a surprise – was the fifth placing for 1988 in last year’s contest. So, which Eighties records came out on top? Let’s list them…

1983: You Can’t Hurry Love – Phil Collins.
1983: Too Shy – Kajagoogoo.
1984: Jump – Van Halen.
1984: Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
1984: 99 Red Balloons – Nena.
1985: 1999/Little Red Corvette – Prince.
1985: You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) – Dead Or Alive.
1985: Dancing In The Dark – Bruce Springsteen.
1986: Borderline – Madonna.
1986: Chain Reaction – Diana Ross.
1987: Male Stripper – Man 2 Man featuring Man Parrish.
1988: I Think We’re Alone Now – Tiffany.

Yes, that’s still just 12 winning songs out of 70 – meaning that our two most popular decades have notched up 42 winning songs between them. Decisive, or what?

There’s a big jump in the scoring between our third and second placed decades – but most nail-bitingly of all, a mere 4 points separate the winner from the runner-up.

So, who’s in second place? Why, it’s The 1970s, with a cumulative score of 235 points.

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The Seventies won two annual rounds – but only 1976 enjoyed a clear, outright victory. On two other occasions, the Seventies were forced to go to a supplementary tie-break round. Last year, 1978 lost out to our winning decade on tie-break – but their luck was better in Year One, when they beat off a challenge from the 1980s. And the 19 winning songs were:

1973: Wishing Well – Free.
1973: Daniel – Elton John.
1973: You’re So Vain – Carly Simon.
1973: Blockbuster – The Sweet.
1975: Angie Baby – Helen Reddy.
1975: Shame Shame Shame – Shirley & Company.
1975: Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) – Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.
1976: Dat – Pluto Shervington.
1976: Mamma Mia – Abba.
1977: Daddy Cool – Boney M.
1977: Don’t Leave Me This Way – Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes.
1977: Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – Julie Covington.
1978: Mr. Blue Sky – Electric Light Orchestra.
1978: Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna.
1978: Wishing On A Star – Rose Royce.
1978: Take A Chance On Me – Abba.
1979: Milk & Alcohol – Dr. Feelgood.
1979: Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – Ian Dury & the Blockheads.
1979: Heart Of Glass – Blondie.

And so to the decade which you, the readers of Troubled Diva, have judged to be the BEST! DECADE! EVAH! for pop music. Four points ahead of the 1970s, with a cumulative score of 239, it’s…

THE SWINGING, THE FABULOUS, THE TOPPER-MOST, POPPER-MOST… NINETEEN SIXTIES!

finalwd05

The 1960s were the first-placed decade in four of our seven annual rounds, with three consecutive victories in the last three years. 1963 might have scored a comparatively low third place in Year One – but since then, it’s been Top Two all the way. Over and over again, your votes have confirmed the increasingly inevitable: that the music of forty years ago will always be dearest to your pop-loving hearts.

Looking at the final scores once again, there’s another clear conclusion to be drawn: that the quality of chart pop music steadily deteriorated from the Sixties to the Nineties, before rallying slightly in the Noughties. Can this be true? Is popular culture forever destined to be on a downward slide – or are there glory days yet to come?

There’s only one way to find out – but it might take us another ten years to draw our next set of conclusions. So the question is this: have I got in me to reset the counters to zero, and to start the exercise all over again next year, with six decades instead of five to evaluate?

And the answer is this: maybe. Let’s see how I feel in a year’s time, eh? And if “Which Decade” is indeed to be reborn, then I’ll have to move from my birthday week in mid-February to another month. Maybe I’ll pick K’s birthday week, in late May?

We shall see, readers. We shall see. But for now, let’s sign off by thanking all of this year’s voters: Adrian, Alan, Amanda, Andy, An Unreliable Witness, asta, betty, Billy Smart, bob, Chig, Clare, diamond geezer, Dymbel, Erithian, Geoff Mild Peril, Geoff Itinerant Londoner, Gert, Hedgie, Hg, jo, John, JonnyB, LB, Lena, Lizzy, LKSN, Marcello Carlin, Matthew, NiC, Nottingham’s ‘Mr Sex’, Oliver, Raw P, Richard, Sarah, Simon, Simon C, Stereoboard, Sue Bailey, suz, SwissToni, The Lurker, Tina, Tom, Will and Z. Special thanks go to Gert, who has provided mini-reviews of all 356 songs over the years, and also to Marcello for his truly exceptional and magnificently interesting contributions in the comments box.

We conclude “Which Decade” with a lap of honour for our winner, whose 23 winning songs are listed below.

1963: Please Please Me – The Beatles.
1964: Needles And Pins – The Searchers.
1964: Not Fade Away – The Rolling Stones.
1964: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black.
1965: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – The Animals.
1965: You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling – The Righteous Brothers.
1966: Keep On Running – Spencer Davis Group.
1966: You Were On My Mind – Crispian St Peters.
1966: 19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones.
1966: These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra.
1967: Mellow Yellow – Donovan.
1967: Let’s Spend The Night Together – Rolling Stones.
1967: Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane – The Beatles.
1967: I’m A Believer – The Monkees.
1968: Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) – John Fred & His Playboy Band.
1968: Bend Me Shape Me – Amen Corner.
1968: Everlasting Love – The Love Affair.
1969: For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder.
1969: Dancing In The Street – Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.
1969: Albatross – Fleetwood Mac.
1969: Blackberry Way – The Move.
1969: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me – Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations.
1969: Where Do You Go To My Lovely – Peter Sarstedt.

Those archive links in full:
Which Decade 2003
Which Decade 2004
Which Decade 2005
Which Decade 2006
Which Decade 2007
Which Decade 2008
Which Decade 2009

Update: Listen to the winning songs on Spotify (UK readers only).

People, it’s been an honour. Thank you once again! I love you all! XXX

Which Decade: The years we missed.

For the sake of completeness, and as these were never voted on at the time, let’s take a quick peek at the Top Threes from the first three years of each decade.

First up, here are the top threes from 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000. I’m going to highlight my favourites in green.

Number Threes:
Freddie Cannon – Way Down Yonder In New Orleans
Canned Heat – Let’s Work Together
The Whispers – And The Beat Goes On
Beats International featuring Lindy Layton – Dub Be Good To Me
Oasis – Go Let It Out

Number Twos:
Cliff Richard & The Shadows – Voice In The Wilderness
The Specials – Too Much Too Young
Technotronic featuring Ya Kid K – Get Up (Before The Night Is Over)
Peter Paul & Mary – Leavin’ On A Jet Plane
Sash! – Adelante

Number Ones:
Anthony Newley – Why
Edison Lighthouse – Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Grows)
Kenny Rogers – Coward Of The County
Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U
Gabrielle – Rise

So that’s 2 points to the 1980s, and 1 point to the 1990s.
Let’s move on to 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001.

Number Threes:
Johnny Burnette – You’re Sixteen
Ashton, Gardner & Dyke – Resurrection Shuffle
Ultravox – Vienna
Nomad featuring MC Mikee Freedom – (I Wanna Give You) Devotion
Limp Bizkit – Rollin’

Number Twos:
Petula Clark – Sailor
The Mixtures – Pushbike Song
John Lennon – Woman
The KLF featuring The Children Of The Revolution – 3AM Eternal
Wheatus – Teenage Dirtbag

Number Ones:
Elvis Presley – Are You Lonesome Tonight?
George Harrison – My Sweet Lord
Joe Dolce Music Theatre – Shaddup You Face
The Simpsons – Do The Bartman
Atomic Kitten – Whole Again

The 1980s now have 3 points, the 1990s have 2 points, and the 1970s have one point.
Finally, let’s see what 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002 have to offer.

Number Threes:
Let’s Twist Again – Chubby Checker
Son Of My Father – Chicory Tip
A Town Called Malice – The Jam
I Love Your Smile – Shanice
Hero – Enrique Iglesias

Number Twos:
The Young Ones – Cliff Richard
American Pie – Don McLean
Mickey – Toni Basil
My Girl – Temptations disqualified as a reissue, and replaced by Goodbye Girl – Wet Wet Wet
Whenever Wherever – Shakira

Number Ones:
Can’t Help Falling In Love / Rock-A-Hula-Baby – Elvis Presley
Without You – Nilsson
The Lion Sleeps Tonight – Tight Fit
Stay – Shakespears Sister
Evergreen / Anything Is Possible – Will Young

This gives us final scores – and remember folks, these are just for fun! – as follows:

1980s – 4 points
1970s and 1990s – 2 points
2000s – 1 point
1960s – 0 points

As might have been suspected, the early 1980s convincingly take the prize. And HA! Take that, 1960s! You weren’t ALWAYS wonderful!

That’s the interlude act over with, then. Next up, later today: THE FINAL RESULTS.

Can you contain your excitement? No, but can you though?

Which Decade: your Top Ten and your Bottom Five.

Before I announce the final results of our seven-year quest, and the ultimate answer to our oft-asked question, here’s our customary round-up of the songs which you loved and loathed the most.

As always, scores are derived by dividing the total scores for each song by the number of people who voted for it, thus producing an average score.

(Note: This is where 1969’s popularity asserts itself most clearly, with six songs placed within the Top Ten.)

1. Heart Of Glass – Blondie.
2. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – Ian Dury & the Blockheads.
3. Dancing In The Street – Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.
4. For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder.
5. Blackberry Way – The Move.
6. Albatross – Fleetwood Mac.
7. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me – Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations.
8. Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) – The Offspring.
9. Where Do You Go To My Lovely – Peter Sarstedt.
10. You Got It – Roy Orbison.

46. (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice – Amen Corner.
47. Enjoy Yourself – A+.
48. Belfast Child – Simple Minds.
49. Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – The Shadows.
50. Heartbeat/Tragedy – Steps.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – THIS YEAR’S WINNER.

ist place – The 1960s. (34 points)

2008: 1st place, 36 points + 1 tiebreak point.
2007: 1st place, 34 points.
2006: 2nd place, 37 points.
2005: 2nd place, 33 points.
2004: 1st place, 36 points.
2003: 3rd place, 28 points.

10. For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder. 5 points.
9. The Way It Used To Be – Engelbert Humperdinck. 1 point.
8. You Got Soul – Johnny Nash. 1 point.
7. Dancing In The Street – Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. 5 points, most popular.
6. Albatross – Fleetwood Mac. 5 points.
5. Blackberry Way – The Move. 5 points.
4. Please Don’t Go – Donald Peers. 1 point.
3. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me – Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations. 5 points.
2. Where Do You Go To My Lovely – Peter Sarstedt. 5 points.
1. (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice – Amen Corner. 1 point, least popular.

wd09-1969If you ask me, there’s something special about years ending in 9. In pop-historical terms, they’re habitually overlooked, most likely because they tend not to fit neatly into decade-based summaries. By the time that you get to them, the overall “sound” of each decade has already been identified – and it’s usually centred around the music from a quarter of the way through (Merseybeat, Glam, New Pop, Rave/Grunge), or the three-quarter point (Psychedelia, Punk/Disco, House/SAW, Britpop/the “superclub” Dance boom).

But in those years-with-a-nine-on-the-end, you’ll often find clear pointers to the music which will go on to define the decade to come. In 1979, we see the dawn of the more heavily image-based video era. In 1989, Madchester is the big story: placing indie guitar bands back into the equation, and setting in motion the chain of events which would lead to Britpop. Even in 1999, we can find the roots of pure pop’s resurgence: your Britneys, your Christinas, your S Clubs.

But what of 1969? Ah, I wish you hadn’t asked me that – for this is where my already shaky theory starts to fall apart. The Beatles, The Stones and The Who were still riding high; Marmalade, The Move, Amen Corner and Herman’s Hermits represented business as usual for home-grown pop; and while Motown provided many of the year’s most durable classics – three of which are represented here, although we’re stretching the term “classic” for one of them – the label’s success was largely founded on re-issues, and its new hits offered few clues to the direction that soul music would take in the 1970s.

None of which is to play down the many glories of the 1969 singles charts, which have been thoroughly and lovingly catalogued and celebrated by Marcello in this outstanding piece of writing (scroll down to April 07) – but I still can’t help feeling that the Sixties have fluked it this time round.

Look at those day-by-day scores, and you’ll see what I mean. For in 1969, there were no half measures where your voting was concerned. Six songs won outright, four songs placed last – and there was nothing – absolutely nothing – in between.

Yes, you loved your Motown – and rightly so. And there’s no arguing with the unique “Albatross”, or with the wonky psych-pop of “Blackberry Way”. But did the chart which contained the out-of-time Donald Peers, the perpetually irksome Engelbert Humperdinck, the utterly forgettable “You Got Soul” (bet you’d forgotten it already, right?) or the laboured ho-hummery of Amen Corner really deserve this year’s crown?

Or am I just pissed off because my beloved 1979 was pipped at the post, by one measly little point?

Ah, there’s the rub. 1969, I congratulate you – but this time, it’s through gritted teeth.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results: 2nd place.

2nd place – The 1970s. (33 points)

2008: 2nd place, 36 points.
2007: 3rd place, 31 points.
2006: 1st place, 38 points.
2005: 3rd place, 30 points.
2004: 2nd place, 31 points.
2003: 1st place, 35 points + 1 tiebreak point.

10. Car 67 – Driver 67. 2 points.
9. Milk & Alcohol – Dr. Feelgood. 5 points.
8. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – Ian Dury & the Blockheads. 5 points.
7. Tragedy – The Bee Gees. 3 points.
6. Contact – Edwin Starr. 4 points.
5. Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – The Shadows. 1 point, least popular.
4. I Was Made For Dancin’ – Leif Garrett. 2 points.
3. Woman In Love – The Three Degrees. 2 points.
2. Chiquitita – Abba. 4 points.
1. Heart Of Glass – Blondie. 5 points, most popular.

Margaret Thatcher at Downing StreetOver the course of “Which Decade”, we’ve examined the charts of thirty-five different years. And of these thirty-five, the single year that I’ve been looking forward to the most is this one: the golden, glorious year of 1979.

For my money, the singles charts of the final year of the Seventies have never been bettered – and as if to illustrate the point, this was also a high-water mark for the 7-inch single, with UK sales for 1979 peaking at a whopping 89 million.

Not only had pop music never been more popular; it had also never been so creative, with any of number of acts rising from the underground to the mainstream without compromising their vision. The new wave reached maturity (Oliver’s Army, Eton Rifles, Heart Of Glass), the first ripples of synth-pop began to erupt (Are ‘Friends’ Electric, Pop Muzik, Video Killed The Radio Star), disco reached its commercial peak (Good Times, We Are Family, Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now), while the autumn of 1979 saw the 2-Tone movement blowing up from nowhere, and rap music scoring its first hit single. And was there ever a finer selection of UK Number Ones? Oh, I very much doubt it.

That said, I remained nervous about the quality of this particular Top Ten, which I felt didn’t quite show 1979 in the best possible light. Driver 67? The Shadows? Leif Garrett? One of my least favourite Abba songs? “Woman In Love”? This could be a tough one.

I needn’t have worried. The Feelgoods, The Blockheads and Blondie won their respective rounds; “Chiquitita” proved more popular than I had expected; Edwin Starr and The Bee Gees did just fine; and only The Shadows found themselves settling for bottom place. And in the final reckoning, 1979 finished just one point short of winning the match.

In personal terms, February 1979 – and specifically the night of my 17th birthday – marked the moment when I began to turn the corner on a particularly nasty and debilitating bout of teenage angst. Six months earlier, I had been isolated, friendless and deeply f**ked up. But now – with A-levels approaching, and the prospect of independence and escape looming ever larger on the horizon – I somehow found the strength and resolve to begin a conscious process of re-invention.

If I were ranking these five years in terms of personal growth, then 1979 would definitely come out on top. And if I were undemocratically ranking them in terms of their pop music, then the result would be the same. As it is, I’ll have to settle for second-best placing, for an altogether first-rate year.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results: 3rd place.

3rd place – The 2000s. (32 points)

2008: 3rd place, 31 points.
2007: 2nd place, 32 points.
2006: Equal 4th place, 21 points.
2005: 4th place, 27 points.
2004: 5th place, 26 points.
2003: 4th place, 27 points.

10. T-Shirt – Shontelle. 3 points.
9. Day ‘n’ Nite – Kid Cudi vs. Crookers. 4 points.
8. Omen – The Prodigy. 3 points.
7. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – Beyonce. 2 points.
6. Broken Strings – James Morrison featuring Nelly Furtado. 2 points, least popular.
5. Take Me Back – Tinchy Stryder featuring Taio Cruz. 3 points.
4. Crack A Bottle – Eminem featuring Dr Dre & 50 Cent. 4 points.
3. Breathe Slow – Alesha Dixon. 4 points.
2. Just Dance – Lady GaGa featuring Colby O’Donis. 3 points.
1. The Fear – Lily Allen. 4 points, most popular.

Barack Obama takes the Oath of Office as the 44th President of the United States as he is sworn in by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts with his wife Michelle by his side during the inauguration ceremony in Washington...Barack Obama takes the Oath of Office as the 44th President of the United States as he is sworn in by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts with his wife Michelle by his side during the inauguration ceremony in Washington, January 20, 2009. Obama became the first African-American president in U.S. history. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES) So, it’s official then: you quite like 2009.

You don’t exactly love 2009: none of this year’s Top Ten polled higher than second place, although Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘n’ Nite” led the voting in the Number Nines for most of the way. And you certainly don’t loathe 2009: nothing polled in last place, although none of you had anything very nice to say about James Morrison’s “Broken Strings”. And again, the luck of the draw played its part: many of you expressed frustration at not being able to place Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” higher, and Lily Allen’s “The Fear” drew almost unanimous praise, despite being soundly trounced by Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass”.

It’s been heartening to see the once-reviled 2000s doing so well in recent years, compared to its dismal showing from 2003 to 2006. As regular readers will know, I’m strongly in favour of giving all due weight to the contemporary, despite its in-built disadvantage of being untested by posterity. And this was a good crop, from what has been a strong year for pop hits (but a slow year for equally strong albums, it has to be said).

As for my own personal experience of 2009: it’s been a busy, exciting and energising first three months, with plenty of challenging and satisfying projects already completed, and still more to come. A natural progression from the equally engaged optimism of 1989, with the mid-life misery of 1999 looking all the more like a distant blip of misfortune, poor judgement and self-defeating self-indulgence.

If I were ranking these five years in terms of personal achievement, then 2009 would definitely come out on top. But a closely fought third place on “Which Decade”? Well, that ain’t too shoddy.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results: 4th place.

4th place – The 1980s. (29 points)

2008: 5th place, 23 points.
2007: 4th place, 27 points.
2006: 3rd place, 33 points.
2005: 1st place, 34 points.
2004: 3rd place, 30 points.
2003: 2nd place, 35 points.

10. Wait – Robert Howard & Kym Mazelle. 4 points.
9. Fine Time – Yazz. 2 points.
8. Last Of The Famous International Playboys – Morrissey. 4 points.
7. You Got It – Roy Orbison. 4 points, most popular.
6. My Prerogative – Bobby Brown. 3 points.
5. Love Train – Holly Johnson. 4 points.
4. The Living Years – Mike & The Mechanics. 3 points.
3. Love Changes Everything – Michael Ball. 1 point.
2. Belfast Child – Simple Minds. 1 point, least popular.
1. Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart – Marc Almond featuring Gene Pitney. 3 points.

wd09-1989With 1999 safely out of the way, this year’s competition gets a lot closer, with little to separate our remaining four decades. And having watched the Eighties slide ever lower down the rankings in recent years, I nursed high hopes that 1989 would reverse their fortunes.

For a while, things were looking promising. Howard/Mazelle, Morrissey, Roy Orbison and Holly Johnson all finished in second place, and 1989 even led the pack at the end of a couple of rounds. But then disaster followed, in the shape of a weak Top Four and two consecutive bottom placings for Michael Ball and Simple Minds.

Although Marc Almond and Gene Pitney drew favourable comments from most quarters, a tough draw left them stranded in third place. It was the final nail in 1989’s coffin – and a disappointing placing for a period which I have always held in high regard.

Maybe it’s just the distorting lens of nostalgia, but my memories of the 1989 charts are largely fond ones. From the UK pop/soul corner, we had Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul, Fine Young Cannibals, Rebel MC… and yes, even Lisa Stansfield for a while, back when she still seemed like a good idea. From the US, we had quality house music from Adeva, Chanelle, Ten City, Inner City and Lil Louis, and ground-breaking hip hop from De La Soul. Madonna restored her artistic reputation with Like A Prayer, Bobby Brown and Alyson Williams brought a modern edge to R&B; the Pet Shop Boys collaborated with Dusty and Liza; there was some ace Euro-dance from Technotronic, Capella and the Italo-house brigade (led by Black Box’s “Ride On Time” and Starlight’s “Numero Uno”); “Voodoo Ray” and “Pacific State” put Manchester on the dance map, while the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays ushered in the Madchester/baggy boom… such riches, people! Such riches!

On a global level, 1989 marked a historical turning point, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. And on a personal level, these were significant times. K started a job which involved extensive international travel, and I was promoted into a role with dramatically increased responsibilities. The travel seemed glamorous and exciting, the promotion felt like an honour… and ignorance was bliss, on both counts. The DJ-ing had gone weekly, the night was doing great, and the social life hadn’t been this busy since student days. If I were ranking these five years in terms of personal happiness, then 1989 would probably come out top. But never mind. Fourth position will have to do.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results: 5th place.

5th place – The 1990s. (22 points)

2008: 4th place, 25 points.
2007: 5th place, 26 points.
2006: Equal 4th place, 21 points.
2005: 5th place, 26 points.
2004: 4th place, 27 points.
2003: 5th place, 25 points.

10. Westside – TQ. 1 point.
9. Changes – 2Pac. 3 points.
8. When You’re Gone – Bryan Adams featuring Melanie C. 2 points.
7. Heartbeat/Tragedy – Steps. 1 point, least popular.
6. Enjoy Yourself – A+. 1 point.
5. Boy You Knock Me Out – Tatyana Ali featuring Will Smith. 2 points.
4. Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) – The Offspring. 5 points, most popular.
3. Fly Away – Lenny Kravitz. 3 points.
2. You Don’t Know Me – Armand Van Helden featuring Duane Harden. 2 points.
1. Maria – Blondie. 2 points.

wd09-1999OK, this was pathetic. Right from Day One of this year’s “Which Decade” (if any of you can remember back that far), the miserable year of 1999 never placed higher than fifth in our cumulative scoring table. At its lowest ebb – just before The Offspring came along to restore a modicum of dignity – the year of the Millennium Bug, the Millennium Dome, the total solar eclipse and other assorted damp squibs was trailing the pack by a massive nine points. In the final reckoning, it finished seven points lower than any other decade, with the lowest marks reserved for Steps, A+ and (tragically and entirely wrong-headedly, I might add) TQ’s sublimly wistful “Westside”. (Tsk, what am I to DO with you all?)

There’s always the luck of the draw, of course. Against weaker competition on the day, I suspect that Armand Van Helden’s “You Don’t Know Me” and Blondie’s “Maria” might easily have scored more than two points apiece. Less fortunately still, pitching “Maria” against “Heart Of Glass” and the Steps cover against the Bee Gees original was never going to help 1999’s cause.

Nevertheless, them’s the breaks – and based on my own musical memories of the year in question, I’m certainly not about to quibble. Although 1999 saw the chart debuts of at least two future superstars – Eminem and Britney Spears – music didn’t seem in too healthy a state back then. Ricky Martin, The Vengaboys, Martine McCutcheon and Boyzone ruled the roost for pop, while various increasingly irksome ex-Spice Girls refused to surrender their crowns gracefully; ATB, Alice Deejay, Phats & Small and any number of endelessly recycled Ibiza Trance Anthems spelt the beginning of the end for the supremacy of Dance (as expedited by all those wretched Millennium Eve Superclub Rip-Off nights, which dealt a massive blow to the industry’s credibility); the timid triumvirate of Travis, Texas and The Stereophonics ushered in the beige age of Corporate Indie… oh, and the deathless Westlife also began their uniquely grim reign of terror, scoring their first of five million interchangeable Number One Smashes in May.

On a personal level, 1999 was the most miserable year of my adult life. Unaware of the extraordinary, life-changing joys that 2000 that was about to bestow, I floundered in a sea of narrowing options and diminishing returns: stuck in a rut, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, and feeling altogether disappointed by the meagre advances which the decade had ultimately brought. With this in mind, it delights me to witness the well-deserved kicking which you, the voting public, have seen fit to bestow up on it. Begone, you twelve-month of vileness, and take your manky pop mediocrity with you!

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodness, has it been a year already?

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

Yeah, course I can! Shall we crack on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Decade: Cumulative scores, after six years.

1 (1) The 1960s – 205 points.
2 (2) The 1970s – 202 points.
3 (3) The 1980s – 182 points.
4 (4) The 2000s – 164 points.
5 (5) The 1990s – 150 points.

Although the positions on our cumulative league table remain unchanged, it’s worth looking a little more closely at the gaps between each decade.

At the top of the table, the 1970s are still chasing the 1960s hard, with last year’s two point difference widening to a mere three points. However, these two decades are now pulling ever clearer of their nearest rivals, as last year’s 7 point gap between the 1970s and 1980s becomes a yawning 20 point chasm.

The 2000s are making reasonable ground, but with last year’s 26 point lag behind the 1980s only reducing to 18 points, they still have a lot of work to do. As for the 1990s, now lagging by 14 points as compared to last year’s 8, it does look as if they are already out for the count.


I think it’s time for a graph, don’t you? This shows the waxing and waning fortunes of each decade over the past six years. I’m not sure that it proves anything, but doesn’t it look nice?

wd2008-graph


Finally, and in accordance with Which Decade custom, it only remains for me to thank everyone who voted: Adrian, Alan, anne, asta, betty, Bryany, Cathy, chris, Clair, David, diamond geezer, Dymbel, Erithian, Geoff, Gert, Gordon, Hg, imsodave, jeff w, jo, JonnyB, Lizzy, LKSN, lockedintheattic, Lyle, Marcello, NiC, Nikki, Nottingham’sMr Sex‘, Oliver, Rebecca, Rob, Sarah, Silverfin, Simon, Simon C, Stereoboard, Stu, SwissToni, The commenter formerly known as, Tina, Tom, Vicus Scurra, Will and Z. Nearly everyone who took part in last year’s Which Decade came back again this year, which is particularly heart-warming – as is the record number of votes cast, with all rounds picking up over 30 sets of votes for the first time, and some even touching a new high of 40 votes. (Frankly, I’m not sure that I could have coped with many more.)

The Golden Notepad award for Outstanding Commenting goes this year – and how could it not? – to Marcello, whose extraordinary expert knowledge combined with his real passion for the subject has added much to the enjoyment of the last three weeks. Oh, and he also happens to be my favourite music writer on the planet, so it has been a joy to have him along.

As ever, it’s been a phenomenally labour-intensive but also richly rewarding slog, and I look forward to welcoming you all back next February, for what could be our final episode of… Which Decade Is Tops For Pops?

Thank you, and goodnight.