Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

1st place – The 1960s. (36 points)

Most popular: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black.
Least popular: Diane – The Bachelors.

Yes! It’s a middle-aged Mojo reader’s wet dream! With the 1960s winning by a decisive margin of 5 points, the final result sees our five decades neatly stacked up in reverse chronological order, thus adding weight to the theory that pop music really has got steadily worse over the past forty years. As Groc said in a recent comment:

Of course the 60s had to win. It’s when pop really hit its stride. Everything since has been a remix and remodelling of everything that was invented back then – hence that first rush of authenticity and joy and naivety and energy has been lost forever. Sad but true.

Or maybe we just hit a good week in a year of rapid change and growth, as the British beat boom revolutionised the way that pop music was made. Suddenly, everyone was in a group with a singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer (there are six in this particular selection) whereas even a year earlier, such a commodity was bordering on the non-existent. The notion of the pop group as a gang-like, creatively autonomous unit had arrived; it persists to this day.

Lyrically speaking, the focus here is overwhelmingly romantic in inclination, with nine songs in the Top Ten being more or less straightforward love songs. Or maybe not so straightforward; for as well as being the most romantic of the five decades, 1964 is also the most heartbroken, with exactly half of the top ten dealing with jilted, absent or cruel lovers. (Compare this with the lust-drenched chart of 2004, where only Jamelia’s Thank You addresses the pain which love can bring.) It is also somewhat disconcerting to note that while the intervening three decades brought a dramatic widening of lyrical scope (nostalgia, surrealism, social commentary…), this appears to have narrowed right down again in the last few years. Simply put: we have moved from love to lust, passing experimentation along the way.

Your two favourite Top Tens are also by far and away the most British: apart from Jim Reeves (USA) and The Bachelors (Ireland), all of 1964’s other acts come from the UK, with four of them hailing from Liverpool. In 1974, nine singles in the Top Ten are British. In both 1984 and 1994, there are just two, and in 2004 there are four. Is this mere coincidence, or does this reveal a sublimated nationalism in your voting patterns?

Or am I just extrapolating wildly from insufficient data samples, and drawing unsafe and even slightly insulting conclusions? Oh, quite probably. But – once again – what huge fun I have had in doing so.

Thank you to everyone who took the trouble to vote and leave comments; unless I’ve flounced off in another hiatus by then, you can rest assured that we will most certainly be doing this all over again next year.

Until then, I shall leave you with the combined decade scores for the past two years of the project. Just five more years to go, and then we shall truly know…
Which Decade is Tops for Pops!
(Cue end titles.)

Cumulative decade scores, after two years.
1. The 1970s (67 points)
2. The 1980s (65 points)
3. The 1960s (64 points)
4. The 2000s (53 points)
5. The 1990s (52 points)

(This has been another absurdly maximalist interactive stunt from Troubled Diva Productions – where more is always more. Much, much more.)

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

2nd place – The 1970s. (31 points)

Most popular: The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies.
Least popular: Remember (Sha La La La) – Bay City Rollers.

Last year’s winner fought back hard this time around, pulling itself up from fifth place to second place in the last four days of the poll. Like 1984, this was a transitional year, which saw the glam-rockers of 1973 peaking and then quickly distancing themselves from the genre, with Slade, Gary Glitter and T.Rex all releasing uncharacteristic ballads within a few weeks of each other. By the end of the year, glam would have yielded to early disco (George McCrae, Three Degrees, Hues Corporation), The Osmonds would have yielded to the Bay City Rollers, and a new breed of slightly artier, more self-consciously literate pop acts (Sparks, Queen, Cockney Rebel, 10cc) would have gained ground.

The overriding theme of this particular Top 10 was, however, nostalgia. The New Seekers and the Bay City Rollers waxed wistfully about the songs of the “old days”, Ringo Starr covered one of them, and both Suzi Quatro and Alvin Stardust referenced the styles of classic rock and roll. Meanwhile, The Hollies and Charlie Rich delivered what for me were the two most pleasant surprises of this year’s selection: stately, well-crafted ballads, sensitively arranged, and performed with genuine feeling. As with Van Halen in 1984, sometimes it’s the uncool, unfashionable material which ends up sounding the most timeless and enduring (and in the case of The Air That I Breathe, directly influencing a classic of 20 years later, Radiohead’s Creep).

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

3rd place – The 1980s. (30 points)

Most popular: Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Least popular: Joanna – Kool & The Gang.

This is unexpected, to say the least. In my (possibly nostalgia-addled) memory, 1984 was the final year of a protracted Golden Age which started with Heart Of Glass and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, peaked with Relax and Two Tribes, and ended with Do They Know It’s Christmas and You Spin Me Round (Like A Record). Sharp, sussed pop music, with wit, style and substance. To say nothing of all the fantastic early 80s soul/funk/late disco/early electro which had me bopping round my boom box in my fluffy white towelling socks.

So why was almost none this represented in our sample Top Ten? The preposterous Rockwell, the condescending Billy Joel, the borderline-offensive Lionel Richie, the whining Nik Kershaw, the patently counterfeit Break Machine, the anodyne Kool & The Gang… this is not the 1984 which I eagerly documented each Tuesday or Wednesday with my own personal top forty (yes, forty) of current favourites. On the strength of this pitiful evidence, it’s a wonder that the 1980s even managed to climb as high as third place. This was only achieved on the strength of the remaining four songs (It’s Raining Men, 99 Red Balloons, Jump, Relax), all classics in their own way, which between them picked up 19 points out of a possible 20.

No, this wasn’t my 1984 at all. Perhaps I should check those old handwritten personal Top 40s once again. Let’s see what was really rocking my world twenty years ago – and let’s hope that it’s not too embarrassing.

top20-1984

Hmm. Tolerable – distinctly tolerable – if a little Wine Bar in places. (Look, Sade was on the front cover of The Face! We didn’t know any better!)

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

4th place – The 1990s. (27 points)

Most popular: Girls And Boys – Blur.
Least popular: Breathe Again – Toni Braxton.

Unlike the witless puppets of 2004, at least the charts of 1994 can still be credited with some intelligence. Whatever we might think of the offerings by Tori Amos, Blur and Bruce Springsteen, at least they are all, in their own ways, offering something which hadn’t been offered before, and thus stretching the definitions of chart pop.

Would that the same could be said for perhaps the most unmourned genre of the 1990s – the power ballad. With Celine Dion mercifully absent, it is left to Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey to fly the flag for ghastly, torpid, air-brushed, over-egged, fake emoting.

At the same time, dance music (as represented here by I Like To Move It, Renaissance and Doop) had established itself as a regular feature in the Top 10, with many hits having started their lives in what was then a thriving and expanding club scene. The rapid decline of dance music in the singles charts is perhaps the most surprising development of recent years.

But the most prescient of these ten hits has to be Girls And Boys. The glories of the Britpop years were just about to begin. Had our sample been taken from the Top 10s of 1995, 1996 or 1997, I suspect that the 1990s would have placed a lot higher than fourth.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

5th place – The 2000s. (26 points)

Most popular: Toxic – Britney Spears. (Watch the fantastic video for this here.)
Least popular: Cha Cha Slide – DJ Caspar.

“Tuneless – atonal – a horrible racket – call this music?” There is an argument which says that the 2000s have, in a sense, scored a victory by finishing last in our poll. After all, aren’t grown-ups traditionally meant to hate modern chart pop? It’s not made for us. We’re not supposed to get it. By shifting its emphasis away from the melodic and towards the rhythmic, 2004 pop has done a fine job of alienating many of us.

It is, however, a slender argument. There is another more compelling argument which says: yes, today’s pop music really is the worst it has ever been. Marketed to death, with all remaining traces of innocence, rebellion and inventiveness squeezed out of the formula. Too focus-grouped, too demographically targeted, too cynical, too knowing – and with a horrible spiritual vacuum at its core. I suspect that this is the line that most of you will prefer to take.

Having listened carefully and repeatedly to all ten tracks in this year’s selection, two particular observations stand out. Firstly: that much of this music is not even intended to be concentrated upon. In today’s multimedia-saturated culture of immediate gratification, we are losing the ability to concentrate on anything much. Many of the consumers of these songs will hear them as nothing more than backwash – as the backing track to their lives. Thus it is that many of these songs (Dude and Cha Cha Slide particularly come to mind) set out their stalls within the first minute; the rest is merely repetition of those first few simple ideas.

Secondly: that modern pop is dripping with lust, more explicitly stated than ever before. While the songs of the 1960s speak of romantic love, exactly half the songs of the 2004 Top Ten (Dude, Red Blooded Woman, Not In Love, Mysterious Girl, Toxic) can be lyrically read as unambiguous expressions of directly erotic intent. It’s a commonly heard complaint: that popular culture is becoming alarmingly – some might even say inappropriately – over-sexualised. Where will it all end, we ask ourselves, furrowing our brows in concern.

We are becoming our parents.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (10/10) – 2004 edition.

Finally, after a long and arduous slog, our musical journey reaches its summit, as we prepare to stroll amidst the very peaks of popular song from the past five decades. And what peaks we have in store! There’s menace, there’s war, there’s death, there’s destruction… and, to complete the horror, there are novelty euro-dance crazes. I did warn you these were going to be a bit weird, didn’t I? Buckle up tight! It’s the Number Ones!

1964: Little Children – Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas.
1974: Billy Don’t Be A Hero – Paper Lace.
1984: 99 Red Balloons – Nena.
1994: Doop – Doop.
2004: Cha Cha Slide – DJ Caspar.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

For the past forty years, one song above all others has given my beloved K The Fear, to the point where he is physically incapable of listening to it. Not because it’s a particuarly bad record – if pressed, he would admit that it has considerable merit – but because, quite simply, it creeps the living f**k out of him. That record, ladies and gentleman, is Little Children by Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas – the fourth Liverpudlian act in 1964’s top ten, and also the sixth “beat group” to feature in it.

So why should a seemingly harmless Merseybeat ballad have caused K such sustained mental anguish? Listening closely for the first time last week, I began to understand why. The track fairly oozes menace, with unspoken threats hanging heavy in the air. You can almost see the bag of sweeties outstretched in one hand, the switchblade concealed in the other. To the tender ears of a four-going-on-five year old such as K, I can well imagine this sounding quite terrifying.

With Paper Lace (still the most successful Nottingham band ever, which tells you all you need to know about our local music scene), the nightmare continues, as our second singing drummer tells the terrible tale of heroic, tragic, foolish young Billy and his poor, unheeded, heartbroken fiancée. Once again, we are in ambivalent territory. Is this chicken-in-a-basket variety-club cheese, or a bleak noir masterpiece? An innocuous campfire singalong, or a seething anti-war polemic? What would it sound like if Billy Bragg had recorded it? More to the point: what would it sound like if Nick Cave had recorded it?

With Nena‘s 99 Red Balloons, our terror scales new heights. Again, that ambivalence: is this the nadir of fake plastic schlager-punk, or the apotheosis of cold war paranoia? And more importantly, how ever did that atrocious English language translation slip under the net?

In its original German version (99 Luftballons), the words sound great: spiky, crunchy, memorable, even vaguely credible. So why – in the name of God, why – go and make the sodding balloons red? And where the Hell is “99 Decision Street” when it’s at home? (Apart from being a place to “worry, worry, super-scurry“, of course.) And was “there’s something here, from somewhere else” really the best description you could come up with? And couldn’t you have at least bothered to make the thing rhyme properly?

As a student in West Berlin during much of 1983 and 1984, I came to regard the ubiquitous, inescapable 99 Luftballons with great fondness. As for 99 Red Balloons, I successfully managed to avoid hearing it more than a couple of times at most. The process of assembling this project, and having to stare this appalling version in the face, has trampled over my cherished memories, and has almost succeeded in killing off my affection for the original. Quick, I need cheering up! Let’s have some Doop!

The first and only instrumental track in this year’s selection, Doop is a one-hit-wonder novelty track that has actually worn rather well. It’s frisky, it’s fun, it’s a little bit different, and it conjures up cartoonish images of gurning 1920s flappers doing the Charleston on E – which is no bad thing, right?

Would that we could say the same thing about DJ Caspar‘s one-dimensional, hectoring, Cha Cha Slide. Is he a DJ or a drill instructor?

“Criss Cross! Criss Cross! I said f***ing Criss Cross, OKAY? Pay attention, you slackers at the back! Five hops this time! No, five hops, you useless f***ers!

So there we have it: the most sinister of this year’s songs, the two daftest and most meaningless, and the only two which describe some sort of narrative. Tough choices, huh?

My votes: 1 – Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. 2 – Doop. 3 – Paper Lace. 4 – Nena. 5 – DJ Caspar.

Over to you. With the 1960s now seven points clear at the top, the real race is now between the remaining four decades, who are bunched up together with only a single point separating them. Like last year, it’s going to be another photo finish…

Please leave your votes in the comments box. VOTING REMAINS OPEN UNTIL THURSDAY NIGHT FOR ALL TEN SELECTIONS. I’ll be announcing the final results on Friday.

Running totals so far – Number 2s.
1984: 99 Red Balloons – Nena. (111)
1974: Billy Don’t Be A Hero – Paper Lace. (88)
1964: Little Children – Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. (81)
1994: Doop – Doop. (80)
2004: Cha Cha Slide – DJ Caspar. (40)
Decade scores so far (after 9 days).
1 (1) The 1960s (33) — Congratulations, and celebrations!
2= (4) The 1990s (26) — You’re gorgeous! I’d do anything for you!
2= (2) The 1970s (26) — I was defeated! You won the war!
4= (5) The 2000s (25) — Where is the love?
4= (2) The 1980s (25) — The only way is up!

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (9/10) – 2004 edition.

Maybe it’s the effect of dealing with the astronomic levels of sustained vitriol that have been directed, on a daily basis, towards the fine ladies and gentlemen of our popular music industry – but over the past couple of days, both online and off, I’ve become quite the sneery, snidey, little git. Time, therefore, for some corrective therapy. When commenting on today’s selection of tunes, I shall endeavour to say nothing but positive things about them. Even if it kills me.

Seconds away, Round Nine. Here come the Number Twos. Feel the love, people!

1964: Bits & Pieces – The Dave Clark Five.
1974: Jealous Mind – Alvin Stardust.
1984: Joanna – Kool & The Gang.
1994: Without You – Mariah Carey.
2004: Toxic – Britney Spears.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Barely a year into the Beatles-driven beat group explosion, and the genre is already splitting and mutating: witness the Searchers with their proto-West Coast jingle-jangles, the Stones with their grubby, rebellious blues, and the Dave Clark Five with this thrillingly brutal, gonzoid, dumb-as-f**k stompathon. If you wish, you can trace a line from Bits And Pieces through to The Kinks’ You Really Got Me (a hit five months later), The Troggs, US garage punk (Louie Louie, 96 Tears), Iggy & The Stooges, The Ramones… and, um, the Radio One Roadshow in the 70s and 80s, where it was used to introduce a daily “guess the artist” music quiz. (It won’t surprise you to learn that I used to sit eagerly by the radio waiting for the “Bits & Pieces” slot, biro and notebook to hand, ready to score myself against that day’s contestants.)

And best of all, the band had a singing drummer. Let’s hear it for singing drummers!
(Although I might be eating my words on Monday. A little clue for you there.)

When those of us of a certain age remember Alvin Stardust, the one track that immediately springs to mind is his debut hit, the immortal My Coo-Ca-Choo – a record which, like so many of its glam-rock contemporaries, somehow managed to be both cool and ridiculous at the same time. (“Cool” being defined strictly within the sensibilities of an eleven year old, I hasten to add.) However, it was Stardust’s largely forgotten follow-up that proved to be his biggest hit, and his only Number One.

As most of Alvin’s target audience were far too young to have heard anything by Buddy Holly, we perceived the “ah-huh-huh haa-huh” hiccupping on Jealous Mind as something fresh, new and fun. Indeed, our tender young minds perceived the whole notion of Alvin as something fresh, new and fun – which partly explains why this otherwise slight song fared so well. At this early stage of his new career (he had already enjoyed modest success in the early 1960s as a Brit-rocker called Shane Fenton), we weren’t buying the song so much as we were buying the idea of Alvin. As the idea grew more familiar, and the songs ever more slight, so the novelty quickly faded: Alvin’s last Top 20 hit came less than a year later, before his miraculous third re-invention as a hit maker in the early 1980s.

Bit of an old trouper, our Alvin. You’ve got to admire him for it. (And I’ve got to stick to my pledge.)

Before leaving 1974 for today, perhaps a brief postscript on 1950s revivalism is in order. Like Devil Gate Drive, You’re Sixteen and Remember (Sha La La La) in the same Top 10, there’s an unmistakeable streak of Fifties nostalgia in Jealous Mind – further evidence of a trend which was continued during Spring/Summer 1974 by the likes of The Rubettes, The Drifters and Showaddywaddy. Up until this point, chart pop had been resolutely contemporary, “now”, of the moment. Now, nearly twenty years on from Bill Haley & Elvis, it was old enough to have a history, with many of its adult songwriters and producers having come of musical age during the 1950s. A new rule of pop was duly born: the “twenty year revival” rule. This rule – which continues to this day, with early 80s influences clearly detectable in many chart hits of the 2000s – can also usefully provide pop kiddies and their parents with some measure of common ground. Even if this amounts to not much more than the whole family bopping around the living room carpet to Westlife’s Uptown Girl, or Dad fetching his old AC/DC and Def Leppard albums down from the attic to show his Darkness-loving son, in a well-intentioned if slightly embarrassing attempt at familial bonding. After all, let’s not pretend that all worthwhile pop music has always been about generational rebellion. It has always been just as much about light entertainment, and only the most dedicated rockists would seek to pretend otherwise.

Now then. What kind words can I find to say about Kool & The Gang‘s Joanna?

Well.

Um.

Okay.

It’s a simple, happy tune, expressly designed to provoke gentle finger-tapping on the steering wheel, soft-shoe shuffling at the “smart dress only” disco, smiles in the saloon bar, la-la-las on the factory floor. A little taste of early spring sunshine, to lighten up our cold war/miner’s strike gloom. These are far from ignoble aspirations for a pop song, and there are far more deserving records than this to hate.

Which brings us to Mariah “The Singing Kettle” Carey, with her fantabulous multi-octave range, her astonishing improvisational skill (why sing just one note when you can squeeze in twelve?), and her intuitive talent for sensitive, empathetic interpretations of much-loved classics such as Harry Nilsson’s Without You. Can’t you just feel the pain in this record? Doesn’t it leave you emotionally battered and spiritually drained? Mariah: yours is indeed a special, special gift.

Bidding an emotional farewell to our favourite “troubled” diva (and, lest we forget, a major inspiration for this site), we descend, with loud shrieks of untrammelled glee, upon the best Britney Spears single for years. Toxic is C21st pop at its best: energetic, inventive and bold; smart, sexy and thrilling. Who but the dourest of indie-snob purists could fail to succumb to its heady delights?

My votes: 1 – Britney Spears. 2 – Dave Clark Five. 3 – Alvin Stardust. 4 – Kool & The Gang. 5 – Mariah Carey.

Over to you. With just one more set of songs to come, the 1960s have increased their lead to a seemingly unassailable five points – although last-minute voting further down the charts could still theoretically change all that. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the pack, I’m hoping that a strong showing for Britney Spears will raise the 2000s from the ignominy of defeat. Please leave your votes in the comments box – then come back on Monday for what I promise you is an utterly bizarre final round of Number Ones. (Death! War! Horror! Menace! Novelty dance crazes!)

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (9/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (8/10) – 2004 edition.

Slowly but surely, this year’s contest is turning into a walkover for the 1960s, who are now four points ahead of their nearest rivals. Looking at today’s selection, I think they have every reason to continue feeling confident. Jeez, I’ve started anthropomorphising whole decades now. Nurse – the screens! Bring on the Number Threes!

1964: Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black.
1974: The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies.
1984: Street Dance – Break Machine.
1994: The Sign – Ace Of Base.
2004: Baby I Love U – Jennifer Lopez featuring R.Kelly.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Time for the customary pretentious-music-journo waffle, then. I’ve been searching high and low for my copy of Semiological Signs & Signifiers In The Work Of Cilla Black, but I think our cleaning lady must have made off with it. In which case, I shall have to wing it. (Note to newer readers: he gets like this when he’s been out on the piss the night before. Just smile and nod.)

Anyone Who Had A Heart: undeniably great song, one of Bacharach & David’s finest, and Dionne Warwick’s impeccable original version is a much-loved classic. So what are we to make of Cilla’s cover version, which reached Number One and prevented Miss Warwick from getting any higher than Number 42? Tatty cash-in cover version? Pale imitation of the real thing? (There’s a whole thesis waiting to written here about ethnicity issues, but let’s save that for another day.) And, c’mon – bleedin’ Cilla “light entertainment” Black? I can hear the cries of “travesty” from here.

But let’s try and be fair. Let’s strip away all the naffness which followed – the Blind Dates, the Surprise Surprises, the Moments of Truth – and remember Cilla as she was in March 1964: the 20 year old former coat check girl from the Cavern in Liverpool, as breezy, optimistic, youthful and fresh as the rapidly emerging new pop culture that surrounded her, enjoying her first major hit and patently loving the whole experience. Let’s credit her – or at least her “people” – with the good taste to spot a hot US import of the day, and to cover it with love and respect for the song’s essence. Where Warwick is all elegant restraint, our Cilla chooses instead to belt the song out like the Mersey girl she is, with a screech on the chorus like an oxyacetalene blow torch. Technically speaking – even, dare I say it, aesthetically speaking – she’s not a great singer, the kindest word possibly being “eccentric”. But there’s an undeniable passion at the heart of the record, which saves it – by a whisker, mind, but a significant whisker – from being superfluous trash.

You’re My World, however, was bloody awful. Meanwhile, Dionne didn’t need to sulk for long; a month later, she entered the charts with her first UK hit, Walk On By, which went onto reach the Top 10. So everyone went home happy.

Wow, look everyone! The Hollies are back! So soon! Thirty years ago, I loathed The Air That I Breathe, viewing it as a dismal, never-ending dirge. With the wisdom of adulthood, hem hem, I am inclined to view it more favourably. Much more favourably. The song takes its time to work through its various sections (making it a bugger to edit down for the MP3), all of which are heading inexorably in the same direction, towards that epic, soaring chorus. The simplicity of the song’s lyrical theme, as the singer strips his existence down to the bare essentials, is juxtaposed wonderfully well with the full-on, everything-but-the-kitchen sink orchestration in the chorus. Lovely stuff, and – along with He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – one of the only two moments in The Hollies’ long but somewhat second division career that approached greatness.

In the case of Break Machine, the passage of time has produced the reverse effect. Twenty years ago, boom-box electro boy that I was, I fairly lapped up Street Dance – especially as it appeared on one of my favourite labels of the time, Record Shack (home of cult Hi-NRG divas such as Miquel Brown, Earlene Bentley and Evelyn Thomas). Indeed, I remember standing in the Record Shack store in Berwick Street the week before this very chart appeared, flicking through the import racks while the shop and label people discussed where Street Dance was going to end up (and correctly predicting its rise from #5 to #3). A moment later, Miquel “So Many Men, So Little Time” Brown casually strolled in with her shopping, and the whole shop went into a star-struck swoon. No, really, it did. Heady days!

However, the essential fakeness behind Break Machine has meant that Street Dance hasn’t worn at all well. Portrayed as beat-of-the-street b-boys, they were in fact the latest confection from Jacques Morali, former svengali to the Village People. Yes – it’s a little known fact, but Street Dance was written by the same team who brought you YMCA, and Eartha Kitt’s über-camp Where Is My Man. And as James Hamilton waspishly remarked in Record Mirror at the time, the vocals were distinctly more Santa Monica Boulevard than the Bronx. Miaow!

Faced with the prospect of writing anything at all about the irredeemably dreary Ace Of Base, I feel the will to live draining from my body. Did you know that they made the 1994 Guinness Book Of World Records for the biggest selling debut album of all time? It beggars belief, doesn’t it? Instead of trying to invent new ways of saying “pants”, I shall offer you the following little exchange from earlier this evening, when K did his voting.

K: “She’s got some sort of speech impediment, hasn’t she?”
M: “Actually, she’s Swedish.”

Laugh? We nearly drowned out the rest of the track.

At this stage of the game, I find myself desperately wanting to defend contemporary R&B from all you h8erz out there who are slagging it off for being unmelodic. As I see it, the essence of R&B isn’t melodic at all, or even particularly song-based. The emphasis here is on rhythm – on the intricate syncopated interplays between the various elements in the music, both vocal and instrumental. You might just as well slag Cilla Black off for not being funky enough; the criticism would be equally wide of the mark.

Unfortunately, I only have Jennifer Lopez and R. Kelly as today’s evidence for the defence, with this ropey old pile of toss. No doubt stunned by the somewhat freakish success of last year’s staggeringly good Ignition (remix) – my favourite single of last year, and a record which worked so well partly because it sounded so casual and accidental – R. Kelly is doggedly, and all too self-consciously, trying to repeat the formula here. It doesn’t work. At all. In fact, it sucks a big one. Meanwhile, J-lo continues to betray her utter disinterest in music as anything other than a means to an end, with her useless, indifferent, can-we-get-a-move-on-my-driver’s-waiting warbling. The track reaches its absolute nadir during what I suppose we must call the “chorus”, which sounds like the work of, ooh, about 3 seconds’ creative effort. If that. Plus there’s this awful percussive klatsch noise about once every bar, which sounds horribly intrusive on headphones. Pah. A pox on all your houses!

Mv votes: 1 – The Hollies. 2 – Cilla Black. 3 – Break Machine. 4 – Ace Of Base. 5 – Jennifer Lopez featuring Our Shelleh.

Over to you. Except that you’ve already started, haven’t you? (A skeleton version of this post first appeared three hours ago.) Naturally, I’m expecting a Cilla/Hollies two-horse race. But I’ve been wrong before. Come on, surprise me.

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (8/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (7/10) – 2004 edition.

For the first time in this year’s survey, all of today’s vocalists are male. Prepare for a pretty-boy pop / classic rock / country & western soundclash, as we hold our noses and plunge headlong into the testosterone stew of the Number Fours:

1964: Not Fade Away – The Rolling Stones.
1974: The Most Beautiful Girl In The World – Charlie Rich.
1984: Wouldn’t It Be Good – Nik Kershaw.
1994: Streets Of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen.
2004: Mysterious Girl – Peter Andre.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

As with Needles & Pins at Number 10, the first top ten hit for The Rolling Stones is, by the standards of its day, a progressive and prescient record, which – in common with much of the best pop music – simply could not have existed a year earlier. With its gritty, driving, loose-limbed physicality, Not Fade Away reveals its faux-Beatles contemporaries as woefully derivative and buttoned-up by comparison, their feet still planted in Tin Pan Alley hacksmithery. Forty years on, and you can still catch a whiff of the incendiary impact that this must have had.

Expecting some sort of toupeed & cummerbunded, rhinestone-encrusted & candelbra-bedecked cabaret nightmare, I was pleasantly surprised by Charlie Rich. Hokey yet heartfelt, there’s a deft emotional sway to The Most Beautiful Girl In The World – particularly in the latter stages of its chorus – which reels me right in. Amplified beautifully by the song’s arrangement, Charlie’s regret sounds genuine to me – and ultimately, that’s what counts.

With Nik “re-appropriating the snood as a fashion accessory” Kershaw, the situation is more problematic. Namely, that the whole stiff, lumpen, clod-hopping sound of Wouldn’t It Be Good is so deeply unappealing from an aesthetic point of view (to say nothing of the awful rock-lite guitar sound) that I find it almost impossible to concentrate on the actual song for any sustained amount of time. But, mindful of my duties, concentrate I must – and what do I find lurking behind the clueless A&R-approved AOR bluster but the thinnest, most pitiful, whiniest excuse for a song ever? For real, gloriously transcendent self-pity in 1984, you needed to look no further than The Smiths. Compared to the majesty of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, this primped and pouting little pipsqueak doesn’t even register as a blip on the map. Begone, Kershaw, and take your snood with you!

With Bruce Springsteen – an artist whose appeal has always been lost on me – the situation grows still more problematic. From the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning Big AIDS Movie of the same year, Streets Of Philadelphia is – for all of its understated, stripped-down, bluster-free qualities – Springsteen’s Big AIDS Song. And that’s where, for me, the problem lies. As with the film, there’s a confusion between symbolic gesture and emotional truth, which clouds objective judgement of the work’s intrinsic merits. The tragedy of AIDS is, per se, an emotionally upsetting subject – hence the film made me bawl my eyes out in the cinema like no other film before or since, and the song made me go out and buy a Springsteen record for the first and last time. However, it didn’t take long before the film stood revealed as a shallow, manipulative, resolutely minor piece of work, expressly calculated to extract as many tears as possible from its audience – the cinematic equivalent of a piece of red ribbon. Similarly, Springsteen’s song doesn’t stand up too well, either. Somehow, it revels in the suffering it describes, in a manner which I find slightly distasteful (“and my clothes don’t fit me no more“, indeed). Unlike Charlie Rich’s record – sentimental and yet somehow sincere – I simply don’t believe in Springsteen’s undoubtedly well-intentioned, yet strangely impersonal performance. It’s not a bad record – there’s an eerie, haunting quality which is undeniably effective – but it falls a long way short of the great record which it was self-consciously trying to be.

All of which makes the sudden lurch into Peter Andre‘s exhumed pop-reggae confection from 1996 all the more difficult to bear. Doesn’t the false jollity on offer simply make you want to retchMysterious Girl was bad enough the first time round; as a re-release on the back of Andre’s recent exposure on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here, new and even more irritating factors come into play.

The myth that we have been sold here is that Mysterious Girl was re-released due to “overwhelming public demand”, as whipped up by a “campaign” by DJ Chris Moyles on Radio One’s breakfast show. Do we believe that? Or do is it considerably more likely that the single was already earmarked for re-release before Andre even went into the “jungle” alongside John Lydon, Jordan, Jennie Bond et al? The essence of the Moyles campaign was that Andre’s record is “so bad that it’s good”, and that re-releasing it would be, groan, ironic. By buying it, we would somehow be in on the joke – and not only that, but we would be granting a formerly washed-up pop star an escape route from the dumper. The second myth, therefore, is that Andre is back in the charts at our behest – that we have gifted him a form of redemption (witness the slightly bemused, pathetically grateful smile with which the admittedly simple-minded Andre now performs the song on TV). The success of Mysterious Girl thus represents a triumph for the sort of ubiquitous OK/Heat-magazine celeb-culture which was once an amusement, but which has now become a suffocating force upon popular culture.

Or am I reading too much into a daft little pop song? Oh, quite possibly. I’ll shut up now, shall I?

My votes: 1 – Rolling Stones. 2 – Charlie Rich. 3 – Bruce Springsteen. 4 – Peter Andre (because K & I once got pissed and danced to it at chucking-out time at the Admiral Duncan 8 years ago, so at least there’s one happy memory associated with it). 5 – Nik Kershaw.

Over to you. A walkover for the Stones, do we think? The 1960s are already leading the pack; maybe today’s selection will increase that lead. Meanwhile, after a disastrous last couple of days, support for the 2000s is collapsing. With a reminder that voting is still open for all the other selections… please leave your votes in the comments box.

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (7/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (6/10) – 2004 edition.

Goodness, are we halfway through already? Into the Top Five we lurch, then – with one much-loved classic, and four songs which are, well, slightly less than classics. (Oh, come on – you’ve heard worse.)

For yesterday’s vote, K admitted to actually liking – yes, liking – all five records. Today, I suspect he might revert to type. Quick – hide the crockery! It’s the Number Fives!

1964: Just One Look – The Hollies.
1974: You’re Sixteen – Ringo Starr.
1984: Hello – Lionel Richie.
1994: Girls And Boys – Blur.
2004: Not In Love – Enrique Iglesias featuring Kelis.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Another day, another bunch of cut-price Beatles imitators. Merseybeat was the flavour du jour, and “beat groups” were springing up faster than a dose of acne on the face of a Liverpudlian teenager. Manchester’s Hollies hung around longer than most, with a run of 21 consecutive Top 20 hits between 1963 and 1970 – and yet how many people under the age of 50 could hum more than a couple of them? Here I Go Again? (#4) Look Through Any Window? (#4) I Can’t Let Go? (#2) Stop Stop Stop? (#2) Sorry Suzanne? (#3) No, thought not.

And so it is with the sweet, but ultimately forgettable, Just One Look, which climbed as high as #2. Do you think that maybe – just maybe – The Hollies were at all familiar with the works of Lennon & McCartney? Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad record – as with The Merseybeats at #7, there’s an untutored freshness and spirit which appeals considerably.

Round about this time thirty years ago, my sister (aged 9) and I (aged 12) devised a game which amused us greatly. Using the current edition of Disco 45 magazine as a guide, one of would choose a song, and – without revealing its title – would ask the other to supply a series of words. (noun – adjective – somebody’s name – item of clothing…etc.) Substituting those words in the appropriate places in the song, we would then sing the new version out loud – with hilarious consequences.

Why am I telling you this? Because the one song that sticks in my memory from these days is today’s 1974 selection: Ringo Starr‘s You’re Sixteen. “Lips like dandelion & burdock, tee hee hee“, we would trill, on car journeys to Sainsburys in the Doncaster Arndale Centre.

Earlier today, in a bid to re-create this cherished childhood memory, I asked you to supply eight words in my comments box:

You come on like a dream, peaches and cream
Lips like strawberry wine
You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mine.
You come on like a NOUN, FOOD and FOOD
PART OF THE BODY like DRINK
You’re NUMBER, you’re ADJECTIVE and you’re ADJECTIVE.

Before revealing the hilarious consequences, I should warn you: they are going to be hilarious. So hilarious, that you might want to go to the toilet before reading any further.

Yes, I think it’s probably best if we all go to the toilet now. See you back here in two minutes.

OK, has everyone been to the toilet? Good. I think we’re ready.

Now, I want you to promise me one thing. When you listen to today’s MP3, will you be sure to sing the hilarious new words, out loud if you please, in time to the music?

You would? Splendid! OK: on the count of three, let’s have a quick practice. One – two – three!

You come on like a BANANA, BROCCOLI and TOAST
LEGS like GLENMORANGIE
You’re 666, you’re SMOOTH and you’re SHORT.

Very good. Give yourselves a nice big round of applause. I did tell you it would be hilarious, didn’t I?

And so the mood darkens. Hopefully, you will now have stored up sufficient hilarity to tide you over the minute-and-a-bit of Sheer Bloody Hell that is Lionel Richie‘s Hello. Have you ever noticed that time actually slows down when this is playing? It’s probably something to do with quantum physics. And, look, is anyone going to admit to liking this?

Anyone at all?

Nobody?

I’m not seeing any hands.

Look, if the people responsible for buying this execrable pile of toss don’t own up, I might have to keep the whole group back.

Oh, do stop snivelling. At least I haven’t made you watch the video.

Ah, here come Blur. Smiles all round!

Girls And Boys was, firstly, Blur’s comeback hit, almost exactly three years after their last Top 10 single (There’s No Other Way). Secondly, it could arguably be credited with being the first of the big Britpop hits; I’ve certainly always thought of it that way. Pulp, Oasis, Wake Up, Yes, You’re Gorgeous… for the next three years or so, the UK singles charts would be stuffed full with all manner of goodness. And, er, Cast and Ocean Colour Scene. But you can’t have everything.

And finally: Mister Potty Strain meets Ms. Potty Mouth in a dodgy Benidorm disco. I hold Enrique Iglesias personally responsible for the most annoying trend in pop vocals in living memory: the “potty strain” form of emoting, as demonstrated in the deathless Hero.

“….wwwwwrrrrrggggghhhhhhACHG-KN-be your hero….”

Bastard. On the strength of this, every other contestant in shows like Pop Idol now feels duty bound to demonstrate their “emotion” by pulling the same trick. Thanks, Enrique – thanks for giving birth to a whole nation of aspirant potty-strainers with ironed hair and tiger-striped “extreme boot-cut” jeans. Oh yeah, and thanks too for fooling a whole generation of otherwise attractive young men into thinking that they will somehow look cool with one of those bloody stupid woollen tea-cosy thingies on their heads. You’ve been a great help to society, haven’t you?

As if this wasn’t enough, Julio’s little boy has seen fit to:

a) Drag the otherwise impeccable Kelis – fresh from bringing us all to the yard with her Milkshake – into an ill-advised “boundary crossing” collaboration. For such a usually mouthy gal, I’d say that Kelis was keeping pretty quiet on this one. Is she even in the studio? Is she phoning her part in on Enrique’s mobile? For shame, Kelis. For shame.

b) Re-contextualise the key line from 10cc’s sublime I’m Not In Love, whilst robbing it of all its multiple levels of meaning. While 10cc were – movingly – trying to pretend to themselves that they weren’t in love, Potty Man actually isn’t in love; like “Fiddy” Cent before him (on In Da Club), all he wants is a sodding shag. Tsk, youth of today. Ten years ago, Blur were being ironic about it; in 2004, Enrique is living it, entirely without irony.

Ooh, I’ve got quite steamed up. Shall we move onto the votes?

My votes: 1 – Blur. 2 – Ringo Starr (by a whisker). 3 – The Hollies. 4 – Enrique & Kelis (at least it’s got a catchy tune). 5 – Lionel Richie.

Over to you. Yesterday, Relax became the most popular record in the series so far, thrusting the 1980s into the lead. Will it be an even cleaner sweep for Blur? God knows, the 1990s need some urgent help. Please leave your votes in the comments box.

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (6/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade: preparatory work.

Before posting today’s entries in the Which Decade project, I’d like you to leave eight words in the comments box below. Just one word per person, please.

1. Noun.
2. Something you might eat.
3. Something you might eat.
4. Part of the body, in the plural.
5. Something you might drink.
6. Number.
7. Adjective.
8. Adjective.

If you’re wondering why: I’m re-creating a childhood memory. All will be explained in due course.

Update: OK, got ’em all now. Ta very much.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (5/10) – 2004 edition.

Four days down, and the 1960s & 2000s are still neck and neck at the head of the pack – with the lead switching every time that someone chooses Jim Reeves over George Michael, or vice versa. Something tells me all of that could be about to change. Please make way for… the Number Sixes.

1964: Diane – The Bachelors.
1974: Devil Gate Drive – Suzi Quatro.
1984: Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
1994: Renaissance – M People.
2004: Hey Mama – Black Eyed Peas.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Forty years before Westlife elevated it into an art form, The Bachelors were busily forging careers as the original Irish stool-rockers. On variety show after variety show, there they were: side by be-stooled side, palms oh-so-lightly slapping against thighs, velvet dickie bows quivering against adam’s apples, warbling their own particular brand of syrupy piffle. However, as syrupy piffle goes, there’s something about Diane – the group’s only UK Number One, and their biggest international hit by far – which tickles me in a strange place.

In early 1974, the songwriting team of Nicky Chinn & Mike Chapman were hitting their commercial and creative peak, with three of their biggest and best hits: Mud’s Tiger Feet, The Sweet’s Teenage Rampage, and this absolute belter from Suzi Quatro. All Chinn/Chapman singles followed the same winning formula: an exciting and distinctive intro, which grabbed your attention within the first five seconds; verse/chorus, verse/chorus, completely different middle bit, repeat chorus to fade (upwards key change optional). As such, Devil Gate Drive worked the formula to perfection, with its stylised and shamelessly inauthentic air of greasy, leather-clad,That’ll Be The Day/American Graffiti 1950s rock & roll revivalism – and oh, how we pop-mad pre-pubescents lapped it up at the time. Even now, I find it impossible to give it an objective assessment; indeed, I cannot imagine what it would be like to hear it for the first time in 2004. If this applies to you, then do tell.

At last: with today’s 1984 selection, we have our first indisputable, unassailable, out-and-out classic. Will it be a straight set of five points all round for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, or is anyone out there prepared to buck the critical consensus? Twenty years later, Relax still sounds like some sort of high water mark for “intelligent”, “conceptual”, image-driven early 80s pop. Indeed: after Frankie’s three iconic Number Ones, dealing in turn with the Big Themes of sex, war and love, there was nowhere left to go – for early 80s pop, and for Frankie themselves. As a result, December’s Band Aid single, Do They Know Its Christmas, felt in some way like a full stop – like the cast party at the end of the run. Six months later, Live Aid brought back the superstars, and redrew the map.

You may scoff now – but in March 1994, it was still officially OK to like M People. One Night In Heaven and Moving On Up had been well received, and Renaissance merely continued the dominance of Pineapple Head, Mister Badly Mimed Sax Solo, Excitable Bongo Man, and their cohorts. For us, this was likeable, proficient, “quality” pop-dance crossover material. We had yet to realise that Pineapple Head was a one-trick pony, and the band were still a good six months away from jumping the shark with the piss-poor, formula-stretching Sight For Sore Eyes. More importantly, M People had yet to inflict the execrable Search For The Hero Inside Yourself upon the world. As it was, Renaissance – a tribute to the emerging super-club of the same name – had a simple but effective killer piano riff, and we bopped away to it without shame.

Those of you who had “issues” with the records by Beenie Man and Reel 2 Real may well regard the Black Eyed Peas in an altogether more favourable light. Fuller, sleeker, and more melodic than its ruffneck cousins, Hey Mama – like Where Is The Love and Shut Up before it – is hip hop for people who don’t like hip hop. Even as the purists loathe it, copies of the band’s album (Elephunk) have been flying off the shelves at Asda & Woolworths for the past several months. Me, I’m something of an agnostic here. Whilst I don’t have any problem with commercialised, “inauthentic” hip hop – and indeed, against all my better judgement, had something of a major soft spot for Where Is The LoveHey Mama is too slight, too bitty, too also-ran for me.

My votes: 1 – Frankie Goes To Hollywood. 2 – Suzi Quatro. 3 – M People. 4 – Black Eyed Peas. 5 – The Bachelors.

Over to you. It’s a Frankie walkover, right? Or are you all secret renegade stool-rockers? Come on – surprise me. Please leave your votes in the comments box.

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (5/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (4/10) – 2004 edition.

Three days down – and already, your votes are stacking up differently from last time. A year ago, the 1970s and 1980s quickly established a clear lead, and hung onto it for the rest of the project. This time round, it’s the 1960s and 2000s which are steaming ahead – with the 1990s trailing badly. Time to bring on the Number Sevens, then:

1964: I Think Of You – The Merseybeats.
1974: Remember (Sha La La La) – Bay City Rollers.
1984: Jump – Van Halen.
1994: Pretty Good Year – Tori Amos.
2004: Thank You – Jamelia.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Riding the crest of the Merseybeat boom, the appropriately titled Merseybeats were enjoying their second – and, by some distance, their biggest – hit with I Think Of You, which peaked at #5. (Christ, I’m sounding like Dale Winton on Saturday afternoons.) What appeals about this record: the unadorned immediacy, the low-res production values, and the ragged edge to the performance (especially on some of the double-tracked vocals). The song only just hangs together; it could fall apart at any minute, and probably frequently did. You sense that the band had only just finished rehearsing it before being rushed into the studio to make a quick Merseybeat buck while the fad lasted.

I reserve a special loathing for the ghastly, unforgiveable Bay City Rollers, who were on the point of supplanting the Osmonds as Britain’s number one teen scream sensation. Where the Osmonds were at least partially redeemed by a certain well-meaning sincerity – a detectable niceness – and a measure of creative input which occasionally produced some creditable pop music (Crazy Horses, the sublime Let Me In, the ambitious “concept album” The Plan), the Bay City Rollers were pure, 100%, solid gold, production line pap. More than possibly any other teen band before or since (and I have given the matter some thought), the sole raison d’etre of the Rollers was – as Peter is so fond of saying – to extract the maximum amount of money from the purses of teenage girls in the shortest space of time. The band’s total indifference to the processed dreck which passed for their music is blatantly evident, at all times. When listening to Remember, and indeed to all their hits, one struggles in vain to detect even a shred of feeling, or even of enjoyment. The ugliness at the heart of the Rollers remains unsurpassed to this day. Yes – they even make Westlife look good. And for that alone, I detest them.

After even a minute of the above, the sheer relief brought on by the opening strains of Van Halen‘s mighty Jump is enough to make me want to mount my desk and punch my fist in the air. This is one of a select handful of commercial FM rock-lite anthems which – for me, a confirmed opponent of the genre – work quite brilliantly. (Other examples: Boston’s More Than A Feeling, Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone, Bon Jovi’s Living On A Prayer.) There’s nothing more to add other than: BOOOOOGIEEEEE!!!

In the current pop climate, it’s impossible to imagine a record as gentle, as delicate, as understated and as downright peculiar as Tori Amos’ Pretty Good Year getting within sniffing distance of the Top 10. In 1994, with Radio One in the process of shedding its dated Smashie & Nicey image and making determined efforts to Get Hip with the Music Press Kids, such a thing was still entirely possible. A tender, haunting melody, beautifully sung and played, and with the added bonus of a set of bonkers lyrics that mean absolutely nothing at all. We like!

We also like Jamelia, the newly crowned queen of UK R&B (those Winton-isms are flowing thick and fast today), with her top quality follow-up to last year’s gloriously addictive Superstar. Its message is one of proud defiance: what doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger. “For every last bruise you gave me, for every time I sat in tears, for the million ways you hurt me, I just wanna tell you this: you broke my world, made me strong, thank you. Personally, I think it’s great that a song with subject matter like this should currently be getting heavy radio airplay. More power to ya, Joh-meeel-yoh!

My votes: 1 – Van Halen. 2 – Tori Amos. 3 – Jamelia. 4 – The Merseybeats. 5 – Bay City Rollers.

Over to you. For my money, Van Halen, Tori Amos and Jamelia all deserve healthy smatterings of 5 points each, while I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a string of last placings for the Bay City Rollers. As usual, please leave your votes in the comments box.

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (4/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (3/10) – 2004 edition.

What with all the excitement over the outing (or not) of Belle de Jour, my poor little Top-di-Pop project is getting somewhat short shrift, with the number of votes for yesterday’s (admittedly rancid) selection registering an all-time low, even when compared to last year. Never mind; onwards and upwards we plough, with a reminder that voting will stay open for all the selections, right up until the end of the project.

Something else which I neglected to mention yesterday: the New Seekers track was the second of this year’s two substitutions, owing to the unavailability of the real Number 9 from 1974, Freddie Starr’s gloopy ballad It’s You. Yes, that Freddie Starr. Trust me, you were spared.

The general reaction to yesterday’s selection seems to be one of abject horror, with a couple of you professing to be so appalled that you found yourselves unable to put the five songs in any order of preference. We had similar reactions last year, with some of you wondering whether I had deliberately chosen the worst week in the history of pop. The simple truth to be gleaned from all of this: the charts have always been full of crap. And today’s tunes are, by and large, no exceptions. Steel yourselves, pop-pickers, as we hold our noses and plunge into the Number Eights:

1964: Boys Cry – Eden Kane.
1974: Jet – Paul McCartney & Wings.
1984: An Innocent Man – Billy Joel.
1994: Return To Innocence – Enigma.
2004: Red Blooded Woman – Kylie Minogue.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Playing these to K late last night in order to glean his votes, something in him snapped. “I refuse to put these in order”, he fumed. “Because I HATE ALL OF THEM!” Let’s see whether his hissy fit was justified, shall we?

Prior to the success of Boys Cry, Eden Kane, real name Richard Sarstedt, had spent over 18 months without a hit single, releasing a string of flops and even changing record labels. Sadly for him, Boys Cry proved to be his last ever hit. A few years later, both of his brothers had one-hit wonder mini-careers of their own: Peter Sarstedt with Where Do You Go To My Lovely (1969) and Robin Sarstedt with My Resistance Is Low (1976).

I’m stalling for time here, as I haven’t got much to say about Boys Cry. It… exists. Its message – that hey, men are sensistive too – may have been mildly radical for its day, but unfortunately The Searchers covered similar territory, with considerably more depth, just two days ago (Needles & Pinssee below).

Nevertheless, it has a certain period charm. Or, in K’s words: “It’s not very good, but I quite like it.” This is in stark contrast to his comments on Paul McCartney & WingsJet: “It’s quite good, but I ABSOLUTELY DESPISE IT. F***ing Wings! All this says is: I’ve married the Kodak heiress, so I don’t need to bother any more.”

Yeah – ‘cos Paul, like, really needed the money? Did I mention that we’d had a few by then?

Time to ‘fess up, then. Reader, I was a pubescent Wings fan. Band On The Run – loved it. Venus & Mars – loved it even more. Wings At The Speed Of Sound – OK, they lost it there. (Before temporarily regaining it with the genuinely excellent Goodnight Tonight in 1979.) Having said that, Jet was never one of my favourites. There’s an angularity about it which swiftly becomes grating, and an underlying hollowness – a sense that, with his young family and his newly found personal stability, McCartney has forgotten how to let loose and rock out, and is merely going through the motions. Nevertheless, he hasn’t yet lost his knack for melodic inventiveness; the horror of Mull Of Kintyre is still over three years away.

As soon as the opening strains of Billy Joel‘s An Innocent Man struck up, K began to keen and to wail, and to turn the air bluer than blue. Even more than dance music (which he can just about tolerate in small doses and at low volumes, if pushed), this represents everything he hates. Airbrushed AOR nothingness, made even more horrible by overuse of an echo chamber, and what I charitably presume must be deliberate nods to Ben E. King’s Stand By Me. Billy Joel has had his moments – particularly with the stirring My Life, which could have been a gay anthem if covered by a disco diva – but this ain’t one of them.

But how can you possibly rank An Innocent Man above or below the faux-ethnic, pseudo-deep, new-age-decaff montrosity that was Enigma? Return To Innocence is the sound of a thousand mashed-up queens with zero taste bunging something “tasteful” on the stereo to impress their new shags at four in the morning, while skinning up on the coffee table and waiting for the pills to wear off a bit. It gives me The Fear.

Which leaves us with dependable old Kylie Minogue, who is once again going through one of her “sophisticated” phases. As such, Red Blooded Woman, deftly constructed as it is, doesn’t really play to her strengths, coming across as little more than a poor man’s Britney Spears. I like Kylie best when she remembers that – as she once admitted in an interview – “I’ll always be a little bit naff.” Spinning cheese into gold – that’s her particular skill. Red Blooded Woman is neither cheesy nor golden, but merely adequate. On the other hand, as K grudgingly admitted, it does have the virtue of a certain freshness.

My votes: 1 – Kylie Monogue. 2 – Eden Kane. 3 – Paul McCartney & Wings. 4 – Billy Joel. 5 – Enigma.

Over to you. Come on, be brave. At the time of writing, and after just two days, the 1960s are in a clear lead. Will Eden Kane keep them ahead, or will plucky little Kylie push the much-maligned Noughties into the lead? Please leave your votes in the comments box.

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (3/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (2/10) – 2004 edition.

Earlier on today, controversy poked its ugly head into my dinky little fluffball of a project, as it was revealed that Beenie Man (yesterday’s 2004 entrant) is a rampant homophobe, who has recorded a song (Bad Man Chi Chi Man) with vicious – nay, murderous – anti-gay lyrics. But does this make Dude a worse record? Should we all be amending our votes to mark it fifth? And what does his fragrant sidekick Ms. Thing make of it all?

While we wrestle with our consciences, let’s all do it to the soundtrack of today’s sparkling array of contestants. Let’s hear it for the Number Nines!

1964: I Love You Because – Jim Reeves.
1974: I Get A Little Sentimental Over You – New Seekers.
1984: Somebody’s Watching Me – Rockwell.
1994: I Like To Move It – Reel 2 Real featuring The Mad Stuntman.
2004: Amazing – George Michael.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

In terms of the history and development of pop, Jim Reeves is a name which has slipped off most people’s radar altogether. Apart from the appearance of the occasional K-Tel 40 Golden Greats compilation in the album charts of the 1970s or 1980s, and an early 1970s BBC Nationwide film about an obsessive fan who had converted her flat into a Reeves shrine, curtains permanently drawn, never stepping outside the front door, and relying on her neighbours to fetch her groceries, he is someone whom I have always tuned out. Indeed, I Love You Because, a hit for Reeves just four months before his fatal plane crash, is the first record of his which I have ever knowingly listened to. And OK, so it’s hokey, sentimental and a heavily diluted take on Hank Williams – but nevertheless, there’s something which draws me in. I think it’s the song’s deeply reassuring quality; the aural equivalent of being wrapped in warm, freshly laundered, fluffy white bath towels. Reeves’ voice is so honeyed, so velvet smooth, that I begin to understand what it was that prompted so much posthumous adulation.

By the time that the equally hokey – and consciously “old-fashioned” sounding – I Get A Little Sentimental Over You hit the charts, Eve Graham & Lyn Paul had announced their departure from the New Seekers, who were midway through a marathon farewell tour prior to splitting up in May. As such, this was their final hit until a new line-up enjoyed rather more modest success two years later. It sounds a little bit valedictory, as it liltingly sways along in its cosy saloon bar sing-song style. It’s not much cop though, is it?

However, my real derision is reserved for so-called “mystery artist” Rockwell, enjoying his only real hit, assisted by Michael Jackson on what passes for the song’s chorus. In reality, Rockwell was the son of Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown records – which explains a) how this crock of poo got recorded/promoted in the first place and b) how a genuine talent like Jackson came to lend his name to it. (Bear in mind that in early 1984, Jackson was at the height of his Thriller-era mega-popularity; he would have had a hit with anything, even his shopping list.) Jobs for the boys, in other words. Oh, just listen to that ghastly, boggle-eyed, faux-spooky “comedy” rap and that weedy, wafer-thin backing. Unforgiveable.

I’m really making K suffer this week. Even ten years on, I can remember his near-violent reaction to Reel 2 Real‘s (admittedly total kack) appearance on Top Of The Pops, with The Mad Stuntman tunelessly growling his way through the track. It was one of his defining “this is the end of the line for all decent pop music” moments. As for me, I never cared much for I Like To Move It either… except that, as with yesterday’s Needles & Pins, it actually turned out to be quite prescient. There’s a line that can be drawn between this song and such gems as Basement Jaxx’s Jump & Shout, and on through to today’s dancehall/house crossovers. Viewed retrospectively, I find myself rather fond of it. Maybe that’s because, when all is said and done, I too like to move it, move it.

Which leaves us with dependable old George Michael, sounding for all the world like the eight years since his last album had never happened, with a song that basically comes across as a slightly re-jigged version of Fast Love. And what, pray, is wrong with that? I’m a sucker for this kind of smooth wine-bar funk, and George does it so well, so “classily”, with not the slightest nod to contemporary musical fashions.

My votes: 1 – George Michael. 2 – Jim Reeves. 3 – Reel 2 Real. 4 – New Seekers. 5 – Rockwell.

Over to you. The 1960s and 1980s both got off to a strong start yesterday, with the last two decades trailing badly behind. Will George and the Stuntman even things up, or will the dulcet tones of Gentle Jim send the Sixties soaring? Oh, I could drivel on like this all evening! Please leave your votes in the comment box.

Incidentally, it’s not too late to vote for yesterday’s selections either – voting will stay open for all ten groups of singles until the end of the project.

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (2/10) – 2004 edition.”

Which decade is Tops for Pops? (1/10) – 2004 edition.

Thanks to the recent hiatus, this is nearly a month overdue (it was supposed to run on the week of my birthday) – but no matter; it’s finally time to welcome back the second annual instalment of the Which decade is Tops for Pops? project. (It is almost impossible to resist the urge to whoop at this stage, but let’s not burn ourselves out before we’ve even begun.)

If you were reading this site in February 2003, then you’ll already know the procedure. If not, then please allow me to explain.

Over the next ten instalments, we will be systematically comparing the records in the Top 10 UK singles chart for this week in 1964, 1974, 1984, 1994 and 2004. Today, we’ll be looking at all the records in the Number 10 position; tomorrow, we’ll look at the Number 9s; and so on until we reach the Number 1s.

Each day, I’ll be posting a short MP3 medley of the five songs under consideration, containing about a minute’s worth of each song. Your job is to listen to the medley and place the five songs in order of preference. It doesn’t matter how rubbish you might think they are; all five songs must be ranked, with no tied positions and no omissions.

(Note: to save on my space and your time, I’ve encoded the medleys at a scintillating 96kbps, for that authentic “listening on a cheap transistor radio” pop experience.)

Once you have scored the songs, please place your votes in that day’s comment box. I will then aggregate total scores for each song based on your votes, with 5 points for each 1st place, 4 points for each 2nd place, etc.

In this way, we will eventually end up with 10 sets of combined votes, i.e. one for each chart position. Using the same inverse points system, I’ll then aggregate combined votes for each decade, thus establishing, at the end of the 10 days, which is decade truly is Tops for Pops. I’ll also be keeping a running total going each day, so that you can track how the decades are faring against each other.

Still confused? Oh, don’t worry; it will all become clear soon enough. Perhaps I should instigate a mentoring scheme between old hands and newcomers? No, perhaps not.

Last year, the 1970s and 1980s pulled clear ahead of the rest of the pack, finishing with a dead heat which had to be resolved with a tie-breaker. Eventually, the 1970s were crowned victorious. This year, I have a sneaking suspicion that the decades will be rather more evenly matched… but there again, I could be wrong. It’s all down to you, readers!

Onto business, then. Here are the Number 10 singles for this week in 1964, 1974, 1984, 1994 and 2004.

1964: Needles And Pins – The Searchers.
1974: The Wombling Song – The Wombles.
1984: It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls.
1994: Breathe Again – Toni Braxton.
2004: Dude – Beenie Man featuring Ms Thing.
Listen to a short medley (about a minute each) of all five songs.

Last year, when the Top 10 for mid-February 1963 fell under the microscope, many of you commented that the music didn’t feel like the 1960s; it felt stale, out of date, in need of change. Frankie Vaughan, Mike Berry, Brenda Lee, Del Shannon, Maureen Evans, Frank Ifield, Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen: this was the sound of the 1950s clinging on for dear life. The one shining exception in the 1963 chart was The Beatles’ Please Please Me, which sounded like it was beamed in from a different universe – a harbinger of the future.

Sure enough, just over a year later, the Top 10 for 1964 bears scant relation to its dusty Tin Pan Alley predecessor. The 1960s had finally begun in earnest, with the whole British “beat group” explosion already in full swing – and this record by The Searchers is a classic example. Indeed, with its jingly-jangly folk-rock guitar sound already hinting at developments to come from the likes of The Byrds, Needles And Pins is in itself something of a stylistic trailblazer. Co-written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono, and originally recorded in the US by Jackie DeShannon, this cover version swaps the genders, turning the man into the wounded, brooding, victim of the woman who has deserted him. A surprisingly mature, progressive record to find in the pop charts of this period…

…in stark contrast to The Wombles, with an extended version of the theme tune to their animated TV show. Dismissable kiddie crap, then? Actually, no. This, and many of The Wombles’ surprisingly long run of hits, is of a much higher musical order than it strictly needs to be, with its deft, distinctive melody underpinned by a really rather lovely orchestration. Nestling between the whimsical jauntiness of the main refrain, there is even a hint of real wistfulness in the “Uncle Bulgaria” verse. You won’t find such richness in the collected works of The Tweenies or The Teletubbies, that’s for sure.

Indeed, as The Wombles’ hit-making career continued, composer Mike Batt used it as an exercise for dabbling in a wide variety of musical genres: glam-rock, reggae, classical waltz, vintage rock and roll… the fourth album even contains a full-blown Rick Wakeman pastiche, “The Myths And Legends Of King Merton Womble And His Journey To The Centre Of The Earth“. Such a shame, then, that Batt has recently seen fit to blot his copybook by inflicting the awful Katie Melua upon us. (“Feeling twenty-two, acting seventeen” has to be the most memorably grating line in pop since J-Lo’s “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I’ve got, I’m still Jenny from the block“.) I’m sorely tempted to deduct points for that alone – but I try to be a fair man.

Unlike last year, I have failed to find MP3s of two songs from this year’s crop, and in each case am subsituting the Number 11 record from the same chart. Thus it is that Richard Hartley & The Michael Reed Orchestra’s The Music Of Torvill & Dean EP (lead track: the inevitable Bolero) is nudged out by – Hi! Hi! We’re your Weather Girls, and have we got news for you! I think we’ve all been spared, don’t you?

It’s Raining Men had been knocking around as an import 12″ in UK gay clubs since the summer of 1982, meaning that by the time it charted, some of us were growing just a little bit sick of it. Indeed, it’s a record which I could cheerfully never listen to again. That’s not to deny its genius; it’s merely to admit that even great jokes can eventually wear thin. Yes, it’s a comedy record – but what a comedy record. Like the musical equivalent of one of those uber-successful US comedies which have been written by committees of 20 or more, It’s Raining Men simply crams in Big Moment after Big Moment after Big Moment, with devastating efficency. I wonder how many of you will be on the point of throwing your hands up in the air for a rousing chorus of “GOD BLESS MOTHER NATURE, SHE’S A SINGLE WOMAN TOO!”, just as the the medley switches to…

Toni Braxton‘s dire ditty. Plod plod, plink plonk, whine whine. Any more than a minute of this arid, self-pitying, soulless dirge would rob me of the will to live, I think. Apologies if I’m treading all over someone’s treasured memories, but I speak as I find.

Finally, I am fully expecting Beenie Man featuring Ms. Thing to grate horribly on many of you. Ruffneck dancehall ragga over a minimal, repetitive backing, enlivened only by the judicious use of steel drums; this will have some of my more seasoned readers covering their ears in horror. And yet, and yet, it works. There’s an insistent rough-edged energy to Dude which exerts a physical pull that I find wholly appealing. So there.

All I would say is this, though: when voting, try not to be overly swayed by nostalgic associations with your own personal Golden Age Of Pop, whichever decade it might be. In other words: don’t let’s be beastly to the Noughties.

My votes: 1 – The Searchers. 2 – The Weather Girls. 3 – Beenie Man featuring Ms. Thing. 4 – The Wombles. 5 – Toni Braxton. K’s votes will appear in the comments shortly.

Over to you. (That’s my catchphrase, that is.) Please leave your votes in the comments box below. The gloves are off. May the best decade win!

Continue reading “Which decade is Tops for Pops? (1/10) – 2004 edition.”