The Troubled Diva Keep Fit Club: progress charts.

The first chart shows the actual number of steps covered each day, by myself, K, Peter, Asta and Rhys.

The second chart plots the average number of steps per day. This will eventually become a rolling seven-day average for each participant.

(As you can see, both K and I have just dropped below the recommended average of 10,000 steps per day. A temporary blip, no doubt.)

If you want to join the club, then please leave your daily pedometer reading(s) in the comments.

Update (1): With all of yesterday’s totals now collated, I discover to my horror that none of us has a running average of above the recommended 10,000. This simply will not do. Come on, team! Look lively!

Update (2): Well, at least one of us is trying. (Tough love! You’ll thank me for it eventually!)

Update (3): Hmm. This is actually quite hard to maintain on a daily basis, isn’t it…

tdfit01 tdfit02

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – THE WINNER.

1st place – The 1980s. (34 points)

Last year: 3rd place, 30 points.
Two years ago: 2nd place, 35 points.

10: 1999/Little Red Corvette – Prince. 1st place, 5 points.
9: Nightshift – The Commodores. 3rd place, 3 points.
8: Close (To The Edit) – Art Of Noise. 2nd place, 4 points.
7: A New England – Kirsty MacColl. 2nd place, 4 points.
6: Things Can Only Get Better – Howard Jones. 5th place, 1 point, least popular.
5: You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) – Dead Or Alive. 1st place, 5 points, most popular.
4: Dancing In The Dark – Bruce Springsteen. 1st place, 5 points.
3: Solid – Ashford & Simpson. 5th place, 1 point.
2: Love And Pride – King. 3rd place, 3 points.
1: I Know Him So Well – Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson. 3rd place, 3 points.

Three different years, three different winners… and really, who would have thought at the outset that 1985 – that much derided frumpy old trout of a year – would ultimately have triumphed?

1980sSo maybe 1985 wasn’t all bad after all. You showed your love for Prince, Dead Or Alive and Bruce Springsteen – all of whom produced classics, whether or not you choose to acknowledge them as such. You showed affection for Art Of Noise and Kirsty MacColl, polite respect for King, The Commodores and Elaine Paige/Barbara Dickson, and only heaped vitriol upon Howard Jones (understandable) and Ashford & Simpson (unfortunate).

The chart from February 1985 is certainly the one which means the most to me personally. Seven of the top ten were played by myself and Dymbel at my second ever gig as a DJ, in what was to remain the biggest venue I ever played in. One of them (I Know Him So Well) was the break-up song for a short but affectionate relationship, on which I look back with nothing but fondness.

Two Number Ones later, Easy Lover by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins became the break-up song for my next relationship, if we can call it that: an ill-advised, pointless affair, which I brought to a swift and merciful end before too much damage was done. (I moved fast in those days.)

While Easy Lover remained at Number One – on Saturday April 20th 1985, to be precise – I embarked upon my next relationship. We celebrate our twentieth anniversary as a couple next month.

This winning Top Ten therefore represents practically my last gasp as a single man. It also represents practically the last gasp for a particularly fine era in pop, which was just drawing to a close. The long dark nights of Simply Red, Chris De Burgh, Tina Turner, Dire Straits, Jennifer Rush and Marillion were about to close in. Next year, I suspect that the 80s will struggle hard to survive. But for now, let us give them their due.

1985: you Rule The World. Indeed, you Are The World. The readers of Troubled Diva salute you.

The Top Ten and the Bottom Five Six.

(Positions are calculated by dividing the numbers of points scored by the number of people voting on that day.)

1. You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) – Dead Or Alive.
2. 1999/Little Red Corvette – Prince.
3. You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling – The Righteous Brothers.
4. Dancing In The Dark – Bruce Springsteen.
5. Angie Baby – Helen Reddy.
6. Shame Shame Shame – Shirley & Company.
7. Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) – Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.
8. A New England – Kirsty MacColl.
9. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – The Animals.
10. No More I Love You’s – Annie Lennox.

46= Wooden Heart – Elvis Presley, Come Tomorrow – Manfred Mann.
47. The Special Years – Val Doonican.
48. Black Superman – Johnny Wakelin.
49. Almost Here – Brian McFadden & Delta Goodrem.
50. Think Twice – Celine Dion.

Cumulative scores for the decades to date, after three years:

1 (2) The 1980s – 99 points.
2= (3) The 1960s – 97 points.
2= (1) The 1970s – 97 points.
4 (4) The 2000s – 80 points.
5 (5) The 1990s – 78 points.

As the 1980s pull ahead of the 1960s and 1970s, a yawning chasm of seventeen points opens up between these three decades and the 1990s/2000s.

Will all of this change next year?

Come back in February 2006 to find out.

Thank you for participating. As always, it’s been a blast. Regular transmissions will now be resumed.

Interval act: the Tops For Pops Notepad Awards.

You know when you throw a party, and you’ve got these totally different groups of friends all converging in the same place, and you start worrying about what they’re going to think of each other and how they’re all going to get along? Well, so it has been with this year’s Which Decade project. Brought here as a result of some generous plugging by Tom Ewing on the venerable ur-music-blog New York London Paris Munich, a whole bunch of new commenters have appeared this year. These people, with whom I am wont to mingle in my other online identity over on the I Love Music messageboard, take their pop music seriously, and they know of what they speak. So how are they going to get along with my Core Readership Base, who know what they like but aren’t necessarily bothered about dissecting every last nuance of the codes and signifiers of the prevalent semiological structures of the blah-di-blah?

I am inclined to conclude that – as usually happens at such potentially fraught gatherings – everybody rubbed along together just fine. The world of the music-blog can be a rather hermetically sealed one; a closed shop, to which only those who talk the talk with conviction may gain admittance. Maybe it has therefore been of some interest for the ILM crowd to find out what, um, how do I put this, people with more typically arranged priorities feel about this kind of stuff. Meanwhile, maybe the regulars on this site have been confronted with some fresh and unexpected new ideas along the way.

Oh look, this is my bubble, so don’t be going popping it. Actually, what I did notice towards the closing stages of the contest was that a lot more commenters started explicitly linking the songs with their own personal situations, rather than always confining themselves to some sort of “objective” commentary. Which, as any brave soul who managed to wade through my last big overblown blog stunt will testify, is something I approve of whole-heartedly.

Particular thanks go to the following people, who voted on every day of this year’s contest: Alan Connor, Barry, Chig, Clare, David (dubmill), David (swish), Dymbel, hedgerow, James, KoenS, lathbud, Lyle, megan, NiC, Simon H, thom, timothy, Tina, Tom, Will and zebedee. To you, I award the Bronze Notepad, for services to Popular Music Studies. Future generations will doubtless be in your debt.

The Silver Notepad award goes to those of you who have voted each time over the last two years: Adrian, jo and Simon Cede, as well as Gordon (19 out of 20 ain’t bad) and djg (full sets in 2003 and 2005, with a year off last year).

The Golden Notepad goes to those of you who have lasted the course over the past three years: to Nigel, who has provided gloriously entertaining commentary on almost every entry, only missing four days in total, and to asta, another stellar commenter who has only ever missed one day.

However, the ultimate award – the Troubled Diva Platinum Premier Notepad Plus – goes to the three people who have left a comment on every single entry to date. Including the 2003 tie-break and the 2005 double A-side from Prince, that adds up to no less than one hundred and fifty-seven daft little pop songs. Such stamina!

So step forward Pam (who admittedly abstained on one particularly crap day, but who still left a comment explaining her reasons), Stereoboard (I know where he lives, so there was never really going to be any excuse), and – with her last minute mercy dash into the two remaining comments boxes on Sunday night – Gert, who has provided hand-crafted individual reviews of all one hundred and fifty-seven songs.

Asta, Gert, Nigel, Pam and Stereoboard: you all qualify for copies of my Best Of 2004 triple mix CD. Please send your current postal addresses to mikejla at btinternet dot com… and allow 14 days for delivery, ‘cos I’m a lazy sod. A round of applause, please.

Coming soon… the winner of the Which Decade Is Tops For Pops project for 2005.

Who could it be?

Fret not. The time is almost nigh.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

2nd place – The 1960s. (33 points)

Last year: 1st place, 36 points.
Two years ago: 3rd place, 28 points.

10: Go Now – The Moody Blues. 2nd place, 4 points.
9: Funny How Love Can Be – The Ivy League. 5th place, 1 point.
8: Come Tomorrow – Manfred Mann. 5th place, 1 point.
7: The Special Years – Val Doonican. 5th place, 1 point, least popular.
6: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – The Animals. 1st place, 5 points.
5: Game Of Love – Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders. 2nd place, 4 points.
4: Keep Searchin’ – Del Shannon. 2nd place, 4 points.
3: You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling – The Righteous Brothers. 1st place, 5 points, most popular.
2: I’ll Never Find Another You – The Seekers. 2nd place, 4 points.
1: Tired Of Waiting For You – The Kinks. 2nd place, 4 points.

After a catastrophic start to this year’s contest, with three last places in a row from The Ivy League, Manfred Mann and Val Doonican, last year’s winning decade looked like a lost cause. Who would therefore have predicted such a strong comeback over the remaining six days? Never coming lower than second from that point on, the 1960s clawed their way back from a poor fifth to a strong second, breathing down the neck of our winning decade all the way to the finishing line, and causing me to prepare an emergency tie-break medley, just in case.

Just as the 2000s received a raw deal, so I can’t help feeling that 1965 has rather lucked out. Standard issue beat groups and unreconstructed male chauvinism are the order of the day here; indeed, The Seekers’ Judith Durham provides the only female voice on this list.

Nevertheless, when the 1960s are good, they’re bloody good. With the first revolution of 1963/1964 beginning to settle down, and the second revolution of 1966/67 yet to come, 1965 provides something of an entr’acte, with an emphasis on strong songwriting (several of these songs having since become standards) and a sometimes overpowering emotional pull.

Yes, maybe that’s what 1965 has in particular abundance this year: emotional pull. Even if some of those emotions are decidedly questionable at times.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

3rd place – The 1970s. (30 points)

Last year: 2nd place, 31 points.
Two year ago: 1st place, 35 points + 1 tiebreak point.

10: Black Superman – Johnny Wakelin. 5th place, 1 point, least popular.
9: Footsee – Wigan’s Chosen Few. 4th place, 2 points.
8: Angie Baby – Helen Reddy. 1st place, 5 points, most popular.
7: Shame Shame Shame – Shirley & Company. 1st place, 5 points.
6: Goodbye My Love – The Glitter Band. 4th place, 2 points.
5: The Secrets That You Keep – Mud. 3rd place, 3 points.
4: Sugar Candy Kisses – Mac & Katie Kissoon. 3rd place, 3 points.
3: Please Mr. Postman – The Carpenters. 4th place, 2 points.
2: January – Pilot. 4th place, 2 points.
1: Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) – Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. 1st place, 5 points.

As the 1970s slowly slips from first to second to third place, so does any sense of purpose and direction about its pop music. Take away the three undeniable classics from Steve Harley, Helen Reddy and Shirley & Company – distinctive, unique, pushing at the edges of their genres – and you’re left with seven rather ploppy, soppy pieces of feather-light inconsequence. The relative paucity of your comments on songs such as Sugar Candy Kisses and January says it all: with nothing much to love or to hate, your overall reaction was a resounding “so what”.

Not a great year, 1975. With glam-rock all played out and disco still finding its feet, 1975 was the year when the Bay City Rollers went stratospheric, while an ever more pompous and facile prog-rock emerged from the underground, smoothed over its trippier edges, and started shifting serious units in the album charts. Snobbery was rampant. Albums were “serious”, singles were “for kids”, and the divide between the two had never been greater. Even as a 13-year old at the time, I felt that the singles charts were getting a bit beneath me. Who still needed Mud and The Glitter Band when you had Roger Dean gatefold sleeves and Rick Wakeman performing The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur on ice?

With the singles chart regularly being denounced by the more haughty members of the then all-powerful music press, a paradigm shift was badly needed. Luckily, we got two, as the combined forces of punk/new wave and disco eventually pulled the Top 40 out of the mire during 1978, thus restoring some measure of legitimacy to the form. As for poor little 1975, the session men had well and truly taken over the asylum.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

4th place – The 2000s. (27 points)

Last year: 5th place, 26 points.
Two years ago: 4th place, 27 points.

10: Goodies – Ciara featuring Petey Pablo. 3rd place, 3 points.
9: Galvanise – Chemical Brothers. 2nd place, 4 points.
8: Only U – Ashanti. 3rd place, 3 points.
7: Angel Eyes – Raghav. 3rd place, 3 points.
6: Black & White Town – Doves. 2nd place, 4 points, most popular.
5: Almost Here – Brian McFadden & Delta Goodrem. 5th place, 1 point, least popular.
4: Soldier – Destiny’s Child. 4th place, 2 points.
3: Like Toy Soldiers – Eminem. 2nd place, 4 points.
2: Wooden Heart – Elvis Presley. 5th place, 1 point.
1: Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own – U2. 4th place, 2 points.

Time and again when totting up the voting, I see the same divide: while first, second and third places are shared between the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, it always seems to be the two most recent decades which are left scrapping for fourth and fifth places. And so it is with the final scores, as the 1990s and 2000s occupy the back positions for the third year running.

At least the 2000s had their brief moment of glory this year, as respectably consistent placings for Ciara, The Chemical Brothers, Ashanti, Raghav and the Doves combined to put the decade in the lead for one day only. However, this good early start was swiftly demolished by a catastrophic run in the top five, with two fourth places and two fifth places sending the Noughties into an irreversible free-fall.

This time round, I think that the present decade has been sorely hard done by. A couple of glaring horrors (Brian McFadden, Destiny’s Child) and a pointless re-issue (Elvis Presley) aside, this was as strong a Top Ten as we could reasonably have wished for. Bold, tough, futuristic R&B from Ciara and Ashanti, which simply couldn’t have been conceived of ten years earlier. Solid, above-par offerings from “proper music” stalwarts (Doves, U2). Interesting blends of Western and Eastern styles from Raghav and the Chemical Brothers. Eminem back on form with the arresting “Like Toy Soldiers”, which at least forces you to form an opinion on it. Come on, this was hardly a shonky selection! Compared with the strained, over-sexualised fakery of most of last year’s Top Ten, we’re practically living in a Golden Age!

Nevertheless, you have spoken decisively. This modern pop, she is not for you; and even when you do show an interest, it rarely converts to passion. (This is the only decade which failed to score a first place on any of the ten days.)

There’s little point in pretending that this isn’t generational, either. Of course most of you will always opt for the music of your own youth, with all of its accumulated personal resonances. So next year, I’m going to do what I can to draft in some bona fide Young People, to see whether they draw the same conclusions.

We said we’d never let this happen to us, didn’t we? Yeah, whatever.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

5th place – The 1990s. (26 points)

Last year: 4th place, 27 points.
Two years ago: 5th place, 25 points.

10: Don’t Give Me Your Life – Alex Party. 4th place, 2 points.
9: Reach Up – Perfecto Allstarz. 1st place, 5 points.
8: Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Nicki French. 4th place, 2 points.
7: Run Away – MC Sar & The Real McCoy. 4th place, 2 points.
6: Here Comes The Hotstepper – Ini Kamoze. 3rd place, 3 points.
5: I’ve Got A Little Something For You – MN8. 4th place, 2 points.
4: Cotton Eye Joe – Rednex. 5th place, 1 point.
3: Set You Free – N-Trance. 3rd place, 3 points.
2: No More I Love You’s – Annie Lennox. 1st place, 5 points, most popular.
1: Think Twice – Celine Dion. 5th place, 1 point, least popular.

I never was much good at making predictions. Witness this piece of misplaced optimism, from last year’s results:

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.

How wrong can you be? In a year which is chiefly remembered for the twin mass movements of Britpop and Dance, 1995 is instead represented by a rag-bag of cheesy commercial dance hits which bear little relationship to what was being “dropped” in “credible” clubs of the time. Some (N-Trance, Perfecto Allstarz) have worn well. Others (Alex Party, The Real McCoy) less so. Most feature that essential accessory of the era, the wailing disco diva – as ubiquitous then as Mariah-esque cadenza trills and Enrique-style potty-strain grunts are now.

This isn’t just a freak result from an atypical week, either. In the recent 1000 UK Number Ones poll which I hosted at I Love Music, no hits between 1992 and 1996 charted in the Top 100. By contrast, at least one hit charted from every other year between 1962 and 2004. There’s no denying it any longer: something went very wrong with chart pop in the early-to-middle 1990s.

Or maybe we’re all just trapped in the traditional cycle of popular taste, where thirty years ago equals classic, twenty years ago equals cool, and ten years ago equals stale/boring/hideous. Whilst it’s difficult to imagine MN8 ever being elevated to “cool”, or Nicki French being elevated to “classic”, perhaps we should let the perspective of another ten years settle before making our final damning judgement.

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops: polling stays open until Friday night.

It’s close.
It’s really close.
My God, is it ever close.

With polling still open for all ten selections, a flurry of late votes have been sending our five hopeful decades yoyo-ing all over the shop. The key battleground is for first position, with the 1980s and 1960s slugging it out in a truly epic catfight.

At the time of writing, an outright victory for the 1960s – while still possible – is the least likely outcome. Instead, we are looking at either a one point victory for the 1980s, or else a tied first position.

As veterans from 2003 will know, a tied first position will result in a bonus tie-break round. If this happens, then I’ll be pitching the Top Three for August 17th 1965 against the Top Three for August 17th 1985, i.e. six months after my birthday. After listening to all six songs, you will be asked to place them in order of preference, with points awarded in the usual manner. The decade with the highest number of points will then be the ultimate winner.

Some time on Saturday, I’ll either be announcing the winner or posting the tie-break round. In the meantime, you can catch up with last-minute voting using the handy one-click guide below, complete with information on this year’s Key Marginals.

10: Moody Blues, Johnny Wakelin, Prince, Alex Party, Ciara.
With Prince and the Moody Blues way ahead of the pack, the main battle here is between Alex Party (1990s) and Ciara (2000s).
9: Ivy League, Wigan’s Chosen Few, Commodores, Perfecto Allstarz, Chemical Brothers.
With the Perfecto Allstarz (1990s) and the Chemical Brothers (2000s) still vying for first place, the Key Marginal here is Wigan’s Chosen Few (1970s) versus The Commodores (1980s). The Commodores need to maintain their small lead in order to keep the 1980s in the game.
8: Manfred Mann, Helen Reddy, Art Of Noise, Nicki French, Ashanti.
Helen Reddy is streets ahead in first position. However, another Key Marginal for the 1980s sees the Art Of Noise struggling to maintain a narrow lead over Ashanti (2000s).
7: Val Doonican, Shirley & Company, Kirsty MacColl, MC Sar & The Real McCoy, Raghav.
The Key Marginal here has Kirsty MacColl (1980s) snapping at the heels of Shirley & Company (1970s) in a bid to take over first position. Meanwhile, there is very little to separate The Real McCoy (1990s) from Raghav (2000s).
6: The Animals, Glitter Band, Howard Jones, Ini Kamoze, Doves..
The first Key Marginal for the 1960s has current leaders The Animals defending a strong challenge from Doves (2000s). Below them, there is almost nothing separating The Glitter Band (1970s) from Ini Kamoze (1990s).
5: Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, Mud, Dead Or Alive, MN8, Brian McFadden & Delta Goodrem.
The most settled of all the rounds, with a comfortable distance between all five positions. Dead Or Alive (1980s) lead the pack, with the largest share of the vote of any of this year’s songs.
4: Del Shannon, Mac & Katie Kissoon, Bruce Springsteen, Rednex, Destiny’s Child.
Springsteen is way out in front, but Rednex (1990s) and Destiny’s Child (2000s) remain locked in mortal combat for fourth place, in the most tightly fought tussle of all.
3: Righteous Brothers, Carpenters, Ashford & Simpson, N-Trance, Eminem.
Good news for the 1960s, as The Righteous Brothers lead by a huge margin. Below them lies an epic four-way struggle, with only a few points separating second from fifth place. Representing the 1980s, Ashford & Simpson badly need to raise themselves from the bottom of the pack, in this most unpredictable of all the Key Marginals.
2: The Seekers, Pilot, King, Annie Lennox, Elvis Presley.
The only round to feature not one, but two Key Marginals. Wrestling for first place are Annie Lennox (1990s) and The Seekers (1960s). Below them, Pilot (1970s) and King (1980s) are wrestling just as hard. Only Elvis Presley (2000s) is out of the fray, trailing a long way behind in fifth place.
1: The Kinks, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson, Celine Dion, U2.
One thing is certain: with 21 fifth places out of 26 at the last count, and no placings higher than fourth, Celine Dion is set to go down in the Troubled Diva history books as by far and away the least popular constestant of the last three years, even beating Blazing Squad’s dismal score from 2003. At the top of the pile, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel have cause for cautious optimism. But perched in mid-table, our two rival decades are pitched directly against each other in what is possibly the most crucial Key Marginal of them all. Which will it be? The Kinks (1960s) or Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson (1980s)? As in all the best contests, it’s all resting on the final vote. What are Ladbrokes quoting, I wonder?

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (10/10) – 2005 edition.

It’s all getting very tense. With narrow margins and tied positions abounding in the voting for the Number Twos and Number Threes (and beyond), the relative positions of our five hopeful decades are changing faster than I can re-edit and re-publish.

I’ll be honest with you: I thought the 1980s were going to walk it this year. A couple of weeks ago, having studied the form of all fifty singles, I wrote down a detailed series of predictions for each round. At this stage in the contest, I had expected the 1980s to be eight full points ahead of the pack, and a whopping sixteen points ahead of the 1990s. However, at this precise moment (which could change with the next set of individual votes), the 1980s are dead level with the 1960s, with the 1990s still mathematically in the running for first place. So you never can tell.

Like all the best contests, everything rests on the final round. So cue drumrolls, and pray be upstanding for the Number Ones!

1965: Tired Of Waiting For You – The Kinks
1975 – Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) – Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel
1985 – I Know Him So Well – Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson
1995 – Think Twice – Celine Dion
2005 – Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own – U2
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

With their third hit and their second Number One, The Kinks were looking unassailable in February 1965, and indeed there is little to quibble over here; Tired Of Waiting For You is a strong, memorable piece of quintessential British beat group pop. Nevertheless, quibble I must: the lyrical theme is not one of Ray Davies’ strongest. There are, after all, worse things in life than unpunctuality. And what’s with the Comedy Italian Waiter vocal stylings, then? She keep-a you waiting; you make-a me crazy!

Over the past few weeks, prompted by Marcello’s detailed re-appraisal, I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the first two albums by the original line-up of Cockney Rebel (1973’s The Human Menagerie and 1974’s The Psychomodo), which I’ve dragged down from the attic and played again for the first time in the thick end of thirty years – and bloody excellent they have turned out to be. However, following major ructions during their 1974 tour, three of the five members of the band walked out, leaving just Steve Harley and the drummer behind. Swiftly re-grouping, Harley recruited a bunch of hired hands, added his name to the front of the band, and recorded this song, which is widely reckoned to be a bitter attack on his former band-mates.

It’s a strange one, though. By far and away Cockney Rebel’s most successful, popular and enduring hit, Make Me Smile also marked a sharp break away from the charmingly idiosyncratic violin-based sound of the old band, and into a more conventionally guitar-based arrangement. A largely disappointing album swiftly followed (you could tell he’d got the session men in). Two smaller hits later (one a cover version), and it was all over for Harley’s Top 40 career.

It’s therefore tempting to conclude that Harley must have used up of all his remaining creativity and originality on this one magnificently splenetic piece of pop genius. If you were one of the aggrieved ex-members of his band, you might even view it as some sort of karmic retribution.

But hey, you don’t need to know all that! A classic’s a classic, which I don’t mean to diminish in any way…

…except that I’m trying my best to prepare the ground for Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson‘s masterpiece. Yes, you heard me, masterpiece. You gotta problem with that?

OK, I’ll come clean; this was my break-up song with J, whom I had started dating in the autumn of 1984. It was one of those nice break-ups, where you’re a little bit upset – appropriately upset – but not unduly traumatised, because Things had run their course and Things were not meant to be. All very amicable: a quick little blub, then smiles all round.

Very shortly after our break-up, J and I ran into each other at Part Two: Nottingham’s big gay club of the time, one of the best in the country in its day, and still subject to fond reminiscences from dewy-eyed queens of a certain age. (Here he goes, then.) This was a place where you might find Su “Hi De Hi” Pollard flailing around on the dancefloor (with its perfect beat-mixing to upfront US imports and pre-releases way before that sort of thing caught on in the provinces), Justin Fashanu skulking on Cruise Alley, and Noelle “Nolly” Gordon holding court in the upstairs lounge bar. It was also almost certainly the only gay club ever to feature a resident chaplain – for all your spiritual needs – and a dark-room round the back. Needless to say, it was my second home.

So there we were, standing on the aforementioned cruising walkway above the main floor, all polite how-are-you’s and have-you-seen-so-and-so’s, when suddenly the dance music stopped and I Know Him So Well came on. (Wow, slow records in clubs. Takes you back a bit, that does.) At which point all conversation between us ceased, as we stood there rather stiffly and awkwardly, half-smiles still frozen upon faces, trapped in the mutual realisation that, f**k it, Auntie Elaine and Auntie Barbara had nailed our situation to a tee.

OK, so I might be projecting a little here – after all, it’s not as if we ever had a discussion about it afterwards – but knowing J as I did, I’m fairly confident that the signficance of the moment wasn’t lost on him either. Because, you see, I knew him so well.

Do feel free to cringe. After all, Auntie Elaine and Auntie Barbara never exactly had much in the way of Edge, and it was all a bit horribly Musical Theatre, and weren’t the lyrics written by Tim Rice, that Tory twit who did all that stuff with Andrew Aargh No Make It Stop Lloyd-Webber?

To which I say: yes, but the music was written by Benny and Bjorn from Abba, and we never have a bad word to say about them these days do we, and that drama-queeny over-dramatisation of my not-all-that-dramatic-really situation was all part of its charm, and rather appropriate in a droll sort of way, and I like the way that Auntie Elaine and Auntie Barbara maintain this serene composure all the way through, all very reflective and mature…

…and not at all like that screeching Celine Dion creature, whose own break-up song practically has her clinging onto her man’s shoes as he drags her across the carpet and out of the door. Have a little dignity, love! And how about trading in some of that vocal technique for a bit of genuine emotion?

Yeesh, power ballads. Worse than that: histrionically self-flagellating power ballads. The one useful thing I can say about Think Twice is this: if you copped off with someone for the night in 1995, and you went back to his place, and you decided to have a quick scan of his music collection while he disappeared off for a slash, and you found a Celine Dion album in his wrought iron “CD tower”… then you knew you were on for a crap shag. So I was told.

(Quick F**k Me Fact, with all due apologies to Low Culture: Think Twice was jointly composed by the man who wrote 21st Century Schizoid Man for King Crimson and the man who wrote Making Your Mind Up for Bucks Fizz.)

And finally… U2, a band I have never particularly got on with, end this year’s contest with one of the finest tracks of their 25+ year career. Written in memory of Bono’s late father, Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own slowly builds, with a beautifully judged grace and power, and without whatever it is that U2 do which habitually puts me off them.

My votes: 1 – Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. 2 – Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson. 3 – The Kinks. 4 – U2. 5 – Celine Dion.

Celine aside, this is an excellent selection – easily the best of the week – which only seems right and proper when you’re dealing with the elevated territory of the Number Ones. I’m also quite pleased with the segues on this one, even if the medley does cut off abruptly at the end (the mixing software can be a bit temperamental at times). Why, even K enjoyed listening for once…

Over to you. As you can see below, it’s neck and neck for both first and last positions, so vote carefully. I hope you’ve enjoyed participating as much as I’ve enjoyed putting the whole thing together.

Voting for all selections remains open until Friday night.
I’ll be announcing the winners over the weekend.

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (10/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (9/10) – 2005 edition.

For the past three rounds, we’ve had clear and easily predictable winners right from the off. Dead Or Alive, Bruce Springsteen, The Righteous Brothers – all of these have established leads of at least 30 points each.

I’m expecting another clear winner today, for a decade which badly needs the points, albeit with a considerably reduced margin. But whoa, let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Eyes forward! Chins up! Backs straight! It’s the Number Twos!

1965: I’ll Never Find Another You – The Seekers
1975: January – Pilot
1985: Love And Pride – King
1995: No More I Love Yous – Annie Lennox
2005: Wooden Heart – Elvis Presley
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

When it comes to The Seekers, whose 1966 hit Morningtown Ride is one of my strongest early musical memories, normal rational judgement fails me. There’s something about those folksy harmonies, that warm tone – at once yearning and reassuring – and Judith Durham’s pure, soaring voice which just gets me; not necessarily because of any particular objective musical merit, but because I am instantly transported back into the security and certainty of early childhood. Is it pap? Is it crap? Is it just too horribly Church Youth Group for words? Let me down gently, readers.

Pilot‘s almost-seasonal January (which didn’t reach Number One until the first week in February) is the second track from the 1975 top ten to feature on Sean Rowley’s delicious compilation CD from last year, Guilty Pleasures Vol. 1 – the other being Helen Reddy’s Angie Baby. However, it’s also one of the very few questionable choices on the album. For once the “ooh, I remember this one!” thrill has faded, all you’re left with is a rather slight, anaemic confection; nicely turned in several respects, but with some shrill, jarring qualities which tend to jar ever more with repeated listens. It also loses points for disobeying Pop Law, by failing to rhyme fire (FYE-yah!) with desire (diz-EYE-yah!).

Aside: Guilty Pleasures Vol. 2 – a double album this time round – is released on March 14. Despite the odd worrying choice (am I truly ready to welcome Foreigner, Exile and Chas & Dave in from the cold?), I am positively slathering with the piquant juices of anticipation (Starland Vocal Band! Clout! England Dan & John Ford Coley! Randy Edelman! Lonely Boy!).

King! The hot new band to watch in 1984! Oops, take two. King! The hot new band to watch in 1985! With a “style press” hype stretching at least as far back as the spring of 1983 (which is when I saw them live at Nottingham’s Asylum Club), some of us were getting a little impatient for King to start delivering on their promise. We knew all about the hairdos and the painted Doc Marten boots; but what about the music?

By February 1985, the tide was just beginning to turn against what the USA were dubbing the “haircut bands”. With Springsteen and U2 in the ascendant, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet in slow decline, and the paradigm shift of Live Aid only a few months away, words like “authenticity” were being banded about with ever-increasing frequency. Suddenly, King looked not fashionably late to the party, but awkwardly, disastrously late, swinging gaily through the doors just as the caterers were starting to pack up the crockery. (By the time that Sigue Sigue Sputnik showed up, a full year later, with a magnificently bad timing which verged on the heroic, the room was all but deserted.)

“Take your hairdryer, blow them all away”, indeed. Grrr! Bitch-slaps at fifty paces! I ask you, what kind of “manifesto” is that?

Now, I’m not normally one to get embarrassed about musical purchases that popular opinion might consider questionable. Five Nolan Sisters singles and proud of it, mate! And two by the Vengaboys! But if there is one item in my collection which makes me shudder with shame every time my eye catches its spine, it is Medusa: the wretched covers “project” which Annie Lennox inflicted upon the world in 1995. And why did I get suckered into buying it? Because of the one decent track on it: this cover of No More I Love Yous, which had flopped for an act called The Lover Speaks in the mid 1980s.

Yes, it’s lovely. We all know that. But oh, Annie – with your fifty squillion Brits awards and your seemingly unassailable position as First “Hey, She’s A Great Lady!” Of British Rock And Pop – you had always steered a precarious course between inspired and naff, but you well and truly jumped the shark with this one, didn’t you? Your career was never the same again, was it? Still, you have your trophy cabinet, and we have our Eurythmics Greatest Hits CDs. Shall we leave it at that?

I can scarcely muster the enthusiasm to comment on the ongoing Elvis Presley singles re-issue programme, which has seen a new Top Three chart entry for “The King” in every week of 2005 to date. Wooden Heart: ghastly kitsch from a neutered giant, or quaint sing-along fun that’s not worth making a fuss about? Don’t ask me; I’m past caring. (Well, almost.) It’s marketing stunts like these which rob the singles charts of their meaning, you know.

(What’s that? They never had any meaning in the first place? Hello, should you even be here?)

My votes: 1 – Annie “Hey, She’s A Great Lady!” Lennox. Because when has Annie ever NOT won anything she’s been nominated for? 2 – The Seekers. 3 – Pilot. 4 – Elvis Presley, who gets an extra point for singing in German. 5 – King.

Over to you. As the first three songs are all within a single BPM of each other, you’ll find that today’s selection is quite the Disco Mix. (I can still do it, you know.) Looking at the decade scores, we find that the 1960s are staging a remarkable comeback: from a poor fifth position, to just two points away from the 1980s. Meanwhile, the 2000s have yet to earn a single first place position in any of the daily rounds. Will Elvis bring it home for the Noughties? Or will Annie Lennox spearhead a late resurgence for the 1990s? There’s only one way to find out!

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (9/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (8/10) – 2005 edition.

Since one of you has asked for some clarification, perhaps this would be a good time to explain how I’m calculating the running totals for each decade.

For each of the 10 days of the contest, I give 5 points to the winning decade for that day’s round of voting, 4 points to the second decade etc.

Thus the 26 points for our current leading decade – the 1980s – are calculated as follows:
#10s – 1st place (Prince) – 5 points
#9s – 3rd place (Commodores) – 3 points
#8s – 3rd place (Art Of Noise) – 3 points
#7s – 2nd place (Kirsty MacColl) – 4 points
#6s – 5th place (Howard Jones) – 1 point
#5s – 1st place (Dead Or Alive) – 5 points
#4s – 1st place (Bruce Springsteen) – 5 points

Of course, with voting still coming in for some of the older selections, these positions can fluctuate; there has been quite a tussle between The Animals and the Doves, for instance, with the lead place regularly switching. However, my spreadsheet is built to cope.

Onto today’s selections – and to one of our strongest and most pleasingly varied groupings to date. Big balladeering! Bouncy pop! Smooth soul! Full-on dance! Hip-hop with a message! Open your minds! It’s the Number Threes!

1965: You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling – The Righteous Brothers
1975: Please Mr. Postman – The Carpenters
1985: Solid – Ashford & Simpson
1995: Set You Free – N-Trance
2005: Like Toy Soldiers – Eminem
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

You never close your eyes any more when I kiss your lips, and there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips…” Strewth, there’s just no let-up for 1965 Woman, is there? You’ve been slobbered over by Val, intimidated by Eric, preached at by Wayne, abducted by Del – and now you’re being whined at by the Righteous Brothers. Picky, picky, picky!

Oh, but I mustn’t be so cheap. Not even its use on the Top Gun soundtrack (which inspired a whole generation of Saturday night lads-on-the-piss to break into noisy renditions on street corners, in the preposterous hope that passing young ladies would somehow find this sweetly amusing and attractive) could dim this song’s almost universally acknowledged classic status. To say nothing of Phil Spector’s awesome production job, which is sadly diminished by the ghastly pseudo-stereo conversion job on this MP3. (I searched high and low, but couldn’t find a mono version anywhere. Sounds much better on speakers than it does on headphones.)

With this slightly pointless cover of The Marvelettes’ Please Mr. Postman, the beginning of the slow artistic decline of the once-transcendent Carpenters is all too apparent. A couple of years earlier, Yesterday Once More had expressed the most exquisite, poignant evocation of nostalgia for early 1960s pop. It said it all. There was therefore no need to go the whole hog and actually record a cover version of early 1960s pop, just to ram the point home in such a literal manner. Besides, are we really expected to believe that the singer of Goodbye To Love, Superstar and Rainy Days And Mondays could ever be this naively, girlishly love-struck? It doesn’t quite wash, does it? Although Karen Carpenter – whose voice is right up there with Aretha, Dionne and Dusty in my personal pantheon of greats – could sing a shopping list and still make it sound wonderful, there is a clear sense that her talents are being wasted, and that the duo’s artistic anchor is coming adrift.

My, but I was looking forward to hearing Ashford & Simpson‘s Solid again after so many years. Written and performed by one of the great songwriting partnerships of Tamla Motown’s golden age (Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, You’re All I Need To Get By), this was guaranteed to appeal to the good little 1980s soul boy that I was swiftly becoming in 1985. (With rock having seemingly lost its way for good, with the odd honourable exception such as The Smiths, The Jesus And Mary Chain and REM, a good number of people were making this switch at the time.)

It hasn’t dated well, though. To modern ears, the production techniques seem tinny, insubstantial, and just plain cheesy. What had felt so spirited and fresh back then feels disappointingly syrupy and cloying now. Nevertheless, there’s a residual power to the song which time has not entirely erased – especially the ecstatic “build it up and build it up” bridge to the chorus, which still has me tingling in a few mostly dormant extremities.

Ecstatic in an altogether different way, nudge nudge wink wink say no more, N-Trance‘s Set You Free has somehow, and against all the odds, actually improved with age, at least to this jaded ex-clubber’s worn out ears. ‘Cos if you’re going to make a full-on dance anthem, then for God’s sake turn the dials up to max, pull out all the stops, and give it some bloody welly.

In this respect, Set You Free is marvellously satisfying. The belting disco diva: check. The slowing-down-then-starting-up-again trick: check. The mental ravey bit where you make “interpretive” shapes with your fingers held a few inches away from your eyes: check.

Big fish, little fish, cardboard box! What’s your name, where you from, what you on? Want some of my water? CHOOON!

Bonus points for early use of jungle/drum-and-bass breakbeats in a commercial crossover hit – for rhythmically, there was clear distance between this and the usual four-to-the-floor handbag house order of the day. In fact, I don’t think I ever actually heard this out at the time – and at the time, I was out all the time – so maybe that’s what has helped keep it so fresh.

There’s a whole back story to Eminem‘s Like Toy Soldiers which, if you know your way round it, can make all the difference to your appreciation of it. Although it’s complicated, and could be viewed as somewhat parochial, it’s a story with which most of his core audience will be familiar.

Minuscule simplistic précis (so far as I understand it, and I’m certainly no expert): Eminem signs 50 Cent; hip hop world’s collective noses put out of joint; usual internecine strife between warring labels; Ja Rule records nasty personal attack, singling out Eminem’s young daughter by name for a particularly vicious slur. Instead of taking the expected traditional route of recording an equally vile response, à la Biggie and Tupac (and look where that got them), Eminem takes the moral high ground, expressing a weary, sorrowful abhorrence of all these pointless, destructive and ultimately petty feuds. It’s a powerful, arresting piece, which slots right in with Eminem’s recent anti-Bush tirade Mosh as evidence of a growing thoughtfulness, seriousness of intent, and dare we say maturity?

My votes: 1 – Righteous Brothers. 2 – Eminem. 3 – N-Trance. 4 – Ashford & Simpson. 5 – The Carpenters. I had particular difficulty ranking the middle three positions, but ultimately decided to yield to genius.

Over to you. The 1980s increase their lead from three points to five, while the 1960s re-enter the race at last. Meanwhile, thanks to the double whammy of Brian-n-Delta and Destiny’s Child, the once mighty 2000s continue to crumble. Will Eminem turn it round for the 2000s? Will the Righteous Brothers send the 1960s soaring? And how the hell has 1975 managed to hang on in second place anyway?

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (8/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (7/10) – 2005 edition.

Although the votes are still coming in, it’s already clear that voting on the Number Fives has been particularly decisive. Out of 26 votes cast thus far, 21 of you put Dead Or Alive in 1st place, and 14 of you put Beardy McSnoWash & Delta Goodrim (thanks David) in last place. Pop justice? ‘Twas never more true.

Will there be another runaway winner with today’s selection? I can’t quite tell which way you’re going to jump. As far away from them as possible? Yes, thank you, that man at the back. OK, release the traps… it’s the Number Fours!

1965: Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow The Sun) – Del Shannon
1975: Sugar Candy Kisses – Mac & Katie Kissoon
1985: Dancing In The Dark – Bruce Springsteen
1995: Cotton Eye Joe – Rednex
2005: Soldier – Destiny’s Child (featuring T.I. & Lil’ Wayne)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

With the last sizable hit of his career, poor old Del Shannon sounds even more like a man out of time than he did this time two years ago, with 1963’s Little Town Flirt (no, I can’t remember how it goes, either). This time round, I find that Keep Searchin‘s stylistic anachronisms actually work in its favour. Either that, or I’ve developed a certain fondness for that whip crack-away Wild West sound.

However. Ladies: 1965 wasn’t exactly a great time for you, was it? First, we had Uncle Val slobbering over your “special years”, twixt pinafore and pinney. Then we had Eric Burdon doing the old “I might rough you up a bit, but it’s only because I really love you” routine. Next came Wayne “Heterosexuality: It’s The Law!” Fontana and his Notbenders. And now here’s Cowboy Del, coming to your rescue, and carrying you off on horseback into the Colorado sunset. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Except for these tell-tale lines, not uttered until you’re safely mounted and five miles out of town:

Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter what people might say; she’s mine and I’m gonna take her anyway.

Out of the f**king frying pan, eh girls? It’s all so gosh-darned unreconstructed! Can’t wait for that Summer Of Love to come along! In the meantime, just smile sweetly and knee the bastards in the knackers. Yes, I think that would be for the best.

Where 1965 snarls, 1975 is content to merely simper. Coming over like a cheapo K-Tel version of The Stylistics, Mac & Katie Kissoon‘s bubblegum Philly soul is all huggles and snuggles, kissums and swoons, big felt hearts and crepe paper flowers, skipping hand-in-hand through poppy fields in matching corduroy dungarees. (None of which stopped K from mis-hearing the lyrics as “You sucked me off my seat” and getting the giggles, but what can you do?)

After the hits dried up and Mac “split the scene”, Katie went on to become a much in-demand session singer. Examine any British album sleeve from the 1980s, and there she’ll be in the small print. Backing vocals: Katie Kissoon and Tessa Niles. (You never seemed to get Katie without Tessa.) Nice work if you can get it. Well played, Katie.

And now for Bruce Springsteen, over whom I feel horribly conflicted. On a base level, my instant reaction to Dancing In The Dark is to cringe – but only at the associations. We’re back to the snooty student Mister Trendypants again, I’m afraid, sneering at all the uncool supply teachers getting sweaty and living the lyrics just a little too much.

Which, by the same token, is why Dancing In The Dark is such a classic. While I may have had no truck with Bruce – too earnest, too self-consciously “ordinary”, not my musical idiom – this, for me, is his one great defining pop moment. Maybe it’s because with this song, he manages to define and describe a particular state of mind, or stage of life, which no-one had managed to identify before. It cuts through. It registers. It strikes a mass popular chord with such power and accuracy that it’s almost embarrassing to admit to it.

Like so many great pop songs, Dancing In The Dark manages to work on an individual and a collective level at the same time. Listening to it on your own, you can connect with a mass consciousness outside of yourself. Listening to it on a dancefloor, or in a stadium, you can feel that it has been written just for you. It’s a big dumb party song with an intensely personal resonance. Some people think it’s just a big dumb party song. But you know better.

From the sublime to… hillbilly handbag house from Sweden, obviously. Like any reasonable sentient being, I loathed and detested Rednex when they inflicted this insidious little ditty upon us. (Indeed, my former guest blogger Danny has a particularly painful memory of it.) With the passing of the years, and now that Cotton Eye Joe can no longer be construed as the active enemy of all that is good and pure and true, I find that I have mellowed to it considerably. Why, I even caught myself smiling once or twice at some of the harmonica licks. Let’s move swiftly on…

…to Destiny’s Child, who have now been having hit singles for, I shit you not, seven whole years. My, but the years just whizz past when you get to this age.

It would appear that Destiny’s Child, like Michael Jackson before them, have now attained that level of surreal superstardom which completely cuts them off from the rest of the human race. Airbrushed and CGI-ed to perfection, they scarcely even seem real any more. You know that obscenely huge amounts of money are being spent on them, that whole divisions of multi-national corporations are dedicating themselves to them, and that the budget for Soldier alone could probably wipe out Third World debt in a trice. Indeed, listening to the inevitable who-the-chuff-are-they? guest rappers, I found myself thinking: Hah, you couldn’t even afford Destiny’s Child for the whole track! You had to drag in this bunch of no-marks to make up the numbers!

It makes me laugh, though. All that money. All those committees. All those strategic planning meetings, with sales figures plotted on gold-leaf graph paper. And still the song is a complete dog. Ha ha ha! You can’t buy inspiration!

I can sort of see what was being aimed for here: that stripped down, repetitive, less-is more “crunk” vibe, coupled with an “ooh them sexy soldiers” lyric that is presumably meant to enshrine Beyoncé and the girls as latter-day Forces Sweethearts. R&B Vera Lynns, if you will. But dear God, does it ever fall flat. Compare this to the might of Ciara and Ashanti, then hang your heads in shame.

UPDATE: Yikes, I’ve done it again! As several people have noted, the version of Cotton Eye Joe on this MP3 is not the same as the dancier version that got to Number One in the UK. WHY CAN’T PEOPLE JUST RECORD ONE VERSION OF THE SONG AND LEAVE IT AT THAT? Sheesh! (There was an Armand Van Helden remix of this as well, believe it or not. Bet he doesn’t like to be reminded of that one – but hey, we’ve all got to eat.)

Nevertheless, the version we have here sounds familiar enough … the vocals, the whoops, the fiddle … so maybe it’s just the rhythm track which is different. Perhaps this is Rednex Unplugged?

Worry not, tender souls – I’m not about to inflict a revised MP3 upon you. This sounds to me like the better version of the two – and besides, Rednex need all the help they can get, as they’re already trailing in last position.

My votes: 1 – Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen. 2 – Del “Ride ’em Cowboy” Shannon. 3 – Mac & Katie Kiss-Swoon. 4 – Rednex. 5 – Destiny’s Child featuring PiPi and PoPo.

Over to you. As Dead or Alive whup Brian and Delta’s collective asses, so the 1980s take first position back from the 2000s. Meanwhile, the 1960s are closing the gap at the back. Will The Boss send the 1980s surging further ahead? Or are we all having a group re-think about the Rednex? And if this version of Sugar Candy Kisses turns out to be a shonky remake, will anyone even care? Perspective, people!

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (7/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (6/10) – 2005 edition.

Right then – I’m going to do this quickly today, because The Apprentice is on at 9pm, and I got a bit hooked on it last week, so I don’t want to be hanging around. (That control freak project leader from the girls’ team? Yeesh, NIGHTMARE.)

At the halfway stage, I’d say that this year’s contest has had a different feel about it so far. Two years ago, it really was all about the 1970s and 1980s, right from the off – leading me to suspect that we were all being driven by nostalgia for our youth. Last year, it was 1964 all the way, no messing. This year, I’m finding a lot more of an even spread in the voting, with less of a general consensus and more of an even spread across, well, at least four of our decades (you really have gone off beat groups in a big way). And best of all, you’re actually giving the 2000s a chance. This pleases me no end.

Now for the bad news: I reckon that today’s selection – with one obvious exception – is easily the weakest so far. This is where the voting can get tricky; just how do you rate crap against crap? But then, that is our unique challenge. Shall we face it together, people? Hold your noses! It’s the Number Fives!

1965: Game Of Love – Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders
1975: The Secrets That You Keep – Mud
1985: You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) – Dead Or Alive
1995: I’ve Got A Little Something For You – MN8
2005: Almost Here – Brian McFadden & Delta Goodrem
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Following creepy old Uncle Val and his ode to the “special years”, today brings us more good-natured prescriptive normative heterosexism in the form of Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, and their jaunty avowal that the very purpose – yes, the purpose! – of a man is to love a woman. (And vice versa, ladies!) Well, different times and all that; after all, this was still two years before gay sex was even de-criminalised, let alone celebrated in the Hit Parade. Besides, this is spirited enough at heart, in a jolly, carefree sort of way. So we’ll let it pass, just this once – but no more of it, do you hear?

I have a distinct memory of Mud‘s The Secrets That You Keep being target marketed at Valentine’s Day, with a suitably “romantic” picture sleeve and all. Bearing in mind the distinctly forlorn nature of the lyrics, this seems like a strange decision to make; but then, who was listening to the lyrics?

Certainly not Mud’s Les Gray, who romps through the song like an Elvis impersonator at a Butlins holiday camp, tongue audibly in cheek, sounding like a man who can’t quite believe his luck, and making the most of his chance to get away with it before we all wised up and thought: hang on, how did these lumpy geezers ever get to be pop stars?

Mud were always a party band at heart: all streamers and balloons and silly dance steps and custard pies on Top Of The Pops. It was never in their nature to do heartbreak songs; and yet here they were, following Lonely This Christmas with their second in a row. Count yourselves lucky with this one, lads.

On the gay scene, we had been dancing to Dead Or Alive‘s You Spin Me Round for a good two or three months before it started selling in any significant quantities. It was a cult club hit: freely available in the shops, and hanging around in the lower part of the Top 75 from early December, but not singled out for a particular marketing push until it eventually crept into the charts at Number 40. One fluke appearance on Top Of The Pops later (somebody higher up the charts having dropped out of the show), and the single shot up to 19, then 5, then 2, then 1. Ah, climbers! That’s how things worked in those days. Economically inefficient no doubt, but vastly more satisfying to the rest of us.

You hardly need me to tell you that this is the obvious classic of the bunch. First places all round? The most popular single since Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain walked it two years ago? You have surprised me before, so I had better be careful with my predictions. But come ON. It’s a shoo-in, right?

It’s getting late, and I want my telly. How convenient that the final two songs can be dismissed as quickly as this:

MN8: Plastic boyband crap (man), with an early sighting of those horrible thin reedy nasal whiney “pop” voices that have blighted us ever since.

Brian McFadden & Delta Goodrem: Plastic “power ballad” crap (man), from a depressingly characterless and charisma-free couple whose alleged “romance” has been all over the celebrity gossip rags for weeks. (Don’t ask me for details; I haven’t got the foggiest.) Have I ever told you just how much I hate power ballads, over and above any other musical genre you might care to mention? Well, perhaps now’s not the time to get started.

My votes: 1 – Dead Or Alive. 2 – Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders. 3 – Mud. 4 – MN8. 5 – Brian McFadden & Delta Goodrem.

Over to you. With the 2000s taking the lead for the first time in the three-year history of the contest, something tells me that their victory will prove short-lived. Unless you all reveal yourselves as a bunch of power ballad loving wusses, that is. You wouldn’t do that to me, would you? After all I’ve taught you? After all we’ve been through together? No, I know you’re all better than that.

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (6/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (5/10) – 2005 edition.

There may still be stinkers ahead. In fact, I know that there are stinkers ahead. But for now, our extended streak of comparatively good luck continues, with another eminently reasonable selection of decent pop moments.

With all five songs featuring male lead vocals, it’s also our butchest selection yet. Send the disco divas packing, and bring on the MEN – it’s the Number Sixes!

1965: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – The Animals
1975: Goodbye My Love – The Glitter Band
1985: Things Can Only Get Better – Howard Jones
1995: Here Comes The Hotstepper – Ini Kamoze
2005: Black And White Town – Doves
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

So, yeah: with all girlie frivolity banished, the manly virtues of Authenticity, Meaning and Realness are the order of the day. Starting with The Animals, whom I have never quite been able to forgive for foisting that godawful dirge House Of The Rising Sun upon the world. Still, we’ll try not to let that come between us.

Raw, unadorned, bluesy and passionate, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood is clearly a cut above the usual beat group fodder of the day. (With the instruments sounding as if they were picked up for 17/6d a piece at Woolworths, there is also primitive quality which appeals greatly. In this respect, John Peel has taught me well.) If this record were a drink, it would be Newcastle Brown. If it were a food, it would be sausages and mash. If it were an item of clothing, it would be a plain white cap-sleeved T-shirt, gone slightly grey from repeated washes.

And if it were your boyfriend, then I would seriously think about changing the locks – for simmering beneath the “I’m really sensitive” bluster is a barely concealed malevolence, which hints at misdeeds past and yet to come. Take this from the third verse, which didn’t make the MP3 medley:

If I seem edgy I want you to know, that I never mean to take it out on you. Life has its problems and I get my share, and that’s one thing I never meant to do, because I love you.

Yeah, they all say that afterwards. Run! Run for the hills and don’t look back!

By 1975, The Glitter Band were already struggling to put their increasingly stale and tired glam-rock associations behind them, and to carve out a new musical niche. This is difficult to achieve when the word “Glitter” is actually embedded in the name of your band.

(Aside: just over a year later, the word “Glitter” was finally dropped altogether, as the act mutated into The G Band. At which point, the hits immediately dried up. Fame is indeed a fickle mistress.)

I therefore came to Goodbye My Love expecting turgid, re-heated slop; a limp fist half-heartedly punching the air; a reluctant, resentful “Hey!” forced out yet again. But my goodness me, what do I find but a plucky, spirited little pop-rock gem, with a particular cadence and a certain dynamic which now sounds astonishingly ahead of its time?

Spot question: Which major British rock act of the last fifteen years does Goodbye My Love remind you of? Come on: it can’t be just me who thinks this. This act has always worn its influences on its sleeve; curious that it should be so coy about admitting its debt to Gary Glitter’s backing band.

Second spot question, for trainspotters: There’s a major musical connection between The Glitter Band and one of the other acts in this year’s selection, upon whom you have already passed judgement. What’s the act, and what’s the connection?

My, but I’m yakking on this evening… and I haven’t even begun my learned treatise on Howard Jones, and my theories as to why he was so bitterly reviled at the time by all right-thinking Persons Of Taste And Discernment. Strewth, we’ll be here all night!

As quickly as I can, then. We hated Howard because he thought he was, like, really really deep and philosophical and stuff, and ooh I’m not like those shallow haircut bands, my stuff is about LIFE, whereas he was actually a peddler of embarassingly earnest greetings-card platitudes for stupid people in bad clothes who weren’t cool enough to appreciate, er, Prefab Sprout and Aztec Camera and Everything But The Girl, probably. Not that there was anything wrong per se with being deep and earnest and non-trivial and About Real Stuff: after all, this was a time when the Style Council, The Redskins and Billy Bragg could do no wrong. It was just the wrong kind of earnestness, that’s all. Oh, and he had a f***ing stupid hairdo like a cockatoo, smiled too much on kids’ telly programmes, named his album Humans Lib AARGH SPEW and performed with his own “interpretive dancer” HA HA HA PRAT PRAT PRAT.

…and exhale. So wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all take a fresh listen to poor old well-meaning Howard – who was only trying to do his best, and wasn’t there a virtue in his resolute normalcy, and almost wilful unhipness, and refusal to play the silly cool games of the day – and conclude that, just as with the Glitter Band, history had been jolly unfair and that actually his stuff was really rather good, and…

Nope. Tried to. Really tried to. But nope. I mean, cop a listen to this:

We’re not scared to lose it all
Security throw through the wall
Future dreams we have to realize
A thousand sceptic hands
Won’t keep us from the things we plan
Unless we’re clinging to the things we prize

Sorry Howard, but there’s just no excuse, is there? Look, I know you must have spent weeks of expensive studio time working on that tricksy jazz-funk instrumentation, obsessively fiddling around until every last little element shimmered and sparkled just so, with that Rock School/Hi-Fi Shop Demonstration CD sort of pristine cleanliness. But you can’t polish a turd, Howard. You just can’t. No hard feelings. I hope life is treating you well. Shall we move on?

The lone non-British performer in today’s selection, Ini Kamoze scored a US Number One with this track, before more or less disappearing without trace. People forget this, but in the early 1990s, there were quite a lot of commercial reggae hits in the UK charts: Inner Circle, Bitty McLean, Pato Banton, Snow, Chaka Demus & Pliers, and that’s just off the top of my head. Some of them (Informer, Tease Me) were great. This isn’t. It plods on and on, and it never gets anywhere in particular, and it always makes me feel restless and impatient for it to end, and it’s not even as if you could really call it “reggae” in the first place, and there’s all this stuff about being a “murderer”, which hardly sets a good example now does it, slippery slopes and all that, although it’s probably some patois term for “awfully good reggae singer” and I’m completely revealing my ignorance, and if you’ve been reading this while listening to the track on the MP3 then congratulations, it’s over now.

All of which leaves my favourite track in today’s selection, by the Doves. (Or is it just “Doves”? Doesn’t sound right either way.)

While I usually run a mile from Big And Important Standing On A Windswept Cliff In A Long Overcoat While Gazing Profoundly Into The Middle Distance Rock (hence my distaste for the second Interpol album and most of the recorded works of U2, but we’ll come back to them later), there has long been a place in my affections for (the?) Doves – especially for the glorious There Goes The Fear from a couple of years ago. Black And White Town is well up to scratch, and I bought their new album this lunchtime, and that’s all I have to say about it.

My votes: 1 – Doves. 2 – The Glitter Band. 3 – The Animals. 4 – Howard Jones. 5 – Ini Kamoze. As I managed to strap a reluctant K to a chair for six minutes this evening, his votes are in the comments box.

Over to you. The 1980s maintain their lead, the 1990s take a nasty tumble, the 2000s soar to unprecedented heights for this contest, and the 1960s fall even further behind. Could the Doves push the 2000s into the lead for the first time EVER in the three-year history of the contest? It’s all up to YOU…

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (5/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (4/10) – 2005 edition.

Three days down, and we’ve already had victories for three of our five decades: Helen Reddy for the 1970s, Prince for the 1980s, the Perfecto Allstarz for the 1990s. Meanwhile, it’s all looking a bit shit for last year’s winning decade, as the oh-God-not-ANOTHER-beat-group 1960s lag behind the pack with two losing songs out of three.

With a reminder to newcomers that late votes are still welcome, as some of the earlier positions are still running neck and neck (Alex Party vs Ciara, Perfecto Allstarz vs Chemical Brothers, Art Of Noise vs Ashanti), let us plough on with the Number Sevens.

1965: The Special Years – Val Doonican
1975: Shame Shame Shame – Shirley & Company
1985: A New England – Kirsty MacColl
1995: Run Away – MC Sar & the Real McCoy
2005: Angel Eyes – Raghav (featuring Jucxi & Frankey Maxx)
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Well, at least it’s not another beat group! If Nicki French was our favourite auntie, then smiling Val Doonican was our favourite uncle: a reassuring presence for many years on a host of light entertainment TV specials, with his rocking chair, his chunky-knit sweaters, and his deep, honeyed, mellifluous tones that put me in mind of an Irish Jim Reeves.

But oh, Uncle Val! How ever did you get away with this one? And if its shall-we-say dated sentiments are anything to go by, then is it any wonder that you were quietly dropped from the schedules all those years ago? And was The Special Years single-handedly responsible for the feminist movement of the 1970s, one wonders? Listen to this, pick yourself off the floor, and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Having bought my second-hand copy of Shirley And Company‘s Shame Shame Shame from John Harvey (the guy who wrote the Resnick novels), I then proceeded to plug it at every opportunity at my late 1980s club nights, turning it into one of my biggest guaranteed floor-fillers. (It mixed particularly well out of the rap in the middle of Prince’s Alphabet Street.) “Rare groove”, we called it – conveniently forgetting that this had been a Top Ten hit in its own right. Anyhow, my love for this tune runs so deep that all further objectivity is impossible. I expect a sea of first places for this one, please.

Except that you’ll probably all choose Kirsty MacColl‘s cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England instead. And who could blame you: it’s flawless stuff, the pop equivalent of a 1960s kitchen sink drama, with an understated literacy that has all but disappeared from today’s… but no, I’m not going to fall into that easy Grumpy Old Man trap. Nevertheless, the nostalgic pull of this song, and all that it represents, is almost enough to make me physically ache with longing for what has been lost. Dearie me, what a cliché. But I am old, and frail, and sentimental, and you must not begrudge me my memories.

There are no such issues at stake with MC Sar & the Real McCoy‘s workmanlike slab of Euro-dance-pop by numbers, over which it is perhaps best to quickly pass. Goodness, did we ever stop dancing in 1995? I thought this was the Age of Britpop! How selectively do we remember.

If anyone would like to mount an objective, non-ironic defence of Run Away, based on its intrinsic artistic merits, then I would be fascinated to hear it. Because by my reckoning, this is the first out-and-out Total Stinker of this year’s selection. Even Johnny Wakelin had a certain charm about it; this just sounds designed by committee, in order to fulfil some obscure EC quality directive.

And finally… if it’s another record with a simple repeated melodic figure running all the way through it, then it must be the 2000s! But that’s as pungent a criticism as I can make of Raghav and his chums’ splendidly frisky piece of New Asian Undergr… oh, I can’t bluff you, for I have no idea what “scene” spawned Angel Eyes. I am simply grateful for its presence.

Indeed, over the last two or three days, I have become a little obsessed with its presence. Earworm of the moment. Who knows, I might even go out and buy it (and the Ashanti single, for that matter). On any other day, this could easily have been my first choice. However, in the face of the BOO-HOO-HOO-HOW-I-WEEP-FOR-MY-LOST-YOUTH-ness of Kirsty and Shirley (*), it will have to settle for third.

(*) Is it just me, or is does Shirley’s voice put anyone else in mind of Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters? OK, so it’s just me then…

My votes: 1 – Shirley & Company. 2 – Kirsty MacColl. 3 – Raghav (featuring Jucxi & Frankey Maxx). 4 – Val Doonican. 5 – MC Sar & the Real McCoy.

Over to you. Will Kirsty push the 1980s ever further forward, or will smiling Uncle Val lead a surprise resurgence for the 1960s? Please leave your votes in the comments box.

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (4/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (3/10) – 2005 edition.

I note with interest that a fair number of regular readers de-lurked yesterday, to say something along the lines of “Happy birthday, but the music’s sh*te so I shan’t be voting”. Which surprises me, as – so far at least – we’ve had some unusually strong selections to choose from, with at least something to recommend every single track. (Yes, even Johnny Wakelin. Well, just about.)

That pattern continues today, with what to my mind is another wholly reasonable and respectable selection of chart goodies. Why, there’s even a bit of a forgotten classic amongst them. Wheel ’em out! It’s the Number Eights!

1965: Come Tomorrow – Manfred Mann
1975: Angie Baby – Helen Reddy
1985: Close (To The Edit) – Art Of Noise
1995: Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Nicki French
2005: Only U – Ashanti
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Another day, another beat group. Was nothing else going on in 1965 at all? Never having heard it before, I was surprised by the old-school staidness of this track, from the normally more bluesy Manfred Mann. Strip away the veneer of modernity, and what you’re left with is essentially re-heated cabaret: a corny old belter, of the tried and trusted “starts off dead quiet, then gradually builds up to a shattering fortissimo” school. You could easily imagine a Dorothy Squires or a Shirley Bassey getting their chops around this one. Which wouldn’t bother me, except that I’m not sure that the combination works at all well. That clunking rhyme in the first verse doesn’t help matters much, either.

With Helen Reddy‘s stunning piece of subversive MOR – brooding, menacing, allusive – the limitations of my five-minute-medley format become all too apparent. To do this song justice, you really do have to listen all the way through, building a picture in your mind of the disturbed girl and the predatory boy who falls into her web. Here, I’ve picked out the pivotal central section, with its deft orchestral flourishes helping to build the mood; but do try and get your hands on the full version if you can. Deeply weird magic realism noir of the highest order.

At the back end of 1983, the Art Of Noise – led by prime pop strategists Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley and Paul Morley – released an extraordinary six-track EP called Into Battle With The Art Of Noise. Radical and ground-breaking, its lead track (Beat Box) became a major influence on the New York electro/hip-hop scene. Several samples from this EP, and the basic rhythm from Beat Box, are re-used on Close (To The Edit) – but in a fiddly, over-egged fashion which diminishes the original impact. The first was a cult club track, beloved of theorist intellectuals. The second was an overground pop smash, with a groovy state-of-the-art video that got everyone talking. But with twenty years of technological progress dividing us, what do we now make of this overtly self-conscious attempt to create something so NEW, so ADVANCED, so NOW?

What I make of it is this: that nothing dates quite so badly as the wilfully fashionable. Strip away the cleverness, the silly noises, the “ooh listen to what I can do with this button on my shiny new Fairlight” trickery, and what are you left with? A jaunty novelty jingle – but a curiously hollow, joyless, boastful one.

Matt black dreamhomes. Track lighting and chrome. Oversized red plastic framed glasses. Hello Tosh, gotta Toshiba? Betcha all the advertising execs loved this one.

I remember seeing the band being interviewed on The Tube, and showing off their expensive new kit to a decidedly suspicious and unimpressed Jools “real music” Holland. Get with the program, rockist, I sneered, sitting there in my student digs in my oversized plastic framed glasses, dreaming of smoked glass, chrome and lacquered black ash. In retrospect, I think he might have had a point after all.

“GOOD AFTERNOON BIRMINGHAM PRIDE! OO-WA OO-WA! ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME? We’ve got some great acts for you on the main stage later this evening! We’ve got the one and only, the fabulous Miss MARY KIANI! We’ve got the one and only, the fabulous Miss ANGIE BROWN! But now, will you put your hands together and welcome to the stage … THE one … THE only… the FABULOUS… MISS! NICKI! FREEEEENCH!!!!

“Hello BIRMINGHAM! It’s great to be here! All RIGHT! Let’s see those HANDS IN THE AIR! Bit more volume on the monitors please, Gary. All RIGHT! You might KNOW this one! If you DO, I wanna hear you all SINGING ALONG…!”

Ah, Nicki, Nicki, Nicki. You adorable old trouper, you. Like a favourite Auntie who’s sung a bit of cabaret, knows a few “theatricals”, and slips you a complicit wink at family weddings, our Nicki has been a constant presence on the British provincial gay scene over the years. And lo and behold! With this walloper of a Bonnie Tyler cover, she even fluked herself a massive international hit. Top Ten in America and everything! Our Nicki! Whoda thought it! She’s still big in South America, you know!

All of which means that I am prepared to exercise great leniency in the face of one glaring fact: that our Nicki doesn’t appear ever to have studied the lyrical content of Bonnie Tyler’s anguished lament, preferring instead to deliver it with a mile-wide “aren’t we having fun!” grin on her face. At all times. Even if the audience consists of six monged-out disco-bunnies, the barman and the cleaner. Now there’s professionalism for you. For yea, even as we speak, our Nicki will be heading up the motorway to Second Wednesday In The Month Homosexuals Night at Sticks Disco in Rotherham (second left past the bus station, NCP car park open till 2am, aromas reduced to four quid a bottle), there to gamely ply her trade, without even the merest shadow of doubt or despair crossing her beaming countenance. And somehow that cheers me.

(Footnote: it has been my life’s ambition to walk into the “dark room” of a gay club, to ease myself into the centre of the silent space, and to burst into a rendition of the key couplet from this song. Once upon a time there was light in my life; now there’s only love in the dark. Nothing I can do; a total eclipse of the heart. You know, just to freak the queens out good and proper. And you thought I was nice.)

There has been an unusually high level of stylistic consistency so far this year. Three beat groups for 1965; three dance tracks for 1995; and for 2005, three tracks with their roots in R&B/hip-hop music. (Or “urban”, if you will; I won’t, thanks all the same.) Up until now, I’ve never been that impressed with Ashanti – a bit formulaic, a bit also-ran – but with Only U, she has served up a stormer. There’s an intense, claustrophobic feel to this, as Ashanti confesses to being gripped by an erotic obsession that she can barely control. Dark, raw, edgy, brutal; like Art of Noise, this pushes at sonic boundaries, but unlike Art Of Noise, it does so with a purpose.

So what’s it to be? Reheated cabaret, subversive MOR, wacky noises, gay disco or R&B concrete? My votes: 1 – Helen Reddy. 2 – Ashanti. 3 – Art Of Noise. 4 – Nicki French. 5 – Manfred Mann.

Over to you. K is excused from voting on this round, as I didn’t get round to splicing the medley together until after he went to bed, and no-one wants gay disco over their cornflakes. Your mileage may vary.

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (3/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (2/10) – 2005 edition.

Crikey playmates, what a cracking start to the season! In not much more than 24 hours since I posted the first round, I’ve already processed 35 sets of votes, and harvested a bumper crop of comments. As a result, and because I actually have, like, work to do, we may once again have to fall short of the one-round-per-day ideal. However, I’ll do what I can to hurry things along, as last year’s season did end up dragging on for rather longer than I would have liked.

Voting on the Number 10s was also considerably enlivened by the Freaky Trigger/New York London Paris Munich Alex Party Needs YOU campaign, which sent The Voice Of Youth over here in their droves in order to bump up the scores for the much-beleaguered 1990s and 2000s. Not that any of this did much lasting damage to Prince and the Moody Blues, who maintained a steady first and second place throughout.

However, all of that could still change. Remember: voting stays open for all selections, right the way through to the end of the contest.

It’s getting late. It’s already my birthday (as of 14 minutes ago), and we 43 year olds need our sleep. So let’s put on our dancing shoes, and Flex! and Pump! to the decidely frisky sound of….The Number Nines.

1965: Funny How Love Can Be – The Ivy League
1975: Footsee – Wigan’s Chosen Few
1985: Nightshift – The Commodores
1995: Reach Up (Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag) – Perfecto Allstarz
2005: Galvanise – Chemical Brothers
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Part of me thinks that The Ivy League are merely peddling generic Merseybeat-by-numbers, of the sort I’ve heard a dozen times before. (Mostly in last year’s 1964 selection, it has to be said.) In a time where pop was evolving so fast, almost on a month-by-month basis, Funny How Love Can Be seems disappointingly static. Then another part of me spots the Searchers/Byrds Rickenbacker jingly-jangliness, and the West Coast harmonies, and the pre-echo of the Mamas and Papas, and thinks: nice. Then a third part of me says that’s all very well, but it’s still not much of a song though, is it? And so the internal debate rages on.

It says a lot about the economic impoverishment of the 1970s that its national fads and crazes should be equally shonky and low-rent. Pet rocks. CB radio. (Oh, how I remember my teenage step-sisters chatting up truckers in the sitting room, with everyone feeling obliged to use absurd phrases like “Yeah, four on that good buddy” where a simple “Yes” would have sufficed.) Water carbonation devices. Various contraptions involving spherical objects bashing into each other. A disco in Wigan. That’s how much fun we were all having.

I didn’t believe then, and I don’t believe now, that Footsee by Wigan’s Chosen Few was any sort of accurate representation of Northern Soul. It’s too brash, too chipper, with way too much “Seaside Special” forced jollity about it. The party noises in the background; the stridently dumb “la la las” that accompany parts of the main melody, using the same trick that was deployed by the Cliff Adams or Mike Sammes Singers on Music For Pleasure party medleys. No – this reeks of the quick buck cash-in job. And yet it still has that relentlessly surging and all-enveloping joyful, participative quality, for which I have always been such a sucker. (As well as just as much recording-levels-too-high distortion on the MP3 as there was on my original 7-inch; so that was deliberate, then?)

Once again, I find myself conflicted. If only we could have been judging Footsee‘s B-side instead: a bona fide Northern Soul classic by Chuck Wood called Seven Days Too Long, as covered five years later by Dexys Midnight Runners on the Searching For The Young Soul Rebels album. But we’re not.

The conflict continues with The Commodores, and their tribute to the then recently deceased Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. (A subsequent reggae cover by Winston Groovy also added Bob Marley to the list.) On the one hand, it’s gloopy greetings-card drivel of the lowest order. On the other hand, there’s this lovely, delicate, softly pattering undertow, which constantly threatens to burst into full-on widescreen joyousness (rather in the manner of former member Lionel Richie’s All Night Long), but which never quite gets there, thus delivering one long tease throughout. And then there are the memories: of my second ever DJ set, down at the Marcus Garvey centre with Dymbel, where I played this off a cassette of the Radio One Top 40 show, and all the medical students danced. (How the hell we ever managed to blag our way into such a huge venue, I’ll never know. I mean, Faithless played there! Carl Cox DJ-ed there! What were we doing?!)

The situation gets no less problematic with nascent “superstar DJ” Paul Oakenfold’s cover version of Pigbag’s 1981/82 hit, recorded under the alias of the Perfecto Allstarz. An avid club-goer at the time, I just couldn’t see the point of this record. Pigbag’s original had hung around for so long in the early 1980s – it was an indie hit for a good year or so before it hit the official singles chart – that I ended up becoming totally sick of it, and not even a 13 year gap could change that. Besides which, it added little of substance to the original, wasn’t played in any of the places I went dancing, wasn’t at all representative of club music of the time, and wasn’t even representative of the then all-conquering Perfecto label, or of Oakenfold’s DJ-ing style.

(Say what you like about the arrogant monster that “Oakey” became in the late 1990s, but his set at Birmingham’s Steering Wheel club, one Saturday night in the spring of 1995, remains one of my peak clubbing memories of all time. Just go and ask Chig about the moment he dropped Jam & Spoon’s Odyssey To Anoonya.)

Listening to Reach Up ten years later, I find myself warming to it a good deal more. Pointless cover version or not, it just works. The driving percussion is spot on; the brass is tight and punchy; the organ break adds something new; and I can even handle the utterly of-its-time standard-issue 1990s disco diva wailing. Big up to the man like Oakey!

More than any of the preceding four songs, I wanted to like the Chemical Brothers the best. One of the last surviving big dance acts of the late 1990s, they just keep steaming along like an admirably anachronistic juggernaut, doing their own thing and refusing to bend with the prevailing climate. And now they’ve roped in Q-Tip from my old favourites A Tribe Called Quest, and brought in some Middle Eastern samples à la Britney, and really it should all work on paper, except…

…well, it’s a bit dull, really. Come on, admit it. There’s just over a minute on this medley, and your attention’s already wandering, isn’t it? I said ISN’T IT? HELLO? WAKE UP! IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!

Yeah, well. K and I both thought this was one of the toughest ever selections to rank, and (unlike yesterday’s Number 10s), I have no idea how the voting is going to pan out for this one.

My votes: 1 – Perfecto Allstarz. 2 – Wigan’s Chosen Few. 3 – Commodores. 4 – Chemical Brothers. 5. Ivy League.

Over to you. Please leave your votes in the comments box. IT’S MY BIRTHDAY! Time for bed. Nighty night, Troubled Diva Pop Panel!

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (2/10) – 2005 edition.”

Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (1/10) – 2005 edition.

Back for the third year running, and restored to its rightful time-slot (the week of my birthday), it’s the Daddy of all the Troubled Diva “interactive” blog stunts: the Which Decade is Tops for Pops? project. I know! I know! Contain yourselves, do!

For those of you who weren’t around last year or the year before: the concept is simple, and yet surprisingly difficult to explain in a nutshell. But basically, it goes like this. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be examining the Top 10 UK singles chart for this week in 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2005, and voting to decide which of the five decades truly is… Tops for Pops.

(Last year, the 1960s won by a comfortable margin. In 2003, the 1970s narrowly beat the 1980s, after a nail-bitingly tense tie-break round. This year, I’m cautiously predicting that we’ll have a different winner. But then, I am historically crap at making predictions, and you lot are historically hard to predict.)

In order to do this, we’ll be voting on five records each day, starting with the singles that were at Number Ten in each year, and working through the positions until we reach the Number Ones on the last day. Each day, I’ll provide a short MP3 medley, containing about a minute or so from each of the five songs. Your job is to place the five songs into order, and leave to your votes in the relevant comments box.

When voting, you have to place all five songs in order, with no omissions and no tied positions. Even if you think they’re all irredeemable crap. (This happens more often than you might think.)

You are also encouraged to make any comments you wish about each song, although this is far from mandatory. I’ll be appending the most quote-worthy of these comments to the end of each post on the main page, so that we end up with a kind of amalgamated Juke Box Jury vox-pop mélange of opinion. Or something.

Votes are then accumulated for each song, with cumulative scores aggregated for each decade, using the old “5 points for 1st place, 1 point for last place” system. Each day, I’ll be posting the running totals for each decade, so that you can track the ebb and flow of their fortunes as the project runs on.

Please bear in mind that voting stays open for all the selections, right through to the last day. So if you miss a day or two, there’s still time to catch up.

Right then: let’s bring on our first contestants. Number Tens, will you come on down!

(Be warned that I do tend to get a bit demented-game-show-host about all of this. A whiff of Davina McCall, a whisper of Hughie Green, a dash of Richard Whiteley, and a thimble-full of Les Dennis. It’s the frustrated presenter in me, you see: the Generation Game came along at a formative age.)

1965: Go Now – The Moody Blues.
1975: Black Superman (Muhammad Ali) – Johnny Wakelin.
1985: 1999/Little Red Corvette – Prince.
1995: Don’t Give Me Your Life – Alex Party.
2005: Goodies – Ciara featuring Petey Pablo.
Listen to a short medley of all five six songs.

Just as last year’s 1964 selection was dominated by the newly emergent orthodoxy of the Beat Group, so the trend continues into 1965, with British all-male guitar bands still well to the fore. Go Now was the first hit for the Moody Blues, as well as being their only Number One. Featuring Denny Laine (later of Wings) on lead vocals, it bears scant resemblance to the ooh-isn’t-life-deep, what’s-it-all-about-then portentousness of their “classic period” (as ushered in by future members Justin Hayward and John Lodge), being more of a straightforward blues-based ballad. Growing up, I never cared for this much – too glum, too drizzly – but listening to it again, I am obliged to concede its undeniable merits.

(I am also struck by the similarity in timbre between Denny Laine’s opening “We already said”, and the mystery vocalist on those privately pressed acetates which might or might not be undiscovered Beatles rarities, which I wrote about last June. Since Brian Epstein later managed the Moody Blues, and Denny Laine went on to join Wings, there are certain connections to be made. Take another read of the post (I’ve also re-activated the MP3), and tell me what you think.)

Recent Googling tells me that Johnny Wakelin was a jobbing cabaret singer from the South Coast, who finally struck it lucky after many years of thankless toil (he was 37 when this hit the charts) with this decidedly opportunistic novelty tribute to the never-more-massive boxing superstar Muhammad Ali. With its jaunty end-of-Brighton-pier cod reggae, its use of Ali’s newly minted catchphrase (“floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee”) in the chorus, and even some way-ahead-of-its-time proto-rapping in the verses (forget your Kurtis Blows and your Sugarhills: hip-hop started here!), this has got the lot. (Unless you include lasting musical merit, but then I’m sure that was hardly ever the point.)

It was also a surprise to discover that, despite what sounds to me like an almost embarrassingly clunking and unsophisticated “ITV Light Entertainment” parochialism, Black Superman reached Number One in Australia, and spent six months in the US charts. That’s what being topical could do for you in the 1970s. As for Wakelin, his only other brush with the UK singles charts came eighteen months later, with In Zaire: a topical novelty hit about – you guessed it – Muhammad Ali. Again. And which of us can truly blame him?

By February 1985, Prince had hit his commercial peak. With Purple Rain still selling well, this double A-sided reissue of two singles from his previous album was a well-aimed ploy to boost sales of his back catalogue. Three months later, with expectations running high, the comparatively abstruse neo-psychedelia of the Around The World In A Day threw a bold curveball, sending large sections of Prince’s mainstream rock audience packing and yielding three notably (and progressively) smaller hits. “He’s gone barmy! He’s lost it!”, they cried. How wrong they were. The creative peaks of Parade and Sign “O” The Times were yet to come.

At the end of 2004, freed from all the standard restrictions of major label recording/publishing deals, and operating with more or less total artistic freedom, Prince topped Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the highest earning acts of the year, ahead of Madonna and Elton John. Not bad going for someone who had been regularly written off as a spent force over the previous fifteen years.

K’s first comment on hearing Alex Party’s insistent little euro-handbag confection: “This reminds me of lycra crop tops.” To which I’d add: silver trousers, fluffy bras, and button-down Ralph Lauren checked shirts, untucked and hanging down to the knees like a salwar kameez. You had to be there.

This hasn’t worn too well. Indeed, I’m even quite surprised to find it in my CD singles collection, filed away on the top shelf in the spare room between Alcatraz and Alizée. I guess it was bought as an instant-access memory jogger, to remind me of amiably interchangeable lager-n-whizz fuelled nights of boozin-n-cruisin down Nero’s club on St. James’ Street. Yeah, you had to be there.

Which leaves the stripped down, sultry, sexy R&B/hip-hop/can-we-say-crunk? of Ciara and Petey Pablo. Like Usher’s Yeah from last year, there’s a nagging electronic noise running all the way through the track, which will either entrance or torture you. (Actually, it reminds me of Maceo & The Macks’ rare groove classic Cross The Tracks.) Lazy-ass musical illiteracy, or bold less-is-more radicalism? For me, it’s firmly the latter: this joint is smoking, as I believe the youngsters would have it.

A relatively strong opening to this year’s jamboree, then. My votes: 1 – Prince. 2 – Ciara. 3 – Moody Blues. 4 – Alex Party. 5 – Johnny Wakelin. As ever, K’s votes are in the comments.

(He tried to resist, but I was having none of it. They’ll all be asking what happened to you, I nagged. I’ll never live it down, I pleaded. It’s nearly my birthday, I whimpered.)

Over to you. Let the game commence! Please leave your votes in the comments box below.

Continue reading “Which Decade is Tops for Pops? (1/10) – 2005 edition.”