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.”