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.”

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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.”