Which decade is Tops for Pops? – THE WINNER.

1st place – The 1970s. (38 points)

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

10: Dat – Pluto Shervington. 1st place.
9: We Do It – R & J Stone. 3rd place.
8: Love Machine – The Miracles. 2nd place.
7: Convoy – C.W. McCall. 3rd place.
6: Love To Love You Baby – Donna Summer. 2nd place.
5: Mamma Mia – Abba. 1st place, most popular.
4: Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto De Aranjuez – Manuel & His Music Of The Mountains. 4th place, least popular.
3: I Love To Love – Tina Charles. 2nd place.
2: Forever And Ever – Slik. 2nd place.
1: December 1963 (Oh What A Night) – Four Seasons. 2nd place.

slkmdgRight from Day One, when Pluto Shervington’s “Dat” took the lead, there was never any real doubt as to which decade would be this year’s winner. Throughout all ten rounds of voting, the 1970s remained ahead, earning them the highest score of any decade in any of our four years to date. Despite fielding only two winners, from Pluto and Abba, only one song from 1976 finished below third, with five songs finishing second. That’s what we call conclusive.

But before this all started, did we think that naff old 1976 had it in them to win? After all, approved rock history tells us that these were the dark days before punk rock came along and Saved Music. Or something.

Interestingly, there isn’t a single record in this top ten which could be said to belong to the “rock” tradition, however tangentially. This is pop all the way, with the odd foray into light soul, reggae, disco, country & western and easy listening. The only faint hints of “rebellion” come from Pluto’s taboo-breaking meat-related purchase, and CW McCall’s “bear”-dodging escapades on the Great American Highway.

As a lad, I remember an NME singles review column from round about this time, bearing the headline “Don’t Look Now, But You’re Living In A Golden Age”, which went on to make specific mention of several of the songs in this list. At the time, it seemed like a decidedly questionable proposition. But in these newly liberated, post-Guilty Pleasures days, it would seem that the dear old “rockist” NME showed remarkable presience.

The Top Ten and the Bottom Five.

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

1. 19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones.
2. Mamma Mia – Abba.
3. These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra.
4. Borderline – Madonna.
5. Chain Reaction – Diana Ross.
6. Slight Return – The Bluetones.
7. Dat – Pluto Shervington.
8. Keep On Running – Spencer Davis Group.
9. You Got The Love (New Voyager Mix) – The Source featuring Candi Staton.
10. Spanish Flea – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.

46. Anything – 3T.
47. That’s My Goal – Shayne Ward.
48. Thunder In My Heart Again – Meck featuring Leo Sayer.
49. Burning Heart – Survivor
50. Open Arms – Mariah Carey.

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

1 (2=) The 1970s – 135 points.
2 (2=) The 1960s – 134 points.
3 (1) The 1980s – 132 points.
4 (4) The 2000s – 101 points.
5 (5) The 1990s – 99 points.

It’s still neck and neck at the top, with the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s regularly swapping positions. Next February, we start all over again – with what I must warn you is a truly shocking selection of ropey old toss.

No, I can hardly wait either! Thanks to all who particpated. It’s been a blast.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

2nd place – The 1960s. (37 points)

2005: 2nd place, 33 points.
2004: 1st place, 36 points.
2003: 3rd place, 28 points.

10: Mirror Mirror – Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours. 3rd place.
9: Tomorrow – Sandie Shaw. 4th place.
8: Keep On Running – Spencer Davis Group. 1st place.
7: Love’s Just A Broken Heart – Cilla Black. 2nd place.
6: A Groovy Kind Of Love – The Mindbenders. 3rd place.
5: Michelle – The Overlanders. 5th place, least popular.
4: Spanish Flea – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. 2nd place.
3: You Were On My Mind – Crispian St Peters. 1st place.
2: 19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones. 1st place, most popular.
1: These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra. 1st place.

cstpFor a year which is commonly held to contain some of the most ground-breaking pop music of the last half-century, our 1966 selection looks a tad under-baked. Here are Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours and The Mindbenders, trotting out the same sort of neat-n-tidy neo-Merseybeat that has been regularly charting since 1963. Here are Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, delivering the sort of MOR ballads that would sit easily amongst the TV light entertainment shows of the day. Here’s Herb Alpert, standing right outside the prevailing pop/rock/r&b fashions with his cheesy MOR. And here are The Overlanders, pointlessly carbon-copying one of the Beatles’ sappier numbers for a quick buck.

However, the remaining four singles in our top ten do contain music that was, in some way, pushing against genre restrictions and moving things forward. There has never been an easy-listening standard quite like the gleefully perverse “These Boots Are Made For Walking” – a song which is custom-made for the epithet “kinky”. Crispian St Peters, though destined only to enjoy two UK hit singles, messes with the Roy Orbison/Everly Brothers template to agreeable effect. The Spencer Davis Group are helping to define a grittier r&b-influenced rock sound – and the Rolling Stones are right out there, rising further above the herd with every new release, and giving establishment Middle England the heebie-jeebies good and proper.

After floundering about for a bit, the top three brought the 1960s to an almost triumphant conclusion in our voting, shortening a six-point gap between winner and runner-up to a difference of just one point. That’s not bad going for a forty-year-old. But really, this year’s winner was never in any doubt…

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

3rd place – The 1980s. (33 points)

2005: 1st place, 34 points.
2004: 3rd place, 30 points.
2003: 2nd place, 35 points.

10: The Captain Of Her Heart – Double. 2nd place.
9: Living In America – James Brown. 2nd place.
8: Burning Heart – Survivor. 5th place, least popular.
7: System Addict – Five Star. 4th place.
6: Borderline – Madonna. 1st place, most popular.
5: How Will I Know – Whitney Houston. 3rd place.
4: Chain Reaction – Diana Ross. 1st place.
3: Eloise – The Damned. 3rd place.
2: Starting Together – Su Pollard. 3rd place.
1: When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going – Billy Ocean. 3rd place.

mblineIn contrast with the hapless, harshly judged 1990s, the decade of Big Hair, upturned collars, rolled-up jacket sleeves and saxophone solos has lucked out big time this year. Is this decidedly motley Top 10 from February 1986 really worth 12 more points than its nearest rival for third position? Did Double’s weedy synth-pop and James Brown’s over-produced ersatz funk really deserve to come second? Did Whitney’s unexceptional dance/pop and The Damned’s slightly desperate, give-us-a-hit-at-all-costs cover version really deserve to come third? And as for Batty But Loveable Su Pollard finishing any higher than fifth… HELLO, what were you thinking?

So maybe the 1980s have benefitted from the luck of the draw this time. Nevertheless, in amongst all the dodgy (and remarkably similar) spray-on gloss effect production jobs lurked the odd gem or two. Madonna’s “Borderline”, Diana Ross’s “Chain Reaction”… and OK, maybe even Billy Ocean’s “When The Going Gets Tough” is ripe for re-habilitation, Guilty Pleasures style.

Still, however you look at it, February 1986 really wasn’t one of pop’s finest hours. Little did we know that a whole clutch of era-defining moments were just around the corner: Prince’s “Kiss”, Cameo’s “Word Up”, Run DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”, the renaissance of post-electro hip-hop as spearheaded by LL Cool J and Def Jam records, the dawn of DJ/sampling culture, and the emergence over the summer of Chicago house music. For me and for many other pissed-off music fans, 1986 was the year of The Rebirth Of The Groove. It’s just that, looking at this little list, you wouldn’t quite have known it yet.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

With apologies for the continued delay. We were out looking at prize poultry at the Manifold Valley Agricultural Show – don’t scoff, the poultry was STUNNING – and then Clare Boob Pencil popped round for tea (and stayed for sardines). You know how it goes.

Equal 4th place – The 1990s. (21 points)

2005: 5th place, 26 points.
2004: 4th place, 27 points.
2003: 5th place, 25 points.

10: I Wanna Be A Hippy – Technohead. 5th place.
9: Slight Return – The Bluetones. 1st place, most popular.
8: Children – Robert Miles. 3rd place.
7: Do U Still – East 17. 5th place.
6: Open Arms – Mariah Carey. 5th place, least popular.
5: One Of Us – Joan Osborne. 4th place.
4: Lifted – The Lighthouse Family. 3rd place.
3: I Got 5 On It – Luniz. 5th place.
2: Anything – 3T. 5th place.
1: Spaceman – Babylon Zoo. 4th place.

jmannbzooSharing its disgrace with the 2000s, this year sees the overall lowest scores awarded to any of our decades to date – and by quite some distance at that. (Previously, the lowest score ever awarded was 25 points.)

Despite a promising start, with decent placings for The Bluetones and Robert Miles, the 1990s quickly tanked, with 50% of our selection finishing in last place. And yet, running my eye down the 1996 top ten, it looks on the face of it like a perfectly reasonable, diverse and representative selection, with Britpop, dance, soul, hip-hop, rock and pure pop all rubbing shoulders.

Maybe 1996 just got unlucky, slammed into the lower positions by an unusually strong showing from the earlier decades. In particular, Robert Miles, Joan Osborne and Luniz seem to have suffered from this, with all three picking up plenty of favourable comments along the way. And I’d also put a good word in for Technohead’s novelty toytown rave, and the Lighthouse Family’s thoroughly pleasant MOR soul. In fact, I own a whopping 60% of the 1996 top ten on CD single, and have happy memories and associations with all of them.

Nevertheless, this is a truly dismal result for the 1990s, which opens up an unprecedented 12 point gap between third and fourth places – a gap which has always existed between the oldest three and the youngest two decades, but which this year has become a yawning chasm.

Which decade is Tops for Pops? – the results.

Equal 4th place – The 2000s. (21 points)

2005: 4th place, 27 points.
2004: 5th place, 26 points.
2003: 4th place, 27 points.

10: That’s My Goal – Shayne Ward. 5th place.
9: Say Say Say (Waiting 4 U) – Hi_Tack. 5th place.
8: Sugar We’re Goin’ Down – Fall Out Boy. 4th place.
7: You Got The Love (New Voyager mix) – The Source featuring Candi Staton. 1st place, most popular.
6: Check On It – Beyonce featuring Slim Thug. 4th place.
5: All Time Love – Will Young. 2nd place.
4: Run It – Chris Brown featuring Juelz Santana. 5th place.
3: Boys Will Be Boys – The Ordinary Boys. 4th place.
2: Nasty Girl – Notorious BIG featuring Diddy, Nelly, Jagged Edge & Avery Storm. 4th place.
1: Thunder In My Heart Again – Meck featuring Leo Sayer. 5th place, least popular.

swardlwalshWith each passing year, as humiliation upon humiliation is heaped upon the beleaguered 2000s, so my desire to see them do well increases. It’s the usual Support The Underdog syndrome, in other words. But how can you help a decade which so steadfastly refuses to help itself?

Despite having disqualified one single from this year’s 2006 top ten (Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”) on the grounds that it was a straight re-release (and substituting the record at Number 11, Will Young’s “All Time Love”), our top ten is still riddled with re-mixes, re-makes and re-hashes. Hi_Tack and Meck have slapped perfunctory dance beats and hackneyed sound effects on top of a couple of quote-unquote “forgotten classics”. An old Candi Staton vocal from 1986 gets re-issued for the third time, with yet another backing track. A rapper who has been dead for 9 years is milked for cash yet again, surrounded by as many hangers-on – sorry, sincere admirers and upholders of his legacy – as could fit in the studio. And even one of the few original compositions is a re-release from June 2005, hyped up on the back of the singer’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.

Of the acts that remain, one is another direct product of Reality TV (Shayne Ward, the recent winner of X Factor), and another (Will Young) owes his inital exposure to winning Pop Idol. Which leaves two US R&B acts (complete with their now obligatory second fiddles in the “featuring who?” slots) and one young British indie band. Hardly a vintage selection, in other words – and containing precious little that could be held to encapsulate the best of contemporary pop.

And didn’t this just show up in your votes! Only two songs (“You Got The Love” and “All Time Love”) placed inside their respective top twos, and the remaining eight all songs placed either fourth or fifth. Is this mere generational bias (after all, the Troubled Diva readership is a tad light on Yer Actual Young People these days) – or, four years into our survey, is the consistently low placing of the 2000s an indicator of a harsh objective truth?

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Ones.

OK, I have kept you waiting long enough. With victory for the 1970s looking increasingly likely, this is the last chance for our four other decades to make their mark. All rise please! It’s the Number Ones!

1966: These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra.
1976: December 1963 (Oh What A Night) – Four Seasons.
1986: When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going – Billy Ocean.
1996: Spaceman – Babylon Zoo.
2006: Thunder In My Heart Again – Meck featuring Leo Sayer.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Some time in the spring of 1966, my parents threw a party. In the course of this, they somehow acquired a small collection of 45rpm singles, probably brought along by one of the guests. As my parents had only minimal interest in pop music, these 45s remained the mainstay of the family singles collection for several years afterwards. I must have played them many dozens of times over the next few years, A-sides and B-sides both, before commencing my own collection in the early 1970s.

The full list of singles from spring 1966 was as follows:

  • Homeward Bound/The Leaves That Are Green – Simon & Garfunkel.
  • Substitute/Waltz For A Pig – The Who.
  • Wild Thing – The Troggs.
  • Hold Tight – Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch.
  • I Don’t Want You/Ball And Chain – The Anteeks.
  • These Boots Are Made For Walking/The City Never Sleeps At Night – Nancy Sinatra.

No prizes for guessing which single was my favourite. “These Boots Are Made For Walking” was sassy, provocative, and faintly perverse – even to a four year old. It also sounded like no other record I had ever heard: those weird descending chromatics on the bass, for instance, matched by Nancy’s downwardly drawled “walk all over you” at the end of the chorus. This is a song which has never quite gone away over the past 40 years, its singularity rendering it impervious to the vagaries of fashion. In other words: a classic.

(So much so, that the song even resisted my attempts to massacre it a couple of weeks ago, down at karaoke night at The Foresters. Oh yes. As if one humiliation hadn’t been enough…)

And speaking of classics, and of songs which have never gone away: there is something about the arrangement of the Four Seasons’ “December 1963” which is just… perfect. Every little contributory element of the song’s irresistable groove is somehow weighted to precisely the right degree, maximising pleasure levels throughout, and turning what might have been a slight and rather corny little number about losing one’s virginity into something far greater than the sum of its parts.

(Full disclosure time: the boy I loved bought a copy of this, on the same afternoon that I bought my copy, so we ended up with two copies in the school common room. Such telepathy! We were meant to be together! It was a sign!)

By the spring of 1986, I was rapidly losing any last vestiges of interest in guitar bands, with the exception of The Smiths, REM and the Jesus And Mary Chain. The ground-breaking thrills of post-punk had atrophied into the weedy, wilfully under-achieving new orthodoxies of “indie”, as encapsulated in the wildly overrated C86 cassette that was issued, manifesto-style, by the NME.

Instead, my affections had transferred themselves to the alternative canon of soul/funk: from the classics of the 1960s and 1970s to the latest 12″ imports, including the new genres of hip-hop, Washington DC go-go – and, within a few months, Chicago house music. And my my, what a snobby purist I was already becoming, policing my genres of choice in much the same way that I had insisted on “real” punk during 1976 and 1977.

So, just as I had derided the Boomtown Rats for not being properly punk enough in 1977/78, I was now doing the same with Billy Ocean, and the suspiciously poppified pseudo-funk of “When The Going Gets Tough”. Where everyone else saw a catchy-as-hell slice of pure, participative fun – for this was a song which dared you not to sing along with it – I saw nothing but naffness.

How wrong I was, and how great this is – transcending even the same synthetic 1980s production job which has blighted most of 1986 over the past two weeks. And thank heavens that I have learnt to transcend such pointless snobberies in the meantime.

None of which is to say that I’m prepared to find any value in Babylon Zoo’s irredeemably gruesome “Spaceman”: a jingle from a jeans ad, which brought accidental and strictly fleeting glory to its creator, a boggle-eyed loon in silver trousers called Jas Mann. This sort of thing used to happen quite regularly in the 1990s. (Anyone remember Stiltskin? Robin Beck? Freakpower?) At least in our media-fragmented, de-centralised 2000s, it takes more than a thirty second jeans ad to get a single in the charts.

On the other hand… at least in the 1990s, it took more than slapping a dance beat over an second-rate old disco record to get a single in the charts. Step forward, Meck featuring Leo Sayer, and their graceless re-working of Sayer’s “forgotten classic” Thunder In My Heart. (Ever get the feeling we’re running short on forgotten classics?) Because obviously, what Thunder In My Heart needed all along was one of those bits where everything goes muffled like a wonky old cassette tape, WHY do people persist on doing this in the middle of dance tracks, WHY WHY WHY?

And there you have it: our final selection for this year, complete with yet another tell-tale gap in quality between our three oldest and our two youngest decades. 1990s and 2000s: you’ve let yourselves down again. With the best will in the world, there’s not much we can do to help you, if you can’t help yourselves. Tsk.

My votes: Nancy Sinatra – 5 points. Four Seasons – 4 points. Billy Ocean – 3 points. Meck featuring Leo Sayer – 2 points. Babylon Zoo – 1 point.

Over to you, for one last time. Voting will remain open for all ten selections, until I say “stop”. Which will be some time towards the middle of next week. So if you want to play catch-up, then now’s your chance.

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Ones.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Twos.

Once again – and this happens every year – there is still plenty of jockeying for position going on across the board, as a steady flow of late votes continues to trickle in. As various songs quietly swap places further down the page, this has a knock-on effect on the cumulative scores for each decade. So, if you’re late to the party, then be assured that late votes can still make a difference.

As I write this, the Spencer Davis Group and the Miracles are battling it out for first place among the Number 8s, with the lead regularly swapping – and the same holds true for the Cilla Black/Candi Staton bitchfest in the Number 7s. Meanwhile, Crispian St Peters is only just ahead of Tina Charles in yesterday’s Number 3s. It’s so exciting! But wait, there’s more! It’s the Number Twos!

1966: 19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones.
1976: Forever And Ever – Slik.
1986: Starting Together – Su Pollard.
1996: Anything – 3T.
2006: Nasty Girl – Notorious BIG featuring Diddy, Nelly, Jagged Edge & Avery Storm.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

A few days ago, some of you confidently predicted that there wouldn’t be a better song this year than Abba’s “Mamma Mia”. Well, here’s your challenge, right here, right now.

This classic number from the Rolling Stones represented a quantum leap forward from the beefed-up R&B of the band’s earlier hits, ushering in a darker, more menacing, more confrontational attitude. As a result, “19th Nervous Breakdown” broke their run of five consecutive Number Ones, and kicked off a sequence of six “dark period” hits, ending with the incandescent “Jumping Jack Flash” just over two years later. It’s about now that Mick Jagger became the British establishment’s premier whipping boy – indeed, I remember genuinely believing that he was the most evil man in the country, thanks to the sustained outrage of my parents and grandparents. Listening to this track, you can still see why the Stones must have seemed such a threat.

But how do you compare a swaggering rock workout like this to the intricately crafted pop of “Mamma Mia”? Both convey a certain sense of accusation – but where the one shakes its fist, the other merely wags its fingers. So which is the greater record? Which moves you the most? Are you Rock or are you Pop? Which SIDE are you on?

Ah, it’s the age old question – and one which I prefer to side-step, having a foot in both camps. However, of one thing I am certain: that there will be a string of 5 points for the Stones. Maybe even our first ever 100% score, who knows. Because, yeesh, have you seen the state of the competition?

Slik – featuring a fresh-faced Midge Ure on lead vocals, before he graduated into Pop’s Mister Worthy And Dull (sorry, but all the Live Aids in the world won’t excuse him ruining Ultravox) – were being heavily promoted as The New Bay City Rollers, with the tartan swapped for bowling shirts, and the cheesy grins swapped for “mean and moody” poses which generally included chewing on matchsticks. (Grr!) Other than that, both bands were Scottish, and both used the services of the same songwriting/production partnership.

Not that you can tell this at the beginning of “Forever And Ever”, which is impressively weird for a teen group, all monk-like chanting and, erm, clanging chimes of doom. But just as you’re thinking “You know, I could quite get into this”, the whole track lurches into a godwaful chunka-chunka-chunka satin-scarf-waving limp-wristed (sorry) Thing Of Complete Hideousness, which has NOTHING to do with what has come before it. 5 points for the verse, but 1 point for the chorus. I’m seeing a string of second places. Unless… unless…

“Can I do yer chalet?” Rejoice, rejoice, IT’S SU POLLARD, HERE TO SAVE THE EIGHTIES!

(In fact, so eager was Su to do her duty, that she barged in ahead of Slik on the MP3 medley. An unstoppable force, that’s our Su.)

I’ve written about “Starting Together” before, you know. But to recap: it was the theme tune from a BBC documentary series about a young couple getting married. This was particularly memorable for its video, in which Su, looking fetching in a furry white winter cap with matching pom-poms, indulged in a playful snowball fight in the woods with said young marrieds.

OK, so it’s shit. But at least it’s entertaining shit, unlike…

3T, who were benefitting from heavy attention due to being Michael Jackson’s nephews. Tito’s sons, weren’t they? Three of them, right? Hence the awful name 3T, which makes them sound like a bunch of straight-to-cabaret no-hopers off The X Factor.

I can’t stand “Anything”. Really, really can’t stand it. Worst record we’ve had so far. Hell, even Mariah Carey was good for a snooty giggle for a couple of seconds. This is just… ugh. And, especially given their pedigree, it’s disgracefully badly sung. Adenoidal, that’s the word. But, oh, just wait till we get to the witless necrophiliac slobberings of the collected might of (deep breath)…

Notorious BIG featuring Diddy, Nelly, Jagged Edge & Avery Storm. One has been dead since 1997, and the rest are a bunch of vultures crowded round the still profitable cadaver, and dribbling mildly offensive pre-pubescent inanities all over it. Putrid stuff, which tempts me to re-activate my inner Unreconstructed 1980s Gender Politics Warrior… but maybe not, maybe not.

Nevertheless, at least “Nasty Girl” is built around a cute and catchy 1980s soul/funk retro backing, the niftiness of which lifts it up to third place in my voting. Sorry, Su. Fair’s fair. Luvya loadz.

My votes: Rolling Stones – 5 points. Slik – 4 points. Notorious BIG – 3 points. Su Pollard – 2 points. 3T – 1 point.

Over to you. Come on, it’s the Stones all the way, isn’t it? So perhaps the real battle is for last place. It’s gonna be tough!

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Twos.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Threes.

Right then. You can either have thoughtful and well-researched analysis of the next five songs, but wait an extra day for the post to appear – or else you can have an ultra-quick off-the-top-of-my-head scribble on each one, and have the post appear today.

The latter it’s to be then. Will the Number Threes please present themselves.

1966: You Were On My Mind – Crispian St Peters.
1976: I Love To Love – Tina Charles.
1986: Eloise – The Damned.
1996: I Got 5 On It – Luniz.
2006: Boys Will Be Boys – The Ordinary Boys.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Of these five, the fluffy pop-disco of Tina Charles inevitably has the strongest nostalgic emotional pull. Not only did I enjoy it at the time, but a slightly naff late 1980s remix (with added stuttering vocal samples and extra WOO!-ing) was one of the staples of my dancefloor, back in my DJ-ing days. (Guilty Pleasures? We were doing Guilty Pleasures back while you were still feeling guilty about them.)

However, I did ask you to be objective. So, not wanting to be hypocritical, today’s five points will be going to Crispian St Peters. Like the Cilla Black song, this is another “builder” – which continues building after the MP3 medley cuts off – but unlike Cilla, there’s still a degree of restraint here. Great tune, great execution, and it shows the likes of the Mindbenders up good and proper.

I keep forgetting about original punk rockers The Damned‘s run of hits from 1985 to 1987, when they were at their most consistently commercially successful. Perhaps that’s because I had long since fallen out of love with them, and couldn’t connect the watered down poppier approach of the new line-up with the demented full-on glories of the old. “Eloise” – by far and away their biggest hit – is a cover of a 1968 hit by Barry Ryan, which is regrettably unknown to me. The mot juste is “episodic” – and there’s nowt wrong with “episodic”. However, I still can’t get beyond that mid-1980s production job, which has afflicted all of the 1986 hits we have listened to so far, to a greater or lesser extent. The Damned and weedy synths? Does not compute.

I think the Luniz might just be rapping about DRUGZ, hyurk hyurk. Yes, I rather think that they are. Hip-hop’s best known spliff-heads Cypress Hill are referenced in the lyric, which immediately sets up unfortunate comparisons: Cypress Hill did this sort of thing so much better, before they went all stadium rock and lost the plot. Still, at least this isn’t as bad as Afroman’s frightful ode to the weed, “Because I Got High”, and I quite like the drawled, fuggy menace of it all .

So, what’s your position on ska-revival-revivalism, as catapulted back into the charts on the back of the lead singer’s credibility-jettisoning appearance on Celebrity Big Brother? I saw the Ordinary Boys perform this live a couple of years ago, with Preston’s lead vocals replaced by a surprise guest appearance from the DJ/comedian Phil Jupitus, and I remember thinking: blimey, best lead vocals we’ve had all night. It’s OK, but it’s slight. Trouble is: they’re reviving “Baggy Trousers” period Madness, and I never did care much for “Baggy Trousers”.

My votes: Crispian St Peters – 5 points. Tina Charles – 4 points. Ordinary Boys – 3 points. Luniz – 2 points. The Damned – 1 point.

Over to you. Will Tina Charles keep the 1970s soaring ever further into the lead, or will Crispian St Peters lead a rear-guard action for the 1960s? Could The Ordinary Boys give the 2000s a much-needed shot in the arm? Are you finally ready to embrace hip-hop? And will you judge The Damned’s cover as harshly as you judged The Overlanders?

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Threes.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Fours.

As usually happens by this stage in the proceedings, a clear gap has opened up in the voting, placing the three oldest decades well ahead of the two youngest. In order to stay in the game, both the 1990s and the 2000s urgently need to start fielding some of their biggest hitters.

Let’s see what they’ve come up with, then. Wheel ’em out – it’s the Number Fours.

1966: Spanish Flea – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.
1976: Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto De Aranjuez – Manuel & His Music Of The Mountains.
1986: Chain Reaction – Diana Ross.
1996: Lifted – The Lighthouse Family.
2006: Run It – Chris Brown featuring Juelz Santana.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Hmm. Well. Now look here, 1990s and 2000s: is this the best you can offer? Tepid MOR coffee-table soul and bog standard production-line R&B? You disappoint me, you really do.

But first, it’s another of the 1966 singles which I remember hearing at the time. In fact, today’s offering from Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass is so deeply embedded into my musical consciousness, that I find myself quite unable to imagine what it would be like to hear it for the first time. For such a light-hearted and arguably slight piece, it evokes extraordinarily powerful memories of my childhood – but all of them are happy ones. My father had Alpert’s Going Places album on 8-track cartridge, and used to play it in the car on the 12-mile school run, back and forth on the A1(M) to Doncaster. As with the soundtrack to The Sound Of Music, and a compilation of Andy Williams’ greatest hits, I know every note backwards.

My chief memory of this unlikely hit from Manuel & His Music Of The Mountains (a pseudonym for the Geoff Love Orchestra) concerns a particularly rubbish dance routine by Pan’s People on the late lamented Top Of The Pops. This was one of those weeks where you suspected they only had half a day to rehearse the thing – and by gum, did it ever show up in the ropey dancing, which consisted of an awful lot of rolling around in the floor, in long skirts with multi-coloured plastic balls attached to them. It was great fun to see these balls accidentally detach themselves, and roll around all over the stage – and so much fun, that it quite distracted you from the ghastly turgidity of the track itself. It’s the echo on the string section which freaks me out the most: like muzak for those who are waiting to die. Why, I can almost smell the lavender air-freshener, unsuccessfully masking the acrid smell of…

Well, yes. Moving on! Back in 1986, K and I lurved the video for Diana Ross‘s “Chain Reaction”, which seemed to be constantly on the telly. The Dynasty-esque fab frocks alone! That bit where the Four Tops/Miracles/Pips backing singers open their mouths, and the voices of the chuffing Bee Gees come out! We even used to go into a little Northern Queen comedy routine: “Shiz a fookin STAR, and noa-bodeh, NOA-BODEH, can take that away from her!” Happy days in the matt black dreamhome…

When the Guilty Pleasures crew eventually turn their attention to the 1990s, I wonder whether they’ll attempt to rehabilitate The Lighthouse Family? Because, if truth be told, I have a slight sentimental soft spot for “Lifted” – re-issued from 1995, and now giving them their first major hit. (And as for the Francois K remix of 1998’s “High”, which soundtracked the night when… oh, but you don’t want to hear about that.) Yes, it’s all very M People – but that’s not always a bad thing. Um, is it?

Linked via a bit of synchronised beat-mixing, just to keep the party pumping, Chris Brown uses the same tempo, but to very different effect. I started off hating “Run It”: for a quote-unquote “club jam”, it seemed to posit such a harsh, stark, bloodless, sweatless, joyless party. Since then, the track has grown on me: as a study in rhythmic interplay and sonic mood, it is not without merit.

“But it’s just noise, not music! Anyone could do that! And they all sound the same!”

Oh, just listen to yourselves. We said we’d never, didn’t we?

My votes: Herb Alpert – 5 points. Diana Ross – 4 points. Chris Brown – 3 points. Lighthouse Family – 2 points. Manuel & His Music Of The Mountains – 1 point.

Over to you. Chris Brown excepted, this isn’t exactly our most cutting-edge, sound-of-the-street selection. So which old fogey floats your boat?

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Fours.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Fives.

Yesterday evening, BBC2 screened the last ever edition of Top Of The Pops, a programme whose whole raison d’etre was to reflect the state of the current UK singles charts. Without wishing to get into the chicken-and-egg whys and wherefores of the situation (or else we’d be here all day), it is fair to say that as the British public’s general interest in keeping up with Top Of The Pops has declined, so has their interest in following the UK singles chart. Coupled with the decline (both in quality and significance) of Radio One’s weekly Top 40 countdown, and the scarcity of other opportunities for singles-based acts to perform on terrestrial TV, the whole notion of deriving any measure of continuing significance from the UK singles charts is looking increasingly quaint and dated.

Here on dear old Troubled Diva, where “quaint” and “dated” are far from dirty words, we plough on regardless of this Major Cultural Paradigm Shift. Here on dear old Troubled Diva, where The Charts Will Always Matter (and that’s a pledge), let us turn our minds instead to happier matters. It’s the Number Fives!

1966: Michelle – The Overlanders.
1976: Mamma Mia – Abba.
1986: How Will I Know – Whitney Houston.
1996: One Of Us – Joan Osborne.
2006: All Time Love – Will Young.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

As well as marking my fourth birthday, February 1966 also marks the first time that the hits of the day started registering in my mind, and taking up residency in my long-term memory. Only “She Loves You” by The Beatles pre-dates this; my parents had it on a 45rpm single, and my father would sometimes get me to dance to it, vigorously shaking my non-existent “mop top” from side to side as I did so.

This cover of The Beatles’ “Michelle” by one-hit-wonders The Overlanders is the first single in our 1966 Top Ten which I recognise from back then – and it won’t be the last, either. I can remember singing along to it on the radio, probably encouraged to do so on account of the French portions of the lyric, as we would have had a French au pair staying with us at around that time. (Hence also my early familiarity with the nursery rhymes “Frere Jacques” and “Au Clair De La Lune”.)

As I didn’t properly encounter the original verson for a few more years to come, The Overlanders’ version is, for me, the definitive one. OK, so it’s more or less a straight note-for-note copy, no doubt conceived for the purpose of a quick cash-in – but we four-year-olds were never too hung up on “rockist” notions of “authenticity”.

However, now that I am forty-four, and possessed of a more sophisticated set of critical faculties (oh yes), I find myself having difficulties in evaluating this song. Do I mark it up for being a delightfully catchy and memorable little love song, or I mark it down for being an unimaginative carbon copy? What a conundrum, readers!

In the case of Abba‘s “Mamma Mia”, a different problem raises its head: namely, that it is almost impossible to say anything usefully informative or thought-provoking about such a well-worn classic. Because we all love Abba, don’t we?

Or are we sick of them yet? Niftily constructed and immaculately performed as it is, has continued exposure to this song (hell, they even made a musical out of it) dimmed our enthusiasm? Could we happily never hear it again? And even if that’s the case, then doesn’t “Mamma Mia” still deserve the string of maximum points which I’m expecting it to pick up?

Whitney Houston‘s second ever UK hit is one of those tunes which I’ve always enjoyed, but never quite loved. For me, it has always stood slightly in the shadow of Aretha Franklin’s stylistically similar “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” – a hit from only a month or so earlier, which shared the same producer (Narada Michael Walden). Nevertheless, this is good, solid stuff, which thankfully hasn’t yet been buggered around with by some clueless, witless dance act (although you sense its time will surely come).

Update: As Adrian‘s girlfriend rightly points out, “How Will I Know” has already been sampled, on LMC vs U2’s 2004 Number One hit “Take Me To The Clouds Above” (yes, the very same line). I stand corrected.

More conflicted emotions in the case of Joan Osborne, whose “One Of Us” is as palpably ridiculous as it is horribly enjoyable. Listening to it again for the first time in years, I got the giggles good and proper. Why did I buy it when it came out? What were we all thinking? What was Prince thinking, when he covered it a year later on the Emancipation album? But then again, this was a time when we thought that Alanis Morissette was an Important New Voice, that Tony Blair was a dynamic and progressive new force in British politics, and that Gary Barlow would enjoy the biggest solo success after the demise of Take That. Strange days indeed.

Hey, does anyone still remember Shayne Ward? You know, the one who won that TV talent show thingy? The one we were talking about this time last week? No? Anyone?

How very different from the continuing success of that other TV talent show survivor, the ever-likeable Will Young, who must now be fast approaching the status of Untouchable National Treasure. “All Time Love”, while admittedly slushy in the extreme, benefits from a essentially touching sincerity in its performance which poor young Master Ward has shown no signs of being capable of approaching. Honestly, this one makes me go right gooey inside! I must be getting soft in my old age.

My votes: Abba – 5 points. Will Young – 4 points. Whitney Houston – 3 points. Joan Osborne – 2 points. The Overlanders – 1 point.

A tough selection, this one – as I can happily live with all five of today’s songs, and how often can you say that?

Over to you. What’s your stance on Beatles cover versions? Has your Abba love withstood all the over-exposure? Does Whitney make you shimmy? Does Joan Osborne, like, make you really think about, like God and stuff? Or does dear old lovelorn Will make you want to knit him a nice boyfriend? Gosh, I can hardly wait to find out.

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Fives.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sixes.

You might snort at this, but I reckon that this year’s bunch of contenders have been our strongest selection to date. Particularly when compared to the horrors which I have in store for you next year; I sneaked a peek at the Top 10s for mid-February in 1967/1977/1987/1997, and I’m telling you: it ain’t pretty.

So, settle back and enjoy this comparative Golden Age while it lasts, as we wheel out the Number Sixes.

1966: A Groovy Kind Of Love – The Mindbenders.
1976: Love To Love You Baby – Donna Summer.
1986: Borderline – Madonna.
1996: Open Arms – Mariah Carey.
2006: Check On It – Beyonce featuring Slim Thug.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Hah! Battle of the divas, or what? The Mindbenders aside, this pits arguably the most iconic of each decade’s female pop performers against each other. How fabulously representative!

I’ve got to be quick today, so shall have to trust you to form your own judgements (the arrogance!) without much further in the way of introductory nudging. But I will say this much at least:

The Mindbenders: Plodding, clunking and astonishingly primitive, as if mankind were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of songwriting and performing. It’s the cack-handed lack of flow which gets me about this. Well, that and the rubbish rhymes.

Donna Summer: All that pseudo-orgasmic moaning (OR WAS IT?) was so shocking for its time, but now it just sounds kinda kitsch, in a Mayfair/Penthouse period softcore way. However, it’s the essentially teasing, tickling nature of the track which gives it its true eroticism: all foreplay and no climax. (K said that he kept expecting the track to “start properly”.)

Madonna: One of my all-time Top Five Madgetrax, although it belongs more to the spring of 1984 for me. In a word: breezy.

Mariah Carey: Like a parody of everything that’s ridiculous about her grim power ballads. JUST STICK TO THE F**KING TUNE, CAN’T YOU? But then again, the void at the heart of “Open Arms” is precisely its lack of melody, and hence of any discernible direction. What’s left is mere twittering blather. (K said that it sounds like the sort of music that people play to show off their new hi-fi systems.)

Beyonce: Passing quickly over the dubious merits of Slim Thug’s contribution, what I like about this is its almost clockwork herky-jerkiness, which suits Beyonce’s not-quite-human-ness rather well. (Have you ever seen a photo of her that hasn’t been digitally enhanced, or heard her sing without the benefit of similar audio-airbrushing?) I imagine her twitching around to this like a pneumatic, silken-coated wind-up toy. Your fantasies may vary.

My votes: Madonna – 5 points. Donna Summer – 4 points. Beyonce – 3 points. The Mindbenders – 2 points. Mariah Carey – 1 point.

Over to you. Which diva rocks your world, or has your mind been sufficiently “bent” by yet more latter-day Merseybeat? Vote now!

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sixes.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sevens.

Yeesh, this heat. The fabled Long Hot Summer of 1976 has had nothing on the past couple of weeks. Which Decade Is Tops For Hots? No contest, mate.

K and I have taken to commuting from the cottage, which was built to cope with such extremes of temperature. Thick walls and small windows retain the warmth in the winter, and shut out the worst of the heat of the summer. Plus we have the use of the PDMG, which has reached maturity in its fourth year, and so has never looked better.

In stark contrast, our pressure cooker of a house in Nottingham has been rendered more or less uninhabitable. Yesterday evening, we lasted less than five minutes indoors, before grabbing some clean socks and pants, and heading for the A52.

Of course, the price to be paid for all this is the 50 minute drive there and back each day. But even that’s not without its benefits: the sweet relief of the in-car air-conditioning, and the fact that K is a captive audience for the Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? project. Our respective votes have been surprisingly at variance with each other this year – until today’s selection, which sees us more or less ad idem.

Will our unanimity prove to be universal? Well, let’s find out! Here come the Number Sevens!

1966: Love’s Just A Broken Heart – Cilla Black.
1976: Convoy – C.W. McCall.
1986: System Addict – Five Star.
1996: Do U Still – East 17.
2006: You Got The Love (New Voyager mix) – The Source featuring Candi Staton.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

In a break with tradition, I have let Cilla Black‘s section of the medley run on for much longer than usual, as a mere minute’s worth couldn’t possibly do justice to its gob-smacking over-the-topness. No, really, this is extraordinary. Each time that you think that the arrangement has reached saturation point, somebody cranks it up yet another notch, until you find yourself wanting to scream: “She’s already on full throttle, you fools! She can’t take any more pressure! She’s gonna BLOW, do you hear?”

I’ve said this before somewhere, but my God, the fads of the 1970s were weird at times. ClackersPet rocks. And Citizen’s Band Radio, or CB for short, with its ridculous slang: “Four on that, good buddy. What’s your twenty?”

Ever the craze-jumper (he was possibly the first person ever to send marketing spam out via Prestel, and I HELPED HIM DO IT, oh the SHAME), my father soon had a CB kit installed in the drawing room at home – only to lose interest in it after the first week, thus giving my step-sisters unfettered access to chat up truckers during the school holidays. (These days, there would be a public outcry.)

Anyway. Strange as it may seem today, the concept of lorry drivers talking to each other via interactive radio sets seemed deeply glamorous and progressive in February 1976, when C.W. McCall enthralled us all with his hillbilly proto-rap “Convoy”. Who could forget the tale of Big Ben, his “good buddy” Rubber Duck, and the “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse micro-bus”? Why, they even made a film out of the song, starring sexy ole Kris Kristofferson. (Not to mention – and really, we mustn’tthe parody record “Convoy GB” by Laurie Lingo & The Dipsticks, which went Top Five in April 1976.) Truly, the past is another country.

Turning once again to February 1986, I find myself increasingly staggered at what a truly SHIT time for pop music this was – as exemplified by the distressing success of the joyless, lifeless, characterless bunch of performing androids known as Five Star. Hearing “System Addict” again, I am transported back to the first job I had after graduating, at a small software house on the edge of town – where I spent a year or so festering in quiet desperation, unable to comprehend that my university education had fetched me up in such dismal, alienating, intellect-free, and okay okay I admit it I admit it, un-cool surroundings.

A couple of desks away from me, the company’s sales guy spent many an afternoon cold-calling, trying to build on our impressive track record of supplying Bespoke Software Solutions to, inter alia, Western Europe’s largest manufacturer of nightie cases, and a factory in Long Eaton which made nothing but knicker elastic. When he wasn’t getting shitty with random P.A.’s who wouldn’t put him through to the managing director (honestly, the man’s telephone manner was appalling), the sales guy liked to sing to himself – invariably homing in on the one record in the current Top 40 which irritated me the most.

The sales guy loved “System Addict”. Because, you know, it was obviously about us, the IT professionals – hell, it was Our Anthem! After all, weren’t we all System Addicts ourselves, merrily bashing out our BASIC stock control packages on our dinky little networked micro-computers?

Twenty years on, this song still makes me shudder to my core. Which probably says more about me than it does about Five Star.

East 17, then – and I can hear your sighs from here. Oh God, lowest common denominator manufactured pop, yadda yadda yadda. Well, think again – because “Do U Still” really ain’t too shonky. It’s a close cousin of East 17’s other great pop/rap moment, “Deep” – leery, grimy, and yet sporting some rather fetching ensemble vocal work. East 17 were like the Take That who you could actually imagine having a quick-and-dirty shag with (probably down the alley behind the chip shop) and it’s their essential rough-arsedness which saves this track from production-line blandness.

I’ve wondered in previous years whether it is strictly fair to include re-issues in this survey, and there’s a strong argument which says I shouldn’t. Nevertheless, if a song is inside the Top Ten, then it can reasonably be said to represent the popular music of its time – and such is the case with the third re-issue of The Source featuring Candi Staton‘s “You Got The Love”.

This started life in 1986 as a fairly straightforward piece of cheerfully happy-clappy soul/gospel (I have the original 12-inch in the attic), before someone had the bright idea of slapping Candi Staton’s vocals over the instrumental track from Frankie Knuckles’ “Your Love” as a sort of early bootleg mash-up – thus bringing a whole new dimension to the original song, which shifted from major to minor and sounded a whole lot better for it. Result: a top ten hit in 1991.

Six years later, the “Now Voyager” mix, which plonked the same vocal over a brand new Massive Attack-esque trip hop backing track, took the song back into the top ten. This version returned to prominence in 2004, when it was played over the closing credits of the last ever episode of Sex And The City.

And then, for no reason that I know of, someone saw fit to re-jig the “Now Voyager” mix as the “New Voyager” mix (but so slightly that you can barely tell the difference), and to bung it out again in 2006. Based on their dismal peformance this week thus far, 2006 should be grateful for such small mercies – ‘cos this is GREAT.

My votes: The Source featuring Candi Staton – 5 points. Cilla Black – 4 points. C.W. McCall – 3 points. East 17 – 2 points. Five Star – 1 point.

Accumulating your votes from the first three days, the 1970s have taken an early lead, followed by an atypically strong showing from the 1990s. However, with the votes still open for all selections, anything could still happen.

Over to you. Have Cilla’s oxyacetalyne blowtorch pipes left scorch marks upon your soul? Does C.W. McCall make you feel like “chasing bear”, fer sure fer sure good buddy? Have Five Star got you tappity-tapping your keyboard in time with their futuristic rhythms? Or do you fancy a quicky knee-trembler with East 17? Or has Candi Staton got you all weepy as you recall the reunion of Carrie and Big, Oh My God like she SO deserved a little happiness in her life, and that Michael Barynshiwotsit was like SO OBVIOUSLY wrong for her? As “Dickie” from Big Brother 2006 might squeal: my box is all yours!

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Sevens.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Eights.

It’s not every day that you pop out for lunch and bump into the Prime Minister – but that’s exactly what happened to me today, in my endlessly exciting little life. Well, maybe “exactly” is the wrong word, as Tony Blair (for it was he) was safely behind a fairly sizeable security cordon, as he stepped out of Nottingham’s Albert Hall (no relation) and into a big black car, before speeding off up the Derby Road – passing a titchy clump of protesters with just the one banner between them.

(“Shame On You!”, it screeched, in big black marker pen, but it failed to be any more specific than that. Well, there’s so much to choose from.)

Down at my end of the patch, there were just a few mildly curious sandwich-munchers from Cast Deli at the Nottingham Playhouse, plus a few of the Playhouse staff. “Alright Tone!”, bellowed one wag, just as Blair came into view.

(Apparently, the wag has a blog – but he was coyly refusing to divulge its URL to his friends. Blog anonymity, how quaint!)

Being one of the respected elders of my community, I refrained from such puerile attention-grabbing. Instead, I inched a teensy bit closer to the crash barrier, and called out to the Dear Leader in my most authoritative yet respectful tone.

“Mr. Blair: as a keen musician yourself, would you care to give us your opinion on Day Three of the Troubled Diva Which Decade Is Tops For Pops Project? I have a medley of today’s tracks right here…”

As the Prime Minister turned to greet me, his teeth bared in a manner that bore the closest approximation to “welcoming” that a decade and a half of on-the-job media training would allow, I stretched out my hand and offered him my iPod, already queued up at the relevant MP3.

Blair’s grasp of digital media technology was little short of masterful. Why, he knew which buttons to press, and everything! Who says that today’s politicians are out of touch? Six minutes later, he removed the headphones and passed the device back to me, quickly patting his hair back into position with his free hand.

“Thanks Mike, that was great stuff. You know, the robust good health of the British popular music industry is one of our greatest success stories as a nation, and I want to pay tribute to that, here today in Nottingham…”

Tony Blair’s votes are in the comments box. And now it’s your turn! Because that’s Democracy! So pray be upstanding for… the Number Eights.

1966: Keep On Running – Spencer Davis Group.
1976: Love Machine – The Miracles.
1986: Burning Heart – Survivor.
1996: Children – Robert Miles.
2006: Sugar We’re Goin’ Down – Fall Out Boy.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Picture this: North Nottinghamshire, August 1973. An 11 year old boy called Michael, and his 9 year old sister, are home for the holidays. It is the Golden Summer of Glam Rock. Slade, T.Rex, The Sweet, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Wizzard and Mott The Hoople reign supreme. The children’s father has enlisted a “home help” called Ruby, to assist around the house now that their mother has left to re-marry. (She walked out at the end of July, and the children are still raw and numb from the shock.)

Ruby is 24, and jolly, and good fun to have around. She is also well into her music – but lacks some of the children’s enthusiasm for all things glittery. “This stuff is all very well,” she smiles, “but you need to hear some proper music. Have you ever heard the Spencer Davis Group? No? Really? OK, I’ll bring something in with me tomorrow.”

The next day, Ruby places her 45rpm copy of “Keep On Running” on the family stereo system. “I used to love this when it came out”, she enthuses. “Isn’t it great?”

Being a well brought-up little boy, Michael manages a polite response – but inwardly, he isn’t too impressed. To his ears, there is something dour, lumpy and colourless about “Keep On Running”. Despite its driving dance beat, it all sounds a bit too earnest, a bit too blokey, a bit too lacking in fun.

Thirty-three years later, Michael does not see much reason to change his opinion.

Compare and contrast with the zing and verve of the only UK hit which The Miracles enjoyed after splitting with Smokey Robinson. I am particularly struck with the way that the group aren’t shy of connecting with their feminine side, with gleeful falsetto punchlines such as “…and my indicator starts to glow, WOO!” Camp as hell – but playfully so, and without that any of that tediously heavy-handed nudge-and-a-wink mugging to camera that has become so prevalent in more recent times.

(Here, I must put in a quick word for another mid-1970s Miracles track which I have only just discovered, on a fascinating compilation assembled by the writer Jon Savage called Queer Noises 1961-1978: from the Closet to the Charts. The track is called “Ain’t Nobody Straight In L.A.”, and contains such breezily delivered lines as “Homosexuality, it’s a part of society; I guess that they need some more variety; freedom of expression, is really, the thing!” What a markedly different approach from the US R&B stars of today. It’s not all been progress, you know.)

There will be no such dangerous “touching base with our feminine side” malarky for the resolutely macho Survivor, hoping to reprise the massive success of “Eye Of The Tiger” (the theme tune from Rocky III) with the similarly anthemic hair-metal bombast of “Burning Heart” (the theme tune from, erm, Rocky IV). This is the one where Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky comes up against the might of the Soviet Union’s champ fighter Ivan Drago, played by blonde lunkhead Dolph “Not My Type” Lundgren. Yes, it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for the final days of the Cold War – a fact which is suitably reinforced in Survivor’s lyrics, should we somehow have failed to get the point.

Back then, at the height of my impeccably right-on phase, I hated “Burning Heart”. Listening to it again now, I find it almost quaint – indeed, almost camp in its overblown ludicrousness. Now, there’s a thing.

I have nothing but fondness for “Children” by Robert Miles: Italy’s trance/techno answer to Richard Clayderman. Sure, it inspired a thousand and one deeply rubbish “ambient trance” monstrosities (ATB’s “9pm (Till I Come)” springs immediately to mind) – but this was genuinely ground-breaking stuff for its day. I love the atmosphere which the track conjures up: of sweaty ravers emerging into the misty dawn, and sharing a “spiritual” moment as the sun rises over the fields. Or something.

Which isn’t so far from the truth, actually. A story went round at the time that “Children” had been specifically composed in order to ease over-excited (cough) Italian clubbers “down” at the end of the night, so that they would then drive safely home. Indeed, it was reported that Miles was the recipient of dozens of tear-streaked letters from grateful Italian mothers, thanking him for saving their children’s lives with his unique and innovative style of melodic trance music. And you wonder who were the ones taking drugs?

And finally, Fall Out Boy give it some NME-approved, MySpace-friendly, generic indie welly, with a song that bore the rare distinction of steadily climbing the singles chart week on week, just like proper hit singles used to do in the Olden Days. I’ve slowly been warming to his, having managed to overcome my initial antipathy to their chosen genre. For if nothing else, “Sugar We’re Goin’ Down” has a good deal more youthful spirit, and many more twists, turns and general points of interest, than that stodgy old “classic track” from the Spencer Davis Group. So there.

Bonus points also for the couplet “I’ll be your number one with a bullet/A loaded God complex, cock it and pull it.” Because it sounds a bit rude. (Cock! Pull! Arf!)

My votes: Robert Miles – 5 points. The Miracles – 4 points. Fall Out Boy – 3 points. Spencer Davis Group – 2 points. Survivor – 1 point.

So. Will Spencer Davis get you stomping, or will the Miracles get you swishing? Will you be beating your chest with Survivor, or taking a well-earned rest with Robert Miles? Or are you a Young Person, who thinks that Fall Out Boy represent the total artistic pinnacle of fifty accumulated years of rock history?

Over to you. The comments box is now open.

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Eights.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Nines.

Before we start: two important reminders.

1. Voting will remain open for all songs until the end of the fortnight, i.e. just before the final totals are tallied. So if you’re late to the party, or if you miss a few days and need to play catch-up, then sweat not.

2. When casting your votes, do try not to be swayed by nostalgia for your youth, or by familiarity with some songs over others. We’re looking for a reasonable degree of objectivity here – after all, this is AN IMPORTANT SOCIO-CULTURAL SURVEY, the results of which might have IMPORTANT IMPLICATIONS for the advancement of HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Oh yes. And anyway, if everyone keeps automatically voting for the 1970s and 1980s, it just gets boring, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, let us crack on with… the Number Nines.

1966: Tomorrow – Sandie Shaw.
1976: We Do It – R & J Stone.
1986: Living In America – James Brown.
1996: Slight Return – The Bluetones.
2006: Say Say Say (Waiting 4 U) – Hi_Tack.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

And straight away, I’m having the same difficulties wih Sandie Shaw as I did yesterday with Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours. “Tomorrow” has many admirable qualities – but nevertheless, it remains low on impact. Or, as we IT types would have it: stickiness. Or, as common parlance would have it: it goes in one ear and out the other. During the preparatory stages of the “project”, I have played this many times over – and yet, I don’t think I have ever managed to sustain full concentration throughout. What emotion is Sandie trying to convey here?

OK, look, I’ll give it one more shot. Bear with me as I stick my headphones on.

Ah. Got it. This is all about the apprehension of a cheating girlfriend, preparing herself to break things off with her hapless cheatee. Which could make for a gripping mini-drama, but there’s a prosaic flatness to the verses which doesn’t quite come off, despite all of Sandie’s best efforts. Still, nice triplets and all that.

“Tomorrow” was also Sandie’s sixth Top Ten hit in less than 18 months. However, her initial flush of success was about to come to an end. Following a #14 position with her next single, and two consecutive #32s with the two after that, there was nothing for it but to take a deep breath, hold her nose, and submit herself to the indignities of “Puppet On A String” – which gave her a third Number One, but also finished her off as a credible hit-making artiste. Cast in this light, maybe the weaknesses of “Tomorrow” showed the writing on the wall.

Oh Lord. Now, what was I just saying about maintaining objectivity? Because in the case of R & J Stone‘s syrupy yet soulful love duet, which I hadn’t heard for the thick end of thirty years, all my objectivity goes flying out of the window. Why? Because the boy I loved at the time – madly, yet hopelessly – loved this song, and bought a copy, and played it during morning break times on the gramophone in our school common room, and so hearing this all over again brought back such strong memories of the sweet yet searing pain which I felt so keenly, because of course we never “did” it, because I never dared make my feelings known, and so the song both reflected and mocked my overblown romantic idealism, and…

…and exhale. Oh dear. The thing is: after all the obvious hits of the time have been exhumed and re-played and re-purchased and downloaded onto your iPod, thus draining them of most of their personal resonance, then all you have left are the minor hits – and so it’s often the musical also-rans of any era which end up sabotaging the emotions in this way. Except, this doesn’t sound to me like an also-ran. On the contrary, it’s quite swoonsomely lovely and stirring, and deserves to be listened to in full. (Unfortunately, and scandalously, it doesn’t appear to be available on CD.)

Oh, and one other thing: in its day, “We Do It” was thought to be really rather scandalous and risqué – presumably because a 1970s Britain which had been weaned on the light comedic smut of Benny Hill and the Carry On team couldn’t quite cope with the profound erotic resonances of the expression “do it”. (“Every night, every day, every possible way”… oo-er missus.) In fact, I even remember a hand-wringing think-piece in the Daily Mail, which claimed that the UK singles charts were sinking into a mire of filth, on account of this song, “Squeeze Box” by The Who, and Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”. Well, honestly. Such innocent times.

I dare say that James Brown‘s “Living In America” will pick up a fair few votes – but for me, it has always been a bit of a dud. Yes, of course his 1960s and especially early-to-mid 1970s work was classic classic classic all the way, and of course it was good to have him back after so long – but, if you’re going to try to re-create your classic funky sound, then why employ Dan “Instant Bloody Replay” Hartman to do it for you? It just all sounds so air-brushed, so ersatz, so hollow – so typically bloody mid-1980s, in fact. But played on the tinny laptop speakers last night, with the nasty hi-gloss sheen all but obliterated, I have to confess it sounded OK. Which will be why my partner K gave it 5 points, while I only gave it 2.

Eek, more instant nostalgia: it’s Britpop’s fabulous Bluetones, with easily their finest hour. OK, so it’s three parts Stone Roses to three parts Lloyd Cole, sprinkled with a little bit of Aztec Camera’s “Oblivious”, with weedy vocals and inconsequentially lumbering lyrics, and who remembers the band’s three other Top Ten hits nowadays (Cut Some Rug? Marblehead Johnson? Solomon Bites The Worm? No, thought not) – but come on, this was their moment in the sun, and despite all the above: IT WORKS.

About the only positive thing you can say about Hi_Tack is that at least they had the good grace to take the piss out of themselves – for high tack this most certainly is. A bog-standard Ministry Of Sound Dance Anthems Part 94 club-throb backing is pasted beneath some samples of an old Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson hit which was never much cop in the first place, all of which provokes the simple reaction: why did they bother?

(Answer: for the same reason that they colluded in similar pointless “desecrations” of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” and “Message In A Bottle” by The Police.)

Googling tells me that the chaps behind Hi_Tack were also responsible for one of my all-time most loathed dance tracks: “The Launch”, by DJ Jean. (Don’t remember it? Lucky old you.) And that concludes the case for the prosecution.

My votes: R & J Stone – 5 points. Bluetones – 4 points. Sandie Shaw – 3 points. James Brown – 2 points. Hi_Tack – 1 point.

So. Will Sandie stir you? Will R & J Stone make you swoon? Will the Godfather Of Soul make you get up offa that thang? Will The Bluetones get you misty-eyed for the days of TFI Friday and your local indie disco? Or will – heaven forfend – Hi-Tack make you wish it was Friday night down your local Ritzys?

Over to you. Favourites first, least favourites last, comments welcome, you know the drill.

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Nines.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Tens.

Right then. I’ve been postponing this for long enough, so let’s lurch straight in with the minimum of preliminaries. Most of you will be familiar with the drill by now – but if you’ve not taken part in this exercise before, then skip down a couple of posts for a brief introduction. Everything else should become clear as the next couple of weeks roll on – but for now, all you really need to do is listen and vote.

First up, it’s the Number Tens. Have a listen to this eclectic bunch of more-or-less one hit wonders…

1966: Mirror Mirror – Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours.
1976: Dat – Pluto Shervington.
1986: The Captain Of Her Heart – Double.
1996: I Wanna Be A Hippy – Technohead.
2006: That’s My Goal – Shayne Ward.
Listen to a short medley of all five songs.

Crikey. We’re not exactly rolling out the big guns on Day One, are we? So who the hell are this bunch of also-rans, anyway?

All I can tell you about Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours is that they hailed from Rugby, that they “pioneered the use of the amplified auto-harp” (thank you Google), and that they never troubled the UK Top 40 again after this, their debut release. (Although they did hit the US Top 5 three years later, under their new name of The Flying Machine, with a song called “Smile A Little Smile For Me”.) “Mirror Mirror” comes across as an orchestrated version of Merseybeat, two years after the fact; it’s that particular early Sixties pop voice which is the giveaway here. It’s a pretty enough tune, but I can’t say that it moves me particularly one way or the other – it’s just sort of there.

Ah, now… I know loads about Pluto Shervington‘s “Dat”, having bought it at the time and played it dozens of times. Sung in full-on Jamaican patois over what was by then a rather dated “rock steady” beat, it tells the story of “Rasta Ossie from up the street”, who decides to be a very naughty boy indeed, and purchase some pork from his local butcher. The consumption of pork being taboo for those of the Rastafarian faith, this has to be done on the hush-hush, by referring to the meat simply by the agreed code word “dat”. In the chorus, you get to hear the butcher running through the meats which he has for sale (“You want goat?” “Try the beef!”), as Ossie comes up for transparently feeble excuses for rejecting each of them (“I no check for the grass were green”), before concluding “Hush your mouth, mind me brethren hear, sell I a pound of dat thing there”. Yup, it’s a satirical depiction of the breaking of religious taboos, which hit the UK Top 10 without noticeably offending anybody. Impossible to imagine these days, isn’t it?

Just as Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours picked up the fag end of Merseybeat without doing anything particularly interesting with it (groundbreaking amplified auto-harps notwithstanding), so the Swiss duo Double (pronounced Doo-ble, like yer actual French) picked up the fag-end of early 1980s synth-pop, augmenting it with a typically mid-1980s sax solo. Although I’ve not looked at the video (CBATYT already!), I would wager an educated guess that it features a) someone with Big Hair and his jacket sleeves rolled up, staring through a gap in his Venetian blinds at the sunlight outside his darkened room, and b) a champagne flute being knocked off a lacquered black ash coffee table, and shattering in slow motion.

I can still remember the first time I ever heard Technohead‘s “I Wanna Be A Hippy”. It was over a year earlier, on New Year’s Day 1995 to be precise, on the dancefloor of the mega-hardcore gay club FF, in the middle of a particularly brutal and uncompromising set of banging techno from Mrs Wood. As you might imagine, its absurdly bonkers cheeriness stood out a mile, particularly as the track featured – oh horror of horrors! – a full vocal. (Down at FF, we simply didn’t do vocals.) If you had told me then that it would end up being covered by The Smurfs, who took the song back up to Number 4 in September 1996 as “I’ve Got A Little Puppy”, I wouldn’t have believed you. (On the other hand, I was probably in such a messed-up state that I would have believed anything. “Oh my God The Smurfs that’s AMAAAAZING I LOVE THEM…”)

Which just leaves British reality TV’s most recently anointed “star”, Shayne Ward, and the song that he was given to record as a reward for winning ITV’s The X-Factor. As with all of these events, the words have been deliberately crafted to describe the very act of winning the TV competition itself. Just as Will Young sang “Gonna take this moment and make it last forever” (which he sort-of did), and just as Michelle McManus sang “I’m praying this moment’s here to stay” (which it most certainly wasn’t), so sweet, obedient little Shayne faced his adoring viewing public, and began with the lines “You know where I’ve come from, you know my story, you know why I’m standing here tonight”. Shayne’s first single peaked at #1, his second at #2… and his third, just a couple of weeks ago, at #14. We do, indeed, know his story.

My votes: Pluto Shervington – 5 points. Technohead – 4 points. Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours – 3 points. Double – 2 points (because an amplified auto-harp narrowly trounces a naff sax solo). Shayne Ward – 1 point. My partner K’s votes are in the comments.

Over to you. In the comments, please place these five songs in order of preference, starting with your favourite and working your way down. Remember: you must vote for every song, and no tied places are allowed – so there will be none of this lazy “I hate them all equally!” nonsense. Because even shite comes in several shades.

I’ll be back tomorrow with the Number Nines. Have fun!

Continue reading “Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4 – the Number Tens.”

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? – Year 4.

Postponed from February, but finally ready to roll: Part Four of our collaborative annual quest to establish the Greatest Decade For Pop Music Ever starts on Monday, right here on Troubled Diva.

As ever, we’ll be comparing the Top 10 UK singles from my birthday week (i.e. mid-February) through the past five decades, and voting for each decade in order of preference over a ten day period. On Monday, we’ll start by comparing the Number 10 singles from 2006, 1996, 1986, 1976 and 1966. On Tuesday, we’ll move onto the Number 9 singles, and so on until we reach the Number Ones.

All you’ll have to do each day is listen to a short medley of the five songs under review, place them in order of preference, and leave your votes (plus any supporting comments, should you so wish) in the comments box. I’ll be totting up the cumulative scores as we go along, using a simple system which should prove self-explanatory.

Ooh, can’t wait. Have a good weekend, and we shall re-convene on Monday. In the meantime, I shall endeavour to find something interesting to say about Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours, Pluto Shervington, Double, Technohead and, er, does anybody still remember Shayne Ward?