446. ‘When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman’, by Dr. Hook

The pre-penultimate #1 of the decade, then. And what’s this…? More country and western?

When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman, by Dr. Hook (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 11th November – 2nd December 1979

At least this isn’t the abrasive, twanging, Lord-have-mercy country style brought to us by Lena Martell. It’s a much softer, disco-edged kind of country. A sort of pop-Eagles. Completely against the grain of what’s topped the charts for much of 1979, but perfectly pleasant.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, It’s hard… (You know it gets so hard…) Well, quite. Stop sniggering at the back, there! Innuendo aside, it’s an interesting concept for a song, and very ‘country’ in the way a good thing – being in love with a beautiful woman – is gleaned for negatives.

You can’t trust your friends around her, you see. You watch her eyes. You wonder who that was hanging up when you answered the phone… Everybody wants her, Everybody loves her, Everybody wants to take your baby home… I like the backing vocalists – You better watch your friends, Watch your friends… – that feel as if they’re whispering devils on the singer’s shoulder.

Actually, though, if you stop and think about it, it’s a little bit sinister. Your lover’s unfaithful, your friends are backstabbers, the world is out to burst your loved-up bubble… Maybe it’s just an ego problem… sing Dr Hook. Sounds like it, yup. It’s a bit of a study in fragile masculinity, really. What’s the solution? Only go for ugly girls…? Be less of a suspicious twat…?

However, it’s easy to ignore the creepy undertones, and to get swept away by this light, fun, fairly inconsequential chart-topper. Dr Hook had been around since the start of the decade, popping up in the charts at regular intervals, before achieving their one and only chart-topper. The band name came from the fact that singer Ray Sawyer wore an eye-patch following a car crash. (Hook – Captain Hook – pirates – eye-patches… get it?)

This was almost their chart swan song – they would have a couple more Top 10s before splitting up in the mid-eighties. And this is almost our seventies swan song: just two more chart-toppers before the decade is out…!

445. ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell

Oh, OK… Well, this is perfect. After all that blather in my last post about a new-wave, technicolour era, as we prepared to dive head first into the eighties… This comes along.

One Day at a Time, by Lena Martell (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 21st October – 11th November 1979

I had forgotten, you see, that the British nation has a weird obsession with country and western music. Had forgotten that in amongst the explosion of new sounds topping the charts during the last year or so, that actually the most consistent sound of the seventies has not been glam, or disco, punk or synth-pop… It’s been C & W. From the decade’s 2nd #1 ‘Wand’rin’ Star’, through Dawn, Tammy Wynette, J.J. Barrie (shudder) and Kenny Rogers… to this.

One day at a time, Sweet Jesus…! We’ve had sentimental country, country with lonesome men and stoic women, folks returnin’ from war, from jail… But until now, we had been spared this. Christian Country. Show me the stairway, I have to climb, Lord for my sake, Teach me to take, One day at a time… Lena is struggling in this modern world, so she looks above for guidance.

One thing I knew about Lena Martell is that she and I are compatriots. Yep, the steady stream of country hits in the UK was, for some reason, largely fuelled by us Scots. Something about their hard-drinkin’, rough-livin’ ways appeals to us… (no comment) Martell is the second Glaswegian to have a country #1, after Billy Connolly. And she does, to be fair to her, put on a good southern twang. But while Connolly’s ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ was a funny piss-take, ‘One Day at a Time’ is painfully earnest. Truth is, I am a sucker for this kind of country schmaltz. Musically, this is fine. If she were singing about her good for nuthin’, cheatin’ man, I’d be all in. Unfortunately, this record is lyrically rancid.

In the final verse, she goes full ‘Daily Mail’ comments-board. Oh Lord, she moans, what’s the world coming to? Well, Jesus you know, if you’re looking below, It’s worse now than then… Cheatin’ and stealin’, Violence and crime… I’m going to be careful here, as I don’t want to offend anyone’s beliefs… But I’m pretty sure even the good Lord above would have been offended by this crap.

‘One Day at a Time’ was originally released by a Marilyn Sellars in 1974, and has been recorded over 200 times… Mostly by country singers I’ve never heard of, though I see both Tennessee Ernie Ford and Brotherhood of Man have had a crack. Meanwhile, this disc gave Lena Martell her one and only chart hit. She did, though, have a long-running show on the BBC, sang with Frank Sinatra on her US tours, and was releasing country and religious albums well into the 2000s, until she retired following heart surgery.

Fair play to her, then, for having a career that many can only dream of. As for her chart-topping, one-hit-wonder moment in the sun, though… I think I can sum it up in two words: Sweet Jesus!

Remembering The Everly Brothers

I wasn’t going to mark the sad death of Don Everly on Saturday… because I was under the mistaken impression that his brother Phil was still with us. When I realised that Phil had died in 2014 it became clear that they needed a ‘Remembering’.

When you can count The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel among the many acts you’ve influenced, then you must have had something special going on. (Keith Richards called Don one of the finest ever rhythm guitarists, while John Lennon and Paul McCartney used to pull girls as teenagers by claiming that they were the ‘British Everly Brothers’.) Their country-ish harmonies were a huge part of the rock ‘n’ roll years – go on, listen to them combine on ‘Cathy’s Clown’ below! Being brothers was a blessing – those harmonies – and a curse – they spend decades not recording, or touring, or even talking to one another…

The duo scored four UK number ones between 1958-’61, and I won’t repeat myself by talking about them again. You can read the original posts here:

‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’

‘Cathy’s Clown’

‘Walk Right Back’ / ‘Ebony Eyes’

‘Temptation’

Here are some great, non-chart toppers from the brothers… (Because I’m hastily throwing this together, I won’t follow my usual rules of the songs having to have charted in the UK. Let’s be crazy for an evening!)

‘Bye Bye Love’, 1957

Chosen for self-indulgent reasons… This was one of the very first – and very few – songs I mastered on the keyboard as a child. A simple tune (that’s probably why it was book one, song one of ‘Keyboards for Dummies’) beautifully rendered.

Bird Dog’, 1958

The tale of Johnny: who is the funniest, cheekiest, coolest dude in school – making him a bird – but who is also hitting on the singer’s girl – thus a dog. I picked this over the pair’s other, more-famous tale of high school woe, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ (which is also great) because this one rocks just that bit more.

‘When Will I Be Loved’, 1960

Some good ol’ fashioned rockabilly. I love the heavy, deliberate guitars, and the insistent, almost tribal drums. They re-recorded it when they moved labels, to RCA, but the original was the one released. The newer version is bluesier – here’s a link.

‘Don’t Blame Me’, 1961

The Everlys loved a ballad… ‘Love Hurts’, ‘Let It Be Me’, ‘Crying in the Rain’… But I picked this cover of a ’30s standard for some of their greatest harmonies, the guitar work (not actually from Don or Phil, but Hank Garland), and the bridge where Don really lets loose…

‘I’m Not Angry’, 1962

Not a hit, I don’t think, coming at the end of their glory days. But how filthy and scratchy is the guitar here, in this tale of pettiness? The boys hope that the girl who just dumped them doesn’t get letters, or phone-calls, that her dress rips and her car won’t start, but they’re not angry… just sad. Whatever…

444. ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, by The Buggles

First up today, I’m going to christen 1979 as not only the best year of the decade for chart-topping singles, but also ‘The Year of the Piano Intro’. We’ve had Gloria Gaynor’s iconic flourish, The Boomtown Rats’ mini rock opera, and now this. A synth piano announcing that: this, this is going to be interesting…

Video Killed the Radio Star, by The Buggles (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 14th – 21st October 1979

I heard you on the wireless back in ’52… The singer reminisces about a simpler time, when music had a human touch. ‘Music was better in my day…’ Except, the twist is, this is a pretty avant-garde, electro-pop song. Exactly the type of music the lyrics complain about. Or are they complaining at all? Are they instead mocking people with nostalgic views on music…? Pictures came and broke my heart, Put the blame on VCR…

The lyrics, though, are not the first thing that slaps you around the chops when you hear this record. Like Tubeway Army, it is almost aggressive in its desire to sound like the future, though with a very different, perkier sound. I saw it described it as an ‘extended jingle’, which is pretty perfect. Even the two voices, a bubblegum girl and a morose lead, are filtered through various effects.

I like this, it’s fun, it’s a classic… But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a little showy. That some bits – the noodley synth flourishes and the aww-ah-oh fills – are a bit much. It took, apparently, three months to record and, again in another link to Tubeway Army, was inspired by a sci-fi story, this time by JG Ballard. Still, they reign it in for the iconic, driving chorus: Video killed the radio star… In my mind and in my car, We can’t rewind, We’ve gone too far… It’s a bit Queen, a bit Sparks, and more than a bit unique.

The Buggles were a duo, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. Horn in particular had been around the music biz for a while, producing jingles among other things. ‘Video Killed the Video Star’ was their first and by far their biggest hit, though they’re not quite one-hit wonders. Horn certainly isn’t, he was lead-singer of Yes for a year or so before becoming a full-time producer. His fingerprints will be on several future number ones, well into to the 2000s.

What many won’t know is that this wasn’t the first recording of ‘Video…’ Horn and Downes had originally written it with Bruce Wolley, who released a still-interesting but slightly more one-dimensional version in 1978. What many will know is that this was the very first record to be played on MTV, on 1st August 1981. Which is cute, I guess, but led me to believe for many years that this was the first ever music video (which is nonsense, they’ve been around since the ‘60s). It also led me to believe that this song had been released in the ‘80s. It seems a bit strange to me that a brand-new, impossibly modern channel like MTV would launch by playing a near two-year old song, regardless of the apt lyrics. But then again, the 6th video played on MTV was ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’, by Cliff Richard. Perhaps they weren’t going for ‘cutting edge’.

Finally, it’s worth noting that after decades of having to publish every one of my posts with those boring, stock-standard record-label sleeves… The age of the picture sleeve is upon us! Most of 1979’s chart-toppers seem to have had glossy (!), colourful (!) sleeves with pictures of the actual recording artists (!) Just like LPs! What on earth took them so long? While punk has to take the credit for the wild variety of sounds in this new-wave era; I’m giving disco, and the genre’s love for the 12” remix, the credit for sending pop music into technicolour. Just in time for a new decade…

443. ‘Message in a Bottle’, by The Police

The New Wave revolution takes another swerve. The Police score their first number one with some reggae-rock. (Not Ska, though. It is, apparently, very important not to call this Ska.)

Message in a Bottle, by The Police (their 1st of five #1s)

3 weeks, from 23rd September – 14th October 1979

Vocally, we also have another interesting fusion: Geordie-Jamaican. It’s Sting, of course, really laying it on thick in the verses. Just a castaway, On an island lost at sea, Oh… (The rhyming of ‘sea, oh’ with ‘me, oh’ and I can’t help but hear the ‘Banana Boat Song’) Can I just admit right here that The Police are a band I… struggle with? They leave me a bit cold. Admittedly I wasn’t brought up on them, have never gone beyond the big hits – even this is a song I hadn’t heard too often before – and I wonder if my problem is with Sting more than his band… (See also: U2)

I shall use this blog, and their five chart-toppers, to try and improve my opinion of them. And it doesn’t take me long to find something to love here: the driving, punky guitars in the bridge – I’ll send an SOS to the world… – are great, as is Sting’s bass. But it stands right out for me, because the rest of the song is quite plodding in places. The band are marooned on a desert island, and send out messages in bottles, hoping for a connection…

Come verse three and lo! Walked out this morning, Don’t believe what I saw, Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore… It seems they weren’t alone in being alone. We’re all waiting for a message in a bottle. It’s kinda deep… (Though for a hundred billion bottles to have washed up means every human on the planet – going by 1979 population levels – had to have sent around twenty-three bottles each…)

Anyway, this is yet another patch of fallout from the punk explosion. Mix it in with other acts who have appeared in recent months: The Boomtown Rats, Ian Dury, Gary Numan, and of course Blondie. Actually, Blondie and The Police draw a good few comparisons: both post-punk, both red-hot for a few years at the turn of the decade, both with five #1s (at least initially, in Blondie’s case) For me, though, it’s Blondie all the way.

But, these views are mine and mine alone. ‘Message in a Bottle’ is objectively a good song, well-written rock with an effective hook. I am looking forward to getting to grips with more Police in the coming months, and hopefully enjoying it, as we’ll be hearing a lot more from the former Gordon Sumner and his bandmates. Bring it on.

442. ‘Cars’, by Gary Numan

Gary Numan returns to the top of the singles chart, after doing so alongside his Tubeway Army a few weeks back, with another outsider anthem.

Cars, by Gary Numan (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 16th – 23rd September 1979

Here in my car, I feel safest of all… He’s locking the modern world away behind four doors and a boot. It’s the only way to live, In cars… It’s another memorable electronic riff: still clanking and industrial, but a little perkier than ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’, poppier even. Numan’s vocals are have lost the conversational tones of his earlier #1, and are full-on Kraftwerk-robot chic.

Here in my car, I can only receive… Is this, maybe, a little bit of a novelty? Is Numan hamming up the extra-terrestrial image he had seen grow around his live performances of ‘Friends’? I don’t know – perhaps that feels harsh. He was inspired to write this song after some unsavoury types had tried to drag him from his car… Had ‘Cars’ come first then maybe it’d sound just as ground-breaking. But… if you were to write a piss-take of a song by Gary Numan, it might sound a lot like this record.

As in ‘Friends’, there are variations on the main riff throughout the song. One is the grinding, clanking trip through a car factory without noise-cancelling headphones. One is a high-pitched counterpoint to this; that one sounds as if you’re speeding down a motorway at night. And then there’s the disco bit, the riff that reminds me of ‘Funkytown’, by Lipps Inc (which wasn’t released until November ’79 – maybe they’d heard ‘Cars’ while recording…)

This record is actually two-thirds instrumental. Once Numan has intoned his way through three verses (no choruses here), the synths take over and you just got to let them wash over you, man. I want to like this more; but with each listen I find my attention wandering by the end. Who am I to judge, though? ‘Cars’ has charted three times in the UK, and remains a staple of adverts, Best Ofs, and Numan’s live shows to this day. And it’s certainly a fine addition to the rich tapestry that is 1979’s chart-toppers.

This is credited to Numan, solo, but still features half of the Tubeway Army on the record. You could argue that both of his quick-fire #1s could be credited to either Numan or his Army, but hey. He remains active to this day, a synth pop legend, and many of the acts who will make this the sound of the early eighties owe him a debt. And if that’s not cool enough for you, how about the fact that, after helping invent synth-pop, he got his pilots’ license and set up own airline, Numanair, in 1981…

441. ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’, by Cliff Richard

Twenty years to the day from his very first number one hit, ‘Living Doll’, and over eleven years since his last, Sir Clifford of Richard is back, back, back…

We Don’t Talk Anymore, by Cliff Richard (his 10th of fourteen #1s)

4 weeks, from 19th August – 16th September 1979

The first thing that strikes my ears is how modern this sounds – synths are now just an accepted part of the musical landscape – but also how retro. Especially in the verses, it sounds like one of his old rock ‘n’ roll hits dressed up for the late-seventies. Used to think that life was sweet, Used to think we were so complete… he sings over a simple guitar riff, while hand claps enter later on.

It’s a canny move from Cliff and his record label to release a song like this, one that straddles the sort of easy-listening cheese you expect from the man, but that also slots in perfectly with the sound of the time. The chorus is a belter: It’s so funny, How we don’t talk anymore… At certain points in the song I’m getting hints of Billy Joel, then Hall and Oates, but by the chorus Cliff’s giving us pure Elton John: No I ain’t losin’ sleep, And I ain’t countin’ sheep…!

The synths are maybe a bit tinny – though that’s perhaps because I still have the Tubeway Army ringing in my ears – but aside from that I’m not ashamed to admit that this is a tune. I knew it vaguely, because my mum is a big Cliff fan, but had never properly listened to it. Richard sounds like he’s having a lot of fun, and his falsetto after the post-chorus drop is perhaps the best five seconds from any of his fourteen chart-toppers. Damn it… Cliff sounds… Cool! And then the fade-out has actual hard rock guitars. Hard rock. Cliff Richard. What a moment…

I am amazed to discover that he was still only thirty-eight when ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ made the top. In my mind, Cliff was a teenage idol for a few years, before waking up one day around 1965 as an old man. Anyway, as young as he still was, this record marked a bit of a comeback for him after a decade in which he’d struggled for hits. It was his first Top 10 single since ‘Devil Woman’ in 1976, and is possibly his biggest hit internationally: a #1 across Europe, and a #7 in the US – only his 2nd release to get that high in the States.

Cliff is famous for managing UK number one singles in five consecutive decades – a feat that nobody else has ever managed – but he left it late in the ‘70s. In a nice touch, the record that kept the run going was produced by Bruce Welsh from his long-time backing band The Shadows, with whom he shared so many ‘60s hits. Amazingly, this is the decade in which Cliff has fewest chart-toppers: in both the eighties and nineties he’ll manage two, while his final #1 is another twenty years away. Whatever you think of the man, his beliefs, and his music… There’s no denying his legend.

And there’s no denying that this might be the best of his fourteen chart-toppers. I say that because none of his earlier hits truly grabbed me – though I do like the rockabilly ‘Please Don’t Tease’ and the unashamed cheese of ‘Congratulations’ – and because I know… shudder… what’s to come… Yes, Cliff’s far from done featuring in this countdown; but I will be nowhere near as generous with his final chart-toppers…!

Donna Summer: Best of the Rest

Regular readers of this blog will know that, when I don’t think an act has had quite enough glory in terms of their #1s, I rank a Top 10 that takes in all their chart hits… I’ve done Status Quo, T Rex, Dusty Springfield, Buddy Holly… (If you’d like to, you know, check them out.)

For Donna Summer, the high priestess of disco, I’ve decided not to rank her Top 10 (I partly can’t be bothered, and I partly don’t think I’m enough of an authority on her back-catalogue…) So, instead, here are simply my faves from among her other big UK hits. And by ‘other’, I mean not her mind-blowing, game-changing, solitary chart-topper ‘I Feel Love’. You can read my post on that here. In chronological order, then:

‘Love to Love You Baby’ – #4 in 1976

Donna announced herself on charts worldwide with this sensuous slice of low-key disco. Actually, it’s more than ‘sensuous’, it’s ‘steamy’. Actually no, it’s more than just ‘steamy’, it’s downright ‘sexual’. She loves to love her baby, and has all the moans and groans to prove it. The BBC refused to promote it, so obviously it became a huge Top 5 hit… It was one of the first disco records to get an extended remix. A seventeen-minute (!) extended remix to be precise.

‘I Remember Yesterday’ – #14 in 1977

If I were ranking these songs… This’d be my #1. Summer’s ‘I Remember Yesterday’ LP, a collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, was an album with a concept – a disco-based journey through different musical ages. The title track saw the duo take on the Jazz Age. Disco music that you can do the Charleston to? Yes please! And how about Donna’s top hat and tails in the video above?

‘Love’s Unkind’ – #3 in 1978

From the roaring twenties, to the girl-groups of the fifties and early-sixties. It’s a little strange to hear a woman who spend much of her breakthrough hit faking an orgasm suddenly singing a song about schoolgirl crushes: Just the other day I was prayin’ he would give me a chance, Hopin’ he would choose me for his partner for the High School dance…

‘Rumour Has It’ – #19 in 1978

Pure disco, but with added funk and some rocking guitars. I love the strutting, synthy bassline in this one. Only reached #19, though…

Last Dance’ – #51 in 1978

It takes a lot of guts to write and release a disco song that takes a full two minutes to actually become a disco song. The slow build up to disco perfection… It’s also clever marketing to write a song that practically begs the DJ to play it at the end of every single night. Deserved much better than a forgettable #51 peak.

‘Hot Stuff’ – #11 in 1979

Speaking of criminally low chart positions… You don’t often talk about memorable disco ‘riffs’, but this is probably the ultimate. Donna’s sitting home and is, let’s be honest, horny. Dialled about a thousand numbers, Almost rang the phone off the wall… (I highly doubt it’d have taken her a thousand attempts to find a willing man, but still.) I love the unashamed sexuality here, especially from a woman, who just wants to bring a wild man back home. Even that time Prince Charles did the ‘Full Monty’ dance to it couldn’t ruin this classic…

‘Bad Girls’ – #14 in 1979

A song written in solidarity with prostitutes, after Summer’s assistant was wrongly accused of being one by a police officer. Like everybody else, They want to be a star… Another disco classic, just as the genre was about to implode. Maybe that’s why it charted so low in the UK, though it was a huge US #1. Toot, toot… Beep, beep!

‘Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)’ – #18 in 1982

In the eighties, Summer moved away from her partnership with Moroder, and released a 1982 album produced by man-of-the-moment Quincy Jones. Full of nice period-details: the sax, the squelchy bass, the MJ-esque high notes… It showed that Donna was going to keep you dancing long after disco had died.

‘This Time I Know It’s For Real’ – #3 in 1989

Every diva needs a comeback. After Moroder and Jones, Summer turned to Stock, Aitken and Waterman… And it worked, delivering her into the UK Top 10 for the first time in a decade. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best examples of that tinny, plastic SAW sound – precisely because they reigned in the tinny, plastic sound just enough. Get used to it, though, because in a few years pretty much every song that features on this blog will be drenched in it…

440. ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, by The Boomtown Rats

From a song about robot prostitutes, to a song about a school shooter… Ladies and gentleman, the summer of ’79!

I Don’t Like Mondays, by The Boomtown Rats (their 2nd and final #1)

4 weeks, from 22nd July – 19th August 1979

It’s a dramatic intro: all piano cascades and flourishes, but twisted and taunting compared to, say, ‘I Will Survive’s famous flutter. They then gather speed, twined with ominous strings, and it all sounds like the start of a Jim Steinman rock opera, while sounding nothing like Boomtown Rats’ first chart-topper, ‘Rat Trap’.

Not only is there a memorable intro; the opening lyrics are also very ear-catching. The silicon chip inside her head, Gets switched to overload… A young girl – perhaps it’s Judy from ‘Rat Trap’? – has had enough. Nobody’s going to go to school today, She’s gonna make them stay at home… Bob Geldof doesn’t just look like a young Mick Jagger, he also sounds like an Irish version of the Stones’ frontman here…

Tell me why… I don’t like Monday’s! It’s a chorus that’s entered popular culture, one that you mighty mutter to yourself at the start of the week as you close the front door. And yet, I wasn’t exaggerating in my introduction. The song is based on true events from January 1979, when a sixteen-year-old girl opened fire on an elementary school playground in San Diego, killing two people and injuring eight children. When asked why she did it she replied: ‘I just don’t like Mondays…’ Think of that next time you whistle this in your driveway…

This is a great song, a brilliantly confident number one by a band flitting between genres, drunk on musical possibilities. Again it’s a ‘new wave’ band putting the old guard to shame with their inventiveness. It is a bit over the top at times, though – the strings and piano make it feel like a showtune – and Geldof does ham it up, especially when we get to the actual shooting: The lesson today is HOW TO DIE!! (OK, Bob. We get it…) But if the worst thing you can say about a song is that it’s a bit much, then you’re onto a good thing.

The more I listen to this, the more I wonder if there’s a knowing nod to last year’s big High School #1 hits (y’know, the ‘Grease’ ones) in the cutesy handclaps, the doo-wop backing vocals, and ironic lines like: Sweet sixteen, Ain’t that peachy keen… Maybe ‘Summer Nights’ would be even better if it had a line about blowing your classmates’ brains out? Anyway, Geldof later expressed regret at writing his band’s signature hit, as it gave the real-life shooter, Brenda Ann Spencer, further exposure. Allegedly Spencer even wrote to Geldof to thank him for making her even more famous…

A tawdry underbelly, then, to a very enjoyable song. Not your usual ‘summer anthem’ material, but another glittering jewel in what has been a largely superb run of number ones during the first half of 1979. The Boomtown Rats would go on to have another couple of Top 10 hits in the early eighties before slipping swiftly from view, though they recently reformed and released their first studio album since 1984. Bob Geldof, meanwhile, will still have a large part to play in one of the biggest ever number one hits…

From robotic hookers to murderous teenagers… And if you thought that normal service was going to resume then you’re in for a shock. The summer of ’79 is about to take an even more terrifying twist… Cliff is back! Next time, on the UK Number Ones Blog.

439. ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’, by Tubeway Army

Symbolically whacking Anita Ward’s trashy disco ditty off top-spot… Time for something a bit different. The eighties have arrived.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, by Tubeway Army (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 24th June – 22nd July 1979

There have been synths right through the seventies, from Chicory Tip through to ‘Gonna Make You a Star’ and, most memorably, Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. But even Giorgio Moroder didn’t use them as aggressively as this. These churning and grinding synths leave you feeling kind of woozy. A riff hammers away, going low like a grinding gearstick, then high like a wonky police siren.

There’s no chorus, no verses or bridge. Just different themes on the same dreamy, trippy riff. But – and I don’t mean this to sound negative – this is a bad dream; one bad trip. Over the top of it, Gary Numan… Sings? Chants? Announces? It’s cold outside, And the paint’s splitting off of my walls…!

What this song is about I have no idea, really. Numan tells a story of a ‘friend’ – note the inverted commas – who may or not be human. The friend is broken down, and he’s lonely. So I head to Google to find out a little bit more… Numan is autistic, apparently, and struggles with interpersonal relationships. So he wrote a song set thirty years ahead, in a dystopian future, in which robots have replaced lovers (hence the ‘friends’). The title references the Philip K. Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ Numan puts it best: “I had a number one single about a robot prostitute and nobody knew it.”

For large parts of the song he also talks, making it a fairly spoken-word heavy #1. So now I’m alone, Now I can think for myself… He sounds – and maybe this is just me – a lot like Marc Bolan. ‘Plummy cockney’ is the way I’d describe it. You see this meant everything to me…

Is it my imagination, or does this song slow down and speed up at random? Each time I listen to it, I notice this effect but in different places. I think I’m just getting lost in its rhythm. I think I might have a nightmare involving this song tonight, and I’m ready for it. Of course, I’m no stranger to the main riff, sampled for Sugababes’ first chart-topper ‘Freak Like Me’, one of the early-2000’s finest pop songs. (Apparently Numan himself classes it as better as this original.)

Tubeway Army were originally a punk act, but Numan found himself increasingly drawn to electronic music. ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric’ was their first single to make the charts; and their last. However, almost the same band will be back in the number one position in just eight weeks… with a single credited solely to Gary Numan.

Finally, I make this the 5th number one by a New Wave act in the last six months… And if they all haven’t sounded completely different to one another! A fertile time for popular music. I know we have six months left to go, but I’m sticking my neck out now and naming 1979 as the best year of the whole decade, in chart-topper terms…