Kicking off the next thirty #1s with a bit of a curio… It opens with a brass band and the sound of children playing. I’m getting a strong ‘Hovis’ ad vibe. But when the actual song starts… Where to begin?
Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, by Brian & Michael (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd April 1978
Perhaps with a bit of context. The ‘matchstalk’ men, cats and dogs refers to the paintings of LS Lowry, a Manchester artist who had passed away a year or so previously. He painted industrial scenes of the north of England – factories, chimneys and smog – but also more intimate pictures of people queueing for fish and chip and going to football matches. All done in a very recognisable – some critics might have said ‘simplistic’ – style…
And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs… He painted kids on the corner of the street that were sparking clogs… (I have no idea what ‘sparking clogs’ involves – I guess it’s a Manc thing.) Now here’s the rub. This song starts off quite nicely. The first verse paints a picture (pardon the pun) of a northern childhood, in which the singers, Brian and Michael (who sound right Mancunian), wonder if Lowry painted them as kids, on the back of cardboard boxes, before he became famous. It builds up a bit of goodwill in me…
Which it wastes almost immediately. The brass band comes back, you see, and a children’s choir comes in. Not only that, the lyrics go a bit naff. Well, naffer. They tell the tale of Lowry’s trips to London, in which bigwigs patronise him by asking him to put on his flat cap. Worse follows… Now Lowrys hang on upon the wall, Besides the greatest of them all, Even the Mona Lisa takes a bow… When he dies, the ‘Good Lord’ mops Lowry’s brow, as he waits outside them Pearly Gates… To paint his matchstalk cats and dogs…
Putting aside the inaccuracies – I don’t think there are any Lowrys in the Louvre – it’s all a bit… provincial. A bit chippy. Only northern folk got our Lowry. Them soft southerners didn’t, never mind the foreigners… Take the first comment on the highest-viewed YouTube video of the song (it’s missing from Spotify – our first unstreamable #1 for a while). ‘Playing outside in the streets’, the commenter writes, ‘in the late 70s with no fears and no social media…’
Those were the days. The winter of discontent, electric meters, Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops, Bisto with your tea… I’m more on the side of the 2nd commenter, who writes: ‘This has got to be the biggest load of shit ever produced’. OK, maybe I wouldn’t go that far (there’ll always be ‘No Charge’) but it’s a song that gets worse as it goes on. The lyrics grow more self-righteous, the kids choir more annoying in their ally-ally-ohs, and then to top it all off there’s a key change…
It’s been a while since we’ve had a pure, unexplainable novelty at the top. At least it’s better than the easy-listening sludge we struggled through recently. Or is it…? Brian and Michael were a duo from Manchester, and had been in the music biz since the sixties. My favourite thing by far about this whole record is the fact that Brian doesn’t even appear on it. He’d been replaced by a chap called Kevin a couple of weeks after the single had been released, and Kevin had to go along with the name…
They are still active, Brian/Kevin and Michael, but remain one-hit wonders. However, the choir, of St. Winifred’s School in Stockport, will be back to score a Christmas #1 as lead artists in a couple of years. Take this as an advanced warning… Start preparing yourselves. On a completely unrelated note, this is the 5th #1 of 1978, and already the 3rd to reference famous works of art. We’ve had an opera (‘Figaro’), literature (‘Wuthering Heights’), and now paintings.
Our fourteenth recap takes us from mid-1976 through to the spring of 1978. Almost two years, which seems to be pretty standard for a run of thirty number ones singles. And while I recapped the previous thirty as pretty madcap and thoroughly zany; this thirty have been a bit more, well, dull…
The easy listening years are back, for the first time since the fifties. Soft rock rules the day. From October 1976, when Pussycat took ‘Mississippi’ to the top, right through until The Jacksons re-started the disco vibe in June ’77, we were planted firmly in the middle of the road. Chicago gave way to Johnny Mathis, to David Soul, Leo Sayer and then even Rod Stewart failed to get our pulses racing.
It’s one thing to be bad – plenty of 1974-5 chart-toppers were terrible – but it’s another thing to be boring. You remember Telly Savalas’s ‘If’, and The Wurzels, perhaps not always for the right reasons, but still. And I don’t want to suggest that just because somethings soft and subtle it can’t make a good record – I gave ‘If You Leave Me Now’ and ‘Free’ pretty good write-ups, I think. But it all did get a bit much.
Thankfully, in amongst the sludge, a great record popped up every now and then. We kicked off this thirty with The Real Thing (a fine pop song), and took a detour back to the glam era with Showaddywaddy and, I guess, with Manhattan Transfer. Kenny Rogers spun a yarn about Lucille, her spurned husband and their crops in the field (OK, maybe not a ‘great’ record, but still nice to have a bit of C&W at the top.) We also had a first appearance at the top of the charts by Elton John (with Kiki Dee), and Michael Jackson.
And, as 1977 drew to a close things started to pick up. Thank Donna Summer: ‘I Feel Love’ came along and kicked the charts up the arse. Pretty much everything since then has been more interesting, with higher beats per minute. Brotherhood of Man told two tales of Spanish lovers in ‘Angelo’ and then ‘Figaro’, the latter in particular being entertainingly ridiculous. Speaking of camp fun, how can we forget Baccara? Yes Sir, they could boogie. While Elvis left the building, and went ‘Way Down’, a fun rockabilly-disco effort to bow out on, tying with The Beatles for most #1s ever in the process. And I almost forgot, we finally had another ex-Beatle at #1. Wings stayed there for nine whole weeks with a song about Bonnie Scotland, and a song about a ‘Girls’ School’ in need of a thorough Ofsted inspection.
One band, though, has dominated in a way few ever do. There’s a reason why those four heads have been my cover image for the past few months. 1976-78 was ABBA’s world; we were just living in it. Four chart-toppers in this period: most recently the straight-forward dance-pop of ‘Take a Chance on Me’, following on from two more experimental singles in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘The Name of the Game’. And… oh yeah. There was ‘Dancing Queen’. That fairly well-known pop tune. Meanwhile, the nerd in me does enjoy the fact that their chart-topping runs went six weeks, five weeks, four weeks, three weeks… (And their next number one – some way off – will get two weeks!)
Let’s dish out some awards then, shall we. First up, the ‘Meh’ Award, ‘cause let’s be honest, a lot of our recent hits have been pretty darn ‘meh’. But like I said, just because a song is easy on the ears doesn’t automatically make it dull. So I’m giving Chicago, Leo Sayer and the likes a pass. I considered ‘Mississippi’, and I considered Deniece William’s fairly forgettable ‘Free’, but sorry I’m giving it to Rod. His double-‘A’ of ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ and ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ was musically fine, but he’s capable of better. He’s Rod Stewart, for God’s sake! (He’ll redeem himself in future recaps, I’m sure…)
We were spoilt for choice with the WTAF Award last time out. This time it’s slimmer pickings. Let’s see… Julie Covington for taking a showtune from a musical that nobody had even seen yet to the top? The Brotherhood’s sleazy ‘Figaro’? The Floaters’ horoscope based one-hit wonder? Nope. I’m going for the hit song about the classic novel, sung in an unnaturally high pitch, by an eighteen-year-old. Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a classic, and by the standards of previous winners not that weird, but there you go.
To the The Very Worst Chart-Topper. Again, many have been bland, but few have been ear-achingly crap. I have it down to two. In the red corner, David Soul’s drippy, droopy ‘Don’t Give Up on Us’. In the blue corner, Demis Roussos’s four-for-the-price-of-one ‘The Roussos Phenomenon E.P.’ Demis did inflict four whole songs on us… but he did so with such window-shattering conviction that I’m inclined to let him off. David Soul takes it! Though I should mention that he redeemed himself with the much more fun ‘Silver Lady’ a few months later.
OK. Very Best Chart-Topper time. In my last post, on ‘Wuthering Heights’, I noted how the ladies had taken over the top of the charts in recent months. And then I noticed that I have never awarded a Very Best Chart-Topper to a female act or artist. Therefore, I can confirm that the 14th best chart-topper will feature a woman. For I have it down to four: ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘I Feel Love’, Hot Chocolate’s ‘So You Win Again’, and Althea and Donna’s ‘UptownTop Ranking’. And the all-male Hot Choc are out first. It’s a superb song, pop gold, but it falls a smidgen short. As do Althea and Donna, with their cool slice of reggae. Again, great, and unlike anything else in the previous thirty, giving heart attacks in their halter backs, but they’re up against two of the greatest records ever recorded.
‘Dancing Queen’ is wonderful, a record that never ever seems to get overplayed. ‘I Feel Love’ is nowhere near as commonly heard, and is not a particularly ‘friendly’ record. Any other time, ABBA would walk it… plus, I know they have more classics to come… So Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder take it. Nothing that came before has sounded like ‘I Feel Love’; but a lot of what followed will, and that is the mark of a fantastically influential record right there.
To recap the recaps:
The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability:
‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart
The ‘WTAF’ Award for Being Interesting if Nothing Else:
‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush
The Very Worst Chart-Toppers:
‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
The Very Best Chart-Toppers:
‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
Going by the last few #1s, things are looking up for the end of the seventies. For believe it or not, our next thirty chart-toppers will take us – just – into the 1980s!
It takes a moment to get used to our next #1 single. The tinkling piano, the etherealness of it, and then that high-pitched voice…
Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush (her 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 5th March – 2nd April 1978
Even though it’s a very well-known song, it still discombobulates. It still sounds nothing like what pop music should, at least not at first. Out on the winding, windy moors, we’d roll and fall in green… You wonder if it was a risk to write a pop song about a hundred and fifty year old novel, and then to sing it like a Victorian soprano. Pop is usually about the new and the instant, not the ancient and established. There has not been, to my knowledge, a #1 hit about ‘Moby Dick’, or ‘Anna Karenina’. It also means that, after Brotherhood of Man’s references to ‘Figaro’, it has been a pretty high-brow start to 1978.
You only really relax into this record as it slips into the chorus, and a soft-rock vibe takes over: Heathcliff, It’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home now… To be honest, I’ve always thought of this song as some kind of revolutionary moment. But listening to it now, properly, it’s clear that Kate Bush is the star attraction. It’s her wide-eyed vocal performance – and this might be the first time that we really need to recognise the video, in which she performs an extremely intense, interpretive dance to the song, in soft focus against a black background – that makes this a classic.
For musically, there’s not that much to raise an eyebrow. It’s got a catchy chorus, and a hard-rock guitar fade-out that hints at eighties power-ballads to come, but it’s all about Kate, really. She was eighteen when she wrote her debut smash, and only nineteen when it hit #1, making her the youngest artist to reach such heights with a self-penned song.
And if you were going to pick a famous novel to sing about as a teenage girl, then ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the obvious choice. Heathcliff and Cathy’s romance is thrillingly torrid to a seventeen-year-old, then you reach your mid-twenties and the pair turn into obnoxious brats. Still, nowadays, people perhaps know the story more through this record than they do through Emily Brontë’s masterpiece. It’s the ultimate ‘York Notes’ version: a massive novel condensed into a four and a half minute pop song, for lazy students to listen to on repeat the night before a test…
Before arriving at ‘Wuthering Heights’, I did wonder if it would challenge for top spot in my latest recap, coming up next. But I don’t think it will. It’s a great song, memorably performed, but there have been better in recent months. There are probably better songs in Kate Bush’s back-catalogue too, though none perhaps have had the cultural impact of her debut smash.
I must admit that my knowledge of Kate Bush is patchy, beyond this one, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Running up That Hill’ and the like. She is a reclusive star, not one for interviews or photoshoots, or for releasing much music (her last album came out in 2011, and she’s only released two this century). In my mind she is the fairy godmother of British pop… an idea, or a presence, more than a real person. And that’s a pretty cool role to fill.
Finally, ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the 4th chart-topper of 1978, and the fourth to feature female vocalists. If you go back further, and ignore Wings, then six of the last seven #1s have been at least woman-led. Considering that for parts of the 1960s we went entire years without a woman’s voice at #1, that feels worth noting. The next couple of chart-toppers are going to spoil this run but, before that, a recap!
In which the knock-offs are knocked off by the real thing! Not for the first time, ABBA shunt their own tribute act out of top spot…
Take a Chance on Me, by ABBA (their 7th of nine #1s)
3 weeks, from 12th February – 5th March 1978
And they are back to some pure pop, after a couple of more experimental offerings (‘experimental’ in an ABBA sense: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’s guitars and ‘The Name of the Game’s funky bass-line) There’s also a hint of the disco-ball about this one, foreshadowing the ‘Voulez Vous’ era that was just around the corner.
If you change your mind, I’m the first in line… The a cappella opening here is one of the band’s most iconic moments… If you’re all alone, When the pretty birds have flown… while Benny and Bjorn accompany with their takeachancetakeachickachanchance backing line.
In comes the beat, and I’ve always loved the parping synths that keep this one rattling along like a locomotive. Agnetha and Frida are leaving their self-respect at the door here, practically begging to be taken back by a man. No fear of sloppy seconds for them! If you put me to the test, If you let me try…
They change tack in the verses, though. Suddenly they’re confident, their voices sultry: You don’t wanna hurt me, Baby don’t worry, I ain’t gonna let ya… I love the breathy asides – Come on, gimme a break honey – and wonder if they hadn’t been taking notes from Baccara (*edit* this was recorded long before ‘Yes Sir…’ became a hit, but let’s not let that spoil a narrative…)
Some more iconic moments from this classic: Agnetha belting out the bridge, the bababababas that see us home, and the split-screen video, which suddenly looks very apt in the COVID-era (that’s one Zoom call I wouldn’t mind being stuck on…) All of which adds up to the band’s 7th and final #1 of the 1970s, taking them just beyond Slade’s six chart-toppers and making them the most successful group of the decade.
Yep, ABBA are about to go on a hiatus from the top of the charts, after having scored six in just over two years. As I mentioned above, in the years following ‘Take a Chance on Me’ ABBA would go full-on disco, and release some of my favourite singles… ‘Voulez Vous’, ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’… They will be back in this countdown though, fear not, having saved the best for last. Until then, then…
Deep breath… here we go again. For their final chart-topping trick, the Brotherhood do Boney M!
Figaro, by Brotherhood of Man (their 3rd and final #1)
1 week, from 5th – 12th February 1978
Boney M, with a dash of oompah. To tell the tale of a Spanish love-rat. Every morning when the sun is dawning, You’ll see him down on the beach… He’s a lothario, a sleazeball, maybe even a gold-digger… He’s out to make a killing… And baby if you’re willing, He’s gonna ask for more! He sounds a bit like Mozart’s philandering ‘Figaro’, which gives us perhaps the most unlikely musical comparison ever.
This, in case my little taster there didn’t spell it out clearly enough, is tremendous trash. They’ve done it again, Brotherhood of Man: taken the poppiest sounds of the day, and made them even poppier. They did it with bubblegum (‘Save Your Kisses…’), they did it with ABBA (‘Angelo’), and now they’ve done it with disco. To think this knocked off Althea & Donna’s impossibly cool ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ off top spot! Mind you, ‘Angelo’ kicked ‘IFeel Love’ out the way, so they have form in that regard…
Does this mean, though, that I dislike this record? Well, um… no. It’s catchy, dumb, and a whole lot of fun. In fact, I think this is the best of the Brotherhood’s three #1s. And it’s all down to our inveterate shagger. Uh-ho Figaro… He’s got magic-o woah… Playing guitar at the disco bar, he has his pick of the girls. What I don’t understand is why the band are making out that this is a bad thing? Why else do you have a holiday in Majorca, if not for a no-strings roll around with a Figaro?
Before doing this countdown, I of course knew Brotherhood of Man for their Eurovision-winning, million selling ‘Save Your Kisses…’, which still gets a fair bit of play today. I had no knowledge of their two follow-up number ones. I’m amazed they got two more number-ones, to be honest, and suspect that they sneaked these two one-weekers when sales were low. Still, you can only beat what’s in front of you. They remind me of Bucks Fizz, another poptastic Eurovision act who are remembered for their winning single, despite having big follow-up hits. They’ll be along soon enough…
As for Brotherhood of Man, they are still a going concern, despite a brief hiatus in the eighties. All four of the original members are there, in ‘great demand on the nostalgia and the gay circuits’… (Wikipedia’s words, not mine) Add to this the fact that there was a completely different version of the band floating around in the early ‘70s, that had scored a #10 hit in 1970, and there you go. They’re indestructible! Nothing breaks the Brotherhood…’
Into 1978 we go then… 1977 was a bit of a slog – a year that started off slowly, with an interminable easy-listening winter and spring, but that had a fair few classics buried in the middle. You just had to be patient. What will the penultimate year of the decade serve up?
Uptown Top Ranking, by Althea & Donna (their 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 29th January – 5th February 1978
First of all, there’s a bit of reggae to beat the January blues! It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song, this one. It’s a riff, a vibe, a mood that chugs along. Beach bar music. Which isn’t to say it’s bland, or best suited for the background. Not at all. The bass-line is superbly monotonous. The vocals are at once hypnotic and yet indecipherable.
It’s not rap; but it’s not singing, not really. And the lyrics are delivered in an uncompromisingly thick Jamaican patois, that to your average British listener must have sounded like a completely foreign language. See me in me heels an’ ting, Dem check, Say we hip an’ ting… (I googled the lyrics…) Love is all I bring, Inna me khaki suit an’ ting… Althea and Donna are dressed to impress, dancing, cruising around in their ‘Benz’. Basically, they are The Shit. They are ‘uptown top ranking’, a Jamaican phrase for flaunting it in the city.
The one bit I could get without any help was the refrain: Na pop no style, I strictly roots… The girls haven’t forgotten where they came from, no matter how much they are blinging. They’re still Jennies from the Block (as Jennifer Lopez would tell us many years later…) But forget J-Lo, this record sounds incredibly modern, extremely fresh. I’m getting… Rihanna. She should come back with a cover of this…
Althea Forrest and Donna Reid were seventeen and eighteen respectively when they released this, their only hit. And they really do sound like too-cool-for-school teenagers as they deliver their lines, which were apparently ad-libbed. In my head, I can see them painting their nails, applying lipstick, and looking impossibly young and stylish. Listening to this record – this forty-three year old disc – is making me feel very middle-aged.
It’s not just the singers, in fact. Everything about this song feels and sounds modern. There’re the ad-libs, for a start. And then there’s the fact that it’s based around a sample from a 1967 song, ‘I’m Still in Love’. And the fact that ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is an answer record, in response to a similarly braggadocio-filled track called ‘Three Piece Suit’, by Trinity, which also used the same rhythm. We are just in 1978, honest. I haven’t skipped thirty years by accident!
Althea and Donna didn’t bother with anything as basic as having a follow-up hit. They are one-hit wonders, baby. But what a hit, waking up the sleepy post-Christmas charts with a glimpse of downtown Kingston. I think it’s putting the word ‘Uptown’ in the title that does it. I can think of three ‘Uptown’ #1s, including this one, and they’re all great pop songs.
It is amazing to think that, almost eight years on from their split, this is only the second time an ex-Beatle has appeared at the top of the charts. You’d have got long odds on it taking this length of time. George Harrison got in there quickly, and then there was a big old wait… Until our latest Christmas #1.
Mull of Kintyre / Girls’ School, by Wings (their 1st and only #1)
9 weeks, from 27th November 1977 – 29th January 1978
And it’s strangely comforting to hear Macca’s voice again, like a long lost friend… Mull of Kintyre, Oh mist rolling in from the sea, My desire, Is always to meet you… It’s just him, and a couple of guitars. Simplicity itself. Until ninety seconds in, when the bagpipes arrive (I always assumed they were saved for the finale. Alas, no.) They enter with that unmistakeable, ominous drone, and by the three minute mark they are the stars of the show. It is amazing to think that, in the 1970s, as many #1 singles featured bagpipes as featured a Beatle.
‘Mull of Kintyre’ is not an old folk song, though it sounds for all the world as if it should be. It is further evidence of McCartney’s ability to conjure timeless pop from a few chords (and a cheeky slice of ‘Auld Lang Syne’). It is not ‘Yesterday’, nor is it ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but it is a huge moment in his legacy. And yet…
As a Scot, part of me bristles at this act of cultural appropriation… (You may roll your eyes, but hear me out.) It’s a nice song, a sweet melody, a love-letter by Paul to his adopted home (he really was living, while he wrote this, on the Mull of Kintyre). But the lines about mist rolling in from the sea and sweeping through the heather like deer in the glen… It’s the aural equivalent of a souvenir shortbread box. It’s Scotland as imagined by American, or Japanese, (or Liverpudlian) tourists. It’s #notmyscotland. You can also imagine John Lennon hearing this for the first time, on the radio one morning, and ruefully shaking his head…
Still, come the drum-roll and the key change, ‘Mull of Kintyre’ has wormed its way into your brain. You can see why this is was a ginormous hit – a song that appeals to five-year-olds, ninety-five-year olds, and anyone who’s had enough whisky. Its nine weeks at the top makes it the joint longest running #1 of the decade, alongside ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and an upcoming movie soundtrack hit. It became the biggest selling single ever in the UK, usurping ‘She Loves You’, and it remains the biggest selling non-charity single ever released.
I did wonder if, by hitting #1 in late November, this was the earliest an Xmas #1 had made it to the top. But it’s not even close. Al Martino got there two weeks earlier in 1952, as did Clean Bandit in 2016, while Elvis’s ‘It’s Now or Never’ holds the record by holding on from November 3rd. However, this record also stayed top for over a month after Christmas thanks, it seems, to the flip-side…
‘Girls’ School’ is a rocker, all scuzzy slide guitars and heavy drums, as far removed from the faux-folk of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ as can be. SongFacts describes it as ‘semi-pornographic’, and that’s putting it mildly. While your grandma would have enjoyed singing along to ‘Mull…’, she may have choked on her sherry when she heard this one. Sleepy head kid sister, Lying on the floor, Eighteen years and younger boy, Well she knows what she’s waitin’ for…
It seems the nuns have lost control of the convent school… Yuki, the resident mistress and oriental princess, is showing porn in the classroom. The Spanish nurse is running a full-body massage parlour, while the matron is drugging the kids in their beds at night, and then… Well that much is left to the imagination… Ah, what can the sisters do…?
I’m loving-yet-appalled-by this post-‘Mull…’ palate cleanser. It is pure rock ‘n’ roll, both in terms of its sound and its lyrical content (which would come under, shall we say… ‘scrutiny’ were it released in 2021). I think someone was having a good old chuckle to themselves when they stuck this alongside such a shamelessly sentimental ‘A’-side. It does seem, too, that McCartney may have swept it under the carpet in recent years. It’s not on Spotify, for a start.
Although this is his first #1 since The Beatles, it’s not as if Paul had been hiding under a rock since ‘Let It Be’. Wings were a huge chart force throughout the seventies, featuring Paul, his wife Linda, Denny Laine (whom we have heard from before as a member of The Moody Blues) and a rotating cast of supporters. This was their 10th Top 10 hit, but the only one to go all the way. Macca will be back, though, in the 80s, with a couple of chart-toppers to make ‘Mull of Kintyre’ sound like the epitome of cool, cutting edge pop.
And so we come to what I’m right now christening ‘The Forgotten ABBA #1’. Ask your average Joe on the street to name all of the group’s nine chart-toppers: ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Waterloo’ would all trip off the tongue. But ‘The Name of the Game’? Rather than ‘Voulez Vous’, ‘SOS’ or ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’? Doubt it.
The Name of the Game, by ABBA (their 6th of nine #1s)
4 weeks, from 30th October – 27th November 1977
Still, it got a full month at the top. This was no flash in the pan. ABBA were at the peak of their powers, and this was the lead single off a new album. It slinks in, with a funky bassline and a hint of soul. It doesn’t scream “ABBA!” right away. I’ve seen you twice, In a short time, Only a week since we started…
Agnetha and Frida play the part of two late-bloomers who have finally fallen in love. But they’re not sure… Tell me please, ‘Cause I have to know, I’m a bashful child, Beginning to grow… Does she mean as much to him? Compare and contrast this with Baccara’s brazen come-ons. There was nothing bashful about that pair! So I wanna know, What’s the name of the game…?
Musically, this is complex stuff. We move from that funky opening riff – apparently inspired by Stevie Wonder – to hard rock guitar licks and French horns. Since ‘Dancing Queen’ basically perfected the pop song, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, and now this disc, have been much more experimental. Still, at its heart there lies a classic ABBA chorus. Benny and Bjorn knew that that much was non-negotiable…
Having grown up listening to ‘ABBA Gold’, I was shocked – shocked! – to discover a whole new verse here, plus a lot more guitar. Apparently a minute was trimmed off for US radio, and that version made it onto the compilation. If I remember correctly, ‘The Name of the Game’ came towards the end of Gold, and it never stood out to me as one of their great singles. But I was only thirteen. What do thirteen-year olds know?
Listening to it now, though, I’m appreciating it a lot more. This is Grade-A pop music. Not my favourite ABBA song – they’re still to come, though sadly not all of them will appear at #1 – but a solid eight point five out of ten. Not bad at all, for their ‘forgotten’ number one!
Our 3rd and final #1-less act of the week. The Eagles are a band I was weaned on, a band that soundtracks huge swathes of my childhood, a band that can genuinely make me tear-up… To mis-quote a famous Dude: I love the fuckin’ Eagles…
I understand that not everyone shares my feelings on The Eagles. Certain long-time followers of this blog have already made their feelings clear. To them, and many others, they represent the very doldrums of 1970s rock: cliched, arrogant, overblown, coke-addled… Except, I happen to like my rock music arrogant, overblown, coke-addled and cliched, so… let’s crack on!
There is a massive disparity between The Eagles chart success in the UK and in the US. In the US they enjoyed five chart-topping singles. In the UK they struggled to get five Top 40 hits. Here are their five biggest (in inverted commas…)
‘One of These Nights’ – reached #23 in 1975
Long before Rod Stewart and the Stones pissed off the rock snobs by going disco, The Eagles got in there first. But the slinky, purring bass in the intro is great, and the falsetto in the chorus can teach The Bee Gees a thing or two. The Eagles aren’t always remembered for their lyrics – barring that over-quoted line about checking out anytime – but I think: I’ve been searching for the daughter of the devil himself… is a cracking one. I can imagine that if you hate The Eagles then you really hate this one… But it’s fine. Far from my favourite, though.
‘Lyin’ Eyes’ – reached #23 in 1975
I grew up in small-town Scotland, so all the cultural references in the Eagles’ songs passed my by, as did a lot of the snobbery towards them. I just listened, as my Dad sang along (my Dad does not sing along often), and enjoyed them. I struggle to see how you can justify not enjoying ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ easy goin’ melody and storyline. Lines like: City girls just seem to find out early, How to open doors with just a smile… And… She wonders how it ever got so crazy, She thinks about a boy she knew in school… While the harmonising is at Everly Brothers level. But, you know, whatever floats your boat.
‘New Kid in Town’ – reached #20 in 1977
There are a few individual moments that make ‘New Kid in Town’ a masterpiece, and probably my favourite Eagles song (after ‘Desperado’, obviously). They all come towards the end, making it a slow-burn of a tune. There’s the build up through to the Tears on your shoulder… line, the moment that the guitars go ominously heavy on Where you been lately? as the new new kid in town shows up, and the ‘ad-libs’ as the song meanders to a close: I don’t wanna hear it… Everybody’s talking, People started walkin’… Pure bliss.
‘Take It to the Limit’ – reached #12 in 1975
I think The Eagle’s biggest British hit is going to be quite obvious… But for ‘Take It to the Limit’ to come in as their 2nd highest chart placing seems odd. It’s another nice one, a bit more soft-soul than much of their stuff, with another classic line in: You can spend all your time makin’ money, You can spend all your love makin’ time… (which makes no sense and complete sense simultaneously). But this, over ‘Take It Easy’ (did not chart), ‘Best of My Love’ (ditto), or ‘Desperado’ (never even released as a single!)?
‘Hotel California’ – reached #8 in 1977
The Eagles only Top 10 had to be this one, right? Apparently an allegory for the debauchery and excess of the Los Angeles elite. As I wrote in my post on Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, this track has become a pillar of rock ‘n’ roll, played to the point where we have become insensitive to it. But try, if you can, to feel. That intro, instantly recognisable yet always ominous. The mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice and the pretty, pretty boys, as if one of Jay Gatsby’s parties has taken a sinister turn. The warm smell of colitas… (What the hell are ‘colitas’ anyway?) The guitar solo, that I can sing along to as if it were actual lyrics, and often voted as one of the best ever. And, of course, you can’t talk about ‘Hotel California’ without mentioning the fact that you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave… An entire Gothic novel in six and a half minutes of reggae-tinged rock. Overplayed? Definitely. Perfection? Quite probably.
Part II of our mini-series on artists who have never had a UK #1 single, despite hits-a-plenty… And it’s a slight change in musical tack.
As much as I can find plenty to admire in Bob Dylan, I’ve often found his giant back-catalogue slightly daunting. Where to begin? With Karen and Richard Carpenter, however, you know where you stand. A huge chart presence throughout the early to mid seventies, here are their five biggest hits that never quite made it to the top…
‘Only Yesterday’ – reached #7 in 1975
The Carpenters were on cruise control here, with one of their later hits. I can’t help notice that it recycles the best bits from earlier releases (‘Goodbye to Love’s guitar, ‘Yesterday Once More’s nod to sixties girl-groups). Still, Karen Carpenter could, as they say, sing the phonebook and it would still be worth listening to.
‘(They Long to Be) Close to You’ – reached #6 in 1970
The duo’s breakthrough came with this cover of a Bacharach and David number, which went all the way to the top on the Billboard 100 and firmly planted itself in the UK Top 10. To me it’s a quintessentially sixties song, having been around since ’63 and having passed through hands as illustrious as Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. However, the video above screams ‘1970!!!’ louder than anything else I can imagine. Just look at Karen perched in that ‘U’, like a lovesick puppy… It gave The Carpenters a sound and an aesthetic that they kept for the rest of their career.
‘Top of the World’ – reached #5 in 1973
The Carpenters were a popular band in the UK and the US. Never ‘cool’ but, y’know, well-liked by many. Spend some time in Asia, however, and you start to view them in a new light. I soon came to realise how huge The Carpenters were/still are here… In Thailand, in Japan, in Hong Kong and the Philippines… You hear them in restaurants, in shops, on TV and, more than anything, at karaoke bars… Why? Well, as cliched as it sounds: their lyrics are simple, and easy to make out, and there ain’t nothing controversial about them. And ‘Top of the World’ is the epitome of this easy-listening accessibility.
‘Please Mr. Postman’, reached #2 in 1974
What’s worse than this middle of the road cover of The Marvelettes’ 1961 hit being The Carpenters’ joint biggest chart hit? The fact that it was voted ‘The Nation’s Favourite Carpenters Song’ in an ITV poll! The British public proving once again that they cannot be trusted in large-scale voting situations…
‘Yesterday Once Again’, reached #2 in 1973
Another fave in the karaoke bars of Asia… Apparently The Carpenters are the 3rd highest selling foreign act in Japanese history, behind The Beatles and Mariah Carey (blame that bloody Xmas song!) Now an oldie but a goody itself, and a song that sums up everything that people either love or hate about The Carpenters, ‘Yesterday Once More’ lives on in every sha-la-la-la and shinga-linga-ling… As does Karen’s voice, one of the most effortlessly beautiful to have ever graced the charts.
One more ‘Never Had a #1…’ tomorrow. Another American band, huge in the ’70s, that can perhaps lay claim to being the biggest-selling act never to hit the top spot…